Eamonn and Sam stood outside the lodge, their packs resting on the timbers of the verandah. There was no need for them to be carrying them just yet. The sun was gleaming in the sky, doing its best to dispel the chill from the previous night. It was still early morning and while it was much warmer than the previous few, Darcey still admonished them when they tried to leave wearing only a shirt, jacket, coat and undershirt. She gave them each a withering look of disproval and brought them their cloaks to keep the cold wind from cutting through them.
“I’d hate it if I fell in the snow today, I don’t think I’d be able to pull myself out” Sam muttered quietly, drawing a grin from Eamonn along with a none-too-gentle jab in the ribs. Darcey stood before them, straightening their collars in turn and making sure they would be presentable once they arrived at the castle, “I don’t want you boys to be shivering and stammering in your first address to the Baron” she told them.
Sam had woken just after dawn and had gone for one last walk around the village. Sam had watched as the early risers went about their preparations for the coming day, many were on their way to the mills and others off into the forest for an early morning hunt. The last of the seasonal crops had been collected two months ago, so most of the farmers were hired throughout the winter to work with the crops themselves, making breads and preserving the last of the vegetables, while others sold wheat and milk too that was milked daily from the cattle.
In another month or so, sowing for the new season would begin for spring and the workers would return to their pastures, ready for the next grueling months of work. Until then, however, they had to contend themselves with working throughout the town. Of course, much of this had little effect on the efforts of the hunters, and as he had the thought, Sam made one last trip into the fringes to collect the last of their traps. His first thought had been to leave them be, then he remembered that his and Eamonn’s snares were distinctive in their design. Each individual family was assigned their own design, where it would be carved onto one side of the wooden traps, or engraved for those lucky enough for afford metal ones, where it would be identified much like an emblem or badge. Each badge was then recorded with its owner’s identity in the local headman’s record books for safekeeping. Given that Sam and Eamonn lived with Darcey, it made sense that their equipment bared the same embellishment. It acted as a way of identifying the person if someone’s was found in some place it shouldn’t be, regardless of whether it had caught anything or had long since been abandoned, they were given a stiff penalty. And as he thought it over, Sam redoubled his pace to retrieve before the authorities had the chance to hand down such a penalty to him, he remembered the last time they were hit with a fine, Darcey was not pleased in the slightest.
He passed perhaps a dozen men on his way back home, there were some he recognised and he called a brief greeting to a couple of men making their way towards the game track, no doubt to search for a quick catch before the rest of the hunters were out.
It was a little over an hour later when he walked back up the verandah outside Darcey’s home. He wiped his feet on the mat and walked in, he made sure to keep his head low to avoid hitting it on the overhanging roof beam. He wasn’t surprised to see Eamonn awake, standing in the main room stretching out his morning cramps and sighing aloud. On his return from the forest, Sam had picked a posy of wild flowers for his mother; he smiled proudly as her face lit up as he produced them from behind his back for her. She hugged him vehemently and in no time the flowers were bunched together and placed into a vase of water by the front window. They shared a light breakfast of freshly homemade bread that Darcey baked that morning, topped with a strawberry jam they’d made the week before, along with some of the ever present coffee.
Then it was time for the boys to ready themselves for the journey, Darcey handed them each a water skin, filled to the brim of course with water from the mill. Darcey marveled at the adjustments that Sam had made to the mill while she’d been away. In particular, she noted the cleanliness and purity of the water as she held a glass aloft to check it.
Along with the water, Darcey packed them a type of candied orange their neighbour had made. She was an elderly lady whom Sam and Eamonn had helped out numerous times over the past year or so, her husband was busy working further in the north when there wasn’t quite enough for him to do in Wildwood. The boys had done what they could to make her day to day life a little easier. They brought in cut logs of wood to heat her stove and fuel her fireplace, gave her choice cuts of meat in the winter when they had plenty to spare and tended to her small water mill when the unrelenting heat of summer took its toll on her, forcing her to remain indoors. The gift of candied oranges was her way of saying thank you and good luck to the boys.
They loved the treat and did their best to hide it from Darcey whenever they could. The lady had been making the preserved fruit for some years now and frequently sold them at the markets, once she heard the boys were leaving, she’d set some aside from the previous weekend as a special treat for them, it was enough for after supper for several nights.
