Two days until my time with the hunters.
I sat around the small fire at the center of the hut. My hands repeated the simple motion I would become far too familiar with in the coming years. As the strands danced in my fingertips, I contemplated a future as a hunter. The sense of adventure. The freedom from modern tasks like splitting wood and scraping grain. The promise of the wild. If I passed their trials, I could become one with them.
Father never said exactly why he found it an unfit profession, but his distaste for the work of hunting was evident. Nobody really talked about the work. Even the hunters themselves remained oddly silent about the work they performed, preferring to deliver sinew and hides and meats as their prize. Perhaps it was a mystery of sorts that every child should learn on their own. Perhaps it was because the hunters demanded the best aim and most prominent stalkers. I didn’t know, but I would soon find out, and my practice with them would determine any chance of a life among them.
In one hand, held tightly between my pinky and palm, rested the top of a long string of cured plant stalks woven tightly together. My primary digits and thumb held tight to a strand of twisted fibers while the other hand carefully twisted the next finger-length section of the other strand. When the twist was as tight as I could manage, I rotated the two strands around each other in the opposite direction of the twist, switching strands between hands. The process continued.
As one section of fibers was used up, another was twisted onto the end of it, lengthening the strand. Continuing like this, I had already amassed several men’s lengths coiled on the ground near my straw pile. I wasn’t sure how much would be needed, so I wanted the string to be as long as possible. Once finished, I would start again, this time performing the same twisting pattern with two strings to produce a very strong cord. It was said that Gregor devised a machine capable of performing the task quickly, but such devices were only found in North Lake.
The twisting sessions gave me ample time to study the parchment I had received from the merchant. Already, I had forgotten a few of his pictures, but I had learned enough of the letters to figure out what the picture was supposed to be by reading the letters below it. I tried my best to memorize all of the sounds and their corresponding letters. Later, on the slate, I would scroll thoughts by stringing the sounds together to make words. Between the words I injected slashes to separate them so that the text would be readable, at least to me. I wasn’t sure how this was accomplished in North Lake, but slashes seemed to work fine to mark the pauses.
I glanced at the tablet, deciphering my thought from earlier: TA/MUSRIMS/LIK/WETR/IREAS/
The system was notably better than my previous pictorial attempts in the dirt. Script carried with it a simple encoding system that hid meaning in sound rather than form. Gregor was credited with inventing writing, and his realization of converting sounds to symbols was by far his greatest achievement, though most people never bothered to learn from his wisdom.
“You done twisting that thing yet?” asked Father as he stomped in from outside. “Did you get enough to eat?”
“Good. Those guys have you twisting and braiding ropes, but they tie everything with sinew.”
“Not the bowstring,” I answered. “They told me they use only plant fibers for that.”
“That’s one string, boy. Toss another log on and get some rest. We’re chopping tomorrow and you’ll need your strength. My axe should be firm enough on the shaft to test it out properly. Can’t wait to see that sharp blade eat some tree meat.”
He laid down on the other straw mat alongside Mother. They tossed for a few moments before the snoring started. I checked the length of my string, measuring two arm-spans from the opening end. It was time. Starting there, I began twisting it into a cord. The process was much easier as the twisted strands were easier to grip in the fingers than the original fiber materials. William the hunter had said that the final cord length should be twice my height, so that it could be cut and knotted to make a proper sling or bow with excess string to trim off. Once I trained with a sling, he had told me, I would be ready to make a proper bow cord. He said that cord-making was a skill that required only practice and no tutelage.
I woke in the morning with my feet still aimed at the fire and a finished length of cord laying across my belly. Mother was matting furry fibers and father was sharpening his new axe by rubbing a stone across it. Such a technique on a stone axe would result in a serrated edge at best, and at worst a broken tool.
“There he is. Finally getting up to meet the sun halfway?”
My head was still half lost in a dream, though the details escaped quickly. I tossed the length of strong cord to the side and sat up. Distant thunder rumbled through the village.
“We’ll have to skip the morning meal,” said Father. “There’s too much to be done and we need to get some lumber piled before the storm hits.”
