10 February, 2007

Chapter Three

HE OPENED HIS eyes and stared upwards in the darkness of the tightly shuttered room, letting himself slowly drift back into the waking world. The dream that had troubled him during the night began to flee, until only the memory of being troubled remained. Like trying to catch a handful smoke, he drowsily snatched at fragments as they floated by, but to no avail. He knew instinctively that dawn was still some time away, but the time to wake was upon him

After a moment of lying there, Michael stood up, being careful to keep the blanket wrapped around him, and felt his way to the wall sconce where the oil lamp would be. He found the striker and, after a few tries, lit the lamp, bathing the room in dim light and flickering shadows. Casting aside the warm blanket, he dressed quickly, trying not to shiver in the process. Deciding against starting a fire in the small hearth, he stepped out into the hall, and into darkness. He sighed, and went back to fetch the candle stub by the lamp. During all this, his mother did not stir on the other side of the dividing curtain.

He made his way down to the common room and found Wil building up the fire in one of the enormous hearths. "Mornin', Wil," he said as he stepped away from the stairs.

"Mornin'," came the reply, followed by a brief fit of coughing as Wil pulled his head out to look up, "You'll be wanting breakfast, I assume. I can't imagine a young man not wanting one," he said with his habitual wide grin. He coughed again, then yelled at the kitchen door, "Meryl! Breakfast for Michael!" As if she had already known and was simply waiting for the signal, Meryl burst from the kitchen with a plate and cup, both steaming with a delicious aroma.

He dug in, not really paying attention as the innkeeper's wife fussed over him, savoring the hot meal. He enjoyed listening to her strange way of talking, even if he did not hear a word she said.

"What?" he said, finally hearing something that caught his attention.

"Don't be talkin' with your mouth full," she chided, then continued, "I said, your mother did say to be stayin' out of trouble till she does return."

"Return?" Michael interrupted, thoroughly confused, and forgetting to eat for the moment, "Where did she go?"

"Where did she go?! Haven't you been hearin' a word I been sayin'? She said something for to take care of some business she be rememberin', I know not what." She paused to look at him, hands on her ample hips, the rag she had been using to polish tables and chairs dangling from one hand. That was when Michael remembered to keep eating. He wondered briefly what she could have remembered; they had taken care of everything as far as he could think. He also did not understand why she had gone back after insisting on leaving so precipitately. Well, it did not really matter, she would be back, probably late tomorrow, and he could question her then.

In the meantime, he could haul the repair work over to Carral at the forge, and then pay a visit to Drya, the leatherworker.

"A wonderful meal as always, Mistress Meryl," he said, scooping in the last bite of potatoes and cheese, "Thank you very much. " She was still standing watching him, a smile upon her lips that hinted amusement at something only she could see, as he rose from the table.

"Aye, and at your age, anything at all be good, as long as it do fill the belly. Well be off with you, I know you be havin' things to do," was the reply as she scooped up his dishes and hurried through the kitchen door. She had moved and spoken so quickly, as she was wont to do, that he never had a chance to make his intended offer of help with the dishes. He suspected that she had not done so quite unintentionally.

Smiling in good humor, Michael headed for the stable and the closet where they had stowed the sled and other things. Just as he was opening the door, he remembered his staff. With a shake of his head in slight annoyance, he retrieved his staff from the wall where he had left it, asking himself again if his mother's fears were really well founded. Just as he reached the stable door again, a voice called out from behind and above him. "Michael!" the voice said, in a tone that made it clear the owner of the voice was not pleased to see the owner of the name. At the sound of his name, Michael turned, quickly replacing his sudden grin with the darkest, most menacing scowl he could manage. "You lazy, good-for-nothing oaf! You owe me money!"

"You mangy cur!" came Michael's reply, "You don't even know how to count. How do you know I owe you money?"

"Because I said so, boy!"

"Well come down and get it if you think you can!" With a roar of unbridled rage the man charged down the stairs and across the room at Michael. It was not unlike the charge of a bear that had been stung with an arrow. Michael stood casually, his staff held loosely in his left hand, acting fiercely disinterested in his attacker. At the last possible moment, he suddenly threw himself into a crouch and stood up again, using the heavier man's own momentum to send him flying over him through the air. With a loud smack against the hard wood floor, the man landed on his back, momentarily stunned.

Michael turned, smiling, at the sound of applause and laughter coming from the kitchen door and made an elaborate bow.

" A well executed maneuver. Very impressive," Wil said between chuckles, "That should teach Vuldi a little more prudence with who he picks on."

"A simple lesson in the old adage, 'The dumber they are, the harder they fall,'" Michael replied with another bow.

"I thought it was the bigger they are," Vuldi said behind Michael, still lying on his back.

