The house was dark and I could hear Jonathan’s snoring throughout as I lifted the latch to the front door. Walking around the house, I tried to remember where it was that I had followed Jonathan as he hid the precious bars of steel. My vision in the dark was more than exceptional. I had always guessed that was how trolls hunted for small children in the night. The thought made me more than a little wary as I made my way into the woods behinds our home.
My conscience was begging and pleading me to return to the house, trying to convince me of the criminal nature of such an act as stealing from Jonathan some of his private hoard. I pushed it off and continued.
As the moonlight fell across my path through the occasional break in the foliage above I began to remember myself and quickened my pace. A few moments later I found the tree.
Let me see, Jonathan climbed the tree and put it… there.
My eyes caught sight of the small but deceptively deep opening in the trees side about two men high. As it opened, it angled away from any of the surrounding branches making it difficult to reach in without falling. I hesitated. If I fell, especially at the wrong time, even my arm would break. And then I’d have more embarrassment to survive at the Offering…as well as possibly losing the welcome of Jonathan’s home.
It wasn’t the fear of pain or embarrassment that found me turning around the way I came that night. It was the fear of losing the closest thing I had to a father.
* * *
The sun shone into the smithy through the open double doors at the front.
I was working the bellows blowing the air into the heart of the forge that would help to keep the coals white hot. Normally, this would have been unnecessary as Jonathan had built a small windmill to turn a wheel attached to the bellows keeping the forge hot without all the extra help, but today the breeze that normally would have been sufficient to turn the mill was insufficient even to blow the smoke from the chimney into any direction but straight up.
“That’s good for now, Rickter.” Jonathan smiled as he spoke, placing one of the metal rods he’d made the previous day into the fire with some tongs.
“You were pumping that bellows awfully hard just now.” Jonathan observed casually. “How’s the knife coming?
“Knife? Oh, I thought I was making a garden trowel!” I growled sarcastically.
Rubbing his sooty hands on his apron, he walked over to “my” side of the forge and looked at the blade I has hammering. “Hmm… I don’t know. I think it’s pretty good!”
I was incredulous “Really!?”
He shook his head approvingly. ”Yup! Best damn trowel I’ve ever seen!”
I groaned audibly.
“We’ll figure something out.” He said, checking on the heating rod.
“But the Offering is tomorrow night!” I exclaimed suddenly feeling panicky.
“I have two more after this one. Shouldn’t take me but a few more hours.” He spoke reassuringly. “We’ll stay up all night if we have to!”
“I’ll be so tired I won’t even care if they call me Rickter Trollborn!” I joked.
Jonathan cringed, but continued the joke. “Care? That’s only if you’re awake enough to notice!”
I put aside the “trowel” and removed my apron, placing it on its hook. “I just remembered, old lady Jennings was going to need some help butchering some roosters. I shouldn’t keep her waiting. Those hens of hers were getting pecked to pieces.”
“Don’t worry about your normal duties. I’ve already told your various ‘employers’ that as a precursory measure to receiving your earring it was important that you not neglect the profession you’ve been trained for.” Jonathan motioned for me to put my apron back on.
While doing so I contemplated who they would get to run their errands for them without me.
Jonathan’s words interrupted my reverie “Don’t worry. This town was here long before you and will continue long after we’re both dead and dusty.”
“Am I that easy to read?” I finally asked after several minutes of hammering red hot iron had left us nearly deaf.
“Like a book.” Jonathan replied.
* * *
It was too late. I’d tried all night and all day and the shape kept going wrong. It was always too thin, or too long, or lacking any manner of balance. Abe Corner had brought his wagon yesterday for some emergency repairs because he had needed to go east to Bridgeton to attend to his recently deceased mother’s affairs.
“Bad timing, Jonathan. Why couldn’t she have held on for another two weeks? By then I could’ve had my crops harvested and maybe even sold.” Abe blustered.
“I’m sure she’s just as disappointed as you are, Abe,” Jonathan replied testily.