I couldn’t resist the thought of fresh appellas springing up under the stone nut tree. Despite the stories the old men told of the mushroom disappearing from a place after harvesting, they would sometimes grow back stronger in the places where I harvested them. The pattern was random, and there seemed to be no preferred spot. Not stump to send forth suckers. No root ball to push up plants. Mushrooms were the oddest variety of vegetation, and the mysteries surrounding them seemed magic, as if they themselves were magic. The thought that there was something special about the tree they grew under had crossed my mind a dozen times. I wondered what other magical secrets that wood held.
“C’mon, boy,” said Father. “We need to get out there.”
He grabbed his stone axe from atop the inside wood pile and lobbed it toward me. I caught the stave with both hands in firm grip.
“I want to give you that,” he said. “If the new axe works out well for me, then you get the old one. Seems only right that it shouldn’t go to waste, but the other woodcutters have fine tools already. Maybe you’ll change your mind about chopping one day. If nothing else, I won’t have to worry about you freezing and begging for wood to heat your own hut.
I followed him out to the tree line, where most of the village was hacking at tree limbs and branches left by the regular woodcutters. Only a few of the farmers, and of course the grain mashers, were not present. Father and I moved further into the woods, looking for a mast to harvest. He didn’t see the point in salvaging scraps when so much could be gained from a sturdy trunk.
Father spotted the tree. A tall specimen with rough bark. The trunk was aimed straight at the sky, with not but a few limbs in the way below the upper canopy. He took to one side, and I the other, and we chopped in time.
The aggressive blows of the metal axe surprised him and I both. Each swing removed a chunk of pulp larger than my fist, and the fast cutting made short work of the large mast. When the tree began to waver, I put down the stone axe and pushed the upper trunk in the direction Father instructed. One solid punch with a metal axe, and she started creeping away.
As the trunk drifted slowly under its own weight, I let go and backed off, as did father, taking cover behind some nearby trees. The drift continued, and the tree fell faster and faster until smacking against the ground. The upper limbs propped it off the ground well enough for us to begin work on the logs.
With he newfound cutting ability, father instructed me to roll logs back to our hut as he cut them. Once the first was loose, I pushed it away. By the time I returned for another log, the tree was severed into several lengths of timber blocks, ready for busting into burn wood.
For cutting, metal worked great, but we soon learned that splitting was a job still left to slower work with a wedge and a stone axe. The bite of the shiny blade would dig too deeply and stick into the end of a piece rather than splitting it. A heavy rock still conveyed enough force to shatter larger logs with smashing force.
We continued working as the rain started to fall. Once all the logs were rolled to the woodpile alongside our hut, Father and I took turns chopping and stacking. Mother appeared from time to time with a bit of summer tonic made from berries, honey, and dark mint to help us cool down. The mint taste I never cared for, but it did add a medicine to the water that helped cool the viscous bite out of direct sunlight.
Thunder continued from the distance. Dark clouds moved past the village to the north or south, but none of the heavy storms hit directly until the early afternoon. Once lightning struck the Diamond Lake, it was time to move inside.
Mother collected plenty of extra water for finishing her felts, and Father insisted that I help the family instead of fiddling with my stone chucker. As it turned out, cutting a piece from the final pile of felt gave me a solid fabric to use for a pouch, so it didn’t matter. One more day, and I would have my time with the hunters, to learn as much as possible and see if they would allow me to apprentice them. As my arms felt like a rotten growth on an fallen tree, I thought it would be a nice change to let someone else do the chopping while I learned a skill that provided needed goods to trade with instead of breaking my back hauling lumber or weeding fields.
I woke in the night. While Mother and Father continued their slumber, I finished my sling with two strips of felt carefully attached to the cord. It seemed strong enough. I would find out soon.
In the morning, I sprang from my straw pile and scurried out to the village fire pit. Only a few were awake, and gathered around the bright light of burning logs and flames as tall as a grown man. The family of potters started the fire early each morning to maximize coal production for warming their large pot. Tiny sticks burned up to light logs, and more logs were tossed on to make a thick bed of coals that could be raked for cooking. The cook pot was a matter of pride in the family, and a collection of goods from all the villagers would be poured into the morning soup.
