Acorn Elmsfather had been to Ailstbridge before. It was the only place you could cross the Uldar for at least a day’s travel in either direction, so the road through the village was heavily used by merchants, pilgrims, and anyone else who had business that needed them to travel between Brevanbarrow and Duvchester. For all of that, it wasn’t a big place. It had a blacksmith, a wheelwright, and two inns, but they were for the passing trade. The families in the village worked in those four businesses or supported them with wood, food, herblore, and the benefits of extended family. He had admired the inn and cottage gardens on several occasions, because he was a servant of the god of gardens and that was one of the things that he did.
Today he was here for one of the other things that he did. Two local minor noblemen had decided for themselves that they should seize control of the bridge and collect tolls. Unfortunately, neither man had been much concerned about the people who lived there and a small battle between their forces had raged through the small village, trampling everything that was in the way of killing each other. Presumably there’d been some sort of toing and froing for weeks beforehand, but that day push had come to shove. Someone had, from the looks of things, rallied their forces behind the rose hedge that ran along the front of two cottages. Acorn hoped the occupants of the cottages had gotten away because the buildings weren’t habitable anymore.
Really, who played with fire in the middle of a village? Aside from people who didn’t want the village to be there?
That thought put a purse on his lips – every so often his wife reminded him that it was his tell that he didn’t like or approve of something. That the garden destroyers might come back was one of the reasons his god had said, “Go!”, and he had come to Ailstbridge. The other reason he’d been told to come here was that one of his sons was here. He wasn’t quite sure why that was important to the god; Slinderin hadn’t become a paladin, despite diligent application and a true vocation, and he’d walked out of his presentation untransfigured. Dephone, his wife and Slinderin’s mother, had written to him that the boy had taken himself off on the Grand Pilgrimage. Nothing wrong with that, pilgrimages were good for the mind and soul.
Apparently Slinderin’s was paused here. Acorn hoped that the boy had happened along afterwards and gotten caught up in trying to help. Even if that shouldn’t have gotten his god’s attention. On that thought he urged his horse and mule into motion from his vantage point into the village.
The first person he saw whom he already knew was not his son, but another paladin of his god. Russet Thornfruit had stopped at a young orchard sitting a cottage block’s width north of the final building of the village, and had the supple branch of a tree in hand, eyeing it thoughtfully. Brother Russet acknowledged his fellow’s arrival with a nod and the salutation, “Brother Acorn! I’m glad you’re here. This entire planting has the scent and the thrum of the god’s power through it. It’s much younger than it looks, for one thing. Everything tells me we’re looking at a miracle.”
Acorn sniffed, and agreed. “Recent enough for her passing still to be in the air itself, even though it looks like her work here was minor.”
“The understorey companion plantings are well advanced,” pointed out Russet, “and I’ll bet you an apple pie that soil is good down at least six feet.”
“It certainly doesn’t look like a bunch of saplings shoved in the ground to hide where a bunch of bodies are buried.” Acorn looked again at the tree Russet had been fondling, and added, “It particularly doesn’t look like a handful of cuttings shoved in the ground either. Not minor then.”
“This whole row came from a tree that was felled down behind those two burnt out cottages,” commented Russet. “From thickness of the trunk, it must have been half a century old before someone chopped it down with a battle axe. It’s still covered in half grown fruit. The axe is still there too – it’s covered in blood.”
“Could you tell what spilt the blood?” That was a professional question. Acorn also noticed that neither of his animals showed any indication of wanting to nibble on the young trees.
“Not definitively, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a spade.” Russet looked back at the rest of the village thoughtfully. “There’s been a lot of other spadework in the earth too, done afterwards.”
“My second boy is supposed to be here, somewhere,” admitted Acorn.
“The one who wanted to be one of us, and then wasn’t?” Russet added, “I heard he behaved well about it. Not so easy to do after a severe disappointment. I’m sure our god knows her business, but I hope your lad finds where he’s supposed to be.”
“Dephone wrote me that he’d left there to go on the Grand Pilgrimage,” replied Acorn. “Said he wanted time to think.”
“Makes sense,” Russet nodded. “Ailstbridge is within a week’s travel of five different shrines. If he’s here, then he could have been on his way to any of them. Come to think of it, if memory serves me, three of them have festivals next month.”
“Good time to put in a toll booth on the bridge, then?” Having a good look at the mess before you started pruning was always a good idea; that was a concept that had served Acorn well over the years – if only so that when he came to make his cuts, he had all the thinking done beforehand. “Wouldn’t have thought that would involve killing or driving out the villagers.” He looked again at the clear marks of deliberate property destruction throughout the village.
“If you’re taking over something major, like a bridge that isn’t yours,” said Russet in an observational tone, “then getting rid of people who can testify that you were never the liege lord here and had no other claim to the place, other than might of arms exercised over your fellow free countrymen, might be a strategy. Particularly if you thought your claim would be taken to court.” Slightly the smaller of the two men, Russet let go of the tree he’d been examining. “I’ll go and bespeak a bed at one of the inns while you go find your boy. Do you want me to grab you a bed too?”
