Chapter 1: The Orphan
Valant rested the tang of the scythe against the newly cut grass and stretched the muscles in his back and arms. He’d been at it all morning like he had for three days in a row, and he’d had just about enough. As the blacksmith’s apprentice, Valant was used to long hours of hard work. Working the bellows all night to keep the furnace going so the iron inside the crucible turned to steel was exhausting. Beating the steel ingots for hours on end to force them into the shape of swords or pieces of plate armor equally punishing. The hours of weapons training Rijek put him through utterly unforgiving. Swinging the scythe was just dull—and terribly hot.
The late summer sun was slowly crawling toward its zenith, burning so brightly it was nearly impossible to work during the mid-day hours. He had pulled off his shirt and left it with his sandals, but it hadn’t helped much. Valant’s hair was soaked in sweat. From there, it seeped down his face, getting into the eyes, stinging. Trying to wipe it away only made things worse. Chest and back were equally slick with perspiration, and the breeches were starting to feel like he’d gone swimming in the river.
Yesterday there had been a breeze, but today the air was still. There was no respite from the heat. He looked around, trying to find 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 cool drink fresh from the deep well.
There had been several rainstorms over the past few weeks, highly unusual for this time of year. The grass was growing like weeds as a result. It was a boon for the village, no animal would 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, battleaxes and pikes for the most part. 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—little more than a dim memory now.
Around the dark-haired apprentice, spread across the field, other men were doing their part, cutting down the grass that would be winter feed for the livestock. 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 himself, with his big greying beard and sky-blue eyes, and his oldest son and heir, Haran. Of the other three, two were men of the village, like Valant, who helped during the harvest, cutting grass for fodder, and such. The last man, Villeroy, was one of Lord Whitebridge’s tenants, come to help in exchange for free meals, ale, and a few coins. The man was 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 villager.
Haran’s strawberry blond head came up, and he lowered his scythe 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 just got deeply tanned, which wasn’t very fashionable, but much better than getting all red and miserable.
“Yeah,” 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. “My sister probably decided it was too hot and went swimming. Can’t say I blame her.”
Valant leaned on the scythe. They weren’t supposed to break until the group leader called it, but he was parched—and thoroughly fed up. “I need a drink,” he said, talking rather than shouting now. “If the girls won’t bring the river, 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 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 haven’t had a drink of water in like forever. I’m going.” He propped the scythe against the dry stone wall that kept the livestock out of the field.
“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 like half the grass I have,” Valant said. “Your old man won’t like that. In fact, I can see it clearly before me, 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 almost like the old man. “He means it well, Haran. He’s just better with the earth and animals than he is people. 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 Old Man Traver’s children. Their mother had died giving birth to Darya, and it had taken the widower nearly ten years to remarry. When he finally did, his blushing bride turned out to be blessed by Anena. Between them, they now had three boys and two girls between the age of eight and two. Haran chewed his lower lip a bit. “How about you help me out after?” he said.
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 done.” 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,” Valant told him. “Unless they are bathing. If they are, I’ll hide and watch,” he 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. “I’m coming with you. To the Pit with Old Man Travers and that shrew of a step-mother.”
“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 pasture towards the river. They passed some cows lounging in the shadow of a 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 animals. The big animals were dripping wet from a recent dip in the river.
Valant halted and put out an arm to stop his friend. “The cattle have been bathing. The girls aren’t down there.”
“Upstream?” There were some good spots not far downstream, but the girls had probably headed the other way with the cows and all. It was harder going, but with the added benefit of not risking being seen by the villagers.
“Yeah,” Valant agreed. “They want to swim. It’s too hot for just 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, 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. He folded it across Haran’s head and tied it in place using the sleeves. The front of the shirt fell down Haran’s neck and back, shielding him from the sun.
“I feel stupid,” Haran said.
“Strange way to say ‘thank you.’ But better stupid than boiled alive, my 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.”
“How come you never get burned by the sun?” Haran said as they made their way along the path that wound between the elms, oaks, and beeches on the riverbank.
Valant shrugged. “Dark of eye, dark of hair, dark of skin, beloved of Vedia, Goddess of the Sun. That’s how the rhyme 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 tanned like 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, all right, but he 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.
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 hiding in the deep. Pure nonsense, but peasants were a superstitious lot, and 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 sovereign 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’s blacksmith, the gold-fever always won out over common sense.
So it was that Valant grew up in the village, and 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 of your grandparents had been born in the village or on one of the nearby freeholds, you would never be a local. Rijek would know. Twenty years and he was still an outsider.
“Hello, Gaia calling Valant,” Haran shouted over the roar of the waterfall.
“Are you in there?”
“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. 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.
They weren’t supposed to be bathing in the plunge pool. Supposedly 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. However, no one seemed to know the name of the deceased, 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 shore,” Valant called to his friend, sounding more confident than he really was.
Calling Haran afraid always had the same predictable 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? Maybe there really was a malign spirit dwelling in the deep? “And now that we’ve cooled off, we can climb up and find us some naked girls,” Valant said and splashed water on his companion.
Above the waterfall, the river was full of rocks and twisted back and forth, but here and there were these large, deep pools that were perfect for bathing without being seen—if you could be bothered to make the trek.
“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.”