I helped them gather some logs from the area, and to my surprise returned to see Tiera sitting beside it in the grass.
“Up early this morning?” I asked.
“I have my first round of training today, and I wanted to get an early start.”
“You aren’t going to be a grinder like your folks?”
“Probably, but I want to learn the basics of other skills too, just in case. Father says it’s important to be well rounded before fledging.”
I thought of the contrast in my own nest. Father wanted me to be a woodcutter. The only other skill my parents thought necessary was felting. Everything else could be traded, as wood and cloth were always in demand. I think that secretly, mother wanted me to raise furries, but just about everyone had a furry cage near their hut, and felt won’t keep a person warm very long in a frigid snowstorm.
I wanted the grace of the gods, like Zielle in the old stories. Zielle carried an axe, and I’m sure he chopped his own wood, but he was also a great hunter. Without that part, he never would have saved the land of Abundanti from the great fire. There was pride to be had in learning the ways of the wilderness, and a sense of adventure. Too bad the hunters didn’t adopt just anyone to join their ranks.
Tiera and I helped the potters haul the large clay pot from their hut and center it over hot coals. It was only a little longer before the water was boiling, but it seemed to take forever. In that time, a few of the hunters had meandered silently from their huts to stand quietly around the fire. I mimicked their manners, standing tall in the warmth of the flames on a cool morning as the first rays of sunlight kissed my skin from across the lake.
Even after two bowls of soup, the hunters didn’t say a word. Not to me, and not to each other. They stared at the flames until their food was consumed, and then stood and stretched. I decided to take command of the moment, and approached them with my sling.
“Will it do?”
The bearded huntsman smiled. “It isn’t the sling so much as the man holding it that strikes the target.”
“I’m ready to test my skill.”
“Have you used a sling before?”
“We made some as kids, and I can bash a furry every so often.”
The man tipped his head in the direction of the hunting cabins. “Well. Let’s get this over with. We only have all day.” He raised his voice slightly. “And the other one. Let’s go.”
I turned as Tiera hopped up from her log. She jogged to my side.
“You? You’re training to be a hunter.”
She shrugged. “Like I said. Good to be well rounded.”
“C’mon,” said the man again.
He and his companion started toward the woods. Tiera and I followed.
“Can you even sling a rock?” I asked.
“Can you?” she scoffed.
“I didn’t mean anything by it, but you mill grain.”
“And you chop wood.”
One of the hunters spoke to the other ahead of us. “They make too much noise.”
I sealed my lips and concentrated on the situation before me. Tiera didn’t matter. The insignificant shock of a miller being interest in anything other than pounding grain was pushed to the side and I focused on the trials ahead. Thick skin. Hard bone. Working with sensitive materials that exaggerated any tiny mistake. The hunters were skilled at what they did, and that skill took years of learning. Mangling the pelt of a furry from time to time would do nothing to help me. I would have to listen to their instructions and follow them without letting my mind drift. They rarely took anyone from outside of their own families.
Tiera and I stood on a small hill overlooking a clearing near the tree line. Twenty paces ahead of us stood two stumps that couldn’t have been wider than the length of my forearm. On the ground at our feet were several smooth stones.
William was our instructor. He had no family, and nobody to whom he could pass his knowledge on. The reclusive nature of the hunters matched his personality perfectly. If not for them, he could have easily slipped away into the forest and carved himself out a hovel, living perfectly happily in isolation. He wasn’t rude or offensive, but very quiet, so much so that most of us couldn’t remember his name most of the time.
“You have twenty stones each. I’ve sorted them carefully, and they should be accurate. You’re to hit the logs out there. A bow is a wonderful tool, but arrows break, strings snap, and you still need to bring in a harvest. The sling is also ideal for not damaging the skins of small game. Learn it, use it, and practice every day. Now. Fire away, and let us see what you can do.”
