I was in the usual place, working Abe Corner’s field of corn. The sun was high and I could tell by the slight smell of ozone to the air that the coming of fall was not too far off.
My birthday was the following day. A smile came to my face as I reached down to pull a stringy weed from the loose clumps of dirt at my feet. I was going to be eighteen finally. I wondered how I would celebrate it. Should I spend a few coins at the bar? Maybe I should invite Henny for an evening out. No, that would be a bad idea. Henny’s father, Hank, would come running out the door waving his arms and accuse “Rickter Trollborn” of yet another atrocity against all humankind.
The Unnamed only knows why he decided that humans would be responsible for raising me, though I was grateful he did. The alternative would have found me dead at the hands of the very ones who had seen to my upbringing. My mother had died giving birth to the get of a troll. A monster had sated his lusts on a human woman and I was the product. Stranger still, I did not die with my mother during the birth. Afterwards I was adopted by Jonathan Mender, the local blacksmith. These are circumstances I cannot afford to complain about.
Trolls are well known to be the worst of all fiends. The town decided that the bastard of one would grow to be only a little better. Jonathan spoke on my behalf, and rather than being culled at birth, as would have been the norm, the town allowed me my life. In fairness, the town allowed much more than that. At Jonathan’s hands, I was nurtured, as would be any human orphan; maybe better.
My life in Stumpton had its challenges, as was only reasonable to expect. It was required of me to work hard to lessen Jonathan’s burden of paying for my room and board as well as prove myself worthy of the town’s leniency where my continued existence was concerned. The first of those two came easily to me. I found hard work to be a relaxing, if tiring, distraction. The latter was by far the most difficult, for worthiness seemed to be a vague concept to strive for, especially where the townspeople were concerned. After all, what could a half-troll bastard possible hope to excel at other than being a ne’er-do-well?
When Jonathan had offered to raise me as his own after my mother had died the town was slow to agree, due to concerns that he might be raising a monster. Only when Jonathan agreed to some rather extreme measures concerning my upbringing did they finally relent.
He had the normal parental responsibilities. He fed, housed and clothed me, and he educated me in etiquette, reading and math. Beyond that, he was to teach me or provide me with training for a manageable trade. He did his level best at teaching me the arts of the metal-smith, even going to the lengths of making custom-sized tools for me, and due to his timely mentorship, I excelled at it. The only metal-craft he did not teach me was how to forge weapons, and that was a demand of the town council. I was not allowed access to or knowledge of any martial weapon. While other boys in the village were learning the bow and knife, I was working the many fields surrounding Stumpton, which was yet another condition that had been set. I was to perform general labor for the town while not working in the forge until I was eighteen.
As things stood, I was unpopular among the other boys my age in town. Their parents told them I would eat them or some such drivel, and, in response, they shied away from me. The ones who did not shy away were, by far, worse. With exception to Henny, that is.
She filled my dreams as wine does a drunkard, and I was drunk with the thought of her. Not that it mattered. Being one of three people in Stumpton with whom I had an earnest friendship, my relationship with her was only that of a good friend. She was sisterly, at best, to her way of thinking. Oh well.
I took a moment from my musing and looked at my work. The horizontal beams that had rotted out and fallen to the side I replaced with green ones, the cutting of which had been a real nuisance. Nonetheless, the task was complete.
Hmph. Well, there’s another fence mended.
Taking in my surroundings, I noticed the sky growing overcast, giving what had previously been a pleasant breeze the bite of a chill. I decided then that it was late enough to walk back to the shop. I picked up the sack that had carried my lunch and made my way back to town.
The duck pond was a-stir. They must be preparing for the flight south. One mallard in particular caught my eye as it quacked at a group of swans who were doing all they could manage to ignore him. That looks familiar.
Past a couple of small fields for sheep was the edge of town, and on the north side of the road just within town limits was Jonathan’s shop. The forge filled the air with the heavy smell of smoke and burning wood and I heard Jonathan hammering away, singing the old forge-song in time with the clang of the hammer’s fall.
I opened the front door sliding sideways through it while ducking to avoid hitting my head on the jamb, Repeating the gesture to get into my room, hung my lunch sack on the back of the door and walked into the forge. Making a beeline for the hook with my heavy leather apron on it, I stopped mid-step when Jonathan dipped the horseshoe he was working into the water and spoke, his back to me.
“I heard about your little tussle with Artur’s boy…”
I tried to look ignorant of what he was speaking. There were no two sides of the road with him.
