Deciphering the Marks

“That’s all, children!  Go home, now; it’s bedtime.”  Ghaldak levered himself to his feet, as if to emphasise that he would tell no more tales.  In spite of their disappointment, most of the youngsters did as they were told, moving apart as they left the circle they had formed close to the fire.  Mothers scooped up the toddlers, and the older ones who lived in the favoured houses around the village green made their own way home, often holding a younger sibling or two by the hand.

As if this movement had been a signal, men started to appear on the green, and to make their way towards the fire.  Tandis, the only child who had not so far moved, got to his feet; he sensed that he would lose his moment unless he spoke now.

But Ghaldak was looking out towards the men, and did not notice the youngster approach.  Greatly daring, Tandis reached up and tugged on his sleeve.  “Excuse me,” he said tentatively.  When there was no response, he pulled harder, and spoke a little louder.  “Excuse me.  Sorry:  I didn’t understand.  How did you know?”

Ghaldak looked down.  “How did I know?” he asked impatiently.  “How did I know what?”

“About that farmer having the best apple juice.  You said you bought one mugful from each of the farmers, and then you and your wife and your apprentice tried them all, so you’d know which one to choose, when you bought all the juice for the festival.  But how did you know?  How did you know which farmer’s juice you liked best?”

Ghaldak looked at the lad properly for the first time, and bent down to his level.  “You’re Pardis Horse-handler’s son, aren’t you?  What’s your name, lad, and how old are you?”

“I’m Tandis.  And I’m six – nearly six and a half.”

Ghaldak shook his head at a man who wanted to talk to him, and lowered himself slowly down to kneel on the ground.  “Well, now, Tandis – what do you think?  How could I have known?  What would you have done?”

The little boy considered.  “I don’t know.  That’s why I asked.  I mean, I did wonder if each farmer gave you a different shaped mug, but I don’t know that you would remember which mug came from which farmer.  Unless you tied a ribbon around the mug that had the best juice in, and asked the farmers to take their own mug.  Then you’d know.  But maybe they wouldn’t remember which was their mug.  Or maybe they wouldn’t all be different.  So then I thought about drawing a picture of each farmer on his mug, but I’m not very good at drawing.  I don’t think I’d be able to tell, afterwards, which picture meant which farmer.  So I wondered – do you have to be an expert at drawing, to be a merchant?  Only I don’t think so – your apprentice plays with us for a bit sometimes, in the stables, after he’s bedded down your horses.  And I don’t think he’s an expert drawer.”

“You’re right – he’s not.  Nor am I, come to that.  But I am an expert writer, and I’m teaching that to Carnas.  Writing’s a bit like drawing, in a way.  It’s harder to learn, but once you can do it, it’s easier to do.”

“Show me!”  Tandis saw the raised eyebrow, and added, “Sorry.  I mean – please would you show me?”

“Not now, lad.  It’s past your bedtime – look, that must be your mother, watching us, waiting to take you home.  And the men are waiting for me; I promised them news from the city, once the sun had set.  Anyway, you’re too young to understand writing.  Maybe, if you learn to work hard and you show yourself to be reliable and quick-witted, you’ll impress some employer in the years leading up to your manhood ceremony.  Then perhaps you’d get taken on by someone who’ll teach you writing.  For now, just remember that there is a way to put things down, and be able to read them back later.”

Tandis wanted to ask more questions, but Ghaldak pushed himself upright once again and gestured to the men hanging back, who now approached the fire.  Tandis found himself in a forest of legs, and he had to peer this way and that to work out which way he should take to find his mother.

“Mum,” he asked as soon as he reached her, “Mum, what’s reading?”

“Reading?  That’s council stuff – something to doing with scribing.  Not something we have to worry about; just as well, when there’s so much else to do.”

“I’m going to do reading when I get older, Mum.”

“Bless you, child, you’ll be far too busy doing proper work, you wait and see!  Come along home now – it’s past bedtime!  The sun’s already set, and I’ll need you up first thing in the morning; they’ll be harvesting to the south of the town, and you and I will go gleaning again.”

