Chapter 2 - Family Dinner

The air felt heavy around me as the cart trundled down the road at a pace that Nelly found comfortable. I didn’t rush her this time. In fact, I might consider taking a break to let her graze.

I sighed, putting it off and delaying the inevitable would not make the nauseous feeling in my gut go away. Jars of preserves rattled alongside the wheels of cheese I’d bought, but there wasn’t much butter to be had in town. That meant they’d need to render and keep the fat from their meals. Which was more work, and I wouldn't be there to help my mother with it.

Something tugged uncomfortably in my thoughts at the prospect of leaving home. There came a niggling little voice in my brain that tried to compel me to stay with the family and protect them differently instead of going away. Visions of doom and death entered my mind as it drifted with that whispering presence leading the way.

I shook my head to clear it, gasping for air as my chest seemed to tighten and squeeze my lungs like a giant snake. It took a few panicked seconds to get my breathing back under control, to ease myself out of the fabricated catastrophe of my siblings starving to death or being murdered by bandits in the night.

There was no choice. If I didn’t leave and help Love with the work, then it was doubtless that some of my siblings wouldn’t make it through the winter. All signs were pointing towards another harsh long season this year. The snow had barely gone, and we were already into what should have been late spring. Planting was an important step that was falling behind, which meant lower yields and income from our cash crops.

Anger swelled inside me, drowning the voice that told me to stay at home. I was furious my father had put me in this position. He was going to explode on me, and might even kill me over this. Meanwhile, it was all his fault to begin with. This fury buoyed me the rest of the way and reinforced my decision. Now, I urged Nelly a little faster. She nickered in protest, but obeyed the instruction.

“That’s a girl. I’ll make you some warm mash when we get home. You’ve done a good job today, and it might be my last chance to give you a treat, old girl,” I spoke softly to the horse as we turned north off the main road and closed in on the farm.

As I pulled up the drive, my siblings met me shrieking and hollering as they came racing down to meet me. Sylvie, just 5, had a stuffed cow in her tiny hand as she tried to keep up with her older brothers and sisters. Disaster struck as the youngster tripped and fell. Marina scooped the little girl up as she wailed and snot dripped from her nose.

Marina narrowed her eyes at me, as if to say I owed her for babysitting. I winced, knowing that Marina hated being snotted and cried on. But it warmed my heart to know she’d tolerate it for our family. She’d likely have to watch them all more when I left.

As she approached, Sylvie reached her little arms out and grabbed at the air in my direction. The child was leaning so far away from Marina I was afraid she might fall. I stopped the cart and Marina climbed up next to me, plopping Sylvie between us.

“Ard!” Sylvie called out my shortened name as she leaned into my side and wrapped her arms around me as best she could while the cow dangled in her grip.

“Hello Sylvie! Were you good for Marina?” I asked, urging Nelly to walk again. The rest of our siblings clambered into the back of the wagon. Each one a voice calling out to be heard, a sister slapped a brother, someone’s hair was pulled, the list was an endless torrent, and I loved it. It was like a warm hug and a feeling of being needed.

I belonged here. Looking down at Sylvie’s pudgy, babyish face confirmed that as a fact. I would come back after a month at the blacksmith’s shop and everything would be fine. We could live this way forever.

Except, I knew we probably couldn’t. So I drank it all in on the short trip up the drive and into the barn. I corralled the kids and listened patiently to each grievance, like a king holding court for his people to settle their land disputes. Only everything I dealt with was petty and trivial.

Once the air cleared and I’d heard about what had happened while I was gone, I shooed the children off to take the cargo from the wagon into the house and get ready for dinner. Marina stayed to help me put Nelly and the cart away, and I told her Love’s deal.

She was quiet for a long while, and when she spoke, her voice was soft and understanding. “Father’s not going to like it.”

“He doesn’t have to like it. It’s what has to happen.” I mixed a feedbag for Nelly while we talked.

“It’s his own damn fault and I don’t see why you’re going to have to go through the mangler just to make him feel better!” She threw the tack in the corner and crossed her arms, pouting. “It’s just not fair.”

“Think you could help me butter him up a bit? I’m sure there must be something good in the pantry.” I suggested and made a note to organise the heap of tack in the corner.