Michael offered his hand to help him up. "In your case, it doesn't really matter." He grunted with the effort of hauling the heavier man to his feet. Standing close together, it was easy to see that Michael was the taller of the two friends by about a thumb, putting them both at just above average for White Mountain men. From there, the differences between the two became quite remarkable. Next to Vuldi, Michael appeared almost slender at first glance, his own hardened muscles disappearing compared to the tree trunks Vuldi called arms and legs. Already large for his age, he had been apprenticed at the small granite quarry that provided stone for the four towns of the region when he was still a lad. Cutting and hauling the hard and heavy rock had only encouraged his growth.

He also had the charcoal-black hair and dark brown eyes typical of his people; his family had lived in the mountains since time immemorial. Michael, on the other hand, had hair colored half-way between the native black and his mother's honey blonde. His eyes too, though brown, were much lighter than Vuldi's. The eyes of both, however, looked at the world with intelligence and the enthusiasm of youth. Vuldi would be undergoing the trials as well that year, having completed nineteen years only a few days before.

The two had been friends from the time they could walk, Michael being the only one who would befriend Vuldi for much of their lives. Vuldi's birth had marked a tragic scandal that he had been unable to escape through the years. His mother had been raped by a merchant guard when she was only fourteen and had died giving birth to the result. Vuldi had been raised by his grandparents, more out of duty than love, and served only to remind them of what had happened to their daughter.

Consequently, he had grown up with an originally undeserved reputation for causing trouble and mischief, though he grew into it quite well. There were even a few who came to see him as something of a bad omen at times. By the time he was a teenager, he had added a temper more explosive than the powder sometimes used at the quarry to his persona, a perception he nurtured with great care. The rumors abounded with the deeds that he had supposedly committed. Most, Michael knew, were simple exaggerations of actual events, but Vuldi was very careful to never confirm or deny them.

As he stood up, Vuldi's eyes took in Michael's staff with the fighting tips affixed. "I came by to see why you're in town so early, but now I'm guessing the creatures scared you off," he said in a good-natured tone.

Michael's eyebrows went up in surprise and said, "I thought they were keeping that quiet."

Vuldi barked a laugh, "Half a dozen farmers have seen tracks. It's all anybody will talk about lately."

"Well, help me take a load to Carral and we can tell each other what we know," Michael said as he walked around Vuldi to the stable door. In spite of some grumbling about Michael needing to do his own work, Vuldi carried a larger armful of tools and other things for the blacksmith to work on than Michael. They had elected to leave the sled, deeming it more hassle than help.

Outside, an early and cloudy dawn offered little more light than the night had. As they walked, Vuldi spoke of the rumors and speculation among the townspeople. Apparently, only young Hu had claimed to have seen one, out on his milk run, but his description was so wild, that no one believed him. That reminded Michael they had left no word for him to not come out for the next milk load; maybe that was what his mother had gone back to take care of. According to Vuldi, the town seemed pretty evenly divided over the issue. Half believed the new animals to be a threat, the other half wanted to see evidence of a threat first. Even within the two camps, though, there was no agreement as to what to do. The debate had grown quite heated at times, even with some some blows exchanged between two farmers, Seym and Qirieg, but those two neighbors had been fighting almost since birth.

Vuldi's narration had brought them to the wide, double door at the top of the ramp that led down to the forge. One side of the door stood ajar, as it usually was, so they went in and stood on the landing before starting down the wide ramp. The rhythmic clang of a hammer striking metal filled the air while they quickly shed their heavy coats, the forge fire providing ample heat. They proceeded down with their load, passing the door that led to the living quarters, and entered the smithy itself. A wide hearth with a hood and complicated-looking bellows apparatus took up the far corner and served as the forge. It was already full of red coals, even this early in the morning.

A young boy, about eleven years old, worked the bellows with slow, even strokes, while another, older boy, a few years younger than Michael and Vuldi, held a piece of iron to the coals with a set of tongs. Both boys wore heavy leather aprons over their clothes, though only the younger wore a shirt. Michael guessed they were following their normal morning routine; Jony, the older boy, making nails, and Seymi alternating between working the bellows and sweeping and cleaning the shop, both waiting for Carral to give them their assignments for the day. Jony made nails by the barrel, several hundred a day at times, far more than the small community needed, but they were eagerly bought by every peddler and merchant that came by. Michael also knew that Jony hated making them, considering he complained about that more than anything else.

Michael's eyes roamed the large room, taking in the three different anvils, quenching barrels and trough, tables stacked with tools, bits of iron and other odds and ends, and the walls with racks of tools hanging from them. As usual when he saw them, Michael idly wondered why one would need so many different hammers, tongs, files, and tools that he did not even know what they were for. The wall to their right as they stepped into the room was stacked to the ceiling with bar stock of various sizes and continued around the wall and under the ramp, where there were also bins for scraps.

