Rodon is the country of fortune tellers where fortune tellers have existed for the last couple of centuries to serve the Kingdom. In Rodon we already know what kind of life we will have, who will be our friend, who we are going to marry, how many children we will have, how and when we are going to die. Here everyone knows what is waiting for them and makes decisions based on that. Everyone, apart from myself, and my twin sister, Alana.
For the beginning of summer, it was a very hot day today in our seaside city where it was hot all the time and the temperature in the smithy did not help either. My family’s huge workshop stood on one side of the plot and we used only half of this building as a smithy, the other half was kept for practising our craft with wooden dummies and wooden weapons. Because of the weather conditions, I was working in short trousers and had just finished a knife which had been ordered for tomorrow’s wedding when the warning bells started to ring. Shirela, the fortune teller of our city had already notified everyone that the tax collectors were coming today, I hoped that my sister was somewhere around.
I stopped my work and pushed the old anvil aside to open the door of the hideaway beneath it which stood in semi-darkness at the side of the smithy. Alana, my twin sister had just arrived, her beautiful, long blond hair was tied up and completely covered with a grey kerchief. Her long, grey sackcloth covered her body everywhere hiding her real shape.
She had light skin, gold blond hair, blue eyes and a short feminine slender shape which completely differed from the tall, dark-skinned local people in our city and province. When we were young her different appearance was subject to ridicule and derision and she has not changed her dresses ever since. All our family were different from the local people, but I never had long beautiful hair and the people in the city owe a lot to my family. I became tall like my father and my uncle and as a blacksmith’s apprentice, I developed a wide back. Alana was like my mother, I had dark blond hair like my father. I did not stand out from the crowd as much as Alana, even the sun made me more tanned than her because she sat a lot inside the house to avoid the ridicule.
‘Hurry,’ I said to my sister, ’not much time left.’
‘I know,’ she said while she lay down in the casket size place which was covered with a blanket and contained two short swords.
I closed the floor of the trapdoor which was pierced with small holes and pulled the old anvil back.
We dug this place many years ago together with my father and my uncle to hide my sister from the tax collectors so that they would forget about her. We were able to pay the necessary tax all the time, but my sister’s appearance was more and more eye-catching even with her grey and brown dresses and my mother never wanted to risk her daughter’s life. For the last couple of years, every tax collector had thought that my sister was dead and luckily the people in our city kept their mouth shut as well. Anyway, I doubt that anyone would have been able to find her apart from me and my family.
I had just finished pulling the anvil back, when the noises from outside showed that the four tax collectors had arrived. I unhooked the bag I had prepared from my belt and went outside to the front of the house.
Our plot was at the end of a cul-de-sac surrounded by a tall stone wall and the back of our garden was washed by the sea. The rest of the houses in the city did not have walls or fences at all, but my parents decided to hide the secrets of the smithy and Alana felt safe all the time at home.
When she was mocked as a child, she took refuge at home and read all our books. As of today, there is no book in our city which she has not read at least twice.
The houses did not have fences, the boundary lines were obvious to everyone all the time. The streets were paved, the shorter streets were looked after by the citizens. People travelled on horseback; many families bred horses. In our hot weather all the rubbish very quickly became smelly, so we kept the streets cleaned and the rubbish was collected by one family from the whole city who burned it once a week. It was the job of that family and everyone in the city paid them.
In our city, no one lacked anything, the vexation of tax collectors brought the people together. We helped each other with food, clothes, even money. My family was working a lot of the time for free or on credit but many of them were never paid off. From what I heard the tailor and the baker did the same. We did not have city guards in the city. If someone was caught for theft or something similar, the citizens would take the thief to the royal guard post nearby or they could solve the issue amongst each other. Due to the oppression of the tax collectors, we solved these crimes inside the city and preferred to give the thief a job to do.
‘Aleron,’ the leader of the tax collectors was fat like a swine, he sweated all the time and never got off his horse to assert his authority.
He had dark skin, like everyone else, but he was a bit younger than my father.
His yellow-green cloak with the royal coat of arms surrounded his disgusting body. The royal coat of arms was a portrayal of a sun partially covered with a crown above a tree.
