I dig a small and shallow hole first to then expand on it. I keep going until my arm starts shaking from exhaustion. I take a break by going around the house while dragging my feet into the snow in order to gather more pieces of debris.
I find enough to build a secondary fire but the wood is wet so I stack it inside the house for later in the winter. I take the breached barrel where we stocked our food and bring it over the small hole I dug, I stomp down on the wood to make it fit inside and set it on fire with flow.
I then put the cooking pot on the blaze, I filled it with water before leaving for the village. While waiting for it to boil, I make my way to the handcart and bring it closer to the fire so I can eat in relative warmth.
Once I’m done, I go check up on the children, finding that they’ve barely even made any progress. There are still wooden chunks everywhere and strands of hay spread out all across the floor. They throw me looks of defiance, especially boy three.
I lay my hand on my knife’s handle, which makes them look away and pretend to work even harder, picking up one strand of hay at a time. I sigh and make my way to the well.
I resign myself, starting to lift a bucket of cold water up. I wrap the rope around my forearm and pull, repeating the action over and over until I end up panting with a bucket on the side of the well.
I wrap the long rope around my waist while I catch my breath to then head back to the gaping hole in my room’s wall, wondering if they took hammers or just spent weeks using their flow to dismantle it. I put the bucket down on the ground to pick it up by the rim and pick it up to rest the bottom on my thigh.
“Heads up.” I warn just as I cross the gap.
The four kids look up to me with blank and confused expressions until I propel the water in their general direction with my leg and arm. The way their eyes widen as the freezing cold water splashes at their feet and drenches them up to their ankles makes the energy I wasted doing this all worth it. They scream in anger and outrage which almost manages to make me smile.
“What did you do that for?!” Girl one yells.
“It stank.” I reply coolly.
Girl one and boy three move towards me with closed fists stop after taking a few steps. I think my expression is what causes them to stop but I can’t really see my face so it’s hard to tell. Boy one, with his broken ribs, and boy two, with his smashed nose, retreat in the corners of the room.
“I’ll have a lot more free time tomorrow to motivate you.” I tell them before departing.
I unwrap the rope from my waist and throw the bucket back into the well. The second fire I started is running out of wood so I take the cooking pot off the fire and pour the steaming water over it so it trickles into the hole I dug and softens up the ground.
I then shovel the cinders and wood chunks out before resuming my work. I keep working like this for hours on end in utter silence without my mantra, focused on getting enough done by nightfall to finish tomorrow morning to go hunting and foraging in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, the shovel slips out of my tired fingers a few times which slows me down considerably. I end up coming short by nightfall so I light up a tiny fire construct on a stick to light up the area and keep working. After a while, I hear footsteps approaching, likely the children.
“So, you done?” I ask, stepping out of the still shallow grave.
I wipe my brow before glancing at the kids. They’re dirty up to their knees and elbows with traces of soot on their clothes. Well, they shouldn’t have lit a fire in my room or even entered it.
They are also being oddly silent. I pick up the stick with the fire construct attached to it and raise it to take a look at their faces. They are showing awkward expressions, apparently taking stock of what I’m doing.
“Don’t make me come and find you tomorrow morning.” I grunt.
I plant the flaming stick back into my pile of loose ground and get back to digging. I fail to plant the shovel right a couple times, mostly because I’m being observed and that’s putting me on edge.
“Beat it!” I growl.
They leave slowly. I almost get out to chase them off but decide against the waste of energy. I get back to work but end up having to stop when I run out of flow to fuel my fire construct.
I end up having to eat a cold meal because I didn’t think ahead enough to realize I don’t have a flint, not that it matters much to me. I think of Leomi and what she could be doing, as I have during the day, but that doesn’t get me anywhere.
She’ll return, she has to. I lie down in a corner of the cart to go to sleep, aware that I’m going to need to plant the parasite soon. Likely between some thick bushes at the far end of the backyard where even my brother and I didn’t go explore when we were young.
— — —
I wake up at early dawn, rising with the sun to stretch my sore limbs. I immediately get to planting the parasite in the bushes, deciding that it’s a priority before the kids arrive in a few hours and that it needs to be done out of anyone’s sight.
I don’t bother to dig a hole, I merely use the shovel to push branches away and clear a small path. I drag the chest deep into the bushes and step out to make sure it can’t be seen even from someone standing in front of it.