"Hi, guys," Jony called across the room in greeting. He had pulled the metal from the fire and was now holding it on an anvil, ready to start forming the nails. "I'll be with you in a minute." Immediately the ringing of the hammer filled the space again. Michael and Vuldi could only nod in reply. After a few minutes, Jony had tossed several new nails into a quenching barrel, one after another, and finally set down the hammer and tongs.

"What brings you guys here?" he said, coming towards them and wiping sweat off his face with a rag from one of the tables. His eyes took in the small pile at their feet, as well as lingering a moment on Michael's staff. Michael sighed at the reminder. He still wasn't convinced of the need to carry it in the town, but it was easier than arguing with his mother.

"Just some more work for you," he said, nudging the pile with his foot. "Where's Carral?" he added, having not seen him yet.

"Oh, he left pretty early, I think he said something about a council meeting," Jony said with a shrug. Vuldi grunted, and Michael agreed with him. If the council was meeting this early in the morning, then action was about to be taken. None of them had much doubt about the subject of discussion. Suddenly it occurred to Michael that he had known about the meeting, his mother had told him last night.

"Well, I guess we'll just have to give you the work," he said and they began to discuss what was needed. As they talked, Jony took careful notes on a sheet of paper, always confirming what he wrote. The blacksmith was a meticulous man, and tolerated nothing less in his apprentices. After a few minutes they settled on the details, and began to exchange gossip. Vuldi stood with a bored expression on his face, since Jony insisted on repeating everything he had already told Michael.

"I see that you and Tenahj are with those who think they're a threat," Jony suddenly said, gesturing at the staff, "Either that, or you're planning on not paying," he added with a laugh.

"Ma couldn't find any bears," Michael said. That stopped Jony's laugh short. He stared at Michael, his mouth agape. Vuldi frowned at Michael. Obviously both understood the seriousness of that fact. If Tenahj could not find any bears, then there were no bears to be found. Michael could also see from his eyes that Vuldi had immediately made the connection to the new creatures. Jony, on the other hand, did not.

"Shweez," he swore, then looked confused, "but what does that have to do with the new creatures?"

Vuldi rolled his eyes. "Think about it," he said, "What would make all the bears in the White Mountains wake up and leave in the middle of winter? Same as the wolves," the last he added after a moment's pause, his tone becoming quieter and more subdued.

They were all quiet for a moment as they let all the new information sink in. Because of the silence, they were able to hear the squeak of the door upstairs and the stomping of boots to remove the snow. As the footsteps began down the ramp, Jony suddenly became very busy rummaging through the work Michael had brought and muttering to himself. Michael thought he seemed a little nervous. They turned as the newcomer arrived in the smithy.

Carral was a big man, about the same size as Vuldi. In fact, Vuldi was one of the few people in the region, and the only one in Sweetwater, who could match him in strength. He had the typical dark hair and dark eyes, but chose to go without the beard that most of the men favored. He was also the youngest member on the council, having celebrated his thirty-first birthday over the summer.

"Good morning, boys," he said in his alto-tenor voice.

"Good morning," "Mornin'," Michael and Vuldi said. "Good morning, Master Carral," said Jony, "we were just discussing some work that Michael brought." Michael stifled his grin while Vuldi rolled his eyes; Michael understood that Jony was perhaps a little afraid of Carral, he was after all Jony's boss, but to Michael and even Vuldi, he was a friend.

"I'm sure you were," was the curt reply, "Where is Seymi?" They all looked around, but he was not there. Michael had completely forgotten the boy.

"He's probably upstairs again. I'll go find him," Jony volunteered. He brushed past them and started up the ramp.

Carral called after him, "Make some breakfast while you're up there. I'm hungry." Carral had never married, so the three of them shared the domestic chores. "Okay," was the shouted reply as the door that led to the living quarters from the landing at the top of the ramp banged open and shut. "And don't slam the door," Carral added quietly with a sigh. Turning back to Michael and Vuldi, he said, "Come, have a seat. I want to talk to you boys." The two young men looked at each other and Michael shrugged.

Carral led them to a table against the wall with a large drafting slate resting on it. There was already a stool in front of it, and the blacksmith rounded up two more, setting them just to the side of the slate. He motioned them to sit and took the first stool for himself. "First, may I borrow one of those tips for a moment?" he said to Michael, indicating his staff.

"What? oh, sure," Michael said, caught off guard. He removed one of the tips and passed it to Carral, who immediately began using various measuring tools on it, noting all the numbers on the slate. While he did this, he began to speak.

