Ama pushed a lock of grey hair into her prim bun. “Any sign of him yet, Bean?”
The young man working in her cottage yard stood straight, wiping sweat from his brow with thick, callused fingers. “No, Mame Ama. He isn’t there… just like the ten times before.”
She flapped the apron at her waist and dispersed the chickens before her, tired eyes still focused on the lonely road. “I’m sorry, Bean… This whole affair must have me more flustered than I’ve realized.”
Bean watched the tall and lanky woman turn her attention back to the hens, then finish shooing them away from the troughs alongside the cottage. “You, of all people, needn’t apologize to me today, Mame Ama!”
Ama nodded squatting down to collect the exposed eggs in the straw. “A fair point, Bean… But I know it weighs heavy upon you too.”
The stout young man shook his head and looked down to the uncut pile of wood to his side.
Ama finished collecting the eggs into the basin her apron and ankle-length skirt formed between long thighs. She rose and winced, then straightened herself slowly.
Raising his hatchet, Bean split a log. “I should try my hand at building you a rope-bed, Mame. I bet it’s far gentler than your mattress alone.”
“That’s very kind of you, but what I have is better than the table I was used to,” Ama said in a voice that retained a young sweetness while her pained expression faded. “Let’s see how I feel about the idea after everything is concluded… Or, if I… still feel anything at all.”
Bean looked up sad-eyed, having tossed the split log into the pile of cut wood to his right. Watching Ama stride with practical grace, her worn hands then gently transferred the eggs from a gathered apron into a small basket sitting on the trough.
“Don’t talk like that,” Bean said in his clear baritone.
The willowy, middle-aged woman patted her beige apron free of feathers, straw and grit. “It could happen, Bean. You know that.”
With a slow nod, Bean withdrew his eyes from her and returned them to the uncut wood by his boots. As his thick frame bent down and hefted a knobby log out of the pile, Ama caught sight of the apple tree in full blossom far behind him. The creases of her face lifted into a smile as she watched its white blooms wave above a fallow field.
“Only the Gods know what shall come for certain, Bean. However, be it my last day or not, at least it’s beautiful!”
“I would rather never see this day come at all,” the young man grumbled regarding the knobby log he held.
Ama looked back, retaining her smile as he traced a finger over a barkless portion of the log’s surface. “Thinking it too poor for old Greywacke’s cord?”
Bean turned before shaking his head. “Actually, I though it might carve into a good mate for the other owl.”
She sighed with kind eyes, then looked to the wooden owl resting beside her cottage door. “You know I would love another, but they’ll fetch a good price if you sell them for coin!”
Bean rolled the knobby log to the side, then tucked thick thumbs over the belt and brown trousers above his hipless waist.
“Thank you, Mame.”
Ama spent another moment admiring the detail of his carving, then turned back with a warm smile lacking several teeth on her weathered face. “You’re very talented, there isn’t a carpenter alive that wouldn’t at least give you journeyman’s work!”
Bean’s flushed cheeks dropped down as he looked to his russet boots without a word.
Ama gently shook her head and the grey bun that adorned it while she walked toward him. “Oh come now, Bean! Don’t be embarrassed. You know your hands are meant for finer things than tilling the land for some spinster like me!”
He grabbed a different log from the deadwood pile and placed it on the chopping block. “You know that’s not it… Well, not all of it.”
Ama nodded and sighed. “Bean please, we’ve already discussed this, it’s too late to —”
“—What you are bearing in my stead is more than I can ever repay, Mame! I don’t know if I can live with the debt I’ll owe to your sacrifice anymore than I can bear Macule’s extortion!”
The woman’s brown eyes narrowed as she came to a stop an arms reach from the young man. “I’d rather bear Macule’s contract than see your life cut short.”
Bean lifted the hatchet with a growl and shattered the log on the block into halves with an angry swipe. “It’s all damned sorcery and demon princes!”
