by Michael Kingswood
Jerome’s back ached. A constant state of things after years spent hunched over his fields, tending his plantings.
But today it was worse. The lingering chill from a winter that refused to leave made his joints stiff, lending an extra bit of oomph to the complaints from his spine.
He gritted his teeth and finished patting down soil atop the seeds he had just placed, then rose, straightening and throwing his shoulders back as he twisted his torso left and right to remove the kinks. His breath misted in front of his face as he sighed out a great exhalation, almost a groan.
He really needed to take a rest. But the dirt-stained canvas bag in his left hand was still half full of the seeds he had forced himself to not eat when the Bigman increased his levies over the winter, depleting Jerome’s store so that he had feared it would run out before the thaw.
Half a bag of seed left, and half an acre to go.
But he felt his blankets calling to him. He looked off to the right. There, the tilled lines of earth he had already planted lined up, one after another after another, right up to the doorstep of his castle.
Castle. More like a lean-to built from hewn wooden planks that he had constructed against a crumbling gray stone edifice from days gone by. It was a single room, but enough for him now that his boy was gone, and surprisingly cozy. The stove he had bartered from a trader couple years back had done wonders for heat in the winter time.
Still, looking at it, greying brown wood stacking against the cracked grey of the old stone wall, beneath the grey overcast of a spring day that still wanted to pretend it was winter, he felt intensely the loss that had befallen them all, back way before he was born.
Wasn’t always this way, or so the oldies said. Used to be this was a world of plenty, where the big worry was the people were too fat, they had so much.
Like the oldies would know. They hadn’t been alive to see that supposed golden time either. It was all fairy tales and nonsense.
And that wouldn’t put his crops into the ground, so he wouldn’t starve next winter.
Jerome adjusted the strap of leather he used to hold his homespun wool pants up—they were much looser now than they had been—and took a step forward along the line of tilled soil he was working.
The gruff voice came from behind, back toward where Jerome’s fields ended, and oaks and elms that were only just beginning to bud out new leaves fought for growing room against other shells of constructs from the distant past.
One shell stood out, still discernible as a towering structure that must have, at one time, touched heaven itself. But now it, like the other remnants from that age long dead, was crumbling. Holes dotted its lofty, cracked facade like the eyes in a skull, and one whole side of it was gone, reduced to a heap of rubble that spread out hundreds of yards from where the building had once stood.
Jerome would have been able to plant quite a lot more, if not for that.
A track, worn clear of undergrowth by the footsteps of countless people over the entirety of Jerome’s life, ran beneath one of the surviving walls of that behemoth-that-was and skirted the edge of Jerome’s fields before ducking around behind the edifice that supported his home.
A trio of men stood on that track, looking at him.
They were all muscle-bound, with visible scars on their faces and forearms from a life spent fighting and brawling, and were dressed in well-cured brown leathers. They had their heads shaved on the sides and back, but had let their hair—brown on the men to the right and left but blond on the one in the center—grow long at their crowns, so it spilled down the backs of their heads like a horse’s mane.
Their clothing and haircuts marked them as the Bigman’s enforcers even if their demeanors and builds hadn’t.
The blond, half a hand shorter than the other two and about five years older, met Jerome’s eyes, and it was all Jerome could do not to flinch away from the hard resolve in his stare.
“Bigman wants to see you,” he said.
Jerome sighed, nodded, and dropped his seed bag to the ground.
There would be no more planting today.
* * * * *
Jerome’s fields lay about two thirds of the way out from the center of the Bigman’s domain.
It wasn’t quite a town, but neither was it entirely countryside. Rather, the Bigman ruled over a sprawling collection of encampments, homesteads, and farms that lurked within this carcass of the distant past. One could walk for an hour in one direction and see nothing but shattered remnants of old structures, with the occasional farm like Jerome’s, or in a completely different direction and find mostly-intact constructs that housed eight or ten families clustered around a marketplace.
It was haphazard. It was barely holding on.
It was home.
The track led them past the behemoth adjoining Jerome’s fields, then through a growth of trees so thick they blotted out the sky and almost made a man forget what formerly-grand structures he had just walked past a moment before.
Then it emerged before another blasted-out ruin and turned left, proceeding along a slow upward grade until, after nearly a half hour of walking, they came to the Bigman’s abode.
Unlike the dwellings of most of the people in his domain, the Bigman kept his home in exquisite repair. Constructed from stones that he—or his people really—had gathered from the ruined structures or gathered from alongside the river on the west side of his domain and mortared together with a mixture of materials that Jerome could not guess at, it had two levels and a dozen rooms.
