Threshing grain is the first chore after the harvest, the most important chore, and the biggest cause of sore arms to kick off the season of collecting firewood.
Baking under the hot sun on the hard ground surrounding the open fire pit, one can weather to the point of near collapse. Stopping for water frequently is important. The dry dirt does provide some benefit to the process though, as the little grains can’t get far and losses are minimized.
I laid out a bundle of the grain-filled heads from pink grass reeds, stacking them to add some efficiency. They’re pounded against the dirt with a large branch until they give up their bounty, which is collected and stored in a felt sack. Each seed head produces only twenty seeds, and sometimes six of them get lost in the dirt, but as the sun marches across the open sky overhead, the bag fills with plenty, and then another bag.
Just as the hottest part of the day was upon me, I looked up to see the merchant strolling down the path from the north. In the distance behind him, a few hovels housing the lakeside fishermen were visible in the distance. The air was clear enough to vaguely make out the distant waterfalls near North Lake, the capital city of the Abundanti plain. If I’d known the consequences of the news he would deliver, I might remember the day better. None of us had any idea that what he carried on that cart would change our lives forever.
On second thought, once unloaded we knew it would change our lives, but we thought it would be for the better, even years later.
I put down my branch and followed the rest of the village to greet him. He was a young man but he skin was scorched by the sun. He told us of visitors from the west, far past the ridge of mountains bordering the plains and forests. They brought with them metals and beads and other trinkets the likes of which he’d never seen.
My fellow villagers glanced at each other, scoffing at the merchants attempt to get them excited. They remarked that he was after our bountiful harvest due to a lack of fish. They assumed he was out to peddle junk so his family would have something to eat.
The merchant pulled back the cloth covering his cart. The contents shined with the mirror polish of gleaming metal artifacts. Scorn turned to wonder among the crowd.
“Anything you can make from stone, they can turn from metal,” said the Merchant.
“Just how do they manage that?” asked father.
“They say that after they make the metal, it can be heated into a liquid like honey, and pounded flat.”
“They turn shiny rocks into honey?” asked another.
“It’s a wonder,” said the merchant. “But I have here the proof. Knives that never chip, plow blades that won’t fall apart, axes and spear points. They can make anything from it. It’ll cut the work of a man into pieces, allowing him to do the duty of ten with stone tools.”
That day, I was after something softer and subtler than new tools and sinew, and more useful than smoked fish, which the cart reeked of, but the others continued to hound the merchant for answers.
“Where did they come from?”
“Are they nomads that discovered metals while wondering the mountainside?”
“Is this a new magic from North Lake?”
The merchant laid out the story carefully.
Two strange visitors appeared in North Lake covered in shimmering metal. They carried weapons made from it, and even their clothes seemed crafted from it. They claimed that they crossed a great sea before traveling across the open plains to reach the city. They claimed that they fought vagrants and strange beasts. They said that their homeland was starving, and they were sent to seek new lands to produce food.
There were others with them, and a week later more came to the city. They became fascinated with the magic of North Lake, and in return for curious crafts from the casters, they traded metals and stone beads and other strange artifacts.
The city elders agreed to help supply them with food, and like locusts they took every grain they could get their hands on, offering wonders of inestimable value in return. North Lake was suddenly filled with an abundance of artifacts, and they finally started to trickle out across the countryside.
“We should use these to produce more, and we can receive more,” said the merchant. “North Lake has no more food to trade, and the newcomers are keeping their wares for themselves. Just look at these beads.”
He removed from his pouch a handful of small stones with tiny holes cut through the middle. Some of them were quite long, and even I became distracted from my mission to investigate how a man might carve such a narrow hole longways through a tiny stone. All of the stones were rich in color, like the finest cuts of agate or flint. It was a puzzle.
“They said they can teach us. They can make a machine powered by the wind to mill grain, or thresh it, or perform numerous other tasks. They can produce metals from common rocks, and even cross over water directly without getting wet.”
“Sounds like they can do anything. Are they gods?”
“They don’t claim to be, but their gods are different from ours, I’m told. But alas I don’t know much, and I’ve traded everything I have to deliver these. I pray that you have enough grain and timber to make it worth my trip.”
The bartering began, and I found myself at the back of the mob. The woodcutters gave up their extra stores after seeing a demonstration of the new axes. Hunters piled pelts for points that could be reused indefinitely without breaking or losing their edge. The millers demanded to know more about the mechanical wonder that caught the wind to make their work easier. All I wanted was a roll of parchment.
Finally, after the noise died down, I spoke to the merchant in private before the final meal of the day began.
“I have your order, young Gape, but I’m loaded down with as much grain as my cart will bear, and I’ll not make a gift of something so precious as parchment.”
“What shall I do?”
“I hear that you have a secret stash of Apellas. A dozen would be worth the effort for me.”
“I know it’s a bit much, but I must be back to North Lake soon while the time is right, and I think the visitors would be willing to give up more than a shiny bead for a prized mushroom or two.”
My eyebrows dropped to the edge of view from my forehead. “You mean to take more for a bargain we already worked out.”
