I was only going to use the first chapter of my father’s book, The Children of Omm: The Unmaking of the Worm, when I ran this sneak peek, because I’m one of those who believes a little nibble is more enticing than a full feast, which is why I don’t run a lot of sneak peeks of my own Works in Progress (also because I hate blogging, but whatevs). However, I’m also a big believer in letting the work speak for itself and I cannot do my father’s Voice justice unless you also get a peek at the second chapter, in which the reader actually meets the future heroes: Chemnat and Colnor, the two princes whose quest to reclaim their kingdom from the Worm’s coils is kinda sorta the whole point of the first book. Not the series, I feel I ought to add; the series spans whole lifetimes of Men and Elves (and Dwarves? I think there are Dwarves in the third book). The Unmaking of the Worm is Natty and Nori’s tale; the Curse of Cancr belongs to Delany and Matian, and I don’t know yet whose story is spun out in the third installment, only that it won’t be either of those that came before.
All of this is my way of saying that, although the differences in writing style are apparent in each of the previous three sections, Introduction, Prologue and Chapter One, the other parts of the book featuring the heroes as young boys is even more different, and I’d like to show it off. So here is Chapter Two, in its entirety. Yes, you read that right. Unlike a certain author whose name I resemble, my father is the very source of brevity when need be and if a chapter is only five pages long, so be it.
CHAPTER TWO: The Cottage
The boys awoke amid a pile of pillows and blankets, each in the bottom of a basket that bumped and jostled at the sides of the donkey, Djolli, trotting along after Cable. However, this exciting discovery only held their attention for bare minutes—just until they decided that they were hungry. Cable set them down next to a spring that bubbled merrily out of the ground. He pointed out that there were no fancy toilet facilities there and sent them to a nearby clump of bushes. Then he told them to wash in the spring. This was accompanied by much splashing and giggling, and when they were done, the boys were more wet than dry and huddled shivering in woolen cloaks, wide-eyed and looking around them at the forest.
Breakfast was a much-wrinkled brown apple and spice cakes. “Enjoy them, dears,” Hannah told them. “There won’t be any more for a while, I’m afraid.”
“Why?” Chemnat asked. He was four, and ‘Why?’ was his favorite question.
“Because,” Colnor replied authoritatively. He was five and knew everything. (This is my favorite line in the whole book–RLee Smith) But furrows soon appeared in his forehead. ”Yeah, why, Momma Hannah?” he asked in turn.
“Because we are off on a camping trip,” Hanna answered calmly, “and we get to eat camping food.”
The boys continued to look puzzled, so Cable explained, “You’ll find that it’s great stuff. He smiled conspiratorially. “We get to eat what we catch, and cook over a campfire and other neat things.”
“There will be no campfires for a while, though.” Hannah cautioned. “We will be eating cold for a week or so.”
“Why?” Chemnat asked.
And so it went. The boys would not hear of getting back in the baskets and insisted on walking, but their short legs did not carry them far. Soon they were sitting, Chemnat on Djolli between the baskets and Colnor in the saddle on Pesky, the Pony.
“Why can’t I ride the pony?” Chemnat whined.
“Because I’m bigger, and bigger boys need to ride bigger horses,” Colnor explained matter-of-factly to his younger brother. But Chemnat wasn’t arguing very hard. Djolli seemed plenty big enough to him whose biggest ride to date had been the wooden rocking horse inhabiting a corner of their nursery.
Long before the boys awoke that morning, Hannah had led their company by a little-known pathway through the edge of the wood thick with brush and saplings into the deep woods by the light of a small candle lantern. Three of the sides had been covered with opaque material allowing only a narrow beam of light to go before them in order to prevent any watcher who might have been posted on the outer walls to note their entry into the forest. Daylight had brought them into tall trees with very little undergrowth interspersed with streams and wide, grassy meadows. They rested at one of these in the afternoon and ate something dry and tasteless as dust, which Momma Hannah called travel bread and which was a far cry from the sugar cookies they were more accustomed to, with a morsel of hard, nutty-tasting cheese and a handful of raisins to complete the meal. Soon they were once again on the move.
