Irrel was halfway through milking Black-Eye when the sky went dark with dragons. He looked up to see what had happened and saw dozens of winged shapes obscuring the sun in the east. They were flying low to the ground; that might mean rain, but if they were riding-dragons it meant battle was coming. He shrugged and turned back to his work, resuming his interrupted song:
Five riders in a ring
Round Bessie’s udder
Bessie bring milk
Milk bring butter
Milk fell into the bucket with each pull, thick and yellow with cream drawn by the charm. Irrel’s daughter Niiv sat on a stool across the yard churning the milk: With every fourth stroke she clapped the churn-staff down hard to catch the hands of any witches or devils that might try to spoil the butter. She stopped partway through a stroke and pointed over Irrel’s head.
He turned just in time to see the load of worm-cast falling a short distance away to the west. Irrel gave one more pull of Black-Eye’s udder and patted her on the side. “Good girl,” he said as he stood. Then he called out: “Sifrid, get the wagon and shovels.”
Sifrid, the season-man, was over by the house. He waved and then headed for the carriage-house.
Niiv stood up and threw a glance in Sifrid’s direction. “Let me get the cows back inside, and I’ll come with you.”
Irrel shook his head. “Black-Eye’s too full to wait. Besides, someone has to keep watch over Tyrrel.”
His daughter frowned. “Where is he?”
“Chicken coop, should be.”
Niiv crossed her arms. “Well, am I to be a milkmaid or a nursemaid?”
Irrel fought to keep himself from smiling at her pout and her wrinkled nose. It was far from the only thing she had got from her mother, but it was the one that most recalled Eliis. “Fetch him first. Black-Eye will keep for a few moments, and then perhaps you can persuade him to try milking her.” He took the tally sticks from his apron pocket and handed them to her; she took them, gave Black-Eye a pat and walked off toward the chicken coop, sighing loudly.
Once she was gone he made his way to the stable, unbarred the small door and stepped inside, pausing until his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light. Along the wall hung a dozen rope harnesses, each one tight and unfrayed. He cast his eye over the harnesses, his fingers twitching with the memory of having tied them, until finally he reached out and chose a Ram’s Knot.
Grunting a little with the effort, he lifted the harness off of the wooden hook and went to the stalls. Sviput and Svegjut whickered as he passed, impatient to be let out into the yard; he called Sviput, the gelding, with a whistle and then led him to where the leather collars hung. Once the horse was dressed Irrel brought him outside, shading his own eyes against the change in light.
Sifrid had loaded the dray with shovels and drawn it up by the gate. His shirt was soaked with sweat. His childhood in the city had not left him well prepared for farm work, and he stooped with exhaustion as he drew the cart into position to be harnessed.
“Where are we going?” he asked as he dumb-tied the tug to the horse’s collar.
Irrel pointed down the road to the west, then gave the gelding a pat and tossed the halter over its neck. He leaned down to loosen the holdfast on the gate, then lifted it carefully and hung it on the fencepost before leading the horse and dray forward with a tug of the harness-rope. He kept a tight hand on it. The Ram’s Knot would give Sviput strength to pull the load when the cart was full, but for now it only made him headstrong. Sifrid closed the gate and followed along a few steps behind.
The road was rough, holed by hoof-prints and stranger spoors. After they had been walking for a while they saw a man ahead leading a donkey-drawn cart. Irrel gave the lead a tug, letting Sviput go more quickly, and they soon drew up close enough to see that it was Allren, who worked the farm on the other side of Slow Creek.
“Morning find you,” Allren said, touching the brim of his hat and tugging it.
Irrel touched his hat in response. “And you,” he said. He gave the lead a pull to slow the horse and found himself breathing harder than he was used to. His years had mostly spared his strength, but he had lost much of his wind.
“You saw it too, I suppose?”
“And there’s been men this way, looks like.” Allren pointed to a break in the fencing at the side of the road. Beyond it the wheat had been trampled and torn from the ground, the heads broken and kernels scattered. “Or almost men. Only the Margrave’s beasts would eat plain rye, and before harvest-time too.”
“People will eat the same as pigs if they’re hungry enough.”
“That’s true as you say it,” Allren said, nodding. “That’s not your fence there, is it?”
