Chapter 1: The Apprentice
Valant rested the blackened tang of the old scythe against the newly cut grass and stretched the weary muscles in his back and arms. As the blacksmith’s apprentice, the young man was used to long hours of hard work. Pumping the bellows all night to keep the furnace going. Beating the steel ingots into swords and pieces of armor. The weapons training Rijek put him through every Restday. But those tasks had a purpose. Something to show for your labors at the end of the day. A blade forged or a parrying technique perfected. Endlessly swinging the scythe back and forth, back and forth was just mind-numbingly boring—and terribly hot.
The fiery orb of the late summer sun was slowly crawling across the cloudless azure sky, nearing its zenith, burning so brightly it was nearly impossible to work in the fields during the mid-day hours. Yesterday had been hot too, but not nearly as bad. Yesterday there had been a breeze. Today the air was deathly still. There was no respite from the oppressive heat.
Valant had pulled off his shirt and left it with the sandals, but that hadn’t helped much. The young man’s hair was soaked in sweat. From there, it seeped down his face and into his eyes, stinging. Trying to wipe it away only made things worse. His chest and back were equally slick with perspiration. The cotton breeches were starting to feel like he’d gone swimming in the river. In short, it was unbearable.
The blacksmith’s apprentice looked around, trying to locate his friend Darya or one of the other girls, but they weren’t around. Maybe they’d gone after more water. Valant hoped so. He was dying for a drink fresh from the village well. He closed his eyes, feeling the cool water in his mouth, on his face, running through sweat-soaked hair and down his back. When the young man opened his eyes, there was only the sun burning relentlessly from high above.
Valant looked around, taking in the view. There was the village of Stelmond, with the old wall running around it, surrounded by green summer woods and verdant fields as far as the eye could see. Over the past few weeks, there had been several rainstorms followed by long rows of warm, sunny days. Highly unusual weather for this time of year. The grass was growing like weeds as a result. It was a boon for the village—the livestock would not go hungry this winter—but it meant more work for everyone.
As if there wasn’t enough to do already. Late summer, before the harvest began, was usually a time for much-needed relaxation. This year, however, Valant had been kept busy in the smithy forging weapons. Now he was out in the fields hacking down straws for half the day—and then he worked with metals until late in the evening. The last time he’d had more than Godsday off was the three-day Midsummer festival. The food, the music, the dancing, the travelers, and the village girls all dressed up with ribbons in their hair.
Spread across the green field other men were doing their part. With a degree of satisfaction, Valant saw none of the others—old Travers included—had cut nearly as much as he. Only two of the men working the scythe were actually farmers. Travers with the grey beard and sky-blue eyes, and his oldest son and heir, Haran. Of the others, two were men of the village, like Valant. These were men with other professions, but in a village, everyone was expected to help out during harvests and other times of need. The last fellow, Villeroy, was one of Lord Whitebridge’s tenants, come to help in exchange for free meals, ale, and a few coins. The man was a good worker, but ill-tempered, big-mouthed, and foul-smelling. Valant tried as best he could to stay well clear of him.
“Hey, Haran,” Valant called out to the closest man, loud enough for the other boy to hear without drawing the attention of the older men further down the field.
Haran’s strawberry blond head came up, and he lowered his scythe—blade bright and shiny as only newly forged iron can be—to the ground before wiping his face with a soaked shirt sleeve. The Traverses all had fair skin and didn’t like the kiss of the sun too much. Valant, on the other hand, never got sunburned. He got deeply tanned, which wasn’t very fashionable, but much better than getting all red and miserable.
“What?” Haran called back, voice weary.
“Have you seen Darya?”
“Not for a while,” Haran replied, trying in vain to wipe the sweat from his pale, ruddy face. Valant fought the urge to do the same. “My sister probably decided it was too hot and went swimming. Can’t say I blame her.”
Valant leaned on the scythe, sweaty palms against the seasoned, smooth wood of the haft. They weren’t supposed to break until Travers called it, but the apprentice was parched—and thoroughly fed up. “I need a drink,” he said and ran his tongue over dry lips. “If the girls won’t bring water, I’ll have to go to it.”
“Father isn’t going to call it for a while yet,” Haran objected, turning his head to look towards a distant figure in a straw hat cutting the grass with measured strokes. “I swear, he likes to see us squirm under the sun.”
