Time to introduce our second protagonist, the antithesis to Tahlia, the boy from the farm, Maddock Jonas. They haven’t met yet, but they are soon to become WEFs. (Worst Enemies For quite a while)
Maddock’s foot slipped, and the rough tree-bark cut a bloody line across the ball of his ankle.
The muscles of his legs stiffened as he tried to hold some kind of half-grip on the tree’s trunk, and his fingers tightened on the branch he was hanging from as he waited for the heavy basket on his shoulder to stop swinging. He twisted his head around and looked down to where he’d tied his coracle to the base of the kernik tree. As was often the case with climbing trees, he was higher than he’d though.
As he hung there, he felt a bead of sweat trickle from his hairline and make its irritating way past his eye, down to the tip of his nose. It hung there for a second before gravity pulled it from his filthy skin, and it fell away, down to the orchard’s muddy water. Despite its murk, the water looked inviting. It would have been easy to just release his grip and tumble from the tree, into its cooling filth, to escape the humid air beneath the orchard’s canopy.
It wasn’t worth it, though. He’d catch it good if the seed-pods in his basket got a soaking, because even a single wasted basket of kernik seeds was a chunk of profit that the farm could not afford to lose. The thought of kernik seed profit made Maddock bite back another curse, because it reminded him how much he hated life at Dredar.
It had not always been that way. The farm had been a fine place to live when he’d been younger. A place of wonders, especially for a child who, from as early as he could remember, had been fascinated by anything that walked, hopped, jumped, flew, glided, swam or climbed. From the skipclaws living in its river, the yareys nesting in the eaves of its oast-houses, the ruteia patrolling its cellars for vermin, to the ugliest borak wallowing in its pit, everything had been a marvel in his early childhood.
But as the years passed, his joy had faded as he slowly came to recognise his station in the world, and the position of his home, and how it fell under the rule of the knights who dwelt in the fortress of Klinberg.
“Hey, Maddock!” a voice shouted from below. “You fallen asleep up there, boy?”
Maddock snapped his attention away from his bitter thoughts of the oppressive knights of the Order, and twisted his head so he could better see over his other shoulder. East-acre supervisor Ricard was standing below in his punt, feet spread and balanced, his pole fixed firmly in the thick mud beneath the orchard’s waters.
“Sorry, Supervisor Ricard,” said Maddock. “I was just thinking.”
“No time for thinking when you should be working, boy. Is that basket full?”
“Full enough, meaning it ain’t. Get it full, and get yourself down here. East-acre break-time in five minutes.”
Break-time already! He’d been completely unaware of how much of the morning had gone. If he didn’t hurry, he’d be late, and miss seeing Dak.
The unbalancing motion of his basket had stopped, so he swung himself quickly up the tree, clambering towards a thick cluster of seed-pods. Below him, supervisor Ricard mumbled something about feckless children, before there came the steady rippling of water as he guided his punt away to go and search for more of the farm’s young workers to harass.
Maddock was careless as he climbed, and was rewarded with more deep scratches from the tree’s sharp bark. He was similarly careless as he began to break the seed pods from the branches above him. He broke them too close to the branch, and soon his hands were covered in the tree’s sticky sap. The stuff was maddening, because it could not be easily washed away in the cold water of the orchard. Only at the end of the day could it be removed by a brisk scrubbing with hot water and washing salt, which would leave his hands red and raw.
He knew he should have taken more care, but he couldn’t be bothered. He was too eager to see Dak, because it had been the Fallows when she had last visited the farm, and that had been months ago. He was not looking forward to talking with her about the reason that her visits had stopped, but he was sure everything would be fine. Dak was very sensible, and didn’t get all emotional and weepy about things, like a lot of other girls did.
Once he’d hurriedly filled his basket, he clambered down the tree and into his coracle. He rowed it quickly back to the nearest jetty on the wooden pier that wound among the thick trunks of the kernik trees on stone piles, to where a boy with a hand cart waited.
“This stuff’s all twigs!” said the boy as Maddock dumped the basket of seed pods at his feet, before scrambling onto the jetty, and tying up his coracle.
“Only the top bit,” Maddock replied. “I’ll make it up next shift.”
“Next shifts not good enough. Someone has to get these twigs off before these here pods go into the oast-houses, and who’s the one to be doing..?”
“Bye!” shouted Maddock over his shoulder as he raced away down the pier.
“Maddock!” the boy shouted from behind him, but Maddock was already nearing the orchard’s edge.
The boy’s annoyed curses quickly faded, and Maddock’s feet soon left the pier’s wooden planks, and his heels hit the hard packed dirt of the road. As he broke from the trees’ cover, the road began its slow climb up the curving slope that enclosed the orchard. The morning sun was suddenly harsh on his back, but as he reached the slope’s height, where the flat stones of the dam that held the orchard’s waters back swept away to his right, the shadow of the building that housed the farm’s water engine offered a brief reprieve from its heat. He heard the deep thudding and roaring of water coming from inside the building, then he broke again into sunlight, and crossed the warm stones of the bridge above the overflow culvert.
Across the bridge, the stones of the courtyard where the domed oast-houses stood ware similarly warm beneath his feet, and the weeds that sprouted from the cracks between them brushed at his ankles beneath his too short trousers. Only that morning he’s had to listen to his father bemoaning how neglected the oast-yard was looking, but the fact was that there were just too many other jobs of greater importance that needed doing.
As he reached the yard’s far side, he could hear the murmur of activity in the farm square beyond, but it was not the usual low buzz of conversation from people taking their mid-morning break. Maddock could hear the voice of Feldor, the farms superintendent, raised in protest, and as he rounded the final domed building, he saw that the square beyond was filled with soldiers. A unit of swordsmen was lined up beyond the oast-yard gateway, and the soldier standing in their centre held a banner. The flag was burgundy in colour, and the morning breeze barely rippled it so its crest was not visible, but Maddock didn’t need to see it to identify its owner.
‘Oh, shit,’ he thought. ‘Tithe collection,’