“Will the older boys be there, like today?”

“Doubtless they will, young man, and doubtless they’ll take you fishing again, if you’ve still got the energy, after you’ve filled a big basket of grain first.  So see you sleep well tonight!”

“I will!  Race you home, Mum!”  He set off quickly, knowing that his mother would not trouble to run too hard.  His conversation with Ghaldak was almost forgotten, but not quite; deep down in his mind, a seed had been planted.

* * * * *

“Gentle her into it,” urged Pardis.  “Don’t try to force your will on her!”  He leaned back against the wall, making it clear that he did not intend to help his ten-year-old son.

Tandis stroked the uneasy filly and scratched her neck, on the spot that always seemed to itch her.  “Come on, now,” he said soothingly.  “Let’s get you into this harness.  You’ll see, you’ll enjoy it.  Off to see the world, you’ll be, soon as you get used to this work – well, off to Rorbik, at least!  And you’ll get a good scratch and rub down, plus a bucket of oats, to reward you for pulling the cart.”  As he spoke, he kept up the scratching and rubbing with one hand, while gradually bringing the harness towards her head.  The horse eyed it nervously, but did not shy away this time.  “Oh, good girl!” exclaimed Tandis, nuzzling her cheek just where she liked it.  “And look – you’ve got your mum beside you, to help you pull, and to show you how to behave in the harness.”

Pardis moved forwards, a quiet nod his only approval.  “You’re lucky,” he remarked.  “You’ve got a feel for horses.  And they trust you.  See you never do anything to let them down – they don’t forget.”  He checked the yoke, and the attachments at the shafts of the cart.  “Now, we’ll just lead them around the yard – that’ll be enough for her first time.  No-one gets put on the interesting work with horses straight off,” he went on as they walked.  “You’d have to serve your time, mucking out the cows and pigs as well as the horses, long shifts in the fields, all that; but everyone knows you’ve helped me out from time to time, since you were small.  I don’t see why we couldn’t get you apprenticed to the animal husbandry team early – say, in a couple of years – and you’ll be working with me by the time the other lads are ready to start looking for a place.”

Tandis kept his attention on the filly, not daring to meet his father’s gaze.  “Did you always know you wanted to be a horse handler?” he asked.  “When you were my age, say?”

“Bless you, child; that’s not how it happens!  Especially not when I was a boy.  You had your manhood ceremony at the start of the summer after you turned fourteen, with all the others, like now.  Then you were sent to work in the fields – it’s such a busy time for the growers.  In fact, you’d probably been working there already; they’d not let someone of age sit idle, just for want of the ceremony.  And then, anyone who needed an apprentice would be keeping an eye on the youngsters – not out on the land, but by listening, in the tavern or on the village green after work.  They’d hear who was bright, and who was lazy, and who was fussy about what they’d do, and who was willing and strong.  And they’d weigh up who was worth offering an apprenticeship to, who might have the attitude or the qualities they needed.  Mind you, some employers already knew who they wanted, through knowing their parents, or being offered a bribe.”

“A bribe!  You mean some people pay someone to take their child?”

“Well, it’s not supposed to happen.  A boss is supposed to bear the cost of feeding and teaching his apprentices, in exchange for their labour.  In some cases, they have to house them, too, though it’s usually in a barn above the animals, to make sure all’s well with them at night.  But Carshak’s such a prosperous town, there’s folks who’ll pay to improve their children’s chances.  An embroiderer, say, who’s got more money than sense, and a son or daughter not delicate-fingered enough to join them at sewing, might offer a gift to a smith or weaver, so their child doesn’t end up in the fields – they’d think themselves too good for working the land.  Don’t look like that, lad; it’s the way of the world.  But don’t you go thinking it’s a system that applies to people like us; your mother and I couldn’t pay someone to take you on.  Anyway, you’re willing, and strong, and you can think things through – you’ll get by on your own merits.  Just as well, really!”

Tandis gave the filly a last pat as his father gently released her from the harness, and asked, “Is it all right if I go now?  I told Mum I’d try to catch some fish for our supper.”

