You can find Chapters 1-4 in the tab up top, Aiden’s War – http://jm-harrison.com/aidens-war
Chapter Three – the broker
They didn’t speak of it again, and Aiden tried to put it out of mind. He had other anticipations to look forward to. Knowing that his father didn’t want Krysta unceremoniously put out of the house gave him a measure of relief and another measure of courage to do something about it. He wondered why his parents didn’t just talk to one another. Maybe they had. He didn’t know.
He slept thinking of Jaelith, and finally crossing the rill to spend a few blissful hours with her, collecting blossoms. It didn’t even matter that he was expected to have Krysta along with him. He could keep an eye on her that way. He thought she might run off rather than face the prospect of being married to someone she didn’t care for or even know. The day held the promise of a dream come true and he finally drifted off with that in mind.
Morning came with all the usual noises. The birds announced the morning first, and then the bugs started droning, followed by the animals from the barn and further afield. The roosters gave it their full voice. Sleeping through all that wasn’t possible, even though he tried for a few moments until he woke up enough to remember.
He threw off the covers, rushed to get dressed, and then hurried to get out of the house. He stuffed in a biscuit smeared with jam and was out the door. No one but Krysta understood the hurry. He had to get the plow into town to Smithy, who would repair the broken tine or not, but hopefully so, run another errand his mother asked of him and get back to the house before midday. He had to help his father in the fields for an hour or two, clean up, meet Jaelith and then somehow stop a much older man from taking his sister away.
“All in a day’s work,” he said to the draft horse as he finished connecting all the harness parts required to keep the cart attached to the animal. “Two days in one, more like.”
He led the horse out of the barn into growing sun, climbed onto the plank that doubled as a seat and started. The trip took quite some time, nearly an hour of jostling along on a rutted track that once it broke out of the shade of trees lining either side, turned into a warming, insect filled slog. The bugs flying every which way were locally known as silkas and they filled the morning air with a constant buzz. This year’s brood was especially prolific, he’d heard, and seeing the finger long insects flapping from one tree to the next, or occasionally diving down to get entangled in the horses swishing tail, he believed the stories of the nine year plague.
Smithy took the tine and repaired it, gratefully accepting Aiden’s assistance with the shop’s records. Tax time was coming. Lord Rothrin was a reasonable overlord, or at least most held him in high esteem. They said he was a fair enough manager, but still, the taxes had to be paid. Aiden had done a reasonable job of setting Smithy’s accounts in order the last time, a few months ago, and found them in fairly good standing. He got the tine mended for the trouble and his dagger sharpened, so it was a fair trade.
Aiden picked up a run of fabric from the dress shop, sliding a few coppers across the counter for the embroidered white cotton. He guessed it was for Krysta and the meeting with her supposed intended. He wasn’t comfortable helping with that endeavor in any way, but he took the fabric, stuffing it into a sack and threw it into the back of the wagon beside the fixed plow. He made Bucky, the horse, run at a plodding trot to make up some time.
The hours in the field plodded by too, like the horse. Bucky didn’t like being flicked on the rump with the plow strapped on, and Aiden’s father didn’t like it that Aiden was trying to rush the job. And so the sun rose high in the sky, tracking shadows on the dirt rows that horse and plow made into the earth. Finally, his father let him go, biting back a smile even as Aiden handed over the long rein and took off like an arrow.
“Don’t be late for dinner,” his father called after him.
Aiden didn’t answer, wishing he could skip the entire ordeal, concentrating instead on getting back to the house, cleaning up in the large trough of water behind the barn and then impatiently wait for Krysta to get unpinned from the white dress their mother was fitting. He made some excuse about getting her help picking berries down by the rill, snatched up two reed baskets and dragged her out of the house in a rush.
“Don’t be late for dinner.”
“We won’t be,” Aiden called back, nudging Krysta to move down the lane.
“You see that she’s home in time to change. Krysta, I’ll have the dress ready. It’s going to be…nice.”
Krysta snorted under her breath, but their mother didn’t hear it. Aiden watched her, noting the glowering frown and nudged her again. “They’re just trying to sort out what’s the best thing to do. They’re worried about us and how we’re going to manage, but I don’t think either of them really want this to happen.”
“It’s easy for you to say that, until you’re the one with all your belongings packed and ready to go – just in case. They seem serious enough to me.”
“Well, they aren’t. They’re frightened, and they’re getting old, Krysta. This is because of Calen and Forb, things we can’t change. Listen, I don’t want you to lose your temper tonight. That won’t help.”
“I’m not going back, Aiden.”
“Oh and where do you think you’re going to go? You have to come back. You’re going to pretend that you know nothing about how to do wifely things, like cook and clean, and I’m going to do my best to convince this man he really shouldn’t take you. If, after that, he still says he has to have you, then we’ll talk about getting you out of reach of him.”
“Do you really think that will work?” she asked, her eyes full of fear. He’d never seen her afraid before.
“I’m going to make sure of it,” he said and tried to sound certain.
She nodded finally as they neared the last hill that crested above the rill. She hugged her arms as she walked and shook her head. “I never thought of being a burden to them,” she said, glancing at him.
“You aren’t. Father knows about the hunting. He knows more than he lets on, about everything. They aren’t thinking clearly right now. Maybe they can’t. They never should have gone to the Broker, or maybe she was the one to go to them because she saw how many girls there are. They don’t know how to get out of it, so it’s up to us to help them. Play along tonight and you’ll see. We’ll drive this poor man away in terror of ever having you for a wife.”
She wanted to laugh, but fear had too strong a grip on her mind. She managed a nod. Aiden reached to stop her and tugged on a lock of red. “It’s just—”
“I’m not going to let this happen.”
He meant it to the core of his being. This was what being eldest meant. It was his responsibility to help his parents and keep their family whole. He knew if Calen or Forb were here they wouldn’t allow it, and so neither would he.
But then life changed again, with a kind of abrupt violence that stole breath and darkened light in one moment.
A flock of birds exploded from the treetops along the line of the rill. The clash and clang of metal against metal broke the peace of a day full of promise. The idea that a place free of war and strife existed in any of the Four Realms was forever shattered. The alarmed cry of a woman pierced the air and froze his heart.