Jonathan turned around, his eyes red with anger. Oh, here it comes.
“We’ve been over this how many times now?” The veins in his neck were bulging but Jonathan’s voice was temperate.
“I suppose it wasn’t mentioned that Joel was menacing me with a knife.” I said, avoiding the question.
A puff of breath left Jonathan’s facade broken. His fist gripped the handle of his hammer, shaking, but still at his side. “Take the knife and throw it away next time. You blacked the entire right side of his face with that hammer of yours.”
“Hammer? I backhanded him! If I’d a decked him—”
“He’d be dead!” Jonathan spoke what we both knew.
A moment of silence passed between us as he considered a fitting consequence for my disobedience.
Jonathan finally spoke. “Five silvers…”
“Five silvers! That’s half of my savings!”
“Yes, five silvers to repay the money I was forced to pay so Artur could buy salve for his son’s face—”
“You were had! Salve costs a silver piece at best!” I said.
“-And embarrassment at the Offering this week’s end.” Jonathan finished. “Clean up in here and when you’re done, get ready for dinner.”
I did not bother responding. Nothing I could say would change his mind. I also felt guilty for Artur’s apparent robbery of Jonathan, especially after he had already spent so much on just raising me.
I did as he asked, dousing and clearing the old coals from the forge, as well as sweeping the hard packed dirt floor clear of the bits of metal and debris which always were in abundance after a day’s work. I swept Jonathan’s lodestone over the swept up debris and placed the larger bits of iron in the scrap bin so we could melt down and reuse them later. I then placed the scattered tongs and hammers back on their hooks. Giving the shop the once over I noticed Jonathan’s anvil had moved from its rightful position over the course of the day. I casually lifted the twenty-stone anvil with my left hand and righted it on the stone square Jonathan had built into the floor to keep it from sinking through the dirt floor of the shop. Finished with that task, I attended to myself. Filling a bucket with water from the small well in the rear of the shop, I washed my hands and face.
By the time I made my way into the house for dinner, Jonathan had already put soup and bread down for the meal. After sitting down, Jonathan looked at me expectantly.
His look finally unnerved me so that I felt compelled to question it. “What?”
Jonathan lowered his eyes and spoke to his soup. “You will be taking part in the Offering as well.”
“But, I’m not–” I began.
Still staring into his bowl Jonathan had only paused for a breath before continuing, “It’s been taken out of my hands. Mayor says you’re to be there, and in full regalia.”
The Offering was a semi-annual celebration for the young men of the town. It required the passing of a test called the “quest” which was given according to tradition by the elder of the village or town. In our case, this was the mayor. The quest, being different for everyone, was usually some small task that the entrant had to complete with some provided handicap. I remembered the previous Offering where Artur’s eldest son, Erik, was required to walk ten paces with a blindfold and his hands tied behind his back. I also remembered feeling sorry for him when they set bushels of hay in front of him, allowing him to trip repeatedly. By the time he had taken his tenth stride, he was bleeding from nose and mouth. I shuddered.
Looking at me Jonathan must have read my face as he spoke with a wry grin, “Well, I suppose you’ve done Joel the service of mashing his face. They won’t have to do that over again.”
I looked back at him, trying to make my face smile. It must have been more of a grimace, because he changed the subject.
“Mikel will also be taking part, I hear.”
“But he’s not from Stumpton!” The Offering was usually limited to those born here. Mikel had moved here with his mother only five years previous, and his eighteenth birthday was nearly half a year from then.
“What? You’re not happy? The mayor thought you would be. Oh well…” Jonathan was unusually talkative.
“What about the garments? I’m required to wield a knife and bow for the Offering, aren’t I?” I still had no idea why the mayor would loosen my limitations with so little warning.
“Yes and here’s an oddity for you. The mayor is going to be here on the morrow to go with you when you put in the orders for the garments.” Jonathan stated distractedly.
“That’s the job of the father. Where will you be?” I was curious and more than a little hurt that the man who raised me would not be there for such a momentous occasion.
Jonathan looked across the table, his apparent distraction suddenly abated. The grin on his face made him look twenty years younger. “It has been decided that the knives for this year’s festivities will be made by me.”
“That’ll bring quite a profit. I wish I could help.” I suddenly wished he had taught me how to smith a blade. Traditionally, the blades of the Offering were to be simple but as perfectly weighted as possible. The crafting of such a blade was difficult…but lucrative for a skilled smith.
“Yes, I thought of that, but I will be employing you elsewhere in the shop.”