His father smiled.  “Now, if it weren’t that the river gives up its fish so easily that each family can readily catch their own, I could see that being a profession you might enjoy as much as horse handling!  Get along with you, then, lad!  It’s good to see you bringing food to the table so often.  Though I’d be best pleased if you could take to trapping rabbits as well; I could do with a change from fish now and then!”

The youngster smiled, and dashed off down the path towards the river.  He had two baskets with him.  One belonged to his mother, and he took it with him every day on his rounds from stables to fields to river, to carry fish, grain, fruit, or any other bounty that he came across.  The other was a small container that he had woven himself, rather inexpertly, from fresh young hazel that he had cut from the wood margin.  He knew that willow would have been easier to work for such a small article, but the sally beds belonged to the village and were harvested deliberately; it would have felt like stealing, to go and cut slender stalks there.  In any case, he had no particular skill for weaving, so it would have been a waste to use a prized resource for such a purpose.  He had made the best basket that he could, and had lined it with moss to hide the worst of its imperfections.

As he had expected, it did not take long to catch seven fish.  He put three in his mother’s basket, and the other four in the one he had made, and then he followed the river, rather than taking the path straight back into town.  He splashed across the ford, and soon came to a little hut, almost hidden away at the edge of the woodland.

There were two healers in town, who shared a building where they saw clients, made up their remedies, and trained their apprentices, and one of them lived in this hut.  Tandis had considered going to the healers’ building, but it had been too daunting a prospect:  all the people going in and out were adults, and seemed to know exactly how to approach the healers.  So he had kept an eye on the building whenever he could, and had trailed after one or other of the healers when they left.  He had noticed that the one who lived here always arrived early at his work and left early, whereas the other one, who lived in town, seemed to get to work a few hours later, and stay until well after the dinner hour.  As it was now approaching the end of the working day, Tandis was hoping that this one would either already be home, or would soon arrive, and so, greatly daring, he went up to the entrance, and raised his hand, ready to knock on the doorpost.

His arm fell back to his side, almost of its own volition.  Who was he, to invade a healer’s home like this?  He stood there, indecisive, unwilling to abandon the plan that had consumed him for weeks, and yet lacking the confidence to follow it through.  It suddenly occurred to him that the solecism he was considering might be serious enough that the healer would report him to his father, or, worse, bring him up as a figure of fun around the fire on the village green one evening.

This last thought decided him, and he turned, head bowed, to walk back to the town.  There, in front of him, he saw a pair of sandalled feet.

“Is it me you came to see?” a gentle voice enquired.  “My wife is almost certainly within, if your business is with her.”  Tandis could not find words, and his legs felt almost too weak to support him.  “My children are too young; you have surely not come to ask to play with them,” the voice continued.  After a while, the man went on, “Those are fine fish you have there.  It’s something I never really seem to have time for – fishing.  It’s a shame; I would like my children to eat fish now and then.”

At this, Tandis found his voice.  “These are for you,” he announced, thrusting forwards his little basket.  “One each; for you, your wife, and your children.  And the basket, if you can use it.”

“Well, now, that’s a very generous present.  Come, let’s go inside and give them to my wife; she’ll be delighted.  And then perhaps we could have a talk, and see if there’s something I can do for you in exchange.”

Afterwards, Tandis marvelled at how easy it had been, and then realised that it was the healer who had made it so.  Within a few minutes, he had blushed as the wife praised his skill and set to gutting the fish, had been shown to a seat in another room, a drink of juice in his hand, and had the full attention of the healer himself.

“I’m not ill,” he began.  “There’s nothing wrong with me.  I just need to know something, and I don’t know how to find out.  And I’ve seen some of the remedies that people get from you.  They’ve got the marks on.  So I thought you might tell me.”

“Tell you what, lad?”

“Tell me how to find out what they mean.  Mum says it’s called reading, and Dad says it’s deciphering, and they both say it’s not for the likes of us, but I want to know.”

