18 December, 2006

Chapter Two

The premonition Michael had gone to bed with was still with him when he woke, a couple of hours before dawn. It was much more subdued, though, with the light of day and the work at hand. The preparations in the morning consisted mainly of making sure the yaks would be fine for the week or so that they would be gone, and packing several sets of clothes. They would not need any food for the relatively short trip in. Once in Sweetwater, they would stay at the town's only inn, and Meryl, the innkeeper's wife and chief cook, provided the best meals around. She would be supervising a large part of the cooking for the solstice feast that year, which she did every year.

They were ready to go about an hour after sunrise. They had elected to take one of the two sleds, rather than carrying the packs on their backs, in order to keep one of them free to use the bow if necessary. Michael had just closed up the barn and was waiting by the sled when his mother emerged from the house, bow in hand and a full quiver at her hip. He was about to shout a playful jibe about her tardiness, but it died in his mouth when he saw what she wore. They both wore their snowsuits rather than their bearskins; they wanted ease of mobility, and it was not wolves that they were afraid of. Tenahj had said that she had not seen a single wolf track nor had there been any sign of bears in all the places they normally spent the winter.

It was not the snowsuit that had made his mouth go dry and his palms to sweat inside his heavy gloves, it was the sword hilt jutting out just over her right shoulder. He had not even known she had one. The feelings of iminent disaster came flooding back in a rush.

"Michael," she called, before he could say anything, "get the two staves, and put the fighting tips on both." Michael stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment.

Several years ago, when he had started work on the grove, Michael had found a problem and a solution. The problem was that he was using the neglected tools of the former owner. The long wooden handles had become very brittle, pine made a poor replacement, and hardwoods cost dear. His solution was to have Carral, the blacksmith, put threaded fittings on the tool heads, and to thread a single hardwood staff, like the bolts on the traders' wagons. Carral had been excited about the idea, and had taken it a step further. Rather than thread the wood itself, he had bound both ends in iron and threaded the iron. He had even provided a small iron ball to fit on one end for walking. Michael's mother, Tenahj, had also built on the idea. She had requisitioned another staff as well as two pairs of what she called "fighting tips". They were, simply put, barbed spear heads. It was these that she had just told Michael to fetch.

"But...," he started to protest, but Tenahj cut him off.

"Don't argue, just do it," she said quite firmly. Michael sighed and rolled his eyes as he turned back towards the barn. To say or do anything else would have been futile. His mother told him quite often to "not argue", even when all he was trying to do was point out the gaping logical flaws in her edicts. He loved her dearly, but sometimes the most obvious things escaped her.

Back in the storeroom where the staves and tool heads were kept, Michael had to rummage around a bit before finding the two leather bags containing the fighting tips. He also came across the bag with the two walking tips, and pocketed it on an impulse. Outside he tossed one of the staves to Tenahj, then much more gingerly handed her a set of tips. The leather was good, but the blades were razor-sharp, and Michael was not taking any chances. They each spent a moment affixing them to their staves. Tenahj then looked up, her eyes distant.

"We're forgetting something, aren't we? I know we are," she said pensively. Michael quickly ran through his own mental lists. His mother did this every time she left the house.

"No, we got everything," he concluded, "Let's go." He stowed his staff on the sled and slipped on the leather harness, then stood expectantly, waiting for Tenahj to agree.

After a moment more she sighed, and said, "Alright, let's go." The trip would take about six hours, and half that would be in full dark. Every hour or so they would switch places with the sled, though with only their clothes, some food, and a few tools for Carral to mend, the sled was not very heavy. Even if it were, the journey was mostly a gentle downward slope, with only a few short uphill climbs. There had been no new snow for a while, so they easily followed the path marked by young Hu's passage with the milk sled.

After nearly an hour of walking in silence, only the crunching snow to break it, Tenahj suddenly spoke, "Go ahead and ask; I know you're dying to."

Michael was startled out of a deep reverie. With more than occasional surreptitious glances at the sword strapped to her back, he had been trying to think of a way to casually mention it. Tenahj was very tight-lipped about her past, as Michael knew from experience.

Clearing his throat, he began, "Um...," but got no further before his mother simply answered his unspoken question.

"I worked as a caravan guard for a while, before I met your father," she said, without turning to look at him. She was walking to his left and just ahead, intently scanning the trees and open spaces on her side of the road. Michael was doing the same on the right, only slightly less diligently and expectantly.

