"FWIPP!" The bowstring grazed the leather arm guard on William Longacre's left wrist as it released. Launched by the curved shortbow, the ashwood shaft flew straight and true across the forest. "SSSSSTHUDD!" The impact of the arrow sent the stag reeling, and it bolted further into the deep woods surrounding Miller's Crossing. Will stood from his kneeling position and pushed the hood of his fur-lined black vest back from his head. The misting rain of the early morning had given way to a bright sunrise. He walked ahead to where the stag had been hit. The blood on the ground confirmed what Will already knew, that he had pierced the deer through both lungs and probably the heart. He wouldn't get more than a hundred yards. Will started off after the buck, taking his time. Tracking the big deer would be effortless now, with the blood trail to follow, but that was no reason to get sloppy. It was the defining dichotomy of his life that while hadn't the least bit of interest in the family farm, chores, or anything that even remotely resembled work so long as he was in town, as soon as he stepped into the woods, his life came into focus and he was a diligent worker and student. In a few minutes, Will had found the buck. Wasting no time, he set to work gutting, cleaning, and skinning the deer. When he was finished, he wrapped the carcass in old linens and began his trek home. Where is that lummox when I need him? Will thought, huffing with the effort of pulling his kill behind him.
The ringing sound of hammer on anvil still echoed in Xavier Longacre's mind, even after the usual hour of cleanup required at the end of a day's work at the forge. The apprentice blacksmith blinked his eyes in surprise when he realized that he was, in fact, finished sweeping the packed dirt floor of the smithy. That was the fastest hour yet, he thought. Then he smiled to no one in particular and thought back to the unusual event earlier that day. All morning the boy had watched Master Smithson work an ingot of silver into a set of intricately filigreed corner braces for a large wardrobe that Jolson, the innkeeper, had commissioned from the master carpenter from the next village. Xavi watched with such concentration that his eyed had dried out several times from the heat of the fire that he maintained at just the right temperature for silver-work, his heavily muscled arms moving in the perfect rhythm of one who had been trained well and hard over several years. Master Smithson had noted the boy's focused gaze, but had said nothing, which was his typical taciturn nature. When the blacksmith had finished the corner braces, he told Xavi that they would break for lunch and work on the center clasp and handle in the afternoon. After brusquely admonishing the boy to not let the fire wane too far, which was an old but unnecessary reminder for Xavi, Master Smithson left the smithy to partake of his lunchtime cup and bread.
Xavi checked the fire and was setting up the clever log structure that he'd invented to ensure a low but steady flame over the course of an hour when his eyes fell on the design for the center clasp, which was held in place on the workbench by another silver ingot about the size of Xavi's fist. The apprentice looked from the design to the ingot to the corner braces that Master Smithson had finished, and after a few moments of consideration he'd made up his mind. He quickly stoked the fire to the same high heat as he'd maintained all morning, and he set up the long lever that would allow him to blast air into the forge with his legs while working by himself. The boy quickly clamped the design on the post above the anvil for reference, and he excitedly tossed the ingot into the flames. It didn't take long for the valuable metal to soften in the blaze, at which point the apprentice went to work. In the back of his mind a voice told him this was too valuable to mess up, but he was confident that he'd do a fine job, and his backup thought was that he would finally get the coin that Stefan Cobbler owed him for the shoe stands Xavi had made for him from scrap.