Tiera darted for her first stone, and before I had one seated in my sling, she whipped a bullet and nailed the target. The rock clicked against the stump and landed in the nearby grass with a thud.
“Beginner’s luck,” said William.
I fired and missed. And then again. Tierra missed as well. Finally, after seven or eight stones, my face burned with embarrassment as she again struck the target. Williams hand landed on my shoulder.
“Don’t worry about the world, son. Just breath and focus on the target. Throw with the sling as you would throw a stone.”
I nodded. I took in a belly-full of air and let it out slowly while sharpening my gaze at the stump. Some of the bark near the center was shredded, and I stared hard until the tiny loose fibers came into focus. I let my arm swing about naturally, and released at the top of the swing. The rock flew straight, humming slightly against the air until it struck the log with a pop and busted into a dozen fragments.
Tierra let another rock fly and missed wide. She had more hits, but her aim was less consistent. All of my shots had whipped past the log on one side or the other, with a few straight over the top, while hers were scattered all over the field.
“Young lady,” said William. “Pick up a rock and throw it at the log.”
She nodded. She reared back with the next pebble, and launched it with a grunt for follow-through. It struck the log, and she stood tall.
“Your arm swings when you throw. It should do the same when you sling. Don’t whip the cord around in a circle from your hand, let it follow your whole arm, and you will release at the right moment more often. It’s more natural that way.”
We continued through the rest of the stones, each of us striking the log an additional two times. My arm felt ripped where it joined my torso.
“That’s enough of that for the day,” said William. “Let’s see if the boys brought us anything to process.”
The next few hours were filled with mistakes on our part. It looked as if the hunters had been stacking up animal legs for months, and we were left with the grunt work of skinning them.
First, we had to make our own knives. The normal flint blade on my hip wasn’t good enough, and they insisted on the sharpest glassy stones for cutting. Finding chunks of the stuff wasn’t terribly difficult, but smashing them up against other rocks to get a usable fragment took time. I ended up getting two decent shards out of a rock and gave one to Tiera. She “found” her rock moments later while I continued “searching” for my own. With a slip of the fingers, I dropped the tiny fragment into a pile of busted rock, and then picked it back up, announcing that I had finally found a sharp piece.
Glassy stones cut flesh and skin as easily as Father’s axe could split a block of wood. The instruction consisted of telling us everything we were doing wrong. The cuts weren’t straight enough. We were slicing too much while removing the hide from the leg pieces. We were damaging the precious materials inside, or not wedging the tendons out fast enough.
“Don’t mean to be a grumpy old log, but I’m not sure either of you will ever get good at this.”
Funny enough, William made almost no mention of our poor performances with the sling. He kept on about freeing the tendons, cleaning bits of flesh from the scraps of skin without cutting holes in them, loosening the tendons without breaking our knives or slicing our fingers, soaking the legs just long enough, not tending the fire to keep the proper amount of heat in the water, or keeping too much. The list went on and on. Pulling hooves alone was hard enough that the shredded the skin on my already raw fingertips.
Once we finished with the legs. He brought us to another area of the camp, where there was an equally large bundle of tendons that had been drying forever.
“Alright, we need to shred these to get the fibers. It’s the strongest of fibers, but you must take care to get it right. Only good fibers will hold a broad-head tight to a shaft.”
We went to work with smooth hammer-stones. This part came naturally to Tiera, who had spent most of her life pounding grain in a similar fashion. Whenever William looked away she would toss a couple of shredded tendons on my pile.
I wanted to quit. This wasn’t an initiation, or a series of tests to our worthiness. It was their chance to take a break while someone else did the work they had been putting off, and doing it with sore shoulders from the throwing exercises. I was starting to realize why nobody joined the hunters. They didn’t want anybody joining their ranks, they just wanted a little extra help with their chores every fall.
But I persisted. In my head I tallied the time spent since the last words fell from my lips. It was now noon, and neither Tiera nor myself had uttered a syllable in hours. Perhaps now we were being what William called “quiet enough.”
