Proud members of an exiled tribe in host a guest with a taboo vocation, in ZK Hardy’s fantasy.
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I saw him coming down the road out of the copse of trees at the edge of our land. I craned my neck, but couldn’t see Dad looking so I shouted a warning as the man came closer. In the midst of the cepical bushes, my father stood up, like a forest animal startled by the sound of snapping twigs, and looked at me.
“Visitor,” I said and pointed. He followed the direction of my hand. He couldn’t see far away. Sometimes when the morning mists were bad, he would say he couldn’t see the end of his bed, but I knew it was a joke.
“What’s that he’s got with him?” he said. His voice echoed across the field. He didn’t care whether the man heard him asking questions. This was our land. And besides, the man probably didn’t speak our language. Few did nowadays. “Horse?”
“Donkey, I think,” I said. “It’s got packs on it.”
“What’s a merchant doing this far west?” Dad said. “He think he’s going to cross the desert?”
“Have to ask him,” I said and knelt down. Dad called out in King’s Tongue. The words sounded unfamiliar coming from him, like hearing a chicken bark or a cow ribbit. When the law came in saying we weren’t allowed to speak Augr anymore, Mom would sit with me for hours and say the words in Augr and then again in King’s Tongue, moving my mouth with her hand and shaping my cheeks. It was all so we could play pretend in public, be good citizens. At home, it was still legal to speak the language of our people, and when we spoke them, the words were playful as water.
“Hey, friend,” Dad called out. “Long way from civilization.” I did not hear the details of the man’s response, but the language was our own. I could feel rather than see my father stiffen at the words but I continued to ignore the exchange, hoping it wasn’t necessary for me to stand up. I shook a group of aphids loose, their hungry mouths making jagged holes in the leaves. There was no way to get them to stop eating the squash. While they were alive, from the first rain of spring to when the leaves turned during the reaping, we had to come out every day to minimize their work. It was slow and you must be tireless, but, in the end, it was worth it.
By the time the visitor had arrived, it was close to sunset, so Dad said we could break early. He thought it was good to see one of our people, lucky. I wasn’t so sure. We let the man into our house, and my father and I took his donkey into the barn. It was a skinny and broken beast, but it suited our old barn with the gaps between the strips of pine and the smell of musty hay. Dad gave the animal the meager supply of oats we had bought before we had to sell the horse as I looked over the packs. A sleeping roll, a packed tent for rain cover, some food. Nowhere close to the supplies I would expect if he was to cross the sands. I pointed this out to Dad before we went in.
“He probably has a few tricks up his sleeves,” Dad said. He finished tying the donkey to the wood of the barn and moved back to where I was. “Let me -” He flipped part of the blanket up and noticed a case tied to the side of the donkey. He let his fingers rest on it and find the edges. The outline was strange, a circle and then a long, thin section. It took me a moment before recognition.
“A lute,” I said. “He’s a -”
“He could be anything,” Dad said. He flipped the blanket over the instrument. We heard a splash of water outside in the trough and both of us looked towards it. Dad lowered his voice and turned back to me. “We didn’t see this.”
“We should tell -”
“We should tell no-one,” he said. “He’s a man trying to make his way in the world, just like any other. Ain’t our place to judge him.”
“Taking a while to stable a donkey.” The voice came from the edge of the barn and I looked over to see him push the door half-open, his hands still wet. He was thin and tall, although not taller than a Westerner, with gold colored hair and dark eyes, just like us. He wore traveling pants and a tunic that was made of some fine material. I caught myself thinking we could eat for a hundred days on the money we’d get for his shirt, and tried to discard the thought. He was a visitor. Visitors are to be trusted. These are the old ways.
“Just making sure your animal is comfortable,” Dad said, putting his arm around the beast, smiling wide and false. “He have a name?”
“Don’t know,” the man said. “I bought him in Meadowood, a couple days to the south.” Meadowood was our town, if you could say we had a town. A tavern where farmers drank in the winter and a general store where you could sell your animals when the crops were slow.
