This is the second chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday. To start reading from the first chapter, click here. For an explanation of why there is a novel being published on this site, click here.
Six Years Prior
Brandon fidgeted with the hem of his tunic and looked around in a manner calculated to appear casual and relaxed. He had adopted this posture in order to avoid looking as painfully uncomfortable as Aleks, who was standing rigidly with his eyes fixed somewhere well outside the wall of the small wooden house in which they stood. Unbeknownst to Brandon, Aleks had chosen his stance based largely on how uncomfortable Brandon looked shifting about and fidgeting. The pair were locked in an escalating duel of discomfort until they had both reached a level of awkwardness that permeated the darkening room to such an extent that it would have been unbearable to observe.
There was, however, nobody observing them. This was, in fact, the primary source of the discomfort. The other two occupants of the room were having an increasingly heated discussion with each other, the subject of which seemed to be Brandon and Aleks. But their actual presence was only acknowledged by the occasional gesture. Even then, they were the sort of gestures that one might give to a broken pot or a badly burnt meal, contemptuous and dismayed. This had been going on since before sunset and the deepening darkness had done nothing to alleviate the tension in the room.
Brandon, despite being present for the entirety of the argument, could not understand what it was about. It seemed that his friend, Katarina, was being berated by her mother for doing the same thing she had done every year since the three of them were old enough to walk.
“They’re my friends!” Katarina shouted in a voice that threatened to shatter eardrums.
“Young men and women are not meant to be loitering about the woods together!” returned her mother in a tone designed to silence errant children.
“Berry picking is not loitering!” Katarina shot back, having long ago developed immunity to her mother’s neutralizing tone.
“Berry picking is children’s work.” Katarina’s mother stated in such a way that it was absolutely clear that it would be the final word and all arguments were ended. This fooled nobody as it had been attempted several times already and had utterly failed to end anything.
Brandon fidgeted more awkwardly and considered the incomprehensible dialogue before him. Berry picking was, indeed, children’s work. The three of them had been doing it together for as long as they could remember. In the previous year, he, Katarina and Aleks had been told that they could now lead the children’s berry collecting expeditions without another adult around. It was their duty, their service to the village. Yet somehow, instead of being celebrated for returning with some early pickings this year, they were being subjected to nearly unbearable torture and humiliation. Brandon was utterly baffled by the goings on and had managed only to work out that the three of them having gone alone to scout for ripe berries had been a very bad idea indeed.
Brandon had an inkling that the row had something to do with Katarina having grown somewhat. She had, during the winter months of woolen shawls and heavy coats, become a young woman. Brandon and Aleks, however had entirely failed to make similar transformations. While Katarina had emerged from the chrysalis of winter as a strikingly beautiful butterfly, the boys had grown to look more like poorly drawn caricatures with too-long limbs and over-sized feet, features which accented and deepened their ability to look extraordinarily gawky. While Brandon was objectively aware of the changes, he failed to understand the significance.
It was Katarina’s father that eventually rescued them. Brandon had heard him shuffling about outside the door a number of times during the course of the evening, but each time he had retreated. With darkness settling in, it seemed that he had run out of excuses. He slammed the door open in a carefully timed beat between shouts and started speaking as though neither he, nor the entire rest of the village had heard the argument thus far. “Aleks, Brandon,” he said gruffly “what are you doing here? Your mothers will have expected you home by now. Shove off.”
Brandon was immensely grateful, a feeling he rarely had towards the burly blond giant that was Katarina’s father. He was the mayor of the community and had never really accepted Brandon or his mother into the town. He liked even less that a bastard and an outsider was spending time with his daughter.
Brandon replied with a “Yes sir,” making an attempt not to sound thankful and hurried out of the house into the crisp evening air followed closely by an equally desperate Aleks. Once certain of their safety, they slowed their retreat and attempted to make sense of the evening.
“Do you have any idea what just happened?” asked Aleks as he stretched out his cramped muscles.
“I think it’s the sort of thing my mother tells me I’ll understand when I’m older,” replied Brandon “but I feel as though we’re already the older we’re supposed to be when we’re meant understand it. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t. “Well if we’re not allowed to collect berries anymore, maybe we’ll be brought along for the hunting,” Aleks’ voice grew with excitement.
“I don’t think that’s it.” Brandon crushed his friend’s hopes as gently as he could. “I think it means that Katarina won’t be coming with us to get berries anymore.”
“Well that won’t do at all!” Aleks was quite adamant “They can’t split us up. We’ve been together forever.”
“Well if you want to stay together you’re going to have to marry her.” Alek’s horror at the suggestion caused Brandon to erupt with laughter. “Don’t worry,” he added between chuckles “at least we’re stuck together. There’s nothing you can do to get rid of me.”
Brandon arrived home to his ramshackle hut on the edge of town. His mother had built it herself when she had arrived in Almdalir, babe in arms, fleeing from something far to the south. She had told Brandon that the townsfolk here had saved both of their lives with their kindness and hospitality, a claim which caused Brandon some concern. From his experience, they had always been viewed as unwanted outsiders. They were allowed to stay in town, but they were not welcome, which made Brandon more than a little fearful of the sort of people that lived outside their secluded mountain valley.
Rabbit stew eased some of his consternation, but a conversation with his mother failed utterly to make any sense of the day. “She was becoming a woman,” She said. “Your neither noticing nor understanding means that you are still my boy for a little longer.”
A gentle smile and a kiss on the forehead left him feeling somehow insulted and terrified of the future which, layered with his residual confusion and discomfort, made for an unpleasant dessert and left him unable to sleep.