“Ah.  I see.”  The healer was silent for a moment, his long fingers tapping gently on his knees, and his eyes narrowed.  “Why?  Why do you want to learn about reading?”

“It seems – special, somehow.  Like with horses.  Some of the other boys, they talk sweetly to the horses, but the horses won’t trust them.  And Dad and I – we can get close to any of the horses, even the skittish ones.  Sometimes, one of my friends asks me how, and wants to be able to get close too, but they’re not willing to take the time, day after day.  Dad’s always worked with horses, and I go and help him every afternoon, and I’m always careful and gentle with them.  It’s a slow thing, earning their trust.  And this deciphering – it looks like magic to me.  But I know it’s not.  It’s something that you’ve put effort into, like me with the horses, and that’s probably taken years.  And I want to understand how it works.”

“I see.   Well, I’m not going to teach you to read.  You’re right; that takes a long, long time.  The only way to learn to read is to be apprenticed to someone who will devote plenty of time, over a couple of years, to teach you, because he needs for you to know.  But if you like, I could give you a little glimpse; enough so you would appreciate something of how reading works.  Would that help, do you think?”

“Oh, yes, please!”

“Very well.  Come outside.”  The healer led the way to a dusty area beside the path, where chickens must have been scratching, and picked up a short stick.  “What is your name?”

“Tandis, sir.”

“Tandis.  Good.  Now say the name ‘Tandis’ slowly.  Again.  Feel the first sound.  T..andis.  T..andis.  Can you feel that first sound?”  At a nod he continued, “Now, what’s your father’s name?”

“Pardis, sir”

“Pardis.  Say the words one after another.  Feel the start of each word.  Pardis … Tandis.  Say them several times, until you can feel that they start differently.”

Tandis repeated the two names, and then said, “They don’t start the same.  But they finish the same.”

“Excellent!  That’s very good, lad.  Can you think of another word, that starts the same way as Tandis?”

He considered.  “Well, tan does.  Like what the tanner does.  So does tanner, actually.”

“That’s right.  Well, look at this.”  The healer used his stick to make some marks in the dust on the ground.  “Do you see that shape?  That shape represents the sound at the start of your name, and at the start of the word tan, and the word tanner.”

Tandis looked at the marks on the ground.  “I can’t see how that is like the sound,” he said at last.

“No.  You have to memorise each shape.  So you have to believe me, that if I make that shape, and then come back later, that shape will remind me what sound started your name.”

“But wouldn’t it be easier just to remember I was called Tandis?”

“Indeed it would.  But suppose I wanted to let someone else know your name.  I could make the marks, and they could read them.”

“Even if you weren’t there, to tell them?”

“Exactly.  And suppose I wanted to say a good deal more.  For example, in my workplace I have a list of all the people who have had consultations with me, with details of when they last came to see me, and what ailment they had.  So, if one of my clients goes for healing one evening, when I am not there, my partner can look up what remedies they’ve had.”

So it’s not just to help you remember stuff.  It’s to tell other people things, too.”

“That’s right.  Now, lad, look at this shape again – the first shape of your own name.  Put your hand on my stick, and see how it feels as I trace the shape again.  Try and memorise that shape.  Right.  Now I want you to turn around, and face my home for a minute.  Now, turn back again.”  The healer pointed down to the ground, off to one side.   “There are three names written here.  The writing starts on this side, and goes in this direction.  One of these three names is yours.  Can you work out which?”

Tandis looked, bewildered.  There were three rows of marks, with a good deal of space between each row.  Each row was therefore presumably a name.  But how was he to work out which was his?  He could not read!

“Look closely, now,” urged the healer.  “Look especially at the start of each name, over this side.  Do any of them look familiar?”

Tandis could not understand what he was supposed to do.  He looked carefully at the shapes, and suddenly it was clear to him.  “That one!” he exclaimed.  “That one’s got the shape you made over there on it.”

“Exactly.  That’s the one that represents your name.  Now, of course, if you could read, you could sound out each of the symbols, and you would know which other two names I have written here.  But it would take a long time, to memorise all the shapes, and to learn how they are put together to form words.  But has this answered your first question:  about how scribing and deciphering could transmit information?”