The pile reduced itself, and even with her help I had produced perhaps two-thirds the amount of fibers that Tiera had made, and hers were in better shape: longer and thinner. They were fluffy and light, while mine looked like broken plant shards.
“That’s not—too bad. You might need a bit more practice, but we don’t have time. We need to make some sticky.”
“Sticky?” I inquired.
“Trees aren’t the only things that make resin, but it’s harder to extract from animals. We make it from parts of the legs, the husks of the tendons, skin, and the rest of the stretchy parts of the feet and bones. Any of that stuff that makes good sticky.”
“When do you find time to hunt if you’re sitting around doing this all day?”
“Mind your tongue, boy. We need that fire hot. We must make a boil in the big pot, and keep it rolling. We’ll need firewood.”
This was my time to shine. We were handed a couple of pitiful axes from the camp, and directed toward the woods without supervision. Tiera walked close beside me.
“My arms are about to fall off,” she said. “Do you think they’re just using us to do their chores?”
“I was thinking the same,” I whispered.
Tiera stopped. Her head swiveled left and right before her eyes again found mine.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Why are you talking so low?” she whispered.
“They’re listening to us. They’re watching us. I know it.”
She looked around again. “I don’t see anybody.”
Something moved in the woods behind her, just in time for my next comment. “Neither does that elk.” I pointed.
She turned slowly.
“Trust me,” I whispered. “They’re watching.”
We snuck forward. It wasn’t three steps before the animal darted off in the other direction.
“Guess we’re still to loud,” she whispered.
Buried in the woods beyond the fresh green trees where we entered was a stand of older softwoods, most of them dead or dying. On the ground lay several stones of the right size. I searched around for a strong one.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m fixing this axe. It won’t cut anything like this.” I hammered away at the edge, carefully chipping off a few flakes to sharpen the stone tool.
Tiera’s voice returned to normal. “Now you’re definitely making too much noise.”
“Chopping trees makes noise,” I replied. “Here, take this axe, and let me borrow that one for a moment.”
Sharp tools didn’t lessen the work, but from the first busted logs, we took turns chopping, breaking, and hauling. Dead logs were the easiest to harvest because they could be broken shorter by dropping them on a large rock. I showed Tiera the trick. This kept our energy up. They also burned fast and hot when they fractured so easily. In less than an hour we had a large pile placed by the hunters’ fire pit, and we were rewarded for our efforts with fresh water and dried meat whilst tending the fire.
“You want to keep it at a simmer. It needs to stay that way for a while. Till all of the animal parts and bones mix with the water as much as they will. Then we’ll let it steam off for the rest of the day.”
“You boil the stuff. Then you pour the water in the other pot when it boils down, and keep heating the water until it’s just right. When it cools, it’ll turn into animal resin, or sticky. It’s the magic of the animals, and it must be prepared carefully.”
“And it’s sticky?”
William shrugged. “When you reheat it with water it will be, and it’ll bind anything together. Cord, sinew, whatever. Even bits of wood. Wonderfully magical stuff that makes the wraps on your arrows nice and tight. We’ll spend the rest of the day turning those fibers into sinew.” He ripped a large chunk of meat from the stick in his hand, and chewed it after adding a splash of water to his mouth.
I stared. When his eyes caught mine, I turned my attention to the pot of boiling magic. If all magic smelled like that, I wanted no part of being a caster.
Another man approached. “They whining yet?”
My attention again fell on William, who was looking at the other man with a smile on his face. “Not so much as the last group.”
“They will before the day’s out. I can tell by the look in that one’s eyes.” He pointed at me.
Whatever look he saw disappeared in an instant, as I could feel tension in my cheeks and warmth behind my eyes. My gaze sharpened to a dagger point.
“All for the best,” said William. “That one there.” He pointed toward Tiera before continuing, “cuts more holes than hide. And the other one can’t fiber a joint to save his own skin.”
