On the third edit pass, I changed how the first few pages of the story began. This is an extract from Chapter One, (roughly the first 10%)
EDIT: I've added more to this extract for a better grasp of the chapter and intro.
He’d been stuck in the roof for hours.
Armpit deep in thatching, Daeson’s arms ached from holding on. His legs dangled limp in the cottage; he imagined them as some peculiar farming accessory, like something to swap out when the original set of legs got tired. Perhaps this strange fantasy was an indication that he was suffering from heat stroke. He doubted it—it was only morning, though late. The temple bells had already rung twice as he’d watched the sun move higher into the sky. It hadn’t reached the peak of its arc yet but it would soon, and he was thirsty.
Daeson was between attempts, conserving strength and feeling sorry for himself. He would not yell for help. The townsfolk already looked at him with pity, he didn’t want them hiding smiles as well. Some of them wouldn’t bother, just as they hadn’t bothered to avert their eyes.
Failure, their stares accused.
Daeson grunted, determined not to let his mind trek this well-worn path. He had to focus on getting out. He’d been an avid tree climber as a young boy, but he’d also been a skinny lad. Now he was much heavier.
Heavy with muscle, I should be strong enough to get out.
That he should, but thinking it didn’t make it happen. He wasn’t strong enough to pull himself out because he had no leverage. Stuck as he was, it would be much easier to allow himself to fall the rest of the way rather than pulling himself up and out.
Don’t know how much damage I did to my shoulder either—felt like I wrenched it.
That it did. It wasn’t hurting now so he might’ve been lucky enough to escape worse injury. There was no sense testing his luck further. Daeson was a pawn in a battle between the God and Goddess of both bad and good fortune. His situation was almost like the primary character in such fables, who blundered their way into so dire a situation that deities would argue over the outcome. He imagined Malice and Tamsin having a tug-of-war over his fate.
Stop imagining and start acting, Daeson. Get your future out of the hands of the Gods and into your own.
It was his father’s voice in his head. An old memory emerged with the answer of his escape.
How’d you come down from that tree when you climbed up this one?
A mixture of confusion and pride in his father’s voice. Daeson remembered the question because it was different from his father’s usual reaction; shouting for idling the day away, especially if he’d been speaking to their neighbour. Kurgan, who owned the land bordering theirs, aggravated his father; from the way he conducted business to the way he treated others.
Stop thinking about Kurgan.
An idea had come to him, out of focus but enlightening just the same. It had to do with the way he’d once leapt from one tree to another. The branches had been too far apart to reach. He’d grabbed onto the branch overhead and swung his feet out instead, hooking his knees over the branch of the next tree and then letting go so he could hang upside down, watching the day go by with a new perspective.
Daeson renewed his hold on the roof and swung his legs back and forth. It put more of a burden on his arms but he held on grimly. The momentum of swinging his legs forward threatened to pull him the rest of the way through the roof, but swinging them back made him feel like he could escape the hole. He could hear the reeds creaking under his weight.
At the topmost arc of his swing, he heaved himself up to his belly and flopped onto the roof. A face full of straw was almost welcome, though the stuff that flew up his nose wasn’t. He was exhausted and wanted to rest but also didn’t want to spend any more time up here. He made himself crawl to the ladder.
The meagre collection of thatching bundles and twine waiting for him on the ground were no longer enough for patching. He grunted his discontent at them and headed for the water pump. The bucket was looped over the spout and inside was a battered cup. He didn’t bother pulling it out, he just pumped until the bucket was halfway filled and then he lifted that to his mouth and drank deeply. The rough feel of the bucket’s lip didn’t bother him today. He hitched the bucket back onto the spout and wiped an arm across his mouth to dry it.
With a sigh, he moved around the cottage and went inside. In the middle of the dirt floor was a scattering of straw and the thick branch that had been gifted to the roof last night by the storm. He stepped around it and looked up at the damage he’d caused. The hole didn’t look as big as it had felt but it was big enough—if he didn’t cover it with something, the next rainfall would ruin everything in the cottage.
Not that there’s anything left to ruin.