When they finally stopped, it was after nightfall at a rather rustic hunter’s camp composed of four mud-chinked log walls covered with thatch with an open space where a door would have gone if there had been one. A small fire pit inside and just enough floor space for a few bedrolls completed the available comforts. Through the door, moonlight glimmered on the surface of a wide beaver pond, in the center of which a large pile of mud and logs indicated the presence of the beaver family lodge.
The boys, who had alternately ridden, walked or slept the day away in their baskets, were anxious to explore. Since the walls of their shelter mostly hid the fire pit from prying eyes, Cable soon set about building a small fire. Momma Hannah rummaged about in the various packs for fixings to make their stay as pleasant as possible under the circumstances, all the while trying to impress them with a stern description of the wild and ferocious creatures that had once inhabited the fearsome woods and glades of the Fang ‘n Claw Forest. Her purpose, of course, had been to keep her charges from wandering away from the camp and it succeeded wonderfully.
A long arm of the Fang ‘n Claw (which began practically at the back door of the Columns Keep Castle) blanketed a line of rolling hills stretching north and west three hundred miles as the crow flies to Spring Hills where it joined the old forest lying east of the foothills of Craigot’s Tor. But here the land began imperceptibly to rise, each hill higher than the last until deciduous forests heavy with maple, alder, elm and oak yielded way to majestic sequoia, cedar, fir and hemlock reaching high to the craggy peaks above. There, snow covered the rocky pinnacle of Craigot’s Tor and the solitary snow leopard hunted the careless mountain goat while the giant teratorn surveyed its kingdom from where it hovered effortlessly above them in the heavens.
Wolves and the occasional bear were known to hunt these woods far from the habitations of men—even badgers and a variety of forest cats—but fiercer creatures had once haunted these woods, and then, men had been the prey. Although few records spoke of those days and the things that lurked in those ancient and eldritch forests—and no such books had been available to the young princes in their nursery at Columns Keep—legends told of creations older than Humans who lingered long after their evil masters had fallen in mighty struggles lost out of time. But if Momma Hannah watered down her tales for the ears of four and five year old boys, their imaginations and the darkness of the night supplied many of the more gruesome details her accounts glossed over, and neither boy ventured beyond the lintels of the cabin for any reason whatever without keeping a careful hold of Cable’s hand.
The following morning they breakfasted on beaver, which Cable had caught in a snare laid down during the night. After Momma Hannah loaded the last of the packs on their animals, she knelt down in front of her charges, and said, her eyes twinkling, “Colnor is such a stuffy name, much too stuffy a name for a camping trip. What shall we call you?”
Colnor looked up at her with alarm. He’d never given any thought to his name. He didn’t know what made a name stuffy, or why stuffy was bad, but Momma Hannah always knew best, so he looked at her anxiously and waited.
“I know,” she said, brightening. ”We’ll call you Nori; that’s such a nifty name.”
Colnor laughed with relief, and promptly forgot all about ever having had another.
Chemnat was making little jumping motions and whining, “What about me? What about me?”
“Yes, Mum. What about him?” asked Cable mock seriously, surreptitiously removing a bit of mita leaf from his tongue. “Whatever can you do with a name like Chemnat?”
“Why,” she answered him smartly, “we shall call him Natty, and if he’s not very good, we shall call him Naughty Natty.” She wrinkled up the end of her nose and touched his with her finger. “But we shall never have to call him that because he’s always very, very good.” She stood up. “Now, up on Djolli. Or would you rather walk first?” she asked.
“Walk,” cried Nori.
“Ride,” shouted Nattty, running to the burro.
And so began the second day of their camping trip, following a rough track that ran through the trees. Before long, however, Natty began to squirm. “Are we there yet?” he called plaintively.
