Bargain [Fiction] [Write Club]
Back at the end of January I wrote The Bargain for February’s Write Club. In genre it’s closest to urban fantasy, although it’s set in a small central European village sometime in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The sort of place where traditions are still important, but where the outside world is still there.
February’s Write Club had a change in the weather as the theme.
Tomas strode towards the Baron’s house. He wore his best clothes, a dark green wool suit with yellow braid. He’d had it ready for the midsummer celebrations.
The Baron’s house was off the village green, near the inn. Before Tomas got there, the front door swung open. Rupert, the steward, beckoned him in.
‘What’s going on, Rupert?’
‘His Lordship was insistent you come in the front.’
‘Well best I come in then.’
‘Let me check you’re straight before announcing you.’
Rupert walked round Tomas, flicked some dust off, and pulled the jacket straight at the back.
‘Definitely more presentable than usual, Tomas.’
‘You don’t wear finery round a forge. Sparks burn holes in everything.’
Rupert started down the hallway. ‘Come on then.’
Tomas followed. He didn’t often come to the house, and when he did it was usually via the utilitarian back way to Rupert’s office, a servant’s corridor.
The front hallway was high and wide, oak panels dark with age went up two floors. Beeswax and turpentine polish made the wood shine and infused the air. A wide central staircase went to the upper storey, splitting left and right on a landing. The panelled walls were filled with paintings, animal heads and trophies from wars long past.
Rupert took the left hand corridor and knocked on a door just behind the staircase. He paused for a silent count of three before gently opening the door.
‘My Lord, Tomas the Smith is here.’
‘Excellent, bring him in.’
‘Your Lordship.’ Rupert bowed and stepped backwards into the corridor.
Tomas heard the chink of crockery behind him as entered the study. The Baron rose from a red leather padded chair next to an unlit fireplace and met Tomas with an outstretched hand and a broad smile.
‘My Lord.’ Tomas shook hands with the Baron, noting the silver braid that shone against the dark blue material of his suit. He was freshly shaven, and smelt strongly of cologne.
‘I hope I haven’t taken you away from anything urgent?’
‘No, my lord, young Tomas is more than capable.’
‘So I hear. It’s good when children become independent.’ the Baron sat in his armchair. ‘Please, sit.’
Tomas sat in the matching armchair opposite. A maid came in with a tray and set it between Tomas and the Baron. While she did Tomas took a moment to take in the room. A large desk with drawers sat under the only window which looked onto a courtyard.
Three swords and a battered axe hung over the fireplace. All of them pre-dated Tomas. Looked like they pre-dated Katerina’s parents by at least a century.
The maid sliced a fruit cake with an ivory handled knife. One of Tomas’s early works. He recalled the difficulty he’d had getting the handle just right. He hadn’t been used to working with ivory back then. Still wasn’t really. She put the cake on floral patterned china plates that matched the cups and saucers.
She poured tea, adding milk, and one lump of sugar into the Baron’s. She stirred it four times counter-clockwise, shook the drips off the spoon, and placed it back on the tray. Not a word said. She’d conducted this ritual many times.
The maid curtseyed and left.
‘Please, enjoy your tea.’ the Baron took his cup, leaving the saucer on the tray, and took a sip.
Tomas leant forward to take the tea.
‘Your Rosaline has been a frequent visitor.’
‘I’ve seen a lot of Stefan by the forge too, my lord.’
‘She’s been a good influence on Stefan. Knocked some ambition into him.’
‘Like her mother.’
‘My older brother spoke fondly of Katerina.’
Tomas reached for a slice of cake.
‘You said Rosaline has been here a lot, my lord.’
‘She reads from my library, and teases Stefan.’
‘You do have quite a large library, my lord. I don’t think I’ve seen so many books all in one place.’ Tomas gestured at the two bookcases on the wall.
‘That’s not my library, Tomas. Those are just the ones I look at most.’
‘You have more?’
‘The estate has had many literate barons, and we’ve acquired books for generations.’ the Baron paused to sip his tea. ‘I find it rather progressive of you to have taught your daughter to read so well.’
‘Katerina taught us all to read. She thought she’d never marry and planned to be a school mistress.’ Tomas took a bite of the cake, it tasted strongly of kirsch.
‘Stefan will be going to the university after the summer. He’ll be away for a while.’
‘Does Rosaline know he’s going?’
‘Actually, it was her idea. Stefan was content to stay home and learn how to run the estate. Then Rosaline came along.’ the Baron set his cup aside. ‘You know what she said to him? “If you stop sitting about waiting for something bad to happen to the elder brother you love, and do something good for yourself, then someone might love you.” It was extraordinarily on point.’
‘Sounds like Rosaline.
‘Do you think she has a thing for him?’