“What’s got you by the knot?” Abe asked noticing Jonathan’s temper.
“Not you. Just an agreement I’d made with someone that will have to be delayed. This repair will take me ‘til late tomorrow afternoon. Most of the supports are rusted to the point of worthlessness.” Jonathan had replied.
And as usual he’d been right. Abe had left to go to Bridgeton from the shop just less than an hour previous, literally packing the wagon with his wife and items for the trip as Jonathan put the finishing touches on his repairs.
In the space of which I found myself with all of my necessary accoutrements…except my knife with just half an hour before I had to leave to find my place in the entrant’s circle. I was devastated and seriously considered telling Jonathan I was feeling suddenly feverish and that I shouldn’t go. But Jonathan was nowhere to be found, and with no one else to spread the news of my suddenly taking ill, I began to dress.
The ceremonial robe was that of a simple but durable leather tunic that came down to just above the knee, and skirted with wide panels of leather bearing small patterns done in iron studs. I preferred the warmer, closer fit of my breeches, but I supposed that half of the point of ceremonial clothing was to be discomfiting. The tunic was then covered by a heavy wool cape, which was clasped at the neck by a knot, holding the cape to the neck in a rather uncomfortable manner.
Traditionally, the knot was so uncomfortable that the saying to be “grabbed by the knot” was an observation of a hefty degree of irritation.
I put on the quiver and the bow so the bow rested on my right shoulder, over and perpendicular to the strap for the quiver, which rested on my left shoulder. I sighed as I looked at the belt for the tunic, which was made of weaved strips of leather also studded with iron. The belt had one iron stud missing where the sheath for the knife was supposed to be. As I began to put it on I heard Jonathan’s voice behind me.
“You’re forgetting something.”
“I am?” I looked around pointing out to myself the various articles I was supposed to wear.
Boots, tunic, cape, belt…
“What am I missing?” I looked at him hoping this wasn’t some ill-timed joke about my knife.
He grinned as he replied. “This.” In his hand was a scabbard.
Taking it from him I looked at the thing. It was not simple. Three large jewels graced its deeply etched panels. Strange stylized lettering between the jewels gave it a mysterious look. Pulling the equally magnificent hilt from the scabbard revealed a blade the likes of which I’d never imagined. The dim light of the room gave the ornate lacing of etched runes on the blade a multihued reflection to my eyes. The metal of the blade was so darkly blue that it was nearly purple.
“Where…?” I couldn’t even finish asking I was so transfixed on the wonder I held.
“It was your father’s. He wanted you to have it.” Jonathan spoke but I was confused.
“My… um.” I finally came to my senses. “I can’t take this. My knife is supposed to be simple. Unadorned.”
Jonathan smirked. “And the town’s never been offered anything but a human, either.”
I didn’t have time to argue. I was already running late. I threw it on my belt.
“We have a lot to talk about when you get back tonight.” I heard Jonathan voice as I walked out the door.
* * *
Three years previous, the council had torn up a large square of the cobblestone in the center of the square in order that a fountain could be built there. The idea never saw completion. Many of the townsmen who had seen their Offering in the town’s center saw the spot as too hallowed to be filled with such a decoration, and so the spot was filled instead with soil which had become, with some care, a grassy spot in which to relax while shopping as well as the main gathering point for the small town’s various functions. As evening fell, the torches on the grass gave the small park a tangibly portentous feel.
I had arrived shortly after Mikel, who had been promptly surrounded by Joel and his lackeys, only two of which were taking part in the rite. The eldest of which, a large, but cowardly oaf who went by the moniker Ox, had him by the collar.
Mikel had been grinning from where I’d seen him when I came into the square. I guessed he had ridiculed them in his usually pretentious manner, once again taunting them with his superior education. Ox’s face was drawn up both in anger and confusion at whatever had been told him. Joel had been smiling as he looked on, enjoying the view until he noticed I was slowly bearing down on the group of them.