“Oh yes – thank you!”

“And has this short lesson been worth the fish and the basket?”

“Oh, it has – thank you!”

“Very well.  Then we have had a mutually satisfactory exchange – always the best kind.  I need to go and see my family now, and you probably ought to go home to yours.  Oh – and one other thing, Tandis.  I have enjoyed this session with you.  And I am glad you came.  But I am no teacher, and I have no desire to become one.  This was one special session, and we won’t be repeating it.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.  I’m sorry to have kept you from your family.  And I thank you – thank you so much!  At least I understand a little of how it all works now.”

“Very good.  I wish you well.”  The healer inclined his head, and then strode back into his home.  Tandis skipped away towards the town, and only just remembered to moderate his steps as he approached his own hut.

* * * * *

“No!”  It was the third time he had said it, and this time, Pardis, that gentlest of men, was almost shouting, irritation clear in his tone.  “You’re thirteen, lad – you don’t understand how the world works.  So take it from me – it’s not for people like us to be bards, or merchants, or healers, or elders.  Besides, what do you know of such professions?  Nothing!  Nor are likely to, neither.  You don’t know how lucky you are, to have had a head start in something like animal husbandry.  It’s an honourable trade, and you have the ability to move up from mucking out to handling quicker than most, thanks to all the time you’ve spent with me.  If you want to get started, I can put in a word for you, and you could be working almost at once, never mind waiting for your manhood time.  Why can’t you be satisfied with what you stand some chance of succeeding at?”

“I only want to ask Carnas.  He’ll be needing an apprentice – I’ve seen how worried he looks, since his assistant left.  What harm could it do to ask him?”

“All the harm in the world!”  Pardis made a visible effort to calm himself, and then went on, “Listen, Tandis – don’t think I don’t appreciate that you want to better yourself, because I do.  A bit of ambition never did nobody any harm – it’ll help you work hard, if you can see a reward at the end of it.  But you need common sense, too.  Going into animal husbandry with the ambition of becoming a horse handler – now, that’s reasonable.  But coming from a family like ours, and wanting to be a merchant – well, that’s just plain silly!  Carnas will have had offers from all sorts of people – families from the better end of town, people who are embroiderers or elders or whatnot.  People who can sweeten the need to take on a callow lad with no experience of the world.”

“You mean they’ll pay him.”  Tandis knew he could not compete with prospective apprentices from wealthy families.  But he could not quite let go of his dream yet.  “Then when I ask him, he can turn me down.”

“No!” repeated Pardis again.   “You’re not to ask him!  Firstly, it’s not for you to ask – it looks bad, for a youth to approach a possible employer himself.  You asking instead of me, that’d be enough to get you turned down, most like, even if such an apprenticeship wasn’t totally out of the question for you.  But not only that – the fact of asking could damage your chances elsewhere.   What do you suppose my boss would think, if he found out you’d been hoping to become a merchant?  He’d think you were unrealistic, that’s what.  And that you’d be a poor choice for him, being as how you’d always be disappointed with working with animals.”

Tandis could see this point, and he had no answer for it.  “All right,” he said heavily.  “I won’t ask him.”  He moved slowly towards the door, collecting his cloak on the way.  “I think I’ll go and see if I can catch a fish or two.”

Pardis would have held him back, were it not for his wife’s hand, gentle but firm, on his arm.  And so he let his son go, and then turned to give his wife her say.

“He’ll not really go fishing; he knows as well as you do that it’s too late,” she explained.  “He just needs to be alone, to walk off his upset.  He’ll be the better for it.”  She hesitated, and then added, “Is there nothing we can do?  He’s good with horses, but he’s always hankered after something more.”