Other than the pipe stove to keep himself warm, his bed and a solitary chair, he’d already sold or traded the rest of his furniture to keep the farm going. He realised now that he’d been throwing good coin after bad… there was nothing he could do to save the fields, they were already grown over. He’d stared at them all morning and been forced to accept the hard truth.
I still have my vegetable patch.
That he did. It was meagre because he’d only planted enough vegetables for himself, but it was fertile and maintainable. He’d swapped most of it over to winter produce and yesterday had noticed most of the vegetables were ready for harvest. He could divide them into rations; sell or trade half of them for more thatching—or an animal skin. Daeson also had chickens to sell but knew better than to part with them, they still produced a good quantity of eggs.
It’s too quiet.
He hadn’t heard his chickens all morning. He’d missed their feeding time because he’d been trapped inside the roof. They should’ve been making a fuss, reminding him of their meal. They were always clucking at one another even when they were fat and happy. His stomach churned with worry. Had they broken free of their cage? Worse… stolen by foxes?
Daeson hurried out of the cottage. The door shut behind him with a squeal and a bang as he headed for the coop. The path rounded past the vegetable patch and that was where he stopped. The churn in his belly became a tight knot and his legs turned watery, threatening to spill him onto the ground.
What happened? I don’t understand. What happened?
Repetitive thoughts on top of vivid comprehension on top of broiling anger. He shook with the force of his emotions as he surveyed what lay before him.
Clumps of dirt and tufts of roots were scattered on the ground. No more neat leafy rows of spinach and kale, no more stalks of carrot and radish, no more growing heads of broccoli. Just smashed remains, broken stalks and piles of garbage. Everything had been purposefully ruined. Nothing was taken, all was destroyed. With his heartbeat drumming in his ears, Daeson walked stiffly to the edge of the patch. Every step that brought him closer felt heavier.
Huge holes were scooped out of the dirt; every bulb had been removed, every stalk pulled out and snapped. There was nothing left.
His mind gave him the answer before it finished forming the question.
Kurgan. Who else had motive for making his farm life difficult? Who else wanted him to sell his land? There was nobody he knew capable of such a deed except for the hard-faced farmer that his father had warned Daeson to be wary of.
Despair soured in his mouth and sank into his belly.
“No, no, no,” he begged, turning and breaking into a run. His legs found the strength to carry him to the coop at speed, but he dropped to his knees at the devastation greeting him.
Three limp, brown feathered bodies lay prostrate on the ground among smashed eggs. The yolk and albumen had long since seeped into the ground, but the ruined shells were enough for Daeson to interpret what happened.
I heard them squawking in my dream.
He’d likely half woken, but it was well before even a farmer’s early rising. The chickens had sounded an alarm and he’d only stirred enough for their screeches to register in his sleeping fantasy. The vegetable patch was planted snug against the cottage wall and he’d heard nobody stomping about, either.
Last night it was storming, a monstrous gale.
Nobody would see anybody running around at night in the middle of a storm, it was perfect cover. Daeson’s closest neighbour—Kurgan—would’ve had trouble seeing the culprit even during a normal night.
Except it was Kurgan that did it.
Doubt sprang up. If the only potential witness to the crime was the hard-faced farmer, why go out in a storm? To argue away accusations? Such a thing was madness. Kurgan was wily, but was his thought process so abstract?
Not that abstract, I’ve thought of it, so can he.
He didn’t know how long he’d stood at the coop, thinking about who else had motivation while staring at three dead chickens, but the temple bells brought him to the present. The final service was held at noon and he’d missed his usual one, held mid-morning. His routine this morning had been severely altered.
His grief felt like it was choking him. He had an intense desire to escape the farm and attend the temple service. Daeson hadn’t been raised to run from his problems but he felt overwhelmed by them. Perhaps a couple of hours away would put things in perspective.
While walking down the sloped trail that led to the village, Daeson saw Kurgan at the bottom. He broke into a jog, righteousness burning hotly at his core. Would his neighbour say nothing? Perhaps he would feign innocence.
Daeson caught up where the dirt road ended and the cobbled street began. His stomping run alerted Kurgan because the brawny farmer turned to see his approach. There wasn’t a polite or greeting smile on his face for Kurgan wasn’t the kind of man to smile unnecessarily. Recently Daeson had become the same.