Irrel shook his head. “My hide ends back at the crooked tree.”
“Didn’t think so. Never saw your fence in such a state.”
The wind, which had been blowing from the south all morning, had shifted to the west: It brought the smell of worm-cast, acrid and sulphurous. It grew stronger as they kept walking, passing beyond the fenced land and into marshy country. Finally they began to see the first drops of worm-cast, pats of manure about a hand around that were fibrous like a horse’s droppings but dark, oily and resinous. Irrel had Sifrid gather them as they passed. Each drop clung to the season-man’s gloves, needing a hard shake to fall into the cart.
The largest concentration lay ahead, in a pile about a cow-hide around that had fallen on a stretch of peatland at the edge of the marsh. Two more men with carts were standing at the side of the road, having come from the opposite direction: One Irrel knew as Karten, a brinker whose tiny strip of land stood just outside the marsh; the other one he did not know at all. Both touched their hats at he and Allren’s arrival.
“Fair morning,” Karten said. He was thinner than he was the last time Irrel had seen him, sometime in the winter.
“To you,” Irrel said.
Allren looked back the way they had come, then further down the road. “Do either of you claim a stake by law in this find?” he asked. After a moment the two men shook their heads. “Then I propose we divide equal stakes. Do you all agree?”
Karten and the other man both looked to Irrel; after a moment he nodded, took his shovel from the cart and began to walk towards where the worm-cast had fallen. The others followed him as they walked first across the spongy peatland and then through the thick shit, which reached nearly to the tops of their boots by the time they were at the center of it. Once there they clasped hands and then turned away from one another, walking towards the edge of the worm-cast and drawing their shovels behind them to quarter it. Sifrid brought his shovel and they began to work, separating sticky spadefuls from the pat and ferrying it back to their carts.
As they were both bringing loads to the cart, Sifrid cleared his throat. “There’s something I need to talk to you about,” he said.
Irrel grunted, levering the shovel high to drop the worm-cast into the cart. “And now’s the time, is it?”
“Well, it’s, I guess it’s as good a time as any, but I couldn’t wait any longer. With the harvest coming, I mean.”
“Hm.” Irrel planted the shovel on the ground and leaned his weight on it, catching his breath. “And so?”
“Well—well I, I suppose you know that I have—I’ve known Niiv, I’ve known your daughter a long time, and. . . well. Perhaps you know already.”
“I hadn’t thought a goldsmith’s son was working as a season-man because he needed the coin,” Irrel said.
Sifrid was silent for a moment. “Yes, of course,” he said. “And, well, the thing is, I’d like to marry her. I’d like to marry your daughter, to marry Niiv.”
“Well,” Irrel said, “I suppose I should talk to Niiv about this.”
“She feels the same as I do, sir.”
“I’m sure she does, but I’ll talk to her just the same.”
Sifrid laughed nervously. “Of course. I only meant—”
Irrel held up a hand. There was a sound he couldn’t quite identify, something out of place. After a moment he realized it was a voice, quietly chanting:
Ten little men all in a ring
Ten little men bow to the king
He closed his eyes and turned his head slightly from side to side, still listening.
Ten little men dance all day
Ten little men hide a—
Irrel reached out and seized the boy by his shirt-collar. Of course it was Tyrrel, his son, his hands still splayed out in the dancing part of the charm. “What are you doing here?” Irrel said. “Your sister’s sure to be beside herself.”
“She didn’t even go look for me!” Tyrrel said. He was a handsome boy, a bit small for ten but already bearing the lean, serious face of a man: A thatch of chestnut hair, his mother’s legacy, fell over his eyes. “I watched her before I followed you. She just went into the house.”
“And you showed her right,” Irrel said, frowning.
“But I needed to come with you,” Tyrrel said. “I have to start learning about things like this. I’ll be a man soon enough, you know.”
Irrel nodded slowly. “So you will,” he said. “Well then, get in the cart and see if you can find any worm-coal in that mess.”
Tyrrel wrinkled his nose in distaste. “What’s worm-coal?”
Irrel held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. “Shiny black balls, say this big. Burns purer than sea-coal or charcoal—might be we’ll sell what we find to Sifrid’s father.”
