“Father, father!” two ecstatic screams met him as soon as he stepped over the threshold and immediately lit a candle next to four others already burning, thanking Feyra for safe return home. Two hurdles of thick black hair came rolling at him as Dunstan was attacked by his own daughters, Ruby, the older and Caroline, the younger, both lunged at him as he caught them in a tight hug and started tickling both, making them laugh uncontrollably and all three ended up on wooden floor at a small foyer with benches, several pairs of shoes, bowls of steaming water and fragrant towels, ready for him to wash the day’s dust off.
“Girls, let your father wash up, the supper is almost ready!” a strong, commanding female voice found its way from within the house into hearts and minds of the three family members as they tried standing up, trying to control the giggling.
“Father, don’t tell mother” Ruby reached into her small apron on top of a linen dress and took out a small wooden figurine of a galloping horse. It was crude, legs were uneven and the tail bent unnaturally to Dunstan’s professional eyes, but to his father’s eyes, it was a beautiful little wooden creature, made with loving hands “Stennis helped us”.
“I made the mane” Caroline pointed at several triangles that only in abstract resembled the mane of a galloping horse.
“Well done all three of you” Dunstan took the wooden horse and looked at it from all angles “I will be looking forward to another one, try it just standing this time”
“Yes father” the girls looked gleaming with joy and with another yell from their mother beamed at each other and whirled out of the foyer as fast as they appeared.
Dunstan took off his dusty boots and ragged workman’s clothing, washed himself off with warm water and changed into tunic and pantaloons prepared for him: he felt rejuvenated and light. In the dining room, a large round table already plated, just Stennis, his oldest, brought a steaming bowl of herbed roasted potatoes. The entire home was tart of sweet rosemary and roasting meat fragrances and Dunstan’s heart fluttered with happiness: the thoughts of peat separating this world from the next and strange clerics in robes were far far away, surrendering to the crackling home fire and to the twixt of rich candlelight and love and warmth of the family.
“Father” Stennis nodded, barely taller than Dunstan’s shoulder, had fiery hair that stood up on his head uncontrollably and being barely 14 years old, was already stoic, his hands weathered by woodcraft he was learning from the local master carpenter. Dunstan wasn’t unhappy with son’s choice of wood instead of stone, after all, that’s how he, Dunstan the Mason, started – by learning to fashion wood. However, the short life of wooden things always made his heart bitter, hence he chose more demanding profession, yet he was sure the figures and building materials he fashioned would live on well past him, and if Stennis was content with more temporary form of creation, well, Kalvi looked over him too, for the boy was already showing promise in finding figures left there by the traveling god.
“How was the day at Master Inge?” Dunstan always inquired about his son’s progress, taking great interest on resting days about improvements and shortcomings of his craft. Dunstan, at least, trusted the elven woodcraft master to teach his son enough so he would be considered for training in perhaps Forest Lodge – the centre for industrial carpentry.
“Great” Stennis, although stoic boy in nature, always got excited when asked about his training “we finished the last wing for Hobblecot’s mill today. Master Inge said I could participate in the fittings and if all goes well, the new mill will start producing this harvest season” Stennis’ cheeks turned red with excitement.
“Those are good news, my boy” Dunstan walked over and put his hand over Stennis’ shoulder “keep this up and in couple of years you’ll be able to go to Forest Lodge for full training.”
“Yes, I look-“
“STENNIS! ROAST!” the commanding female voice echoed throughout the dining room, bouncing against the walls and seemingly hitting Stennis in the back of the head, for he leaned forward and left the room running. Dunstan laughed up in the air and went through another door towards the epicentre of all the fragrance. There, leaning over a pot at a hearth, stood a woman, with hair so red it likely lit the fire on demand, her long dress of green linen, wrapped in white apron around her hips moved back and forth together with the spoon she used to stir the pot over the fire. Dunstan saw her reddened freckled cheeks and a scowl on her face – something she always did when concentrated – and couldn’t help but put his rugged arms around this graceful figure and warm the last cold thoughts of today.
“You know we could afford a good maid, my love” Dunstan said softly to Cassie’s neck.
“They never make the broth right” his wife was adamant about them eating proper food and not made by someone who does it without love “I can do it myself. How’s that roast, Stennis?”
“Done, mother” Stennis pulled a sizzling pork hump from a well-kept stone oven Dunstan and Stennis, with a little help from Robert and other men from the quarry, built last year.