“Please, if they have one available,” answered Acorn. “If Slinderin is here, I doubt he can put me up for the night.” They parted company then, ruddy-olive skinned Russet down the road towards the inns, and freckled Acorn to look for his son.
Acorn found Slinderin helping two women plant out cabbage seedlings into a garden bed behind a cottage on the western side of the road. A few survivors of an earlier planting dotted the bed, and the most recent compost heap at the far end of the garden from the house was made of plants that Acorn wouldn’t have uprooted at this time of year. New beds of leafy vegetables and beets sat on either side of the bed of cabbages, and a fourth bed looked as if a trampled crop of carrots was trying to regrow their leaves.
All three gardeners looked up at Acorn’s approach. The two women, one about Slinderin’s age and the other old enough and like enough to be her grandmother, looked apprehensive at the sight of a stranger wearing both an arming sword and a longsword. Slinderin, on the other hand, looked delighted, then worried and apprehensive. Acorn took it as a good sign that his son’s first reaction at the sight of him had been pleasure.
Slinderin stood, then approached his father, stepping carefully between the rows of small plants until he reached the path between the beds. “Brother Acorn. Father. Sir….” The boy trailed off uncertainly.
Acorn smiled. “You could call me what you’ve always called me,” he suggested kindly.
Slinderin smiled back. “Dad. It’s so good to see you, after everything that’s happened.” In a rush he added, “Can we have a talk, just you and me, after I’ve finished helping with these cabbages?”
“Of course. I’ll just find out which inn Brother Russet has gotten us beds at, stable my animals, and I’ll be back,” Acorn promised. He added, “You’re taller, aren’t you? And you’ve filled out – I always thought you were going to be wiry, like your mother’s family.”
Slinderin shrugged in a non-committal, ‘I-don’t-know-how-it-happened’ way. “I’ll see you when you get back,” he agreed.
Acorn found that Russet had arranged accommodation for them both at The Travellers Rest. He’d noticed the lack of an apostrophe in the name before, and had indeed had a very pleasant half hour discussion with his wife on the subject when they were travelling together when newly married, so made no comment about it on this occasion. He handed both his animals over to the ostler, took his effects up to the room he was sharing with Russet, and then returned to the cabbage patch.
Slinderin was watering the seedlings when Acorn returned. He was using two watering cans, each suspended by a chain, that were hanging from either end of a yoke. Three women were watching him work his way down the rows, the two gardeners having been joined by a blonde woman in her late twenties who was dressed like a travelling farm priestess. A saddled, short-haired, female yak-cross was tied to the outside of the garden fence, where she was munching on the grass.
The older woman greeted Acorn with, “Ah, you’re back! We were just saying what a fine boy you have there.” She gestured at Slinderin with one hand as he watered the baby cabbages.
“His mother would be as pleased to hear you say so,” replied Acorn, “as am I.”
The woman nodded, “I’m Sheer Cotman, and this,” she indicated the youngest of the three women, “is my son’s unmarried daughter, Padua.” Padua blushed.
“And I’m the Reverend Morthi of Agricus,” added the blonde woman.
“Brother Acorn Elmsfather of Humia,” replied Acorn, perhaps belatedly.
“Always a pleasure to meet a servant of The Elder Sister,” remarked Morthi pleasantly. “I’m here because a local family asked for a blessing on the body and grave of their murdered daughter. You, Reverend Brother?”
“My god sent me here,” replied Acorn calmly. “It is possible that my son’s presence has something to do with that.”
“He’s been very helpful in our troubles,” remarked Mistress Cotman. “That’s probably what he wants to talk to you about, Brother Acorn. If it’s not, he probably should. And don’t let him be blaming himself for what he didn’t do.”
Acorn raised an eyebrow, but nodded to Mistress Cotman in acknowledgement. He had questions he would have liked to ask, but he desisted because they would have been less than tactful. His talk with Slinderin might answer some of them, or give him reason to ask them of someone else later. His wife often described him as straight forward and direct, but Acorn had learnt both the value of not saying the first thing that came into his head, and that people sometimes told you what you wanted to know if you just gave then the chance.
“So, you’re here for poor Demety,” remarked Mistress Cotman to the Reverend Morthi. “Minding her own business, and she’s suddenly afoul of Lord Swithin’s thugs.”
Morthi answered, “If Demety’s family is the Sedgebarns, then I am. Who’s Lord Swithin?”
“One of the two nitwit lordlings near here who’ve decided that bridge tolls would give them a fine stream of cash, if they controlled the bridge,” answered Padua bitterly. “They didn’t just kill Demety; there’s the two boys of Yartly, and Veduna, Wheelwright’s wife, dead as well.”
“It could have been worse,” said Mistress Cotman. “The Yartlys’ and the younger Smiths’ places are burnt out, but no-one else was killed. The rest of the damage will be harder to fix – chickens and pigs loosed or dead, fruit trees felled, and gardens destroyed. They may have succeeded in clearing us out, even if they didn’t kill us.”