Both of the men laughed as Tiera and I sat silently as artifacts of ridicule and shame. Perhaps that was the real test. How much we would tolerate before snapping back. There was no way to know which response they wanted from a hopeful. Maybe they were testing our ability to take flak. Or perhaps they were waiting for an attack from one of us to demonstrate our desire to join them by fighting for the right. Maybe they wanted to be left alone. It was impossible to judge, but I’d never seen a hunter strike another, and fighting was generally considered inappropriate.
“You’re pot’s boiling too hot,” said William.
I snapped to attention. Tiera and I rushed to slide the heavy bowl a bit farther from the fire’s center. In the rush, I added a couple burn marks to the growing list of ailments afflicting my tired hands. Looking into the pot revealed that most of the bits of skin had disappeared. The bones were still there, but the skins we pulled from the animal feet were completely gone, and the leftover joint material had degraded as well.
“The skin’s gone.”
“Aye,” said Willam. “It’s turned into sticky. It takes a while, but the warm water draws out all of the sticky from the material, and holds it. Now that everything is nice and hot, we’ll leave it here and get on to our next task. When we finish, this will be ready to pour out and turn to resin.”
“Turn to resin? Like sap?”
“Yes. Same golden color as the trees make, same feeling in the fingers. The stuff from animals is carried away in water, which makes it useful to us. But enough of that. Onto the next task.”
Scraping. We were given large, flat stones and left with a few animal hides mounted to vertical frames. We were instructed to remove the pink without damaging the furs, and we commenced, first with fury and speed. After the initial bout of enthusiasm, and once we were sure that William had wandered off, the process slowed down, even more than the task as a whole, which moved like a slug across a garden plot.
We didn’t say much to each other, as there was nothing she could say that I wasn’t already thinking. I did glance at her progress from time to time, and caught her looking at mine as well. The bladed edge of the stone was smooth and long, resulting from an excellent chipping of a large piece of flint. Still it had two pointed corners that could catch the hide and tear through if the scraper lost focus for even a second. The skin before me contained several gouges and a couple of holes. I sighed at my progress, but Tiera’s was no better. Then she spoke.
“You still want to be a hunter?”
I considered the thought in silence. At the onset, I was sure that this was all busy work to deter us from the craft and animal harvesting, but the scraping contained in it a valuable lesson. None of the products produced by the hunters were quick and easy solutions. Everyone was familiar with skinning furries, but they were processed rather quickly, being scraped for fur or boiled and cured as they were for small items or adornments. A large skin was work. No matter how long we kept at it, the solution to doing the job cleanly was to work slowly and carefully.
Making a kill took seconds. Mark the target, fire, track if necessary, and then finish them off with a dagger or axe. Processing an animal took much longer. I started to think that the reason for all of our hard work with little or no attention paid to weapons and aim was that the hunters spent more time working on the animals than actually killing them. A well-placed rock could hit or miss, but the sweat of their production came after the kill. I was convinced now that they required more time than the woodcutters to do their work, and their bounty was far undervalued by the rest of the village.
I considered the stories of Gregor the Wise, and his dabblings with plants and potions. It was said that he would often separate a plant, and that boiling water was introduced at an early phase of his magical creations. Perhaps he didn’t learn all of that for himself. Perhaps his enlightenment came not from meditating on the rhythms of nature so much as the hard work of those earlier tribes, the ones that weren’t accustomed to more modern comforts and stabilities of a village that has persisted for generations. Our farming, cutting, milling, and other activities had been refined to the point that each person knew what was needed each day. Every hut contained a small stockpile of resources that would keep, much more than a wandering tribe could carry on their backs. We had it pretty easy, but the hunters still dwelled in the ways of the ancients, working harder to ensure they would produce enough to exchange for food and heat while making things that didn’t cater to the daily lives of the other villagers.
“I think I’ll wait to see how the glue turns out.”
“There’s something about the process. It reminds me of Gregor’s stories.”
“Gregor worked with plants.”
“But he turned them into magic. That glue is being created from something, through some hidden process. Water must carry the ability to convert one thing into another. Maybe the water is the secret behind magical things.”
