Mathilde tried to remember how many brothers the groom had. The bride had already handled three of them. Now she was dancing with the fourth one, a young lad being significantly smaller then her. But the young girl still seemed to be quite happy, a big smile on her plump face, the cheeks red from dancing and Federico’s wine, and her brown hair flying through the air. The chain of chrysanthemums, violas and King’s sorrels in her hair had already lost more than one leaf and wasn’t sitting very straight anymore. But she didn’t seem to care a bit while dancing with her new brother-in-law through the taproom to the sounds of the lute, the flutes and all of the wooden shoes maltreating her floorboards.
Walking quickly behind the counter, Mathilde took a sniff and a quick glance in the oven, opening the door with the apron wrapped around her hand, confirmed her impression. The bread wasn’t quite finished. „Add some wood, Miklav!“ Without a look whether her son did like he was told to, she swept to the big cauldron. With one dip of the big dipper and a strong blow she carefully sipped a little bit of the soup. Almost… „Miklav, one more carrot!“ As she gripped the knife and returned to the counter, the vegetable already laid on the chopping board. With some quick slices, she cut it into small pieces, held the board over the cauldron and gave the carrot parts with a flowing motion into the soup, where some oysters swam at the blubbering surface. She would have to taste it again shortly.
„Mathilde, may I help you?”
“Orelie, darling, you came, too!” Mathilde hugged her old friend over the counter.
“Of course, I wouldn’t miss this wedding for the world!”
“Have you seen, how happy the bride is?” Mathilde nodded towards the girl dancing in the middle of the room with a little boy, which indicated she was almost finished with the tradition to dance with every brother of the newlywed husband. “It’s just that no one knows if it’s because of her husband, or because she gets away from Farmon’s farm.”
Orelie laughed and tapped her on the shoulder. “Mathilde you are hopeless. So what can I help you with?“
„The soup is ready“, she gave her verdict, as she was already back tasting, „please take a look at the bread for me, it should be finished soon. Miklav! Miklav, boy where are you?“
Her son hustled towards her through the farmers, three empty tankards in his hands. “I was told to refill the beer.“
„You can do this in a minute, but first you have to help me with the cauldron”, she said and pinched his ear. “And the next time I call you, you come here at once.”
Miklav made a stressed impression but didn’t dare to resist and helped her getting the heavy cauldron off the fire. Like always, when the evenings were a little busier, her son seemed overstrained. Adanos, give me enough years to prepare the boy properly! she thought while putting out the fire. “Why are you standing there, Miklav? The roast hare is almost charred.“ As if he was bitten by a bloodfly the boy ran away. He was trying alright, but he wasn’t ready to take over the Dancing Meatbug someday. All of the hustle and bustle, the numerous tasks at once, that was too much for him. If only her Ebert was still alive, he would’ve made the boy get a move on!
Mathilde swiped her hands clean with her apron and looked around. Miklav had done good work with the flowers that she had to admit. She thought back at her own wedding. So many years had passed, even before Lukkor and his riders had started the big war by crossing the hills. Maybe Miklav would be one of the first men of the march who wouldn’t experience an invasion from the south. For many years she had hoped that now that the king had conquered the desert, everything would change. Miklav didn’t really know what it meant to be a man of the march. He had been given the privilege to grow up without the fear of a raid by the men of the south who grudged them their fruitful lands. But today she wasn’t so sure if he really would escape this fate, maybe this was what the lord Adanos had decided and the life in the march would never change.
This seemed very likely. As she looked around the room she saw the whole march assembled like it always had been, if there was something to celebrate. Even it was only the wedding of a farmhand and a maidservant. In the meantime, the bride had done her job and the guests did the name of the tavern credit. The first part at least. She didn’t want to compare any of her guests to a meatbug! All the peasants and peasant women of the different farms danced in a big circle while others beat time with their feet. Nobody seemed to care that the flute player had taken a break and was losing his face in the spume on top of his tankard. Next to that, she saw two of the fishermen from the gulf flirting with maidservants from Josh’s farm and Orelie’s husband Derec toasting Federico with his wine. She could also see one of his farmhands, a young hothead named Ben, arguing with one of the transients lodging in her tavern who of course were welcome to the celebration like anyone else.