Marina walked quickly up to the house, and I sighed to myself. Life was about to go sideways and my stomach clenched as dread seeped into my bones. I trudged up to the front door after cleaning up the barn and took a deep breath. Wrapped in the familiar smells of fresh herbs, savoury roasted meat, and fresh vegetables being boiled my mother came to me in the doorway and folded her arms around me, squeezing gently. “Arded! My responsible son, thank you for keeping track of the pantry.”

“It’s no big deal. I wasn’t able to get any butter, so remember to save the fat from the meats.” I brushed off the compliment. She would make it hard to leave. I knew that, but the fear of losing them all to starvation was still greater than losing them in my life.

“Marina even came up and started to rummage around, and guess what she found!” My mother was beaming. “She found some apples, and she’s actually baking Arded! Marina is baking! What a wonderful influence you are!”

I winced and hoped for the best. Marina hadn’t always been a good student with tasks like baking and housework. She was more at home out in the fields or on horseback. That was another reason for me to go. I’d be out of her way and she’d be able to inherit the farm without the issue of not being the eldest holding her back.

“Hopefully whatever she makes is better than the time she made muffins.” I joked with my mother.

“Yes, we can only hope. I’ve never seen someone able to weaponise their baking.” My mother’s blue-green eyes twinkled with the memory and she tucked me to her side and I helped her set the table and get the children to wash their hands and faces before dinner.

The meal was a noisy affair as the youngsters told everyone about their day again, and my father’s quiet presence was a rock in the ebbing and flowing tide of conversation. My mother moved through conversations like seaweed, bending and twisting, following the current. It struck me in that moment how well matched they were, despite their differences. Solid and unyielding stone, anchoring the unending flexibility of my mother.

As the table was cleared and the smaller children were ushered off to bed, Marina told our father she’d baked an apple crumble for him. I brought out the wine and Marina, our father, mother, and I spoke about my trip to town. I hesitated and sidestepped the true reason for my trip, but finally I had to face it.

“Mr Delion, the blacksmith, will fix our equipment,” I said and braced for the explosion.

My father put his fork down with enough force to shake the table. “You went to that infernal for help?! Do you have no dignity as my son?”

His voice reverberated through my chest, and I felt the sting of his disappointment and rage as he threw it at me. “There was no choice, father!”

I was surprised by my outburst, and his eyes went wide with the same shock. “I’ll not stoop so low as to ask for a handout from that infernal blacksmith!”

“It’s not a handout! I’ll be working to cover the cost!” My chest felt tight knowing the next thing that came out was going to be the last nail in the coffin. “I just need to stay in town with him for a month to replace his apprentice!”

“Like hell! I’d never agree to that kind of deal! You will go back there and retrieve our tools tomorrow and bring them home.” My father’s face flushed red and his hands shook. “Did you honestly think I’d ever agree to that kind of thing? What would the neighbours say? What sort of whispers and rumours would spread through town? I’d rather starve than agree to this lunacy.”

“Are you willing to let Sylvie starve too? What about the others? Father, I can't do nothing.” I met his challenge as I found my own seething rage boiling up from deep inside. I couldn’t care less if my father starved, it was my siblings I worried for.

Suddenly, a thunderous crackling sound echoed through the farmhouse. There was a flash as a lightning bolt struck the centre of the table, scorching the wood. Clouds were forming in the dining room, and there was a smell of rain and thunderstorms. Colour drained from my father’s face as we both turned to my mother.

“I know you aren’t thinking of abandoning your family, Arded, my sweet boy.” My mother’s voice sounded far away, and her eyes were lit from behind by the swirling storm that built in the room. “Tell me you won’t leave.”

“I have to, mother. If I don’t, you’ll lose us all!” I pleaded and her blank face looked like it was trying to process the information at hand, but there was confusion, too.

“Annette, come back my sweet. Calm yourself.” My father’s tone had softened, and he grabbed her hand gently and brought it up to kiss her knuckles. “Arded won’t leave, none of them will, my love.”

This seemed to calm her, and the storm abated. My father lifted her into his arms as she relaxed and fell asleep. He looked over his shoulder, his eyes burning with a new feeling I couldn’t quite place. “If you go, you can never come back. I hope you realise that.”

