Gorman and Morbrent are playing in the Commons.
The game is simple – use a wooden-tipped spear you made yourself to hit a target, which is a tightly woven ring of tough reeds set against a stoop of straw. The loser then goes to gather the spears and they take another five paces further away. Despite being only a lowly mucker, Gorman usually wins, particularly as they get to distances beyond twenty paces.
This time, as Morbrent angrily stomps to retrieve the spears, he deliberately yanks Gorman’s spear sideways, cracking it. When he tosses the broken spear to Gorman, Morbrent yells, “You better find stronger wood to make your spears, Mucker. This one almost left a long splinter in my hand!”
They nearly come to blows, but a friend of Morbrent trips Gorman from behind. The young man finds himself lying flat on his back, breathing heavily as they stand over him, daring him to get up to fight. He doesn’t, wisely knowing what he can do and what he should do. His tormentors laugh and call him a coward, then stomp off, but still looking back to see if Gorman is going to come after them.
Jumping to his feet as Morbrent walks away in the distance, he glares at them. Gorman hefts his broken spear, wondering how far it would fly. Then he stares at the way it broke, leaving an arm’s length from the tip to hang by a sliver of wood. In his mind, Gorman imagines the short piece in his hand, lengthening his arm length by twice. He mumbles absently, “I wonder if I could control the spear as I threw it with something like that? It would go much farther…”
Next morning on his early rounds, Gorman gets caught twice. Morbrent and his cohort from next door, Tommy, toss the full contents of their families’ chamber pots over Gorman as he walks warily between their houses. Not warily enough.
The two pranksters laugh loudly from their bedroom lofts as Gorman the hapless mucker shakes the night’s residue off his broad-brimmed hat and leather cloak.
Life carries on the village. Food is gathered, prepared for the day and for the future. Things are repaired, built or ignored. People speak of trivialities and matters of import.
That afternoon the village shepherd is seen running across the fields from the mountain slope. He runs to the edge of the village, at the blacksmithy, completely exhausted. Panting hoarsely, he is unable to get out what he wants to say. He collapses against the blacksmith’s fence, gasping and groaning. A small crowd gathers around him. The blacksmith, Elaina, holds his shoulders up from behind the fence and helps the shepherd clutch at the top rail.
Finally, looking furtively at the crowd, he takes a deep breath to say, “Monsters! Monsters killed all the sheep! They knocked every one on the head!” He pants hard, dramatically. “And they’re coming here!” The shepherd lifts a quavering hand to point up to the green slope of the nearest mountain. “I took the short-cut ravine to warn you.”
At that he slips backwards against Elaina. She gently lowers him along the fence to the ground.
On pulling her hand away from his shoulder Elaina sees that her hand is covered with blood. Jumping around the fence, she lifts him back up. “Help me carry Sebesh to Auntie Yolotli! He’s bleeding.”
Elaina thinks, Sebesh is one for making up wild stories as he sits alone with his sheep. But he is bleeding.
Sebesh lets the group carry him to Auntie Yolotli’s cottage near the centre of the small village. All the while he weakly protests. “Have to prepare. We need to, to gather weapons. The monsters are coming to kill us all…”
At Auntie’s door, her nephew, Vasu, has heard the commotion and opens the door to let the group in. They are greeted inside by wafting smells of healing herbs coming from an array of pots sitting randomly on makeshift shelves and tables. Auntie Yolotli shuffles from the hearth, mumbling to herself, carrying an overfilled iron kettle of hot water. She indicates for the group holding Sebesh to place him on a pile of straw under the only open window. One of the group, Gorman, gently lowers Sebesh’s leg he was carrying then steps quickly to take the steaming, heavy iron kettle from Auntie. “Here, let me…”
She reluctantly lets him take the round, blackened handle from her wrinkled hands. “Careful, dear Gorman. It is too full to carry. I did not intend to have guests this morning.” She flashes him a kind smile.
Soon most of the village is gathered outside around Auntie’s cottage. The few who had heard what Sebesh had said passed it on excitedly. The crowd quickly becomes agitated. “Monsters? What can we do?” “What can we do? We’re only villagers.”
The “monsters” finish off their meal of a sheep, eating the hastily barbecued meat more slowly than when they had started. Some seat themselves next to a large boulder to crush the larger bones with a carefully chosen rock. Each uses a long bone sliver to scoop out the marrow.
A few of the younger ones feed their small pack of dogs the remaining bones. Even after having gobbled up the innards that had been tossed to them earlier, the dogs now fight over the choicest bones, yelping and growling with sinister teeth bared. In his excitement, one of the dogs nips at the hand of a young teenage girl who feeds him. A protective boy kicks the dog strongly in the ribs, sending it flying into a quarrelling pair, both of whom whip their teeth into a shoulder and rump. The unfortunate dog yelps and jumps away to lick his wounds.
That entertainment brings loud guffaws from the four men. The girl who had been nipped stands in the midst of the canine melee, holding in her tears. Her mother shakes her head as she rushes to scoop her child away to a safer location. “Leeloo! You have to be more careful around these beasts when they are eating! Yes?… Give me a hug.”
As she reaches to hold her daughter, the girl lets out a single sob. “I’m not afraid of them. They’re just dogs.”
Pulling her tight to her bosom, they twirl away from the campfire and her small clan.
Standing beyond the now contented group, with their noses touching, Mother kisses her child and smiles. “Has it started ye…”
Trying to push away, the girl interrupts petulantly, “No!”
Mother continues to hold her gently. “Ok, fine, my dear. Just tell me when it does. I only want to help you.” She kisses her again. “Please?” Mother pats her child’s bum then lets her slip out of her grasp.
Half turned away, Leeloo composes herself. She relents. “I will, Mother. It’s just… it sounds yucky. And… I want to stay with you, Mother. Not go with those, those ruffians.” She smooths down her well-worn cloth shawl over her leather skirt.
Leeloo’s sad face brings a tear to Mother’s eyes. “And so you shall, my lovely one. So you shall.”
Placing a hand on Leeloo’s shoulder, Mother turns to gaze back at her ragged clan around the campfire. “We are a poor clan. Half of us – our elders mostly – were not able to keep up when we crossed the terrible, cold mountains.” They both shake their heads sadly.
Leeloo mumbles, “Grandma…” Tears slide down both their cheeks.
Needing to change her attitude, Mother grins broadly. “But here we are! In a land of plenty! We took only the one sheep we needed and when we see the shepherd again, we will repay him with joyful work. The rest of his flock will be gathered up and herded to another pasture, then we will bring him back and help him with the herd. We used to be very good shepherds. Far away.” Mother turns to stare at the mountains through which they were forced to flee.
Leeloo nods, “Meelo said she saw the shepherd running along a ravine toward the distant village. She says he fell against a rock and hurt himself but then stumbled away.”
One of the clan pulls a flute from his personal bag. Feeling its smooth bone contours and the holes he had lovingly crafted along the shaft, he dreams of notes he used to coax out of the instrument. A woman nearby says softly, “Arash, maybe it is time. Your music has been silent since we, since the monsters burned our lovely village… Here, maybe we are going to be safe.”
Arash strokes his flute delicately, hearing the music in his mind. He nods, then places the flue to his mouth. The first sound that escapes is a hoarse bleat followed by discordant bawls. Arash coughs, then starts again. The flute moans, a long painful appeal to the darkening sky. Then his fingers slip from hole to hole producing a cold plodding beat so that in each of their minds the clan sees the terrible trek they made across barren mountains. The flute then turns warmly to a frolicking beat of lambs jumping as sheep munch through green fields. Arash ends with a single long questioning note, pointing down the slope toward the distant village.