And even two glass windows!
Smoke rose from two of the dwelling’s four chimneys as Jerome came close, but lingered low above the building as though some force was keeping it from flying free. It lent the area a somewhat acrid odor.
Which was an improvement from the usual smells of bodies and waste that tended to surround habitations. So there was that.
The Bigman’s men had set up a sort of covered pavilion in front of his dwelling some years back. Supported by four great logs that were driven in to the earth and topped by a wooden roof, it could be enclosed for the winter but now lay open on all four sides.
Here was where the Bigman held court. There were maybe a dozen other people under the pavilion, but as he drew near, Jerome focused entirely on the man himself.
Jerome could see him waiting there. The broad, bearish man with long hair cut in the same style as his enforcers; although really theirs were cut to match him. It had once been coal black, his hair, but now it was silver-grey, with only a few wisps of his youthful color remaining.
The Bigman’s face was craggy, lined by years of conflict and worry, and his brows were very nearly as bushy as the mustache he wore above his lips.
He wore leathers similar to his enforcers, but also a blue cape made of a fine, almost slippery material that some traders had brought from distant lands to the south. Heavy leather work boots were on his feet, and he had a knife tucked into his belt. An actual steel knife, whose blade flashed and sparkled in the light when he brought it out to do its work.
He was sitting on a great stone chair that had been erected at the rear of his audience pavilion. As Jerome approached, he leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. The movement set the Timex—his pendant of office—swaying forward from around his neck, and Jerome’s eyes were drawn to it.
It was deceptively simple. Round, maybe two-thirds as big as a man’s wrist, and made of a dull metal that Jerome did not know. A leather thong held it around the Bigman’s neck. Nothing much to look at at all, except for the arms in the Timex’s face. Three of them; none of the same length though two were thicker and one narrow and long, like a needle.
Some strange magic kept those arms moving around and around the face of the thing, the thinner one fastest, then the longer of the thick ones, and finally the shortest.
Jerome swallowed as he saw the thin arm sweep across the strange XII marking at the top of the Timex’s face, and had to stop himself from shivering.
“Do you know why I summoned you, Jerome?”
The Bigman’s voice, unexpectedly quiet for a man of his size—and power—broke Jerome from his consideration of the mystical artifact and drew his gaze back up to the Bigman’s eyes. They were a shade between brown and yellow, and narrowed as they considered him.
Jerome made a little shrug of his shoulders and shook his head.
The Bigman gestured with his left hand. Jerome followed the gesture with his gaze and looked to his right.
Kenneth Josburg stood at the edge of the gaggle of people under the pavilion. Kenneth Josburg, tall and sandy-haired and muscular, a dozen or so years younger than Jerome, and the man who owned the farmstead next to Jerome’s. He wore wool, but of a higher quality weave than Jerome’s and died red, and sturdy work boots.
His left eye was blackened, and his lip swollen. When he stepped forward in response to the Bigman’s gesture, he favored his left leg a bit.
Jerome scowled. The boy couldn’t take his whipping like a man; had to run off to the Bigman, did he? He turned back to the Bigman and spoke.
“His animals got loose again. Tore up ground I’d spent three days tilling and getting ready to plant. Set me back a week.”
Jerome could feel Kenneth’s glare as he interjected, “I apologized, and offered to help – ”
Jerome didn’t look at him, but instead held up his right hand, palm out toward the younger man, to silence him. “I need no help from the likes of you. If – ”
The Bigman’s soft voice cut through the beginnings of their argument with ease. He looked from Jerome to Kenneth and back again in silence. The thin arm of the Timex swept through two of the strange markings on its face before he spoke again.
“This constant strife between you two has gone on long enough.” His eyes focused in on Jerome. “Jerome, I’ve known you since you were a boy. You were loyal to my father, and you’ve been loyal to me.” He paused, then added, “And I will never forget your son’s sacrifice during our war with the Atlantians.”
To Kenneth, the Bigman said. “And you served in that war. You and Tommy were comrades. I cannot understand why you two cannot get along.”
He chewed on his lip for a moment, then shook his head. “Between your fields, Jerome, and your herds, Kenneth, you two produce a significant portion of the foods that carry our city through the winter. But if things continue as they have been, I may have to move the both of you out and put someone else on your lands.”
“Bigman, I – ” Kenneth started.
At the same time, Jerome said, “The devil you will.” He opened his mouth to speak further, but the Bigman cleared his throat and raised his hands palms out, commanding silence.
“I said may.” He drew a breath. “I’m told the ancients had a saying. Fences make good neighbors.” He turned stern eyes onto Kenneth, and then Jerome. “You two will work together to erect a wall between your properties. Starting today, when you leave my presence. You will do no other work until it is done.”
