“What do you suggest we do?” Sam asked as he busily stoked the dying embers of the fire. It was late afternoon; the boys were home on their own as they had been for the past eight days. Darcey had been called away to help cater for a feast at Keepers Point, it was a town to the southern side of the Wallaran forest. The only means of travel were to take either the day long journey through the forest or the three day hike first to the north-west around the forest before heading south again. Given the commodities Darcey and her convoy need to take with them, they were forced into following the longer, hilly path around the wood. It was time consuming and a tough road, but it was the better alternative to take. Most of those whom weren’t required to assist in escorting the cargo took the forest path instead, so they could get things started at the venue.
For the boys this was their last day in the town, the following day they would travel to the nearby castle of Faraday to be inducted into one of the many professions of the castles. Once there, they would learn a new craft under the expert tutelage and guidance of one of the leading men or women of that office. They each had dreams of grandeur, they wanted to make a difference in the world and focus their time on the task of carrying out important duties throughout the kingdom.
Darcey was meant to return home that night, and the boys had spent much of the last few days setting their own things aside to concentrate on the house. They had returned to the forest for more hunting and kept up a good supply for the dinner table. They put in more and more time tracking and catching game and selling the more expensive cuts of meat to the butchers in the hope they could collect enough to make Darcey’s life a little easier while she adapted to life without them.
Eamonn looked back at his friend, both had been thinking about it every day, knowing their time here was coming to an end, still they were reluctant to acknowledge the fact. This was the place they had grown up in, where they had learnt so many things, it was hard for them to now say goodbye to it. Wildwood provided them with a sort of safety net, they always felt like they were under the protective wing of Darcey, they always knew where life was going. Now all of that would be changing.
Tomorrow, they would be thrust into the deep unknown, forced to adapt quickly to the massive changes in their lives, if they couldn’t manage that, they’d have to face their failure, they’d return with their tail between their legs to Wildwood. They knew that Darcey would welcome them home with open arms, but the rest of the town mightn’t feel the same way.
There was that unending sense of expectation weighing down on them, formal education was a luxury, but it came at a price; many didn’t make it through the system, but those that came out the other side had that expectation of success in their career. For many, it was better that they didn’t take the chance at all and remained in town, it was an opinion of a town where disappointment was an almost foreign emotion.
“I’m not sure” Eamonn finally responded, grunting with some effort as he lift a small tub of wood from the barrel by the stove across to the fireplace. Sam could see the tension in Eamonn, he knew how hard the last few days had been, he knew that underneath that veil of confidence, Eamonn was thinking things over. For anyone else, it would have worked, despite Eamonn’s efforts, Sam had learnt what this behaviour entailed, so he did his best to give Eamonn some distance.
Sam had his mother to help him along and with that came the confidence that she could provide him. Eamonn on the other hand had the confidence of a friend, and though Sam was important to him, Eamonn didn’t enjoy the same level of intimacy that Sam did with his mother. Eamonn knew very little about his parents. His mother was a local and his father had originated from the north-east, several years ago his father’s death and the subsequent pain of the loss for his mother meant she couldn’t manage things by herself anymore and chose to sell their property.
In the light of his father’s life and the pressure she knew her son would be placed under in the years to come, Eamonn’s mother had passed him onto Darcey, Sam’s mother. Darcey had accepted in a heartbeat and knew how hard such a loss could be; she had lost her husband only two months beforehand in a hunting accident. At the time, the wildlife in Wallaran forest was flourishing, with that though, it brought the plague of poachers and killers looking to take animal pelts as prizes. Many poachers had been stopped easily by use of force, but one ring of poachers had come across the most sought after breeds of river fox. Few remained in the wild and were hunted for their magnificent coat, even the barons and ladies in the country’s west were after them.
It was up to the locals to stop them, and as a retired captain from the Aylesburian army, Sam’s father, Tristan, had accompanied them as they approached the group directly. But the poachers were in no mood to make any sort of deal, only one of the twenty townspeople survived the short skirmish that took place and the poachers scoured the rest of the forest, taking with them many of the beautiful animals that once lived in the wood. The lone survivor was found sleeping in a makeshift bed in a small alcove half a day from town. The lady was brought back and tended to in Wildwood, telling the head man of the details. The news had hit Darcey hard. She had spent the greater part of her married life on her own, she was a resilient woman. It took some time, be she managed things and the two toddlers she had to contend with.