“Thought he’d looked familiar,” Dad said, and leaned down. He brushed some of the dirt and mud off his back leg and looked at the color. I glanced down, but kept the man in my periphery. The color of the leg was almost white. “You must have got ’em from Angus. Name is One-Sock.”
“One-Sock,” the man said. “Good name.”
“What’s yours?” Dad said. The man paused for a moment and extended a hand.
“Hilson,” he said.
“Roger,” Dad said as he took it. “And this is -”
“Tan,” I said, my arms crossed.
“Tan, right,” he said. “Good name.”
“Good as any,” I said. “What are you doing out here?”
“Boy, that’s not how we -”
“It’s alright,” Hilson said. He took a seat on the milking stool, half-covered in dust. I couldn’t even remember when we last had a cow. “I’m heading west. And north. Anywhere but here.”
“Why?” I said.
“My reasons are my own,” Hilson said. “Times have changed.” There was a silence as the donkey crunched the oats in its jaw and my father and I stared across him.
“Well, we will call you for dinner,” Dad said. I was closest to the visitor as we passed and he grabbed my arm. He looked in my eyes.
“It is good to see that some still keep to the old ways,” he said. I didn’t speak for a moment, but then found myself repeating my mother’s words.
“Where there is hearth and there is home, there is room for one more.”
We let some fruit and potatoes sit next to the fire until they were tender to the touch. Dad pulled out an older bottle of mead he’d been saving for a special occasion and some strips of jerky that tasted better when they were heated. We passed the bottle back and forth around the kitchen table as the fire died, letting the heat of the drink loosen our tongues.
“You own this land?” Hilson said. Dad nodded and used the back of his hand to wipe the mead from his mouth, the purple guts of the fruit sticking to the edges of his beard.
“My dad never sold,” he said with a note of pride, handing the bottle to the visitor. “The Westerners came. Two or three times back when I was a kid. Each time, they said if he didn’t sell they’d burn it to the ground. Dad said he’d rather own the ashes. After a little while when they saw he was serious, they stopped coming.” We spoke in our language but it was strange to do so with another person. It put a feeling in the bottom of my stomach, like when I was young and Dad caught me climbing taller trees.
“Brave man,” Hilson said. He took a deep swig and passed the bottle to me. “Not many would stand up to men like that. Tall men, berameten.” I looked at my father when Hilson spoke the last word, but he pointedly ignored me. When the bards would come, before they were executed, before their lutes were broken and the fires in Brejak burned bright and the smoke clouded the air, they would use that word in their songs to describe the Westerners. It meant ‘men with no light in their hair’.
“This was before we knew them, the Westerners,” Dad said, taking the bottle from me and drinking a bit. “Before we knew what they were capable of. We thought they were just men.”
“They are men,” Hilson said. “They die just like any other.” He reached his hand out and Dad filled it with the bottle. The sun had set for a while now and the insects began their song all at once.
“You’re coming from the cities?” Dad said. “What’s the news?”
“From Lesan,” Hilson said. “A little bit after last year’s reaping. Traveled south to survive the winter and then started heading north when it got hot.”
“Like a bird heads north,” Dad said. Hilson laughed and passed the bottle to me.
“Aye,” he said. “So my information is outdated but -”
“Outdated is better than nothing,” I said. They both looked at me. It was the first time I’d spoken all night. “We haven’t had a visitor from the cities on the shore in a while.” They stared until I drank and passed the bottle. Dad used a single eye to peer down the neck and then placed it on the ground, almost empty. Hilson looked away from me. This had been his job, years ago. Deliver new stories and information from the coasts in song, letting his music play out against summer air and catch the farmers in the right mood so they would hum along.
“Augr is separated out,” he said. “We are pushed to a separate section of the city. Or, at least, that’s how it was in Lesan. I don’t know about Brejak or the other cities.”
“The religion?” Dad asked. Hilson nodded to him.