Ama stood looking at the hatchet he left embedded deep into the chopping block. “I agree that it’s unjust. But the greater injustice would be to see you stripped of the full life the Gods intend for you.”
“I’m not worth it,” Bean said looking to the rangy woman with damp eyes on his broad, stubbly face.
She shook her head. “Yes you are, Bean.”
“How can you say that, Mame Ama? I’m just a landless man now with no family to claim, or coins in his pocket!”
Ama looked down at her veiny hands and rubbed them. “Maybe, maybe it’s because my own choices were taken long ago from me, Bean. I wanted to escape this cottage when I was a girl no older than you, but I was the only child ever born on Haricot Farm. My place at my parent’s side until the end was clear. Even as I may have hated the boundaries of their selions, I wouldn’t abandon them. Now that they are gone, this prison is all I have.”
The young man clasped his strong hands around Ama’s fingers and looked up to meet the gaze of the woman who was half-a-head taller than he was. “I could run. I could leave right now.”
She drew in a breath and shook her head at his unexpected touch. “Wanted men seldom come to happy ends, Bean. I want these hands of yours to be carving wood and to be bound to some young flower that deserves their affection. Don’t make me see them grasping at a noose!”
Bean nodded and slumped, letting his hands slip from hers. Turning from Ama so that she wouldn’t see, he then wiped an eye with a callused finger.
“There was no purpose to my remaining days before this, Bean. Let Macule take his ten-thousand! They serve a greater end being surrendered to him and granting you the freedom to live than they would to me, tilling them into the ground.”
Bean’s slumped shoulders straightened with his back still to the thin woman behind him. “I will live twice the life to honor you, Mame Ama.”
“Now that will make me happy!” She said patting him on the back.
The stout man began to turn, but stopped short catching sight of the lonely road that led to the cottage farm. “He’s here.”
Ama tensed and balled her hands into fists. “Hence why we shouldn’t speak a devil’s name.”
The wagon path winding between the acres of peasant farmland was sunken with age, but the trench with its occasional roadside trees was not enough to obscure Macule bobbing along atop his horse. Turning a corner he came into full view a hundred yards from the pair. The lord’s exciseman black attire was in sharp contrast to the white gelding beneath him.
Bean began a gruff walk down the path to the road wearing a scowl and Ama let him get several paces ahead of her while she took a deep breath. She then made her way down the path behind him with long-legged strides beneath her dress.
Ama came to a stop beside Bean as they awaited the approaching horse, and with a sigh she brushed off the wood chips clinging to the rough twill of his green jerkin. Made self-conscious by the woman’s preening, he re-laced and straightened the linen sleeves of the shirt underneath the buttoned jerkin just before the animal came to a stop before them.
Macule dismounted his white steed, and as soon as the soles of his riding boots touched the ground he turned back to unstrap a large satchel of cracked leather the color of brandy. With loathing, Bean recognized the satchel as the one that always accompanied the tax man during his assessments. There were few in the county that didn’t dread the sight of the thing… or the King’s Ledger that most certainly rested within.
Slipping the bag’s strap over his shoulder, Macule turned to face the pair with a pinched face. “Mame Ama.”
Ama interlaced her fingers and placed them on her thin waist as she regarded the exciseman. His matching black doublet and pleated trousers were spotless and fastened by brass buttons.
“And… Marn Bean, ” Macule coolly smiled while tilting the slightest of nods to the dour expression on the young man’s face. “I trust you are both well and affairs are prepared?”
The woman gave a nod to the local lord’s agent. “I’m ready to enter into your contract, once the other papers are signed and witnessed.”
“Of course, of course, and I have everything ready for the quill,” Macule replied straightening the black wool capelet he had bound into a chaperon style hat upon his head.
Ama’s eyes narrowed as the liripipe of Macule’s hat dangled languidly to one side. “Good. Let’s end this business at my table.”