“Why did you do it?” Daeson accused, bypassing any polite chatter or even any explanation. Kurgan would know exactly what he was talking about. “Did you think I would give in and sell the farm to you?”
Kurgan’s thick brows lowered in a frown. He placed his hands on his hips while he looked Daeson over, making an imposing figure. Though he was taller by a hand (which was an accomplishment, since Daeson himself stood at a little over six foot), Daeson wasn’t intimidated. He believed he was looking at a coward who would sabotage his farm in the middle of the night.
During a storm? Why would he do it last night, of all nights?
But who else wants you to sell up and leave?
When Kurgan spoke, it wasn’t the thundering request of anger covering up shame like Daeson expected, but a question.
“What are you talking about, boy?”
“You know well what I’m talking about. You’re the one tore it up!” At Kurgan’s silent stare, Daeson continued. “I never figured you for a coward, but what you did--”
“Hold your tongue!” Kurgan interrupted. Now Daeson could see the anger that he’d expected at the start. Didn’t most bullies hide their fear through aggression? That’s what his father had told him. “You’d best not be calling me a coward,” Kurgan advised, one of his hands moving off his hip to point a finger not far from Daeson’s face. Daeson slapped it aside to Kurgan’s obvious disbelief.
“I’ll call you by whatever name you earn. You came while I was asleep to tear up my garden. What else should I call a man who sneaks around at night?” he said.
“Why would you think I would?” Kurgan asked gruffly.
“Who else stood to gain from it, except you? I might not have seen you with my eyes but I can use my brain.”
“Then use your brain to think of someone else.”
Kurgan turned to leave and Daeson reached for his arm except he didn’t make contact. There were some village folk staring at him curiously, likely watching them because of all the shouting. Daeson wasn’t comfortable airing his grievances in public but he wanted Kurgan to admit his guilt. Even if Kurgan denied it, it would be as good as admitting it because Daeson could see through people’s lies as easily as looking through glass.
He would catch up with Kurgan after the service and question him again.
Farmers and villagers filed into the temple for its final service, accepting the bread rolls handed them by the acolyte at the door. One by one they dropped the rolls into the firepit as a sacrifice to Ravina, Goddess of the Harvest. Daeson had smuggled his bread roll into his tunic, where it pressed like guilt against his skin.
He isolated himself by sitting in the backmost pew. Soft sounds of greetings and whispered conversations became a hiss as words bounced off stone floor and walls. He imagined his name was among the sounds because of his stolen bread. He met their stares, brave only because he wanted to search their expressions for knowledge. The person who’d ruined his vegetable patch and killed his chickens would be unable to meet his gaze. He didn’t know why he was bothering, he already had his answer in Kurgan… except the farmer hadn’t addressed the accusation, and hadn’t looked guilty. Would a man with no conscience show regret? Daeson needed either a confession or denial before he could know the truth and act on it.
How am I going to act on it? Burn his fields down?
It was a fantasy and something he could never bring himself to commit. His father said only those who were weak would take the path of revenge. Daeson struggled with that advice; he saw no justice in allowing someone who’d done wrong go unpunished. He was old enough not to argue but young enough to think he knew better. Soon after, his father had succumbed to an illness, leaving Daeson to wish he’d paid more attention and respect.
When the time for service neared, Cleric Faelin appeared from a side door and looked over his congregation. Daeson stared at his lap, feeling the cleric’s eyes boring into his soul. Did he know Daeson hadn’t sacrificed his bread? Was the cleric condemning him for his hunger? His appetite had been a gnawing thing, begging Daeson not to waste food on a ritual. He’d been waiting for the right time to shove the bread into his mouth, but now his appetite was squashed under that iron gaze. Daeson sneaked a look upward, relieved to see the cleric standing behind the podium and looking at someone else.
Cleric Faelin was an imposing figure, more so when he stood behind the podium shouting about paying dues. He made a striking figure in his dark blue and yellow robes and he spoke and carried himself with a charisma that attracted every eye. His face changed dramatically depending on his expression. He looked kind when he smiled, cruel when he frowned, and thoughtful when he listened.
Speaking in a clear, booming voice, the cleric began with his thoughts on Ravina. She brought no festivals or feasts and demanded respect for the soil that provided the bounty of life.
