“.. ce more.” Thunk. “Once more.” Thunk. “Once more.” Clink! My pickaxe’s head finally hits the rock I have been looking for during the past half hour, while chanting my tired old mantra. I let go of my good old pickaxe and plunge my hand into the freshly upturned ground, manually seeking the obnoxious stone that interrupted the day’s plowing.
I find the stone a good twenty centimeters underground, wiggle my fingers around it and start pulling at the rock as I concentrate. I focus my flow into a construct to strengthen the muscles that I feel are currently working the hardest. After a few seconds of effort aided by flow, I finally rip the stone out of the ground. Sadly, the rock is accompanied by spray of brown earth that is projected upwards around me. The fine powdered rain of soil manages to insinuate itself all over me, under my clothes, and even all the way under the strip of cloth I’m using as a bra.
The day’s sweat was already unpleasant, but now, I’m also going to have to deal with the itchiness. I let a sigh past my dry lips and store the rock in my pocket because I can’t quite throw far enough from the middle of the field without using a burst of flow … I throw a quick glance up at the sky and find the sun almost directly above. Yeah, midday, I can’t be wasting energy when I’m only halfway through.
I kneel down to pick up the pickaxe and go back to plowing the field along with my old chanting refrain. “Once more.” Thunk. Wonder if dad will be finished … “Once more.” Thunk. … early enough to help me today. “Once more.” Thunk. I knew yesterday was a … “Once more.” Thunk. … lost cause with that Baron coming over to organize another of his … “Once more.” Thunk. … excursions, but we really need to finish this field before weekend or we’ll be … “Once more.” Thunk. … field behind at the start of the season.
A twinge of pain in my muscles tells me that I’ll either have to take a break or channel a trickle of flow just to keep going, but since its midday I’ll take the break. “Once more.” Thunk. I leave the pickaxe in the ground and turn around to start walking towards a large oak tree resting along the old paved road passing by this field. However, I quickly forget all about the lunch waiting for me under the foliage’s shadow as I spot half-dozen horsemen trotting along in my direction, armed and armored.
Nothing more than swords and hard leather armor … but going by the tints of golden embroidery they aren’t guardsmen. A nervous bundle forms inside my throat, I try to swallow to make it go away but my mouth is dry. I try to roll my shoulders but it only serves to remind me of the soil that got inside my bra and mixed with my sweat for extra discomfort.
“Fuck. Me. Today is not my day.”
I swat my overalls with the flat of my hands to disperse as much of the dust and grime sticking to the cloth as possible, very, very conscious of the fact that my forehead may or may not have tracks of sweat coursing through a mixture of dirt and wild strands of black hair. The exact image I usually find in a bucket of water at the end of the day. The question isn’t whether I’m presentable or not … the question is, to what degree am I not?
Good news is that panicking about my appearance has smothered the bundle of nerves forming in my throat … and moved it all the way down to the pit of my stomach. I chose to believe that the situation has improved.
The horsemen are organized two by two in a column, I vaguely remember that I’ve always seen the Baron ride to the left of his column while it took the right side of the road, no doubt for some security or protocol reasons. While I don’t know the specific reasoning involved … this does tell me that the sole woman of the group is likely the one leading them as she occupies precisely the position that the Baron has in the past.
I almost let a sigh of relief escape me before catching myself in time to keep it in. Figuring out who’s leading who doesn’t help me. I take another look at the group and notice that the other five present with her are just as well equipped and none of them are in the kind of bodyguard uniforms I’ve seen a noble’s escorts wear.
I’ve sufficiently observed my father’s dealings with the Baron to conclude that the best way to deal with nobility is to avoid dealing with nobility. We are simply not their equal, be it in intelligence, wealth or flow, the manners in which they outclass us low-born are so numerous that they reach beyond what mere titles can proclaim.
My steps slow down almost imperceptibly as I near the side of the road, hoping that the column would pass by before I reach the pavement, making sure that these … Gulp. … six high-born have every opportunity to ignore me as they go about their important ways and affairs. Perhaps if I mentally praise them enough, they’ll go away.
But no, no such luck, I can already see them slow down and edge towards my side of the road, visibly intent on speaking to me. Fuck. I don’t even dare swear under my breath even though they probably wouldn’t hear, although now that I think about it, the law doesn’t allow them to punish me for swearing …
… the law means nothing when you’re alone in a field without witnesses. And the bundle signaling impending doom is back in my throat, stronger than ever. Well played, Jessica, well played.
The column of nobles stops a dozen meters away from me, I barely register when a man splits from it and moves towards me. The gorgeous woman leading them had already captured my undivided attention. I stare, unable to blink, like a deer facing a forest fire, fascinated, evaluating the danger. I then stare like a prey meeting a predator it cannot run from, understanding that the avenues of escape are blocked. She’s so strikingly beautiful … maybe today is my day.
She throws a sharp glance my way. Her eyes flash up and down, then left to right, the swift movement makes me take notice of their light gray color despite the fact that my attention was originally converging towards the strands of straight black hair tucked behind her ears. I can already imagine how a strand of her unbound hair might often escape from behind their cute round refuge, how she might casually raise a hand and flick the rebellious strand away with her long fingers.
