I enter our family’s cozy little house, it was somewhat small for all of us before my brother left for the continent, but now it’s just about the right size for just me and Father. A larger house would end up being an additional burden to maintain. I walk into my room, pushing aside the square of cheap fabric standing in for a door.
I throw a quick glance to the water basin at the corner of my room to make sure that I have some water left to clean up before swiftly taking off my work clothes. I leave them hanging on my chair before unwrapping the band of cloth constraining my breasts and letting a sigh of relief escape my lungs.
I grab the wooden dusting rod off the wall and start swatting my shirt and pants one by one over the window to get rid of the inevitable cloud of dust stuck between the fibers. Washing off the day’s grime with cold water takes me a good while but my hunger pushes me to flow through the motions quickly enough.
Our wood stove is laying against the back wall of the main room that also serves as a lobby, living room, and kitchen. I make my way to the cupboard and take out a pot that I fill with water before lighting a fire inside the stove with our flint and a tiny burst of flow to help the first flames take. I watch the water with fascination, but my hunger pushes itself to the forefront of my mind and shakes my stomach with a beastly growl.
“I heard that!” Father yells from the other side of the front door. “Emperor! My favorite daughter was eaten by a wolf, the beast has taken her place!” He fakes a gasp when he pushes the door open and walks in. But, to my perverse satisfaction, he stops cold when he sees me standing there. Naked like the day of my birth with only my breeches on as I stand in front of the stove. He makes a grunt and shakes his head. “How many times have I told you to at least wear a damn shirt!”
I suppress the giggle rising in the back of my throat but don’t bother to hide my irresistible smile. Father grabs one of my shirts from a chair in front of out fireplace where I left it to dry yesterday. He throws it at me with some frustration on his face. I let my smile recede and slip the shirt on.
I then start drawing on my meager reserve of flow. A tiny amount of energy that slowly regenerated over the whole afternoon while I resisted the temptation to burn through it to sustain my sore muscles. Such a tiny reserve wouldn’t have done much for me anyway.
“Are you not proud of your daughter, Father? Am I so hideous that you cannot bear the sight of me?” I exclaim in a theatrical voice.
I guide a trickle of my flow inside the pot’s water and split it several times to assemble a vibrating construct that should produce some heat.
“I’ll be proud the day you find modesty because such a thing would undoubtedly be the result of a serious effort on your part. You’ll be the death of me, I swear.” He sighs before swatting me away from the stove with one hand. “Put that away.” He says, noticing the meager amount of flow that I’ve painstakingly gathered in the water. “You won’t boil a single potato with that construct, especially if you use so little energy, here look.”
Father places a hand above the pot and releases a trickle of flow about twice the size of the one that I could manage, the stream spreads out and sinks through the heating plate. I kneel down to the fire’s level and see the energy form itself into a funnel shape that seems to guide and focus the flames towards the heating plate above. I hide the impressed expression on my face before standing back up. I find Father making a smug smile as he anchors the flow to the stove, so it maintains that shape.
“It’s much easier to guide things like heat where you want it to go than to outright create it, this is just a funnel construct that a blacksmith taught me a few decades ago.”
“Yes, stories about your mastery over boiling water have long since been heard beyond the walls of this house …” I grab and lift our empty water bucket. “… specifically, this bucket has long been a fervent admirer and I think you should take it outside to tell it stories of the many times you boiled water. Also, we’re out of water.”
Father lets out another exasperated grunt but he takes the bucket off my hands. I open the barrel on the left of the stove, we use it to keep food safe from rodents. I riffle past our bag of corn, push aside a salted ham, and find our bag of wheat. I’m not that hungry and Father hasn’t worked the fields today. We don’t really need meat tonight, it’s best to save it for another time, as usual.
Once the water starts boiling, I begin counting down the minutes to make absolutely sure that all possible bacteria and parasites that could be present in the water have died. I then add wheat and milk to the water and create a nutritious … something that could be considered appetizing if one is hungry enough. I am. Should have waited for Father to make the meal. I shrug, grabbing two bowls and spoons that I set on the table. Father walks back in with a full bucket of water.
I start recounting my day to him while we both get down to devouring the wheat sludge, skipping over most of the details to get to the fact that I gave up my energy reserves and that put us back some on our work schedule. We now have an unfinished field that messes with our plan to start sowing Monday morning. I quickly get to sharing the idea that I had to convince the Baron to reduce the amount of land allocated to our family, I don’t want to dwell on how late we are on the yearly schedule.
“I’ll try to talk to him if I see him at Temple tomorrow. If I don’t, I think there is a good chance he’ll come by the stables on Monday or Tuesday.” Father tells me.
“How has the herd been doing?” I ask.
“Pretty well, I’ve started teaching the lead mare how to trot along while using my flow influx, she’s taken rather well to it but this year will have to be a teaching experience for me, I don’t expect to succeed with this generation but I have hopes for the next one.” He stops for a second, thinking. “We could sell the oldest foal and buy a plow with the money, the other one isn’t much younger so we could use it in the field.”
“I’ll be fine on my own if we don’t need to pay as much in taxes next year, we should sell both of them and pay the Baron back.”
“That won’t nearly be enough.” Father shakes his head sadly. “Untrained horses aren’t worth much and I can’t get them up to Imperial or even Nobility standards. If you think you’re okay for now, then we might as well keep them and grow the herd.”
“Fair enough.” I concede with a shrug. “Oh, and, don’t think I haven’t noticed that very unsubtle jab, I know that I need to do at least as well as the previous generation.” Father smiles silently. I gobble down a spoon of my grub before I start talking again. “We’ll make a decision once you have an answer from the Baron, in the meantime I’ll spend tomorrow morning in the village trying to find an extra pair of hands to help out because otherwise, we will almost be guaranteed to fail at reaping everything in time for winter.”
I sit there in silence for a few minutes while I finish my bowl. Father imitates me, lost in thought. After a while, his shoulders straighten and he looks up to stares at me, eye to eye.
“You know this is a good opportunity to leave right? I can just as easily ask the Baron to repossess all of our cultivable lands, I can provide for myself with only the stables. We would be able to sell the whole harvest since we wouldn’t need to keep any grain to sow next year.”
I wiggle in my seat uncomfortably, we had just started talking about my leaving the house when Mother died of sickness. I dismissed all my plans out of hand when it happened because Father couldn’t have lived through that alone. I’m not sure he is ready now.
Always quick to use Father as an excuse. Is that what it is? Ever since the other kids found out about my … preference, they’ve been bordering on bullying me, maybe I’m just scared to leave home because I’ll end up what? Alone? I’m already alone, what difference does it make where I am?
An image of the Lady comes to my mind as soon as I try to picture where I could go. I dismiss it out of hand, I have no skills worthy of employment, even the smallest demesne has hundreds of people just as qualified, if not more than me for any task. Being able to grow wheat isn’t a skill worth noting.
All I really have going for myself is a relatively good control over my flow at least for my age. I spent the last two winters pretty much alone training my control since the other kids started to ostracize me. Any apprentice dedicated towards his craft would have better training and control.
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily.” I say with a teasing smile. “My plan is to make you pay me to leave in a few years when the stables are up and running. Maybe I’ll even find a way to send you to the hospice early, steal the stables away as soon they’re worth something.” I make a maniacal grin over the rim of my bowl as I push the rest of my wheat sludge inside my mouth to gulp down.
“Alright fine.” He says with a small smile. “We’ll talk about it next winter. But don’t you think I’ve forgotten how you kept talking about venturing out since you were about as high as three stacked apples. You only stopped talking about wandering when your Mother left us. I know the real reason you’re staying is that none of the horses I’ve trained thus far is worth stealing.”
“You caught me!” I let a chuckle escape me before getting up and dropping my bowl in the washing basin by the stove. I make my way towards my room, pushing the piece of fabric aside as I wave goodnight to Father.