“My cattle won’t just tend themselves,” Kenneth said.
“Nor will my fields,” Jerome added. “If – ”
“I will assign men to mind your animals until your task is complete,” the Bigman said.
Kenneth, looking glum, nodded.
Jerome was not ready to give in just yet. “Bigman, if I don’t get finished planting soon, there will not be enough time for the crops to grow. The harvest will be lacking.”
“Then I suggest you work quickly.” The Bigman’s eyes narrowed again, and Jerome could tell he would brook no further argument.
With a sigh, Jerome looked to the ground and nodded, obediently.
* * * * *
Jerome walked back to his fields in silence. Kenneth walked beside him, but Jerome had no desire to engage the man in conversation. Best just to get this thing done and be over with it.
But silence could not rule forever, apparently. When they were about two thirds of the way back, Kenneth cleared his throat. “How do you think to do this?”
Jerome glanced sidelong at him and grunted.
Kenneth’s farmstead was technically on the other side of the great edifice that Jerome had built his lean-to against. That should have been more than sufficient wall, but the edifice had crumbled a tenth of a mile past the edge of Jerome’s fields, on the opposite side from the great tower. That left a sizable area that was mostly clear which Kenneth’s animals had meandered through on far too many occasions.
Interestingly enough, the edifice’s collapse had not left the terrain strewn with rubble, like the tower’s. Or maybe it had, and people had long ago carried those rocks away.
Didn’t matter, either way.
Kenneth returned Jerome’s glance, and he could see the herdsman was getting irritated at his lack of response.
No sense starting the project out with a fight, Jerome figured. So, after a couple more paces, he replied, “We use the rubble from the great tower on the other side of my fields. Patch the hole in that wall between us.”
Kenneth pursed his lips, considering the proposal before nodding agreement. Then he burst out with a rueful chuckle. “Should have done that a while ago. Save ourselves the trouble now.”
Jerome just grunted again. He was right, but no sense saying so.
They reached Jerome’s fields and he looked over at the long pile of rubble extending from the tower. Most of the material was in pieces that were too large to be used, but along the edges of the debris field there were quite a lot of smaller stones. None were regular on a side, though, so it would be a chore fitting them together so they would stay solidly in one piece.
“We’ll have to make mortar, I suppose. Or just use mud?” Kenneth said.
“Mud should do. I’ll go get my wheelbarrow. Might as well start moving these over.”
Jerome had a small shed and tool storage bin adjacent to his lean-to. Although, he considered as he walked up to it that small probably wasn’t the correct word for it; it was almost as big as the lean-to itself.
It was locked with a simple mechanism that Jerome had paid Patrick, the Bigman’s domain’s sole blacksmith, to install. It wasn’t much, and Jerome didn’t fool himself that it would stop someone who was determined to steal his things. But it was better than nothing.
He had it open quickly enough, and hauled the wheelbarrow out. It was constructed of wood through and through—even the wheel. And it was stiff to maneuver around. But it did the job.
He turned and wheeled it over to where Kenneth stood waiting near the field of stones.
Then they got to work.
* * * * *
Jerome only thought his back had been aching before.
Days spent bent over tending crops were nothing compared with a day spent hefting heavy stones into his wheelbarrow, wheeling them across his entire field and through the brambles beyond to the break in the wall, and then unloading and stacking them.
He had slept like a stone, but it hadn’t done his back a lick of good; somehow it felt even worse than it had last night.
But there was nothing for it but to keep on, get the damn wall built. Then he could get back to his real work, and he wouldn’t have to deal with Kenneth ever again.
Except at market. Man did need some meat every now and then, after all.
He trudged across the fields, rubbing at the small of his back as he went, and scowled at the mist that had descended during the night and that still clung to the land. Thick enough that he could only just make out the closest edge of his field from the lean-to, it quickly dampened his face and head.
At least he was wearing wool.
Nearing the edge of his field, he saw movement ahead in the midst. Was Kenneth at work already? Boy’s trying to one-up him. That wouldn’t –
That was too big to be Kenneth. What was –
A long, low moo answered Jerome’s question for him. Biting back a curse, Jerome surged forward, back pain forgotten. Dodging past a trio of Kenneth’s cows who were chewing the cud at the edge of his field, he hurried over to the beginnings of wall that they had built the previous day.
The cows had knocked the entire thing asunder.
Jerome’s vision went red with fury.
* * * * *
Jerome’s jaw ached as well as his back, but he felt lucky things weren’t worse.