The two boys were joined by Darcey out on the verandah, as well as a pot of tea for her to drink. Darcey took a moment to speak with each of the boys, Eamonn watched as Sam listened to his mother’s advice and well-wishes, held her son tight in a drawn-out hug. Finally she turned to Eamonn. “Good luck out there, just make sure you don’t forget yourself in the heat of the moment, and I’ll always be here for you if you need”. With that she kissed Eamonn on the cheek and embraced him, holding him close to her. Sam had poured the two of them a small cup of tea to drink and a refill for Darcey before they left.
They hadn’t gone twenty meters when Darcey called out to Eamonn, “Wait. Don’t move, I’ll be right back” she called, putting her cup down and ran inside. More than a little puzzled, the boys looked at one another, “Do you know what she’s up to?” Sam asked his friend, “No, do you?” Eamonn responded with a resounding shake of the head from Sam, “I have no idea.” Sam looked down at Eamonn’s pack, “what’s the crate for?” he queried, “it’s not a crate, it’s a sled” Eamonn answered as though that immediately explained everything, Sam’s eyebrows rose in suspicion, but he let the matter go for now.
Darcey emerged from the house holding a small package, bound and wrapped in a small box, “I’ll put this in your pack” she said, momentarily handing the gift to Eamonn, “you have to promise me you won’t open it for a week or so?” she requested. Shrugging to himself, Eamonn had his pack slung across his back so Darcey turned him around, opened his pack and pushed it down to the bottom of his pack. “Thank you, Darcey” and he hugged her again. She watched them go as she retreated to her verandah, smiled sadly as she watched her boys leave.
The castle was a couple of hours walk from the village, and the Baron of the castle was on a tight schedule with many other candidates to see and assignments to hand out. It was a new beginning as Sam had been saying over the past few weeks and each time Darcey had smiled at him, she loved her son’s inclination for clichés. It was an important day for them, but deep down, she knew that the boys would never stray from their true selves.
A lump formed in Eamonn’s throat as he realized he was leaving home, as he walked through the snow-topped fields. Darcey had been unexpectedly calm that morning, but it was clear the occasion was getting to her, he’d lost count of how many times she expressed how proud she was of them but, as he always did, Sam reminded her that they hadn’t done anything yet, nevertheless, they took her words as her faith in them to succeed to their full potential. Darcey called to them a final time “Make sure that you visit from time to time, good luck, be safe and don’t push yourselves too hard”. Both boys looked back, Sam waving, Eamonn only a quick glance, knowing that if he continued to watch her, he might find a way for him to stay.
Sam continued to look back at his mother until they had gone around the bend, several hundred meters from where she stood, where she was finally out of their view. They walked on for a short while before the excitement overcame Sam, “So we’re finally on our way” Sam announced as he looked at Eamonn. Eamonn could see the how jittery Sam was and he smiled at that, glad that at least one of them was looking forward to the rest of the day. “Are you excited?” Sam asked, “I know I am.”
Eamonn looked to the sky above, blue for the most part and dotted with some cloud cover, he was pleased to that some of the darker and more threatening weather wouldn’t reach them before they reached Faraday, so long as it kept to its current course he reminded himself. “As long as we get there on time, I’ll be happy” he replied, keeping his mind on the weather. “I had a feeling that you would be” Sam responded, “I know that this is a big day for us, but everything should work out for us in the end” he said with great optimism. “I just keep getting the feeling that I’ve forgotten something” he concluded, as he continued to rack his brain.
“And I had a feeling that you would forget something…d’you at least remember what was happening at the time?” Eamonn added, still keeping his focus on the ground ahead of him. The ground at this time of year was still almost entirely frozen a meter or so down, as the temperature began to rise, it would thaw out, expanding and contracting again at night, making the ground unstable. It wasn’t uncommon in the early progression of the yearly thaw for reports of landslides along these parts to come up, the locals knew better than to take an incautious step down a steep hill.
