Clang! Swish! Clang clang! Steel sliced through the air with great ferocity. Wielded overhead, brought down with terrible force, the instrument of metal made terrible clamour. Clang swish clang! And when the final blow was about to be made, the strike to end all, “Werbel! Stop banging those pots and pans before I tear your little tail off!“
“Oh, Ma! What else am I supposed to do? Pa's off in the fields, Brind's helping him, and Jesse's sick.“
“Go see if your sister's finished her sewing, and help her if not.” Werbel hated sewing, hated helping his sister sew, and hated his sister—but in the way that he loved and cherished her above all treasures in the whole world and didn't quite know how to express it.
“Allison! You fruit-brained ninny, have you finished that blasted sewing yet? You better have, or I'll give you what for!“ Though Werbel threatened her constantly, she loved him dearly and had a better idea of how to express it. In any case, Werbel's threats were always empty, and Allison knew her brother loved her as well. She would find it in the shy glint in his eye whenever their eyes met.
“I'm sorry, little brother, but I've got quite a few more stitches to go, I have.“
He graciously acknowledged, “I hope you won't miss your spleen!“
“Please don't rip it out too severely now. I've still got to go to town in the morning,“ Allison said with a smile and a lilt.
As it turned out, he did not rip out her spleen, but he did tickle her something fierce so that it almost resembled losing a spleen.
After a great battle of tickling and giggling, Werbel was bested by Allison.
“Now, before you start anything, you have to lick the end of the thread so that it won't get snagged as you’re passing it through the eye of the needle,“ instructed Allison.
“Boring tosh! Let's get on to the stabbing part!“ Werbel said.
As Allison began passing the needle through the shirt she was mending, she said, “Oi, Werbel. Why has everything with you gotta be about stabbing? It's called sewing. Say it with me: sew-ing.“
“Stabbing!“ he said enthusiastically.
“Och, my little war-monger ye are.“ She chuckled as she swirled the needle around like a fencing sword. She paused to smile at him. He tried to hide his silly grin underneath a stern scowl. She laughed all the more. “Now that you’re captured in my dungeon of evil sewing, what wretched tasks can I give you to make your days as vile as possible?“
“Send me on hopeless quest where I fight some dastardly dragons or some pus-filled lizards!
“Or, better yet, you've got to fight both! Or, even better, a dragon-riding lizard next to a lizard-riding dragon!“
Werbel's eyes shined with delight. “I'll be such a bloody mess. You won't even recognize me as your little brother!“ At this last remark, he pretended to jab himself a few times and then fell to the floor making gurgling noises. Allison chuckled at his antics as he glanced up at her with one eye to make sure she was watching. After gurgling a bit more, Werbel got up and quietly watched Allison sew for a few minutes.
After she finished the shirt and moved on to a pair of trousers, Werbel asked, “Sis, do you think that dragons or lizards is real?“
“Well, of course, little brother! How else are you gonna be bloodied up properly?“
“Nah, I'm serious. Do they really exist?“
Allison straightened her posture and adopted a contemplative look on her face. “I can’t say either way. Plenty of stories flow from the East. I dread to think they're real, but it seems just as possible as any other rumor.“
When Allison finished and looked at her brother, he abandoned his contemplative face as soon as possible and pulled his cheeks wide to bare fangs. He chomped and hissed like a dragon and set Allison to giggling all over again.
“Just don't be starting nightmares for yourself,“ she said between small fits of laughter.
All of a sudden, Werbel's ears perked up. “Pa's home!“ He barely finished saying this before he had scampered out of the house.
“Ah, there's my little mongrel,“ Jalek said, opening his arms to his frantic little boy.
“Pa! Pa! Today, I slew two dragons and two lizards, all fighting against me! There was fire and fangs and so much blood!“
“I'm sure you did, little mongrel. Did you have any help in this most ferocious o’ battles?“
“Yeah, Allison tried with her vicious sewing sword, but they ate her alive. I cut ‘em open and saved her!“
“I'm sorry about that. She must be one smelly mess, falling out of a dragon's belly.“ Allison was walking out of the house as he said this. They both smiled warmly at each other.