Nori looked down at Cable walking beside Djolli and nodded his head vigorously in agreement.
Cable lifted one and then the other down. “That is not the way of grand adventures,” he told them expansively, as they rushed to the base of a nearby tree and began to pee. “Each day there are new things to see, squirrels to count, the sounds of the forest to learn and identify. Each night there is a camp to make and a story to tell. And the following day, it begins again.”
Natty returned and lifted his arms to Cable to be picked up. ”Besides,” Cable added, bending down to lift Nori onto Pesky’s back. “Where would you rather be?”
To this, neither boy had a ready answer.
“There, you see?” Hannah said. “All is just as it should be.”
And so the day continued, Cable pointing out the various small animals that stopped their work to chitter, chirp or whistle at the intruders into their daily occupations and telling them the stories he had heard at his mother’s knee. Hannah, of course, interrupted periodically with small embellishments or details he had forgotten. And so the days began to run together in one continuous and always pleasant now.
At first, Momma Hannah led them furtively, seeking to travel by terrain which would leave little for anyone to follow, with Cable frequently searching the back trail for signs of pursuit, but there was none. By the end of the second week, their bodies hardened to the rigors of the trail and the routines of camp life, the princes grew stronger and even Hannah could walk all day without tiring. They traveled more openly now, joining animal trails that took them westward through the forest bordering a southern tributary of the Gray River. The land continued its gradual rising, but though there were frequent showers, the weather was growing milder and green had come to be the dominant color. By the beginning of June, evergreen needles joined with the broadleaves on the forest floor and from the west, mountains could be seen to approach them whenever they crossed open meadowlands. Streams and rivers, meandering and calm in the lowlands, began to rush headlong and white down along the bottoms of the steeper valleys of the foothills.
Rough tracks and pathways that crossed their path from time to time gave indication of the sporadic presence of people and they caught occasional glimpses of villages through the trees, but still the group camped alone. As midsummer’s eve approached, it became plain even to the boys that they were approaching someplace well known to Momma Hannah. She began to name the streams and massive boulders they passed. Each individual peak that came into view as they ascended the valley floor she called by name, telling stories of the people who had once lived and died there.
By now their trail led them north, completely around the base of an unusually large mountain peak and up a steep meadow until, mounting a low saddle, they looked out east into the shadow of the mountains over a broad expanse of open, rolling hills where no forest grew, east and north as far as the eye could see. Cable took the pack animals several hundred paces off the trail to a shepherd’s cot, now standing empty. There they made camp for the night.
Early next morning, Hannah led her charges, still rubbing sleep from their eyes, to where they could look eastward to the rising sun. Sunlight had transformed the somber evening vista with glorious light. Below them lay a patchwork of hills marked here and there with crofts, each boasting a well or stream, houses and an assortment of outbuildings. Well-tended garden plots and pens for sheep, goats, chickens and pigs were everywhere in evidence. Smoke rose in thin, gray ribbons to the sky, and in that hazy distance small black dots went about their morning chores as they had for untold generations.
“Now we are home,” Hannah told them. “Come, let us make breakfast quickly and be off to the Cottage.”
It must not be imagined that this announcement seemed in any way odd to the boys. At Columns Keep, they had known only the nursery and the orchard where Momma Hannah had ruled their world and overseen their play. Until they attained the age of six, when tutors and arms masters would be chosen for them and their studies organized to fill their every waking hour with lessons, training, exercises and mindless tedium, they had no part to play in the affairs of the kingdom. Their task was simply to survive childhood. The King and Queen were much involved in affairs of state and only rarely saw their offspring. They had each other for playmate until their tutors and others placed in authority over them would choose regular companions for them and their education proper began in earnest. And so, although the castle was no longer in evidence, their home was with Momma Hannah and nothing had really changed by moving their place of residence four hundred miles by foot from the valley bottoms at Gray Waters to the foothills below Craigot’s Tor. Spring Hills was quite the same as Columns Keep to them. In a short time, following Cable’s example, the boys discontinued the appellation Momma Hannah, and simply called their caregiver Momma and later Mum.
What Hannah called the Cottage was actually its own world, as were most of the crofts established in those foothills. Built on the outside entirely of stone and timbers and lined with rough wood paneling inside, the family home boasted a large main living area, the back half dedicated to food preparation with a table and a large cooking hearth. The front half contained many chairs and two wooden couches, which often found use as a seat for the many visitors they received during the day and to sleep the occasional overnight guest. At need, they might also serve as a hospice bed for some little boy incautious enough to admit to a fever or a sniffle where Mum might hover over his every need and Cable dose him from the vast pharmacopoeia he kept in his room.
Two very large rooms led off from this main room. One was reserved for Hannah and contained, besides a large bed, a loom and spinning wheel. Additionally there were numerous tables and shelves laden with all those terribly interesting things forbidden to the curiosity and grubby fingers of small boys. And books—there were books everywhere. The other room belonged to Cable and, if anything, was larger than his mother’s. It was equipped with a small fireplace with attached drying oven. Bunches of herbs hung from the ceiling. One wall held drawers ranging from very large to very small. Other walls held shelves lined with jars, boxes and vials filled with powders and liquids, the contents of which either tasted foul or made little boys sneeze. Books and rolls of parchment took up what space was not otherwise thus occupied. A large worktable occupied the middle of the floor under which Cable kept a cot that he pulled out at night to sleep on. A sleeping loft above the two bedrooms where odds and ends were stored and the boys slept, and a well-stocked pantry off the kitchen, completed the main house.
The outbuildings included a stone springhouse where water bubbled up out of the ground all year long with enclosed areas for heating water and washing clothes as well as a tub for bathing. A drying shed with plenty of racks out front to hold fruits and vegetables for summer drying, a smokehouse for the hams, sausages and cheeses they produced, a separate cottage for their irascible handyman, Gregor, and his wife, Silverhair, and their restless son, Mudge (who looked after the sheep, goats and their one cow, but who was spending more and more time looking after one of the girls down in the village) and a privy were scattered about a yard separated from the garden by a low, stone fence. A stable with hayloft provided for the beasts and a pasture hedged in with well-tended thorn bushes led off from the stable. The few things they could not produce they bartered for at a central village the locals called Sheep Haven.
Imperceptibly, Nori and Natty’s days began to include fetching wood and building fires in the hearth in the morning, preparing food for meals and washing dishes out at the spring house, some work in the garden and caring for the animals, but Momma and Cable made most of it feel like play and they didn’t mind. At night, Hannah would take down one of her books and read stories to them. She called it history, but it was just stories and they grew to love them. As they became more familiar with each tale, being read to turned into reading, an activity both boys enjoyed.
In time, they forgot about any other existence. Harvest time drifted into the short, cold days and long nights of winter. Spring saw lambing and shearing time with Mudge and a neighbor combining flocks in summer, switching every so ofter as shepherd on the high pastures for a bit of time at home. During the warm summer days Nori was privileged to accompany Mudge to the high pastures to watch the sheep and learn to master the use of his first sling. Natty, who was not deemed old enough to tend to the sheep, companied with Cable into the fields on his search for roots and herbs, or explored the many streams and rivulets that wound their way among the hills trying to master the ways of the wily trout.
The following spring Mudge and Gregor set about building another cottage where Mudge and Lilly married on midsummer’s day. Although they were welcome at the new cottage during building, doing small jobs and generally being underfoot, the boys were soon forced to learn about respect for others’ privacy once the newlyweds settled into their new home.