They kept their movements to the less rocky paths, in case such an event transpired, there was little chance of them being hurt. Few landslides caused any serious injuries, often a person felt the ground give way beneath them, they’d slip, pick themselves up, brush away the snow from their clothing and get moving again as both of them had found out in their travels so far. Eamonn had been leading the way as he stepped into a concealed ditch. He fell to a sudden stop as he found himself covered in the thin powdery snow. A few curses and some coordinated team-work between the two and Eamonn was back on his feet, safe again from winter’s icy clutches. A withering look from Sam told him more than he wanted to hear and they were off again, this time with a little more care than before.
They had about three kilometers to walk, with most of it negotiating the hills and of course the lake, it was going to take longer than expected as they travelled across the winding trails to the castle.
The sun broke through the cloud overhead, dispelling the chill from the air as they came to the lakeside. Eamonn knew of a way to cut across the lake without falling through the slowly melting ice. There was evidence of animals and humans trying to do the same, large holes had formed as the ice cracked and fell away under the pressure of weight as a final unwittingly heavy step fractured the ice below.
They could see such blemishes dotted around the edges of the lake, where the ground had begun to shift with the change in temperature. The boys noticed that there were less cracks closer to the center of the frozen lake. They could use others’ mistakes and slide their way across but Eamonn had something up his sleeve; in the lead up to the previous winter, he’d visited the lake to fish every now and then for the bream that lived there when they wanted a change in their diet. He’d seen how the lake moved with the landscape, how it melted and froze throughout the seasons and he found a segment of the lake a meter or two higher in the water than the rest of the lake bed.
Figuring the lower volume of water in that part of the water allowed for greater exposure to the cold, it would freeze faster as the heat was quickly pulled upwards and the cold took over. The cold was also why they had to leave early, the sun’s rays would warm the exterior of the lake, potentially causing disturbances just below the surface, just enough so that the ground ahead might look intact, but instead had a nasty surprise in store for them. It was important they reached the lake before the sun had time to make an impact, it’d make their trip a little more tricky if they didn’t.
They stood on the bank leading down to the lake, Eamonn called to Sam “We’ve got to go down” he announced, pointing towards the lake. Sam loosened the top button on his coat, letting the air cool him slightly, he was beginning to feel the sun as it beat down on them, with all the layers Darcey had insisted that they wear, he was getting very stuffy in it all. Eamonn stepped carefully as he moved his way diagonally down the small decline to the edge of the ice with Sam trailing a meter or so behind him. It was now that the idea of actually walking across the frozen lake hit him, he looked across at the broken sections of ice, visualizing himself plummeting through the ice, into the cold chilling depths, never to resurface.
“I hope you’ve thought this through” he called, “I wouldn’t want to be the one telling my mother what happened to you” Sam warned. Eamonn stepped forward to test the ice; the first step was met with a soft crackling sound, small shards of ice crunched beneath his boot. He took another careful step, already he could feel his left foot sliding away from him, he looked up and silently cursed the effects of the sun. He struggled to maintain his balance, he gestured to Sam, “Pull me back in” he told him, quickly Sam came level with the lake, ensured he was solidly grounded and held out his right hand, caught Eamonn and slid him back across, together they stumbled and lost their balance, Eamonn kicked his feet out to keep himself upright, Sam wasn’t so lucky as he fell onto his backside.
Eamonn stood, dusty off the powdery snow from his cloak and helped Sam to his feet, “Thanks for helping me out with that, I guess I underestimated how quickly the ice would begin to melt” he admitted. Sam glared at his friend, hoping to get the message across before looking back to the path they had been following. He hoped he might find a safer alternative, there was a sinking feeling in his stomach that told him there was no other way. “Are you sure we can’t go back up the slope and just walk around the lake?” Eamonn thought for a moment on the idea, ultimately deciding against it.
“Take too much time” he said shaking his head. “Besides, once we get more than half-way over we should be fine, it’s just the first bit where we’ll need to be careful” he explained, he was careful to not let his mind wander towards the hollows not too far away, imploring himself to keep looking straight towards the middle of the lake where the ice was solid and thick. Again, Eamonn tested the edge of the lake, he was careful, taking his time as he placed his foot, after half tests, he decided it was safe enough to cross.