Tenahj's words released a flood of questions in Michael's mind about his mother's past. All he knew he had gathered piece by piece, usually from others that she had told her tale to when they had first come to the area. As far as he could tell, Tenahj and his father had been grain farmers on the eastern plains before a fire had left Tenahj a homeless widow with an infant son. She had wandered aimlessly until coming to Sweetwater. The people took pity on them and had given them the farm they now lived on; the previous owner was an old widower who had just passed away without any heir. Since then, it was as if their family had been there for generations.

He was pondering all this when he was again startled by his mother's voice, saying, "Let's trade places; I'm getting a crick in my neck from looking to the left so much." With chagrin Michael realized that he had completely neglected his duty of scanning the roadside for possible danger. He slipped off the harness and stood massaging his shoulders for a while before retrieving his staff and bow from the sled.

They continued on, thoughts of a hot meal spurring them on. They stopped only briefly to switch places, and once to light the lantern they had brought. The perpetual cloud cover obscured the stars and moonlight. They passed several times, off in the distance, the dim lights of another farmhouse, but they encountered no one else on the road. In the end the journey proved uneventful, not even a rabbit did they see.

They were tired by the time they saw the lights of Sweetwater just ahead of them; their pace had not been leisurely. Once in the town, they were stopped a few times by friendly greetings and wellwishes. The few people outside were surprised to see them so many days before the festivities. Many eyes widened at the sight of their staves, and especially at Tenahj's sword, but they were all too polite to mention them. Michael and his mother finally made their way to the Sweetwater Inn, its finely lettered sign hanging above the door.

They went first to the stable door, where they stowed the sled, their snowshoes, and Michael's skiis, which he had brought in anticipation of the competitions, in a narrow closet. A short flight of stairs brought them down to the stables themselves, currently unused for the winter months. Both levels were lit only by the lantern that Michael had hung on the end of his staff. He snuffed it and left it on a peg by the door leading into the common room.

The common room was about twice the size of the single room on the first floor of their own house, and filled by several long tables. There were two hearths, one on either end, though only one had a fire going at the time. Though frequently full of townsfolk and people visiting off the farms, the room was now empty except for a portly man busy polishing one of the tables. He looked up in surprise when the stable door opened, but when he saw who it was, a wide grin immediately threatened to split his round face in two.

"Tenahj! Michael!" he exclaimed as he bustled towards them, "Come in! Come in!" For a man of his bulk, he moved with surprising agility. Michael could not help smiling at his effusive cheerfulness.

Wil the innkeeper was a man who looked older than he was. A fringe of light brown hair circled an otherwise bald pate. His skin had a blotchy coloring, the results of a childhood illness, and his hands were wrinkled and calloused from years of washing and serving. Many laugh lines creased his face, a testimony to his indomitable cheerfulness. He was always happy to see everyone, and he always had a kind word to say.

As he approached, he turned to shout over his shoulder at the kitchen door at the back of the large room, "Meryl! we have guests! Bring out some food and cider!" He need not have bothered, however. Right on top of his last shout, the door flew open and out bustled a woman as plump as the innkeeper. "Tenahj! Michael!" she said, echoing her husband's greeting, "We be not expectin' you two for days yet. What be bringin' you so early to the town? Wil, you old yak!" she rounded on the poor man before they had a chance to respond, "What be you thinkin'? They don't want food right now, they be wantin' their room to change and stow their gear." At the mention of gear they both flicked their eyes at the weapons Tenahj and Michael carried, so fast that Michael almost did not catch it. "Then they be wantin' the food." With that she swept right back through the kitchen door.

Wil led them up the stairs to a room on the second level, keeping on a constant stream of chatter about the town's gossip. Michael and his mother were hardly able to get a word in edgewise. He left them only after he had stoked the fire in the small hearth and made sure they had clean towels and water in the basin. Michael had tossed his pack and staff on one of the two beds and begun stripping off his now too warm snowsuit as soon as he walked in. The clothes he wore underneath, wool pants and shirt, and a wool-lined leather jacket, were rather rumpled, but they would do. He quickly washed his hands and face, and was ready to return to the common room soon after Wil had left.

Tenahj, on the other hand, had drawn closed the privacy curtain that ran between the two beds and disappeared behind it. He debated for a moment whether or not to wait for her. From the muffled sounds of cloth, she was probably changing into one of her dresses; she only wore pants when she was hunting or traveling. That meant she was also probably going to spend time straightening her hair. Women, he thought despairingly. He made his decision.

"I'm going downstairs Ma," he said to the curtain.

"Take your staff," came the muffled reply. Michael stopped dead at the door, a swirl of emotions and half formed thoughts going through him. Surely he did not need it in the inn.