To say the Bigman had been unimpressed with them this morning was to call a lightning bolt a small flash of light. When his enforcers had pulled Jerome and Kenneth apart and marched them back before the Bigman, Jerome got the distinct impression that he was seriously considering having the both of them flogged, taking their land, and having done with the whole thing.
Instead, he chewed them both up one side and down the other, then cast them out, back to the task at hand.
But Jerome had no doubt if there was a recurrence, he would not be so lenient next time.
So he set to work, and pointedly avoided saying anything more to Kenneth than he absolutely had to.
Kenneth seemed to be taking the same strategy, which was just fine to Jerome.
By the time the sun had sunk below the trees surrounding Jerome’s field, they had repaired the damage Kenneth’s cows had done and then some. All in all, it was a good day’s work.
He just hoped the cows wouldn’t ruin it again.
* * * * *
They didn’t, and a week of labor had them completing a wall chest-high and two stones thick that spanned halfway across the gap where the edifice had crumbled away.
And it didn’t actually look half bad, either.
Despite his continuing aches and pains, Jerome felt pretty good about how things were progressing.
But when he left his lean-to on the first day of the new week and made his way toward the construction site, he found upon arrival that his wheelbarrow was gone.
He’d left it there the night before, thinking to save time by not locking it up. After all, it wasn’t all that valuable, and in the last week he had seen no one come near this spot besides himself, Kenneth, and the Bigman’s enforcers who were watching Kenneth’s cattle. Surely there would be no harm in leaving it out.
Jerome fumed as he walked the length of their partially-built wall, looked behind some nearby trees, and generally scoured the area. He found nothing.
Someone had made off with it.
He looked at the small pile of loose stones a pace away from the wall construction, all that remained of the last wheelbarrow load they had brought over from the rubble pile the day before. If they were going to have to carry each stone by hand from now on…
This was going to take months.
A soft whistling told of Kenneth’s approach. It was the same nameless tune that he whistled each morning. Disgustingly cheery and upbeat.
Just then, hearing it made Jerome’s fists clench and his teeth ache from grinding them so hard.
Kenneth came into view, stepping through the gap in their partially constructed wall, and pushing Jerome’s wheelbarrow before him.
Jerome gave a start. “Here now, what are you doing with that?”
Kenneth stopped, released the wheelbarrow’s handles, and shrugged, looking at Jerome quizzically.
“When you went home yesterday, you left it here. Figured I’d lock it up for you, so no one would steal it.”
“A likely story,” Jerome snarled. He shoved his way past Kenneth and put his hands on the handles, then rubbed his palms along them. Relief at the wheelbarrow’s return fought with anger over his earlier despair, and all came to focus on the source of that despair: Kenneth.
The anger flared hotter.
“You tend to your own things, and leave me to mine,” Jerome said with heat, and pushed the wheelbarrow away from him.
Intellectually, he knew there was no way Kenneth was going to just up and take it while Jerome was right there. But intellect had nothing to do with his desire to get the thing as far away from the man as possible.
He wheeled it to the far side of the loose pile of stones and released the handles.
“What is it about me that draws such anger in you all the time? Why do you hate me so?”
Jerome froze at Kenneth’s words. Grinding his teeth, he waited to take two breaths before he replied.
“You know well why I do.”
“I surely do not.”
Jerome spun on the younger man and jabbed a finger at him. “Aye, you do! Tommy was barely more than a boy. You were assigned charge of him.” He stalked forward a step, barely restraining himself from turning that pointed finger into a fist as the anguish of his loss, still fresh after all these years, welled up. And with it, the anger he had held onto for the same amount of time. “You abandoned him. You left him to die!”
“You think I wanted to?” Kenneth also stepped forward, so they were standing chest to chest and he stared Jerome dead in the eye.
“I think you saved yourself, at cost to him.”
Jerome stumbled backward; Kenneth had shoved him with both hands before he could see it coming.
His feet tangled in a root and he fell onto his backside. A spike of pain ran up his back from the impact and he grunted.
Kenneth was standing over him, fists clenched. Jerome looked up and raised his jaw, ready to take the blow.
Instead, Kenneth spoke, his voice ragged with anger and some other, deeper emotion. “I was desperate to save him. We were cut off from the others in the Atlantian counterattack, and they were everywhere. We tried to get away, but they were too many. I saw three of them fall onto Tommy, and I tried to get to him, but…” His voice broke and he looked away, lowering his hands to his sides. “They were too many,” he repeated.
Jerome was silent, just watching and listening to this man who he had harbored such resentment for as he clearly struggled to hold back tears.