“Your father is as tough as they come,” Valant admitted. “But my patch is done, and I’m hot and parched.” He propped the scythe against the sagging stone wall that kept the livestock out of the field. “I’m going.”
“Wait up,” Haran called and headed over to where Valant was putting on his sandals. “I need a break too,” he said and put his own scythe next to Valant’s.
“You’ve only cut half of what I have,” Valant replied. “Your old man won’t like that. In fact, I can see you being chewed out for being such a weakling.”
Haran puffed up his chest and pretended to be his father. “Son, you’re a disgrace to the Travers family name. If you weren’t my only son and heir, I swear I’d turn you out.”
Valant chuckled at that. Haran did a good impersonation of his father—helped by the fact that he looked and sounded like his old man. “He means it well, Haran. He’s just better with the earth and animals than he is with people and words. Besides, you’ve got three brothers now, so if he really wanted, he could pick one of them.”
“Don’t be so sure he won’t,” Haran replied, suddenly glum. Haran and his sister, Darya, were the eldest of the old man’s children. Their mother had died giving birth to Darya, and it had taken the widower ten years to remarry. When he finally did, his blushing bride turned out to be blessed by Anena, the Queen of Gods. Besides Haran and Darya they now had three boys and two girls between the age of eight and two. Haran chewed his lower lip. “How about you help me out after?” he said. “Those long arms of yours will make short work of the recalcitrant straws.”
Valant shook his head. “Sorry, but afternoons I have to work for Rijek in the smithy. The Viscount of Whitebridge is expanding his guard. Put in a big order, and we’ve still got lots to do before it’s ready for delivery.” He finished by pushing damp strands of shoulder-length hair away from his face.
“Oh, right,” Haran said, voice bereft of hope.
“I’ll say hello to the girls for you. Unless they are bathing. If they are, I’ll hide and watch,” Valant said and picked up his shirt from the ground. Putting it on wasn’t very tempting, so he settled for tying it around his waist.
“You’re a wicked boy, Valant. Always getting me into trouble,” Haran said, laughing. It was hardly true; it was almost always the other way around. “I’m coming with you. To the Pit with Old Man Travers and that shrew of a stepmother.”
“That’s the spirit, my sunburned friend. Now, let’s go before your father sees us slacking and decides to check what we’re up to.”
The two boys, the blacksmith’s apprentice and the farmer’s son, slipped over the low stone wall and made their way across the lush pasture towards the river. They passed some red and white cows and their calves lounging in the shadow of the great oak. A couple of them mooed in recognition as Haran walked past. Valant’s friend didn’t handle the sun too well, but he had a way with livestock. The big animals were glistening, not with sweat as Vanlant and Daran were, but with water from a recent dip. The cows enjoyed cooling off in the river as much as humans did. They had worn a track across the green grass of the field, going back and forth between the river and the shade of the big tree.
Valant halted and put out an arm to stop his friend. “The cattle have been bathing. The girls aren’t down there.”
“Upstream?” Daran said. There were some good spots not far downstream, but the girls had probably headed the other way. The going was a bit harder that way, but upstream the water would be free of cow dung, with the added benefit of not risking being seen by the villagers.
“Yeah,” Valant agreed. “They’ll want to swim. It’s too hot for standing around in a dress, getting your pretty legs wet.”
“The stream pools above the waterfall?”
Valant nodded. “Before we go, let me help you sleep tonight.”
“What?” Haran replied, clearly confused.
“Your neck is turning blood red. One more hour and your head will catch fire. Stand still,” Valant ordered and pulled loose his shirt. It was made of the same nondescript cotton—cheaper but not as durable as linen—as the breeches, only a few shades lighter in color. He folded it across Haran’s head and tied it in place using the sleeves. The front of the shirt fell down his friend’s neck and upper back, shielding the sensitive skin from the merciless sun.
“I feel stupid,” Haran said.
“Strange way to say ‘thank you.’ But better stupid than boiled alive, my ruddy friend.”
“You could wear a hat, you know.”
Haran gave Valant a dark look. “A straw hat, like my father and the other old men? Never.”
Valant chuckled. “Point taken. Let’s go, or we’ll be too late to catch them bathing.”
“How come you never get burned by the sun?” Haran said as they made their way along a path that wound between the elms, oaks, and beeches studding the riverbank. To their right, the running water glittered in the sunlight. To their left lay the fields and meadows, small woods, and hillocks that belonged to the village.
