He didn’t want to apprentice for a Necromancer; who would want that? All death and dirt and decay – grave digging, organ harvesting. It wasn’t right. In the south it was nearly outlawed. Every respectable city had morticians, not necromancers. No temple would let one attend because no god would listen. But now the family had lost their land – nothing else was left. His father once proud, torn from his livelihood and broken completely; a farmer without a farm. He’d grown the best Red Thistle in the county – now merely an amateur drunk. Family bereft, his sons soon dispersed. The eldest to the army. The second to the city. Thirteen-year-old Rafe and his younger brother Gywn apprenticed to an old necromancer two counties away. Of his three sisters: two were anticipating the nunnery, while Rochelle, the eldest and prettiest was promised to a local blacksmith. She’d moved into town until the wedding. Father gave up the last family money for a dowry in hopes that a decent merchant-class marriage, having a tradesman in the family, would give his other children more opportunities. But the blacksmith never came out to the farm, never accepted their invitations, stayed remote and only called out Rochelle a few times before the wedding – a ceremony held many miles away, to which they were not even invited. Their last hope misspent, the family disintegrated completely.
Departure day came quickly for the boys. Rafe and Gywn woke up early before the heat and prepared to set out on foot, having no ride and no money. They left a dour yet restrained farewell in the kitchen of the ramshackle farmhouse soon to be repossessed. No one wanted to acknowledge they’d likely never see each other again. Rafe kissed his mother and shook his father’s hand; they bundled up a few pieces of hard cheese and dry bread with some extra clothes and that was it. His older brothers were gone already and his sisters were leaving tomorrow. No one cried; such was fate.
Out onto the dusty highway, into the glare of a bright and rising day, Rafe and Gywn began their trek, trudging single file, not speaking, heads down. Many miles to go with nothing to think about except sadness and worry. An uninvited journey into an unpredictable future. Nothing to do but follow the path under their feet. Carriages and riders cruised past on occasion. But no one would pick up two poor dirty orphans. They camped each night off the side of the road; picked wild radishes – snared the occasional rabbit, but were generally hungry. It was not a new feeling; no reason to complain aloud. Only one night when they found a bountiful patch of wild lopberries behind a nearby hillock did they actually feel content enough to talk about their favorite subject: the tales of Anthelisis, the legendary hunter and adventurer whom they both admired. Now they were on an adventure of their own, but there was no glory in simply walking all day companioned only by worry and hunger. The summertime highway was notched and uneven. Too many storms the previous winter and no repair since; carts cutting grooves in mud which later hardened. They walked on the grassy shoulder, accompanied occasionally by a stagnant and meandering canal. Troops of men on horseback would occasionally storm by at speed, forcing Rafe and Gywn to retreat into the reeds to remain untrampled. Conscription soldiers and mercenaries marched their way to marshal jobs in the East or battles in the South. Merchant caravans loaded with vendables moved slowly past, protected by armed escorts. Wanderers and migrants came by on occasion looking more ragged than even the two poor brothers. Rafe felt weak and exposed, as though his strength was retreating from him; like a season without rain, he felt the lack – the pain of a vital absence. He had no home now, and no reassurance. Like a fresh wound just beginning to throb as the initial shock subsided – realizing the pain was here to stay; your attention not easily distracted. Hunger, sorrow and fatigue slowly grew atop the pile of worry. But he fought the oppression of ill thoughts, forcing himself to think of escape and opportunity. By the third day he had to talk about it, figuring (and hoping) that Gywn, who was two years his junior, would be feeling likewise or worse. “We could leave within a month,” he suggested. “When we find better work. We can run away. There’s no reason we’re forced to stay. Father gave him no money.” “I guess...” “We don’t have to stick around, if we don’t want – is all I’m saying. Once we know the area we’ll know where to go. There’s opportunity in the East, so they say.” “Because it’s captured land.” “Yeah but–” “If war starts again, we’ll be living in the streets.” “But we could get city jobs and city rooms. We’d make money, and stay in a boardinghouse or an inn, with cooks and people who wash your clothes for you.” “We know nothing except farming. What jobs would we get?” “We’ll become tradesman. We’ll get trained at something – ironwork or wheels or tanning.” “Dad tried to find us real apprentice trades. There was nothing. No one wanted us. Butchers and blacksmiths have their own sons. Or they go get kids with some schooling. Not like us.” “But there’s loads of jobs in the cities. That’s what everyone says,” replied Rafe, though he really wasn’t sure himself, and had no great rejoinder for Gywn, who was probably right. But Rafe wasn’t going to give up his hopes so easily – he could imagine his life in town quite clearly: working in a shop with his home above it, looking out over some bustling, exciting city street full of energetic city-people. Having a cook maybe, and a maid! Buying stuff. Like new clothes and copper lamps, knit rugs and maybe even a tapestry like that one he’d seen once in a tavern: plump happy people looking over green fields full of sun – exactly like that – he could imagine the good life so clearly. Rafe remained busy daydreaming as the long road inched by, stomped down step by step as the brothers plodded their way across each potent sun-filled afternoon. When they needed a break they slid down the grassy sides of the canal or sat in the shade of the occasional tree. The weather was quite hot, though bearable, and life would’ve been alright if they’d had a bit more food and weren’t forced to concentrate on their circumstances – which they did, unrelentingly.