Brind, who had been a few yards behind, said, “Did you do any useful work around the house, Werbel?“
Werbel gave him a sincere scowl. “Yeah, I helped mum in the kitchen, and I helped Allison with her sewing.“
“I'm sure,“ Brind said.
“What'd you say?“ Werbel yelled as he started marching toward Brind.
Jalek broke in. “Boys! Enough! Werbel, back in the house please.“
“I'm gonna give your brother a sound talking. Go.“
Werbel's distress was somewhat relieved at this remark, but he still walked into the house sullenly. Allison escorted him.
“Brind, why you always got to be starting fights with him like that?”
“Pa, he never does anything around the house! And he's always—“
Jalek interrupted, “Always? Do not trifle with that word. Anyway, he's only ten. He helps as much as he can. Do you think he can do much in the kitchen or with the sewing? Any time I ask him to fetch summat or to fix summat, he does it right quick, perhaps even quicker than you did when you were his age, but that's neither here nor there. You’re both good lads. Just remember that you’re nineteen. He's got nine years before he can be as perfect as you are.“ Jalek gave his oldest son a comical grin.
Brind returned a smile. “I'm sorry, Pa. You’re right. I think sometimes I'm just frustrated that I work so hard, and he just plays all day—like I used to.“
“You’re a wise man, Brind Highfallow. You’re a good man. Werbel'll grow into his feet someday just like you are. Now, let’s finish hauling our loot, eh?“
“Yes, sir,“ Brind said with a wide smile.
After they finished cleaning and storing the tools in the shed next to the house, they took turns rinsing themselves off at the water pump.
“And where’s me bonny lass?“ Jalek said as he walked into the kitchen.
“Don’t you dare touch me with your grubby hands!“
“Me grubby hands indeed! Don’t tell me ye don’t adore me grubby hands,“ he said as he cozied up to her.
“Quick!“ Werbel said. “They’re about to smooch!“ He scurried away into his room.
“Give yourself a few years, Werbel,“ Jalek yelled after him. “You’ll change your tune!“ He gave his wife a gentle kiss, and then he went into the younger boys’ room to check on Jesse.
Before Jalek got to his youngest son, Werbel made sure to stick out his tongue and say, “Gross.“
Jalek stuck out his tongue in response and turned to Jesse. “How’s your tummy, my little curmudgeon?“
“Ech, Dad, I’m not feeling so well,“ Jesse said.
“What do ye expect when ye eat every little thing that crawls along?” his father said.
“Well, you know, it looked so tasty.“
“I’m quite sure it did. Speaking of tasty, what have I got right here?” Jalek pulled a small parcel out from his waist-pouch. He opened it to reveal an ample collection of blueberries. As Jesse’s eyes widened with delight, Werbel’s widened with incredulity.
“You’re giving him blueberries cuz he eats whatever he pleases?“
“Don’t for one instant think I’d hold out on you,“ Jalek said as he handed the parcel to Jesse who began gobbling. Jalek took out another parcel from his pouch and tossed it at Werbel. He opened it up to reveal a collection of strawberries.
“Oh, Pa, you’re the best jumper that ever lived!“ Werbel said. He gave his dad a squeezing hug and set about to eating his strawberries.
As his boys continued munching on their gifts, Jalek kissed both their foreheads and left the room.
By the time dinner was ready, Jesse was feeling refreshed by the blueberries, so he joined all the others. Their mother had made roasted carrot and hazelnut stew: a favorite in the Highfallow family. If he weren’t so small, Jesse would have eaten more than anyone. Allison chatted with her mother Mary about the events of the day and the chores to be done for tomorrow. Jalek and Brind discussed the next tasks to be done in the vegetable fields. Werbel did his best to make Jesse laugh by performing strange antics with his food. Not too long into the antics, Mary gave her son the very distinct no glare, and he stopped abruptly—so abruptly that he accidentally dropped his plate to the floor. Everyone at the table laughed except for Mary who distributed the same glare. She had been trying to maintain decorum at the dinner table for over twenty years, and she was not about to give up now. The laughing quickly subsided, and Werbel situated his food and his dishes quietly. Everyone suppressed their laughing well enough, but Werbel and his father especially had trouble hiding their smirks.