“Where?” I had to ask.
Jonathan was smiling again. “Why, in the crafting of your own knife, of course.”
I sat there, dumbfounded.
“Eat your soup before it gets cold.” Jonathan said through a bite of bread.
* * *
Morning was late when the cock finally crowed its arrival. I had not slept at all, but I wasn’t really feeling any worse for it. Jonathan had kept me up most of the night teaching me the basics of constructing the blade. We did not yet need to ready the forge. All night I had sat in my chair by the hearth, trying to picture what I would need or, more accurately, want in my first blade.
I drew on his knowledge of the wielding of such a weapon to come up with the shape of the blade and the hilt, and between the both of us it was decided that to fit the size of my hand the handle would have to be quite a bit larger than a normal man’s would be. This, in turn, required a larger blade in order to give an aesthetically balanced look to the knife. In the end, the sketch of my knife looked like a two-handed short sword. I could already hear the laughter of the others at the Offering when I arrived with such an unwieldy looking blade. Jonathan’s stern glance at my sketch made me wonder if I had missed something.
I sat on my bed waiting for the knock at the door announcing the arrival of Ennis Kayne, mayor of Stumpton. On the wall near the door was a plate-sized disc of polished steel. I looked at it, thinking of how many times I had seen Jonathan use it as a mirror to shave.
Steel. Even the word sounded grand to me. Jonathan rarely advertised his knowledge of its manufacture. Rarer even than that did he actually employ its use. I thought of the steps he had taken to keep it secret. I knew he had hid the carefully smelted bars of it in a watertight leather bag. I knew also that the bag was in one of the trees behind the shop.
One bar is all I’d need.
The traitorous thought was interrupted by the sound of knocking at the front door. I walked to the front door and opened it, expecting the small, but professional figure of the mayor. Instead, Mikel stood there, grinning comically.
“Ha hah! I made it here before the moldy old mayor got here. Is there any breakfast left?” I stood to the side and left him to devour what I had been too giddy over the day to look at. “Heavens, look at all this!” Mikel said between bites. “You eat almost as much as I do!”
“You didn’t eat before you left for here?” I inquired.
“Of course I did, but the walk over here made me ravenous!”
“Mikel, You only live a quarter-mile from here. You make it sound like you’ve been walking all day!” I was emphatic.
“Aargh! If I walked all day I’d have to eat a whole cow I’d be so hungry!” The food disappeared as he finished his sentence.
I had never figured out what kept Mikel from getting obese. On the contrary, Mikel was always thin as the Reaper regardless of how he ate. His shoulders were boney and made his shirt look like a hanger still held it up.
“Where’s your father? I’d have expected him to be working by now.” Mikel dabbed at the corners of his mouth and stood from the table.
“Mikel, how many times do I have to tell you he’s not…” I stopped. Mikel only listened when he wanted to. “He stayed up late doing some preparation for the requests to be presented today. He’ll be up later, no doubt.”
Another knock sounded at the door. This time it was the mayor. The small bespectacled man always looked like something from a children’s story to me so I had to try hard not to smile whenever I saw the old man. He was always dressed in a black suit with a silky red ribbon tied at his throat. His small hat and cane was black to match, but despite the somber color of his attire, Mayor Kayne always gave off the air of someone who was celebrating a holiday.
Ennis’ eyed the two of us with an “official” gaze. “Rickter Terrin…Mikel Fairchild. I am here to authorize your requests for the Great Offering. Do you accept me as your guide in these matters?”
I felt the weight of tradition in his request and searched my mind for the correct reply. Mikel had apparently studied his lines well, for our reply was as one voice.
“Yes, my lord. And guide us well, that our offerings may be seen as worthy of the council’s approval.” The words seemed to flow from a time long forgotten, and bore the faintly entrancing sensation of the magic present in a well-told tale.
“Well spoken, lads” The officiating tone gone from his voice. “Well, shall we be on our way then?” With that we were about to leave when a voice called out from behind me.
“Mayor Kayne, A quick word with you, sir?” I recognized some forced respect behind the words that Jonathan uttered, but if Mayor Kayne noticed, he did not respond to it.
“Why, Jonathan Mender, of course, but it must be quick. Our requests will busy us for the entirety of the day.”
“Of course.” Jonathan replied coolly.
I stepped out, followed by Mikel. After the mayor entered, I shut the door behind him.
“Jonathan sounded rather upset about something.” Mikel mused.
“He and Mayor Kayne have a long history, Mikel.”