His warning chilled me to my core and Marina let out a breath she’d been holding, and reclined in her chair before speaking to me. “Well, that could have gone better. But at least we’re still alive? Yeah?”

I slumped back into my chair. “Yeah. I suppose it went about as well as I thought it was going to.”

We cleaned off the table and tidied the kitchen. Marina grabbed a bag and packed things into it.

“What are you doing?” I gave her a puzzled look.

“Well, you can’t show up to Love’s with nothing, right?” She smiled warmly and put a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll be fine without you. Go, I’m sure his anger will deflate a little with some time, and mother will just be glad when you come home again. She’ll make father take you back in.”

I understood the sense in what Marina said, but it still hurt how much of the burden was falling on her. “Thank you Marina. You’re a wonderful sister.”

“I’m the best sister. So long as you don’t need a diaper change.” She punched me in the arm again and turned back to her work packing the bag. “I’ll drive you into town tomorrow, but you’ll have to hook up the horse. I hate that part.”

“I know, I’ll be ready.” I kissed her cheek and ruffled her hair before heading up to bed.

Bedtime stories were told, hugs were handed out, and I made sure not to shed a tear or hint that I was leaving. It was hard and my heart ached as I laid down with Sylvie tucked under my arm.

The soft breathing of everyone sleeping was a gentle and reassuring sound. I’ll keep them all safe, I thought as I tried to drift off, but sleep proved impossible. So I snuck out of bed early and quietly began collecting a few pieces of clothing and a cloak from the dressers to take with me. I went to the barn and puttered around until the first birds sang.

Marina drove me to town in near silence, yawning frequently. My small bags in the back were the only cargo. As we approached the great tree, she finally broke the quiet. “I hope you find some happiness.”

“What are you saying? My family is my happiness.” I jostled her a little and smiled.

“We aren’t your happiness, we’re your obligation. I want you to find joy, and things that you enjoy doing. Please try to be open to being happy while you’re away.” She sounded so earnest and grown up that I couldn’t help the lump in my throat and I fought to bite back the tears that welled up in my eyes.

“When did you grow up?” I rubbed my eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. “You used to be such a brat.”

“I know I’ve never made anything easy for anyone, especially you, and I’m still a little more selfish than I should be, but just this once I’m going to be self-sacrificing for you. So just take advantage of it.” Her voice shook a little, like she was holding back her own emotion, and I decided not to push her too far.

“Alright. I’ll be open to being happy about this, and I’ll come home at the end of the month.” I ruffled her hair and pulled the cloak up over my head as we arrived at Love’s Hammer. Pulling the bags out of the cart, I took a minute to pet Nelly’s nose, and the horse pawed at the ground, making a snorting sound. “Nelly’s a good listener, you know. If you’re having a hard time with anything, she’ll give you her ear and only occasionally some attitude about it.”

”Sometimes you’re a goofball. I’m not talking to a horse. It’s just a dumb animal.” Nelly’s ears pinned back at the rude comment and I laughed a little before Marina turned the cart around to head back home. Leaving me behind.

As they left, I overheard Marina apologise to the horse, and I smiled at the thought of my headstrong sister crying about all her woes to a horse. It was a sight I wish I could have seen.

Love came walking up the road with a big smile and waved at me. “I see you made it just fine!”

I tried to look less glum as I approached with my bags. “Yes, I’m here. My family wasn’t happy about losing a good pair of hands for work, but this is more important.”

I didn’t need Love to worry about the consequences of my actions. I could shoulder those on my own. I would shoulder those on my own.

Author's Musings:

I fell behind because of Spooktober, but it was fun to write something different for a bit. Back to the Mit and the Billows now though! As always I hope you enjoy, and comments, critique, and feedback are more than welcome.

by RandoScorpio
Writing should always be fun, and Spooktober was so fun! I even showed up for encouragement!


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Eternal Sage MandoMc
Amanda McRoberts
18 Oct, 2022 17:39

Absolutely love it!

Sage RandoScorpio
19 Oct, 2022 00:03

I'm so glad!!

Check out my Spooktober Story! 31 prompts in a single story, including drowning a Verti! (bonus articles for extra world building spice are being added!)