Symin stood in front
of the door of the armory. It was his seventh birthday. Yesterday he
would have been naked, today for the first in his life he was wearing
clothing. The clothing was just a brief pair of short trousers, but
now, for the first time, he actually had a belt and could carry a belt
knife. He was eager to go into the armory, but he hesitated and looked
around, longing for family to be there for him.
Symin let out a sigh
of regret and then simply shrugged accepting the reality. When other
Ascalon children had reached this important date in their life, they
all had had brothers, sisters, and parents to share the moment with.
For the first time he realized consciously that, Minna wasn’t his
mother and never would be. She had always seemed to be there for him,
but Dinni, his cousin, was sick and her attention focused on him. She
hadn't forgotten Symin's birthday, after all his first pair of short
trousers were beside his bed, so that for the first time since his diaper
days he wouldn't be naked, grinning at that thought.
For the first time
he had realized that Minna wasn’t always there when he needed her.
Her presence in his mind was so solid and real to him that even when
she hadn’t been there physically she had seemed to be.
It had hurt, and, at
the same time, it hadn’t. He simply accepted the fact that while she
loved him, it wasn’t as if she was his mother. She regarded him and
the rest of the family much like the Mother-Goddess regarded all thinking
beings, as people who needed her care and love. Her responsibility was
to all of them, not to one of them, and she would favor one of them
at times when they needed her. He had simply needed her more for a time.
Symin knew that it
was a special moment. At the same time, he realized that if he had someone
to share it with it would have been much more important than it was.
Still he pushed the door open with excitement.
Symin didn’t know
how long he had been in the armory simply looking. He was so awed by
the workmanship that had gone into each and every weapon that he lost
track of time. Even the simplest of swords in the armory had a symmetry
of beauty, a balance between functionality and craft for those with
the eyes to see it.
Symin itched to take
them down one at a time and simply look at them, feel them in his hands,
not as weapons but as the pinnacle of craftsmanship that they were.
Not that he would do so; most of them were displayed in glass cases,
carefully oiled to avoid the ravages of time.
Most of the swords
on display were made for adults. They were simply too heavy for him
to wield, even with two hands. Even the strength he did have, which
was equivalent to a sixteen or seventeen year old human boy, wasn’t
sufficient to wield most of the weapons. The weapons were crafted to
be wielded not simply looked at. The practicality that was also a part
of him had forbidden it.
Turning away from the
adult swords, Symin had turned his attention to weapons a noble boy
his age would wear. Weapons more suitable for his strength and capabilities.
Belt knives, and there were many to choose from.
Though Symin wasn't
aware of it, the dagger called to him. It was among five other daggers
in an unlocked glass case, so low that it was within Symin's reach.
As soon as he touched
it, it felt so right to him. True, it was an exquisite dagger with magnificent
decorations around seven small gemstones inserted into the hilt and
the elegant sheath. Those decorations and stones didn't impress Symin,
but the blade did. Made from the finest steel the Lytheans could produce
and they had thousands of years of experience as weaponsmiths. Only
a Dwarven blade could have bettered it, and it was quite possible that
a Dwarven weaponsmith had forged it. The dagger felt so right in his
hand, it was almost as if it was attuned to him. He couldn't bear to
put it back, and the other weapons seemed to pale in his eyes. His choice
Symin took it to his
room and then got out his treasures, half a dozen pieces of wood, a
small knife and a whetstone. Sitting on his bed, he looked at them,
and he had no doubt that the carvings were good. They simply weren’t
good enough to satisfy him.
The knife just wasn’t
very good, and Symin had to keep sharpening it and he was wearing the
blade down. Oh, he knew that he could have asked for a good knife. To
get one he would have to tell whoever it was, probably Minna, what he
was doing with it. However, he didn’t want anyone to know what he
Symin didn’t know
how people would react. After all, he was a noble and he didn’t know
what his father would do. Normally his father ignored him, but Symin
had noticed that he was a petty man, and would often do things just
to be vindictive. His father might forbid him to carve. That was an
impossible future for Symin even to contemplate. It was safer if nobody,
not even Minna, knew.