“Mathilde, I see you took the cauldron with the fish away from the fire!” Tulio, one of Farmon’s farmhands came towards her with one of the margrave’s men still dressed in his green tunic, but without his weapon. “What do you think? Wouldn’t it be fair to give me the first bowl of soup, after all, it was me who caught this fish!”
Mathilde laughed, grabbed a wooden bowl from the shelf and poured him some soup. In the meantime, the soldier continued a heated argument. “That’s what I tell you! Just yesterday as I had guard duty in the cellar I heard that scratching from behind the wall again. Scratching!
Tulio laughed and took the bowl. “I’m sure what you heard were some rats behind the wall. Hey” – he leaned forward in a conspiratorial way – “I heard that there are rats in Khorinis as big as wolves! Maybe some of them were on board the last ship to Trelhaven and entered your lands from there.”
“You are the one to know that” the soldier replied smiling and also took a bowl of soup. “But the rats have such a good life down there at your place, they would never leave the warm straw.”
“Well, if Farmon heard that, he would go straight to the count and tell him that he only can pay half of the lease because of all the rats.”
“Is there something new about the old miser?” Mathilde asked like she always did. The Dancing Meatbug was the heart of the march. Everone met anyone here. She was the one to tell all the news to and she was the one spreading them.
“Ask his boy.”
“Jennek is here, too?”
“Yes, although I have no idea where. I’m sorry.” Tulio tipped his head. “I have to go and find Jette”, he explained already turning around. “She promised me a dance”, and off he went.
“Tilde, we are almost out of firewood”, Orelie said from the side.
“Miklav was supposed to fetch some. Where is that boy anyway? Miklav! Miklav!” Her son was rushing towards her and almost ran into some of the dancing peasants. Mathilde pinched his ear. “I told you to come to me at once when I call you!”
“Hey, Mathilde, get me another ale!”
“And where is my soup?”
“Aren’t you listening?”, she asked and pinched the overstrained boy in the ear again. “Get the soup going. Orelie, could you tap a new keg of ale? I’ll fetch some wood.”
Most people would have had a hard time moving through the crowd, as even the farmers from the pass area had joined the celebration. But Mathilde was working at the Dancing Meatbug since she got engaged to Ebert, and if she had learned one thing it was moving without any trouble through a bunch of people, should it be necessary with six flagons of beer in her hands.
It was nice and cold outside, like only the nights in the west march could be. It was a compensation for the oh so warm days, Ebert used to say, as Adanos watched over the people of the march and Adanos brought balance to everything. Only by stepping outside, she realized how hot it had become among all the people inside. She was tempted to take a short break, it was such a nice evening. In front of her, the trees of the forest rose in a deep black, above her the branches and leaves gave way for a spectacular view of the black but star-sprinkled sky. A cricket chirped. But she had no time to enjoy all of this. She had to take care of her guests. So she quickly moved around the house to the firewood. As she went around the corner she saw the keep on the other side of the river rising up in the night sky. It was dark too. Just here and there some lights moved around on the walls. The soldiers of margrave Heron, that patrolled with torches and who surely were jealous of those comrades enjoying their free night. Quietly and peacefully Trelis lay there. Like always. How many wild animals might roam the forest, how many Orcs neared from the north, might the people of the desert in the south have risen again, in the shadow of those walls the people of the march could only feel safe. So many generations Trelis had been the bulwark against the attacks from the south, and the margrave had always protected them.
As she entered again, the firewood in her hands, all of her senses, maybe with the exception of her taste, were flooded with information. After the dark on the outside, she now was greeted by the colourful flowers and the many people in their best dresses dancing in front of her. The noise, only audible in a cushioned way outside of the house, all of the laughing and singing and clapping, the dozens of voices, the music, the dancing, everything was such a contrast to the chirping of the cricket outside. Hot, even muggy, it was, nothing of the cold from the outside world remained. But most of all: she smelled the bread.