The interruption breaks my illusion so efficiently that I almost hear glass breaking in the back of my mind. That word. Sirrah. An irrational feeling of shame overtakes me as I understand that this man not only used a demeaning word to address me, but a demeaning word meant for … men, boys. For the first time in my life, I feel regret at not being called a wench.
I lower my head almost in a panic, afraid that the noble may catch a glimpse of my anger … and perhaps a twinge of sadness at the broken illusion he tore me from.
“Yes my lord, how can I serve you?” I reply in as neutral and humble a tone I can.
“We wish to reach the Baron’s castle before nightfall, tell us of the swiftest route, Sirrah.”
The noble’s eyes look down at me with impatience, but he hasn’t finished that another of their group raises their voice.
“Don’t be so formal Patrick, you’ll frighten the girl stiff!”
“Girl? Are you certain Nicolas?”
The noble in front of me, Patrick, makes a gesture of readjusting his collar as he inspects me closer.
“My Apologies.” He continues without waiting for an answer from the noble named Nicolas. “I can only blame my inexperience in the ways of the world to have been so blind, once again, apologies.”
“Of course, my lord, it’s probably my fault with how I look …” At least he hasn’t called me a wench. I don’t let the thought trip me up and barrel through my answer to try to hurry this along. “To reach my liege’s castle, you may continue on this road until you reach a crossing in two and a half kilometers, there should be a sign indicating that the leftmost road will lead to the castle.” I think for a second and add something, lest they get lost somehow and blame me. “The Baron’s dungeon doubles as a lighthouse and should be visible from several kilometers up and down the coast.”
“You have our thanks … young fellow.”
The noble, Patrick fumbles the end of that sentence but my attention is elsewhere as the young lady lightly taps her horse to make it move a few steps towards us. She looked about my age … The thought escapes me before I can clamp down on it and that almost causes me to miss her question.
“T … me, … you in the process of plowing this field?” Her voice is clear with a touch of arrogance to it.
“Hum? Yes? Yes. That’s my pickaxe there I’m using.” I stammer through the sentence feeling like an idiot before I’m halfway through.
“You plow your field, with a pickaxe no less, this late in the season.?”
Her tone of voice remains a remarkably neutral, throughout if only a single note away from scathing criticism. But once again Nicolas interrupts.
“We need to make time if we are to make it by sunset so quit embarrassing the peasant, it isn’t difficult to gather that either she knows no better or has no other option.”
I can feel a red-hot feeling fill my cheeks all the way to the lobes of my ears, a scathing shame that I can only hope isn’t visible on the outside, a delusion maintained by the lady’s lack of reaction despite the fact that her eyes seem to be peering straight into me.
“Agreed, let us make time.”
The lady states as she flicks the reins of her horse to guide it back towards the center of the road. I do hear her make a remark as she rejoins the group, saying that the lands seem rather more impoverished than she expected, Nicolas moderates the observation by saying that they can hardly judge a whole barony with a single encounter.
The lady calls as she signals the group to reform the column. Her cry brings him to my attention and the fact that he hasn’t left yet.
“You are barely one-third down your flow reserve for the day.” He remarks with an accusing tone.
I stop, unsure of how to explain that I like burning through my flow reserve towards the day’s end to finish work in a more restful stride but he cuts my reflection off, having clearly already made his mind.
“The lazy do not deserve the blessing of the Lake!” He snaps fervently. “It is unlucky for you that you’ve met me, I am somewhat distantly related to your liege through common titles so while I cannot command the direction of your flow I could see the state of your reserves, take it as a lesson and improve your character.” He nods with self-satisfaction. “Yes, you will direct what remains of your reserves to me.”
Outrage and anger rise in me as the noble’s accusations are all but judgments and criticism of my character, made worse by the fact that it is all unwarranted and untrue. I start to raise an objection but as my anger made me raise my chin it also allowed me to spot the look of contempt shown by the rise of his upper lip, his eyes contained a patient challenge, as if waiting to see if I would give him an excuse to take this further.
Alone in a field without witnesses.
My earlier thought comes back to me. I swiftly lower my chin, bending my spine and immediately working to gather my reserves. I direct the flow inside my palm and gather the energy in a circular motion that forms a tiny golden sphere, I direct the flow towards the young noble in front of me at a very low velocity. I don’t add any pointless delays and swiftly cut my ties to it.
The release makes me feel light-headed with a pronounced weakness in the back of my knees and my muscles start shaking slightly. While the aftereffects of cutting my reserves loose hit me, on top of my physical fatigue, the noble exercises his claim to the free flow and swipes the small golden sphere out of the air in a casual sleight of hand, he leaves immediately after to rejoin the column of nobles.
I make my way back towards the oak tree, staggering more than walking. The journey of a dozen meters takes me so much time that when I look back for the column, I find it already disappearing behind a hill further down the road.