“Dear, please, don’t stand there petrified, take yourself to the table and wait” Cassie waved him away from the hearth while Stennis moved past them with the roast steaming on the plate. The girls fell into the kitchen suddenly and laughing among themselves ran through the door into the dining room “take the cider with you, will you?” Cassie pointed towards large brass pitcher.
“Is this from Rotmann’s orchards?” Dunstan leaned over the pitcher to feel his nose tingled by light scent of fresh apples “did they give you a good price?”
“Yes, yes” Cassie said impatiently while lifting the pot off the fire and placing it over a counter, now ladling golden, steaming onion soup into blue ceramic bowls – Dunstan’s gift from his travels “this year’s harvest, I had a barrel delivered into the basement, should last us through the autumn, even winter if we’re moderate” she looked up at him, evidently annoyed “why are you still here? Grab the pitcher and go, the dinner is getting cold!”
Dunstan was not a man of many words and if he had to tell the feeling he got every time he would sit down with his family around the dinner table and share stories of the day, the mason would not be able, for his heart was so full of happiness he could barely contain it. And so he laughed and ate, listening to exploration and mischief stories of his daughters and advances his son made in woodcraft and everyday trade his wife made out of her shawls, carpets and dresses. Dunstan admired this scrupulous, headstrong woman who was a devoted mother, an excellent seamstress and a loving wife – Dunstan did not regret a single day he spent sitting outside Cassandra’s parents’ house in the Merchant district of Meerstrand, in rain and cold, just so they would allow him to marry her. He got a nasty pneumonia back then, but survived being nursed by Cassie diligently. They got married soon after and started travelling after Dunstan’s contracts, until finally settling down in Horror’s End weeks before Stennis was born. Dunstan still travels to surrounding cities from time to time, but never too far from his loving family.
Today was another day, calm, but productive, full of everyday stories and laughs. Only one incident made Dunstan worry momentarily: apparently, the cleric dressed in red robes searched for young boys around Horror’s End to tell them about his god of fire:
“He said that the fire god burns out all infidelity” Stennis told his parents, as his master’s workshop has been visited by this pilgrim “and he said that fire god lights up the darkest corners in our souls and eliminates doubt and if we wanted to live in the light, we would travel to Meerstrand and train to be warriors under the Fire Watcher.”
“What’s a Fire Watcher?” Caroline asked absently, whilst wrestling with an escaping potato in her plate.
“It’s the leader of that new Temple to fire god” Stennis explained to his sister “they each have a Watcher, though I don’t know what others there are though” he stared at his parents questioningly as they exchanged looks: Dunstan could read worry in Cassie’s face, as it becomes easier with age lining her fair freckled face.
“I don’t like it, Dunstan” she said, putting down a piece of delicious roast “Stennis, don’t talk to those men again. Dunstan, ask Master Inge to throw them out if need be. They have no right to be here.”
“Yes mother” Stennis confirmed, although curiosity has obviously caught the lad’s mind and he was now disappointed in his parents’ lack of explanation.
They continued eating in silence after that, an intangible heaviness descending on the dinner table. It was not the first year they had clerics of The Four coming to pray at the monument, but they have been getting more aggressive in addressing the townsfolk and now they apparently approached children too. This worried Dunstan. He wondered if his colleagues and neighbours experienced something similar.
“I will talk to the lads tonight about those clerics” he said to Cassandra as she was pouring water over the dishes in a large bowl “Robert said we’re to meet at the Quarryman’s rest.”
“Don’t stay too long, Dunstan. I feel uneasy with those clerics here” she faced him, arms crossed on her chest, looking worried yet defiant, almost angry by her eyes. Dunstan hugged his wife tightly, unnerved himself.
“These people can’t hurt us. Feyra will protect our family, she always has” he kissed her fiery hair “let us make an offering” Dunstan let go of her and took the half-eaten pork roast, left-over potatoes, Cassandra took a basket of apples and bundles of vegetables. They both lined the food next to the hearth as Dunstan threw more wood into the fire, until it roared loudly, heat almost overwhelming.
Cassie called the children and all five kneeled in front of the scorching hearth, hands on their knees, eyes closed – even Ruby and Caroline, the irrepressible sisters sat still, aware of the importance of the moment.
“We share the bounty that was given to us in thanks and respect” Dunstan started “Feyra, protectress of home and kindler of fire, safeguard my family from darkness of the times and shield them from malevolent eyes. Accept our offerings and hear our pleas.”
