Father coughed. He was stoking the embers in the fire place as Abigail kept a trained eye on her needles. One stitch, two stitch. Back stitch. Purl stitch. Mother watched her carefully.
It had been raining in Oledanick for more than a week. The calm drip drop on the tin roof had become muted behind one’s inward thoughts. Adrik scarcely heard them anymore. His sword glistened in the back light of the fire glow.
He stood, restless. Most of the villagers rarely ventured out when the skies opened. Adrik climbed the crude stairs to his loft, a retreat from the mundane activities of his family who paid barely a mind to his recent behaviour. Father and Mother accepted in stride that he planned to represent the Eastern Village in the duel. Whether they trusted he to be successful was another matter entirely.
Adrik brushed the straw from his window sill. Under Oledanick’s Eastern moon, the castle shone like a star amid the storm. A beacon, he decided. A beacon calling him home. Once King Frances witnessed his champion swordsmanship, he would defeat not only his opponent for Princess Isabella’s hand in marriage, but the fate of becoming a blacksmith like his father and grandfather before him. Adrik had studied fencing since he was old enough to walk, his Uncle regaling tales from the Kingdom that would finally bring an end to the life of poverty his ancestors had been banished to from years of living under tin roofs in the Village.
At nearly seventeen, Adrik stood well above his father’s height. Although, one could surmise that the senior had become frail and weather worn over the years of being bent at the waist, hammering heated metal into horse shoes and the occasional Royal steel to be used by the soldiers of King Frances’ army. Father’s ragged hands disturbed Adrik. Those callouses represented centuries of a life beneath him. And while he was once brought up to take his rightful place in the sweat-soaked shop that barely kept bread on the table, he was determined that he’d break the vicious cycle of mediocrity by ascending King Frances’ throne.
Adrik turned to his bunk. Between his pillow of duck feathers and quilted afghan his mother scrapped together from pieces of discarded lamb wool lay the leather bound book of Oledanick’s chronic history and legend.
He folded his lean legs together on the floor and carefully placed the book to his lap. He had stolen it from the Chandra deep inside the Swathan Woods. Stolen? He smirked to himself. Borrowed, perhaps.
Entrenched among the pages, a long lineage of Oledanick’s Kings and Queens. As he tenderly unbound the bindings, the book seemed to sigh as her pages opened like an old friend longing to be touched. Adrik found himself engrossed in her secrets; secrets he’d read over and over by lantern light, scouring and dissecting each word until he could recite them by memory.
A damp lock of raven hair fell limply across his forehead. The humidity of the tin shack was taking its toll. Adrik pushed it away and pressed on.
Under Oledanick Law, the heir to the throne shall be a son, rich with Royal blood. Should a son not befall the Queen, the Eastern and Western Villages shall summon forward their finest and bravest men to partake of a feat of strength. The final two noblest of champions will engage in a duel of the sword. He whom becomes victorious shall wed the Royal Princess, and ascend the throne.
Adrik read the words again. They became engrained in his mind. Not for centuries had the Queen only birthed a daughter. The Oledanick throne had become a long line of rightful male heirs. A feat of strength had since become fables, legends. But the time had come. Isabella had surpassed her sixteenth birthday, and King Frances was forced to declare a feat of strength over the Eastern and Western villages.
“Adrik!” his father called from below.
He snapped the book shut, replacing it to its place on his bunk. He worried little. The Chandra had all but assured his victory. Adrik peered out again to the castle, then suddenly shifting his eyes westward. Who would they send? The Eastern and Western Villages notoriously stayed in their own direction. They were separated save for the Yuwlah Bridge that only few ever crossed, given the Yuwlahish people collected tolls from passerbys. Less, of course, you braved the Swathan Woods to cross into either territory. And, unless, you were prepared to meet the Chandra, a villager would never purposely tread into the forest; you were best to pay the toll than risk your fate. I am not like the others, Adrik mused.
“Adrik, your Father has called you!” Mother’s voice rang out.
He descended the steps. The rain had all but ceased into a drizzle on their tiny shack. Abigail looked up from her patchwork. “Your turn to set the table!” her ten-year-old voice squawked at him. He tugged on her matching dark hair, “Is that so, Abigail, dear?” he teased her.