“I hear his screams every night,” Kenneth said, softly, as though talking to himself.
Jerome swallowed. “I… I didn’t know.”
“Well you wouldn’t.” The fire was back in Kenneth’s voice. He turned back and glared at Jerome through wet eyes. “Never bothered to ask, did you?”
What to say to that? It was true. He had been in such pain, first from the loss of his wife six months before and then Tommy. He hadn’t asked the details; hadn’t wanted them. But he couldn’t accept that it was all just fate. He had to blame someone.
So he’d chosen someone easy.
Jerome swallowed. “I’m -”
“Whatever. Let’s just get this done. Then we can be through with each other.”
Kenneth turned away and trudged back to the pile of stones next to the wheelbarrow, and picked one up.
* * * * *
The wall was complete.
Jerome’s back hurt like hell, and his heart throbbed as well. From the pain of old scabs ripped out, and from guilt. But he still couldn’t help but feel the pride of accomplishment as he looked at what he and Kenneth had built.
The Bigman ran his hand along the top of the wall and smiled with apparent approval. Then he gave it a pat and turned away toward Jerome and, standing beside him, Kenneth.
“Well done,” the Bigman said. “How does it feel?”
Kenneth piped up, “Rather good actually, Bigman. We had some challenges, but we came through. Looks pretty good actually, if I do say so myself.”
The Bigman nodded. “And you, Jerome?”
Jerome shrugged. “Job’s done. Like to get back to my fields now.”
The Bigman just looked at him. Jerome found himself counting the glyphs that the thin arm on the Timex swept through. He got to four before the Bigman finally replied.
“Very well. You are released.” He turned to leave them, but stopped after a few steps and looked back. “I trust there will be no further trouble from you two.”
“No, Bigman,” Kenneth said quickly.
Jerome said the same.
* * * * *
Sparks popped from the fuel burning inside Jerome’s little stove. He had the stove’s door open, and the flames within lit the inside of his lean-to with a flickering orange-yellow light.
Jerome sat on the edge of his cot, a wooden cup in his hands, and stared at the clear fluid within it.
He had distilled this spirit himself, over the winter. Nothing much else to do during those long months of cold, and he had long pondered the doing of it.
But he hadn’t cracked the cask he’d poured the finished product into until tonight.
The wall project’s completion had left him with a hollow feeling inside. Or maybe it was the revelation Kenneth had given him that one day. Or maybe it was both.
Or maybe –
With a shock, Jerome realized what it was he was feeling.
He was not angry.
The anger had been with him for so long, he had ceased to notice it almost, except when it burned severe. Now that it was gone…
It was like a piece of himself had been hewn away. But not a wholesome piece; rather something gangrenous. Being without it felt…
It felt good.
Jerome rose, the twinge in his back barely registering. He unstoppered the flask of spirits and poured the contents of his cup back in. Then he replaced the stopper and, picking up a second cup, he closed the door to his stove and left his lean-to.
The moon was nearly full, leaving him more than sufficient light to navigate the his fields to the track through the Bigman’s realm. But instead of following it past the towering behemoth, he turned instead to follow it to the other side of his stone edifice.
It only took a few minutes to reach Kenneth’s door.
His house was larger than Jerome’s, and properly constructed from felled logs, with a thatch roof. He even had a porch out from of his door, where a pair of empty rocking chairs sat.
Kenneth opened the door promptly at Jerome’s knock. Seeing him standing there on his porch, the younger man’s eyes narrowed and he tensed visibly.
This sort of meeting had ended in a fight enough times that Jerome couldn’t blame him for expecting a punch.
Instead, Jerome raised the flask in his right hand and the pair of cups in his left. “I brewed this over the winter. Hadn’t uncorked it until tonight. I was going to have at it, but thought maybe you might like a try as well.”
The invitation, and the unspoken peace proposal, lingered in the air. In his mind, Jerome saw the thin arm of the Timex sweeping past glyphs. One. Two.
Kenneth smiled ever so slightly and nodded. “Sure. Why not?”
Jerome returned the smile, then turned and sat down on one of the rocking chairs and unstoppered the cask. He poured out a portion of his spirits into the first cup and held it out to Kenneth, who took it as he sat in the other chair. Then he poured himself a cup and, setting the cask on the floor of the porch, re-stoppered it.
He straightened in his chair and lifted the cup toward Kenneth in toast.
Kenneth returned the gesture, then they both drank.
* * * * *
They did not go blind.
This is the 6th story of 52 that Michael Kingswood wrote as a challenge to write a story a week for a year. A collection of his stories were published and are available here: