The Tale of Oriel Chapter 1
HE KNEW FROM THE FIRST that this man would know how to hurt him. He had to keep the fear secret, and he couldn’t cry no matter how much he wanted to. When he was hungry he couldn’t ask for food, when he was cold he couldn’t try to push himself closer to the fire, when he was tired he had to stay awake, when he was lonely he had to be alone. He knew from the first that he would have to be strong.
Damall’s Island rested on stone. Boulders edged the island, and rose up out of the ground in unexpected places all across it. The harbor beach was made up of stones as sharp as shells, as if a giant had brought his hammer down on the boulders, and shattered them. Some of the boulders walked out into the sea, but the waves could no more move them or beat them down than the wind and rain could. He learned to be as strong as stone.
He brought nothing with him to the island but the clothes he wore. The Damall took away his clothes and dressed him in the tied trousers and brown shirts all the boys wore. There was a pile of boots in all sizes—the soles made out of the same soft leather as their sides—for when he could not go barefooted. He didn’t know if he had brought a name with him to the island. If he had a name, the Damall took that away, too.
The Damall was master. A tall thin man, with hair as pale as the bellies of fish and eyes that glittered like the sun on water, he was the sixth Damall to be master on the island. The boys, who did not know if they were slaves or sons, obeyed the Damall. They worked the year around, to serve the Damall.
In spring, the schools of fish were netted, then spread out on the flat rocks to dry in the sun. There was the garden to turn over, and take stones from, and then plant with onions and turnips, parsnips, cabbage. In spring, the places where the wind had torn the roof tiles off, or the snow and sleet had worn them through, had to be mended. The sows, which had wintered in a shed, slunk out into the trees to give birth. They had to be found and brought back before they could eat their young. The stench of the long shuttered winter had to be washed out of the whole house.
Spring took the boys out from under the Damall’s glittering eye. When winter sleet beat down on the roof, the Damall would as soon call for the whipping box as find any other way to hurry time along. But in spring the boys scattered all over the farmstead, and it was harder for the Damall to get them.
Griff told him that the island boys had to know how to swim before they could be trusted on a fishing boat. On the first warm day in spring, a boy who couldn’t swim went out in a boat with older boys. The older boys dropped him overboard and sailed away.
The Damall watched to be sure it was done properly. The Damall sailed a boat by himself and watched from nearby.
Sometimes the boy just couldn’t learn to swim and he would sink. Most of the time the boy struggled, and learned, and swam back to the island. But sometimes a boy would be too young, or be someone who couldn’t float, and he would sink. The drowned boys were usually never seen again on the Damall’s island. Maybe, like fragments of boats that washed up onto the Damall’s shores, the drowned boys washed up on one of the other islands. There were many islands here, of all sizes, scattered close to the mainland, like swimmers trying to climb back onto solid ground.
He was afraid of the water, afraid of its cold dark deepness.
Griff told him that the boys who sank were afraid. They flailed their hands around and tried to breathe water, because they were afraid.
He said he wasn’t afraid.
It wasn’t true.
Griff woke him up one night, in the room where the littlest boys slept rolled up in blankets on the stone floor. Griff led him to a place where the shore sloped slowly down underwater. Griff showed him how to lie on the water, as if it were a floor, and then how to kick and paddle his way along the surface. Griff didn’t want him to sink, and die.
Swimming was easy, after all, even at night when the sky was as black as the sea. Swimming was like a game he could play, once Griff taught him how. Not many days later he was taken out in a boat, but he wouldn’t let the bigger boys push him into the water. He wouldn’t let them think he was frightened. Nikol wanted him to be frightened. Nikol looked over to where the Damall sat smiling in his own boat, his hair as white as the frothy tops of waves. Before he would let Nikol push him out of the boat, he stood up on its side, and balanced there, and jumped into the water, and set out swimming for the island.
He heard Nikol cry out in disappointment. He heard the Damall laughing.
That night he was the one the Damall called up, to sit at his table close to the warm fire and to eat whatever the Damall had left on his plate, which was more and better food than any of the boys got. “Nikol wanted you to drown,” the Damall said.
“Aye,” he said. It was true.
“Shall we whip him for that?”
He hated the whippings. He hated watching a whipping almost as much as he hated being whipped. The whip had a thick wooden handle and little leather tails with knots tied into them and, in some of the knots, little sharp pebbles.