"Should I take my bow, too?" he muttered sarcastically.

She must have heard him because she said, "Don't argue with me, just do it. In fact, I want you to keep it with you at all times for the next few days."

He started to protest, but Tenahj cut him off with, "I said, don't argue."

Michael sighed and retrieved his staff. Downstairs he found Wil polishing several pewter mugs at the table closest to the kitchen. Wil looked up at the creaking of the stairs and blinked when he saw the staff still in Michael's hand. He motioned for him to sit down while he stood to fetch some hot cider. They talked for some time as Michael enjoyed the hot drink, mainly town gossip and news, and waited for Tenahj to descend the stairs. The talk soon turned to the upcoming festivities and, more importantly, to Michael at least, the Trials.

One of the oldest and most important traditions of the Solstice celebrations centered on the Trials. On the first day after the Solstice, the first day of the new year, every young man and woman that had completed nineteen years of age was publicly presented to the Mayor and Town Council, who would then begin the Trial to Become Men and Women of the Community. It was more of a tradition than an actual trial, considering that even the Sted family had all passed. During the Trial, which lasted a full year, a council member would visit the young man or woman once a month to "appraise" them as productive members of the community. The Trials ended on the last day of the year, at sundown, when the Council and Mayor pronounced the verdict and presented them back to the people as adults and welcomed them to the community.

Michael was still a week shy of his nineteenth birthday, but was being allowed to participate this year. He knew that it was because his mother had spoken with the Council, but he politely feigned surprise when Councilwoman Andil had issued the summons last month.

"You're in rather a somber mood, lad," Wil said, breaking his musing into which Michael had unintentionally fallen, "what's on your mind?"

Wil had asked about their early arrival, ignoring the staff so hard, he might as well have been staring at it. The question had started Michael to thinking about the tracks and his mother's strange behaviour. Before he could answer the innkeeper's question and tell him about it all, the stairs behind him creaked. Twisting on the bench, he saw Tenahj coming down, wearing a well fitting wool dress. She had brushed out her hair and tied it back with a leather thong that had two small silver bells on the ends, which tinkled quietly when she moved her head. She looked every bit the White Mountain woman, if one could ignore the shockingly incongruous sword strapped to her back.

She had no sooner reached the floor of the common room than Meryl flurried out of the kitchen with two steaming bowls of beef stew, a welcome change from yak in Michael's opinion, as if she had known the instant they would be ready. She kept up a constant dialogue as she served them, about nothing in particular. Tenahj sat beside Michael, unstrapping her sword and propping it against the bench beside her. Michael dove into his stew like a pack of wolves, burning his tongue in the process. Meryl swept in and out of the kitchen again to fetch a loaf of brown bread and a mug for Tenahj. Wil sat silent during the bustle of his wife, slowly polishing the already polished pewter dishes. He was more perceptive than most would believe, and he knew Tenahj would speak when ready.

It was halfway into her bowl, and into Michael's second, when she did speak. Meryl had disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing briefly to bring, unasked, the second bowl for Michael, commenting on how much a young man could eat. Michael had wisely chosen to wait for his mother's cue to say anything.

"Wil," she said, looking up, "I need to speak with the mayor." Wil nodded, as if he had expected as much. He probably did, thought Michael. You have to anticipate people's requests in order to be an innkeeper for very long.

Wil stood up and said, "Well, finish up and go sit by the fire, while I put these away." With that, he began to cart the pile of dishes back to the kitchen, including theirs when they were done. Michael and Tenahj moved over to the chairs by the fire, Tenahj making sure they both had their weapons with them. Wil finished clearing and wiping the table and finally emerged from the kitchen door after staying there for some time. He had doffed his apron and replaced it with the heavy brass pendant of the mayoral office. This was his second five-year term as mayor, though the terms were not consecutive, according to the traditions that governed them.

As he walked towards them, Michael noted the pendant as well as a subtle change in his manner. As innkeeper, Wil was bright and cheerful in his attitude, in the way he moved and talked. As Mayor, he still kept his innate warmth, but was more subdued, more thoughtful in his approach, more serious. The request Tenahj had made to talk to the mayor, rather than simply to Wil, had evoked the change. Michael had spent the day convincing himself that his mother was overreacting, but wisely kept this opinion to himself.

The mayor sighed as he settled his bulk into the creaking chair. He sat facing the fire, Michael to the right, Tenahj on the left. Michael sat wondering if he should leave or stay. He was not yet considered a man and by custom, would not usually be invited to join in any official discussion with the mayor. On the other hand, he knew what the discussion would be about, and he wanted to hear what was said. Maybe if he just sat quietly, they would not pay him any attention to send him away.