I let a sigh of relief escape me as I let myself crash against the large oak trunk, making use of it as a backrest, the morning’s work plus that encounter left me with enough cold sweats running down my back that I spend the next several minutes laying there, enjoying the feel of the rough bark as it scratches the itch left behind by drying sweat and massages my sore shoulder muscles. A wide, satisfied and most certainly unladylike smile spreads on my face as my body’s tension finally recedes.
“Sirrah.?” I mutter. “Well fuck you too ass-face.”
I blindly throw an exploratory arm around the base of the big oak in a lazy effort to locate the day’s baked potatoes secured under a handkerchief tied in a knot. Simultaneously crossing my legs to find the optimal position to leverage my left shoe off, using the right foot’s big toe. Lunch passes by much too quickly for my taste as I wolf down the two large potatoes in under two minutes, but I hadn’t planned to be so hungry and out of flow that morning so I didn’t pack more.
“Once more.” I groan as my muscles protest against the brusque motion of standing up.
The sun makes itself known on the walk back towards the middle of the field, making me regret my lack of flow reserves already. I throw a wary glance over my shoulder to look at the road and sigh in relief as I find it covered only with dust and dirt.
I close my grip on the pickaxe but find the handle to be dry and covered in brittle dirt, I bring both my calloused hands in front of my mouth and spit in both the palms, serving both to secure my grip and ensure that I won’t suffer too much friction to the skin of my hands before warming up into the rhythm, the first few minutes will define the flow of the work after all.
“Once more.” I whisper as I lift the pickaxe. Thunk. “Once more.” Thunk. She was so pretty; … “Once more.” Thunk. Hum, good rhythm. “Once more.” Thunk. … I didn’t get her name though … “Once more.” Thunk. … I don’t think the two ass-hats used it; … “Once more.” Thunk. … and the other three didn’t talk. “Once more.” Thunk.
The afternoon passes me by monotonously but despite the steady rhythm I fell into, I couldn’t help but fall behind schedule without a trickle of flow to call upon. I notice that a whole third of the field is still left to be plowed when the furthest trees on the horizon begin to filter the sunlight, a common way to mark the end of the day’s work.
Father never showed, a small sigh escapes my lips, tomorrow is Emperor’s day, it marks the end of the week, and the Lord Baron has asked that my father be prepared to give his time the Monday after that.
So, one whole field and another third left to plow, with one day left to do it … We were already late on the season’s schedule, this is going to put us even further behind because there is no way I’ll be able to work through a field and a third in a single day. Depending on when the first winter storm arrives, we could lose a whole field to storms before we can get to reaping it … I lift my pickaxe up, throw it above my shoulder and let it rest there, on its equilibrium point for a while before placing a hand on top of it to start walking back home.
The problem is that even if we don’t seed that field we’ll still have to pay the grain and coin tax for the land we cultivate in full. Seeding that field on our late schedule is a risk, so the safest bet is to keep the sowing grain and use it to pay the tax. But that will leave us with a lesser overall harvest. So, not only is winter going to be tough, we’ll start next year with less grain than we did this year, the problems will only compound themselves because the Baron has been taking more and more of father’s time with no sign of stopping.
That damn Baron has been behaving like the stables belong to him just because he lent us the money to start, not even paying us for the horses he constantly borrows or paying rent for the stalls he occupies. We would have paid the money back already if he remunerated the work he makes us do. But no, as soon as it was obvious that father was succeeding in raising a horse herd, he began acting like his money was an investment instead of a loan, behaving like half of everything actually belongs to him. Well, behaving like everything belongs to him, just to a higher degree than usual.
We have too much land for me alone to work, we can’t afford to hire anyone to help and the rest of the folk don’t like us so much now that they think Father is trying to move up in the world with the stable business. We could ask the Baron to take back some of the lands he is lending us, give me less work and if we give back two whole fields we can sell the surplus grain we won’t need for next year’s seeding and add to the money saved to pay the debt back.
I’ll make the calculations home but what is certain is that the current work arrangement isn’t sustainable, we can’t even afford to replace the plow that I broke this summer because the price of iron is sky-high on the island since the mines closed down. The village folks aren’t wrong when they say father wants to reach above our station, we could have just bought a couple of cattle along with a large plow instead of borrowing money and starting on a whole different business, not that he could have known the Baron would command so much of his time so I can’t really blame him.
I take a deep breath and let it go with a big sigh, playing at making the pickaxe turn in my hand, we bought it at a discount from a laid-off miner a few years back. Maybe I can travel to the city this winter, it’s on the opposite side of the island but if the weather is calm enough it wouldn’t be too hard of a trip and I can do some odd jobs for a few months. Maybe sell my reserves of energy in the worst case scenario if I don’t find anything. No one has enough of a need here to pay for that, and I really don’t want to spend another winter burning every day’s flow on control practice.
The large stable is the first building I see after I make it to atop the final hill before reaching home. I see the lights are still on, hum. I’ll start by making supper then, I shrug and make my way towards our humble stone house with a thick layer of ivy covering its exterior.
As is usual, the first thought that comes to my mind when I get home is that the ivy does more to keep the stones anchored together than the aging mortar.