“And suppose it is,” said Tiera. “What good comes from that knowledge if you can’t use it for anything but cooking. After all, it converts bitter leaves into tasty ones. Is cooking then the same as magic? And if so, are there any of your mushroom secrets that can be learned from boiling skins that cannot come from boiling neeps?”
“There are mysteries and secrets everywhere around us.” I glanced toward distant footsteps, but their creator remained hidden behind the dense forest foliage. “These guys are closer to them than those in the village. I wanted to join them to grow closer to Zielle and the rest of our elder clan, but now I see something new. Something to be learned and studied, in addition to the preparation of meats and harvesting from the wild. There are so many curiosities to be found in the forest that will never reveal themselves in a split of wood or dust from grains. If my time is to be spent scraping, at least it gives me time to search my thoughts for answers to my observations.”
“You’re a very strange boy, Gape.”
William appeared from behind a large fern. “Having fun yet?”
“I’m not quite finished,” I answered.
William glanced at the sky, and then back at us. “Well, you won’t be finished by nightfall at that pace, and these skins attract pests that you’d rather not be around in the dark. So we’ll call that done. We have sticky to finish. Let’s get these skins soaking and return to our other task.”
We watched as the more experienced hunters pulled chunks of bone and other leftover matter from the mixture with branched sticks until the solution was clear of large pieces. Once they finished, they poured the mixture into a smaller pot through a sieve of linen. They worked quickly and precisely. William said that the work must be done quickly or the sticky would solidify in the sieve, making it useless. He said it was important to remove as many of the tiny bits of fat an other matter as possible, as clear sticky worked better than contaminated.
I watched as the liquid in the small pot turned to solid before my eyes. The resulting lump looked like the resin from a wounded tree, amber and glistening. It was free from the usual bug seeds and bark that congested in tree resin. When it finished cooling, William removed a sheet of solid material from the pot.
“This is the sticky. It will bind wood, sinew, and stone to make strong weapons that will last a lifetime if protected and cared for. But it takes a lot of work and time to make. Without it, we’re just slinging rocks. This is the ancient art of our ancestors, and the binder of civilization.”
He cut the material into long golden strips as the others sliced the strips into smaller pieces still. The resulting beads of material were placed in a basket. William said that the following day, they would be left to dry in the shade of a large tree, so that they would keep as long as needed to be used by adding a little water and heating them back up carefully before rubbing them on whatever needed stuck together.
I returned home that night, and found myself immune to Father’s normal badgering about the silly savages of the wood and their meat-gathering enterprises. All around me were the fruits of their hard work. Sinew wrapped his axeheads to help secure them on their shafts. Hides and skins adorned our beds for comfort at night. And even the day’s final meal from the village included venison and steak from their kills. They were underrated as part of the village, yet everything in the village benefited from their efforts. They did the work that others didn’t have time for, and were paid for their efforts with grain and fruit. Most of the villagers worked together like that, each producing part of the work needed for the village to function as a whole, but few were outcast to the edge of the forest.
My illusion about the adventure of being a hunter was shattered, but in the shards of a broken dream lay wistful thoughts of long hours left alone to think, and the means to study nature closely in the meditation of repetitive tasks. They carried the most ancient seeds of civilization, and the most ancient secrets needed to make our dusty little village work. Though my ideas about their lifestyles had transmuted as much as skin to sticky, I knew that my future lie with them, and I wondered if Tiera had felt the same way. Too tired to ask her about her thoughts, we had left the hunters in silence.
The trials of the hunters were not a test as I had thought. They were an education in the foundation of modern life, the sticky that held everything together, and transformed people from a lifestyle of roaming to settlement, just as Zielle’s clan had done generations ago. The excitement and adventure would not be a hard life out in the wilderness, but an internal trek to find the seed of my own soul. How could I resist such a challenge?
As my eyes closed on a hard day, I made my decision. I would spend my time with the farmers and the millers in due turn, I would turn a pot or two with the cobblers, but my future lay in the hands of the hunters. I would learn everything about the old ways, about the ways of Zielle and Gregor, and perhaps one day use that wisdom to uncover my own magic, that of growing the appella mushroom in plenty.