I slide the shirt and breeches off before throwing myself into my unmade bed. Her image rises to the surface of my thoughts, one of her slender fingers pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. I pull my pillow closer to my chest and squeeze it as hard as I can, thinking of her as I wait to fall asleep.
— — —
No sun to wake me up this morning, I notice when I open my eyes. I hear a loud gust of wind as it howls around the house, creating an air current that disturbs the dust resting in-between the wall’s stones and makes it fall to the ground.
I gather myself and throw my legs over the side of the bed, half hoping that the momentum would leverage me into a sitting position … having failed that because of the lack of energy behind the motion, I resign myself to use my sore back muscles to get up.
I used to look forward to Emperor’s day, first because it’s a day off and who doesn’t like those? But second, it was the only day of the week where I could get together with everyone my age. I make a heavy sigh.
More important things should occupy my thoughts, like the very real risk that we may be bankrupt before the end of the year. An early winter would cost us half the harvest at the very least. I would actually rather go work the field this morning if it was allowed but that’s not an option. The Emperor is owed his due.
I grab the cleanest pair of pants I can find along with a shirt but don’t try to care for my appearance beyond that. The only reputation that I have is one of mockery, so I’m just not going to bother too much. I get to the water basin in the corner and plunge my face into the cold water, quickly wiping the last traces of sleep from the corners of my eyes.
I take my heavy winter cape off of a hook near the front door and throw it on my back. I unlock the door to find that the weather outside is about as crappy as I expected, cloudy with enough wind that walking to the village temple is likely to be a chore.
The journey to the village is without incident, my cape is thick enough to block most of the cold, the heavy wind disturbs it with enough strength to make it clap against my legs but I welcome the distraction against both boredom and dark thoughts.
The village’s streets are somewhat filled with people, not as much as they could be but there are a half-dozen families going about. Some are already heading towards the temple’s entrance in the middle of the market plaza at the center of the village.
I make my way towards the storekeeper, she is standing near their empty front stalls with her husband and daughter. I spot the storekeeper trying to hide a wet handkerchief as I approach, I also notice her daughter’s swift movement when she passes her sleeve over her cheek. I make sure to be impassive as I approach, a nostalgic memory of my Mother doing the same kind of last minute adjustments to my appearance right before temple comes to my mind.
“Hello Ms. and Mr. Conner, how are you doing today?” I salute them with a smile.
“If it isn’t Jessica, I haven’t seen you in forever, we are quite well thank you. How have the two of you been faring?” She asks with a warm smile. I pointedly ignore her husband’s furrowed brows or the daughter making a half step to hide behind him, as if I would suddenly jump and eat her. I resist the urge to roll my eyes.
“Well, the stables have been doing quite well and the Lord Baron has been kind enough to regularly bring his mounts over so Father has been busy.” I pass over the fact that none of that work is paid for by the Baron, it is kind of an open secret in the village.
“Ah! Yes, how … fortunate.” She says in a thankfully neutral voice. I once again pointedly ignore her husband as he barely disguises his scoff.
“I am ashamed to admit that I wasn’t quite able to sustain the workload by myself and haven’t even started on sowing.” I tell her in a tightly controlled tone of voice.
“I am sorry to hear that, dear. I heard that your old plow broke. That couldn’t have helped matters. How can I help?”
I wanted to ask your husband and daughter to help but that’s not happening going by how that girl is afraid I’ll eat her and he obviously doesn’t like me. And that’s the family with the least to lose by associating with me and my Father. They own the only general store in town so the rest of the village doesn’t even dare to talk too loudly in their general direction. I make a resigned sigh.
“Perhaps you could refer me to anyone with free time next week?”
“Ah. I’m afraid …” She glances at her family over her shoulder. “No one is quite … willing.” The fact that her face is hidden by her shoulder doesn’t quite hide the frown of disapproval she is directing at them. She turns back towards me with an apologetic smile.
“It’s quite alright Ms. Conner.” I hurriedly say. “I’ll be on …”
“But I can give you some of my time next week.” She interrupts me with a kind smile. “The winter season approaches so we’re quite busy, but I’m sure my daughter can take over for a day or two, it will do her some good to learn the ropes.”