‘More the other way round. Stefan hopes to take Rosaline into the woods on midsummer night.’ the Baron put his cup aside and leaned forwards. ‘I don’t think it’s the best idea.’
‘Neither of them will forgive us if we stop them doing what they want to do. You know how it was when you were their age.’
‘I do. So I have a plan, but I want your approval, and your help with it.’
‘If it keeps our children safe and on speaking terms with us, then I will help.’
Katerine paced her sitting room. She looked out of the window at the slowly lowering sun for about the fiftieth time. None of her family were at home. Young Tomas had taken his sweetheart for a walk, Elspeth was babysitting, Jon was helping at the Inn, and Rosaline had gone to the Baron’s hunting lodge. Tomas was doing deliveries.
Maybe baking would help take her mind off things. The fire was out, and the forge silent. She opened a cupboard, and a bowl dropped onto the stone flags, shattering. Tomas returned while she swept up, a covered basket in one hand, and two blankets over his shoulder.
‘Katerine, my love’ he kissed her, ‘come, there’s somewhere we should be.’
‘Tomas.’ she shook her head. ‘I’m not sure I can.’
‘The iron’s in your blood.’
‘I can’t do it again.’ Tears ran down Katerine’s face.
‘I promise, nothing will happen to you. Or to anyone we love.’ Tomas hugged her.
The smell of wet wool on his fine green suit strengthened Katerine.
‘What can I do?’
‘The Baron told me that Rosaline told Stefan to do something positive instead of waiting for bad things to happen.’
‘You want us to follow our daughter’s advice?’
‘Have you any better suggestions?’ Tomas took Katerine’s hand and lead her through the forge and out towards the woods.
They walked into the green gloom of twilight in the forest. Snatches of giggling mixed with birdsong, and rustling leaves floated through the trees. Forest animals were startled by lovers looking for a secluded but comfortable spot.
Tomas followed the blazes he’d put on the trees. The light faded with every step. The forest went from verdant to grey. Then the trees opened out into ancient forest. Each trunk wider than a person could reach, and the broad canopy made it easy to walk between the trees.
Ahead a deer stopped to watch them. Beyond the deer, three circles of foliage each big enough for a man on horseback to pass through. The deer contemplated Tomas and Rosaline for a moment, and then turned away dashing through the circles, disappearing from sight.
A cold wind with a hint of ice pierced the summer night.
‘It can’t be.’
A single snowflake drifted in the air between the circles.
‘Rosaline told me about this place.’ Tomas handed the basket to Katerine.
‘You came back, didn’t you?’
‘I never told anyone.’
‘Jon brought you here because he knew you’d be safe.’
‘I couldn’t help him.’
‘You were seventeen.’
‘I can’t go back in, they said they’d kill me.’
‘There’s iron in your blood.’
‘They had spears, and bows.’
‘We’ve got iron. They can’t touch iron. It kills them.’
‘You can’t be sure of that, you’ve never seen them. They’re cruel and sadistic, evil creatures. We can’t risk letting them through.’
‘Did any of them ever lay hands on you?’
‘They must have, they grabbed Jon as soon as we went through and said if I didn’t do what they wanted they’d kill him.’
‘If you don’t want to come with me, I understand. There’s food in the basket, kindling and a steel to start a fire. You can stay here to wait for me.’
‘You might never come back out.’
‘I’ve got a bargain to strike. Something the Baron needs.’
‘I don’t want to lose you.’
‘Nor I you.’
Katerine took Tomas’s hand and together they followed the deer.
It got much darker as they walked through the first of the three circles, Tomas saw unfamiliar stars in the sky above. The air smelt sharp and cold, like it was about to snow. Frozen grass crunched underfoot.
They walked together through the second circle and the night sky brightened into daylight. A summer’s day, the heat of noon replacing the cold, like walking into the smithy at mid-winter.
By the third circle the forest gave way to an open field populated by a fair. Multi-coloured tents ringed it, and eerie pipe music echoed from the trees with the sounds of singing and dancing, although no sign of people.
‘It was just like this. That time.’
‘Follow the music.’
Tomas turned his head, scanning for the source of the music.
An arrow thudded into the turf between his feet.
‘Stand fast and tell who dares enter the Queen’s realm.’
‘Don’t give them your real name.’ Tomas whispered to Katerine. ‘Stay with me, my love.’
‘Show yourself and I shall answer.’ Tomas shouted.
‘Nay! Tell or I shall fell you with my next shot.’
‘Do your worst.’
A second arrow struck Tomas in the chest. It shattered.
Tomas ran, dragging Katerine by the hand, towards where the arrow had come from.
He surprised several people, dressed in fine green clothes, with bows and spears. All were uncommonly good looking and slight of build. They recoiled from Tomas and Katerine.
‘Take me to your Queen. I have a bargain to make with her.’