Mikel’s curiosity was piqued. “Oh? Do tell.”
“It was Mayor Kayne who had originally spoken the will of the town council where I was concerned. The town had decided, when I was born, that they should have me culled while still an infant, but Jonathan fought for the right to raise me. Kayne didn’t make it easy for him.” My telling of the story left out a few things. I hoped Mikel would not ask.
Mikel pried. “Why would a young unmarried man take on the care of an unwanted half-troll?”
“You know, you can be a little blunt sometimes, Mikel.” I snapped.
“It was a fair question, I meant no offense!” Mikel cowered as if I had struck him.
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t do that. You know I’m not going to hurt you.”
He caught himself and lied. “I wasn’t doing anything. You would be a fool to strike me after all I have done for you.
It was my turn to be curious. ”What did you do for me?” I raised an eyebrow with mock accusation.
“I talked to my mother about wanting to take part in the Offering. When she asked about who would be my witness, I said you would.” Things were beginning to make sense. “The old man is sweet on my mother. He seems unable to tell her no, and he agreed to it in a heartbeat.”
I smiled at myself. Of course, as a non-native of the town, he would need a native as a witness, and I’m the only one who would be willing to do such a thing.
I made a pretense at a bow, flipping my hand in a parody of noble manners. “Very well, kind sir, I will be your witness in this occasion.”
“Be gone with your contemptuous sarcasm, you scurrilous peasant!” He replied snobbishly before breaking into a laugh.
I grinned at his impression. I then thought that “impression” was the wrong word for the act as Mikel had received a noble’s education until his father, Lord Fairchild passed away a few months before Mikel was spirited here from the capitol city of Evincere with his mother. Mikel’s mother was, after all, Lord Fairchild’s mistress, not his wife.
I batted away the temptation to jokingly refer to his bastardly upbringing, not wanting to accidentally injure his pride. The last time I had hinted at it he refused to talk or even look at me for a month. I did not wish to go through that again, or possibly worse if he decided that was the final insult he would stand. He was, after all, the only other fellow my age in town who would speak in anything other than insults to me.
After a few more moments, Mayor Kayne and Jonathan stepped out of the house. Mayor Kayne seemed in a hurry to get on his way, but Jonathan had an almost reptilian smile on his face. I gave a questioning glance as I began walking away. He waved back at me. He would tell me later, I guessed.
A few hundred feet further into town brought us to the square, where the majority of our business was to be done. From there we went to the shop Kyle Tailor had opened. I watched as Mayor Kayne gave the request and gave advance payment for the ceremonial raiments to be worn to the Offering. Kyle’s mouth slowly dropped to the point that I thought for a moment it would fall off and clatter to the floor. The first time I saw this it was hilarious. It happened again at the fletcher where we were to arrange for the purchase of our bows and arrows, at the cobbler’s where we were fitted for boots which would match those of the other entrants, and again at Keen Foster’s, the town jeweler, for the earrings to be awarded following the completion of our individual “quests”.
The earrings were, in fact, the symbol of manhood to the entirety of Aercanaan, and the Offering, or some similar convention was held biannually to give young men the chance to prove themselves to their peers and families. In fact, earrings were such an old tradition that to be called “unpierced” was the same as being called a child.
This fact, in addition to the repetition of the marked surprise on the shopkeepers’ collective faces, quickly became a thorn in my previously cheerful mood.
Do they think the trials of my life thus far count for so little that I am unworthy of the symbol of manhood that even their half-wits receive just for surviving to the appropriate age? Hmm…
Mikel looked at me querulously and I shrugged off the thought and grinned at him. My friend, the bastard, considers me his equal at least. Then my traitor mind continued without me. On the other hand, isn’t he just using my position as a citizen here to get what he wants?
Mikel, as I knew, was not above using people to achieve his goals, even stooping to convince his mother to manipulate the mayor’s affections for her to grant her son said honors.
I shook my head, refusing the thought.
If he had wanted to use me for anything, it would have been to defend him from the other youths who picked on him as much as they did on me. Could he think me incapable of defending him?
“Rickter!” my name echoed in my ears. I realized I had been ignoring my companions for a few minutes and I looked around to find everyone looking at me.
“Get over here!” Mikel whispered with humored frustration. “Which of these stones do you like?”
There were several stones. I recognized most of the precious ones and immediately looked away. No sense in looking at those, besides precious stones like those look better on girls anyways.
I pointed at a reddish tiger’s eye, thinking it would be less pronounced. The jeweler had other ideas.
“…Tiger’s eye?” His eyes widened with a smug grin. “That’s quite a statement for a troll-born bastard.”
The mayor stifled a grin and looked away. Mikel pounced.
“Do you expect to get paid for these stones or should I invoke the buyers’ right and take them in exchange for your insults.”
“…Buyer’s right?” The terror showed on the old jeweler’s face. Buyer’s right was royally enforced to protect the citizenry of Aercanaan from merchants peddling overpriced merchandise.
In the case of a customer taking insult, it was usually a member of nobility who felt overly delayed or disrespected in some way. It was not unheard of however for a normal citizen to accuse a shopkeeper of such actions and take them to court for remuneration. It was not, however, commonplace for a jeweler who were ordinarily regarded as the most silver-tongued of merchants. Such a mistake could undo their livelihood, as their stock was usually smaller but considerably more costly. The loss of even a few of their most precious wares could set them on their way to debtor’s court.
“That’s right! With two witnesses here and one of them the mayor, I can guarantee the court’s decision would be quite quick.” Mikel relished his moment of power over the man. It was a side of Mikel I was unaccustomed to seeing.
“That’s not necessary!” Keen raised his hands steadying himself. “I was merely testing how steadfast he’d become. After all, this is the sign of manhood for the largest of our young bucks. Consider it my own personal ‘quest’ for him.” Then, he looked at me with a practiced look of proud approval. “And you passed–with flying colors–both of you: Rickter, for his stalwart spirit in the face of adversity,” He continued as his eyes returned to meet Mikel’s, “and lordly young Mikel for the spirited defense of his dear friend.”
Mikel smiled. “Ah, you are as keen an actor as you are a jeweler, good sir. You had me fooled quite well.” With one statement, he relieved the old man’s fear of reprisal.
“And for such a thing I offer you the tiger’s eye for free.” The old man continued.
I thought for a moment that Mikel might try to get his discounted as well, but was relieved when all he returned with was “How generous! Thank you, kind sir. I’ll choose the emerald for myself.”
After paying for the emerald and the fashioning of the earrings to hold the stones, it was nearly time for dinner. My stomach growled and a humored voice from behind me echoed its dismay.
“Oh, Rickter, doesn’t that belly of yours ever get enough? Surely even someone your size has a limit to how much you can eat.” I turned around to face Henny. The late afternoon sun turned her rebellious honey-colored hair into a golden aura framing her face with light which cascaded over her shoulders like a waterfall from the Plane of Lume.
“I haven’t eaten at all today,” I said, trying to be defensive, but it was as effective a defense as holding an archer’s target. In response, she aimed her “bow” and fired.
“Well, be careful, we’d hate for you to get so hungry you eat little Mikel, here.” She patted Mikel on the head. He rolled his eyes in response.
“Henny? Umm, my birthday is tomorrow, I was wondering if you—”
Henny looked over her shoulder at me with a pouty face. “Aw, but I’m busy with preparations for the Offering all week!”
“That’s… okay. I was just letting you know, so you could… know.” I brushed it aside, trying to be nonchalant.
We both watched as she walked away. Her walk had kind of a sway that really…
My mind buzzed back to the statement the jeweler had made concerning the tiger’s eye, and as the mayor bid us good evening, I looked over to Mikel. “Do you know what old Keen was talking about? All I had said was that I wanted the tiger’s eye!”
Mikel smiled. “Yes, it is an old story. It probably is not common knowledge among the townspeople anymore. The old story goes something like this. A young man once chose a tiger’s eye for his earring. After he received it and was pierced before all who knew him, an army came from a foreign land and killed all they found, except the young man. They thought the boy a fool to place such a common stone in his ear, and no army need fear a fool.”
Mikel yawned as they walked down the road towards Jonathan’s and then he continued. “The young man gathered together the few survivors of ancient Aercanaan and, with an army of just a few hundred men and women armed with hunting bows and kitchen knives, they battled the foreign army, which numbered in the thousands. As with most good fairy tales the heroes win, the main character dies but his heir becomes the new king or some such rot.”
The idea of me as a hero was so preposterous it was laughable. An army this far into the kingdom without raising the eyebrows of King Ira the Vigilant is not likely. Well, there goes my chance at being a hero.
I must have been smiling quite noticeably because, though dusk had fallen, my grin caught Mikel’s notice.
He shook his head, apparently knowing what I’d been thinking.” You’re incorrigible!”
I chuckled. ”I know.”