‘Here is our monthly tax, sir.’ I handed the bag with the same number of coins as last month over.
‘I’m afraid that it will not be enough,’ the swine was sarcastic, ‘His majesty decreed that the price should go up.’
‘How much?’ I stayed calm, my uncle would never allow me to draw a sword to attack these people even though they deserved it.
‘By two silver coins,’ the man said with a lowly grin, ’if your sister were alive, you could save the tax for a couple of months.’
‘I’ll bring the money,’ I said and went back to the smithy.
I hurried back to the workshop and with a loud cough I gave Alana a sign that she should stay still. I took two silver coins from another bag and took a quick look at my swords wondering whether to use them. My father and my uncle forbade me many years ago to kill the tax collectors, they chose instead continual hiding and humiliation. I went out to the street with a sigh.
‘Please do not take her,’ our neighbour, Corul shouted who worked as a tailor to raise her daughter, Inula.
The man was walking with a stick and his daughter meant everything to him. Inula was a year younger than me and Alana, she had dark skin with black curly hair and looked a bit fatter than a couple of months ago. In this heat, she was wearing very colourful shorts and a top, like everyone else of our age. The girl sat in the sand in their garden and objected loudly to the tax collector while he was tying her wrist with a rope.
‘Last year she was in a different shape,’ one tax collector noted, while he was forcing Inula to stand up and move.
‘Please give me a day and I’ll collect the additional coins,’ Corul begged.
‘She will not come to any harm,’ the swine on the horse grinned, ’we will bring her back as soon as she pays your debt.’
The tax collector was tying Inula to his horse when a swinging blade cut the rope directly next to the girl’s wrist.
‘Here are your two silver coins,’ My uncle’s voice filled the street while he walked to our house, ‘the girl stays here.’ My Uncle gave the coins to the swine.
My uncle was a very tall, strong big man and when he was angry like now, his voice made many people shake. With his long dark blond beard and long hair, in general he commanded authority. He scared Alana and made her cry many times as a child without meaning to. Our father looked similar my uncle, but he had short hair and his shaved face never scared his daughter.
‘So be it,’ the swine said, ‘try to collect enough money for the next month, blacksmith and be happy that your brother’s daughter is dead as next month nothing would be able to save her.’
‘She is in a better place already,’ my uncle said.
The three tax collector sat on their horses and rode out from the city following the swine.
‘Thank you Shiveron,’ Corul said to my uncle, ‘I’ll pay it back.’
‘It does not matter,’ my uncle said, ‘you can make a few nice dresses for Alana.’
‘Which she would never accept,’ Corul said with smile while the two men were shaking hands.
‘I thought that you were visiting Shirela regularly,’ I said to Inula while I was helping her to get up from the ground.
She was indeed slimmer a couple of months ago, probably she wanted to protect herself from the tax collectors.
‘I’m visiting her,’ Inula said, ‘she told me a couple of months ago to hide myself today as they will try to take me, but we collected every coin, so I did not believe it.’
‘Shirela is never wrong,’ my uncle said, ‘when you are visiting her, you should listen.’
I went back to the smithy and let my sister out from her hiding place. When I opened the floor, my sister’s swords were in her hand, laid on her belly. She was scared and prepared for everything.
‘You did not whistle,’ she said, ‘and I waited longer than usual.’
‘The prices went higher again, and they almost took Inula.’ I told her the whole story.
‘Soon there will be no one who does not owe something to our Uncle.’ she smiled.
‘No,’ I said, ‘but at least you will be safe.’
‘Do we have time until dinner?’ I asked my sister.
‘For the lessons today, I received roast meat and bread, so there is not much to prepare.’
Our mother used to work as a teacher until her death last year and she taught us to read, to write, to count and all about herbs, but Alana was only interested in that. From our parents, we learned etiquette and dances, but dance was not one of our strengths. Alana worked as a teacher with our mother already but when my mother became sick, she took over all her students. Some children came to our house, but sometimes Alana went to the children. When Shirela had predicted the visit of the tax collectors, she never left our plot.
‘So, we have time until dinner,’ I looked at my sister’s blades, ‘we can practise a bit.’