Joel’s face was still painfully swollen bearing all the colors a sound beating could reveal. His right eye was still swollen almost shut. I kept telling myself that I didn’t have to do anything tonight. They fought to make a liar out of me.
“Ah, why it’s the monster himself. Come to rescue your lover, eh?” Joel was sneering.
“You won’t be able to speak the Offering vow with other side busted up, too.” Mikel managed to speak from Ox’s suspending grip.
It was true. Only the left side of Joel’s face was loosely fleshed enough to allow for such movement, but Joel had been aware of that as well. In fact he had counted on it.
“With the damage you’ve already caused and the tenuous nature of what allowed you to take part in one our most sacred rites, any further actions by you would probably constitute your being expelled from it. If you choose your place in the Offering, it leaves you’re friend quite helpless.”
“Helpless?” I questioned his choice of words. Looking at Mikel was enough of a hint. With not but a few minutes between his being rewarded his symbol of adulthood, Mikel needed little prompting. While Ox was distracted by me, Mikel removed his knife from its sheath and drove the butt of its handle in to the soft spot just under his ribs. Ox gasped, doubling over with the pain and suddenly fighting to take another breath.
Slipping the knife back into place, Mikel hopped to my side before anyone else could grab him.
“Yup, absolutely helpless,” was all I could manage without laughing.
The group of them moved to where they could stand shoulder to shoulder, their intent clearly written in the affront that Mikel and I had heaped on them. We all moved to a readied position as the confrontation had suddenly become an unavoidably physical one.
The whole lot of us was interrupted by the sound of a voice closing in on us.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Mayor Kayne rebuked us all.
“These two—” Joel shook his finger at Mikel and me, “do not belong here.”
I placed my arms across my chest as I knew that saying anything in my defense would only cause more trouble.
“Oh, and you think a bunch of bullies are better suited to such honors? You aren’t fooling anybody, Joel Arturson. I saw how you all were dealing with the Fairchild boy from my upstairs window. If this is how you deal with those you don’t like, expect a lot more of those as life goes on.” The little man pointed at Joel’s bruised face. “Twas a nasty thing your father did, allowing you to behave in such a way. I even heard he interceded with Jonathan on your behalf after you threatened a fellow citizen with a knife. He will deal with the council on that charge later this month. You, however, will cease this tomfoolery at once. The only other option remaining to you is, of course, waiting until the next Offering.”
Joel was sullenly kicking at some grass as Kayne walked away. Ox had finally gotten to his feet as Kayne was rebuking them, and he and the others not dressed in the traditional garb slowly made their way off of the square’s center.
The entirety of the town showed, clamoring for a spot where they could see the proceedings from the still paved portions of the square. Once their spots had been claimed, blankets brought from the homes of those present were placed on the floor to soften and insulate from the chill of the stone pavement.
Even then it was two groups who stood there: Joel Arturson with his two lackeys at his side and Mikel and I. We still stood in a semicircle around the mayor, who presided over the spectacle, but there was a marked division betwixt the two groups and I could not think that the gap was anything but glaringly obvious to the townspeople who stood all around the square watching intently.
The eldest of us, Robert Fletcher, went first. His failed attempt at the quest two years ago left him a distant third in being picked on by Joel and the others. Distant because Robert’s father allowed him to defend himself, and so he did.
His quest was the same as the previous Offering’s. He was placed before a small fire pot and told to extinguish the fire inside. His limitations were that he could not dump anything into the pot or pour the pot out. His previous attempt ended in laughter and more than a little embarrassment when he had tried to pee into the pot. Thankfully he hadn’t managed to undo his pants fast enough before it was considered a fail. This time he simply turned around and sat on the opening of the pot cutting off the air to the fire, extinguishing it.
The crowd was humored by the smoke coming from his backside, but clapped their hands anyways.