Sam had others that could talk about his father’s achievements and tell stories to him, Darcey was the only one who knew much about Eamonn’s parents, she would mention them occasionally when he reminded her of them, but Eamonn always felt she avoided the topic.
Sam shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare beating down on them. They were outside by the water mill, Sam had had a germ of an idea for how he could improve the system his father had installed some years back. Today they were adding the final touches to it, which was the most time consuming stage. They’d spent the previous day emptying the mill and storing the water so while Sam set to work making the big changes, Eamonn had wondered off on his own, cutting firewood and stacking them by the side of the house and rotated the water to prevent the layer of mold to form on top of the water in the large wagon mounted ale barrels they’d borrowed from the inn. The barrels were normally used for storing the malt and barley ale drunk in most taverns around the country, these barrels had long ago been emptied and, in recent times, been filled to the brim with water so that in the heat of summer one could quench their thirst. In winter, they were emptied and upturned to keep them aerated and free of unfriendlies, when Sam approached the inn keeper for borrowing them for a few days, he was only too glad to help.
Eamonn rotated and pulled the top of the next barrel off, threw in a makeshift paddle to get the water moving and drew some water out through by partially taking out the stopper at the front of the barrel roughly half a foot from the bottom. From behind him, he could hear the distant sounds of hammering and the occasional curse when Sam had made a mistake with one of the adjustments he was making. An hour later, the last enhancement had been made and they fitted the new piping that lead into the kitchen for easier use and then left the mill and its newly added segments to settle into place before filled it with the water sitting in the barrels later on in the afternoon.
Sam passed the empty bucket across to Eamonn and he removed the stopper from the front of the barrel to get the remaining traces of water into the last bucketful. Eamonn heaved the bucket up to Sam and they tipped it quickly into the mill. “Give me a hand with the top” Sam said, grunting as they picked up a heavy wooden plate and slid it over the top. Sam felt it slide into the grooves he’d carved specially for it, jolted it slightly to make sure it wasn’t going to move and stood back to admire his handiwork. “That should do the trick, mum had commented that it wasn’t working as it should have been, these modifications should make it easier for the system to pull the water through into the house.”
Eamonn pointed at the plate they’d just hauled into position, “What’s that for?” he asked, Sam was momentarily puzzled as he followed Eamonn’s finger, “The plate? The old one was getting a bit worn, I don’t think the wood that was there before was very new when dad put it in. I figured that while we were at it, it’d make sense to swap it out for something better. I added in a small window that mum can remove so she can refill it easily without taking the top off.” Eamonn nodded at the idea and felt it was a reasonable change. “It should keep the water cool in the summer too,” Sam continued, “I went by the mill workshop the other day and asked if Thurlow could make it for me. He cut the extra panel that I needed and I did the work to install it, with some guidance of course” he added with a smile towards Eamonn.
Following up, Sam sent Eamonn inside to check the system, moving the window-like panel away just enough to view the insides of the mill. Sam checked the mechanisms in place, going through his checklist in his head. Eamonn was ready by the tap when there was a brief knock on the window facing the mill. Taking it as his signal, Eamonn opened the system fractionally at a time, until he got another knock and opened it up all the way. The pipe groaned at first, as if complaining at the sudden load it had come under, the water started to trickle through slowly, building up until it became a strong steady stream into the basin. Another knock and Eamonn turned the system off, and he watched as the water drained through the outgoing pipe at the bottom of the sink where it would lead out into one of the quarries built for waste products. Eventually, that waste would drift through into a compost system as it was fed back into the forest to provide nourishment to the new growth by the edges of the trees.
Eamonn was wiping his wet hands on a cloth as Sam cheerfully called out to him out by the system. “Works just as I had hoped” Sam announced, beaming at his friend as Eamonn approached, closing the door behind him. Sam gestured to Eamonn to help him shift the plate again, “There was a lot of pressure coming through there initially” Eamonn stated, Sam was quick to brush that aside, “Makes sense, turning it off and the changes I’ve made to it will take a little bit of time for it to all settle into place, give it a week or so and things will be fine” Eamonn heard the unspoken words of ‘I hope’ hang in the air, but he felt that if Sam was happy enough with it, then that was enough for him.