After dinner, it was Werbel’s turn to wash the dishes. Because it didn’t require waiting for anybody else, he actually enjoyed it. He even did a quick and thorough job of it. As soon as he finished, he ran up to his dad who was whittling a new pipe and said, “Can I play Acorns with Jesse?“ Acorns is a game in which two players try to get their three acorns in a row by first placing them in a gridded board and then moving them. The goal would be to get their own acorns in a row and blocking the other’s.
“Well, of course you can play but on two terms.“
Werbel stood with anxious excitement.
“First, Jesse has to want to play.“
“Obviously,“ Werbel said.
“Secondly,“ Jalek said with a sterner voice, “you must be a fair winner or a fair loser. No whining if you lose and no gloating if you win.“
Werbel looked a little ashamed. Since his brother was three years younger, Werbel would generally win at Acorns. Winning wasn’t the problem. It was that he often ridiculed Jesse for losing. This issue was only uncovered last week, so it was a sore topic.
Jalek saw his son’s face fall, so he said, “It’s alright, lad. I don’t mean to sully your fun, but that’s my point. It’s just fun. Winning or losing, it’s just a game.“ Jalek retrieved the Acorns board from a nearby shelf. “This time, congratulate him if he wins or tell him about some nice moves he made if he loses.“ Jalek handed the board to Werbel and ruffled his ears for good measure. Werbel gave a smile, took the board, and walked back to his room.
“Would ye like to play Acorns, Jesse?“ Werbel asked with a soft voice.
As much as Werbel tormented him, Jesse looked up to Werbel and vied for his attention and admiration. “Of course! But, this time, you’re gonna lose! I know it!“
“I dunno about that.“ Remembering his father’s words, Werbel added, “But you are getting better.“
Werbel and Jesse played a few rounds of Acorns. Jesse even won one of their games, and Werbel made sure to congratulate him. Werbel exaggerated his praise a bit, but Jesse didn’t notice. Eventually, it was time for bed. Jalek collected the Acorns board and pieces, tucked the boys in, and prayed with them. After blowing out the candles, he and his wife chatted for a while on the porch while he smoked his new pipe. They mused about their children and their life. He regaled her with the reaction the two boys had when he presented the berries. Soon enough, it was time for them to go to bed too. Jalek emptied and cleaned his pipe, Mary tidied up a few things that she thought were out of place, and, altogether, it was a good day.
“Goodnight, bloody rat-brain.“
“Goodnight, scraping pus-bucket.“
“Goodnight, branching mongrel-fart.“
“Goodnight, squelching toad-liver.“
“Werbel, Jesse, shut your pie-holes and go to sleep!“
“We ain’t got no pie-holes mom.“
“Yeah, if we had pie-holes, where's the pie, huh?“
They heard their mother's feet light on the floor.
“Our pieholes is shut, mum! No more talking out of us,“ Werbel squealed as they both hid under their covers.
Their mother swept open the door and hissed, “If I hear one more peep out of either of you, you'll curse the day pie was ever invented!“
She saw the boys quivering underneath their covers, and she heard muffled giggling. Since they couldn't see her face, she let a wide grin break out. Before she closed the door, she made sure to add, “And keep it that way!“
The two youngest boys listened as their mother's feet gently padded back to bed. They waited a few more minutes until they heard snoring. They didn't get out of bed just yet though. Their mother had played this trick on them many times. She would make snoring noises while waiting right outside her own door to catch them in their midnight escapades. By now, they clearly recognized the difference between real snoring and trap snoring.
They didn't have to wait long before they heard even an even quieter shuffling of feet. Then, they knew their mother was truly asleep.
“Alright,“ Werbel whispered. “She's out. You ready?“
“Yeah,“ Jesse said.
Despite their movement being typically raucous, they could be as silent as foxes when the need arose. They crawled to the back door. To keep them from squeaking, Werbel would regularly pour some olive oil on the hinges. Their mother would occasionally comment to herself about how quickly her olive oil was being used up, but she never asked the boys about it.
Once they had made it past the door, they snuck to the raspberry bush that was off limits to the boys since they had raided it many times before. Mary was tired of cooking with only sour raspberries.
The boys plopped themselves down beside the bush and began eating at their leisure. They munched for a while, glancing at each other in the scant light from the moon.