Valant shrugged. “Dark of eye, dark of hair, dark of skin, beloved of Vedia, Goddess of the Sun. That’s how the saying goes, right?”
“I guess. But there are plenty of villagers who have brown eyes and dark hair. They don’t burn as easily as me, but none get as tanned as you, Valant.”
The blacksmith’s apprentice didn’t have an answer to that. Unlike Haran, whose family had lived in these parts for many generations, Valant’s own origins were a big unknown. Sixteen years ago, the villagers had found a small boy, barely old enough to walk, wandering the summer woods. The child was human but didn’t look like he belonged in the Highland Kingdom. His hair was black—unusual in these parts—eyes dark—that wasn’t all that uncommon—and sunkissed skin several shades darker than anyone else’s.
It was strange, indeed—a little boy wandering alone in the forest, with no sign of how he got there or from where he’d come. No one had wanted to take him in for fear he had something to do with the alfr of the forest, or worse, the tartars lurking in the deep. Pure nonsense, of course, but peasants were a superstitious lot. The villagers and freeholders of Stelmond were no exception.
Valant wondered, like he had many times before, what would have become of him if Rijek hadn’t jingled his purse, promising a gold five-sovereign—more money than most commoners could hope to earn in a year—each midsummer to whoever would take the boy. The lure of coin had proven more persuasive than fear of the unknown. According to the village blacksmith, the gold fever always won out over common sense.
So it was that Valant grew up in the village. When he was old enough, he became Rijek’s apprentice. But his past—or lack thereof—was never entirely forgotten. He had never been fully accepted and likely never would. Rijek had explained it to him when he was old enough to understand. Unless both your grandparents had been born in the village or on one of the nearby farms, you would never be a local. Rijek would know. Twenty years in the village and still an outsider.
“Valant!” Haran shouted over the roar of the waterfall.
“Are you still with me?”
“Sorry,” Valant said. “I was woolgathering.”
“More like the sun’s cooked the wits out of you.”
Valant stopped and looked at the plunge pool. It was wide and deep and cold, and with the water endlessly cascading down, you could never quite make out the bottom. The river was running pretty wild because of the rains, but it seemed too good an opportunity to pass over. “Let’s have a dip,” he told Haran.
“What about the girls?”
“They can wait,” Valant said, dropped his breeches, kicked off his sandals, and dove into the pool. The river was colder than he had expected, but nothing like it was in the spring when the winter snows were melting up in the Fangsfall Mountains. Valant pushed away from the bank.
“We can’t bathe there,” he heard Haran calling from the shore. There was a hint of something in the boy’s voice that Valant couldn’t quite pin down. Was it annoyance? Or concern?
They weren’t supposed to be bathing in the plunge pool. According to legend, a malign spirit dwelled there—a drowned human or a dryad, depending on who you asked. The village elders kept talking about that time when a girl—or maybe it was a boy, Valant didn’t remember—had been pulled under by the whirlpool and drowned. No one seemed to know the name of the deceased, however, so the blacksmith’s apprentice was inclined to think it an old story exaggerated by countless retellings.
Valant swam around the edge of the big pool, taking care not to be caught by the current, pulled into the sheet of falling water, and pushed under. He could feel the cold, dark water tugging, calling for him to join it down below. The young man turned around and took some vigorous strokes, back towards the bank. “I’m not a little girl, Haran. If you’re afraid, just stick to the edge,” Valant called to his friend, sounding more confident than he really was.
Calling Haran afraid always had the same effect. Within moments the farmer’s son was in the water, still with Valant’s shirt on his head. He stuck close to land and kept looking at the waterfall.
“See? You didn’t drown,” Valant chided, as much for his own benefit as Haran’s. The plunge pool really wasn’t a place to go swimming. Maybe the story about the drowned girl was true after all. Maybe there really was a malign spirit dwelling in the deep. Valant was not as sure as he had been. “And now that we’ve cooled off, we can climb up and find us some naked girls,” Valant said and splashed water at his companion.
“It’s my sister you’re talking about,” Haran warned, but there was no bite to his voice.
Valant pretended to think it over. “True. I’ll cut you a deal: I won’t look at Darya if you don’t look at any of the others. Shake on it?” He put out his hand for Haran to take.
“Very funny,” Haran replied and slapped the hand away. “Let’s go before the old man sends someone after us.”