Symin's large gray
eyes were sparkling with glee as he took out the dagger and looked at
the fine steel blade. He didn’t even bother to test the blade to see
if it was sharp. He knew he’d find out before very long. No matter
how careful he was, the carvings he did were so small and so unforgiving
of the smallest mistake that to avoid making that mistake meant that
his hands tended to collect a lot of cuts.
Luckily, he healed
quickly, and a half-hour after the cut he was never sure exactly where
it had been since no scar lingered even for a brief space of time.
Symin picked up the
tiny carving of his pony Anya. Many people looking at it would have
considered it finished. With the knife that Symin used it was, because
the detail was as fine as he could manage, with the tool at his disposal.
Symin took a deep breath
and then with his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, he carefully
positioned the point of the dagger. He hesitated with a frown on his
small face; not because he was worried about ruining the carving, he
could always do it again, but because he might be frustrated by the
Symin would remember
to his dying day the ecstasy he had felt when he had made the first
tiny perfect cut. The fact that it had caused him to jerk and destroy
the carving he had worked on for some time, cutting himself badly in
the process didn’t matter. His feeling of pain and his surprise that
the blade had cut through the piece of wood so easily was subsumed with
the feeling of bliss that was going through him.
Symin had been so high
with the ecstasy of finding the perfect tool that he did something extremely
dumb. Taking the point of the blade in his hand, he threw the dagger
at the stone wall of his bedroom.
Then with horror and
terror that he had found the perfect tool and was now going to lose
it because of stupidity, Symin closed his eyes and began crying.
It was the most memorable
moment of his life. One moment he was at the peak of joy and the next
moment in the depths of despair.
By the time, Symin
realized that he had heard only one sound, the horror of what he thought
he had done would be part of him for the rest of his life. He would
never react that way again. Oh he would seem impulsive to people who
didn’t know him and weren’t aware of how fast his mind worked, but
from that day on he always thought things out before he did them. It’s
just the thinking and the action or reaction that followed happened
so quickly that no time seemed to have passed for most people. That
didn’t mean he always chose wisely. He didn’t, but it wasn’t due
to lack of forethought.
Suddenly, Symin's large
tear-filled eyes flicked open as he realized that he had heard only
one sound. He had heard the dagger hit the wall, but he should have
heard at least one more sound when it hit the floor and he hadn’t.
Symin brushed his tears
away with his arm, unaware of the blood dripping onto the covers of
his cot from the cut in his hand. He stared at the wall and took a deep
breath in wonderment; joy beginning to take him again. The hilt still
quivering the blade was sticking into the wall up to the guard.
Which was impossible,
the blade of the dagger was six inches long, and couldn’t penetrate
that deeply into stone, or at least he thought it shouldn’t. Without
thinking, Symin wiped the palm of his left hand, the one with the cut
in it down his bare chest and getting up he went over to the wall.
Taking hold of the
hilt of the dagger, he braced himself to exert his full strength. That
was one of the lesser mistakes Symin thought through before acting.
Well he certainly expected to need it; the only thing he had ever used
that had penetrated that deeply into something was a crossbow bolt into
a bale of straw. He had certainly needed his full strength to pull the
However, the dagger
came out so easily, that he had fallen backward landing on the floor
and then he had watched it fly though the air as he inadvertently let
go of it. However Symin wasn’t worried this time, if it could survive
one trip into the wall it could survive a second one into the floor
Symin heard the thunk
of the dagger hitting and then Minna was inside his room. By the time
Minna was through with him, he was treated, bathed and then whipped
and put to bed for giving her such a fright and he said good-bye to
his short trousers for a couple more weeks.
She had whipped him
herself and she had only done that a couple of times, and she had given
him a dozen lashes, which was more than double what he normally got.
It was certainly harder than Sivvin had ever whipped him.