“Do you think dragons are real?“ Werbel said over a mouthful of berry.
“How the blazes should I know? You’re older. Aren’t you supposed to know stuff like that?“ Jesse said, dribbling a little.
“I dunno. I was just thinking about it today. Brind always says they’re just tosh and fairy-tales and such, but Allison says they might be real or might not.“
“How’s that any different than fairy-tales?“ Jesse said as he was picking his teeth with a thorn.
“Well, fairytales are always fake, but might be real or might not means they just haven’t been discovered yet.“
“Huh. Perhaps they’re just from a different—“
“Shush, shush!“ Werbel rasped. “I see summat!“
“Ooh, maybe it’s a dragon!“
“Shh!“ Werbel repeated.
Jesse glanced around but noticed only a few fireflies. In the dim, moonlit night, he saw his brother staring into the woods.
“What is it?“ Jesse said.
After a few more seconds of tense searching, Werbel relaxed and said, “I thought I saw some glowing eyes or something.“
With a timid voice, Jesse said, “Maybe we’ve had enough raspberries.“
“Ooh, are you afraid of the dragons?“
“Nah, we’ve just had enough, and it’s time for bed, you know? If I’m afraid of anything, it’s mum!“
“You’ve got a point,“ Werbel said. “Let’s head back.“
They padded back to the front door. Werbel paused at the doorway. He took another glance around the woods, straining his eyes in the darkness for any sign of what he thought he saw earlier. He thought he saw eyes again, but he was getting tired, and it was probably just fireflies.
He shut the door softly behind him. As he opened his bedroom door, his gaze fell upon eyes that struck more fear into him than any other creature, real or fictional.
Even in the dim light, the fire from his mother’s eyes burned deep into his own.
“I can explain,“ Werbel blurted.
“Don’t!“ his mother said sharply.
“Don’t you even begin to start feeding me your lies,“ Mary hissed. “First of all, you know you’re not allowed to eat any more raspberries without permission. Secondly, you’re gallivanting in the middle of the night. You could’ve got yourself killed or worse. Thirdly, you tried to lie again. I hate lying as much as I hate the devil himself. Besides even that, you were about to throw your brother in the ditch. At the end of the day, all you have is family, and you gotta protect them like they were your own ears, even over some bloody raspberries.“
Somewhere in the middle of his mother’s reprimand, Werbel began to cry.
“Buddy, buddy, I love ya. First and foremost, I love ya, but, because I love you, I gotta discipline you lest you grow up selfish and rotten. You’re still my darling twinkletoes. You’re such a good young man, but, just like with farming, you gotta weed out the bad things.“
Werbel was now a snot-dripping mess. Mary wrapped her arms around the crying, little boy. “We’ll figure out the weeding tomorrow. For now, go get some rest.“ She squeezed him even tighter and pressed her face against the top of his head. “Och, twinkletoes, you’re gonna be such a great jumper. You’re already a great jumper. I just don’t think the world could handle you yet.“ She looked at him, holding him by the shoulders. “Och,“ she exclaimed one last time, kissed him on the forehead, and guided him back to his room.
As Werbel settled into bed, Jesse said, “I didn’t snitch on you, honest!“
Quietly and amidst sniffling, Werbel said, “I know, little brother. I know.“
The next day, Werbel was woken up earlier than usual by his mother. At first, he was only delirious. Then, he remember his mother’s talk of weeding, and he could only imagine what perils were in store for him.
“You’re gonna help your father today.“ His mother’s tone didn’t invite questions, but Werbel’s mind reeled with the possibilities of what she meant. It was hardly dawn, so he couldn’t imagine it’d have anything to do with the fields, but maybe he’d have to wait quietly for an hour or more. That would be unbearable. Maybe he was simply going to get a spanking and be done, but why would she say “help“ if that were the case? Whatever it was, he was guided to his father who was finishing his breakfast of pine-roots.
“Morning, little mongrel,“ his father said with a calm smile.
“Morning, Pa,“ Werbel said in a somber tone.
Jalek and Mary both gave each other solemn nods, and Mary left.
His father offered him some pine-root, but Werbel felt a little queasy. He wasn’t sure if it was from the midnight snacking or from the fear of his parents’ plot.