He wanted to vent his irritation on her, for surely she understood that he could not obtain what their son wanted.  It had hurt him badly, although he would not have wanted to show it, to hear Tandis so firmly rejecting the trade in which he himself took so much pride.  It seemed even more unfair, after all he had done to earn a steady living for them all, that she should expect him to do more for their son than to secure him an equally stable future.  He looked at her, a quick retort rising to his lips, but her mute pleading kept the words unsaid.  He saw that she was not ungrateful, and he knew that she appreciated all that he did; it was just that she  wished that Tandis’ longing and willingness to work hard could be sufficient to obtain the post he hoped for.  She knew as well as he did that the world did not work like that.  But she held his gaze, silent and trusting, and he found that he could not turn her down, could not risk her resenting in future that he had not even tried.  “It won’t do any good,” he said wearily, “But I’ll have a word with Carnas.”  She squeezed his arm, and he nodded his acceptance of the burden that she was placing on him.  “I’d best go straight away, before my courage fails me,” he added.  “See that you don’t tell Tandis where I’ve gone, if he gets back before me.  I wouldn’t want him to get his hopes up.  See you don’t expect too much, either.”

He put his tired feet back into his boots, which he had slipped off as soon as he returned from work, and donned the jerkin, as warm as a cloak, but far more practical for a man who needed his hands and arms free as he worked.  He wondered if he should go to the village green and hang about outside the tavern, so that he could attempt to make a meeting with Carnas appear accidental, but decided that on balance he would rather no-one else heard the reception his request might provoke.  It would be bad enough to be laughed at; he would be mortified if any of his colleagues were present.  So he made his way quickly to the centre of the town, and then worked his way towards the merchant’s warehouse, hoping to meet him on the way.

His feet were aching by the time he saw the light of a lantern spilling through the cracks around the warehouse door.  He was relieved; he had feared that Carnas had taken a different path and he had missed him, for it was getting far too late for work.  He knocked on the door, and entered at the merchant’s shouted invitation.  At first all he could see was the large wagon filling the empty space in the middle of the room, but then he espied a pair of feet sticking out from underneath it.  They swivelled out of sight, and their place was taken by a rather dusty face.

“Oh, Pardis – it’s you.”  Carnas sounded surprised, but asked no questions.  His next statement made it clear that his attention was elsewhere.  “This axle was misbehaving on the way back from Rorbik this morning, and tomorrow I’ve to load for a trip to Levrik.  I can’t leave it, not with a long journey to set out on.  It’s tricky, though – I can see what needs to be done, but it’s cramped under here, and I’ve not enough hands for the job.”

“I haven’t worked with such a big wagon,” stated Pardis, “But I’d be happy to help, if you tell me what I could usefully do.”  Without waiting for a reply he got down to his knees, looked under the wagon, saw where Carnas was working, and wriggled carefully towards him.

“Well – if you could just hold the axle firm, while I tighten this,” suggested the merchant.  They worked for a while, Pardis contenting himself with following Carnas’ instructions, until eventually the merchant said, “Not long now.  If I can just – ah, yes.  That’ll hold nicely.  Nearly there.  I’d take a smaller wagon, but Levrik’s such a way.  I’ll be gone eight or nine days in all.  It’s only worth such a long trip if I fill my biggest wagon.  And I’d already collected all the embroidery from the various workshops – I’d have had to leave some of it behind.  There, that’s done it.”  He rubbed his hand over his face, and then slid out from under the wagon, offering his hand to assist the older man.  “Thanks for your help.  You’ll take a mug of ale?”

“Why, yes, if you’re having one yourself.”

“A quick one, and then I’ll be away to my bed.”  He went to a corner where a large covered jug sat in a trough of water to keep it cool, and poured some of the contents into two mugs.  “Sit down, do.”  He indicated a couple of chairs.  “I’m very grateful, Pardis.  It would have taken me far longer on my own.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t got yourself an apprentice yet.  It must be all of three cycles since young Hastik left.”

“I should have done.  But it was so sudden, and the thought of starting over with another youth defeated me.  Three years I’d been training him – ever since Ghaldak retired.  Two years’ apprenticeship, and then a year as my assistant.  I’d just started looking out for a new apprentice, to share some of the heavy work, and then he decides to wed a girl from the city!  I wouldn’t have minded – marriage settles a lad – but then he tells me that her uncle’s offered him a position, at nearly twice what I could afford to pay him!”

