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An Unexpected Scrudite
“What’s your name?”
His calm face told me he meant to be polite, nothing more, but such a direct question from a Scrudite made me nervous. Yes, I needed his help, but I’d been taught to use caution when dealing with these people.
“Must you know my name in order to tend to my injured horse?” I asked. I stood tall, willing my slight frame into all the bulkiness I could.
He laughed, but his shoulders slumped as he turned away from me.
“No, I’ll help you no matter how disagreeable you are.”
Bold words from one such as him. “I’m not disagreeable.”
“Perhaps not,” he said. “Maybe you’re frightened. I have trouble telling the difference.”
His words froze the response on my lips. I was scared of him and his people. Most Vinxites, especially those from families like mine, had never spoken to a Scrudite.
I turned my artist’s eye upon him. Despite his weathered skin, he was young, like me. Unlike me, he had muscles from a life of strenuous work. The sun had added glints of gold to his brown hair and his clothes were the usual mishmash of tattered rags worn by Scrudites.
“It’s just a sprain,” he said as felt around my horse’s front right ankle. The mare stood still, unusually cooperative around a stranger. He massaged her leg gently.
“I’ll get a poultice on it. Let her rest overnight; she’ll be able to walk on it tomorrow and carry your things, though you shouldn’t ride her yet. Not for a few days.”
“She can’t possibly rest here for the night. I’ve no place to stay.”
I had to pass through a small piece of Scrud to get from my parents’ farm to the art studios in K’ba where my friends lived. I knew our poorest nichna lacked the inns found throughout the rest of the realm, but I hadn’t worried. My journey was short, and I didn’t intend to stop. Who knew what a stranded traveler did here.
“No Scrudite would expect a stranger to sleep alone in the desolation.” He seemed offended at the thought as he pointed out toward the dusty openness. “Our wolves are far too bold. You’ll sleep with me.”
“I’ll do no such thing!”
Another laugh, this one more amused.
“That’s not what I meant. The people of Scrud do not force themselves on each other, much less on those passing through. One of my sisters will be glad to share my hut to put you at ease. I’ve room for three. I’d prefer to send you to her hut, but your horse needs to remain still, and I suspect she’ll only do so if you stay nearby.”
This man, this Scrudite, was doing his best with me. It wasn’t his fault my horse had managed to step into a hole only paces from where he made his pitiful life. Despite his situation, he’d offered me as much courtesy as any gentleman in Pilk would have. Perhaps more.
“Thank you. If your sister is as kind as you, I look forward to meeting her.”
I looked around. He and his family had to be part of the clan of Scrudites whose tiny huts hugged the forest’s scraggly edge. These people made their meager living carving the beautiful hardwoods that grew at the margins of their nichna. Our entire realm valued the products they produced, and some thought his clan accessed ancient magic to infuse into their creations.
I’d always considered that last bit to be wishful thinking. Some Ilarians imagined they saw the old magic everywhere they looked.
As he turned to fetch his sister, I reached out for his arm to stop him. He seemed startled at my touch.
“Olivine,” I said. “My name is Olivine.”
“Odd name. Mine’s Bohdan.”
“Thank you for helping a traveler, Bohdan.”
The next day I walked to K’ba, leading my mare along the dusty road. Despite the long days of Tirga, nightfall nipped at my heels by the time I arrived. I must have looked pitiful, hobbling with aching feet into the main street in my grimy dress with my limping horse behind me.
I’d come to meet five artist friends for a reunion we’d planned on our last day of school. We’d all finished our studies a few anks ago; three men and three women, all unattached. For two years we’d shared dedication to our art and those poignant first experiences away from home. I felt we were friends in the truest sense of the word. Only I and one other in the group had the misfortune to live outside of K’ba.
I found all five of them in the tavern owned by one of their parents. They looked like they’d been enjoying free ale for a while.
A young man shouted to me as I came through the door, his deep voice carrying across the room. Large in body and personality, Magomet covered the distance between us and had his arms around me in a friendly hug before I could say a word. I tried to squirm out of it, but for a heartbeat he held me tighter as I did. Then he let go.
Back in school, he and I had celebrated a few holidays together the way unmarried tidzys do. I’d backed off, fearing he would develop an interest in marrying me. I liked him and admired his talent, but I tired of the way he filled every room while I, with my quiet ways and slender frame, melted into nothingness next to him.
Despite my clear message, though, he always managed to remind me that he remained interested.
After I wiggled out of his embrace I hugged the other men and women around the table then gulped down an entire ale while they shouted over the noise in the tavern to get caught up on our lives.
“Now that we’ve finished school, we need to do this a lot more,” one said.
“How about we form an artists’ group?” another suggested. “Olivine and Arek can come over to K’ba, and we’ll paint together and critique each other and share ideas like we did when we were in class.”
“Brilliant,” Magomet agreed. His artist parents had allowed us to use their huge studio when school went on break. “We’ll meet when my parents are gone so they won’t mind us painting in the studio.”
“I bet mine will still give us supplies,” said the friend whose parents ran an art supply store and had been giving us surplus items for free.
“Mine will help with food and drink,” said the one whose parents owned the tavern we drank in.
“Mine too,” added Zoya, my closest friend in the group. Her parents had already agreed to put me up that night at their inn.