“Help me take off my pack, then I want you to take the sled and put it on the ground” Eamonn instructed. Bemused, Sam lifted the pack away, shifting the hood of Eamonn’s cloak in the process to get Eamonn’s pack clear. Eamonn quickly opened his pack, pulling out two metal rungs, “What are those for?” Sam asked, without looking up Eamonn turned over the sled; it was simply designed, made up of half a dozen wooden narrow timbers connected with another three metal-reinforced wooden timbers underneath to provide the support it needed, there was a slight curvature at the front where it tapered inwards, allowing for the snow to escape as the sled moved. It had been Eamonn’s sled for years. Now though, much like the water mill at home, there were some adjustments to be made. He slid the two metal rungs into the holders set in place on the underside of the sled that he’d worked on smoothing out and could now slide the rungs into, once they reached the end of the holders, Eamonn heard them lock into place. It was easy enough for him to install, once he had thought up the idea and it allowed for greater control over the sled and for occasions such as this.
“These will help us to get across the lake, I got the idea last year when I came here, I knew that they used a similar sled for sliding downhill on the snow, but none of them could keep control once they hit the ice. I figured adding these metal rungs to rivets on the bottom would help cut through the ice. It’d still be useful for cutting through snow. It took me a while to get them right, if they’re too sharp they were just cutting straight in and the sled was coming to a stand-still, when they were too blunt and there wasn’t enough resistance for the control to come into it, I’m hoping I’ve got it just perfect so they can just cut through the top layer of ice in the surface.”
Sam was impressed, Eamonn was meticulous with his creations, he was confident that if his friend had tested and re-tested the sharpness of the metal, then they’d do what they needed them to. “Where did you get the idea for the rungs?” he knew that Eamonn was good at creating new things, but it was rare for him to come up with something completely on his own. “Remember those ice dancers that came through a couple of years ago?” Sam nodded in return, “At the time we were amazed at how they could remain in perfect balance, even though the metal is barely more than a few millimeters thick. I worked on the same principal, and I made it so that I can add or remove the rungs in a flash.”
Eamonn grunted with the effort as he pushed the second rung into place, he forgot how rigid they became once the cold got to them, “We can take a five minute break before he tackle the lake”. Sam didn’t need waste any time, by his reckoning they had less than an hour to get there, time enough to get to the castle, so they could afford themselves a rest. They sat on the rocks by the side of the lake, Sam handed Eamonn his water skin from his pack, and he drank deeply before setting the stopper back in place. Eamonn also produced the last of his candied oranges. The tangy morsels got their saliva running, bringing some heat back into them thanks to the restorative qualities of the morsels and the warm sun.
Eamonn watched the sun carefully, judging as well as he could for when to call time on their break, “I think it were time we got moving” Eamonn declared before not too long. Grudgingly, Sam got to his feet, placing the stopper back in his water skin after another mouthful of water and pushed in firmly into place. “Just as well there aren’t many candidates this year, I doubt they’d mind if we’re late, from what I’ve heard though, it’s highly unlikely for us not to get a place” Sam said.
They slung their packs into place on either side of the sled, Eamonn had explained earlier to Sam that they would fasten one to each side as they would help work as counterweights and balance the added bodyweight of Sam being directed through the middle of the sled. Eamonn looked at Sam, “I don’t want us to start off on the wrong foot with the Baron” he told him. For a moment Sam thought to argue the point until he sensed the tone in Eamonn’s voice and decided to let the matter slide. He tightened the cord that Eamonn had handed to him, securing his pack to the sled. Sam withdrew his water skin once he’d secured his pack and stripped a handful of salt from some pieces of the preserved meat they’d brought with them.
“What’s that for?” Eamonn asked, Sam smiled back at him, “The water is for me and I thought we could strip some of the salt away from the meat and put a light coating on the rungs, with a light sprinkle of water it should help keep the salt in place”. For Eamonn, that didn’t explain it very much, “what’s the point of the salt?” Eamonn repeated, Sam had a sudden “oh” moment as he realised the question and quickly went on to reassure Eamonn, “the salt will combine with the water and should help protect the metal from getting too cold and brittle, that way the rungs won’t become too sharp and keep us from breaking completely through the ice or suddenly becoming stuck in it as it melted.”
