* * *
Wendel roused me from my sleep, and I went through the morning routine in a fug. It wasn’t until I noticed the lack of sunlight that I realized why I was still half asleep. I stumbled through the pre-dawn gloom, relying heavily on Wendel to steer me around unseen obstacles. The only people who looked to be awake were the sentries on duty and a dozen or so men who were assembling by the southern edge of our camp. My father was the first one I recognized. Mainly because the garnet glow of his ring lit him up like a beacon. The only thing that ring did was glow on command. He raised a finger to his lips and whispered.
“We don’t want to wake up too much of the camp.”
“So we’re starting?” I asked.
“Lets get out into the woods before we talk too much.” He handed me the reins of my horse, and I climbed into the saddle. Boughs slapped my face in the dark as we rode away from the camp. I kept an arm raised to avoid having my eyes poked out by a twig. We emerged into a small clearing where the grasses only reached the horses’ knees. The breeze took that moment to push enough of the clouds aside from the moon that I could see the men around me. King Alvar was there, with Gentian and two of his bodyguard, both of which wore bear hide cloaks. Hermann was there, with his Skald, and two knights bearing the emblem of the Order of Dragonslayers. Peter had three attendants, but I didn’t know them, nor recognize their attire. They were lean, skittish men, who stayed close to their blindfolded liege.
Finding a rockier, less grassy span of the clearing, Hermann dismounted. Taking his lead, the rest of us climbed off our steeds and tied hobbles about their forelegs so they wouldn’t wander far. The leather straps didn’t hurt them, and left them free to graze slowly. I patted the neck of the white stallion and turned to where Hermann knelt. He was piling up fuel and circling it with stones.
“Need a hand?” I asked.
“It’s been years since I lit my own fire,” Hermann said, not really answering the question. He began searching his saddlebags. “If only I can find my flints.”
I pulled one of the stones from the ring around the fuel and held it out to him.
“Flint. Well, chert, but the difference is mostly semantic.”
“How can you tell in this light?” Hermann asked, taking the stone.
“All the loose rocks around here came out of the Slagveld cliffs, which only contain shale, limestone, and chert. The structure is wrong for shale and the texture is distinct from limestone.”
Herman struck steel across the stone and got a bright spark. A few more attempts, and his kindling caught light. “Put it back so the ring is complete.” I took the stone and set it in place while my uncle husbanded the embryonic flame to full life. Once the fire cut through the pre-dawn gloom of the clearing, everyone settled down about it.
“So, after breakfast, we should get started,” my father said.
“Normally,” King Alvar said, “This would be limited to only to men who’d gone through the rite themselves.”
“If you want to pass through my Kingdom on your way home…” Hermann started.
Alvar raised a hand. “I said normally. In this case, we will make an exception. It is not as if the rite has any secret elements to it.”
“I had one question that I sort of asked before,” I said, “But I want to make sure I’m clear on it.”
“What’s the question?” Alvar asked.
“What counts as a ‘Beast of the Woods’?”
Alvar looked at me in silence.
“Well,” I said, “I ask because ‘beasts’ are normally regarded to be large, but evidently rabbits and stoats count for this rite.”
“I suppose it would be anything you would be able to wear the hide of. We counted your father’s seal, and it never came into the woods.”
“So, if I caught a fish, that would not end the rite?”
“You already asked that question,” Gentian cut in.
“Why would you be so interested in fish?” my father asked.
“Bait,” I said. “I’m no tracker, so I’d need something to lure the beast to me.”
“What kind of beast are you hoping to lure with fish?”
“I have to work with what I can find,” I said.
Alvar re-entered the discussion with a dismissive wave. “We’re not going to make you tan and wear a fish skin if you catch some. You needn’t keep fretting.”