The wind had begun to kick up a bit and both boys noted the sky above, the sun’s rays were just edging below the tops of the trees, the night was coming and with it the cool night winds, as if on cue they felt the chill of the air hit them and both shivered slightly. “We’d better get inside” Sam suggested, “we have some chores to do before supper” he continued. They tidied their things up quickly, Eamonn slapped Sam on the back enthusiastically as they made for the front door, “I’m sure Darcey will appreciate what you’ve done for her” he said.
Sam grabbed an armful of wooden logs from the bin on the verandah on his way in, “I’ll take care of the fire, are you fine to take care of preparing the stove?” he asked, Eamonn nodded as he unlocked the door by sliding a small key through the hole and turning it, he remembered that they still had half a dozen nicely sized quails they’d picked up over the recent few days, the last of which they’d caught the previous afternoon. Eamonn had already set two of them to the side for tonight’s meal and had gone through the messy work of removing the feathers on all of them and preparing the two for cooking, leaving the others for Darcey to use as she needed them.
“I’ll need to make a trip, there are a couple of things I need to purchase to have alongside the quail” he told Sam, “How much do you need?” Sam queried. Darcey had given them four silver to help cover the costs for their provisions, so far, they hadn’t yet needed to dip into that money, they had made more than enough from their hunting trips, even still, they were still cautious of their spending.
“Not too much, just a few vegetables and one or two things to replace stocks” Eamonn answered. Sam, content with the answer, handed him one of the larger silver coins, and a handful of change, “take what we had left from yesterday, and another silver for something extra” he said with a smile, Eamonn nodded back, “I’ll be back shortly” he called. Eamonn grabbed his coat that was hanging on a peg by the door, wrapped himself warmly in it and opened the door, leaving Sam to relax by the warming fireplace.
Eamonn walked briskly along the path leading to the central road. Already he could feel the warmth of home leach from his body. He waved to the daughter of a berry farmer, she was a year or so younger than he was, they, like so many others their age, had often spent time together in the summer when swimming in the lake just north of town. He smiled wistfully at the memories he’d shared with the other children in the last few years, watching closely as she slipped between two of the walkways that led to her home, disappearing from his view. He still had those thoughts when he arrived at the small thatch roofed place.
As his minded wandered, he’d trudged along the familiar paths quietly, and as he emerged into the light of the trader, he felt the warmth envelope him again. Eamonn wiped his feet on the mat and approached the bench to meet the small, thick-set man behind the counter. “Good afternoon, Eamonn” he called, the room was warm and, judging by the way the fires lit up the room and the heavy drapes that covered the windows, Eamonn doubted that the man had bothered to leave this haven for the past few hours.
“The sun has set, Morton” he laughed, the man named Morton dismissed the announcement with a wave of his hand, “Whatever my boy, as long as the day is good and you’re in good health” he said. Eamonn liked Morton, he wasn’t like some of the traders in Wildwood who liked to take advantage of the hardworking laborers in Wildwood. Those were people that loved to set their prices to as much as their customers could afford to pay. Morton was different though, he enjoyed being at the service of others, he had said many times that the reward for giving his friends, and nearly everyone was, a fair price and good produce made up for any sort of money he’d make. It was this sort of approach to his business that made the man as successful as he was, many were unable to keep up with the costs of ongoing trade and eventually closed their doors while Morton continued to reap the benefits of his welcoming and humble personality.
As Eamonn had that thought again, he smiled at the man, “I’m fine” he said simply. Morton took in the features of the boy, it was well known throughout Wildwood that the new graduates would be called away from town for their journey to Faraday and beyond over the course of the next few weeks. There was something different about this boy though; he was smart, caring and enthusiastic, and there wasn’t a deceitful bone in his body. Not like that Nel Vaiten boy, he thought. “I’m just after a couple of things” Eamonn told him, calling aloud his list of items.
Morton subsequently retrieved each item, placing them on the counter for the boy, he totaled the cost of the items and Eamonn handed him the appropriate amount. Morton placed the items in a bag and handed them to Eamonn, but not before he gave the boy his parting words of encouragement. “You and Sam take care now. We’ll look after Darcey while you’re gone. But you make sure you come and see us again so we can shower you in the glory you deserve” he took the younger man’s hand and shook it fiercely, “Good luck my boy” and sent Eamonn on his way out into the cold again.
