Dinner at the Mayor’s House
“I bet she is in the hayloft again.”
“The people of Söderborg looked down upon their burning homes from the ridge of the mountains. All was quiet now. Even the wind held its breath. Flames licked up the walls of the castle and lashed out at the sky in fury. Pitch black clouds gathered on the navy canvas, announcing ash rain for weeks to come. Thorun turned to her fellows. The men, women, and children stood tense, their limbs quivering in the cold of night. Some let their heads hang in sorrow. Others looked upon their lost home in terror and grief. Thorun, however, felt no fear now that she had her sister by her side at long last.”
“Sylvia! I see you sitting up there!”
“Thorun stepped forward. The light from the raging fires below cast her shadow across the mountains, like the silhouette of a giant of old. In perfect silence, she gazed into the eyes of each man and each woman, one by one, and as their eyes met the fierce determination of Thorun, their fear burned up along with their former home. They could rebuild houses, entire cities even. What mattered was their lives. They were the proud survivors of Söderborg. It was in this moment that they became Fri.”
“Sylvia! Get down here right this moment!”
Groaning, Sylvia closed her book and stashed it into her backpack. She really did not want to go to the mill again. She had been there just a few days ago. It was not even her turn! Swinging her backpack over her shoulder, she crawled out from behind the bales of hay. She took a hold of the ladder and climbed down from the hayloft. Strolling out of the barn, she found her mother standing by the loaded wagon, arms crossed over her chest. Sylvia forced an innocent smile onto her face.
Elena was a stern woman. A great mother, no doubt, but strict as a priest, and in the habit of disciplining with extra chores and terrifying stares. The stares were by far worse. Even the bravest men quivered in their boots when Elena unleashed this formidable weapon, be it her husband or any of the men in the village. Not even the stoic craftsman Sepp was immune. When Sylvia came to a halt by the wagon, Elena gave her daughter one of these reprimanding stares. Sylvia tried and failed to keep the feelings of shame at bay.
“Look at you! You are a mess. I told you we would be leaving for town soon.”
“Cannot Maja go instead?”, Sylvia complained, while she let herself be subjected to a rough patting down.
Elena plucked any loose hay caught in the long dark braids, and in the lining of Sylvia’s clothes. Then she tugged at Sylvia’s dress, straightening the fine cloth out. Fixing her daughter with another firm stare, she declared, “We are all going. The mayor insisted we appear in full to have dinner.”
Sylvia perked up at once. Dinner at the mayor’s house was always a grand feast. She could not wait to fill her stomach with warm fatty food and sweet delights. Suddenly motivated to leave as soon as possible, she climbed onto the front bench of the wagon and made herself comfortable beside her father.
Markus was the polar opposite to his wife. He was soft and calm, and not in the habit of disciplining anyone at all. He barely kept the animals in check. The chickens could run wild and peck whatever they wished, even the vegetables in the field. He did not use a stick when he herded cattle. If a cow was not in the mood to walk, he put and arm over its back and spoke softly, until an agreement had been reached. He was curious and troublesome, and more often than not found himself on the receiving end of one of Elena’s scoldings.
Once Elena and Sylvia’s sisters, Maja and Alice, had made themselves comfortable among the load of grain in the back, Markus set the oxen into motion with a sharp tug on the reins and a loud ‘Pah!’.
Leaning against the hard backrest, Sylvia listened to the sound of gravel crunching under heavy hooves and wheels, to the wind ruffling through the trees, and to the occasional call of a blackbird echoing between them. There was something serene about the woods around Nyberg. The village was by no means loud, and the farm even less so, but it was in the rustling leaves of the woods that Sylvia found true calm. She hoped the mayor had not invited the millers to dinner as well. Then it would certainly not be a calm evening. With multiple marriages between the founding families, they spent quite a lot of time together, despite the obvious disinterest of all parties. At least Sylvia would not have to do any heavy lifting at the mill today, since Maja came along as well. Maja was much stronger than her anyway.