‘I’m in,’ my sister said with a smile and took off her sackcloth to practise in a short and a top, which was under her cloth. Now she dressed like everyone else here.
We went to the empty part of the smithy, I took a long wooden sword for myself from the shelf and gave two wooden short swords to my sister and started to practise.
My uncle and my father were great swordsmen, they taught us to use the blades since we were small children. Because Alana was skinny and short, she used all the time two short swords, I used one long sword, as most of the soldiers do in Rodon.
I liked to practise with my sister. In the city, no one was as proficient a swordsman, as my Uncle, father, Alana and I. Around a year ago, a couple of days after my mother’s death our father left us. He said that he would explain the reason when we meet again but since then we have not heard of him. Since last year we have lived only with our Uncle.
‘Alana,’ we heard our Uncle’s voice from the door, ‘keep your left arm higher, don’t leave your shoulder so unprotected.’
Our Uncle picked up a wooden dagger from the shelf and joined us practising. He decided to attack my sister and he kicked out her leg to make her fall.
‘Aleron never does such a thing,’ he said, ‘but these tricks can be expected during a fight.’
Alana stood up quickly and fought with determination, but she was in a difficult situation fighting against both of us. We attacked her until she was not able to stand up because my uncle pointed his dagger at her throat.
‘It was not an equal fight,’ my sister said with a smile, while I was helping her to stand up.
‘A real fight is never equal,’ my uncle was serious, ‘let’s go and prepare for dinner, Shirela will arrive soon.’
My sister put her sackcloth on and left the smithy to prepare the dinner at our house on the other side of the plot. I walked to our courtyard which was connected directly to the sea and into our stable and paddock to feed our four horses. Apart from them, we did not have any other animals. If I had a chance, I rode them daily. Alana never joined me, as she never left our city apart from the full-moon festival. When the sea reached our plot, the horses were never in danger, my family had constructed everything carefully. Our well was near the smithy to carry the water easily.
I fed the four mares, we did not have the heart to release my mother’s horse after her death, so we kept her. After the jobs were done in the stable, I walked back to our house near my sister’s herb seedlings which was encircled by a rope, so that we did not step on them accidentally. The herbs were planted based on their light requirements, but now only Alana was able to take care of them.
Our house was not big at all, we used the huge space behind the entrance as a kitchen and dining room. We had five rooms facing in three directions, my parent’s room, my uncle’s room, the bathroom and our room with Alana. Our room with Alana was supposed to be one room, but after our birth, they built a wall in the middle and another door to divide it. The candlesticks which hung from the ceiling provided better light than in any other house as our candlesticks had small mirrors to scatter the light further. Our floor was covered with wood, in other houses the ground was not covered to help to cool the heat down. Our bathroom was also different from the rest, as they boiled water outside and poured into their tub. We had metal containers outside the house which we filled with water in the morning and during the hot days it became warm. We used pipes high up which were controlled by pedals to allow the water to drain on to our skin from the containers. Based on our house we seemed wealthier than we were.
When I arrived, Alana had just finished preparing everything and my Uncle returned from the cellar with some vegetables. The cellar door was near the entrance and as many other families, we kept the food there to keep it fresher. I had just finished washing my hands when Shirela arrived.
She was only two years younger than my uncle, she was taller than my sister and she had dark skin with long, black curly hair. She was a nice woman who smiled a lot and she was wearing colourful shorts and a sleeveless top. As they grew older, women showed less and less their upper body, apart from my sister, as based on her dresses she looked like the oldest grandmother here. Everyone could recognize that Shirela was a fortune-teller as she had a thick leather strap round her neck with a wooden medallion of the tree of fate and supposedly it was sculptured from the tree of fate itself. Every fortune-teller showed with similar pride a visible sign of their skills.
‘Just on time, as always,’ my uncle smiled at Shirela and gave her a gentle kiss.
‘Please, sit down,’ my sister indicated the usual chair in front of my uncle.
We shared the meat, the bread and the vegetables around the table and started to eat.
‘Thank you for mentioning the arrival date of the tax collectors,’ Alana said it today as she did every month.