“Shall we call for the whipping box?” the Damall asked. The Damall leaned close to him, leaning across the wooden table, and looked into his eyes.
To say yes meant to watch—as they must—and know that Nikol would hate him even more and look for even more ways to hurt him. To say no meant crossing the Damall’s will and making the Damall wonder if he was a weakling. He sat silent as a stone while the Damall waited impatiently, until he thought to say, “Don’t care.”
“Ach, you bore me. Get away. Get out.”
He obeyed. He hadn’t eaten, and he was hungry, but he didn’t ask to stay at the table. The Damall whipped Nikol anyway. The Damall wanted to hear Nikol’s bitter protests, and loud wailings under the whip, and Nikol’s whimperings when he pulled his clothes back on. The Damall liked to see Nikol being angry and not being able to do anything about it. The Damall liked to see Nikol being afraid and being ashamed.
He was walking back from the privies that night when a stone hit him on the mouth. Blood dripped onto his tongue. Nikol thought he could hide in the dark and throw a stone without being known, but Nikol was stupid with anger and slow with the weakness that came after a whipping. Nikol was older and bigger, but Nikol ate a mouthful of dirt before the fight was done.
Griff washed off the cut with wine stolen from the Damall’s barrel. When that stinging eased, Griff sprinkled a little of the precious salt from the Damall’s cellar onto the open wound, so it would heal clean. If the Damall had caught Griff taking wine and salt, Griff would have begged forgiveness. Griff would have been afraid and sorry and promised never to do it again. When Griff was afraid he would promise. Later, he might take the wine and salt again, and be afraid again, and promise again, and break the promise again, over and over again. Griff had the bending strength of a sapling.
IN SUMMER, GRIFF BENT TIRELESSLY over the gardens, pulling up weeds, and tirelessly over the smokehouse fires, where hams and fish were hung along poles, and tirelessly over the oars when the wind died and the sail flapped uselessly. Griff never complained and seldom smiled.
He was like Griff, and didn’t complain, but he smiled often, and laughed, too, for no reason. He could run faster and swim farther than any other boy, after eight winters’ growth had been added to the three or four he’d brought to the island. He was handiest with the boats, and handiest with the nets, and it had been years since he had lost a fight. He was the one all the boys wanted to sail with, or work beside—all the boys except Nikol. He was the one the Damall liked best to take across the sea to the market town, the two of them sailing away at dawn, in a boat heavy laden with smoked and fresh fish, as well as barrels of the black gostas that were caught crawling around the boulders, with claws so strong they could take a boy’s finger off if he wasn’t quick. The Damall would sell first, and then buy flour with the money, or buy cloth for shirts and trousers if that was needed, or buy barrels of wine. Always they would buy as large a cone of salt as they had coins for, to add to the Damall’s saltcellar.
Once the Damall had given him a pinch of salt on top of his turnip stew. He was the only boy ever to have salt on anything.
Once the Damall took Nikol to the market town, and they bought a dagger, but the dagger wasn’t for Nikol, it was for him. The Damall gave the dagger to him, and promised to show him how to use it. But the next morning the dagger was gone from under his mattress. Nikol thought he would tell the Damall, but he didn’t.
On the Damall’s island, each boy of sixteen falls was taken to the city, and sold. The journey to the city lasted two nights away from the island. He made many of these journeys with the Damall and such a boy, from the time of his own sixth fall on the island. In the boat, the boy had his hands and feet tied, because no boy wanted to be sold as a slave, or to the mines, or to an army. The boy would ask for help to escape, or ask for pity, or ask for mercy. He never answered. He sat deaf as stone at the tiller. After the boy had been sold, he could wander around the city on his own and spend the three copper coins the Damall would give him out of the sale price of the boy. Once he spent all of his pennies on sweet cakes, which he carried back to the island wrapped up in his shirt. He gave them out among the boys, leaving none out. He felt, when he gave out pieces of sweet cake into the open hands, and the boys all looked eagerly at him—he felt clever and strong, the best of all of them.
The Damall whipped him that night, nineteen strokes. He knelt naked in the whipping box, the sharp stones digging into his knees and into the palms of his hands. The Damall whipped him until he was sorry he’d given away the sweet cakes. The boys crowded around being glad it wasn’t them in the whipping box. Griff brought seawater up from the dark when all the rest of the house was silent, to wash his back clean, and he slept on his belly for two weeks, but he never let the Damall see how much his back hurt. He laughed, ran, worked, and ate, just like always, just as if every time he moved any part of his body he didn’t feel pain as sharp as a burning branch across his back and his legs. Stones had no feeling so they knew nothing about pain, and he was a stone.