When the wagon rolled onto the fastened road, Markus held the reins out to his daughter. Sylvia raised an eyebrow. Nodding, Markus nudged her, and a bright grin spread over her face.
“You are nearly twenty. It is time you learn, unless you are planning to ride horseback all along the Great Rove.”
Sylvia’s shoulders tensed at the implication. She had never mentioned anything about leaving, but perhaps it did not need mentioning. She was no farmer, nor a craftsman, and she never would be. She was a scholar, and there was only so much you could learn by staying in the same place all your life. Her father had also travelled across the country in his twenties, before falling in love with a farmer’s daughter so very far from home. Sylvia took the leather reins and shifted to sit more centred on the bench. Nearing the intersection, she pulled the right side of the reins firmly, and the animals changed course, bringing their wagon around the corner.
“You have a talent for this”, Markus praised.
“Priest Ryther says there is no such thing”, Sylvia countered. “I have been watching you do it for years.”
Markus placed a hand on her head and chuckled. It was a deep, rumbling sound. “Then I suppose you have this under control.”
Climbing across the backrest, he stumbled over the wheat sacks, and into the body of the wagon itself. The girls laughed as he fell among them.
Elena shook her head. “You are hopeless.”
Grinning, Markus shrugged and took a seat beside his wife. He leaned against her and pressed an enthusiastic kiss to her cheek.
“That tickles”, Elena complained.
She made a half-hearted attempt to smooth out her husband’s beard. She knew the effort was in vain, but she liked the feel of his hair between her fingers. Pressing her nose against his cheek, she held up a hand to hide the kiss she placed on his fair skin. Sylvia smiled to herself at the smooching. As stern as Elena could be, she could also be equally adorable. Sylvia figured she had little to complain about. It was a good thing to grow up in a household that knew the meaning of love. It made for a strong soul that lies heavy in the chest.
Focusing on the road ahead, and the two beasts now under her control, Sylvia proudly steered them onward, tugging when necessary to correct their course. When the cobbles of the main road began to shake their wagon, the rattling drowned out any birdsong or rustling of leaves. Despite the commotion, the absence of one particular noise did not go unnoticed. As the Nyberg River joined them on the right-hand side, it barely managed a gurgle.
“She is lower still”, Markus sighed.
Sylvia peered into the ditch running alongside the road. At the very bottom was a slim trail of water, barely a foot deep and straining to make its way south. For years now, the river had not swollen with fresh water, making for disappointing spring after disappointing spring. The mayor had even led an expedition up the steep mountain to check on the springs, but they found no blockage or hinder. There simply was not more water coming down from the white top. The snow and ice had retreated up to only cover the very tip of the mountain. Unless someone could figure out how to best the heat or call down rain, there was little to do but pray. Not many bothered with that any more, either. Not since their god left.
“At least she is still running”, Elena commented. “I heard she is one of the last rivers in the area still moving at all.”
“The Nyberg Trickle”, Markus jested.
Elena shook her head. “I suppose I am glad you retain your sense of humour”, she retorted, a biting tone creeping to her voice.
The sisters giggled.
“At least we have our well”, Alice pointed out.
Markus grumbled something resembling a word. While it was true that their well still brought enough water to quench their thirst, watering the fields was out of the question at this point. If the situation did not change soon, even the dry bitterleaf harvest would not be enough to get them through the winter. Unless a miracle occurred, they would have to resort to slaughter of the oxen to free up feed and gain a bit of tough meat. The family decided in silent union that this was not something their youngest needed to have on her mind.
“Mill first?”, Maja asked.
Happy to change the subject, Elena nodded. “Yes, to unload the grain. We will pick up our flour in the evening, after meeting the mayor. Do not get your clothes dirty while we are in town now”, she ordered. Leaning forward, she added, “Sylvia? Did you hear me?”
“Yes Mother”, Sylvia said, at least attempting an obedient tone.