The apprentice blacksmith began toiling over the silver, his hammer rhythmically pounding the block of metal into a large round shape, perhaps nine inches across. With the powerful muscles of his shoulders and back, it seemed like no time at all to Xavi before he was carefully tapping the thin disc, using a red-hot taper tool to trim and shape the edge. Before he knew it, it was time for the punch and chisel to finish the intricate design posted on the beam above him. When he finally cut the clasp into two pieces and dropped them into the bucket to cool, Xavi realized that the amount of work he'd done was much more than one hour; in fact, glancing about, he noticed that the usual afternoon light that shone through the high window was just a sliver by the broom closet, indicating that it was just about the end of the workday. Whirling about, Xavi saw Master Smithson sitting on stool in the wide doorway of the smithy, arms crossed and a dour look on his face. Xavi said nothing. After a few awkward moments, the blacksmith got up and walked slowly to the bucket of water, his visage seeming to darken as he came further into the forge area. Xavi tensed as his master dipped his hands into the water, knowing that the silver would still be hot to the touch. The master pulled the pieces from the water and took them back to the wide entrance of the smithy. He examined them closely for more than a few moments, turning them over and over in his hands, inspecting them in the greatest detail. After what seemed like an eternity to Xavi, Master Smithson turned back into the forge and approached the workbench. His face was unreadable, but that was typical of the stern man. Without looking at Xavi, he laid the twin pieces of the disc on the bench and said, with no change in his facial expression, "Nice work, boy. With some practice, you won't have to take so damn long to produce this kind of fine work. We'll put the handles on these in the morning. Now, clean up."
The smith turned away and left the smithy. When the older man had left, Xavi let out a silent whoop, leaping up and slapping the overhead beam in excitement. That was only the second time the master had complimented Xavi (the first time was about the delicate and complex looped chain that Xavi wore as a necklace).
Shaking himself out of his reverie and smiling yet again, Xavi hung up the broom in the closet and tossed the dustpan in the corner of the closet. I sure hope Will has brought something good into town today, Xavi thought, because this is worth more than a few cups at the pub tonight!
Will entered the village of Millers Crossing from the east out of the thinning fringes of the forest. He cut through a dairyman's field and in between a few homes to arrive in the square. Stopping at the large well that occupied the center of the square, he dropped the ends of the linen bundle that contained the day's kill and pulled up the rope that snaked it's way down to the bucket in the cool, black pool below. The water from the well wasn't as cold and sweet as that from the river, but it was refreshing nonetheless after his three-mile trip from forest to village. Will gulped mouthfuls from the bucket itself, knowing his mother would be mortified at his crudeness. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he looked around the square. It was early afternoon, by the sun, and traffic through the village was increasing. Wives picking up the orders from the village vendors, husbands coming home from their work, or, more likely, heading to the River Rat or the Red Lion for a pint and a song. He had maybe an hour until old man Cleaver closed up shop for the day. His deer would produce some fine steaks, shanks, and roasts. He'd see a fair little pile for this one, and that was before he took the furs to Master Daegun. Not a bad day's work, if I do say so myself, he thought. After a final gulp, he lowered the bucket back down the well and lifted his burden once more, heading across the square and down a series of progressively narrow paths to the butcher's shop.
Gunnar Cleaver was grizzled old man, constantly red in the face and always yelling to his wife Hildi in the back of the shop. He was not a small man either, by any means. He rotund frame was nearly as wide as it was tall, and he huffed and puffed his way around the butcher shop. The shop itself was a squat thing of timber and thatch, tucked away on the edge of town. Its distance was a necessary inconvenience, as no one wanted the stench of a charnel pit anywhere near their homes, not to mention the blood that ran from the yard when it rained. Despite whatever unpleasantness the shop and owner alike exuded, everyone in Millers Crossing knew where to go for good cuts. As Will entered, Gunnar was in the process of shouting some bit of instruction to Hildi. There were two other patrons in the shop, Marianne Wainwright, and Abigail Cobbler, ordering chops and ribs from a pig that had been freshly butchered earlier in the day. Everyone from the village came to Cleaver's for meats, so the women were unfazed by the ferocity and sheer volume of Gunnar's discourse. Will nodded hello to the ladies, and headed through door leading to the back of the shop and yard out back. He passed Hildi, who was busy carving portions of the pig for Marianne and Abigail out front, gave her a smile and headed out to the yard. Taking care, he unwrapped and removed the deer carcass before carefully re-wrapping the furs, having kept them separate with several layers of linens. He hoisted the deer onto a stout wooden table and took a seat on the corner, waiting for old Cleaver.