‘No problem,’ Shirela said, ‘I’m here to help.’
‘Are you not afraid that they will attack you?’ I asked, ‘as you can predict them coming, they are less able to abuse their power.’
‘To kill or even attack a fortune teller is treason with an immediate death sentence,’ my uncle said it as a fact.
‘The other fortune tellers would feel it immediately as the tree would tell them,’ Shirela said with a smile, ‘Aleron,’ she looked at me, ‘are you waiting for the full-moon festival in two weeks?’
The full-moon festival is organized during every full-moon, every month and the cities which are close to each other meet together in a glade in the forest and sell their products to each other. Our festival embraces four cities and it is the main income for many families as it happens every month it helps everybody’s finances.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’m already making the knives and daggers which I’m planning to sell.’
‘I’m selling my herbs as usual,’ Alana smiled, ‘no one knows them apart from me, I always receive good money for that.’
‘Are you joining in the sword race?’ Shirela asked kindly, but as a fortune teller, she knew for sure.
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘Hopefully I’ll win again.’
‘No-one has beaten you for many years,’ Alana smiled, ‘They should just give you the prize,’ She laughed.
‘Shirela, will Aleron win again?’ Alana turned to our guest.
‘Alana,’ my uncle was calm for the time being, ‘we had discussed this already many years ago.’ Alana nodded quietly.
‘I do not understand why we cannot know anything about our future like everyone else.’ I said.
‘I do not want to talk about this topic again,’ my uncle was decisive, ‘mine and your parents’ lives were thrown into chaos by fake prophecies, we will not let it happen to any of you,’ He stood up to wash his plate in a tub.
‘If I do not know whether I will win, others can know,’ I said.
‘Your decisions are influencing your fate,’ Shirela said, ‘we can only see what is possible at this moment.’
‘Good,’ I was sarcastic and stood up too, ‘in my age group everyone has a partner, apart from me because I do not know whom I should court.’
‘A girl who you like,’ my uncle wanted to close the discussion, ‘Do not court because of a prophecy, court because you decide to do so.’
‘But the girl will refuse me because she will know that I’m not her fate,’ I said, ‘How can I live my life if everyone knows about their future apart from Alana and me?’
‘Simply just try it!’ My uncle shouted, the walls almost shook, ‘End of discussion. Shirela, you know that you are always welcome in my house, but if you say anything to the twins, we are done,’ My uncle shut the entrance door behind him with anger.
‘They never told us anything,’ Alana said to Shirela after the door was shut, ‘we do not even know what this fake prophecy is. They never explained why I was so different, and they always said that it was not our business.’
‘You should think only about your future,’ Shirela smiled kindly, ‘do you know what the tree of fate which helps us to see into the future and past looks like?’
‘No,’ Both of us shook our heads, ‘what does it look like?’ I asked.
‘It is beautiful, but I have seen it only a couple of times,’ Shirela spoke it with sincere admiration, ’but it is not an ordinary tree. The branches branch off from its trunk, but every branch relates to other branches, there is no free part at the end of any branch. The fates relate to each other and if it is important it will divert back where it originally should be.’
‘Do you know everything about us?’ Alana asked quietly and hesitantly.
‘As soon as I answer your uncle will open the door,’ Shirela smiled.
The door opened and my uncle came in calmed down.
‘I will walk Shirela home,’ he said, ‘Please clean up and go to sleep, it is late.’
‘Good Night,’ Shirela said and walked out of the entrance.
The couple closed the door behind them. Alana washed the dishes in the tub, I cleaned myself in the bathroom.
‘I do not understand why they are doing this,’ Alana sighed.
‘Me neither,’ I said.
‘Inula will get engaged during the next full-moon festival,’ Alana said, ‘she told me yesterday.’
‘It will not be a big surprise,’ I said.
‘No,’ Alana smiled, ‘but at least she has someone who is courting her. So far no one has ever told me that I would be his in the future,’ she sighed, ‘some girls of my age already have children.’
‘Who would like to want a pale person like you,’ I teased her with the sentence which was used most often to mock her, ‘Believe me, one day someone will ride in the city saying that you belong together. Marry him,’ I hugged her, she laughed.
‘You understand romance very well,’ she smiled, ‘are you riding today as well?’
‘I’ll be here at dawn before our Uncle’s return,’ I promised.
‘Please be careful, Aleron, you almost got caught last week,’ my sister was serious.
‘Hopefully, Shirela will protect me,’ I said, while I was putting on trousers and a shirt, ‘did you prepare the potion?’
‘It is in your room, as usual,’ Alana said, ‘I don’t want to be an auntie yet.’
‘We agreed that we would have a family together, remember?’ I teased her.
‘I do,’ she laughed, ‘but in my case, there is even less chance. Drink the potion.’
My sister withdrew to the bathroom. I went to the stable to saddle my mother’s horse. I rode through the meadow where the festival is organized every month to get to our neighbouring city. This city was by the sea as well, everything looked very similar to our city. I rode along a cul-de-sac to a tavern which had a huge iron fence with an iron gate. The carriage was one of my best assignments last year and the weekly payment was acceptable but if my uncle had known about it, he would probably have killed me.
I stopped my horse and left her in one of the open paddocks near the entrance. I drank my sister’s potion, I knew how long it took to work. I entered the tavern where a big man like me sat near the door watching the dancing girls. Girls in shorts and tops were dancing in front of the entrance while an old man was playing on his violin. The dance was more about movement than about perfection. On the left near the bar, men sat with girls on their laps before they went up the stairs on the right. In the middle, everyone sitting by the round tables could watch the dance.
‘Aleron,’ a dark-skinned, very beautiful woman, who was taller than Alana and had long black hair greeted me.
She had the same dress as everyone else but it was a bit tight. She owned this tavern as a family business, but it was not worth keeping as a traditional tavern, so Gaina changed the type of service. Since I came here, I had only met up with her. At the beginning, I thought that our relationship was based on love, but since then I realized that it cannot be love.
‘Gaina,’ I cuddled her before we walked up into her room. I did not spend time downstairs having a drink as I always had to arrive home earlier than my uncle.
Her room showed love everywhere, red walls, beautiful huge curtains, and a huge bed. Gaina was way more experienced than me, so she taught me all the time something new. She never rushed. She always spent time listening to me.
‘Have you thought about settling down?’ I asked while she brought me a drink.
‘I’ll,’ she laid back next to me, ‘in around two years I’ll close this tavern down and leave for the Eastern province to meet my husband.’
‘Why not now?’ I asked, ‘You do not have to wait just because your fortune teller said so.’
‘Because the man is not a widow yet and I should wait until the end of the mourning period,’ she laughed.
‘Have you ever thought of going somewhere different from where your fortune teller suggested?’
‘Why would I do that? I will be happy with that man and he will never find out my current life. I will not risk everything for something uncertain. You still cannot know your future, can you?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said, ‘Shirela promised my family she would not tell us our future but sometimes I would question her.’
‘Go to our fortune teller in this city,’ she said, ‘He could tell you anything.’
’There must be a reason that it should be so, ’I said, ‘I respect my parent’s request, but sometimes it is just difficult.’
‘If you knew your future, you would never confess your love to me,’ she laughed, ‘that was funny.’
‘Thank you for not humiliating me,’ I laughed too.
‘I’m sure that someone is waiting for you in the outside world. I’d say to write to me when you find it out, but probably I’ll already be in the east.’
‘Are you not afraid that your future husband will find out your current life?’ I asked.
‘As you know with adults without permission only official information can be shared from their pasts, like height, weight, appearance, age and similar information.’
‘The council of fortune tellers set up the rules very well,’ I said, ‘I need to leave soon.’
‘You can stay for a while,’ she smiled before kissing me.
When I left the tavern only a couple of people were watching the remaining dancers. I rode home quickly, and I was lucky as my uncle had not arrived home yet.
Alana slept and her room door was open as always when she was home alone. Half awake she was going to reach for her swords on the floor, but I started to whistle, and she fell back to sleep. Our father and uncle raided us many times with a sudden night practice, so we got used being woken up by some noises already. My whistle made her calm, knowing that it was only me.