Joel went next. His quest was the same as his elder brother’s. However when told to walk his ten paces he waited until the barriers were definitely in place and then turned ninety degrees to his left and walked avoiding his pitfalls but still managing to get out his required distance. The crowd laughed at how he’d apparently gained his wisdom only at his brother’s expense.
Third in line was Mikel, whose quest was by far the most arduous so far. His feet were bound and he was carried to one corner of the square. The mayor then went to the far corner and pulled a short piece of dry straw from his pocket, telling all that Mikel’s quest was to get to him before the straw burnt down to his fingers. He then placed the end of the straw into a nearby torch and yelled, “Start!”
Mikel didn’t seem to think, rather he leaped out into the air before him catching himself with his hands and vaulted his skinny legs over him, pushing off the ground and landing momentarily on his feet several feet further across the square. He repeated this acrobatic feat twice more before the mayor yelled, “Stop!”
Mikel looked up from the ground near the mayor’s feet. He’d stretched the distance with one arm and his finger was outstretched barely touching the tip of the mayor’s small black shoe.
The townspeople were quite impressed that this boy had been capable of such a thing. I was a little surprised, too, but I pretended I knew he’d do that all along. Still, I was both happy for him and proud of him.
You showed them, Mikel!
The fourth quest was that of Ken Baker. His quest was, in my opinion at the time, poorly chosen. A rope was tied to a stake which had been driven deep into the earth. The rope was handed to Ken and he was told to pull the stake out of the ground. His hands were then tied behind his back. Ken was not large. In fact, he looked like he was still expecting a growth spurt or two before he’d be done growing, but he tried anyway. He got down on his knees first and pulled at the rope first. The angle was wrong and all he managed to do was hurt his shoulder.
The crowd was beginning to groan about two Offerings in a row with failures when he surprised everybody. Getting down on his knees, he wrapped his jaws around the stake and slowly stood up pulling straight up and out the stake which had resisted him so resolutely a few moments earlier. The crowd’s surprise turned to adoration at his ability to overcome the impossible with a strategic approach.
And then I felt a shift of attention to me and I felt my stomach try to tie itself in a knot. Mayor Kayne walked over in preparation of giving me my quest. As he did so his eyes fell on the scabbard. Dread filled me. I had managed thus far to avoid letting that side of my cape to fall open. Now that it’d been seen I wondered how this would go.
“And last, but obviously not the least…” A few snorts of laughter from the crowd reached my ears in response to the mayor’s jest, and then silence. This silence stretched and I could feel the curiosity building in our “audience.” My mind echoed with what I was sure they were thinking. Thoughts like, “I wonder what the mayor will give the monster to do?” and “What could the mayor possibly be thinking, letting that half-fiend participate?”
After an eternity, the mayor’s voice broke the silence. “We’ve all awaited this momentous occasion: some with dread, others of us with curiosity at what you’ve learned after we allowed you to be brought up here in Stumpton. Well, here it is, Rickter: your chance. Your quest is this: What has your life here in our town taught you? What has your time spent among humankind and more specifically your guardian and mentor, Jonathan, armed you with?”
Had they asked me to fight a bear with my bare hands, or given me two fields to harvest in a day, or maybe even given me a quiz on the principles of forging steel I could’ve had more of a clue what was being asked me. I looked at the crowd, feeling suddenly like the idiot on display who doesn’t know the answer to the most simple of questions. Then I saw Jonathan standing in the crowd. He waved at me.
“Loyalty for friends and family.” I heard myself say. “My size and strength is as much a hamper as an aid to me: making people fear me, making it difficult for me to get through doors, even using commonly sized tools can be a hassle at times. Friends and family make those hassles seem trivial. The loyalty I’ve been shown by those close to me has been the greatest source of strength I have.”
Mayor Kayne bowed his head and whispered softly. “I’ve underestimated you, my boy.” Looking up at me, he smiled with watery eyes. “I was sure you were going to point at that pig-sticker at your side.”
“All entrants join me in the center,” yelled the little man. “We have earrings to hand out.”