Pulling into the yard of the EvaKristijan family home, Sylvia had to tug the reins with all her might to persuade the oxen to come to a full stop. While her parents and the oldest children of both families unloaded the grain, Sylvia parked herself on a stump nearby, and opened her pack. She might as well read the rest of the story one more time. Propping the backpack beneath her as pillow, she opened the tome and continued where she had left off.
“The Fri travelled along the coast for several weeks, fleeing the black rain. Eventually, they reached the other side of the cape Holmen, where the land was fertile and the fish abundant. Thorun declared the land their heaven. In Fristad, the survivors prospered. The city grew into one of the most prominent trading centres of eastern Sev, rivalling even Guldhamn. Various smaller settlements and villages soon dotted the roads in and out of the harbour city, each sharing in the splendour and trade that the Fri brought to Holmen.”
Sylvia frowned at the page before her. This particular passage always gave her pause. She could not put her finger on it, but she could sense—something. There was something wrong. It was the writing itself which instilled doubt. The longer she looked, the more pervasive the feeling became. The ink seemed to quiver beneath her gaze, as though worried it had been caught in a lie, unsure if it should stand its ground or hide. Bewildered, Sylvia ran the tips of her fingers across the paper.
“Your eyes will go bad if you read all the time.”
Looking up, Sylvia found a familiar pimple ridden face hovering over her. Making no attempt to hide her displeasure, she sighed aloud. Of course Miles had to be home.
“That is not how eyes work.”
“Mum says it is why your dad cannot see properly any more”, Miles declared proudly.
“That is stupid”, Sylvia said dryly.
Miles’s face drew into an ugly grimace. “You are stupid!”
Getting up with a start, Sylvia could see the way Miles wavered. He took half a step backwards, shoulders tense, but he stared at her in determined defiance. Stomping her foot in his direction, Sylvia caused him to flinch. Smirking, she grabbed her backpack, and turned on her heel.
“You are weird!”, Miles called after her.
“And you are daft!”, Sylvia spat.
“Sylvia! Do not fight!”, her mother reprimanded.
Climbing into the back of the now empty cart, Sylvia tucked the book away and hugged her backpack to her chest. She crossed her arms over it protectively. She would have to learn that stare her mother had spent so many years perfecting. How she would love to see Miles’s face if she gave him the mother stare. He would piss himself. Sylvia smiled to herself at the thought.
Alice climbed into the cart as well and settled at Sylvia’s side. She made sure not to drag her dress along the wooden boards. Sitting down in the same fashion as Sylvia, legs draw up, she leaned sideways and rested her head against her sister’s shoulder.
“Do not be mad. He is stupid, so he does not know better”, she offered.
Sylvia burst into laughter. “Yea, you are right.” Restraining herself from ruffling through Alice’s curly hair, Sylvia let out a long sigh and merely hugged Alice. “As always, you are right. Thank you for your wisdom.”
Alice smiled, pride dancing in her eyes. “You are welcome.”
Cuddled together in the corner of the wagon, the sisters waited until everyone was done unloading grain and exchanging pleasantries. Then, it was finally time to leave the EvaKristijan estate. Sylvia held Alice in her lap as they crossed the bridge by the waterwheel. She remembered how strange it seemed when the wheel stopped for the first time. An eerie silence fell over the area when the creaking and splashing stopped. It was so quiet, you could hear the horses breathe and the flies buzz. After a while, you could even catch the song of birds which had never before been spotted so close to the settlement. Now it just seemed normal that the wheel lay dormant, hanging silent above the water. It was tranquil. A blackbird sang its agreement from across the meadow.
Sepp had done an amazing job working around the problem of the dormant mill. Since the river no longer did the trick, the animals were put to use. The bevel gear between the milling stone and the waterwheel was decoupled, and instead a new rotating rod was poking out the other side of the building. There, a horse mill had been taken apart and attached to the same rotating rod. With this clever construction, the miller’s oxen could pull the mechanism inside the house, by turning the horse mill outside. It was a lot slower than a waterwheel, of course, but it was also notably faster than the horse mill had been.
No matter how impressed Sylvia was with the ingenuity of it all, she would have greatly preferred it if the river simply swelled for once. Moss had begun to grow on the lower paddles of the huge waterwheel, and then dried out again. Allowing herself one worried exhale, Sylvia shook her head. Threading her fingers into Alice’s hair, she left the negative thoughts behind. There was still a future in Nyberg. There had to be.
At least the AriIngemar estate stood as proud and splendid as ever. Leaving the wagon and securing the oxen, the ElenaMarkus family strode through the wide wooden gate. Crossing the colourful garden, they were enveloped by the fragrance of blooming honeysuckle.
Elena straightened her back. “Remember, just because Ingemar is friendly, that does not mean you can forget your manners. We are at the mayor’s estate. Anyone who forgets that will be cleaning the stables for a week.”
“Yes, Mother”, the girls responded in union.
Satisfied, Elena reached for the door knocker. The door swung open immediately. Still standing right in front of the door with her arm outstretched, Elena blushed.
“I have been waiting” Ari chuckled, ushering the lot of them inside.
One by one, they filed into the dim hallway, taking their shoes off and leaving them in a neat row by the wall.
“I hope it was not too much of a bother to come by today”, Ari said.
It was not a question, but Elena made sure to answer in polite rebuttal regardless. Stroking the folds out of her jacket, she hung it aside.
“Always so neat and proper”, Ari teased.
“Only for you”, Elena quipped back.
Not eager to be dragged into the charade of nods and compliments, Sylvia squeezed past her parents and followed the long corridor all the way to the end, where Maja and Alice were already busy admiring the collection of fine knives and cloths that Ingemar had on display. He was very proud of the treasures he had amassed during his time travelling with the Royal Army.
In their day, the Royal Army toured the lands, visiting all mayor cities of Sev annually, to trade and maintain contacts for the honour of the Crown. It was in the city of Guldhamn that they were most commonly welcomed with gifts and trinkets befitting a noble. It was with these gifts that a soldier could accumulate enough wealth to fund a lucrative wedding, and secure the protection of a young settlement for years to come. Had he not gained Ari’s favour, Ingemar would have seen his older brother marry her and become mayor of Nyberg. “Not on my watch”, he kept saying. “This beautiful lady is my love, and this beautiful town is my soul.”
Ingemar often entertained the sisters with stories of his travels. Nyberg was but a small speck on the map of Holmen, and Holmen itself was only vaguely outlined on national maps. Ingemar had such a map stashed away with his old uniform. He insisted that he had visited every corner of it. He would describe the shimmering harbour of Guldhamn, the endless Great Rove, the hot furnaces of Anderjärn, and the splendour of the Crown Castle, which throned in the middle of Storhjärd. He spoke of the years past like an old man who had seen the wide open planes of the mainland, as well as the high seas, with his own two eyes. While ignorant minds might gage him to be in his fifties or sixties, beneath the worn skin and scarred hands was but a thirty-nine year old man with a knack for storytelling.
“Ingemar. Good evening. Thank you for your invitation”, Sylvia greeted, with a slight bow of her head.
Ingemar turned around and a broad smile wrinkled his face. “Sylvia! What a pleasure to see you!” Placing a hand on her shoulder, he added, “How lovely that you could make it. Rebecca will be glad.”
“Thank you for having me”, Sylvia responded.
Once all remaining shoulder touches, smiles, and pleasantries were exchanged, they entered the dining hall. It was a big and beautiful room, with wood panelling and plenty of carpets. Taking a seat at the long end of the table, Sylvia made an effort not to stare too much when the mayor’s daughter entered the room.
Rebecca truly was a sight to behold. Her thick long hair fell smoothly over her shoulders, and the belt tied over her waist accentuated her full form. The grass green beads of her necklace matched her eyes so well one might think they attempted to imitate her. Sweeping the skirt of her dress aside in one elegant movement, she took a seat beside Sylvia and they greeted with distant formality.