The man in black smirked, rubbing the palms of his riding gloves while surveying the yard of Ama’s thatched-roofed cottage. “Let us, indeed. ”
Looking to Bean first, Ama then turned her back to Macule and started up the path to her home. Before the young man could do the same, Macule snatched his horse’s lead and thrust it at him.
“Go hitch Alabaster to something better than a fencepost. If he gets loose or there is a spot of your filth on him, know that you’ll pay a price!”
Glowering at the command, Bean left Macule standing with the lead outstretched. The hefty man’s sideways glance caught sight of Ama looking back to him with a hard, pleading look before he snatched the leather thong from Macule’s gloved fingers.
Ama saw Macule’s grin before she turned away to hide her scowl.
The exciseman matched Ama’s stature walking up behind her. Under his chaperon, his close cropped hair was the color of bone above a face becoming lined with age.
“He is a rude boy, isn’t he?”
Ama opened the weathered door to her cottage. “He’s a man of twenty winters, Master Macule… and his civility is astounding given the company of hissing adders.”
Macule glared at the back of Ama’s head as she stepped over the threshold and into the building. With a crinkled nose he observed the loose rush and sweet grass strewn just inside her doorway, then forced himself to enter.
“You know where the table is,” Ama said moving toward the low red embers of her hearth.
The soles of Macule’s riding boots left a trail in the hewn straw upon the hardpacked, earthen floor as he strode his way toward the center of the room. “The odor within your hovel is… almost pleasant, Mame Ama. Do you have a secret?”
The grey haired woman grabbed a log from the pile stacked neatly beside the stone masonry of her chimney. “Merely open windows, sweet grass and lavender.”
Macule paused to mentally tally the value of the hearth and chimney as Ama stoked the fire, then concluded the asset was easily the most valuable in the cottage.
The ground floor was a single large room illumed by the hearth-fire and shafts of daylight pouring from five unshuttered windows. Macule passed through the beams of light approaching the long wooden table in the middle, stepping onto the rectangular mat of woven rush it rested on removing a glove.
“You’ll need to shutter the windows before we attend to business.”
Ama slipped a final log onto the coals. “The one-hundred selions of woodland between us and Greywacke’s farm should be concealment enough.”
The exciseman narrowed his eyes and removed another glove. “Not in my opinion.”
“As you wish it, then.” Ama sighed straightening herself up from the hearth.
Macule carefully placed his brandy-colored satchel down on the rough planks of the table as Ama stood on the patch of earthen floor carefully swept clear of straw by the fire. While Macule unbuttoned the clasp of his bag, she looked to the rocking chair in the corner beside her that Bean had crafted. Its empty seat evoked another sigh as she realized that she may never read the Solanic Hymnals within it again.
She walked toward the pair of windows flanking the cottage door with the brown skirt at her ankles barely clearing the scattered rushes. Reaching the open window Ama stretched her legs and aching knees to reach through the open portal that had framed the sunrise earlier in the day, and pulled its shutter closed.
“Go ahead and arrange your things on the table, Master Macule. I want this over with as much as you do.”
The man in black nodded under his chaperon, then placed his riding gloves inside his leather bag. “I have the pardon of debt ready to be signed. Marn Bean need only sign it with an ‘X’… Or whatever he can manage.”
Ama looked out the open doorway on her way to the other window beside it. Her glance found Bean walking gruffly up the path. She motioned him to hurry before shoving the hen resting on the unshuttered window sill outside.
“Bean can sign his name, Macule.”
The young man entered the room as Macule pulled the stubby cylinder of a brass inkwell out of his bag. “Well, that’s impressive!”
Bean slammed the door, startling the exciseman before the small container clattered onto the tabletop. The stout man gave a nod to the evil look Macule tossed at him.
Ama closed the second window, leaving the room darker. “He’s a clever one.”
Macule turned back to his satchel on the table and removed a handful of goose quills. “Then appearances truly can be deceptive…”
Ama ducked under several hanging bundles of lavender and walked toward the window opposite the hearth. “Bean, can you close the other windows please? I’ll fetch a few candles from the chest before we have no light at all.”
