WIP

This page is for the work in progress I’ll be using for my various exercises, showing the editing process as I take a story from start to finish. I will continue to add drafts, which will make the page quite long, but is done so the reader can compare drafts and see what changes were made.

DRAFT 3: (Minor changes and an additional scene)

“Does he think he’s the king?” asked Jellie, the old pastry chef. She was making a list of ingredients for the day’s meals. The guest count was always the same, as Lord Findel had few friends, and Randgren Village lured few visitors.

“He does have a castle,” I said, marking items in the pantry as Jellie called them out.

We knew the inventory well, (Jellie and I did all the shopping), but Mrs. Findel and her son Traive sometimes held late-night raids, hers when she was depressed, his when he’d been drinking. There were frequent raids from both, and I was forced to reorganize the shelves almost every morning.

I turned the jars, labels forward, and stacked the potatoes evenly.

“We’re low on molasses and sugar root,” I said, popping my head out of the door frame with a smile. “Plenty of turnips though.”

Jellie snorted. “Turnips won’t go in a pie. Swedes go alright, but they got a sweetness to them. Would need two full jars of molasses to make them turnips proper sweet.”

She raised her eyebrows and jotted something down. Jellie had a million unfinished recipes lying around and never referenced a one when she actually got to baking.

“You can make a dessert from anything, Jellie. I’ve seen you do it. Dessert isn’t the problem here.”

I brought out potatoes, garlic, salted pork, and eggs, organizing them on my section of the counter. “Lord Findel specifically asked for Rount eggs for breakfast.” Somewhere under her frizzy gray poof of hair, Jellie’s eyes met mine. “And we don’t have Rount eggs,” I said.

“No one has Rount eggs, dear. Even the actual king can’t get a Rount egg. Nobody has seen one in five years.” Jellie dotted something on her paper and crossed off something else. “Think they’re all dead. Fine by me. They were loud and smelly. I don’t care much for birds anyway, but if you want to win me over, being stinky isn’t getting you off to a good start.”

“But their eggs are delicious,” I said, turning a rogue egg back in line with the others.

Jellie sharpened her knife. “That’s probably what hitched their wagon to oblivion.”

The sound of the grinding stone always reminded me of Dad. Always first in the kitchen, sharpening Mother’s knives, making her coffee just the way she liked (mounds of sugar).

There was a soft rumbling, like a distant avalanche from one of the Garlstave mountains out west, but those never came in summer.

“So what are you going to do?” asked the old woman.

I was staring at the wall where the plateware seemed to be rattling.

“About the eggs,” Jellie clarified.

“Ah,” I said, stepping back into the pantry. “I have a spice that fairs a slight resemblance to the taste of Rount. Sprinkle that on chicken eggs and dye the yolk green, he won’t know the difference.” I moved the lantern over. “Now I just need to find it.”

Dust swirled off the top shelves, and the jars rattled against one another. I turned to the doorway when the potato basket fell to the floor. Bending to pick it up, I heard the rumbling return, much louder now and not from out west, but from everywhere.

The world shook, not like rocks and snow tumbling over itself, but like the mountain was erupting from within. It was beneath me, and above me, and I couldn’t tell if I was shaking or the castle was. Just before the boom, I heard Jellie squeak like a mouse. I think it was the start of a scream. I cowered, covering my ears.

When the sounds of terror passed, I kept still for a long time. Curled in a ball, covered in pickling juices and preserves, with a turnip or two stuck in the mix, I listened for rumbling. I listened for sounds of combat or wails of the dying, but I only ever heard a faint shout and a finch that often visited Jellie and me in the mornings. Finally, when the silence felt safe, I stood.

The air was thick with stone dust and flour, but the walls and the ceiling held. The foundation of the castle was built to hold three stories of wealth and extravagance. This separated classes, keeping the real work confined to the castle’s bowels, with the added bonus of keeping me intact. Jellie was not so lucky.

The old pastry chef must have panicked when the noise came over us, tripping and impaling herself on her own knife. I held her hand and told her she’d be okay, but she was already gone when Throle came rushing down the stairs to find us.

“Ha ha! You’re alive!”

He picked me up and hugged me. Disoriented and limp, I curved over his belly like butter on a roll, my face buried in his beard. When he set me down, my legs wobbled, and he held me under the crook in my arms until I was righted.

“What happened?” I asked.

A chunk of broken stone fell on the table, cracking the eggs that had stayed whole through all the commotion. They oozed onto the floor with a disgusting splat. Throle slapped me on the arm, a filthy cloud billowing from me like a puffball mushroom.

“Let’s talk outside,” he said, watching the ceiling. Then he turned to the stairs. “Come on.”

***

Throle had attempted to prepare me for the devastation, but I couldn’t comprehend such complete destruction. Our village just wasn’t there anymore. Some houses were scattered about, like they had exploded, others collapsed on themselves as if pulled inward. It was no surprise that the homes were demolished. They were homes built by farmers and peasants. Their roofs would often cave in heavy winters. They were incapable of weathering an attack, and it was evident that’s what this was.

“Who?” I asked, staring at my house.

It was smashed right down its center, the outer walls standing like flickball posts.

“Who, what?” Throle asked as we moved over the debris to the second bedroom. My in-laws were still in bed when it all happened.

Laura’s parents were clearly dead.

“Who attacked us is what I was asking, but what attacked us is just as fair a question.” I sat, stacking pieces of rubble into like piles.

“I don’t know Barro. I was just about to start my tax run when God decided we’d had enough of the day, and something large burst from the forest and plowed the town like a fallow field.

“Gladys reared up with a start and turned the cart clear the other direction. I might have seen a flash of a toe before I was turned about, speeding away like a firesnake. Was hell getting her calm and set back this way.”

I evened out the light gray stone pile and looked up at my friend, his shaggy head haloed by the sun. “You think it was a giant?” I asked.

“I dunno. It’s early and my brain is still dealing with last night’s decisions. Could have been a tumbleweed of monkeys for all I was able to discern.”

I looked over what was left of my house. It hadn’t been our house for quite some time. “I’m glad Laura wasn’t home,” I said, more to myself than Throle, but he heard.

“Little chance of that, Barro. She’s been gone two years now, almost as long as my own dear wife.”

‘Dear wife’ was what Throle said in place of expletives and degradations, a practice he adopted after being scolded by his sister when the nieces and nephews took to calling Aunt Greta colorful terms beyond their years.

“Good thing we’re terrible husbands or both our wives might have been killed,” he said. “After we clean up this mess, I think we should go see ‘em, tell ‘em they owe us a bit of gratitude.” Throle chuckled and stuck out his hand.

“You’re right.” Throle helped me up for the second time that morning. “I mean, I’ll need to go find Laura.” I kicked the splintered arm of my favorite chair. It spun and tumbled out into the road. “She needs to know about her mother and father.”

Throle grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. “You alright?” He shook me hard, and I felt something pop.

“Stop it.”

“Just checking if your brain come loose, ‘cause you don’t owe your dear wife nothing. She left all you without looking back, left you to look after her own ma and pa, as if they were already dead. What kind of a gal does that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, rubbing my neck. In the distance was a man standing in the road, staring at the sky. “RIght now we need to see who else is alive.”

***

Throle and I had cleared ten homes, accounting for nine dead families. We found Darten the carpenter hiding in one of his own cabinets. Others were wandering the streets in a daze or digging through the houses and stores, but so many were dead, killed in their beds, unaware that their dreams would continue forever. Had the hour been later, folks would have been out in their fields, or hawking market wares, or haggling over the price of a cabbage. They might have seen what was coming. They might have been able to run.

When the main street was cleared, we ventured to the outskirts. It had already been hours. Hours of pulling away rubble only to find death. We knew any folks still under the stone and brick and mud were beyond saving, but we took our shovels and picks and set to work with blind hope. And hope is a powerful tool all its own. There were five houses that still needed clearing; we owed an accounting for everyone, dead or alive.

When we heard the girl calling, her faint, soft voice like a bird song in the breeze, we dismissed it. Only after what must have been a half dozen pleas did the group look at each other, confirming the sound was more than noise in our heads.

We honed in on the girl’s muffled shouts, a hump of broken stone and wood beams, all covered in thatching like a mound of hay. We flung and we dug, knuckles scored and nails broken. We were tired, backs already seizing and legs trying to give way, but we clawed the mess clear until we found her.

Maribel, legs crossed, dog in her arms, was sitting under a thick, oak table, completely untouched.

“That’s my table,” said Darten, a smile on his face like a slice of watermelon. “Quality craftsmanship saves the day.”

The group ignored the carpenter, pulling free the girl and her dog. Maribel and the dog shoved past the group without a word of thanks or even a nod of gratitude. It was only then that I realized we were at the Marshes. Maribel was one of five children.

The girl stood on the pile of her toppled chimney, turning in small degrees until she understood the position of her home’s remains. She pointed to a corner, now splintered wood beams and smoothed stone.

“That’s ma and pa’s room,” she said.

Darten and Grove began clearing the pile, Grove doing his best with one good hand.

“I heard ma moaning for awhile, but it’s been a longer while since she stopped.” Maribel moved her finger to the opposite corner. That’s my brothers and sisters’ room.

I scrambled to the children’s room along with the Trank sisters. Throle was throwing mud bricks through his legs like a dog, and with a bark, Maribel’s dog joined in. Even after the other men confirmed what the girl already knew, that her parents were dead, we hoped her siblings’ chilling silence was due to piles of dampening rather than lack of life.

When Throle found the frame of a small bed, we hoped they were safely hidden under it like their sister had been with the table.  Throle pulled the blanket free from its bed, then collapsed, sinking his head into his hands.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You can stop digging,” he said. “I found the kids.”

We pulled the Marsh children from the rubble anyway. We gave Maribel her privacy as the girl said her tearful goodbyes.

Stepping back to the broken mound of chimney, I pulled the frame of a painting from the pile, tearing the canvas across the faces of the Marsh family portrait. Nancy and Mark embraced the four kids (the painting was completed before little Aaron came along) and I stared into Nancy’s green eyes, rippling on the breeze.

I set the painting back on the ruins of the mantle, propping the broken frame to keep it level.

***

Everyone congregated at what was left of the village meeting hall, and I nodded out a head count. There were nine of us. Nine people in a village of 112.

“Was there anyone we didn’t find?” I asked, brushing dust away from my vest for the dozenth time. “Anyone that wasn’t home?”

“The Littens were away,” said Grove, soot smeared over his face, his hand crushed and bloodied.

“And me,” said Alexander, ambling over from out of nowhere. “Nobody bothered to look for me I guess.” He held a baby over his shoulder like a half-full sack of corn.

“Whose baby is that?” asked Throle.

The squat man, scratches across his neck and tattered clothes dangling from his chest, shrugged and grunted. “Hell if I know. Found it in the street, if you can believe.”

I stepped to Alexander and held out my hands, then I pictured the old bachelor throwing the baby to me with careless indifference.

“Wait,” I said, and I took the child gingerly from his shoulder. Its breathing was weak, but it was alive.

There were three newborns in Randgren Village. Yeb Triker and his wife were dark skinned. This baby was pale like buttercream. I held the small thing up and delicately opened one of its eyes. Its pupil slowly shrunk with the sun, but it was encircled with a vibrant blue.

“It has blue eyes,” I said.

Throle stepped to my side. “All babies have blue eyes, ya wooly turd.” He squeezed the child’s arm, as if baby fat could prove its origins. “Looks like Archie to me.” Throle looked around the group. “Anyone seen Archibald, the smithy?”

The Trank sisters shook their heads. “Dead.”

Others were still sorting through rubble or lying on the ground, coming to terms with truths they’d rather dismiss or sending their thoughts away from injuries. Archibald was the town blacksmith. Among us was Throle the tax collector, me the cook, a cobbler, a seamstress, three farmers, a carpenter, and an old man.

“Ain’t seen tha mister, but the missus sits over here.” Darten jabbed an arthritic, weathered finger at the stone stoop of the meeting hall.

Archie’s wife sat, eyes glazed, mumbling, picking at the skin of her thumb. I leaned down and held the unidentified baby near her. “Maisy. Is this your baby?”

Maisy’s eyes shifted and she looked at the baby like she’d never seen one before. She stroked its cheek and was lost in thought again, peeling skin from the edges of a wound of her own making. “I’ll ask you again later,” I whispered, then stood and faced the small crowd. “So did anyone actually see what happened?”

We exchanged similar stories, of being woken by noise or by the roof collapsing over us. No one really saw anything, but we shared a sense of a single presence that trampled our town like a wild horse in a vegetable garden. We knew that whatever caused the disaster, it was malicious.

Alexander grimaced at the massive structure over our shoulders. “Of course the castle still stands.” The east wing was toppled, but much of the main section and west wing were intact. “Well, most of it.”

“Oh damn,” I said. “We haven’t searched the castle.”

***

The group made our way to the stone palace. Weary, covered in grime and blood (some not our own), and not too anxious about digging up Findel bodies, we moved like wayward moths to a guttering torch.

As we reached the main entrance, Traive Findel exited through the grand doorway, shielding his eyes from the sun. We stopped on the cobblestone road, the only finished road in Randgren, but it too was damaged, though long before today’s events.

Traive caught sight of us and sneered. “In no rush to help your lord?”

The villagers reluctantly bowed their heads.

“We apologize, sir,” I said. Traive was only a year older than me, but being the son of the Randgren lord granted him an age and wisdom that demanded our respect. In theory.