“Sylvia”, Rebecca said softly.
“Rebecca”, Sylvia responded.
Rebecca smiled at Sylvia and Sylvia smiled back, but only just long enough to seem polite.
Ari walked around the table and placed a warm cup on each plate. Sylvia held her hands in her lap, fingers intertwined. The smell of fresh fatty milk hung heavy in the air, but it was not yet time to reach for the warm cup. She could see that Alice was in the same predicament, her hazel eyes fixed on the clay cup in front of her, and the swirl of steam rising from it. She longed for the sweet taste, but if she did not wait, she would embarrass her mother. The wait became unbearable when Ari sat down and exchanged a glance with Ingemar.
“Please, enjoy”, Ari finally prompted.
Alice’s hand shot out to grab the hot beverage. Blowing the steam off the top, she brought the cup to her lips and hummed in delight. Sylvia mimicked the behaviour. The heat burned down her throat and settled in her stomach, bringing life to her cheeks. The sweet flavour and creamy sensation of the fresh milk spread in her mouth like melting toffee. How she wished they, too, could afford a cow, or at least a goat.
After the beverage, there came a hearty soup with bone broth and a generous amount of vegetables and beans, and even platters of charred sprouts and salted meat. Feasting on the many delights, Sylvia remained carefully poised. She could only envy Alice, who was young enough to be allowed bad manners, and Maja, who could pull it off so effortlessly. Every single movement was practised and every word out of her mouth was polite. She did not seem to have to think about it any more. The same was true for Rebecca. Though, as far as Sylvia could remember, Rebecca had always been that way.
As the evening grew long, the mayor instructed his daughter to heat the room. Rising from her chair, Rebecca began piling wood into the fireplace. Sylvia observed the way the thin cloth of her dress flattered her broad form when she crouched down to arrange the quartered logs. While Sylvia preferred the thick tunic Rebecca wore around the stables, this was undeniably a good look as well. The light blue cloth complimented Rebecca’s fair skin.
With but a slim piece of kindling, Rebecca started the fire. She did not bother fanning it. The flame licked along the dry wood and swallowed it like a hungry dog. After a moment, the loud crackling faded and heat rolled through the room. Taking an unnecessary turn around the long end of the table, Rebecca let her fingers ghost over Sylvia’s shoulder, before sliding back into her chair. A smile threatened to sneak onto Sylvia’s face, but she repressed it. Glancing at Rebecca, she observed the light from the fireplace dance over the healthy round cheeks.
Ingemar huffed to himself in amusement. “This wood was split by my grandfather. He loved swinging an axe. He must have missed it from his days in the field. And who could blame him?”, he jested. “When the entire shed was filled to the brim, he was issued a wood splitting bad by the family. This stuff is so old and dry you merely have to give it a stern look and say, ‘matchstick’.”
Alice giggled at that. “That is not true.”
“Sure it is.”
“She used kindling”, Alice pointed out, wagging a finger in Rebecca’s direction.
Looking to Markus, Ingemar laughed heartedly. “Nothing goes past any of your girls, does it? I will have to watch my back or the ElenaMarkus family might be taking over Nyberg soon.”
Sylvia stiffened in her chair. Ingemar’s gaze did not find her even once while he spoke. Was that intentional? She exhaled slowly.
“You always repeat the same old stories”, Rebecca teased.
“Of course”, Ingemar nodded. “Unlike me, they do not age. Once you have found a good one, you make use of it. I am not going to come up with new jokes about the wood every time.”
Laughter filled the dining hall once more. Sylvia chuckled as well and Ingemar nodded at her. Maybe she had just imagined his avoidance. There was no way he knew.
Ingemar clapped his hands together. “Right. It is getting late. We do not want to delay you to the point of riding back in the dark, now do we? Let us get to business. I received a letter by horse yesterday.”