“Is it just smiths that use it in their craftings, or is it wizards too? We could give it to Uncle Allel.”
“Could be we would, if you find any. Now hop to.”
Tyrrel’s eyes widened, and Irrel turned to see what he was looking at: More dragons were flying in from the east. Tyrrel began counting as they flew overhead: “One for sorrow, two for joy. Three for a wedding.” A moment later another appeared on the horizon and he laughed, a child again. “And four for a baby boy!”
Irrel looked over at Sifrid, who was blushing. He took a deep breath and went back to his work.
By the time they had gone back to the farm and finished shoveling the worm-cast onto the dung-hill, Niiv had dinner ready. Irrel kept his eyes on his plate as they ate the meal: dark bread, beet pickle and cheese.
“Fetch me some rope and meet me on the afternoon porch,” he said to Tyrrel as he stood. He looked over at Sifrid: The young man was a careful distance from Niiv, keeping the firepit between them. “There might be some trouble tonight. I need you to walk the fences today, make sure they’re all holding. Be sure you go sunwise, not widdershins.”
“And me?” Niiv asked.
“Hex signs need freshening,” Irrel said. “You know where the paint is.”
He stepped out of the summer kitchen, then turned and went through the door that led into the storage room. He drew a rope-cutting knife from its drawer, then took four thunderstones from their box and went back through the long hall and out onto the afternoon porch. Tyrrel was waiting for him there, sitting on a stool with a pile of rope at his feet.
Irrel settled into the empty stool across from him and put down the knife. “That was quite a charm you did this morning,” he said. “Kept it up all the way to the marsh, and with five men there too.”
“It’s just a children’s charm,” Tyrrel said; he shrugged, but there was pride evident in his voice. He had always excelled at the craftings children did for mischief: making a leaf fly through the air or a thrown stick return to your hand. His hands were quick like his mother’s had been, and he was able to hold his concentration much longer than any other boy his age.
“Well, it’s time you learned some proper crafts,” Irrel said. He gestured at the coil of rope. “We’ll start with knots. Do you know any of those?”
Tyrrel nodded. “Niiv taught me the one to stop a nosebleed with a red thread.”
“All right, let’s see you do that one—but with a rope.”
Frowning, Tyrrel picked up the knife and cut off an arm’s-length of rope. He drew it into a loop, then crossed the standing part and brought it back up through the loop, drawing it tight. He regarded the knot for a moment and then held it up to his father.
“That’s the knot your sister taught you?” Irrel asked.
Tyrrel nodded. “I think so. She only showed me once.”
“And does it work?”
“Maybe to stop a nosebleed, but it won’t hold for much else. Untie that and let me show you a real knot.” Tyrrel held the rope out to his father, but Irrel shook his head. “No—I’ll tell you what to do, and you tie the knot. Hold up the rope and let one end drop. The part you’re holding is the standing part. Between that and the end is the bight. Do you have that?”
“Yes, father,” Tyrrel said, rolling his eyes a little.
Irrel took a breath and went on. “Drop the end under the standing part and bring it back over. Now draw it back through the loop you’ve made.”
“That’s the same knot I did,” Tyrrel said.
“It’s not—and that’s the difference between a knot that holds and one that betrays you. Now make a loop big enough to go over a cow or a horse’s head. Mark the point where the loop closes, then tie the knot I just showed you right there. Now make the loop again, so that it crosses just below the first knot—crosses under. Bring the end around and over the standing part, now pass it under and up through the loop.”
Tyrrel’s hands moved hesitantly, finally pulling hard at the end: It slipped the length of the rope and his knot vanished. “Why can’t you just show me?” he asked.
Irrel shook his head. “You have to feel it in your hands.”
“Is that what makes a wizard?” Tyrrel asked, looking at his hands. “Did Uncle Allel have clever hands as a boy?”
“Try that knot again,” Irrel said. He repeated his instructions, slowly, and this time Tyrrel’s knot resolved into a figure eight. “Do you see? That knot brings the loop closed, but the first one keeps it from closing too tight on the animal’s neck.”
Tyrrel frowned. “That didn’t feel like making a charm.”
“It wasn’t—not yet. The craft comes from doing it right: from tying it so well that your hands move the rope themselves, and you just step out of the way.”