* * *
I ate more than I commonly did at breakfast, well aware that it would be the last easy meal until I completed the Rite. Gloom clung to the understory longer than it did the meadow, and crossing to the trees felt as though I were stepping back into the night. My stride was slow and purposeful as I assayed the trees and stones on the ground. Scooping up a large nodule of chert, I kept walking. The distant sound of a burbling creek caught my ear, but I couldn’t tell exactly where it was. Still, water should be running from the Slagveld towards the sea. If I kept walking east, I’d find it. I kept my eyes moving as I walked, taking account of what was available in the area.
It was not too long before the creek revealed itself. Broad, shallow, and clear, it ran over a pebbled bed of round stones. With the gap it made in the larger foliage, smaller stalks grew along the banks. I examined the plants, assessing which ones I could make use of, but left them as I found them. Picking my way across the shallowest spots in the creek, I made for the opposite bank. Just past the water, I found the perfect spot. An outcrop of shale with a flat top clear of plants and easily cleared of debris. I set my nodule of chert down on it and went to attack the small plants along the creek.
“What are you up to?” my father asked from the back of his horse. “Those will make terrible spears.”
“I need rope,” I said, hefting several saplings onto my shoulder. Leaning them against my outcrop, I began stripping the bark and bast fibers from the plants. Twisting bast fibers into twine and braiding twine into rope was a slow process, and hard on the fingertips. I broke up the task by harvesting pine resin onto slate sheets, and collecting more stones. Setting up a shelter of limestone, I lit a fire atop my outcrop and fed it the boughs of ash trees. Capping the miniature kiln with my biggest shale sheet, I restricted the flow of air into the burn box. While the wood cooked, I tested my stone against each other to find the hardest and most suitable for use as a hammer.
Flint knapping was not a skill I had practiced before. I knew the theory, but when faced with a lump of chert, putting that theory into practice produced a lot of error. At least I could monitor the progress of my fire and the state of the resin atop the shale as the stone heated up. I produced a lot of sharp flakes that were not the shape I was looking for, but I was already thinking of uses for the pieces. The charcoal turned out much better, and I was able to mix it with the molten resin to make glue. Of course, I still needed rope, which meant going back to twisting bast fibers.
All of this was terribly uninteresting to watch after the first hour or so. The kings and their entourages had dismounted, and a card game had broken out. I didn’t really blame them. After all, I was just sitting there twiddling plants and banging rocks together. Though I was getting better at coaxing forms I preferred from the chert. I had knapped out a few promising speartips, and the sharp slivers that came off had a key role in my new plan. I was smiling as I affixed the sharpest slivers to short sticks with resin glue and twine. They looked like miniature spears as I stacked two dozen of them on my stone outcrop.
“Darts?” Hermann asked, peering over my shoulder.
“No,” I said, an impish grin catching my face.
“So what are they?”
“We’re trying to resolve a bet here.”
“They are stakes for use in a deadfall trap.”
“Nobody wins,” Hermann called as he walked back across the creek.
“But I called stakes,” my father said.
“You also called a pit trap.”
“I was still the closest.”
I went back to the finger-aching task of making rope as the sun continued to march across the sky. I contemplated changing the plan to one that required less rope, but I was already so far along, it seemed foolish. I wasn’t even sure if what I had in mind was even rightly called a deadfall anyway. I shook the thought away and continued making rope. I needed enough of it sturdy enough to hold a good deal of tension.
* * *
It was no surprise that my fingers were bleeding. Working what felt like miles of rough fibers had done a number on the skin. But I’d affixed the stakes to a grid of sticks, and had enough rope to suspend it from a stout branch, even with a rock weighing down the staked trap. Assuming, of course, the rope held. As I hunted for a good spot to set my trap, rope coiled around my torso, I could see the catastrophe. Most likely, the rope would snap while I was trying to get the trap hoisted. I could also see my poor abused fingers letting go while I was working at it. My stomach growled in hunger, and I was sore from the poor patch of ground I’d slept on.