“As a merchant?”

“Oh, no – as a clerk.  All that deciphering and writing and figuring I taught him; that’s what they wanted.  Hastik said that Levrik’s grown so fast, there simply aren’t enough scribes and clerks to go round.”  Carnas took a deep draught of his ale.  “I had my eye on someone in Rorbik at first, someone who’d already spent a couple of years doing his apprenticeship.  That’s why I didn’t take anyone on here; I’d hoped to avoid starting from scratch.  But in the end, he decided he wanted to stay by the coast; he felt he’d do better there, as he knew the docks and some of the trading ships.  I tell you, Pardis:  it may be a prestigious profession, being a merchant, but it’s often long days, with lots of loading and unloading, and even when you finally stop travelling at the end of the day, there’s the horses to take care of and the shelter to assemble before you can rest.  I did have a try-out, to Levrik and back for a fair, before Hastik left, with a lad urged on me by his mother – that was when I still wanted an apprentice as well as an assistant.  But he was useless; he did barely half the work that I’d expected, and then he was so tired, he was half asleep at the fair.  I know my father paid Ghaldak for my keep for the first year, but I like to think I knew how to work hard, that I was better value than that lad.  So you’re right, that I need an apprentice urgently, and then perhaps another in a year or two, once the first one’s got the hang of the job, but I’m finding it hard to decide who to take on.  I’ve three lads hoping for a place, but none of them have ever calloused their hands, so how can I tell who’ll take to it, and work hard?”

“Don’t you have any applicants who’ve already proved themselves?” asked Pardis.

“I don’t, more’s the pity.  Mine is such a highly thought of profession, that lads with wealthy parents plead with them to buy them a chance to work with me, but they’re totally unrealistic about what the job entails.  And youngsters who’ve had to help earn the contents of the stewpot since they were young daren’t aim so high, for fear of being laughed at!”

“So all three of your applicants come with a bribe?”

“Well, with their keep paid for the first year, when they don’t know enough to be much use.  And one father is offering considerably more.  I’m not one to turn down such a large sum, but frankly, the lad seems very slow, so it would probably be a poor bargain.”

“Had you considered,” asked Pardis tentatively, “Taking on someone who couldn’t pay you, but who was used to hard work?”

“Trouble is, no lad has any real experience of what I do.  I’d have to teach him about buying and selling, and reading and figuring, and all the day to day stuff, like loading the wagon and erecting the shelter.  And no fourteen-year-old knows how to treat customers, or how to keep their face straight when they smell a bargain.  Someone who’s already worked the fields, or hunted for the family’s dinner, might have a slight edge, but there’d still be a lot for me to do.  And for the first year or so, their help with the heavy work isn’t really adequate recompense.  That’s why expecting the parents to pay their first year’s keep seems fair.  Why do you ask?  Have you someone in mind?”

“I’ve a lad, myself,” said Pardis slowly, “Who’d give his all, for the chance to try out with you.  Trouble is, his all doesn’t include a bribe.  But he’s honest and hard-working, willing to turn his hand to the menial as well as the exciting parts of the job, and eager to learn.”

“Tandis, isn’t it?  Yes, I’ve seen him fishing sometimes, when I come home from Levrik across the ford.  And of course, I’m used to him working with you in the stables, right from when I was an apprentice myself.”  Carnas paused, and Pardis almost held his breath.  “He’s a worker, all right, and knowing about horses would be a bonus.  But I’d still be out of pocket over the first year.  And in his second year, I’d be expected to start paying him!”

“What if you didn’t?  What if we kept your costs for him to a minimum, by having him still live and eat at home, except while you were away, and what if, say, you didn’t start paying him ‘til halfway through the second year?”

“I’m away a lot, is the thing.  And eating on the road is expensive.”

“Tandis can fish, and catch rabbits.  And my wife would pack the first day’s food for both of you, each time you went off.”   Pardis was aware that he probably sounded desperate, but he had to give this attempt his all.

