31. On a Farm Near Senerham
Torr Ablendan ate a breakfast of sausages and fried oatcakes, sitting just inside the open door of his house. Rain had pelted the region between the lakes most of yesterday and through the night, but the storm had blown away and the new day promised a return to summer heat. Farm fields around the house gave off a warm, green smell, almost as if the plants were eager to return to the air the gift of the rain. Window shutters stood open and cool air softened the morning. Later, when the day got hot, the heavy air would be much less pleasant.
Torr saw his twelve-year-old daughter, Whitney, through the window, running to the house from the barn, where she should be milking the cow. She came to a halt just inside the door. “Da! Come! There’s a man in the barn!”
Viradecthis Ablendan, Torr’s wife, turned at the sound. She had been frying more oatcakes on an iron griddle for the girls’ breakfast when they finished their morning chores. “A thief?” Viradecthis speculated. “Has he got into the feed?”
“Don’t think so,” said Whitney. “I saw just his feet, sticking out of the hayloft.”
Torr jogged across the packed dirt farmyard chewing his last sausage. Leaning against the barn were a shovel and a pitchfork; Torr took the latter, since the sharp tines of the fork would be more threatening to an intruder. He crept into the barn’s dim interior with his weapon at the ready.
Bliss, the milk cow, was standing with her head bowed to the manger in front of her. The milk bucket sat next to Whitney’s stool. Up and to the right—no mistaking them; two naked feet were visible. The stranger must be pretty tall, since one of his feet extended several inches over the lip of the hayloft, like a tree branch poking into the air.
Torr glanced around the barn. He handed the pitchfork to Whitney, who had followed him quietly, and took a coil of rope from a peg on the wall. Keeping his eyes on the intruder’s leg, Torr made a simple noose, the sort of thing he would use to rope a runaway calf. The sleeper never stirred, making it easy to lasso his foot. Torr tossed his noose and jerked it tight, nearly dragging the man out of the hayloft.
Isen hadn’t meant to be caught. He told himself, when he stole into the barn, that he would rise before dawn. The farm family would never know that someone had taken refuge in their hay.
After Bead Deepwater and his sons left him on the shore of West Lake, the rain had resumed. With brief breaks, it rained all day and half the night. Isen carried his clothes and everything else he owned in a bundle strapped to his shoulders. Very soon, he and the bundle were thoroughly soaked. He had a vague notion that Inter Lucus and its villages were somewhere south, but he didn’t find a road for the longest time. He spent hours in a forest overgrown with bracken, ferns, woody brush and thorny vines. The summer rain wasn’t cold, but the terrain and vegetation seemed to conspire against him. He tripped twice, muddying his breeches and raising welts on his forearm. Darkness fell early because of the dense clouds; still, he wandered. He tried sheltering under trees, but the wind, which had so frightened him while Morning Glory crossed the lake, shook water from branches and pelted him with slanting rain. Finally, in a bit of moonlight between showers he found a muddy road. He trudged along in the mud until he saw fences and a barn. The rain ceased about the time he took refuge, but the thought of a dry place to sleep attracted him like a moth to a flame. He stripped off his outer tunic, his breeches, and his boots and leggings and wiggled into the hayloft. Bits of hay poked his legs, but he was tired enough to sleep on thorns. This bed was warm and dry, better than his pallet in the hovel he had shared with Sunie. As he slept, his body heat dried his inner tunic, making this more comfortable than any bed he had known.
The rope wrenched Isen from sleep—and almost from the hayloft. He slid on his back, with bits of straw cushioning him on the rough planks, and braced his hands on the log that formed the lip of the loft. His legs flailed helplessly in the air. Since he had no breeches on, his inner tunic bunched up above his butt. Below him a girl hastily averted her eyes rather than look at his exposed privates. The farmer slackened the rope so Isen could push himself back a bit and sit more securely on the loft.
“Don’t touch the rope, thief!” the man commanded.
“Ah, Sir! I’ve taken nothing!”
The farmer jerked the rope. “And don’t speak unless I say you can!”
Once again, Isen pushed back from the edge. He swallowed his protests.
The man waited some seconds. Satisfied with Isen’s silence, he said, “All right, boy. Tell me your name.”
“Isen Poorman.” Isen resisted the urge to say more.
“Not from around here, are you?”
“Down’s End, Sir.”
“How’d you get here?” A woman and another girl came into the barn. All four members of the farm family stared up at Isen’s legs.
“Sailed across, Sir.”
“How can a poor man sail across West Lake?”
“Master Deepwater, a fisherman, brought me across.”
“In the rain? That was foolish.” By this time the farmer had let the rope go slack. Isen slowly pulled his legs onto the hayloft, and the farmer allowed it.
“That may be, Sir,” said Isen. “Not knowing my way, I got lost in the forest. And with the rain and wind . . . well, I was very happy to find shelter in your barn. But I haven’t taken anything!”
“Who are you running from, boy? The sheriffs of Down’s End?”
“No, Sir! I . . .”
“Then why cross West Lake in the rain? You’re running from somebody!”
Isen frowned. “You might say, in a manner of speaking, that I am running from Master Gausman. I was apprenticed to him, but when my sister died I spent a day getting her buried and he tossed me.”
The farmer’s wife spoke. “Your master fired you because you buried your sister?”
“Well, I missed work that day. But Master Deepwater says Gausman wanted to win votes in the guild. Master Gausman is Alderman, you see . . .”
The farmer interrupted, tugging on the rope. “It doesn’t matter to us. The upshot is your master tossed you. Why cross the lake?”
“We heard that a new lord has come to Inter Lucus. Master Deepwater said if that’s true, there might be need for a glassmaker between the lakes. Even Master Gausman will admit I’m a good glassblower. I hope to start out new in Senerham or Inter Lucus.”
The farmer said, “All right, boy. I’m going to let you climb down. Then we’ll talk.”
“I’ve got my pack up here. Can I . . .?” The farmer nodded and gave Isen enough slack to retrieve his tunic, boots, and the bundle containing his clothes. Climbing down the ladder, he turned to face the farm family. The older girl held a pitchfork, its tines pointed at him.
“You’re a glassblower, you say?” The farmer still held the rope, but loosely.
“Aye. Apprenticed five years. I can make anything you want.”
“Really? I don’t see any tools. And you don’t seem to be carrying a furnace.”
Isen made a wry face. “Aye. I have to earn money and buy tools. If there is a blacksmith nearby, maybe I can work for him.”
The farmer looked at Isen, considering. “I have a proposal for you, Isen Poorman. You can work for me, for a day or two at least. You give your things to my wife; she’ll clean your clothes along with ours. I’ve got to build new fences. Splitting rails is heavy work, a man’s work. You help me today and tomorrow—work hard—and we’ll feed you. The day after, I’ll walk you into Senerham to meet the blacksmith.”
Isen swallowed. Surrendering his things to the farmer meant trusting the man and his wife. But what else can I do? “That sounds like a fair offer,” he said. He handed his pack, all his possessions except the clothes he wore, to the woman. “Can I ask your names?”
The farmer handed the rope to Isen and shook his hand. “Torr Ablendan. My wife’s Viradecthis, and our daughters are Whitney and Willa.” The women of the family each nodded to Isen as Torr gave their names.
“The boy will need some food if you want him working,” Viradecthis said to her husband. “Isen, you better get dressed and come into the kitchen. Whitney! Quit staring, and take care of Bliss. The poor cow will burst if you don’t get to work.”
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.