"Your mother spoke to the council this morning, before she left." Michael shifted his weight on the stool. The council must have met very early. "She stated her observations and conclusions, made her recomendations, then left before we began a discussion, where to I don't know." He paused and looked expectantly over at Michael. Michael realized he was waiting for an response.

"I have no idea where she went," he said, "I assume she went back to the farm, but that's only because I can't imagine where else she would go."

Carral grunted and turned back to the slate, where he began drafting several designs based on the numbers extracted from Michael's tip. "The council has decided to consider the new animals as possibly hostile, and commissioned as many of these tips as I can produce in the next few days." Carral was not known for beating around the bush very much. He was as direct as a hammer strike.

As Michael absorbed this information quietly, Vuldi burst out, "What do they expect, a war? Even if these things start attacking people, I doubt it would be worse than a wolf pack."

"According to tracks found by Tenahj and now several others, we estimate a rough count of about two hundred of these things. If they attack together, then we will have to fight together," was Carral's quiet reply.

"These people are farmers, not fighters. You can't expect them to suddenly be soldiers in an army." Vuldi had unconsciously risen from his stool during his outburst, and with his size and deep baritone voice, could intimidate virtually anyone with his outbursts, but sat back down again as only an uncomfortable silence followed. He was not intimidating anyone in the room this time.

Rather than responding in kind, Carral simply looked mildly amused. "Farmers, not fighters, huh?" he echoed, looking up from his work, "you obviously haven't paid attention to the stories told every time anyone gets together." He was exaggerating on the frequency of the telling, but not by much. Michael loved the stories, as he knew Vuldi did and everyone else in the White Mountains, from the smallest child to the oldest gaffer. They were a sort of oral history of the people, and told of nation after nation, many of which no longer existed, which had tried to claim the region for their own, with both its rich resources and naturally strategic location as both military and economic centers. Each time, the invading armies, no matter how formidable, were not only held off, but sent back as only a shadow of what they were at the beginning of the campaign. The people took great pride in being free and independent of any sovereign power, and the stories of the blood spilt by their own ancestors served to remind of just how blessed they were to live where they did. They had the blood of generations of farmers and fighters in their veins.

But Vuldi still wasn't convinced by the reminder of his roots, "The last time this people fought off any attackers was generations ago."

Carral's voice took on a slight edge as he replied, "And how many of these peace-loving farmers have stood their ground before a pack of wolves that threatened their herds? And how many of those wolves continued to fall even as they fled from the fury of the peace-loving farmer?" Michael nodded his silent agreement. Though he had never faced an entire pack, he had fought and killed one with only a pruning hook, and several more had fallen to his arrows. Every yakherder carried a bow or sling and a staff at all times; the threat of wolves was very real all year long. Carral continued, softening his voice again to his usual friendly, business-like tone, "The council also asked me to ask you both a favor." The slate was completely full by now, and Carral passed Michael's tip back to him. "We want to gather the outlying farmers as quickly as possible, so we're asking several people to be messengers, and sending them out in pairs." He reached into his pocket and pulled out two folded pieces of paper. Handing them to Michael, he explained, "This one is the list of farms we want you two to visit, and this one is the message."

Michael passed the list to Vuldi and opened the message, reading aloud, "From the Council and Mayor of Sweetwater, greetings. A possible threat has been perceived by the council in the coming of a new and as yet unknown group of creatures and the disappearance of all predators in the area at approximately the same time. The council has decided to adopt a policy of 'hope for the best, plan for the worst'. Therefore we, the council, ask that all people of Sweetwater and the surrounding region gather with all haste to the town proper in preparation for both the annual Solstice celebration and a possible attack by these unknowns. We ask that all normal supplies be brought for the celebration. We also ask that as many full quivers of arrows as possible be brought, and any other weapon in your possession. We pray that these preparations prove unnecessary, but fear they are. Signed, everyone on the council," Michael finished reading without bothering to read the signatures. "Interesting," he added, "So where we are going?"

"East," replied Vuldi, studying the list, "Greenpine first, then backtracking through several farms. This is going to take a couple of days," he said, looking at Carral.

"You will be on official council business, so whatever you need should be provided by the closest farm," he said. Again reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out an envelope sealed in two spots with red wax, one with the signet of the Mayor, the other of the council, marking it official correspondence of the highest importance. "This is the letter you need to give to the mayor of Greenpine." He did not offer an explanation of what it said. Michael took it and placed it in a pocket of his jacket.

"When do we leave?" he asked. He was suddenly struck by the trust being placed in him and Vuldi. It was good feeling.

Carral stood up. "Right now. Thank you for agreeing to help."

Vuldi sighed. "Well, there goes my evening with the girls."

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