“Anybody who doesn’t claim it – I should say any of us who don’t claim it – they’re taken to the temple, clapped in chains.” I exhaled a long breath and Dad muttered a curse. We’d heard about the new religion the Westerners forced, but it hadn’t been pushed in the countryside yet. It was like the law against speaking Augr: too few Westerners lived out here to enforce it. We could still keep the old ways, but none knew for how long.
“What of the bards?” I asked. I had weighed the question in my mind most of the night, considering the consequence of asking him about his former profession. Dad did not look at me, did not betray a bit of surprise, but Hilson’s eyes burned dark in his face, trying to determine whether I knew or not, whether I guessed by the word he spoke before, or if I saw the lute tied to One-Sock. But maybe I didn’t know and it was just a question.
“Gone,” he said. “They’re all gone now.”
After I went to bed, I heard them talking for a while. When I woke the next morning, Hilson was still here, though if he wanted the best time for traveling, he should have left before sunrise. He was eating a bit of bread while standing on the steps leading to the house, staring out at the fields. Dad put a hand on my shoulder as I looked at him.
“I’ve asked him to stay,” he said. “Just for a bit. Until the end of full-bloom.”
“We can’t pay him,” I said. I turned to look at my father. “And we barely have food for -”
“It will be worth it,” Dad said. “Three pairs of hands tending the fields will make the work go that much faster. We haven’t been able to manage it all since your mother passed.” A moment of silence and I heard the insects begin the descent from their full volume. “Besides, it will be good to have music here again.”
“If anyone hears, there will be trouble,” I said.
“No one will hear,” Dad said.
He had calluses on his hands but not in the right way. He did not know how to remove the aphids, or pull weeds, or prune the broken leaves around the stem of the squash, which was the only thing Dad let him touch. The first few days I worked at half-speed, correcting his work and moving his body into the correct positions. But five days in, he began to pick it up without my needing to explain. He would produce new, high-quality shirts from his pack and wash his dirty ones at night. He wiped his dirt-covered hands on his shirts and pants in ways that I never thought he would, unashamed and lacking a need to keep them clean.
At night, we would sit and talk about the old days, before the Westerners crossed the desert, before the coastal cities fell and our religion and language was tossed to the wayside as primitive and barbaric. He would speak of his wife and son back in Lesan, who he had left for his journey. He never mentioned why, as if all three of us knew and there was no need to explain. Dad talked about my mother, the way she would wipe her brow with the inside of her wrist rather than the full hand, the way she would sew and sing during winter, when we could do little else but sit inside. It was good for him to talk about her again. He had barely said her name in the two years since she died.
We began to work faster. The squash crop came early, around when the cepicals were blooming, and we were able to harvest them before the reaping had even officially begun. The night we finished packing them, marking the barrels with the unfamiliar King’s Tongue characters, we sat on the steps to the house and drank Dad’s last bottle of mead. We would get more when we traveled down to Meadowood in the morning. The full-bloom mosquitoes weren’t quite gone yet, but only the most adventurous came down for us to slap at, the rest flitting around the open fire in the kitchen to bite us during the night. I got used to the easy way Hilson would walk, putting his whole foot on the ground rather than just the ball. The way he would stretch in the morning, filling the house with the sounds of his body aching. His grins and winks as if we were, all of us, in on a secret. Thinking back on it, I suppose we were.
“It’s a good night for a song,” Dad said. He didn’t look at our visitor, but Hilson looked at him with wide eyes. The mead was gone now and Dad had drunk more than his fair share, enough to forget who we were and where we lived. Enough to just want a song.
“It would,” I said. Again, not moving my head to stare at the visitor, just keeping the fields in my eyes as we sat. There were some moments of silence, but then he began to sing, his voice tentative at first, the music like a child peering around a door to see if anyone was there, but it grew stronger.
He was unpracticed. The songs were not those of my childhood with the way the bards would land just so on the notes and could pitch the tavern into a frenzy with change in frequency or timber. But it was sweet and loud and echoed across the fields after he got going.