Eamonn was impressed, “That’s brilliant” he stated. Sam tried in vain to keep his sense of pride from breaking through, “Thanks, I noticed Percy in the butchers was using salt a few weeks to keep ago, he told me how he would use salt in his cool room to keep his ice slabs from melting, I thought if it worked for him, it might work for us” he said with a smile. Ice was difficult to come by, it was a dangerous job handed out to towns by the mountain side, they would spend the coldest months of the year in specially crafted protective stalls to keep them out of the extreme cold. In small groups they’d work excavating large portions into cubes, each group would lay out a grid and cut deep into the ice, using grapples and hooks to haul the giant cubes out. Once they had them, they would quarter the cube and stack the smaller pieces into metal containers lined with a mixture of salt and straw that would act as insulation, this would keep the ice from melting and allow the excavators to transport the ice across the country to wherever it was needed.
In towns like Wildwood, butchers would procure a large amount, placing it in their store rooms to cool their stock for the long periods of summer time. Percy had gone into detail about how he could keep a single beast fresh for several weeks with the use of preserving with salt, even in the middle of summer, though the ice wouldn’t keep for quite as long, he had told Sam that during summer, the townspeople would often hunt for their own food anyway, so once the ice was beginning to melt, he’d move on to selling live-stock and selling smaller animals such as chickens that he could sell easily in a couple of days. “Of course, you have to be smart about it” he had told him, “but it all lends itself quite well to our summer diets, less broths and hearty food and more refreshing and crisp flavours” the man’s gentle joking manner had had Sam laughing.
Eamonn took the water skin from Sam and liberally coated the other metal run and added some salt granules to the blade. He felt a chill up his spine, it was only now that he looked toward the sky, he hadn’t noticed the change, he was pre-occupied with preparing the sled that he had forgot to check his surroundings. He saw the darkening of the clouds, there was rain coming, he watched the patterns and movements of the clouds scudding overhead. Shivering, he pulled his woolen cap down tighter and wrapped their cloak further around himself. Now that they weren’t moving, the chill of the wind was beginning to penetrate through to his chest.
“We need to get moving before we freeze” he said. Sam nodded, his arms were crossed and his clenched hands were tucked under his armpits, trying to keep some of the warmth in, he shuddered as another breeze gusted through him. Though they were both in good physical condition, it didn’t stop the cold from breaking through, it had been easier going while their joints and muscles were warm, now Sam was hoping that their short break didn’t let the cramps set in, nothing would be worse than if one were to seize him while on the sled.
The winter chill nipped at them again, Sam wished they could be on their way. Sam tucked himself into the front of the sled. They’d decided that Sam would already be seated while Eamonn pushed them onto the ice, then he would get into position behind Sam.
“How wide is the lake? And how long do you think it will take to cross it?” Eamonn shrugged, the shivering cold made it difficult for him to talk freely, he stuttered and mumbled until he finally managed to make a clear response “I guess about two-hundred meters across to where I’d like to go, and it’d probably take about five minutes to cross.”
“Trust me,” he continued, “once we have enough momentum, we should be able to slide across the lake easily, all we need to do is make sure we don’t tip over” Eamonn said. Sam just stared straight ahead, he scratched at his eyes to clear them, wiping away some of the ice flakes that had fallen onto his face. “Now, what I’ll do is get us into position, once we’re moving, I’ll slide in behind you, if the sled happens to shift in the process, don’t try to counteract it, let yourself relax and you’ll be fine” he explained.
Straining against the weight of Sam and the packs, Eamonn slowly but gradually pulled the sled back up the slight incline, he held it in place on the slope. He took three deep breaths, “Are you ready, Sam?” he saw an answering nod of the head from Sam, “On three. One…Two….” he never reached three instead he gathered himself and in a single motion he pushed off. They hit the foot of the hill, the metal rungs scything easily through the snow and broke away onto the ice. There was a momentary pull on the sled as they hit the bottom and slipped onto the ice, Eamonn waited, holding onto the back of the sled until he hauled himself into the back behind Sam as the sled adjusted itself back into a straight line again. Sam felt a tap on his right shoulder and looked back to see the smiling face of Eamonn as they went flying across the ice and on towards Faraday.