“We’ll save it for later,“ Jalek said as he stashed the roots in his waist-pouch. “You’ll get hungry soon enough.“
Werbel hated the ominous riddles his parents were spinning.
Jalek gave the table a quick cleaning and walked over to one of the bookshelves. From the very top, he pulled down a long, thin parcel wrapped in cloth.
“Let’s go,“ Jalek said as he rested the parcel over his shoulder and exited the house.
Is he going to beat me? Werbel wondered. I’ve never been beaten before.
With his free hand, Jalek gently took Werbel’s hand and strolled toward the woods.
Werbel began pleading. “Pa, I’m sorry. I’ll never eat raspberries again, and I’m sorry about lying. I was just scared. I’m sorry.“
“Twinkletoes, calm yourself. Nothing dreadful is gonna happen.” His father’s tone was reassuring, but Werbel was still confused by the whole process.
They walked through some thick parts of the woods, dodging trees and branches that were trying to crowd the path. Their journey spilled into an opening. The sun’s light was past its morning redness, and Werbel’s eyes absorbed the setting. It was a big, circular clearing, maybe fifty yards in diameter. In the center was the thick trunk of a tree, but the top was cut off, so it was only about eight feet tall. It had no branches, and it had many slashes all around it and many nicks cut out of it. After puzzling about the trunk for a few minutes, Werbel noticed the ground. Most of it was neatly packed dirt. There were sticks making strange but regular patterns all over the ground.
“Dad, what in the blazes is this place?“ Werbel asked. When he looked over at his father, he saw him rubbing a cloth on a shining sword. His mouth hung wide open.
“This is my training ring.“
“Pa, you’ve… you’ve got a sword!“ Werbel stammered.
“What? Oh, this old bushwacker? Sword enough I suppose.“
“Nay, that’s a full-fledged sword!“
“Well, whatever it is, it was your great grandfather’s, and it’s been true to me as long as I’ve had it.“
“Is this gonna be part of the weeding?“ Werbel said, the worry back in his voice.
“What? No. Well, a sort of weeding. Your mother and I think it’s time to start you working, but I also think it’s time to start you training. I know you’re a bit old to be starting. We haven’t had as much free time as some, but there ya are. I’m gonna train you to use a sword.“
“Have you been training Brind?“
“Nah, he was given the option, but he said it’s an outdated sort of work. I can’t quite say I blame him, but it’s too deep in my heart to give it up. Now, you have the option. Do you want to train with me, or do you pass it up for timelier things?“
Werbel was overwhelmed with the offer. “How come I’ve never seen your sword before?“
“How come you’ve never woken up before sunrise?“ Jalek chuckled. “I’m just kidding. There were days when the sword was a common thing before even your sister was born. These days are pretty peaceful besides the occasional thief. I haven’t wanted to parade a blade around like a toy, so I’ve just kept it to the early morning trainings, but I think you’re ready. What’s the verdict, little mongrel: training with me or no?“
Werbel felt a strange gravity in this request. He hesitated despite his desire to say yes. He looked into his father’s eyes. They looked very solemn despite the smiling creases at the corners.
After some reflection, Werbel said, “I’m ready.“
“You’ve got to be double sure. This isn’t a game, little mongrel. You’re gonna have to wake up early, but, even harder than that, you’re gonna have to commit your whole heart to it.“
Confusion took over Werbel’s face. “What do you mean?“
“Perhaps I’m just an old fogey rambling about the old days.“ Jalek paused and looked wistfully into some unknown memories. “This thing,“ he held up the sword, “is no toy. This thing is a tool of life and death. You’ve got to have a ready heart to choose to bring death for the sake of life. Sometimes, you’ll have to kill or to hesitate, and that hesitating may bring more death than the killing.“ Werbel had never seen his father cry before today. “You must also have a ready heart for the pain of hesitating.“ Jalek paused again briefly and wiped the corner of his eye. “This thing will demand more strength from you than ever before. Are you ready for that?“
Werbel was still being washed over by the sight of his father’s tears. He took a deep breath. “I’m not ready, but I’m ready—if you know what I mean,“ he said soberly.
Jalek knelt down, looked deeply into Werbel’s eyes, and said, “You’re ready.“