Symin felt he deserved it, though it had been totally accidental, the cut, the blood on his chest and being on his back when Minna came into the room. The fact that he was still alive to go to bed after she was through with him had surprised him, that and the fact that despite her fear and anger she had let him keep the dagger. That was more important to him than losing his short trousers for an additional two weeks.
Maxim looked at the
work he had done and then looked at what his nephew had done and blew
out his breath with exasperation. The boy was four years younger than
he was at eight and a half, yet had done almost three times the work.
Maxim dug at the dirt
with his toes of his bare foot, the earth damp with its daily drink
from the irrigation canal. It wasn’t that he wasn’t willing to work
hard. He was a determined worker, and he loved the pleasantly tired
way his muscles and body felt after a long day working in the fields.
Yet he was always frustrated
at the amount of work he was able to do, always much less than his brothers
and sisters and nieces and nephews. Luckily, they didn't really need
Maxim's labor. Even with the section that his oldest brother Dunn had
gotten when he was twenty-five, there were enough hands, both small
and large, that the labor was easy, and there was always time for play
As High Peasants, they
owned their own land and though they tithed to Baron Ascalon, they didn’t
owe labor to him, as Low Peasants would have done.
Dende stood looking
up at his young uncle, said earnestly, “The crops you tend, they grow
much better than mine, or any of us. Only grand-da can give as much
magic to them as you can,” trying to comfort his sad uncle.
Maxim ruffled Dende’s
brown hair and smiled at the boy. “I thank you, little one, but we
all know that I’ll never make a good farmer. What good is farming
magic if I can’t release it in the right way?”
They turned and started
to walk towards the houses, Maxim continuing to talk with some sadness,
“I love farming. I love planting a seed and watching it grow into
stalks of grain or ears of corn, and I know what I plant will grow tall
Dende grinned up at
him, “Da says that’s your main problem. Your magic is too good.
You seem to know exactly how much magic each plant needs, and you give
it. You aren’t ruthless enough to leave it before it has everything
it needs. You can’t leave part of it to the Gods the way the rest
of us can. He says our way is riskier but it produces much more crops
than your way.”
Maxim nodded ruefully,
“I think Dunn’s right, and Da has offered to apprentice me in Bremen
if I want.” He threw his arms into the air, “But I can’t think
of anything that I want to do other than farming.”
He grinned and then
shrugged as his usual good humor returned though it had been shadowed
with somberness over the last few months. He mock scowled at Dende,
“Now I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Did you take the bag of marbles?”
Dende edged away from
the older boy, his guilt clearly showing on his small face, and Maxim
shook his head, “I said you could have them if you asked for them,
but you didn’t ask. You need to be punished for that.” and Dende
took off, though he knew it was futile, Maxim was much taller and just
He didn’t get ten
yards, before Maxim had him down on the ground. After swatting his naked
nephew half a dozen times on his bare bottom he began tickling him vigorously,
until the younger boy was shrieking for mercy between bouts of giggling.
Tenay popped an okun
leaf into his mouth and began chewing it, looking searchingly at his
youngest child. You would never know it from his actions, he treated
all of his children the same, but still Maxim was his favorite.
Over the last couple
of months, Maxim’s usual sunny nature had become somewhat darker,
and to see a smile on his face now was rare. Tenay reached out and ruffled
his hair, and was rewarded by one of those rare smiles.
Tenay said, “You’ve
begun thinking too much, Maxim, and it’s getting you down.”
Maxim thought about
it for a moment seriously before shaking his head and answering, “No,
Da. It’s not thinking I been doing, its feeling. The rest of the family
fit where we are, but I no longer feel that I do. Yet I can’t think
of anything else I want to do. I love farming, but I’m no good at
it, and I feel no urge to take care of animals. My brothers, Dunn and
Syrel and my nephew Dende are much better with the horses and cows than
the rest of us are, so we leave it to them, only chipping in when they
ask for help.”
Tenay rubbed his chin,
before asking, “What about children, you’ve always been very good
at taking care of them.”