“What will it do if I do it right?”
Irrel reached out to touch the loop of rope his son had tied. “That’s the Lamb’s Knot. It’ll keep an animal gentled so long as it’s around him.”
“Oh,” Tyrrel said. “What about the other knots? What do they do?”
“There’s no end to them,” Irrel said. “There’s clever knots that will slip under a thief’s fingers or bite like a snake, and wise knots that know the hand that touches them before they loosen or hold. But you be careful, and not just with knots. When you work a craft, it works you too.” He looked Tyrrel in the eyes. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Tyrrel said after a moment.
Irrel held his son’s gaze for a moment and then stood. “Here,” he said, placing his hands flat against Tyrrel’s elbows. “Push against my hands as hard as you can, as though you were trying to spread your wings like a bird.”
Tyrrel nodded and began to push. Irrel had to work harder than he had expected to keep the boy’s arms at his side, but after a few dozen heartbeats Tyrrel gave up. “Now what?” he asked.
Irrel released the boy’s arms and they rose up of their own accord, as though he had been charmed. He looked from one arm to another in amazement.
“D’you see now?” Irrel asked. “Whatever you craft, you’re always pushing against something—and it pushes you too.”
“I understand,” Tyrrel said, in the deadly serious tone he used when he was trying to be grown-up. He frowned. “If I learn knots well enough, do you think I could do magic? Wizard magic?”
“A wizard’s just a crafter who doesn’t make anything useful. Your mam could craft a candle that brought warmth to anyone in the home, a shoe that made a horse never stumble and jam that let you remember the day the berries were picked: That’s magic enough.”
Tyrrel said nothing. After a few moments he turned away, untied his knot and began to tie it again, his brow furrowed.
Irrel watched him for a while and then stood. “When it feels like a craft, you’ll know,” he said. “When that happens, tie a half-dozen or so more. There’s like to be some noise tonight, and I want the cattle to stay in their places.”
When he went to the barn he could see the work Niiv had done, repainting the hex signs. She had been doing them for years, since she had been about Tyrrel’s age, and while he could still discern the shapes of his originals underneath they were clearly her work: much more ornate, with his simple sunwheel shapes fractured and filigreed, and more colorful as well. He admired them for a moment and then took his spade to the northeast corner of the barn. He dug a hole a hand deep and then took from his pouch one of four thunderstones—flat stones shaped like ax-heads, which had been left buried in the ground where lightning bolts had struck—and sang:
Roll, thunder, roll
Down from mountains tall
Where lightning touched once
Let never lightning fall.
With haying time so soon past, the barn might as well be a box of tinder—and he had seen enough to expect fire in the sky tonight. He went sunwise from corner to corner, burying a stone and singing the charm at each one. When he rounded the northwest corner he saw Niiv up on the ladder, freshening the paint on that side’s hex signs. When she saw him she stopped her work and came down the ladder.
“Did Sifrid talk to you this morning?” she asked.
Irrel frowned. “Did you not ask him that?”
She laughed. “I think you scared him, father. I haven’t seen even his shadow since dinner-time.”
“Well. Yes, he did talk to me.”
He took a slow breath. “And you already know what he said, so what questions could you have of me?”
“Are you happy for me?” she asked, wrinkling her nose with exasperation. “Do you approve? Will you bless our wedding?”
“This is not some fancy then? You haven’t just cooked him up a love-apple, or twisted your belt to get him hot?” Like her brother, she had always been skilled at the children’s charms: Like her mother, hers had served to get the village boys running around after her like puppies.
She crossed her arms. “Father. No. This is real—we both want this. And we. . .”
He let her silence hang in the air. “Your mam could have taught you a crafting for that,” he said quietly. “I haven’t given you everything she would have, I know. But the wise woman owes me for winter corn—she could. . .”
“It’s what I want,” Niiv said.
Irrel nodded. “It’s love, then? Truly?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “His father is the best goldsmith in Rebenstod. We could craft a charm that would make me the most beautiful woman there is.”
He smiled. “You are the most beautiful woman there is.”
She smiled too, sighing. “I know, Father. But really.”
“And do either of you know any handfasts?”