I then unlock the chest and step back to kick the lid open. I wait for a few seconds before using a signaling construct to tell it that there is food. I am counting on the fact that I’ve kept doing this as I traveled to establish an understanding between us, that I’ll feed it as long as it doesn’t attack me.
The Little one sends a couple hesitant tendrils out. I grit my teeth and reach out with my right hand, hoping that this isn’t going to end into a fight because all I can really use is the lightning construct and lion strikes.
I will lose if this goes badly and becomes a contest of strength as I’m certain its tendrils are stronger than my arm. No, if it attacks, I need to use all my energy to knock it out with a bolt.
I slowly approach the parasite with my right hand, sensing continuous friend signals. It is reassuring to me that the Little one is slow in its response, almost lethargic, but I don’t trust it so I keep my guard up.
The parasite unearths more appendages that slowly climb up to my wrist like slow-growing vines. I send a friend message again as it pulls itself out of the wooden chest with my wrist.
The ten-kilogram parasite hangs itself on my arm, forcing me to make a huge effort to move it in the thickest part of the bush. The Little one’s tendrils release my wrist one after the other until the parasite drops on the ground.
It uses its appendages to explore its surroundings through touch until it finds the largest branches. At that point, it starts using its large root-like fingers to dig the earth and plant itself horizontally.
I’ll have to be careful not to step over it, it’ll likely pounce out of the ground. And keep an eye on these bushes in case they wither. I’ll have to keep giving it animal guts and vegetable peels to make sure it keeps seeing me as a provider even though I’m certain it can now find plenty to eat for itself.
Its lethargic behavior makes it unlikely that it’ll go after humans or animals unless they walk atop of it, but I still carve the word ‘danger’ on the inside of the chest’s lid and leave it there.
I then get out and use the shovel to push the branches I cleared back into place, including a few brambles that weren’t in the way before. Satisfied, I head back to the grave to resume digging on an empty stomach.
My state of mind takes a bit of a hit from my slow progress, I had estimated that it would take me a long time to do this with a single arm but instead of spending a few more hours, it’s going to take me a whole afternoon and morning.
I hear the kids from hundreds of meters away as they’re joking and talking loudly on the road. I grit my teeth, knowing full well that there isn’t much to do in the winter other than prepare for spring and take care of farm animals.
It helps that they turn quiet when they see the house and stop to stack stones from the wall they destroyed in the wheelbarrow they brought. They also took brooms along with them and are wearing gloves which shows that they intend to fix the wall today.
Yet, I see no sign of mortar. I sigh and resign myself to living with a draft until I find the time to make some. I could ask but I wouldn’t trust them to do it properly, mostly because I don’t think they know how.
I finish digging the grave at noon so I make my way back to the handcart to take Father’s bones. As I do, I catch sight of the two Hospitaliers making their way uphill with a wicker basket.
Checking up twice in two days isn’t a coincidence. I suppose I brought this on myself by being moderately aggressive. I walk around the house to take a look at the kids’ work in case I need to kick some butts before the Hospitaliers arrive.
I find the children sitting in a circle. They’ve stacked the stones back up and filled the gap, the wall isn’t entirely straight but it never was. They’re watching me with suspicious glances.
“Did you clean it all up inside?” I ask.
“Yes.” Boy two replies, pointing at a stack of hay and debris that they pushed to the edge of the yard.
“Then what are you waiting for to beat it?” I question.
“Lunch.” Boy one replies with a glare.
“Not here you’re not.” I inform them before flipping around to stomp towards the Hospitaliers.
They grow a bit tense, likely because of the fact I’m squeezing my knife’s handle, but keep walking. I plant myself in their way with a dark look on my face. They make awkward little bows.
“Good day, Ms Jessica.” The tall one speaks up.
“Names?” I ask.
“I’m Frank, this is Hale.” The shorty replies.
“Frank, Hale, what do you think you’re doing?” I question with a fake smile.
“Well, we thought that eating together would help ease the tensions.” Hale replies hesitantly.
“Girl one has been avoiding me for fear that I might turn her lesbian. Boy one has less brain than his father, and that’s saying a lot, he hasn’t come up with an original insult, ever. Boy two has never realized that the fact he doesn’t understand something isn’t an argument in his favor. Boy three is too clueless to realize that challenging me is a bad idea after I laid his three friends down singlehandedly.” I catch my breath as the angry barrage escaped me a bit. “Should continue? I can go into specifics.” I propose.
“No, we’ve heard plenty.” Frank replies awkwardly.
“No, no. It’s important you know that boy two thinks he’s a man, and that it somehow means that women shouldn’t talk back.” I press.