In the long purple evenings, the Damall would tell them about the treasure the Great Damall, who was the first Damall, had won from the world. The treasure was hidden on the island. “Gold coins and jewelry, silver coins and jewelry, even gemstones,” the Damall said. His voice glittered. “Diamonds, more like those stars up there than you’d think, and pearls set into necklaces and bracelets, but the best of it is the beryls. Nine beryls there were,” the Damall said. “Nine green beryls paid in ransom to the Great Damall by a Prince from the Kingdom. Years ago, when the Old Countess was a child, there was war. This was war between the Old Countess’s father and a soldier Captain, and the Captain hired a giant from the armies of the Kingdom—where all the soldiers are huge as trees, and long to die, and can’t be killed by steel or wood but only with a naked fist into the forehead, here.” He pounded his own forehead, between the eyes. “The Great Damall had captured the giant and his Prince brought ransom, to free him. This was a Prince among Princes, a Prince who might have been a King, and he sat down at the table with the Great Damall, and they ate out of the same pot, and he bought back his giant with four beryls, each one the size of my thumb.” He held up his thumb. “What’s that face for?”
He wasn’t afraid, because it was only a mistake the sixth Damall had made. “You said nine before.”
“Four beryls, nine beryls, what’s the difference. As long as one beryl remains on the island, we’re safe enough. Maybe I like to change the number. It took one beryl to buy the island from the Countess, it would take the value of one beryl to buy the island’s safety, so however many exactly there are between doesn’t matter, does it? Maybe I’m just making up a story, maybe there was no Countess who ruled the cities, and there were no beryls. Maybe there isn’t any Kingdom, either, with giant soldiers and Princes who value their soldiers at this high rate; maybe it’s all a made-up story. Nikol, do you believe in this Kingdom?”
“Naw,” Nikol said. He swaggered his shoulders. “Nobody ever went there, did they? Only someone stupid would think—”
“Then how do you explain the beryls?” the Damall asked, in a soft and dangerous voice. “If I’m stupid,” in a sharp and dangerous voice. “Who’ll bring out the whipping box?”
“Don’t, please,” Nikol said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Who’s going to help Nikol take off his shirt and trousers, since he seems to be having trouble doing that?”
“Please?” Nikol cried, and he had tears going down his face. “You were telling us, about the beryls. You were telling about the treasure. Tell more,” Nikol asked.
The Damall shook his head. Four boys carried in the whipping box and set it into place. Two boys were pulling Nikol’s shirt over his head and he struggled to pull it back down.
“Tell about the pirates,” Nikol cried. “The pirates and the treasure and the fifth Damall.”
The Damall shook his head. He reached down for the whip and shook out its arms.
“But you were telling us!” Nikol screamed. “Please don’t—I didn’t—I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He clutched the top of his trousers. “I hate you!” he screeched.
“Oh,” the Damall said. “Oh dear me. Did you boys hear that? Nikol, I wasn’t going to whip you, but now I have to.”
Nikol knew when he was defeated and he hunched down, weeping and begging the Damall to stop, begging, after each of the five strokes. “One for each beryl,” the Damall said. “Isn’t that right, boys?”
The boys agreed.
IN FALL, THE PIGS WERE slaughtered, held squealing overhead while Nikol slit their throats with a knife, until his arm ran with blood and his face and hair were covered with it. His teeth shone out white in his blood-dark face. After they bled themselves empty, Nikol slit open the pigs’ bellies and everybody helped pull out the guts, then they all worked to peel the skins off. Griff was in charge of smoking the butchered meat, and also of boiling the heads and trotters and bones. Wood had to be gathered into piles so that the smokehouse fires would burn night and day. Buckets of entrails had to be carried down to the sea, and poured into the water.
Apples and nuts ripened on the trees in fall. He was the bravest climber, who went highest. The Damall’s island had a small apple orchard and a large woods, as well as two meadows in cultivation and two more for grazing. Before the Great Damall bought it from the Countess, for the price of one beryl, there had been fisher families living on the hill, high enough to be safe from spring tides and winter storms. The Great Damall sent them away, and tore down their cottages, and built his own house there. The Great Damall’s house was of stone and had many rooms—a great hall with a fireplace so large a boy could stand upright in it, with his arms spread out, and touch the fireplace stones only with the soles of his feet; the master’s bedroom with its own fireplace and a carved bed hung with heavy curtains; a kitchen; three rooms for the boys, one for the littlest, one for the middling, and one for the oldest. All around the yard the Great Damall built a stone wall, with two wooden barred gates in it, to keep the animals in, or to keep the boys in, or to keep the house and those living in it safe. For pirates roamed the islands, hiding during the day and attacking at night with fire and sword. The towns and cities of the coast were too well fortified and defended, so the pirates preyed on the islands. The Great Damall built a house that could be sealed up as safe as a castle against pirates. It had cellars for storing food and a deep well in the center of the walled yard.
Only once had pirates attacked the island. They had come by day when the gates were open, when they weren’t expected. They had heard of the treasure. They held the fifth Damall’s hand in fire, until it burned off. But he didn’t tell them where the treasure was. He died three days later in a fever, but he hadn’t told. The treasure was safe and the island was safe. As long as one of the green stones remained on the island, as the story was told, no harm would come to the grassy, forested island that rose up above its circling base of boulders. The Damall’s island was too small, and townless, for the pirates to come back to—or so the boys hoped.
IN WINTER, THE BOYS WERE kept inside, under the glittering eye of the Damall. They were taught to read, the older teaching the younger. The quickest boys also learned to write, which would make them more valuable as slaves in the market. The Damall told them the numbers, and what he knew of how they worked, but only Griff needed to remember that because it was Griff who kept the books of records—household income and expenses; where boys had been found and, if purchased, how much had been paid for them and, when sold, how much had been gotten; the yields of field and fowl and pigs, the catch of fish and gostas and skals; the records of deaths, by drowning, by fever, by coughing, by infected wounds, by wasting away. There were some boys who came to the island only to die, pale and listless, and they were poor weeping things whom nobody grieved over. Their bodies were wrapped in an old blanket, with three stones at the head and three at the feet; they were taken out to sea and set down upon the water. There were other boys who came to the island and it seemed nothing could kill them. Nikol had fevers and infections, and once he was swept out to sea in one of the boats. Nikol always got better, however, and he’d been blown back to the island by a friendly wind. Nothing could kill Nikol.
Nothing could kill him, either. He had never been sick, except once. Once, when he was little and Griff had just been given the job of cooking for the boys and the Damall, too, Griff gathered some wild onions in spring, to put into the soup. Griff chopped up the onions and cooked them in with the turnips and fish bones, and that night the whole house fell ill—the boys went outside to vomit, many had the shits, all had sore and swollen throats. Even the Damall was struck down, lying on his carved bed and calling for pots to be brought to him by whoever was on his feet at the time. The illness lasted all the night long, and it was two days before anyone felt well enough to wonder about it; one of the littlest boys died but everyone else recovered. The Damall asked Griff what went into the soup, and then he went out to the woody edges of the meadow on a damp morning to dig up one of the plants. He took it to the market town and one of the old women told him its name, naked lady, and its poison. First the Damall whipped Griff, then he left Griff crouched naked by the door for day after day, without food, tied with a rope around his neck.
He could do nothing for Griff. He couldn’t even drop a crust of bread as he passed the door, because Nikol watched. He couldn’t even sneak out in the darkness of night to bring water, because Nikol slept across his doorsill. If he had been caught trying to help Griff—
He had to be strong as stone, and pretend it didn’t matter to him. Nikol watched him, to catch his weakness. The Damall watched him, too. He was as strong as stone, and no one saw the anger that burned inside him.
It ended, the punishment, and the memory of both punishment and cause faded. Griff was kept in the kitchen, and made no more mistakes like that. The years rolled by, spring to summer to fall to winter, and over again, and the older boys were sold and new boys came to the island. One day, the Damall promised, he would name his heir, he would choose the boy who would stay on the island and be the seventh Damall. The heir would be master of the island. The heir would be told the secret hiding place of the treasure, which he must never reveal until he told it to the boy he had chosen for his own heir. The Damall’s eyes glittered in firelit winter darkness as he told the boys this.
He didn’t know why the Damall kept looking at him, whenever the story turned to the heir. Until he finally did understand. He would be the boy named. He would be the heir. He would be—and his chest swelled with it—the master. He would be the seventh Damall.