Niiv shrugged. “Sifrid doesn’t. I’ve tied a few, with boys from the village, but. . . well, they weren’t ever meant to last.” She looked away, towards the farm-house, then back to him. “I thought. . . I was hoping you could teach us the handfast you and mother tied.”
Irrel said nothing, holding his hands in front of him. He curled his fingers and then straightened them again, slowly. “No,” he said at last. “That’s past me now—and besides I needed your mam to tie that.”
“Of course,” Niiv said.
He let his hands drop, put them on his hips. “You know, when your mam and I were young we spent our winter nights learning handfasts. There was none of that sledding around to farm and village you have today.”
“I know, Father.”
“There are plenty of fine handfasts I could teach you, ones that will last you a lifetime.” He brushed his hands against the front of his pants. “I’ve got to finish burying these thunderstones and then get on my other work. I’ll see you at supper.”
When he passed by the porch he saw that Tyrrel was not there. There were about a dozen knotted harnesses lying abandoned on the ground—the first few tangled messes, the rest perfectly tied Lamb’s Knots. He sighed and set out to find out how Sifrid was doing with the fence.
He followed the fence’s circuit until he heard voices ahead, one a young man’s and one a child’s—answering the question of where Tyrrel had gone. Irrel looked at his hands and began to move them, stiffly at first, to do the charm his son had done that morning. He had not crafted it since he himself had been a boy, but he found his fingers remembered the motions—held up flat, then turned inwards, then coiled into a ring, bowing, dancing, tucked away into fists—as he quietly chanted the charm:
Ten little men standing straight
Ten little men open the gate
Ten little men all in a ring
Ten little men bow to the king
Ten little men dance all day
Ten little men hide away
Irrel could feel the craft working through him as he did the charm, and unlike his son he did not need to repeat it to keep it going. Sifrid was leaning against the fence, his face covered with dust and his shirt damp with sweat; Tyrrel sat on the fence-post, curled like a gargoyle as he interrogated the young man.
“Will you and Niiv live in Rebenstod?” Tyrrel was asking.
“I expect we will, if we get married,” Sifrid said.
“Is it a big place? Are there wizards there? Did you ever see my uncle there?”
Sifrid turned to look at the boy. “He passes through from time to time. And it’s not as big a place as some, but it’s bigger than others. Bigger than your village.”
“Does it have a schoolhouse?”
Tyrrel nodded sagely. “In the schoolhouses there, do they just teach you children’s crafts or do they teach you to be a wizard?”
“I don’t know,” Sifrid said. He held his fingers splayed out in front of him. “I was never in a schoolhouse: I was apprenticed as soon as I could hold a graver. Every time my hands grew, my father wept.” He was silent for a moment. “But you don’t need a school to teach you crafting, or your uncle for that matter. I’m sure your father could teach you anything you might want to know.”
“Father?” Tyrrel asked. “All he ever does is farm-craftings. He won’t even do knots, because of his fingers.”
“Maybe now, but he did a great one once—he and your mother, that is. Didn’t you ever notice how you’re never short of water here? How spring comes a little sooner than in the other farms, and summer stays a little later—fruits ripen without rotting and keep without spoiling? That’s from the handfast they tied at their wedding. It bound them to each other in a way no other handfast had ever done—bound them to this farm and it to them, bound even time itself. My father said it was the finest working he ever saw—as great as anything the Margrave or the Thaumaturge ever did.”
“Is that why you want to marry my sister?” Tyrrel asked. “To learn our magic?”
Sifrid was silent for a moment. “No,” he said. “I want to marry her because I love her.”
Tyrrel jumped down from the fence-post. “I think that would be a good reason to marry somebody,” he said.
A growing noise had been coming from up the road, and now it resolved itself into the tread of dozens or hundreds of men, marching together in ragged rhythm: soldiers, as many leaning on their spears as carrying them, and each with a holed coin sewn over his heart to protect him. Not the Margrave’s things, Irrel could see. These had to be the Prince’s men.
“Come back to the house,” he called to Tyrrel and Sifrid.
“I want to watch.”
“Tyrrel. To the house, now.”
The boy threw him an angry look and then began walking slowly toward the house. Irrel kept his eyes on the Prince’s soldiers; they were not nearly so wild as the Margrave’s beasts, but desperate men could do desperate things.