“They came back motivated last night and left this morning after their chores. They were repentant.” Hale tries.
I half-expected to be told that Roger’s mother left his family when he was a kid and that it’s hard for him but I doubt these two have been here long enough to have caught onto that story. I’m of the mind that the mother left because of how they treated her but I wasn’t born and people don’t really like talking about it.
“What did they say? That seeing dig my father’s grave set them straight, it made them realize how wrong they’ve behaved? I’m sure they feel real guilty.” I comment sarcastically.
“…” Frank throws a look at the kids over my shoulder.
His jaw is clenched while Hale looks discomfited, clearly they’ve been tricked. I would bark out in mocking laughter but I’ve wasted enough time and air on this.
“I expect the lot of you to be gone within the next minute.” I utter flatly. “I have things to do.”
I turn around and make my way to the handcart without letting them answer. I step over the slipknot and pull it up to my waist, fastening it. I pull the cart over to the side of our house, where we kept the dry wood for the winter.
I unpack everything into the main room, including my liangi’s case which also contains Suxen’s notebook, my mask, and my mail-shirt. I leave it in a corner of the room while I make the rounds outside to make sure the Hospitaliers and kids left.
Once I’m certain, I head back inside and start dislodging stones at the base of the northern wall. I then start scraping at the ground until I find the plank covering the hole we dug to keep our money safe.
I pull it towards me, because it’s still a bit lodged under a tiny space in the wall even after removing the base stones, and then up to uncover a small sack. I open it, finding what few coins I have left.
I replace the silver coins in my pouch with copper ones and then go out to pick the shovel. I dig at the sides of the holes until it’s long enough to be able to fit my liangi’s case, throwing the dirt out of the window.
I then store the case and place the plank back, shoving the stones I removed into their original place. I go out and take a deep breath. With this done, all that’s left is bury Father and start my new life by going out to hunt.
We have a week or two before we starve, plenty of time. I should also start scouring the area for Leomi. I unsheathe my hunting knife for a moment. I‘ll blame them as I will my Lady if she gave up. I shake my head and take the piece of cloth containing Father’s remains.
Normally, the Templar would officiate and people would show up. At least the villagers have enough sense not to show up, I’m not convinced Father agreed to have our stables dismantled and I would have turned them away anyway for how they sided with Buton. Funny how they suddenly hate the Baron.
I take a long look at Mother’s grave as I step down into Father’s, remembering how angry the burial ceremony and empty words uttered that day made me. How little it helped me or my family go through the ordeal, we only recovered with time, and work.
It makes me realize that no amount of apology, self-blame, praise, or prayers to the Lake would suffice. None of it seems appropriate. I unwrap the piece of cloth holding Father’s bones at the bottom of the grave to start transferring them one by one.
“Thank you, so much for, raising me, Mother, Father.” I utter as clearly as I can with my voice cracking from grief.
The words bring tears to my eyes that I let flow freely as I set his bones in order and place two copper coins over his eye-sockets. I do so because old stories relate that it was done in olden times.
In spite of my dismissing most of those long forgotten traditions as superstition, and even doubting the Lake at times, I need to provide Father the best chances I can.
I climb out of the grave as carefully as possible and start burying Father, taking great care in the first few dozen shovels of earth I throw in so as not to disturb the bones.
It takes me a long time to fill the grave but I take no breaks and use no flow. I take comfort in the fact that the Emperor is not Chosen as it means that the Lake doesn’t support any one being above any other, it doesn’t favor any species.
Father and Mother worked hard all their lives, it should count towards being blessed by the Lake in death. They never took hateful actions even if they weren’t perfect. If they aren’t welcomed by the golden flames, then no one would be.
“You took good care of us.” I speak up while looking to the sky, but not at the sun as looking at the dead could torment them with regret. “Brother will come pay his respects one day, I’m sure of it.” I take a deep breath. “I’ll survive. It took me a while but I’ve learned to trust what you taught me about life. It’s about how you face the challenges, not how much they hinder you.”
As I speak, my roiling sadness finds a resting place in my heart. Somewhere to lay without crushing me but also without disappearing. My grief remains harsh and difficult to bear, yet it is also a reminder of the love we had as a family and that they’ll always be with me.
I lay my hand over my heart, lean my head down until my chin touches my chest, and close my eyes before giving them my parting words. “You gave us everything we needed to forge our own paths. Father, Mother, you can now rest in peace.”
– Arc 06 End –