10th Day of Harvest Season
When we arrived at the twin trees, no one waited for us. I’m afraid my body can’t travel through the countryside as it once did. We missed our appointment by at least one sunset. Of Hilla and her sister, Poppy, all that remained were tracks in the mud. She had stayed and waited. Until this morning, at least. She had perhaps a few hours on us, but despite our best efforts, we failed to catch her.
The rain began during the night. A slow, steady rain that burrows deep into the soil and feeds the rivers and streams. Master Gryst tied our cloaks together and fashioned a serviceable roof as a barrier through the night. Once the water began sluicing down the hill, all attempts at staying dry were futile. We were too wet and hungry to sleep, so we began the journey again in the dark. By the time the dawn broke and bathed everything in a rosy light, the rain had stopped. We took the opportunity to catch our breath. By a bend in the river where we were supposed to meet our guides, we sat and ate the fish Brother Milton caught. Disheartened, we ate in silence, each with our own thoughts. I thought of the journey ahead, only a few hours but treacherous in the mud for a weakened old man. I wondered if our misfortune was a sign. A message of what was to come.
Eventually the silence became too much for the dwarf. Brother Milton and I listened to Master Gryst complain about the rain, the food, the sun, and even the quality of his boots, which he swore to us were the work of a master shoemaker, his cousin, a hardy dwarf who’s been making boots for over one hundred years. Though his complaints were many, they lacked malice and before long, each new tirade brought a smile to our faces. Our spirits renewed, we followed Hilla’s tracks, one cautious foot after another, to the farm.
Our arrival sent the children into a flurry. Caught off guard, they ran to greet us. Sisters, if you’ve never heard a handful of children all speaking at the same time, you have missed out on one of the great joys of life. I was so overcome with emotion, I’m almost ashamed to admit, I wept. When the children saw, their words melted into silence. Hilla grasped my hand and led me to the kitchen. The others followed. Ellison pushed a mug of ale into my hands and while I nursed the drink, the older children filled us in. The harvest. The two newcomers. The machines they’ve been working on. The tinker. The stranger. The last wore black. She carried two swords and three knives. She wore a silver ring on her finger. A ring very much like the ring found on another stranger who also wore black, with one exception. Where his bore the image of a claw, hers bore the image of an arrow.
“Niles killed her,” Ellison said. Hilla pursed her lips, but said nothing. I promised myself to speak with her later. I’m afraid I forgot my promise.
“Niles?” I asked, surprised. Niles was the angry boy, too awkward and clumsy to string a bow, much less shoot one accurately. If it was the same boy I remembered, he was more likely to storm off in frustration, than spend day after day practicing a craft.
“He trains every day with the bow,” Ellison replied.
“That’s all he does.” Ivette rolled her eyes and pulled off a slice of bread from a large, round loaf in the center of the table.
“And good thing he does,” Master Gryst said. “Otherwise, that mercenary might have slaughtered the lot of ya. Sure, you need lads for the harvest. But training is work, too, especially if it’s for the defense of others.”
The conversation went on for hours, and Master Gryst spoke as if he’d known these children before. Perhaps he had, or many like them. At some point during the evening, I gained a follower. A mutt. A little thing, with grey and black fur, she follows me around. Hilla says the dog has been slinking around the farm for days. Snatching scraps when she can, but never coming inside. Tonight, for some reason, she found the courage to venture within the walls of the farmhouse. Little Hugo chased after her until both mutt and toddler collapsed in a heap beside my feet. I could think of worse ways to spend an evening.
– Jakob Borchain