“Mother and Father are dead.” His speech was slurred and he was bleeding from a gash on his forehead. It was unclear if he was drunk or if the knock to his head had rattled him, but both were likely. “If you care.”

“We are sorry to hear, sir.” No one else feigned condolences, but I tried to give a respectful pause before the next question. “And the staff, sir? Is anyone else alive?”

Traive shrugged as he looked out over the village. “How the hell should I know?”

“Of course, sir.” I waved the others on. “We’ll take a look,” I said, but Traive put out his bloodied hand.

“You’re not going to hold up in my house like some retched vagabonds. Go back to your own homes.”

Alexander grunted. “We got no homes, you-”

Traive shot him a daggered look and the old man reconsidered his wording.

“Our homes are destroyed, sir,” said Alexander, spitting thick mucus to counter the forced grace.

“Sir, we should really check on everyone. The maids might still-”

“They’re dead!” shouted Traive, clutching his head with new pain. “The west stairwell collapsed around us as we tried to get out.”

“You were with them in the west wing?” I asked. “Why…”

Traive raised his eyebrows and I let the question trail off. It was not uncommon for Lord Findel to diddle the staff when bored, but I was unaware his son also partook.

Shellie Trank stepped closer to Traive. “You need to get your head stitched up, sir. That’s a bad cut.”

He stared at the blood on his hands.

“I can help with that,” she said. “Maisy could do a clean job, but she,” Maisy was glaring intently at a pebble between her feet, mumbling to herself, “is not right just now. Sister and I make all our own clothes and I have the steadier hands.”

Callie Trank snorted, her lips curling up in a scoff.

“Sir,” I said, “are you certain about the lord and lady?”

His eyes welled and he nodded, perhaps from the remnants of dust. The baby shifted in my arms and Traive looked over the disheveled villagers forming a gallery around him, small spires of smoke behind us from fires still burning in collapsed hearths.

“What happened?” he asked.

“We don’t know, sir.”

Sighing, he waved us on. “Barro, I’m famished. Get us something to eat.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Barro.” He put his hand on my shoulder. Other than serving him meals, Traive and I had not come in remotely close contact since we were boys. A long time ago, some might have said we were friends. “My parents are dead.”

I didn’t know what he needed to hear, but I couldn’t think of any comforting words. “Yes, sir.”

“Then you’ll call me Lord Findel, and if you’re all staying here, then you’re the new castle staff. Is that clear?”

He walked away before I could answer. The others dismissed the entrance fee, too distracted by the thought of a hot meal to care what it would cost. Traive entered through the same great doors and we all followed, now officially the new staff of the lord’s castle. Darten dragged Maisy by the sleeve while she kept her eyes on the pebble, as if saying goodbye to a friend parting for a journey from which they might not return.

***

The main dining hall had three walls and no roof, but the hearth was whole despite the chimney being clogged higher up. Traive and Throle had disappeared to the wine cellar, but none of us had needed orders to know what needed doing. Randgren was a village of hard workers, and seeing our labors benefit the Findels was nothing new, but we were all hungry, and the idea of doing something other than digging out bodies gave us razor focus.

Maribel watched the baby, padding one of the cauldrons for a reinforced crib. Stones were still falling from the ceiling, Throle’s thick and matted hair acting as a helmet more than once. Darten brought in water and filtered it as best he could, given the well walls had shook loose and the soil and its residents crept in the spring. Farson, Maisy, and Alexander sat in wait, Farson too old and too comfortable exploiting his old age to do anything. Maisy was still incoherent. Alexander was just openly defiant, as Alexander often was. Grove started a fire, while the Trank sisters helped me clear the kitchen.

I had worked in the Findel’s kitchen since I was six, spending year after year washing what seemed to be an endless pile of dishes. Though the patterns of the fancy kitchenware wore down after time and were replaced with modern-style plateware, the images of dragons and knights, geometric cuts and raised gold leaves that adorned them all had become an amalgamation, one giant dirty dish that represented two decades of my humble life.

Now all those dishes were shattered. The pantry had given way, thankfully after I had made my exit, but the vegetables and fruit, provided fresh daily from the locals as a tax to their lord, were flattened, their ripe insides squeezed into the rubble around them.

The Trank sisters volunteered some of their crops, already upturned from their fields. I managed a vegetable stew in a broken pot over the fire. Two stacked shields pulled from the wall were bound together to from a small oven for bread.

We ate our survivors’ feast in silence. We didn’t want to talk about what happened. We didn’t want to face the sorrow and anger rolling around inside us, but of course we eventually had to talk it out. We had to move past the shock and the carnage and talk about what was next.

Traive and Throle waddled into the dining room, slamming a wine rundlet on the table.

“I need the castle repaired at once,” said Traive, motioning for Throle to grab cups.

“Lots of things need repair,” Alexander said, tearing free a favorable hunk of bread.

“What is your name?” asked Traive, pouring himself a deep mug of wine.

“Alexander Flain,” bread spat onto the table and Alexander stuffed it back in his mouth, “my Lord.”

“Mister Flain, something attacked us and we need to be ready to defend ourselves if it returns.”

“Your daddy’s castle didn’t stop the first attack. How will it do any better the next go ‘round?”

“This is not a council table, Mister Flain. I was not asking your opinion.” Traive ran a gloved hand through his black hair. “Contradict me again and your next meal will be in the dungeon.”

“Heh, this whole place is a dungeon.”

“Alexander.” I motioned for him to sew his mouth. “Lord Findel is concerned for our safety.”

Callie Trank drank from the wine, her full stew cooling before here. “Things need rebuilding, sure, but Alexander is right. Even if we get this castle upright, who’s gonna defend it?” She waved her hand around the table. “This lot? We’re no fighters.”

“Where’s the nightwatch?” asked Traive.

“Crushed in the guard house,” said Throle.

Traive finished his cup and served himself another. “Then we’ll seek aid from the kingdom army.”

Grove laughed. With his right hand bandaged, he struggled to spoon stew into his mouth. “They call it the kingdom’s army, but they won’t lift a finger for our village.” He fumbled and the spoon splashed into his bowl.

“Damn right,” Alexander said. “When those wanderers came through two years back, scavenging our fields, the army couldn’t be bothered to help us. Wasn’t ‘til they went ‘round Kingstone did the army finally step in. When the king’s food is in peril, them boys sure swoop in fast, but nothing for us. The king doesn’t give a lick for Randgren. Probably why he let you fools be in charge.”

“My family deserves respect!” screamed Traive, thrusting his fists into the table. His chair tumbled behind him and wine sloshed over top the cups.

“Your family is dead, you shit! ALL of our families are dead! You want us to serve you, lick your boots like you still mean something? You’re the lord over a wasteland!” Alexander threw his stew at Traive, soaking his tailored trousers and waistcoat.

“You bastard!”

Traive climbed onto the table. Alexander reached out and took his feet, sending the young lord to his back. Traive rolled on his side trying to catch the breath he’d lost in the fall. Darten and Grove shoved Alexander back from the table, the farmer still shouting and cursing. Maribel’s dog ran at our feet, barks echoing in the grand hall. The baby cried within its cauldron crib, the close walls amplifying the shrieks.

“Stop it!” Maribel shouted, picking up the baby. As she rocked and shushed the unclaimed child, the crowd calmed, retaking their seats. Throle and I helped Traive Findel from the table. He left the room without looking back.

“The army will help,” said Throle. “When we can’t pay our taxes to the Findels, the Findels can’t pay their taxes to the king. That should be enough to make him want to fix the situation. He’ll want his money.”

“Might be the exact reason they won’t help,” said Grove, finally switching to his left hand to eat. “If we can’t pay taxes, then we’re not really kingdom citizens anymore. Why would he send the army out to help us if we can’t contribute?”

“What?” asked Alexander, grabbing more bread now that his stew was gone. “Help or not. I’m not paying any more taxes.”

“You better.” said Throle. “I’ll be out of a job if you don’t pay.”

“You need a new job anyway. Who volunteers to be the tax collector? You’re a twat.”

“Hmph,” said Throle, pulling free a wedge of bannock and stuffing his cheeks.

“Taxes or not,” said Callie Trank, “I’ve got ruined crops, and nobody to sell them to anyway.”

“We supposed to go clear over to the Mashta market?” asked Shellie Trank. “That’s a four-day trek one way over them retched hills.”

“I make that once a month,” Throle said. “Ain’t so bad.”

“You folks disgust me.”

The old man Farson had said little until now, shuffling around in his nightshirt like a phantom. He slammed his fist on the table. Weakened with age, the effect was a soft thump. Still, the group respectfully listened.

“We just lost our families, our friends, our fellow brethren, and you’re going on about taxes and crops and hills.”

“I don’t think anyone was trying to be disrespectful, Mister Farson,“ said Grove. “We’re just…coping, you understand?”

“I need to bury my wife,” said Farson. “That boy,” he pointed to the doorway where Traive had exited, “needs to bury his parents. There’s dozens of townsfolk who ain’t got anybody else to bury them. We’ll need to bury them too even if they got no family left to mourn them, no one to know what terrible fate has befallen them.” Farson trailed off into quiet sobs. Darten squeezed the old man’s shoulder, his wrinkled hands just a few years shy of the same frailty.

“We still don’t know what fate has befallen them,” I said. “The best guess we have now is giants, which makes little sense to me. Giants are recluses, keeping to themselves. I don’t know what would have driven one through the village with such careless regard for our brethren.”

Alexander grunted. “I knew a giant once. He was an asshole. Maybe this giant is just an asshole.”

“Doesn’t much matter what it was,” said Darten. “Bury the dead. Rebuild. That’s all well and good, but If that thing comes back and we’re still here, then we’ll be dead with the rest of them.”

The group quieted, finishing their meals, pouring cup after cup of wine. We knew we couldn’t stay but we were exhausted, ready to end the day as quick as we could. I watched Maisy, hoping she would come out of her daze and claim the child. She hadn’t touched her food, but she bit her lip so much it was bleeding.

“We’ll leave for Mashta tomorrow,” I said to the few remaining at the table. Most had formed makeshift beds in the dining hall, too drunk or scared to venture off into the other parts of the castle, and were fast asleep. “Darten is right. Maybe the army won’t help us, but if Traive could tell Lord Tigren what happened, then he might do something. At the worst, we take shelter in Mashta.”

“That sounds good,” said Throle, “until they get attacked too, if they haven’t been already.”

We looked at each other, old enough friends to know when the other was frightened, but neither of us knew what comforting words should be offered. We poured more wine instead.

***

Everyone hated the Findels. As a boy, Traive was undeserving of his family’s disdain, but being born into wealth gave him few sympathisers. Eventually, he earned his own hate, living up to the Findel name in full. The boy was given no purpose, no guidance, and no love. As an adult, nothing had changed, except now he could drink.

The local taxes funded his drinking habit, in larger portion each year over. If he hadn’t been born in a castle, he would have roamed the Randgren streets, known as nothing more than the town drunk. Now he was lord of the village.

“Lord Findel,” I said, pushing open the heavy door to Traive’s bedroom.

The ceiling had collapsed across the whole floor, royal furniture and royal décor crushed by every royal stone above. Traive sat on the floor clutching his torn pillow and a tankard of wine.

“What?” he whimpered.

“Your staff wishes to make the trek to Mashta so that we may seek aid,” I stood a few paces from him, avoiding a massive hole in the floor where a rooftop statue had punched through like a bolt from the sky, “as you suggested at dinner, sir.”

“Good. Send that one with the big mouth, and another to keep him in line. The rest of you can begin the repairs.”

“Sir, it isn’t safe here.” Something crumbled elsewhere in the castle, echoing off what walls remained.

Traive turned to me, scowling. “Don’t you think I know that? It’s why we must rebuild, and do so quickly.”

“Sir, we are not bricklayers or stonemasons. Our best efforts would give poor result, and this castle took years to erect. We don’t know when the next attack may come.” I knelt to him and put a hand out, only to pull it back. “We cannot protect you here, sir.”

Traive’s eyes drifted. The next room over belonged to Lady Findel, Traive’s mother. The canopy over her grand bed had divided the falling roof around the room. Small stone fragments were strewn across the neatly-made bed covers, leaving it almost wholly untouched.

“As far as I know,” said Traive, “they haven’t slept in the same room for years. Years, Barro. They fought all the time. They were civil enough at meals and around me, but damn near hated one another. Had I moved on and left the castle, I think Father may have murdered her.” He chuckled. “Well, maybe Mother would have murdered him first. She was very clever.”

Traive braced himself against the broken bed frame and walked to his mother’s bed, stepping over the crumbled divide between their rooms. I walked behind him and stopped when he did. Traive cleared rock from atop her down-filled blanket, a golden thread snagging and pulling free.

“All that arguing. All his lying and cheating, all the squabbles over money. All the time creating lives apart, and so she slept safely in her own bed every night, for years. But on this one night, he must have done something kind. Maybe they smiled at each other in just the right way. Maybe it was an unintended touch that set them right. Maybe he was finally trying to make amends and maybe she remembered why she loved him to begin with. On this night, they were together again, sleeping in his bed, holding each other like they used to, crushed together in a final embrace.”

“I’m sorry.” I took his shoulder and Traive turned back, tears in his eyes. “This village has lost too many of its people already.”

“You want us all to leave for Mashta.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And me as well?”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

Traive tipped the tankard to his lips, finishing its contents. He dropped it to the floor, glass shards skipping over rubble and through gaps in the collapsing floor.

“My father was a bastard most of his days, and in one act of kindness he gets my mother killed. No Barro, we’re not going anywhere.”

“If we stay behind and that thing returns, sir, it will kill us all.”

“This is Findel Castle, and as long as a Findel remains in its keep, we will defend it.”

“Traive.”

Traive’s eyebrow raised at the use of his name.

“A lord is only as powerful as the people who support him.”

“Are you challenging my rule?”

I shook my head. “We were friends long ago, long before you discarded our friendship, long before we settled into our rightful places. You were always cunning and indulgent, but there used to be a kindness within. You used to care. Do what you see fit, but I ask you: If everyone you rule is dead, who are you the lord of?”

Traive snorted and walked away. Traive cleared his mother’s vanity, carefully placing her hair brush and powders to the edge before taking a seat. The stool wobbled beneath him.

“Bring me parchment and ink. I will write a formal request to Lord Tigren. He should be able to spare thirty men.”

“Yes, Lord Findel.”

“And Barro. Bring more wine and a proper glass. I can’t be seen drinking from a tankard like tavern folk.”

DRAFT 2: (applied scene structure from Exercise #3 and some of the character details from Exercise #4. Draft 1 is below Draft 2 so you can compare the changes.)

“Does he think he’s the king?” asked Jellie, the old pastry chef. She was making a list of ingredients for the day’s meals. The guest count was always the same, as Lord Findel had few friends, and Randgren Village lured few visitors.

“He does have a castle,” I said, marking items in the pantry as Jellie called them out.

We knew the inventory well, (Jellie and I did all the shopping), but Mrs. Findel and her son Traive sometimes held late-night raids, hers when she was depressed, his when he’d been drinking. There were frequent raids from both, and I was forced to reorganize the shelves almost every morning.

I turned the jars, labels forward, and stacked the potatoes evenly.

“We’re low on molasses and sugar root,” I said, popping my head out of the door frame with a smile. “Plenty of turnips though.”

Jellie snorted. “Turnips won’t go in a pie. Swedes go alright, but they got a sweetness to them. Would need two full jars of molasses to make them turnips proper sweet.”

She raised her eyebrows and jotted something down. Jellie had a million unfinished recipes lying around and never referenced a one when she actually got to baking.

“You can make a dessert from anything, Jellie. I’ve seen you do it. Dessert isn’t the problem here.”

I brought out potatoes, garlic, salted pork, and eggs, organizing them on my section of the counter. “Lord Findel specifically asked for Rount eggs for breakfast.” Somewhere under her frizzy gray poof of hair, Jellie’s eyes met mine. “And we don’t have Rount eggs,” I said.

“No one has Rount eggs, dear. Even the actual king can’t get a Rount egg. Nobody has seen one in five years.” Jellie dotted something on her paper and crossed off something else. “Think they’re all dead. Fine by me. They were loud and smelly. I don’t care much for birds anyway, but if you want to win me over, being stinky isn’t getting you off to a good start.”

“But their eggs are delicious,” I said, turning a rogue egg back in line with the others.

Jellie sharpened her knife. “That’s probably what hitched their wagon to oblivion.”

The sound of the grinding stone always reminded me of Dad. Always first in the kitchen, sharpening Mother’s knives, making her coffee just the way she liked (mounds of sugar).

There was a soft rumbling, like a distant avalanche from one of the Garlstave mountains out west, but those never came in summer.

“So what are you going to do?” asked the old woman.

I was staring at the wall where the plateware seemed to be rattling.

“About the eggs,” Jellie clarified.

“Ah,” I said, stepping back into the pantry. “I have a spice that fairs a slight resemblance to the taste of Rount. Sprinkle that on chicken eggs and dye the yolk green, he won’t know the difference.” I moved the lantern over. “Now I just need to find it.”

Dust swirled off the top shelves, and the jars rattled against one another. I turned to the doorway when the potato basket fell to the floor. Bending to pick it up, I heard the rumbling return, much louder now and not from out west, but from everywhere.

The world shook, not like rocks and snow tumbling over itself, but like the mountain was erupting from within. It was beneath me, and above me, and I couldn’t tell if I was shaking or the castle was. Just before the boom, I heard Jellie squeak like a mouse. I think it was the start of a scream. I cowered, covering my ears.

When the sounds of terror passed, I kept still for a long time. Curled in a ball, covered in pickling juices and preserves, with a turnip or two stuck in the mix, I listened for rumbling. I listened for sounds of combat or wails of the dying, but I only ever heard a faint shout and a finch that often visited Jellie and me in the mornings. Finally, when the silence felt safe, I stood.