“Mom said!” she stuck her tongue out at him. Adrik kissed her forehead. “You just keep to your sewing, little one,” he smiled. Then he turned and collected the wooden bowls from the shelves next to her. “I think I can handle it.”
Mother brushed the flour from her hands on her skirt apron. “I fear that we have not much more than bread and stew,” she looked at him with sad eyes. “Your father hopes you’ll join him tonight in the shop. See if you can help him earn some extra quelles, could you Adrik, please?”
“Mother,” Adrik reached out and embraced her. “One day, we will have more than quelles. One day I will ensure this family has far more riches than you could dream.” Mother adjusted her hair pins, looking at him with faint hope and prayer.
“Tonight we feast on lamb stew,” he proclaimed, “But soon, we will feast like Royalty,” he promised.
The Chandra guarantees it, he thought.
“Does it rain in the Eastern Village, too?” asked little Sadie with her blue eyes shining up to see Easton.
“Of course it does,” Easton smiled.
“Then where are you going?”
Ten year olds, thought Easton. He fumbled with his satchel, shoving a scroll into his pack. Sadie’s blonde hair matched it exactly, and he tousled it. “Stop that!” she squealed.
“Let me look at you,” Mother cupped his chin. She was more than a foot shorter, and yet, she still made Easton feel like a child and not a young man of seventeen.
“Mother,” he pleaded. His father laughed at the table, gingerly dipping his bread into his broth.
Mother framed his face, his rugged jawline, and gently floated her fingers down his face, just as she did when he was a boy. “I don’t like this,” she said at last.
“Mother,” he repeated. “It’s my duty to report to the Kingdom that I plan to participate in the Feat of Strength.”
She dabbed her eyes with her apron. “Your Father has a good job here in the Western Village. We ask for so little. You could the same.”
Easton adjusted his tunic, and laced his boots. He snuck a quick look in the makeshift mirror fastened to the wall of their shack. “Mother, for centuries our family has lived with barely scraps. Sadie is forced to work in the market. Father is barely able to bring home the meat for the broth. While a blacksmith is honourable, and difficult, it is not enough. And now I have a chance to sit on the throne. You know my fencing is beyond all those of the Western Village.”
Mother clasped her hands and only nodded. “You are right, Son,” Father said, leaving his dishes on the table. “Mother,” he smiled, assuredly, “tonight we have lamb broth. But tomorrow could be more cabbage. Lettuces from your garden. We have a growing boy, here! Let him fight for the honour of our family and our Village.” Turning, he snuck a grin to Easton, “Marick be damned if one of those Easterners think they’ll win it!”
“Jeremiah!” Mother exclaimed, and Father winked at Easton. “Sorry for my tongue, Mother. Easton, you have all you need for this journey to the Castle?”
“The toll! What about the Yuwlahish?” Sadie cried. “They’ll eat you, if you don’t pay the toll, you know!”
Easton lifted her into his arms. “They won’t eat me, Sadie. I’ve brought two quelles with me and a loaf of Mother’s finest bread.” He tickled her, “They don’t eat people, anyway.”
“Yes they do! That’s what the girls said at school!” Sadie implored, then cupping her hands whispered to Easton, “I think my teacher is from Yuwlah.”
Children and their storytelling, thought Easton lowering Sadie to the ground. Her tattered, olive-coloured dress swirled around her. “Just be careful!”
Easton took a look from his mother and father. He had his map, his quelles, a few bits of nuts and water in his sack to satisfy him. The Kingdom was a three day journey, not to mention the rain that may have washed out much of the path.
But that’s all they needed to know. Three days to the Kingdom, three days home. Should they had known his map guided him to Mount Tempest, they’d have barricaded the door. This gave him a six day head start. He kissed his mother, and shook Father’s hand. He knelt to Sadie’s level, and squeezed her.
“I love you all so much,” he said to them, and left under a sky lit with the Western Moon. The rain greeted him. He looked back once, just to lock it into memory before he allowed him to forget he was ever there at all.