“Accept our offerings and hear our pleas” the rest of the family returned his words in chorus. Dunstan first took the unfinished roast, still warm and oily in his hand and threw it into the fire. Then Cassie threw the left-over potatoes and Stennis and the girls threw fruit and vegetables, all burning into coal and sweet fragrance of food was overtaken by smoke and burning. Ruby nudged Caroline, who seemed unusually upset, her lower lip out, her eyes squinting, but she still stood up and Dunstan saw the crude wooden horse the girls showed him and his heart winced in pain as Caroline threw it into the fire and tears started running down her face as she buried herself in Cassandra’s embrace. The fire crackled happily and the offerings burned fast as the entire family sat around the hearth, looking at the dancing flames.
But Dunstan’s family was not the only one that made offerings to Feyra that night. His colleagues and neighbours, as he later learned over a pint of ale in Quarryman’s rest, also offered left-overs from their dinner tables and other items to the fires, seeking protection from the home goddess.
“Those clerics reaaaly startled Birna” Robert told Dunstan in low voice over a second pint “the red one pointed finger a’ her an’ demanded she cover ‘er hair, you know how she ‘as long hair, and ot’er clerics joined ‘im and lucky farming lads were coming back from fields, they drove t’em off” he raised his mug towards another table, sat fully to the edge by tanned young men “I’m buyin’ for ’em tonite, maybe luck will smile again on Birna”
“That red one came to Master Inge too today” Dunstan told his friend “tried to recruit Stennis for their army. He’s a smart lad, but I fear words might turn into actions one day.”
“I heard Albert’s sons were also approached at Hobblecots” Robert nodded his big square-shaped head towards a large man with thick brown beard at far left corner of their table: the man looked troubled and was clearly more concerned at the contents of his mug rather than what his companion was whispering to his ear “Krystof and Melkyz too had their offspring bothered, none of ’em too happy about it” Robert’s heavy green hand was tapping the top of the table repeatedly “everyfolk is on edge here” he said, looking over the top of his ale mug “somethin’s brewing, I can feel it.”
Dunstan looked around the tavern – a large area, filled with tables and chairs and benches, a large hearth at the end of it, burning intensely, some food left at its mantelpiece that will be given to Feyra by Dubhan, the dwarven publican, who was now sitting comfortably in a swing chair by the fire, puffing fragrant smoke – very rare, imported citrus fruit – out of long thin pipe, his ginger facial hair, reaching all the way to full belly under silk garments, was moving back and forth as he was speaking to another well-dressed, slender man with thick glasses sitting on his bent nose Dunstan recognised as Hobblecot himself, obviously coming to check on the brew his harvest has provided. Both men talked silently and looked tense. In fact, the entire tavern was murmuring instead of the usual content buzz: tables were full, but men were huddled together in small groups around their tables, bar tender – a young orphan of wheat-coloured hair Dubby took under his wing – was serving drinks with efficient speed, but he too had his eyes dart around nervously. An elven bard, dressed in colourfully yellow, green and orange travel clothes, was sitting in the middle of the tavern on a small stool, tapping his lute in a steady stream of music that neither antagonized nor drove pub goers to dance and Dubhan, usually picking his bards by their ability to move the crowd, didn’t mind such background music this time. Travellers and foreigners huddled around their own tables, looking around over the tops of their mugs, only several regular passers by joined the locals as one of their own. Clerics were nowhere to be seen nor were they ever welcome in Quarryman’s rest.
The tense, although idilic scene has been interrupted with a loud bang of the front door, even the travelling bard stopped mid-note. Dusty, thin as a withered branch stood a young lad, no older than 16, breathing heavily after running, his rider’s boots covered in mud, clouds of smoke puffed from the top of his cloak. He leaned onto the doorframe and was about to collapse on the floor when three men that sat closest to the door caught him and helped him onto a bench, a pitcher of water materialising in front of the lad and he drank hungrily.
“Tadeus, lad, whatever happened?” a seasoned quarryman Dunstan recognised as Algred spoke first, the rest of the tavern unnaturally quiet “you look like you ran from a wheat wraith.”
“No wheat wraith, sir” Tadeus lowered the water pitcher and brushed his lips “I bring news from the Meerstrand road. Delegation of The Four is coming our way, they asked for lodgings and food to be prepared” he took another deep breath before continuing his message “they also said they will be inspecting the work of Dunstan the Mason and the entire Horror’s Pit.”
Eyes turned to the table where Dunstan was sitting as he felt his stomach churn and everything else move far far away from where he is now. He was only returned to reality as heavy Robert’s hand landed on his shoulder (Dunstan winced in pain as even the softest touches of his friend were felt like a hammer fall).