Macule reached into the satchel and withdrew his sheathed quill knife, pausing to admire its exquisite handle of black yew bogwood as Bean passed the table. The young man had walked behind the railed stairs that led to the loft above, reaching the open shutters before the soft drop and roll of candles came from the tabletop.
“You needn’t bother with the stink of tallow, Mame Ama. Just bring a flame for my beeswax wicks.”
“I’ll bring it,” a gruff baritone voice said as a shutter was closed.
“Thank you, Bean,” Ama said looking to the open north window above the chest. She then glanced down to the simple offerings and figures of her household altar arranged atop the container.
Bending her long frame carefully and awkwardly so as to not disturb the altar, Ama grasped the latch by her fingertips after several tries, but in pulling the shutter closed she heard the sound of rolling clay figurines. Looking down she found her apron dragging across the chest and leaving toppled Gods in its wake. She stifled a curse as the last open window was closed, bringing a dusty darkness.
Ama peered through the poor light only broken by fingers of daylight seeping through shuttered windows. With shaking hands she straightened the sparse altar to the Seven Gods and whispered a prayer as she returned the clay idol of Aeanna to its proper place. Begging the Goddess to calm her racing heart, Ama rose to join Macule at the table.
Macule was busy placing papers on the tabletop as Ama reached the table. Bean joined her a moment later, his broad face illuminated by a burning splinter he had lit upon the hearth fire under Ama’s hanging cook-pot. He carefully lowered the improvised wick as Ama lifted the beeswax candles, lighting them under Macule’s cold gaze.
Bean licked his thick fingers and extinguished the splinter before tossing it into the hearth flames paces away from the table. The candles provided enough light for Ama to read some of the papers Macule had already placed on the tabletop. She had expected them to be dry and formal sentences, and they were. They lacked the beauty of the stanzas found in her great aunt’s girdle book of poetry… Or the excitement of her beloved copy of Januviel’s Dissertation of the Ozmanaic Uprising that lived in her precious library of four titles.
Macule slapped a palm down and swept the papers from Ama’s sight, startling her as he smirked. He then dropped the heavy tax ledger of Lord Suldur and the king of Ehtrus upon the cleared space with a bang that even made Bean flinch.
The pair watched the exciseman open the thick book and flip though the parchment pages until he came to a ribbon bookmark within. Laying the book flat and open on the tabletop, he looked up to them. “I’ll attend to this bit first.”
Macule reached over and grabbed the black bogwood handle of his quill knife. Removing the leather sheath covering its blade, he then slid its razor edge slowly down the ledger’s paper crevice with a practiced hand. Done in moments, Macule put the knife down and extracted a page with a gentle, experienced tug that left the book looking untampered.
He handed the page to Ama. “You may burn this.”
The woman looked down at the parchment labeled Haricot Farm. Running a trembling finger down the ledger page, she touched its descending numbers scrawled in red. Then Ama looked to Macule and crushed the paper into a wad.
“That’s it? Nothing more than that?”
Macule nodded coolly. “You may consider your debts of estate owed to the king and his Lordship, overlooked…And I will forget them entirely after you enter into the contract.”
Ama looked at the ball of crumpled parchment scowling, then crushed it further before tossing it halfway across the room to be consumed in the flames of her hearth.
She turned back to the exciseman hard-eyed. “Good. Now Bean’s pardon of debt.”
Macule nodded and sorted through the loose papers to his side as Bean put a heavy hand on Ama’s wrist. “You don’t have to do this. I can still enter into the contract instead, as he intended originally.”
Looking up from a sheet of parchment, Macule smiled. “He’s telling the truth you know! I might expect the fullest return of my investment with a young man like Marn Bean.”
Ama shook her head firmly. “No, Bean… This is my choice.”
