“Kaelan!” The call floated across the early summer breeze from the direction of the second ox-barn.
The young man named bit back a scowl. He’d been interrupted half a dozen times already that morning. What did Father want now? Sighing, he dropped his half-carved arrow and sauntered towards the barn.
“The lower west field needs to be plowed before eventide,” Father’s deep voice instructed the instant he rounded the corner. “My yoke lost a pin on the way in and I must repair it before I can continue. I need you to take over.”
Shoving his hands more deeply into his tunic pockets, Kaelan let his eyes dart to each corner of the barn. Seeing no escape, he shrugged and stepped towards another yoke of oxen. Without a word, he grasped the reins and drove them from the stall towards the west field.
The sky radiated a bright, rich blue and the sun beamed cheerily as he walked behind his team, but he didn’t even look up. A pheasant whirring from behind a nearby stand of bushes elicited a brief half grin, but he pulled his gaze back to the oxen before him. He had a long day ahead of him. Inattention wouldn’t get it over with any sooner. Even if he did relish the thought of pheasant hunting.
The rows seemed only to lengthen, and he grew hungrier as the morning wore on. It seemed an age before the sun reached its zenith and he could turn the oxen back toward their stalls once more.
Arriving at the second barn, he loosened the yoke, slipped it off the oxen, and rubbed his hand along their shoulders to smooth out the creases the wood had left. Opening the stall gate, he allowed each ox to enter before shutting it once more. They had plenty of water available. At least Father had seen to that. He wouldn’t have to wrestle with the buckets before eating, anyway.
When he opened the house door, a mixed aroma of sweet potatoes, boiled carrots, and rye bread greeted him. Laelara had just stooped to pull the bread off the fire, and his mother was setting an earthen pot on the table. “Kelton, Kethin, Liliora,” Mother called.
Three young children boisterously crowded into the room. “Carrots?” Liliora questioned, clambering up on the bench.
“I want two sweet potatoes,” Kelton asserted, peeping into the pot. “Where’s Father?”
“He should be coming,” Mother replied. “Kaelan, sit down.”
Moments later, Father stepped through the door and joined his family at the table. He nodded to Mother. “Thank you, Kavaenia. Let us bless the name of Adon Olam,” he added, lifting his face to the ceiling.
Kaelan joined in wholeheartedly, crossing his hands over his heart and closing his eyes as he raised his head.
“May the gracious wisdom and kindness of Adon Olam light our path. May His favor be upon us, for we bless His name. So be it, even so.”
“Even so,” echoed his family, lowering their heads and beginning upon the meal.
“How goes the plowing, Bronwyn?” Mother asked Father.
“Slowly,” he replied. “I am still carving a pin for the prime ox-yoke, but Kaelan took over the west field for me.”
“That is good. We are low on sweet potatoes already.” Mother placed some carrots on Liliora’s plate. “With Kaelan’s help, we should have enough next year to last until the following harvest.”
“Even with it, we are behind time,” Father replied. “I could certainly use another plowman. I wish the apprentices didn’t demand such atrocious wages nowadays.”
Mother nodded. “It’s as it is,” she stated quietly. “But I can help you plow. I have done my share of ox-work when needed.”
Father’s mouth twisted. “I wish you didn’t have to,” he began slowly, “but Kaelan and I can’t very well handle any more ourselves.” He paused, then nodded. “I’m sure Laelara and Kelton can manage things in the house for one afternoon.”
Kaelan said nothing. He filled his plate and began eating. Sure, he enjoyed sweet potatoes as much as his brothers did, but farming wasn’t his thing. He chewed his bread as his imagination, fueled by storybooks, ran rampant. He pictured leading peasants or exploring new lands—perhaps the forests beyond the West Taernan Hills—for who knew what else there was to be discovered in their world? But that mattered little; what did the country care for new lands? Time would be better spent alleviating the severe poverty that was becoming an epidemic in the area, particularly in the capital city of Syorien. The Elliths weren’t the only family low on sweet potatoes.
But sweet potatoes weren’t the problem, Kaelan thought restlessly. Of course people had to eat, but one must do more than eat to enjoy life. He glanced across the table to find Laelara staring at him, a slight frown creasing her usually smooth forehead.
He shook his head slightly and returned to his meal. Better not waste time daydreaming again today. He ought to enjoy his meal while he could. He probably wouldn’t have another chance to sit down this afternoon. Fighting poverty was never easy, yet Kaelan couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t some better way to go about the battle.
And it wasn’t just the poverty. For many years, no field or barn had been secure from boothalers—the thieves, freebooters, poachers, and outlaws. Lawlessness ran rampant, even in the small community of Frydael. News from Syorien was even worse. Kaelan frowned again. He didn’t know whether to be glad he didn’t live there or wish he was there where there was more excitement—and where he was more needed.