Arek and I smiled the hardest. We’d both worried about how we’d pursue our art alone, back in our home nichnas, with no one to encourage us.
I stayed for three more days, soaking up the joy of sharing my life’s passion with those who felt as I did, and giving my horse enough time so she could be ridden home. I didn’t wish to make that hot dusty walk twice.
As I got ready to leave, I remembered the surprisingly kind Scrudite who’d helped me. Funny, I’d told my friends all about my horse’s injury but I’d largely left Bohdan out of my story. Did I think my well-off friends wouldn’t be sympathetic to a kind Scrudite? Of course they would be. It just wasn’t my way to tell everyone everything, like so many others seemed compelled to do.
Yet, I wanted to thank Bohdan for the supper I’d shared with him and his sister, for the blankets and straw they’d lent me, and for the way they’d entertained me with their stories of other travelers. So, I found an artists’ stall selling items to those who sculpted.
“I’d like to see your better knives,” I said.
“For you?” True, few women were sculptors.
“No, for a friend.” The man nodded, more comfortable with that request. “How adept is your friend?”
I had no idea, so I guessed. “He lacks formal training but is quite skilled for the self-taught. He works with wood not stone.” I didn’t offer the information that my friend carved practical items, not artistic ones.
The man produced his best suggestion. It cost more coins than I wanted to spend, and almost more than I had with me. Yet, what would I have done without Bohdan’s help?
“I’ll take it.”
“I couldn’t possibly take this.”
Bohdan had been easy to find because he lived in the shack closest to the road. I wondered why. Perhaps his group viewed him as some sort of guard?
“Please. It’s my thank you.”
“Scrudites do not accept presents as thanks for acting like decent human beings,” he said.
I’m sure I rolled my eyes. “Could you use this knife?”
“Yes. It looks excellent and is something I could never afford.”
“Then take it as a gift of … friendship.”
“Oh. We’re friends now?”
I sighed loud enough for him to hear,
“I’m going to be passing this way often. It’s on the direct path between my parents’ home and the art studio I’ll be using. I could use a friend along my route. Yes, I know.” I held up a hand to stop him. “I’m sure Scrudites do not require gifts in order to be nice to passing strangers. Will you take it to please me?”
“Only if you’ll say hello whenever you pass through. When you do, I’ll show you the things I’ve made with this wonderful knife.”
He smiled. I smiled. And I realized that yes, the Scrudite and I could become friends.
As the long days of Tirga moved towards the intense heat of Heli, I traveled to K’ba every ank to meet the other artists, usually spending four or five of the nine days there. My parents didn’t complain, as long as I did my share of chores and I asked them for only a few coins to support my travel.
The ride over to K’ba took over half a day, so I usually left well before dawn, knowing my eyes dealt with faint light better than most. Even so, sweat poured down my face by the time I arrived. But the heat of the summer didn’t deter me.
Bohdan often worked outside when I passed and I wondered if it was deliberate or not. He always insisted on giving me a drink, and perhaps some fruit, maybe berries he’d found ripening in the forest earlier that morning. I began bringing baked goods with me, so I could offer him a pastry in return. I didn’t think the Scrudites did much in the way of baking, but he sure seemed to have developed a taste for it.
Sometimes I got off my horse as we exchanged these gifts, and we’d talk about our work as we ate. I learned a little about carving; he liked knowing more about my paints. It broke up the ride, and before long, I looked forward to our visits.
Most of the artists I met in school grew up in K’ba. K’ba had once been as poor as Scrud, before musicians and poets began moving to its northeast boundary along the Canyon River. Over many decades, actors and playwrights followed. Eventually, the wealthiest began to make the trek through the desolation to be entertained. Now, taverns and eating places employed imaginative cooks while lavish lodging catered to their desires for a memorable experience.
Artists had made their home in K’ba for generations, and my friends’ talents had been encouraged since birth. Seldom did a daughter of farmers become one of them. Yet, I had.
So over the next few anks, I made a plan, a most unusual plan. I would produce enough sellable art to be able to move to K’ba, pursue my passion, and be with my friends all the time. Unmarried daughters seldom left home like that, and I worried about the dowry I’d be cheating my family out of by leaving. I figured I needed to sell enough to offer them some compensation and still be able to rent a room with the space to work. After that, I’d live off of my art as I enjoyed the life of my dreams.
I settled onto the front porch of our farmhouse early one morning, hoping to sketch before the day got too hot. I knew of a bird’s nest in a tree a hundred paces away, tilted so I could see the eggs from the porch.
I enjoyed the morning breeze on my face as the world blurred around the edges and my eyes focused on the tree in the distance. I turned the force of my stare onto its branches as the small nest filled my field of vision and the leaves around it smeared into an indistinguishable green haze. I stared harder as I studied how the light reflected off of the tiny eggs, preparing to draw.
“Put that sketchbook down and do something useful.” My mother’s voice pulled me back with words she’d said a thousand times before. “You’re wasting your life with those drawings. How will you find a husband if you never get out there and talk to anyone?”
I don’t want a husband. He’ll expect me to cook and clean instead of draw and paint. Why would I want that?
But I knew to keep such an answer to myself.
“Just let me finish this one thing,” I replied for the thousandth time. Then I picked up my charcoal as she shook her head and walked back into the house.