The tax collector unscrewed the lid of his cylindrical traveling inkwell. “I truly don’t care which one of you enters into the contract, but here is the pardon.”
Ama turned to face the grinning Macule across the table. Her rangy arm reached over and plucked the parchment from his hand, then laid it flat on the table in front of Bean.
Macule brushed the dangling liripipe of his hat to the side. “Just have him sign his chicken scratch to it and then you can do the same as witness, Mame Ama.”
Ignoring the exciseman’s request, Bean sat down on the bench beside the table and began to laboriously read the document in the candlelight. Ama stood over his substantial shoulders, explaining the occasional word as Macule first sighed, then pursed his lips.
Moments accumulated into minutes, and Macule began to arrange his feathered writing quills into neat alignment on the table. Eventually he found a quill whose point did not meet muster in his eyes, and he sharpened it between impatient glances with his knife. Finally, Macule resorted to a hard stare and rapping fingers on the tabletop.
“I had it signed by Lord Suldur in the manor hall, you know! Given the debts involved on the Bean farm, it wasn’t a clemency that was easily obtained… even with the confiscation!”
Ama motioned Bean to keep reading, then looked Macule square in the eye above the candles. “I’d rather put an adder in my bed than have Bean sign a paper we didn’t read and understand. Particularly from you! ”
Macule bristled at the comment. “Those negotiations left a stain on my reputation! I’ve done him a great favor!”
A few more minutes passed before Bean nodded and signed the document under Lord Suldur’s elaborate scrawl. As soon as Ama penned her name as witness in neat light strokes, Macule snatched the paper with a roll of his eyes. He then raised an eyebrow at Bean’s clear if heavy handwriting, bringing a smile to the woman that taught him to write.
Ama dipped a hand between her apron and chemise. Withdrawing a folded sheet of brown linen ragpaper, she handed it to the exciseman. “I’ve deeded the cottage and acres to you as we had bartered. I doubt it reads as well as your handiwork, but the intent should be clear enough. I had Bean witness it already.”
Macule unfolded the paper and was greeted by Ama’s tidy, airy script. His eyes scanned the document for a minute before looking up. “It reads fine. So fine in fact that I think I could put you to work as an amanuensis… if I were so inclined.”
Ama gave a slow nod to Macule’s crumb of flattery. “My mother taught me a skill that has mostly been an idle one, but thank you. You’ll note the part where the deed goes into effect upon my death, not before. If I survive today, you’ll need to wait out whatever time I have left.”
Folding the ragpaper deed into a tight square, Macule smiled as he placed it into his leather satchel. “I do believe I will be able to afford that wait soon enough. ”
Bean bit his tongue and stood as he looked away from the man in black. Creasing the pardon into a strip, he slipped it under his jerkin before Ama touched his hand and smiled.
“That’s it, Bean. Now you’re free.”
The young man shook his head. “I’ll never be free of the burden of this day, Mame Ama.”
Macule withdrew a wad of wrapped cloth twice the size of a fist from his bag and placed it on the tabletop. He next retrieved a small, square decanter of cut crystal from the satchel… whose swirling contents glowed like a lantern of blue luminescence.
Ama eyed the decanter warily and tilted her head in the weird blue light. “What is it?”
“That is a key ingredient of our contract,” Macule replied brushing back the liripipe of his chaperon.
Bean furrowed the brow of his broad face. “Sorcery. Sorcery and demon princes!”
Macule picked up the wadded bundle beside the glowing decanter and started to untie the cloth knot at its top. “The oil was the only missing component for the ritual amongst Jodus’ possessions when I confiscated that debtor’s property for Lord Suldur. Doubtlessly, acquiring it was far beyond the old hedge wizard’s means given the time, expense and secrecy I had to invest in procuring it myself…”
…The next chapter of A Contract in Azure and Indigo, Sorcery and Demon Princes, will be be posted on Saturday, April 9th.
Copyright © 2016 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.