Over the ensuing years, the brothers settled into the rhythm of life in the shadow of Craigot’s Tor, working when work was called for and learning letters and ciphers when that was called for, with plenty of time to pursue private interests. Nori loved books, and spent as much time as he could lost in their many pages while Natty loved the outdoors and woodcraft, and would be forever gone exploring were it not for the time his Mum insisted he spend at his lessons. Cable, too, demanded their time, teaching them to understand the natural world, the use of maps, learning to navigate by the stars and the many medicinal properties of plants and minerals, and their preparation into tisanes, tinctures, poultices and salves at which Cable was particularly knowledgeable. Neighbors from near and far seemed to rely on his knowledge both for their own health complaints and for those of their animals, and he was always ready to prescribe a goodly number of these preparations both for their use as well as his own.
At the beginning of each summer Cable, made a pilgrimage to a valley in the foothills east of Craigot’s Tor. Sheltered as it was from the clouds laden with moisture traveling inland from the Sea West in late autumn, Camillia’s Valley remained free from the snow that filled the majority of the mountain valleys of the Dwarf Mountains during the winters. Moreover, thanks to the placement of Old Man’s Mountain at the north end of the valley and warmed by hot springs from the same thermal vents which fed Warm Lake higher in the mountains, the little valley’s mini-climate was rich with the plant life necessary to the apothecary’s art, among them the tea which was his mother’s favorite beverage.
But that was far from the only reason he returned there each year, for the eastern slope of Craigot’s Tor was also the home to a thriving population of mita bushes. Although Cable often praised their taste and fragrance, if you asked him directly about it, he would have admitted they were a most potent tonic also, and they grew there plenteously. That alone would have kept him returning year after year, but by great good fortune, the north end of Camillia’s Lake supported the only population of Soma flowers he knew of. And it was only by replacing mita leaf, which awoke him each morning and sustained him throughout the day, with the soporifics contained in the Soma blossom that he ingested at bedtime that he had found it possible to sleep at night.
Accordingly, when the boys were eleven and twelve and Hannah was expecting to midwife three new births in the nearby villages, Cable rounded up Pesky the Pony and Djolli the Burro, put together enough food to last them the two weeks he anticipated it would take to go and return with enough tea to see their Mum through until the next summer and keep him supplied with the medicinals he preferred, and they departed for this annual journey. By then, Nori and Natty were fairly competent to take care of themselves on such a trip, having accompanied their elder brother many times on his search for the herbals and medicinals with which he saw to the healing needs of the folks of Spring Hills and their animals. The journey passed without incident, at least until they got home.
Cable and the boys unloaded the animals at the drying shed and then Cable took Pesky and Djolli down to the barn. When their Mum came out to oversee the withering and steaming of the newly harvested leaves and to begin preparations for rolling and drying her favorite tea, Nori studiously avoided meeting his mother’s eyes while Natty stood grinning over his work. A surreptitious glance from Nori to his younger brother and then back to her, caused Hannah to examine her youngest more closely. That was when she noticed the unmistakably aromatic smell of mita leaf coming from his direction.
Without a word, she marched both boys up to the house, and ordered Natty to spit the wad of green fiber into the fire. Then she gathered up two loaves of freshly baked bread, a round of cheese and some dried cherries, placed them in a pack, which he gave to Natty along with his bedroll. She tossed Nori’s bedroll to him and told them to deliver the food to Mudge up with the sheep, and not to return before they found him. By the time Cable was headed up to the Cottage from the barn, the boys were headed up the trail to the high valleys and Hannah was waiting for him by the door.
Nothing was ever said to either of the boys about the incident, but, on their return, Cable mumbled something that might have been an apology to Nate for introducing him to the stimulant properties of mita leaf without a sound medical reason while Hannah stood disapprovingly by. The whole thing was eventually forgotten, or at least never spoken of again, although conversation around the Cottage was somewhat strained for the next few weeks.
In all, it was a good life. The seasons followed one another in turn and the boys got older and more responsible. But like all good things, it came too soon to an end.