“Quickly Miklav, the bread! Don’t be tardy it is almost burned!” Her son made haste towards the oven. She just stopped him for a second to pinch his ear again for his carelessness – an acrobatic masterpiece considering all of the wood in her arms – then she continued scolding him for his slowness. Fortunately, the fresh and pleasant smell that filled the room shortly after, told her that it was not too late.
“Oh, Jennek!”, she greeted Famon’s son happily, as she had dropped the firewood in its place, and saw him. “How are you?”
“I’m alright.” The young lad sipped on his wine and made a face that did not fit his words.
“The old man is flaying you quite a bit, isn’t he?”, she asked sympathetically. The weals on his hand were quite obvious.
“Well we have two hands less now, that can help on the fields, so we all have to work twice as hard.”, he answered with a grim face and words that surely were Famon’s.
“Twice the work and half the pay, if I know your father well enough.”, she laughed. But Jennek wasn’t cheered up. “But how is your mother?”
The look on the face of the young farmer went even darker. “Not well. She can’t work anymore. She only lies in bed all the time.”
Mathilde swiped her hands on her apron and hugged the young man. “Don’t give up hope! Your mother is a tough woman. Everything will turn out all right. My Ebert always said…”
Jennek didn’t seem to care much about Ebert’s words – or to be more accurate Adanos’, as her docile husband would never have bothered anyone with his private advice. And if she was completely honest with herself, she knew, besides all of her love for her husband, that he hadn’t been clever enough to have some good advice of his own. Jennek didn’t listen to the words she wanted to give him on his way and mumbled: “This merchant from Geldern was here not long ago. The one who keeps an eye on his potions all the time and who delivers them to Trelhaven personally every time. He said it wasn’t so bad, yet. He could bring a potion from one of the alchemists of Geldern when he visits the next time. But father was closefisted as always. He bargained until the price was half of the original value, but even that wasn’t cheap enough. Now he says that all of the people in Geldern are quacks anyway. He sent one of the maidservants to collect some healing plants and said, that should suffice. Of course, he shortened her pay for the time she wasn’t working on the fields.
Mathilde started to answer. And for sure no pieces of Adanos’ wisdom were forming in her mind, as there was a time to let the lord of meekness and charity be a good man and to thump on the table. But she again couldn’t finish what she wanted to tell Jennek, as all of a sudden one of the count’s men stormed into the tavern, almost knocking the smith Marcelon of his feet and the tankard of ale out of his hand. His face was pale and he gestured with his hands as he was screaming on top of his lungs. Still, it took a while until the crowd listened to him. “The Orcs! The Orcs! In Geldern! The Orcs have Geldern. Have captured Geldern! The Orcs!” he screamed.
All of a sudden it was silent. No one was dancing. No music was playing. Even Jennek seemed to be too surprised to pore over his father’s closefistedness. Mathilde didn’t realize that the hare was charring and forgot to scold Miklav to take care of it or to pinch him in his ear.
Of course, she had heard that those beasts, sent by Beliar, had overrun the plains in the north. They had burned Silden to the ground, at least that were the rumours. But the plains were far away. And Myrtana was huge and mighty and unscalable. King Rhobar was ruling all of the known world. Even the people of the desert had been defeated years ago. And for the people of the west march there only was one horror, and that were the Varantinians. The Orcs, everyone had believed, would be sent back to their sparse homeland. So they had crossed the mountains in a surprise move and had overrun the helpless plains. But the king would answer with all of the might of his army, which had conquered all the realms of men. In the last weeks and months now and then soldiers and paladins had passed Trelis on their travels and every time they had cheered for them. But now…
Geldern had fallen. She still couldn’t believe it. But she knew what that meant: Soon Trelis would be besieged again like it had been countless times in the past. But this time the attackers wouldn’t come from the south, they would come from the north. It seemed like Miklav would learn what it meant to tremble and be afraid after all.