“I agreed to teach you, and as you can see I’ve become quite busy. I need extra for my time. As a bonus, I have something special to give you if you agree to let me have the mushrooms.”
The merchant dug into a leather bag attached to the cart and carefully removed a large, thin sheet of black rock. “It’s a slate, a big one. Watch.” He removed a white stone and scratched it across the surface, leaving a mark. Then he rubbed the mark clean. “You want to learn writing, this is the tool that the casters use. You can practice over and over without wasting parchment.”
“I can scratch the dirt with a stick.”
“It’s incredibly valuable, I assure you.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I kicked some dust free from the hard earth. “I have no mushrooms at the moment.”
“If you can find some before I leave. I’ll stay up in the night to teach you the lessons of writing, even if it means being worn thin on my walk back north in the morning.”
“It hasn’t rained in three days. There won’t be a mushroom anywhere worth eating.”
The merchant frowned. His eyes scanned the village before he let out of huff of scorn. “Here.”
He removed a roll of parchment from the cart and shoved it into my chest. Before my fingers could grip it fully, he was walking toward the village fire.
“Should I put the grain on your cart?”
“Keep it,” he shouted without looking back. “I told you I have more weight than the mule can bear.”
Later, in the hut, I unrolled the document and gave it a look. Even in the fading sunlight, the black markings were easy enough to make out. The Merchant had scribbled a sort of key for the writing system used in North Lake, leaving plenty of parchment open for my own scribbles and notes. Without someone to help decipher the code, it meant nothing.
A series of symbols repeated in six or seven rows. The second of these rows contained symbols not found anywhere else in the matrix, while the first row contained only one of each character.
“It’s a code,” I mumbled to myself.
“Gape,” said my father. The sound startled me, and I spun around on the bedding. “You hardly ate anything at supper. Are you feeling alright?”
“My paper from the merchant.”
“Oh, yes. He mentioned that. Bout time somebody got one over on him. He asks for more grain each week, and never seems to run out of reasons that simple goods continue to cost more. He insists he’s being fair. But it’s no matter. This axe is amazing. The boys and I were putting handles on them. I can split a small tree in one swing with it, and the merchant showed us how to use our stone axes to sharpen these. Sometimes it’s worth the cost.”
“How much wood did he take.”
“Enough that we filled him up. He’s going to need another cart. With this axe, I can replace everything he took tomorrow. It’s a good time to be a woodcutter. Or are you still interested in killing defenseless animals?”
“I’m getting better with my sling,” I responded. At that point, I was helping several of the other villagers to find my place in adult life. “Oh, my bow.”
“Stop fiddling with scraps of paper and get your line braided, or they’ll never take you on a hunt.”
The basket storing my fibers had run dry, but they looked salvageable. I hurried with it down to the lake to soak the bits of plant matter again, and ran back. The parchment lay open on the bedding while I twisted fibers into strands and strands into a fine cord for making a new sling.
As I twisted my mind fixed on the second row of symbols. The one on the left was a circle with two short lines sticking in the bottom. The symbol above it was repeated below. I noticed that the third was was, in fact, an exact copy of the first, with only small changes caused by the scribbler’s hand.
One column contained only the first three rows. The first column was seven characters high. The other rows had an odd assortment of the same characters, scrambled up, and in some cases missing. I thought they might be words.
Before long, I was fast asleep, and the morning came about too quickly. I rushed outside quickly. The dew on the grass soaked slowly into my boots as I raced toward the merchant’s cart. He was feeding some kind of fruit to the mule, but I was happy he hadn’t left yet.
“I’m sorry about the mushrooms,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it, kid. I should be happy with the bounty I have. There’s just so much to trade all of a sudden, and I let myself go to dreaming about getting two or three carts. I used to make one trip around the whole plain. With this load, I’ll be headed back to North Lake before moving on. Things are going to get complicated.”
I held out the parchment. “I know you don’t have a lot of time, but could you give me a hint?”
The merchant smiled. “Open it up, quickly.”
I did as ordered.
“The first row are the letters of Abundanti. Those are the symbols that Gregor used for his notes. Under each letter is a picture that starts with the sound the letter represents. So the first is one of your precious appella mushrooms. That symbol makes the sound.”
Immediately, the second row of characters took shape, as if I’d been struck with a lightning bolt of knowledge. “What’s this second one?”
“It’s a bean.”
“And this one is an eye?” I pointed to the short column. “That’s why there’s only one letter below? Those are words?”
“That’s right.” He walked me through each picture quickly, and the alphabet came to life. The first row were the characters of writ. The second a picture of something that started with that sound. The rest of each column were the spelling of the word depicted in the second row. “Got it?”
“Study it well, and practice often, and you will learn it in no time. Here. Take the slate.”
Thunder boomed in the distance. Massive clouds had formed over the forest to the west. “There may be appellas growing after this storm.”
“With all the extra traveling, I might be back in a couple of days. If you don’t mind, would you save me a couple of those tasty appellas?”
We nodded to each other, and in another minute he was walking the mule with its strained cart to the north. Father called my name from the village. It was time to eat, and then return to pounding grain before the rains came.