He painted Brejak for us, the northern city where the Watchers had lived. The farmland isn’t burned, but lies unworked as the Augr are forced from the city they helped build. The temples rise, monolithic structures in glass and marble, multicolored and monstrous. The people no longer sing their songs in the mornings. They go to work at the docks in silence or in chains.
In the Southland, the people begin to fight. They prepare themselves in the swamp that no Westerner dares enter. They make armor and weapons from iron and wood, their eyes dark and flashing in the low-light of the marsh. There were rumors that our king had escaped there, that he is leading a resistance. But in truth, he is gone, abandoned the palace, letting the people defend themselves as best they can against the men with no light in their hair.
As he sang, Hilson closed his eyes, his mouth open wide. The notes resonated through my chest. Before the bards were killed, we would go to the tavern in Meadowood and sit to hear the songs from the cities, to know who the king had fallen in love with, to learn why the price of meat had risen. My mother would hold me and I would press my cheek to her breast, hiding my face in her hair, and listen to the bards, as if the only thing that mattered was the music. When we rode the wagon home at night, Dad would whistle their melodies, the sounds echoing throughout the forest, and I would fall asleep to those simple songs.
He ended on a high note that pierced through the air. Dad turned to him and said:
“You should get your lute.”
The trek down to Meadowood was not a short enough distance to make it ourselves, carrying the barrels on our backs. We would have to travel to the nearest neighbor, a half-day away, and then, if we were lucky and the neighbors were not busy, return with the animal immediately to pack up. It added an extra day to our travel, a day that could be spent fertilizing an unused field or chopping wood or preparing grain for winter. But One-Sock meant we didn’t have to. We could remove his packs and he would pull the wagon while we walked beside it and took turns riding in the back. The trip took two days, but they felt short. We would talk and joke and play games. At night, Hilson would hum a bit, and even that small amount of music was enough for us. We could have traveled during the night if we were short on time, but we had pulled the crops in early so there was no need to exhaust ourselves.
The two buildings of Meadowood were across the dirt path from each other, the only two that you could see looking out. A small half-burned sign stood at the edge of the expanse. It once read the name of the town in both Augr and King’s Tongue, but only the second language remained. The tavern was officially the Plowhand’s Tankard, but we called it Marv’s. The general store across the way was a newer establishment, which meant it was just over a hundred years old. Some of the older farmers still sold their goods to Marv, because they trusted him and his family. The things he couldn’t sell he promptly turned around to sell at the Tillings’ for the exact same amount. He wasn’t one to raise a price to walk across the road.
We went to the tavern first. The cepical fruit could be used to make mead and other weak liquor so Marv’s price was better. The smell of wood smoke and old beer and faint body odor brought me back to sleeping in one of the chairs by the fire, to the groaning sound the crowds made as the lute-string broke, to the sour silence after the end of a song. Dad extended a hand to Marv and they conversed in King’s Tongue for a while, friendly bartering for a few more barrels or bottles here or there. Hilson and I took a seat at one of the tables near where the bards used to play and his leg began to shake.
“Have you ever been here before?” I said.
“No,” he said. “The donkey, but…” I learned the language early enough so I didn’t have an accent, but Dad and Hilson used the same lilting noise when they spoke King’s Tongue, a soft, simple sound as if they had too much air in their mouths. His eyes found the corner of the bar, and then came back to me. “It is similar to other places. We should leave soon.” After a bit, I went outside to comfort One-Sock, to be certain that he was fine being stabled in the mostly unused barn.
As I came out, I saw them.
They were coming from the southeast riding horses. They wore armor that flashed in the sun and were sweating under it. They were tall with dark hair and their horses whined and stomped the ground as they dismounted, leaving the reins to trail into the dust for a moment as they stretched. The new king called them knights, a word for which Augr has no equivalent. They took taxes from those who had official businesses. One of them caught sight of me, and came over, breathing heavily. He was slightly fatter than the others and looked younger. He unfolded a single bill and handed it to me. They call it porai. We used to use gold.
“You, boy,” he said. “You work here?” He was a native speaker of King’s Tongue, the sound high and nasal, rattling about in his head. When he moved, the armor sounded like wind chimes. My own clothes were soundless, simple brown cloth sewn from sacks of seeds.
I shook my head. He shrugged and unfolded a second paper bill and handed it to me as well. The paper felt strange in my hand, as if it was greasy and the ink would rub off, but when I looked down it wasn’t staining my hand.
“Stable the horses anyway,” he said and went inside. I did as I was told, tucking the porai in with the barrels as I moved the slightly skittish and exhausted horses into the stalls beside One-Sock, tying the reins to the wood. I began unloading the cepical barrels because I needed to move my hands. I knew where the entrance to Marv’s basement was and that despite the lengthy negotiation, Dad would be selling regardless. Hilson and Dad came to join me shortly after. We didn’t speak, saving our breath for the work. When they began to move the squash, I knew Dad had sold that to Marv as well. In previous trips, we had gone across the street to the Tillings’ to sell, but it was faster to sell all at once. When the men came in, he must have agreed to Marv’s price, whatever it was, and asked him to take the squash too.
Hilson and I rode in the back of the wagon and Dad didn’t stop. We were silent on the ride home. Hilson did not hum and Dad did not call out the names of birds as we heard their cries. The sun set through the trees and I closed my eyes, using my arm as a pillow, my head bumping in the constant rhythm of the road. Hilson sat with his back straight against the side of the wagon, his head turned so he could look back towards the town, and all I could see of him was the whites of his eyes.
We arrived home at noon the following day. We worked for a while, until night fell, preparing the grain and chopping wood, and then slept like rocks. The insects had either died or burrowed underground leaving an eerie sort of silence, the silence of the coming reaping. I saw them come out of the forest before we had even stepped off our porch but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t call out to my father, as I had when I saw Hilson those few months earlier, or ask them why they were here. I just went inside and placed my hand on his shoulder.
“You should go outside,” I said. Dad came out with us and we watched them approach, winding their way through the fields. I felt a thin breeze hit the back of my neck. The stars told us that in a few days’ time the leaves would change all at once and then fall and then the snows would come. We just had to wait. The knights dismounted, their armor announcing them. They did not stretch this time or let the reins dangle in the dirt. They came to the porch, the fat one I had spoken with two days before leading. He tossed the stack of porai at the feet of my father and me and two other ones grabbed Hilson on either side. They smelled of horses and the cheap ale Marv makes with bruised apples. They dragged him from the porch and placed him on his knees. One of their number went to the barn and brought One-Sock out to stand beside him. They did not speak or accuse him and he did not weep or beg. He did not even look scared. He just looked tired.
They broke the lute before him, the wood cracking, the sounds our house would make late at night when the walls were settling in, expanding and contracting. It took them some time to get the fire started. There was little tinder and they were unaccustomed to this type of work, but eventually the lute strings snapped as the wood turned to ash. He didn’t move. During the cool nights of full-bloom, when we would light fires in the house and stare at them until they were embers, I would catch glances of his face. That deep look, almost similar to his expression while sleeping, almost like the only thing that mattered was the flame. When the fire had burned to nothing and the sun was high in the sky, they took him by his golden hair and leaned his head back.
“Don’t kill him here,” Dad said. The men looked at him. I never met my grandfather, but he must have looked like him then, with that strong defiant chin and an anger in his eyes. He had put his hand on my shoulder and I felt his warmth seep into me. He could not stop them. But he owned this land. He did not work for a Westerner like our neighbors to the south and east, nor did he have to sell to them like Marv or the Tillings. This was our land. We could tell them to leave, to find another place to murder our brother. We could tell them to go.
The fat knight shrugged and removed a rope from his saddle bag. They tied Hilson around the neck and attached it to the reins, letting him lead as they rode, the sounds of hooves soft against tilled earth. They went among the trees, and he didn’t turn around.