Eamonn wasted no time making his way back home, the sun had drifted below the line of the clouds and hills, and with it the heat of the day had diminished. He hastily went to get his house key from his pocket, fumbling for it as he slipped his hand in, he sighed in frustration and shivered as he was forced to take the glove on his right hand off to find it in his pocket. The cold air bit into his warm flesh, and he dropped the icy cold key as he withdrew it, he cursed quietly and knelt down searching for it amongst the shadowed verandah timbers, he heard a creaking sound and the glow of light illuminated the wood panels suddenly and he looked up to see Sam’s face peering down at him.
“Is everything alright?” he asked, the bite of the cold got to him as he left the door open, “I’ve dropped my key” Eamonn replied his voice muddled by the chattering of his teeth. Sam disappeared momentarily before he returned holding a lit candle and Eamonn managed to lay his numb fingers on the key again and placed it back in his pocket. Sam pulled him through into the house and shut the door fast behind him, determined to purge them both from the frigid air. It wasn’t until Eamonn entered the light that he could see the damp patches forming as the fast forming frost started to melt into his coat.
Eamonn shook his coat, shrugging away anything loose that he’d happened to catch on his way home, he rubbed his eyes to clear them and looked up at another figure over by the stove. Realising it was Darcey, he called to her and smiled. She in turn smiled at him, glad to be seeing him once again, “I hope you’re hungry, Eamonn. I’ve made a salad with vinaigrette dressing that you can help yourself to, there’s also some chicken that I marinated in a lovely tomato chutney that I got while I was in Keepers Point. It’s here when you’re ready, after you wash up of course” she announced.
Eamonn suddenly felt the strain of the day and he realised how tired and worn out he was, he headed to the back room, albeit a tad grudgingly, leaving the newly found warmth of the main room and walked into the cooler washroom. Darcey’s eyes followed him, a smirk written on her face as she read his thoughts. She picked up the lettuce she’d cut, shook it to remove any drips of water and placed it in a bowl, mixing it along with the rest of the salad. Setting that aside, she took the chicken from where it was resting after being in the oven and laid it on a heavy chopping board where she carved slices of meat from across the top. Knowing how the boys loved the legs, she pulled them off and placed them onto a large serving plate, withdrew the large segments of the carcass and threw away as waste and carved the rest of the bird.
By the time Eamonn had cleaned himself up Darcey was laying down cutlery and plates for the three of them. He moved behind his favoured chair, looking at the spread of food she’d prepared, “I had set aside some quails for us to have” he told her in a rather small voice, he felt a little guilty that Darcey had gone to the trouble of cooking for them since she had been away for a while, Darcey shrugged and Sam gave him a knowing look that suggested he’d already argued that point with her. It wasn’t that Darcey wasn’t a good cook, in fact she had always been an exceptional cook with a broad knowledge of different styles from around the place, it was just that sometimes she took on too much in the house. She loved to experiment as she often tried making different things and always looked to make them as extravagant as she could when given the chance. This meal, though, was one of her simpler ones, nonetheless it would delicious, but Eamonn couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for himself, especially with what they were to embark on the following day.
Darcey helped herself to some of the salad, loading up her plate with a nice heap, “I thought that you boys had done enough around here, and I know this is your last night…” she stopped herself from going any further, she saw both of their faces drop, Sam had been busy stoking the fire and had turned to her when she had started talking, while Eamonn was in the process of getting himself comfortable. Darcey put the salad bowl to the side and gripped Eamonn’s hand, “I’m sorry” she began, “I know how difficult it is for you both, I just thought…” she let the sentence go as she realised her words weren’t helping. She looked from one boy to the other, “I’ll make use of them over the next few days” she said, as if answering Eamonn’s earlier statement.
Silence filled the room for a minute or two before Sam finally recovered, “It all smells good” he said, crossing to the table and pulling out his chair to sit, hoping to add some light back to the mood, he cast his eyes towards, “although you don’t show it, you sure can eat a lot Eamonn” he joked, Eamonn managed to glare at Sam for a second or two before a grin broke through until he couldn’t help but get him back, “Speak for yourself Sam, I’m not the only one who enjoys Darcey’s cooking just a little bit too much” he responded and poked Sam none too gently in the belly.
Darcey laughed quietly, glad to have gotten past the awkward moment, “Come on boys. Let’s eat up before it all gets cold.”