By the end of the week there was nothing left of their food but one tough heal of bread, which they shared, along with a few wild carrots happened upon that morning. They sat and munched away in silence. The effort of chewing the dry bread and thin roots seemed to take more energy than it gave, but it was comforting simply to produce saliva. Rafe figured they’d reach the house of the wizard by tomorrow evening – hopefully they’d be fed.
All his short life Rafe had been worried about food. Although the heart of the Red Thistle was edible, the plant was primarily grown for its fiber. The twenty acres of it surrounding his home were of no use to his belly until harvest – that single dreadful month when the whole family ate nothing but thistle-hearts for every meal. The hardest time of the year, when they toiled long days in the field reaping the thorny plants for sale at the market. All nine of his family out in the sweltering heat, every late summer he could remember, reaping and bundling the dry prickly bushes until their hands bled. They grew a small vegetable garden next to the house, but the more land they devoted to thistles, the more money they made. If the price of Red Thistle was high that year, the winter would go by alright – enough blankets, enough lamp oil, enough meat and firewood. But the price never seemed high enough – at least according to their father; and it was all he ever talked about. The breakdown began when Rafe was eight years old. That terrible year of early spring flooding, followed by a long summer drought. That was the only year the price of Red Thistle actually was quite high – the year their entire crop failed. In order to survive, their father was forced to sell his land to a local baron, who allowed them to remain in their house and farm it, but took their profit ever afterward. Rafe’s father had originally acquired the land through a homesteading grant when the king opened up that area to settlers following the war. His father had been very proud to own land, as no one in his family ever had before. And after he lost his ownership of it, hardships only seemed to increase. Rafe and his siblings ate less and worked more, while bearing their father’s increasingly poor spirits and quickening temper. The only fun Rafe knew was in a brief period between the work of the springtime planting and the arrival of the autumn harvest. There were two months when the weather was nice, the garden was fresh and plentiful; the young thistles were growing, and there wasn’t much work to do. He’d play in the river with his brothers and their dog, trying to forget the rest of the year during which he was either too exhausted to play, too cold to think, or too hungry to move.
The next day Rafe and Gywn found the turnoff, veering from the main road onto an overgrown and neglected narrow lane, which turned them away from an upcoming town. Rafe, having slightly better eyesight than his brother, could just make out the church steeple in the distance and felt he could nearly smell the marketplace – though it might have been more desire than reality. As they turned away from the main road he felt it was the same ruinous turn their lives were taking. At the fork there was an ancient Kwoti statue, as was the old tradition. Travelers were meant to say a specific incantation at the shrine and if they spoke it correctly, with an earnest heart, they were rewarded with a coin from its stone mouth. “I’m going to do it,” said Rafe, because he thought he knew the incantation. “What a waste of time!” said Gywn, “I’m starving and the sun is going down. I don’t want to spend another night on the road.” “I’ll do it quickly.” “It won’t work.” Rafe knelt in front of the icon. Weeds were overgrowing it, for people did not often pray at the Kwoti anymore. He brushed aside the vines and ripped up the long grass. Then he began the chant. He tried his best to concentrate, to enunciate the older words clearly. The incantation was short but had to be repeated ten times. Gywn sat down with a sigh and waited, throwing pebbles into a ditch. Rafe visualized his future, a bright path through the world; all his dreams and desires. Kwoti heard the hopes of travelers best – someone searching for a new adventure or a comfortable rest – or simply a fresh start. At the end of the tenth recitation Rafe opened his eyes. Nothing had happened, but he tried to stay focused on his desires: the happy life, a city life, a productive trade and money. He stared into the carved oval eyes of the little statue in front of him. It looked like a cross between a person and a lizard. Its pockmarked stone skin was worn by years of rain and snow, hard summers and cold winters. He didn’t move. A fly alighted on one of the Kwoti’s blank eyes. It’s not working he thought to himself... but then quietly and slowly the lever mouth did slide open. Rafe was ecstatic, he yelped, jumping up to get the coin. But when he felt inside the little recessed area, it was empty. There were only cobwebs. He poked around with his finger, but nothing. “I told you,” said Gywn. “It opened, didn’t it?” “But it’s supposed to give out a coin.” “Well, it’s old. But it opened! I said the prayer right, and that’s good luck.” “Whatever. Let’s go.” “Alright,” said Rafe, happy for a sign of even small favor. They turned down the overgrown sideway toward their own new and unknown fate, not expecting much reward.
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