Daeson sought out where Kurgan sat.
Blasphemous, that he should tear up my harvest the night before paying homage to Ravina.
When he looked back to the front again, he was startled to meet the cleric’s gaze.
Next temple service heralded the beginning of winter. Supfest was mentioned and his stomach growled. Daeson waited until the cleric looked away and snuck his roll to the top of his tunic, where he could sneak a few bites. The crust was hard and scratched his gums but the inside was soft and delicious. He chewed as discretely as possible. Eating the roll had made him feel impossibly hungry—awakening the beast in his stomach.
He barely listened to the service. Towards the end, the collection plate was passed around to pay for Supfest. Daeson was concerned that he had nothing to put in it but the plate didn’t reach him. Sitting so far behind everyone had caused the townsfolk to forget his presence.
When everyone stood to sing a farewell to Gli, the departing Autumnal God, Daeson snuck away. He thought he’d managed to escape without notice except the acolyte was out the front. Daeson bid him farewell but the acolyte stopped him.
“Cleric Faelin would like to see you.”
Daeson felt his eyes widen, his thoughts leaping to the half-eaten bread still shoved down his tunic. He considered pulling it out and apologising, but the acolyte turned and pointed down the path that went around the side of the temple, towards the back.
“You can wait in the kitchen and help yourself. Cleric Faelin will be some time before he joins you. He has to farewell everyone first.”
Did he see me keep the bread? Is that why I’m invited to feed myself in the temple kitchen?
Daeson stared at the acolyte, who was still pointing down the path and not looking at him. It made the request more urgent.
The promise of food beckoned. Daeson considered throwing his half-eaten roll into the firepit as he passed, but believed it would be a greater insult to the Harvest Goddess. He also had nothing for her to bless.
She didn’t turn her back on me. I couldn’t keep up with her.
He passed the door that led to Cleric Faelin’s den. Daeson had been in that room only a few times in his life. The first time he’d been so young he was barely walking; he remembered a cluttered room and the smell of wood varnish. His father and the cleric had explained to him about his mother, that she’d gone to the Endworld and would not return. Their words had little impact though he did recall sitting in a mud puddle many moons later and crying because his mother had gone away without him.
The second time was not long after his fourteenth season; winter had come and gone, taking his father with it. The den still smelled of wood polish and the room remained cluttered. The only markings he could make were the ones that formed his name, and the cleric had him signing it over and over to documents that had been explained to him and quickly forgotten in his grief. He’d watched the cleric press his seal to wax at the bottom, officiating them. Then they’d both walked to the cemetary where his father went into the ground beside his mother.
Willem and Marget, together at last.
It was hard not to mourn everything at once. His dead parents. His ruined farmland. His few possessions. His butchered chickens. His destroyed vegetable patch.
His mood changed dramatically when he entered the kitchen and beheld a bountiful fruit bowl on the countertop. Daeson rushed past the long wooden table and its benches to get to the bowl. Greedily he plucked out figs, peaches, nectarines and plums. He ate two of each before finishing his bread roll to counter the sweetness of the fruit.
A cold storage box in the corner caught his eye. Fruit was fine but meat was better.
When Cleric Faelin came to collect him, Daeson was finishing his third ham and cheese sandwich. He shoved the last piece into his mouth, much too big for a single bite, and had trouble chewing. His face grew hot at his dilemma, and when the cleric held out his hand, Daeson wiped his fingers on his tunic before taking it.
I must look like a red-faced squirrel.
“No need to rush your meal,” the cleric said kindly, pumping Daeson’s arm in a firm, dry handshake. Dressed in his finery, it was hard not to feel intimidated by the cleric’s presence. “You look as though the weight of the world were upon your shoulders.”
Daeson swallowed in large chunks, his throat protesting what was being forced down it. The food went grudgingly.
“Maybe not the world, but the farm is,” he replied. He could hear the waver in his voice and attributed it to the difficult digestion. He had no such excuse for the tightness in his chest.
Cleric Faelin nodded, an unreadable expression on his face. It was something for Daeson to marvel at; that he didn’t know what this man was thinking. He didn’t feel judged but he also didn’t perceive sympathy.