“We must hope it does not come to that,” replied the Reverend Morthi.
Acorn asked, “What else needs to be done, do you think?”
While Slinderin finished watering the cabbages, Mistress Cotman, having received this mild encouragement, filled the time with a list of repairs and adjustments that she considered necessary to restore normal daily life in Ailstbridge. As Slinderin went to put the watering cans and yoke away, she was finishing off, “The Travellers Rest will be wanting a new maid to replace poor Demety; and Wheelwright will be needing a new wife – he and Veduna have four children under ten, and they cannot be doing everything that needs to be done in the house and about while their father works. They’ve not the height nor strength yet, let alone the knowledge of everything that needs doing, plus the oldest boy is off to an apprenticeship in Duvchester with his eldest uncle, come winter.”
Once Slinderin was free of the equipment, Acorn excused himself to speak to his son, sacrificing the Reverend and Padua to Mistress Cotman’s monologue. The two men made their way towards the riverbank. The Uldar had cut itself down into the landscape, so when the two men sat on the edge, there was a ten foot drop under their feet to a footpath along the actual river. To their left, in the direction of the bridge, stone steps joined the riverman’s cottage to the jetty below where a small boat was tied up.
“So,” asked Acorn, once they were seated, “what did you want to talk to me about?”
“You’ve probably been told that the villagers here were attacked a few days ago,” said Slinderin looking at the opposite bank of the river and the road that led south to Duvchester. “Villagers were killed. Villagers who didn’t even know the attackers were there were killed. I saw them shoot Mistress Wheelwright while she was collecting eggs for breakfast; I was to shovel some fowl manure for her, and I wanted to start early.” He turned to his father and asked, “What do you do when you do a terrible thing for the god, and you realise that there was nothing of the god in it, it was all you? I mean our teachers back at the abbey talked about the god guiding your hand to do terrible things in battle and stuff like that, but this was just…me.”
Acorn took a deep breath and admitted, “It often is. It’s very rare that the god guides every stroke of your blade or word of your mouth. That’s why we learn so much theology, so we have known principles to guide us.” He looked at his son, and asked, “What did you do?”
“I saw four of them, they were on horseback, and one of them shot Mistress Wheelwright with a crossbow while she was in her chicken run. My mind suddenly seemed to switch the way it was working, and I ran at them with my spade before the crossbow could reload. I didn’t stop.” Slinderin paused, then went on, “I killed all those men, from both raiding parties, every one that I found alive, although I think they were fighting each other at one point. Oh, and I didn’t touch the one the Yartly’s pig got, that was all down to the pig. I asked the god for her help when I realised that whoever sent those men might care about them as much as I cared about Mistress Wheelwright and the gardens they tried to destroy; I didn’t want the villagers to suffer for my actions.”
“It could be that you’re a natural berserker,” said Acorn slowly, “or it could be that that you were very angry. In any case, if the same thing were to happen again, in the same circumstances, with the same possible choices, and you could have made your decision with a completely clear head, would you have done the same thing?”
Slinderin turned his gaze back across the river and thought. Acorn watched him, and let him think.
Finally, Slinderin looked back at his father and said, “Yes, I would. I might have yelled more to let people know that something was wrong.”
“Then, knowing your training, plus what your mother and I have tried to teach you all, I think you did the right thing. You might not think that it was a good thing, and it might not have been the best thing, but the good, best thing might not have been available.” Acorn smiled at his son, “The god was willing to help you clean up afterwards, so you can’t have been far astray from what she would have wished.”
Slinderin asked hesitantly, “Are you disappointed by what I did, or that I didn’t become a paladin?”
“No,” replied Acorn. “I am impressed that you could get mounted men off their horses, though.”
“The horses weren’t trained for it,” replied Slinderin. “A human running at them brandishing a sharpened spade seemed to upset them.”
“You may have been yelling more than you thought,” pointed out Acorn, “and, as you’re your mother’s son as much as you are mine, are you sure you weren’t glowing? Strong emotion can do that to people with magic in the blood.”
“I didn’t notice any glowing,” said Slinderin, “but I wasn’t paying much attention to me at the time. If I was a glowing, shouting madman, I can’t blame the horses for getting out of here without their riders.”
“Horses sometime have more sense than men,” commented Acorn. “Are you expected anywhere for dinner tonight? I’d like you to eat with Brother Russet and me at The Travellers Rest tonight – your mother will ask after your appetite, I’m sure.”
“My bedroll’s at The Wheel and Staff,” Slinderin named the other inn, “but I can let them know not to expect to feed me tonight.”
“Good.” Acorn nodded, then said, “Don’t be surprised if you keep feeling shaken for a while, and if the world seems different too. Things may never seem quite the same again, but that’s mainly because you see yourself differently now, and possibly because some other people’s opinions of you will have changed too. It can take a while to adjust. Sometimes a very long while, but whatever it takes is normal, remember that.”
This is now followed by A Widening View of Affairs.
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