Maxim looked astonished,
“But that’s not a job, is it Da?”
Tenay chuckled, “Oh
it can be a job, Maxim, and certainly it can be a chore at times taking
care of children. As many hands lighten labor so many hands around
here, make raising children easier. Sivvin was visiting his Da yesterday,
and we were talking over lunch and he said, that the
Baron was looking for a servant and companion for one of his grandsons.”
Maxim, after thinking
it over for a few minutes, looked at his father and his large brown
eyes showed his eager curiosity, “That sounds interesting, Da, and
I’d get to live in the castle, and that sounds even more interesting.”
Tenay grinned, “I
sent a message by Sivvin saying that I have a son who is interested
in the job, and I got an answer today, saying that you’re hired.”
His face became serious and he reached out, lifted Maxim’s small chin,
and looked him in the eyes. “We’ve known for years that your path
wasn’t our path, and Marin and I long since made up our minds to let
you go when the time came. Reluctantly, mind, since like all of our
children and grandchildren we would prefer to have you close.”
Maxim’s large brown
eyes were soft as he said, “Thank you, Da for giving me this chance.
I’ll miss you and Ma and all of the others, yet for the first time
that I can remember I’m excited to be going away.”
Maxim was awed to be
in the presence of the legendary Minna. She was only a couple of inches
taller than he was at five feet tall, but she was huge. She must have
weighed close to three hundred pounds, yet she moved easily and gracefully
despite her bulk.
Minna looked Maxim’s
skinny four foot ten inch frame up and down, and she approved of the
solemn faced boy. She said, “You’ll be the servant and companion
for Symin Ascalon. He’s ten years old, though he’s very small for
his age and looks more like a seven year old.” and she grinned, thinking
“He’s a little
scamp at times, but he seldom gets into trouble deliberately.” she
said dryly, “he doesn’t need to, he gets into enough trouble accidentally,
and he probably gets whipped more often than most of the other Ascalon
children do together.”
Maxim gave a grin at
that, as she continued, “Though his beatings aren’t particularly
hard, more a gesture of disapproval by us as adults than serious punishment.
That disapproval hurts him more than a dozen lashes would when he feels
he deserves it, and when he doesn’t no amount of punishment would
make him feel sorry for what he’s done.”
Minna hesitated for
a moment and then she raised her finger and shook it at him, “What
I’m going to tell you remains a secret between you and I.” and Maxim
She said with a scowl
on her face, “I don’t like criticizing my employers, but I highly
disapprove of the way Symin is treated by the rest of the Ascalons.
His mother died when he was born and his father ignores him completely,
and the rest of the family isn’t much better. I’ve talked to the
Baron about it on several occasions and he seems sympathetic at the
time, but nothing seems to get better.”
“While his cousins
don’t seem to ignore him like the adults do, he’s very unlike them.
Symin's much more intelligent than they are. Once he could read the
tutor who teaches the Ascalon children became almost unnecessary in
his case. In one day of formal instruction he learns as much or more
than the rest of the children who spend three hours a day five days
a week being tutored.”
Minna sighed and shook
her head with regret, “He needs a better teacher who can attract his
interest, but unfortunately Symin has never gotten one. He likes his cousins but he doesn't need
their company, and prefers to be on his own. Soon after his sixth birthday,
he began spending most of his time wandering the estate."
Maxim looked at the
younger boy. As Minna had said, Symin was very small for his age. He
had large gray eyes with delicate features under blond bangs. Symin
was looking at him warily, and instinctively he said the right thing,
“Don’t worry young Master Symin, I’m not here to cage you, I’m
just here to be your companion. Mistress Minna said they don’t want
to steal your freedom.”
“I have many young
nieces and nephews and I know how much mischief they can get into when
they’re all alone. I’m simply here to try to keep you out of trouble
when I can.” He grinned, “I’m sure I won’t be able to keep you
out of all of it.”
Symin looked at him intently for a moment and then a slow smile appeared on his small face.