As he said this, Rebecca got up and retrieved an envelope from a nearby drawer. She held it out to the scribe, but Markus shook his head and motioned across the table.
“Sylvia will read it.”
Sylvia’s lips curled into a proud smile. Rebecca glanced to her father in hesitation before handing the letter to Sylvia instead.
“Handing over your craft so soon Markus? I am surprised”, Ingemar commented.
“My daughter is a diligent student. She deserves the opportunity”, Markus answered easily.
“I do not doubt it.”
Sylvia turned the envelope over in her hands. Her heart was beating a little faster. It was a slender letter, and thus unlikely to be very complex. It was the perfect opportunity to practice her public reading. The envelope was sealed with a generous blob of brown wax. The emblem stamped into it was simple, but unique enough not to require colouring to be identifiable. The symbol was but a rhombic crystal surrounded by a crown of leaves. This letter was from Fristad. Showing the seal reverence, Sylvia lay the letter down on the table and ran the blade of a clean knife across the top to avoid breaking the wax. Producing one sheet of paper from the envelope, she got to her feet. She glanced over the text swiftly and took a measured breath, before attempting the obscenely long formal address.
“Kvist Thoruns addressing Ingemar LenaThor and Ari EvaKristijan, Mayor and Lady of Nyberg, on behalf of Thorun Fri, Leader of Fristad.
We deeply regret that this letter cannot deliver good news. In this time of drought, Fristad is in need of more supplies than ever, and all people under its protection are expected to contribute. From Nyberg, the Fri require at least 20 sacks root vegetables or equalling wares, as well as 50 sacks of grain, to be available for sale. We understand it is a lot to ask, but hard times demand sacrifice from us all. In addition to the produce, any available beasts will be exchanged for a generous pouch of coin. The caravan will pass by within the month.
The Fri also earnestly urge great vigilance. There have been further reports of bandit Wolves in the cape. It is advised that all settlements organise fortified outposts and keep their young out of the woods. Travel is strongly discouraged without armed and trained escort.
Kvist Thoruns on behalf of Thorun Fri”
Sylvia folded the letter back together. A dejected silence hung in the room. Eventually, Ingemar nodded. The corners of his lips were drawn downward in an impressed grimace. “Well done, Young ElenaMarkus.”
Taking her seat, Sylvia reached for the envelope. Rebecca scooted her foot over to Sylvia, pressing against her under the table, and Sylvia repressed another smile. Nudging back lightly, she only glanced sideways at the mayor’s daughter. It was not nearly enough to truly appreciate Rebbeca’s beautiful profile in the flickering light.
“That is worrying news”, Ari commented.
“Somewhat, yes”, Ingemar agreed. “I would not be too concerned, though. Nyberg has not been targeted in many years. We are practically invisible in the shadow of the mountain.” He plastered a smile onto his face and motioned toward the window as he spoke.
“We used to have protection”, Sylvia pointed out.
Her mother gave her a stern look, the kind only a mother could give. Shrugging a little, Sylvia did not apologise for speaking the truth.
“Bah, magic”, Ingemar huffed, “No little crystal keeps a town safe. The Wolves know not to attack because they know our affiliations.”
Sylvia elected not to argue further and carefully slid the letter back into its envelope. Smoothing the paper out, she placed the letter in the middle of the table, where it would rest until they had left.
“Do you think we can muster that much?”, Ari wondered. “We have some roots and grain, and it is still early in the year, but we cannot forget about winter.”
“It will not be easy, but it should be possible. Your father will have to contribute, certainly”, Ingemar thought aloud. Taking a big gulp from his pitcher, he eyed Markus and Elena. “Surely the scholars will provide some vegetables. Maybe a hundredweight or two?”
Though phrased as one, it was not a question. Knowing this, Elena nodded. “Of course.”
She was a picture of calm and politeness. Only her husband noticed the sigh she did not let out of her throat.