Kaelan finished his bread, downed some water, pressed his hat over his forehead, and headed back outside. At least he wasn’t compelled to stay indoors as many people were. The traveling merchants said it was becoming necessary in some places of Syorien. Farming had that advantage, at any rate.
As he walked behind the oxen that afternoon, Kaelan’s mood lifted. He scarcely noticed his mother approach the barn and head to one of the north fields with another team. He whistled as he turned into the furrow, still pondering the floundering condition of the capital city and the entire country of Taerna. But what could be done about it when he had to work night and day to keep food in his family’s mouth?
As he walked, Trentyn from the neighboring farm passed on the road, waved, and crossed the field to join him.
“Have you heard?” He fell into step with Kaelan.
“News has come from the capital.”
“Bad news, of course?” Kaelan sighed.
Trentyn frowned. “What else has there ever been? King Thaerre has taken another girl—stolen her, mind you, and has no apparent intentions of marrying her. And he doesn’t care who knows it.”
Kaelan’s hand clenched around the plow handle. “Desperate for an heir, as ever,” he commented, “and not granted by Adon Olam any success yet.”
“He has daughters here and there, they say,” Trentyn reminded him. “But not granted anything by Adon Olam, certainly. I have never heard of either king even so much as mention His name.”
“And why would Adon Olam grant him anything when he has always snatched everything for himself that he ever wanted?” Kaelan returned, a trifle bitterly. He slapped the plow handle and stood his ground as the oxen stumbled slightly to the left. Trentyn paused to wait for him to continue.
“Speak not against the kings,” Trentyn urged gently, again matching his strides to Kaelan’s.
“It would not be half so bad if they were not dragging the entire country with them and permitting lawlessness to be rampant and even normal,” Kaelan complained, turning the oxen as they reached the end of the furrow and began on the next. He slapped a gnat away from his face.
“Pleasure is a difficult taskmaster,” Trentyn observed thoughtfully, “and one that people do not mind submitting to. Most don’t even realize that it is their master. Once they are enslaved to pleasure, it deceives them into believing that they control their own lives.”
Both continued in silence for several paces. Kaelan brooded on Trentyn’s words, then turned his thoughts to Trentyn’s younger brother. Was it possible that it had been several weeks since he’d seen him? “How’s Ristael?” Kaelan asked.
Trentyn sighed. “No good news there either, I fear. He’s more and more enamored with the misses of Frydael Local. Plus he’s set on the gold dig in the West Taernan Hills. Wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a break for it before long. He might take one of the girls with him—wouldn’t surprise me.”
Kaelan scowled and pushed the plow on. “What happened? He used to be just like us.”
“His heart betrayed him.”
Kaelan remembered Ristael building fortresses in the woods with them as children and enthusiastically quoting the words of Adon Olam. He remembered their childish secret plans for improving their town. An ache tugged at his chest, but he put it out of his mind. He wouldn’t let his heart betray him as Ristael had.
“Tell him I miss him,” Kaelan said finally, hoping that didn’t sound too sappy.
“I will,” Trentyn promised. “One day the land will see better days.”
“Nothing is to be done while we wear away our lives in the sweet potato fields.” Kaelan groaned as he gazed longingly over the distant hills.
“There may be more done here than you think,” Trentyn said with a smile. “But I must return to my fields ere the day wears away. Just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“Thank you for the news,” Kaelan called after him as Trentyn departed across the rows the way he had come.
Kaelan fell to musing darkly over the tidings from Syorien. It was nothing unusual; the same news had arrived many times before. Still, it seemed more sickening each time it came. Would the kings stop at nothing? King Daemien was no better in that regard than his brother King Thaerre. Kaelan felt sure that the state of the country was directly due to the governance of the kings.
The oxen stumbled out of the row, yanking Kaelan’s wandering thoughts back to the present. He might be saving the world in his imagination, but the sweet potato field still begged to be plowed. He jerked the reins back hard. Silly oxen. What could sweet potatoes do against the increasing societal darkness?
Kaelan plowed steadily until the sun touched the top of the western hills, then turned towards the barn, his leg muscles aching despite his athleticism. Just before he slammed the stall door behind the oxen, he noticed that the second yoke was still missing. Inside the house, he plunged his hands and face in the water basin.
“Where’s Mother?” Laelara called, stirring soup over the fire.
“I haven’t seen her,” Kaelan replied absently, his mind still fixed upon the events of Syorien.
Laelara replied, but Kaelan did not hear her. Throughout supper, he continued silent. His parents did not come in.
At the same moment that Kaelan moved his spoon to scrape the last bit of soup from his bowl, a frightened shout drifted from the direction of the barns. Kaelan started, then leapt to his feet and out the door.
“What is it?” he called as he approached the barn.
Father appeared at the barn door. “Kavaenia…” he faltered. “Your mother…she’s ill.”