He suddenly realized that no one had yet spoken. The mayor was simply gazing into the fire, while his mother was looking at him with no expression at all. They were not going to dismiss him, but they were not going to talk until he left either. Reluctantly he stood up and said, "I think I'll go outside for a bit." He grabbed his staff where it was leaning by the hearth and walked across the room to the stable door.

Once he was in the stable, a chilly draft told him that he had forgotten some warmer clothing. Standing for a moment, pondering whether to return or not, he noticed a pile of feed sacks that had been stuffed with hay. Probably targets for the archery contests, he thought. An idea hit him. They were light, too light for what he wanted, but he found a short length of wood that he soon had tied in the sack, the hay amply padding it. Stringing it up by the rafters with a piece of rope he found, he had something to practice with.

Michael removed the razor-sharp tips from his staff and began an easy warm-up routine against the sack. Shortly after Tenahj had begun to show him how to use the tips, he had stopped participating altogether in the frequent quarterstaff matches with the other townsmen. The technique was almost the same with the tips, but included a great deal more thrusting and slashing with the ends of the staff. There was also the move his mother called the backthrust; pulling the staff towards you in an effort to do some damage using the barbs of the tip. Tenahj had shown him how useful this could be to hamstring your opponent, among other things. These moves, however, were all either illegal or just plain ineffective in a friendly match of the quarterstaff. This meant that he had not used the staff in a while, and was somewhat rusty.

He finished the warm-up and gave the bag a small shove. Holding his ground at first, he began slowly, striking only when the bag came within reach. His speed gradually increased as he counted the number of hits while in range. The pendulum motion of the sack soon became more eliptical, almost making a circle, and Michael began to circle it himself, staying just outside the reach of the bag. The staff never stopped moving, a blur in his hands. He had already discarded one layer of clothing, and sweat was beginning to form on his face, though his breathing was still easy. Quickly he became lost in the rythms. Then suddenly, he was inside the circle, pressing the attack. Back and forth they went, for how long, he was not sure, but after his breathing became labored and sweat poured down his face, he looked up for a moment and saw his mother standing in the doorway to the common room. The distraction proved enough for the bag, and Michael staggered back with the force of the bag's first blow of the night.

"Never forget the rest of the battlefield, someone might get you in the back," was her comment. Her face was blank, betraying no emotion.

"I was just a little rusty," he said, in a rather weak defense, "Besides, when am I going to be in a battle?"

She grunted softly in response before stepping all the way into the stable, letting the door swing loosely shut behind her, and inspecting his practice dummy. He stood trying to slow his breathing as Tenahj circled the now slowly swinging target. He was also now intensely curious about what had been said between her and the mayor, and was about to question her about it, but she spoke before he could.

"A set of tracks was found by Joh near the firewood grove," she announced, "though he hasn't said anything to any one else, just the council. But other people have noted the absence of wolves." She looked at him then, a slight frown on her face, and said, "The council is still discussing it. No one seems to know what to do, or even if to do anything at all." She paused and Michael waited for her to go on.

The pause continued until Michael ventured a question. "So, what do we do?" he asked. The apprehensive feeling that had faded again with the workout began to intensify once again, and suddenly he knew why. He had puzzled over this feeling since it first became prominent, not seeing the significance. He had wondered why his mother had worried so much about these unknown animals, since all they had seen of them were a few prints. The two Yekrut had puzzled him as well; they feared nothing that they could see. And now the mayor and council were worried.

But now he saw the connection. He mentally cursed himself for not seeing it earlier. Although it was still early in the winter, and food not yet dangerously scarce, the wolves should have been evident close to the farms and towns, drawn by the smells of abundant food. And yet no sign had been seen of their patrols. His mother had also found no trace of bears in any of the places they habitually used to sleep the winter away. Anything that could drive away these stubborn predators... Michael again cursed himself for a slow-witted fool.

It suddenly registered that Tenahj had answered his question, and he did not like it. "What?" he said, "we're just going to sit here and do nothing?"

"I didn't say that, Michael," she said with a touch of exasperation, "I said, we'll wait until the council decides. So far, there have been no accounts of these things attacking anybody or their herds, so we don't even know if their hostile. Dangerous, yes. But hostile, we don't know."

"So when are they going to decide?" The question came out sounding a little more heatedly than he intended, but his mother didn't seem to notice, or at least pretended not to.

"In the morning they will meet. Now come up to bed, it's getting late."

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