“Well, lads, no dilly dallying then” Robert stood up and pulled Dunstan on his feet with him. The orc downed his pitcher of ale and moved towards the exit of the tavern “we have some fairy tale guests tomorrow” that earned a few chuckles from the crowd as no one in Horror’s End believed any of The Four actually existed, although the army those temples employed did raise a lot of worry for many “let us make sure they know tha’ Horror’s Pit’s a productive place. Feyra watch your homes, lads”
“Feyra bless” few murmured, slowly returning to their drinks, the elven bard breathed easy and continued on lighter melody with his lute. Tadeus was now given a mug of ale and sat near the hearth where Dubhan leaned forward and said something to him.
Dunstan and Robert entered warm, stuffy night and followed the dusty road towards the market square, lit by torches bound onto high wooden spikes. They walked in silence, unnatural and tense. As they approached the round marketplace they noticed many candles lit on the feet of the statue to the four, three women with wooden buckets washing off the bird droppings and collecting withered flowers. The clerics were there too, huddled in a circle, hands tied to one another, eyes closed, lips moving without a sound. Both, man and orc, passed them quietly and continued on the familiar road towards their homes.
“I feel unease, mate” Robert broke the silence first “Meerstrandians don’t tolerate my kind much and all things considered, I’ve fought agains’ ’em in the war. If someone were to yap out…”
“No one in Horror’s End would do that, Robert” Dunstan cut the thought right out of his own mind “and I heard a half-orc serves to one of their gods at this very moment, a real decorated sort, they say. I doubt they would look cross at you.”
“Maybe you’re right, maybe” Robert nodded several times, then immediately shook his head “I have to be weary still, if not for meself, for Birna and the girls. Who knows what these fantasy lovers can think of when they see Birna’s ears and tha’ she’d married a half-orc.”
“They will be more interested in the quarry, I assure you” Dunstan remembered Tadeus’ message that they will want to inspect his own work, as well as the pit “the walls of Meerstrand are grand but need repairs often. I wager they will want to take some bricks with them or even plan out another statue for their new gods. Fear not, my friend” Dunstan put his arm up (he had to extend it all the way to reach) on Robert’s shoulder “Kalvi will watch over us in the pit and Feyra will protect our homes, as it always was.”
“In gods I do trust, mate, and you” Robert chuckled with his deep voice “ah, look the maidens have emerged to greet us!” he showed forward.
And truly, Cassandra was standing in the middle of the road, with her torch lit, speaking to another elven woman with long black hair and cut ears sticking out of it, her dark almond eyes found two men quickly and she smiled shyly, gripping onto her large scarf tighter. She was lean and short, barely reaching Cassandra’s shoulders, but graceful, although often silent and diligent and Dunstan was happy to see his wife have a friend in Birna, for he admired her patience with the loudmouth that Robert sometimes was.
“Is it true?” Cassandra asked quickly.
“Some Meerstrand delegation is coming, yes” Dunstan hugged his wife around her shoulders, as did Robert (although much MUCH more delicately than to anyone) to Birna. The elf looked up at her husband.
“No need to worry, petal. They will inspect the quarry and pay no mind to anyone else” Robert looked intently at Dunstan.
“Yes, they seem to be interested in the pit and my order. No need to worry for any of us, I’m sure.” Dunstan smiled with tight lips to Cassandra, who he saw was having none of his assurances, but chose to say nothing, to his great relief.
“What do they want then?” only few times Dunstan ever saw Birna frown and this time she looked more worried than ever. He chose to not lie to her:
“We do not know for certain” he sighed and looked up at Robert “if we stick to good time in the pit, we should be alright.”
“Yes, we should” Robert sighed and looked down at his precious little wife “time to go to bed, darling. Long days ahead of us, rain too” he looked up at cloudy night’s sky, the air around them seemed to stop circulating, so stuffy it was, like hot tar over skin, attaching clothes to one’s back.
“Feyra bless you both” Cassandra smiled to her friend and turned away towards the house, carrying the torch with her.
“Feyra bless you” Birna said in her silent, breathed voice as her and Robert turned away towards their own house that was still shedding light through the window on the road.
Dunstan watched them disappear behind the door in silence. When it was completely dark, he lifted his head up into the sky and looked at the impenetrable darkness of clouds, only light from Robert’s and his own houses lighting his path.
“Feyra watch us all” he whispered before following Cassandra into their home.
To be continued…
Also read the prequel Tales of Meerstrand (IV): The Mason.
Image credit: Still life with plaster head and two Japanese dolls by Marie de Jonge. Currently displayed at Stedelijk Museum Zutphen, Netherlands.