It was perhaps another ten minutes before the old butcher came huffing out the back door to the yard, where Will was whistling a tune to himself and sharpening his tomahawk. Easily the most useful tool he carried, the 'hawk's steel head accepted sharpening readily and he'd only had to have it honed once since Daegun first presented it to him four years ago. He replaced the feather-decorated hatchet in its loop, pocketed his whetstone and hopped down from the table. The negotiations were brief, as haggling with Cleaver was as pointless as trying to teach a plough to swim. Will thanked the old butcher, collected his coins, shouldered his bundle of furs, and whistled his way back through the shop, giving Hildi and wink and a nod.
Will continued whistling as he headed West out of the village proper and towards Master Daegun Farlander's home, about half-mile into the woods. He remembered the first time he'd approached the forester for an apprenticeship, at the suggestion of his older brother Kiernan. Will had always loved the outdoors and it seemed his father had been all to happy to not have the trouble-maker underfoot around the farm. Master Daegun was tall, almost a full head taller than Xavier, and thinner than Will. A lifetime of stalking through brush and bramble had given Daegun a loping gate that impossibly seemed to miss any bit of leaf or soil that might give sign of his passing. During the Spring Festival of his thirteenth year, Will won the archery contest and presented himself to the master forester. "I'm William Longacre and I'm your new apprentice." he had said, as though that were enough to make it fact. Daegun gave the boy an appraising look, taking in his self-assured grin and the tight grip on his archery medal, and replied, "We'll see about that, lad." The woodsman marched the boy over to his parents, made some arrangements, and right then and there, tromped him out into the forest for a week. When they returned, Will had a fierce cold, a sprained ankle, a new tomahawk, a brace of coneys caught by his own hand, and an apprenticeship.
Arriving at the cabin, Will hopped the two steps up to the porch and paused to knock at the door before striding in. Sitting at the table off to the left hand side of the two room house, was his master, busy sewing together a new leather pouch. The forester looked up from his work, smiled at his apprentice and nodded towards the back of the cabin. Will knew by now what to do. He continued through to the back door and out to the fenced-in yard. There, on one of three worktables, were the tanning supplies. After carefully unwrapping the deer skin, Will set to work. He attached the hide to a fleshing board and began the process of scraping the bits of fat and meat off the inside of the pelt using a special knife that Daegun had just for the job. Having done a good job at skinning the carcass, fleshing it was quick and took no more than an hour. Will then nailed the skin to a clever adjustable board to stretch. He would check back the next day to expand the board and perhaps begin the drying process. Then would come the labor-intensive task of pulling the guard hairs to expose the soft, velvety fur beneath, but that was for another day. He set the stretching board against the table just as Daegun stepped out of the cabin.
"That is a fine specimen, lad," he said. The master forester ran a practiced eye over the stretching rack. "This will fetch a fine price in Hawthorne. The ladies there have an affection for furs that only seems to grow with time." With a flick of his wrist, Daegun tossed a small cloth bag to his apprentice. "That should suffice for your cut. You can keep what you got from old Cleaver for the meat, as well. There's little more I can teach you, boy. You'll make your master's piece and have your naming this year, I'd reckon."
Will's eyes lit up as he caught the bag in mid-air and hefted its weight. "Master, this is too much! Not that I'm ungrateful, but it's just one pelt," he said and made to toss the coins back to Daegun.
"Nonsense. We both know you've been doing a partner's share around here for quite a while. Consider it back-pay. Now, off with you. I'm sure your lumbering oak of a brother will be wanting to help you spend a bit of that tonight."
Will beamed and slipped the bag into one of the leather pouches on his belt. "Thank you, Master Daegun!" he nearly shouted as he ran past his mentor and clapped him on the shoulder. "Thank you, indeed!" Will ran to the fence and hopped it. He slowed a bit as he headed toward town, belting out a bawdy tavern song as he went, intent on finding Xavier.