Carnas pursed his lips.  “Tell you what, Pardis.  I’m not going to offer him an apprenticeship straight off.  But if he’s that keen, tell him to be here just after the breakfast hour tomorrow.  And to bring a bite to eat at noon.  He’ll load with me all day – hard work, I can tell you – and then on the next day, he’ll leave with me for Levrik.  We’ll have three days on the road, on the way there, to get used to each other, and then the selling and buying itself.  By the time we get back, maybe he’ll know if he really wants the job, and I’ll know if he’d suit.  And if we want to draw up an apprenticeship, you’ll make it clear to the elders that the offer of him working without wages in his second year, as well as his first, came from you.  And I’ll need to hear it from your wife, that she’ll provide for the lad as much as possible, and send food for us both on every trip.  And Tandis himself would have to agree to all this, in front of the elders, as well.”  Pardis was about to protest that he’d only offered to leave his son unwaged for half his second year, but Carnas pre-empted his objection by adding, “Those are my terms.  Take them, or leave them.”

* * * * *

Pardis had finished work, but could not bring himself to leave yet.  He told himself that he was foolish, that Tandis might not even be back until the morrow, but just in case, he hung about in the stables, hoping to have a word with his son in private.

He was rewarded just as he was about to give up and go home.   He watched from the shadows by the stable door, pride in his son threatening to burst his heart.  The lad – except that he was now a young man – had filled out over the last seven cycles, with broader shoulders and strong arms as well as a taller frame.  His gait was measured and assured as he led Carnas’ two horses towards their rest, although he must have been tired himself.

“Father!” he exclaimed as he saw Pardis.  “You been working late, too?”

“I was just about to leave, when I saw you coming,” answered Pardis truthfully, but incompletely.  He offered his love to his son in the only way he knew.  “I’ll give you a hand rubbing those two down, if you like.”

“Thanks.”  They each took a horse, offered a bucket of oats, and set to work.  “A bit of a change this, isn’t it?  After all the times I’d give you a hand?”

“It is, that.”  They worked in silence for a while, and then Pardis broached the subject that had been bothering him.  “You know, you’ve been with Carnas for over half a year now, and he’s still not teaching you to decipher.  Do you want me to have a word with him?  After all, if you hadn’t hoped to learn that, you’d probably have stayed here with me, working with the horses.”

Tandis said nothing at first, and Pardis could see him weighing up what to say.  “Horse handling wouldn’t have been right for me,” he confided at last, “Although I’m glad of all I learned from you.  Carnas will teach me reading when he thinks I’m ready; he’s taught me to tally, as well as other merchant skills, in the last seven cycles.  It was childish of me, to get so fixed on reading that I was prepared to give up an honest trade for a foolish fancy.  But I’m so glad I did!  I’m happy in my work; the travelling, and meeting new people, and seeing different places – all of these have quieted the restlessness I felt when I thought about staying in the same house, in the same town, doing the same things, day after day.”

Pardis worked in silence for a while.  It should have delighted him, that his son seemed so content with his life.  Nevertheless, some part of him missed the days when Tandis was at home every evening, and in the stables most afternoons, and when he himself still believed that his son would eventually take his place in charge of the horses.  Besides, his wife missed the lad when he was away travelling – he did too, if he was honest.

Then, just as they were leading the horses into their stalls, Tandis added, “In fact, Dad, I was so fed up, I know I wasn’t always kind to Mum, or to you, for that matter.  Nowadays, I always look forward to coming home.  I suppose I appreciate you both more, now that I’ve started out on my own path.”

Pardis thought about this, and realised that the resentment had gone, and he was indeed happy for Tandis.  He patted his son’s shoulder.  “Speaking of your mother, we’d best get back home.  She’ll have dinner ready.  She’ll be wondering if you’re coming home tonight, and where I’ve got to.”

He had taught his son well; Tandis was no more demonstrative than he was.  “Come on, then, Dad,” was all he said, but his loving smile added all that he could not have put into words.