“What! No! Mooom!” The daughter, Emily, steps out from behind her Father to protest with outrage.
“Silence young Lady! I’ve heard all about the appointments with your tutor that you’ve skipped lately, you will do this with a smile on your face.” Ms. Conner doesn’t even turn around as she admonishes Emily.
“Thank you so very much, Ms. Conner!” I spout in half disbelief. “If you ever need anything, just tell me!”
“That won’t be necessary dear, just tell me when you’ll need me and I’ll make time.”
“Wednesday and Thursday! I’ll come by your store, it’s quite hard to tell whose field belongs to who if you don’t know the local area.”
“Alright, that’s what we’ll do then. Now tell me what your plans for next year are since you were caught by surprise this year.”
She places a hand on my shoulder and makes a slight push towards the street, towards the market’s plaza. We start walking together and I hear her husband and daughter follow us mostly in silence, a few grumbles can’t even touch my mood right now.
“Well, there are a few things we can do. As you know we already have two foals growing up so we thought that we could perhaps sell one to buy a new plow and use the other as a farm animal.”
“Ah.” She makes a face. “You would have to sell both, and even then … I’m sorry to tell you that you will need to train both first. The price of iron has climbed so high that even I was not able to replenish my tool shelf this year.”
“That is sadly the same conclusion that we came to. Thank you for confirming it for me.” I make a resigned shrug. “Our only other option is to plead to the Lord Baron, ask him to redistribute some of our allocated lands, maybe even all of our cultivable land except for the pastures.”
I hear a mocking laugh being suppressed behind us, as I turn to look, I catch a glimpse of the pity on Ms. Conner’s face.
“Have some decency, Robert!” She reprimands her husband.
“Wh …?” I stop, unsure of what to ask.
“I apologize for his lack of manners.”
“Its … nothing?” What was that about? “I’ve taken enough of your time Ms. Conner, I can’t thank you enough for your help and for your advice.”
“That’s alright dear. Have a nice day.” She smiles at me as the rest of her family grumbles unintelligible words in my direction, I chose to ignore them.
I make my way towards the market plaza, most of its pavement is old and battered but the circle of stone around the stairs leading down into the temple is well maintained. There are flow torches illuminating both the entrance and the tunnel leading down, just long pieces of wood with a fire construct anchored on one end. The tunnel’s walls are made of cleanly cut stones that join together in a small arch above my head. The tunnel itself is wide enough to allow three people to walk side by side.
After going down the stairs for a while, I see one of the torches ahead of me flickering. I close the distance and take it off its metal spiral mount. I reach for a stand of flow and wrap it around the top third of the torch, anchoring it to the wood before linking my flow to the dying fire construct with the intent to fuel it.
I put the torch back in its mount and continue walking down, I reach the temple’s entrance soon after. The first room serves as a vestibule, a place for people to wait for a Templar to come and welcome them in. There is only a single Templar for a village as small as this one, so the room could get busy if too many come give their due at once, but the village is old and people have learned how to stagger their arrivals. It is rare that I have to wait for the Templar to show up.
Voices reach me from further inside the temple, perhaps originating all the way from the leyline. This temple is quite far from the capital and the village is quite poor so the leyline itself isn’t very deep underground and is rather small, making echoes a common occurrence. Not that I should complain, I would rather not go down several kilometers as is necessary to reach the main temple built around the central node under the capital.
The depth at which a village or city’s founding temple is built depends on its distance to the nearest node, it cannot be situated lower because it consumes much less energy to guide flow downwards than it does to make it go a single direction on flat land.
What is really revealing of the lack of ambition displayed by those who founded the village is the size of the temple: a single vestibule, a main room for ceremonies, and a circular node room where the leylines connect. This node is a dead-end because no other leyline connects to it. The founders weren’t exactly wrong to be frugal since this temple has remained a dead-end despite a hundred and fifty years of existence.
I finally spot the temple guard approaching, he is walking with a family of four. They pass me by and they give their goodbyes to the Templar. They ignore my existence completely and I return the favor.