As is the nature of children, they tend to meditate upon that which most adults would ignore. They also have a tendency of perceiving insults when none are actually forthcoming. Marshall was not immune to this.
‘Building and navigating are not for all.’ Marhsall felt Meylinn’s eyes all over him. Weighing. Judging. The ferocity of her gaze made him feel both uncomfortable and inadequate. Clearly she was not impressed with what she had gleaned. ‘Let us try him as a cook’s apprentice for a while…or maybe a tailor,’ she said finally with a self-satisfied nod.
A tailor, the thought struck Marshall with such a force that it emboldened him to speak. ‘Actually,’ he began ignoring the furious look on Varick’s face. ‘I am twelve,’ he paused, letting it sink in. ‘I am an excellent rider, hunter and a damn good reader. Probably better than you.’ His face bore an expression of contentment, smugness and victory. It lasted but a second.
He felt the stinging of the blow before he realised what had happened. Then, with the clarity that one has upon tasting their own blood, he knew.
To her credit, the old lady didn’t flinch at the sight of the blow. Marshall hoped, foolishly, childishly, she would not forget this incident.
‘He talks too much,’ Varick was rubbing the back of his hand. ‘He will apprentice in the coming week.’ With that, the discussion had ended.
Marshall was ignored for the rest of the meeting. He sat with his shame and fury for company. Eyes cast down, cloaked in a sullen silence. He sat and listened for the next hour as his father and Meylinn finalised the terms of their agreement. The old woman proved to be an apt negotiator. She managed to get Varick to agree to scouting and hunting for her. He would also ‘pay tribute’ by building his own shelter, donating one of his horses, carrying out some menial repairs on the neighbouring ‘homes’ and ensuring his son ‘kept a civil tongue.’
In exchange for the protection of the Scrapi and being able to hide in plain sight, Marshall would be apprenticed to a builder within a week or when he overcame his sickness – whichever came sooner. Varick would also be afforded the use of building materials and tools. He also was given the freedom to take one night off from scouting to ‘train’ his son.
Marshall hated the idea. Varick was too impatient and too harsh a teacher. He expected nothing less than perfection from Marshall and he expected that promptly. The vagueness of the agreement also worried Marshall. What does he mean by ‘train’?
‘Bring the horses, remove our belongings and the saddles. I’ll be damned if she gets a hair more than we bargained for,’ each instruction punctuated by a tap on Marshall’s shoulder. As usual Marshall had to intently focus on his father to follow the instructions. He did his best to match Varick’s brisk stride.
Why must he talk so quietly during this clamour, Marshall thought. The hail had subsided and the sun was trying to peak out from behind the low, grey clouds. The morning was not any warmer than when they had arrived, but that did not dissuade the locals from leaving their unconventional residences.
The offensive sights and smells that Marshall had observed on their way to Meylinn’s wagon were ever present and now intermingling with the sounds of people going about their daily work. He was greeted and sworn at in equal measure and in a smattering of languages.
‘Take care not to damage anything,’ Varick continued, seemingly ignorant of those around him. ‘Set up the tent. Do that far away enough from others to afford us some privacy, but not far enough to appear suspicious.’
At each tap, Marshall was reminded the value of earnest concentration. But that was hard to do with the tumult that was surrounding him.
Marshall’s reverie was broken by a large man who stepped out in front of them. He smiled an overly toothy smile and began talking about the range of furs he had for sale. As he did so, a small girl reached for Varick’s belt. She mush have taken a fancy to his knife. In a smooth and measured movement, Varick caught her arm, spun her around and gave her a not so gentle boot up the behind. All the while, he kept his eyes on the toothy man and ignored the vehement protestations of the girl.
There was no shock, not anger and no compunction. The girl ran off, rubbing her backside and the toothy man made an awkward bow that said ‘I’ll try harder next time’ and less ‘Sorry for trying to rob you.’
Varick acknowledged this with nothing more than a nod. Immediately thereafter they were making their way through the crowd. To Marshall, it seemed that the amount of people around him was disproportionate to the dwellings that he had seen.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
As children are wont to do, his gaze began to wander as thought he was trying to commit all that he could see to memory. He watched as a large man bear of a man sat on a stool stringing a hunting bow. He seemed adept at the task and was taking great care to keep the bow and string out of the mud. He was surrounded by boys and girls, eager to learn and utterly enthralled by this seemingly mundane task. Most of the children were in ragged and ill-fitting furs, while others braved the cold in little but their bedclothes.
Marshall noticed a skinny fellow with a roguish grin and shoulder length hair of gold. Not blonde, but rich gold like the hair heroes invariably had in children’s stories. Marshall watched this man squeeze the behind of a heavyset girl who was carrying a large stack of thick books. She squealed, dropped the books and cursed as they sank deeper into the mud. All the while, the golden-haired man continued to smile.
‘Understood?’ The word came with a tap on the shoulder and was more a statement than a question. More like an expectation set in stone. After his error in Meylinn’s wagon, Marshall’s anger had abated and he was finally thinking straight. He know he would have to tread lightly in order to avoid further punishment.
‘Yes sir. Uh, wait. What was the last thing?’ His father had mentioned something about ‘the mare.’ Marshall was not sure if he should have asked the question, as this apparent lack of concentration and his earlier outburst would only compound his father’s wrath.
‘Boy,’ the word was delivered in a way that made it sound like a curse. ‘Give the mare to the old lady,’ Varick said round to a stop in front of Marshall.
‘But that’s my horse,’ Marshall began to protest. He had grown fond of the grey mare. She had a sweet temperament and was rather fleet of foot for a farm horse. More importantly, she had carried him when the shock of seeing his mother’s body had put him into a catatonic state. He spent two days tied to the back of the mare and a further nine willingly riding away from his old life. From his mother’s corpse.
Varick grabbed his shoulders, rousing him out of his memory. His voiced had softened, only slightly, ‘Once you use your own coin to pay, then you can claim ownership.’ Not a moment prior.’ He then turned and quickened his pace from earlier. Marshall dejectedly followed suit listening intently to his father’s instructions. Deep down he was relieved that his father had banished the memory of his former life. Of all that blood.
A short distance away, a woman carrying a box of gnarled potatoes dropped her burden. Another victim of the man with golden hair.
‘Carry out your instructions in full. You have a couple of hours.’ With that, Marshall watched as Varick strode away towards a dirt road.
Marshall went about his mundane tasks, well those that he could remember anyhow, while trying to remain inconspicuous. That alone was no easy task as men, women and children approached him trying to sell, buy, extort or steal. It was a blur of odd people marking bizarre offerings or threats. Sour goats milk, a puppy, a knife in the belly, a kiss, a small skin of wine, a thorough beating. All punctuated with Marshall’s reply. ‘No thank you.’
CW SY 2013