The sight of a perfect bough buoyed my spirits. If nothing else, it meant I could stop carrying the trap. Throwing the rope over the fork in the stout branch, I began staging everything. I still needed bait and weight, but everything else was at hand. Weight was easy, one good sized chunk of limestone, and I was good. Bait was harder. That involved coaxing a fish out of one of the creeks with only a crude line and hook. The hook wasn’t even a real hook, it was a sharp sliver of wood tied in the line such that it might snag in the mouth of a fish that took a bite. And that meant I needed bait to catch my bait. That was easy enough, worms and grubs were not that rare. Though convincing a fish to take a bite seemed nigh impossible.
I’m fairly sure I’d nodded off, because I mistook the first few tugs on the line as part of the dream. Since dreams run away once awake, I soon forgot what it was I’d been dreaming about. Without a reel, I grabbed the line and pulled. Splashing and sprays of water showed the struggles of the silver-scaled specimen I’d snagged. I prayed my handmade twine would hold as I drew the animal closer. It flopped and flapped its tail about as I drew it from the water, but was smaller than I’d hoped. Still, I wasn’t going to go back to wait for something else to bite.
The shape of my knife wasn’t conducive to gutting fish, but I had plenty of razor sharp chert shards up to the task. Since I’d never cleaned a fish before, processing it into meaty bits, bloody bits, and bony bits was messier than I’d envisioned. I did eventually separate the meat from the parts that weren’t as desirable to eat, heaping each on their own sheet of slate. I washed off my hands in the creek and walked back to where the trap was staged. As I set about prepping the trigger, my mind envisioned all the ways the trap could fail. The most likely were the lattice of stick collapsing under the weight of the rock, the ropes snapping, or the trigger not holding. Or, possibly the trigger could hold too well and not drop the weighted grid of stakes when something took the bait.
I pushed the thoughts aside and began hauling on the rope. My fingers immediately remembered all of the pains from making it, and ached disproportionately to the force being applied. The stone wasn’t too heavy to lift, but the branch and the root made for poor pullies when my coarse rope was dragged over them. I winced at every protesting noise my rope made, and the burr of it being dragged over bark. I’d expected it to snap from the tension, but now the prospect of ripping the rope through friction came to the fore. I pulled steadily, backing away from the tree, and the weighted grid of stakes rose free from the ground. The closer I could get it to the branch, the more force it would hit with, so I continued to pull, even as I reached the trigger assembly. A separate piece of twine running under where the stakes hung would be the tripwire. If I could remember how the notched sticks went together with the tree root. With my aching hands gripping the rope holding up the weight, I began to see a problem with the plan.
Tying the rope to a root with a slip knot, I looked over the trigger I’d prepared and tried to figure out how to set it up while holding the weight of the trap. I ended up setting it up close to where I’d tied the slip knot, and accepting the loss of a few inches of height from releasing the knot to get a working trigger. With everything tense and taut, I crouched there, listening to the creaking and waiting for it all to come crashing down. The wind rustled the leaves, and the rope continued to protest, but so far it was holding. I crept over to where I’d left the fish guts and pushed the shale under the trap with the butt of my fishing rod. I wasn’t going to put myself under that thing to bait it.
Picking up the shale sheet with the meat on it, I hurried back to the outcrop. A new fire wasn’t that hard to get going, and I set the shale over the flames. Resting my back against an ash tree, I gently flexed my poor fingers.
“So what are you planning to do with this part of the fish?”
I looked up at my father. The lack of an expression on his bearded face told me the question was born of boredom more than anything else.
“I was planning to eat it for lunch.”
“So not bait.”
“The guts have more scent to draw in predators than the fillets do,” I said. We both looked at the broken chunks of fish flesh heating up on the rock. It wasn’t really a pair of fillets, but I didn’t have to proper tools or experience to carve those. It was also the first time I was cooking, well, anything. It was fairly emblematic of the whole experience so far. I had a mental image that worked well in theory, but the execution was nowhere near as neat. I had never done anything in my whole plan before. I kept expecting to hear the trap fail while I was waiting for something to get caught in it. I needed a backup plan. My eyes went to the chert speartips I’d knapped out. With my initial plans changing so often, I wasn’t even sure what I’d been thinking when first making them. Still, they were made, so I might as well use them.