“Karten told me they’re letting people shelter inside the walls at Rebenstod,” Sifrid said quietly. “We could be there by nightfall if we rode.”
“I’ll tie the holdfast,” Irrel said. “We’ll be safe.”
“Yes, I know,” Sifrid said. “I just thought—”
“We’ll be safe.”
Without another word they went back to the farmhouse. Irrel and Niiv brought the animals from the pasture back into the barn, dropping the tally sticks into the pail to keep from counting the cattle too closely. Then it was time for supper: Irrel sat on a bench facing his daughter, eating his bread and soup in silence, while Tyrrel sat beside Sifrid, peppering the young man with questions.
They sat around the small fire for a while after supper while Niiv did the dishes; then it was time for Tyrrel to go to bed. Irrel opened the bedcloset and crouched to tuck his son into the quilts, reciting the night-charm:
Touch your collar
Touch your toes
Never catch a fever
Touch your knee
Touch your chin
Never let the burglar in
Tyrrel giggled when his father tapped his chin, then smiled sleepily. “Do you think Uncle Allel will ever come to see us here?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Irrel said. “He’s a busy man.”
“Could we go to visit him? It’s not right, you know, that I’ve never seen my uncle, and I’m almost a man.”
Irrel shook his head. “I can’t be traveling, you know that. I’ve the farm to care for, and in the winter the roads are no good.” He took a breath. “But you might, perhaps—now that you’re almost a man. Or perhaps he’ll come to Rebenstod to see your sister, when she marries, and you can see him then.”
“Yes,” Tyrrel said, his eyes half-shut. “Yes, I think so.”
Irrel crouched there for a few moments more, listening to his son’s breathing settle into the slow rhythm of sleep; then he rose, with some difficulty, and went back out into the long hall. It was nearly dark, lit only by the embers of the small fire in the main room, and he did not know where Sifrid and Niiv had gone. Sighing, he went out the main door and up the path to the gate.
He took the previous night’s holdfast from where he had hung it on the fencepost and began to untie it; his clawed hands struggled with the knot, plucking at it and fraying the rope. Holding the end of the rope toward himself he made an overhand loop and then, his arm shaking, passed the end through it and up behind the standing part. He had made the base of the holdfast, a Sheep’s Tail knot, and the shaking in his arms was gone.
By the time he passed the end down through the loop again his fingers were softening like butter, and he began to more fully elaborate the knot. A few more twists and loops and he had made a holdfast that would hold against the Margrave and the Thaumaturge both, but he did not stop. The rope danced in his hands, twisting around and around itself and slipping over and under the loops he had made, and he knew that if he only kept on going he would tie a knot that would be greater even than the handfast he and Eliis had made: a knot that would hold everything just as it was, bind them all and hold fast against time and chance. He held the end of the rope in his hand and took a breath.
The night passed, as all nights eventually do, but it never grew very dark, with spells, lightning and dragon-fire lighting the sky. Unable to sleep, Irrel went to the summer kitchen, kicked at the coals in the firepit until he exposed a glowing ember and lit a candle from it. Then he went to the storage room and hauled up the trap-door to the cellar before going carefully down the stairs. In the dim light of the candle it took him a while to find what he was looking for: a few jars of blackberry jam, hidden away in memory of the day he and Niiv had gone foraging in the bush and Eliis had preserved the few berries they had brought home. He went back upstairs and sat on the bench by the cold ashes of the fire, licking the dark jam from his fingers.
When true dawn finally arrived he went outside and surveyed the farm. The barn was entirely intact, even the hex signs unmarked, and the stable door still held. He walked down the path to the gate and kneeled down to untie the holdfast, feeling the craft dissipate as he loosened the knot.
“Morning find you!” Allren was coming down the road toward him, the front of his hat pulled down low to block out the morning sun.
Allren stood on the other side of the gate, his hands on his hips. “Did you hear? The Prince’s men prevailed, if you can believe it. Why, they say the Thaumaturge himself took part in the battle.” He tilted his hat upwards as a grin crossed his face. “The Margrave is overthrown!”
Irrel undid the last loop and hung the now-slack rope on the fencepost. He stood up and nodded slowly, brushing the dirt from his knees.
“Well, there’s that.”