The air was thick with stone dust and flour, but the walls and the ceiling held. The foundation of the castle was built to hold three stories of wealth and extravagance. This separated classes, keeping the real work confined to the castle’s bowels, with the added bonus of keeping me intact. Jellie was not so lucky.

The old pastry chef must have panicked when the noise came over us, tripping and impaling herself on her own knife. I held her hand and told her she’d be okay, but she was already gone when Throle came rushing down the stairs to find us.

“Ha ha! You’re alive!”

He picked me up and hugged me. Disoriented and limp, I curved over his belly like butter on a roll, my face buried in his beard. When he set me down, my legs wobbled, and he held me under the crook in my arms until I was righted.

“What happened?” I asked.

A chunk of broken stone fell on the table, cracking the eggs that had stayed whole through all the commotion. They oozed onto the floor with a disgusting splat. Throle slapped me on the arm, a filthy cloud billowing from me like a puffball mushroom.

“Let’s talk outside,” he said, watching the ceiling. Then he turned to the stairs. “Come on.”

***

Throle had attempted to prepare me for the devastation, but I couldn’t comprehend such complete destruction. Our village just wasn’t there anymore. Some houses were scattered about, like they had exploded, others collapsed on themselves as if pulled inward. It was no surprise that the homes were demolished. They were homes built by farmers and peasants. Their roofs would often cave in heavy winters. They were incapable of weathering an attack, and it was evident that’s what this was.

“Who?” I asked, staring at my house.

It was smashed right down its center, the outer walls standing like flickball posts.

“Who, what?” Throle asked as we moved over the debris to the second bedroom. My in-laws were still in bed when it all happened.

Laura’s parents were clearly dead.

“Who attacked us is what I was asking, but what attacked us is just as fair a question.” I sat, stacking pieces of rubble into like piles.

“I don’t know Barro. I was just about to start my tax run when God decided we’d had enough of the day, and something large burst from the forest and plowed the town like a fallow field.

“Gladys reared up with a start and turned the cart clear the other direction. I might have seen a flash of a toe before I was turned about, speeding away like a firesnake. Was hell getting her calm and set back this way.”

I evened out the light gray stone pile and looked up at my friend, his shaggy head haloed by the sun. “You think it was a giant?” I asked.

“I dunno. It’s early and my brain is still dealing with last night’s decisions. Could have been a tumbleweed of monkeys for all I was able to discern.”

I looked over what was left of my house. It hadn’t been our house for quite some time. “I’m glad Laura wasn’t home,” I said, more to myself than Throle, but he heard.

“Little chance of that, Barro. She’s been gone two years now, almost as long as my own dear wife.”

‘Dear wife’ was what Throle said in place of expletives and degradations, a practice he adopted after being scolded by his sister when the nieces and nephews took to calling Aunt Greta colorful terms beyond their years.

“Good thing we’re terrible husbands or both our wives might have been killed,” he said. “After we clean up this mess, I think we should go see ‘em, tell ‘em they owe us a bit of gratitude.” Throle chuckled and stuck his hand.

“You’re right.” Throle helped me up for the second time that morning. “I mean, I’ll need to go find Laura.” I kicked the splintered arm of my favorite chair. It spun and tumbled out into the road. “She needs to know about her mother and father.”

Throle grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. “You alright?” He shook me hard, and I felt something pop.

“Stop it.”

“Just checking if your brain come loose, ‘cause you don’t owe your dear wife nothing. She left all you without looking back, left you to look after her own ma and pa, as if they were already dead. What kind of a gal does that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, rubbing my neck. In the distance was a man standing in the road, staring at the sky. “RIght now we need to see who else is alive.”

***

Throle and I had cleared ten homes, accounting for nine dead families. We found Darten the carpenter hiding in one of his own cabinets. Others were wandering the streets in a daze or digging through the houses and stores, but so many were dead, killed in their beds, unaware that their dreams would continue forever. Had the hour been later, folks would have been out in their fields, or hawking market wares, or haggling over the price of a cabbage. They might have seen what was coming. They might have been able to run.

When main street was cleared, we ventured to the outskirts. There were five houses that still needed clearing; we owed an accounting for everyone, dead or alive.

It had already been hours. Hours of pulling away rubble only to find death. We knew any folks still under the stone and brick and mud were beyond saving, but we took our shovels and picks and set to work with blind hope. And hope is a powerful tool all its own.

When we heard the girl calling, her faint, soft voice like a bird song in the breeze, we dismissed it. Only after what must have been a half dozen pleas did the group look at each other, confirming the sound was more than noise in our heads.

We honed in on the girl’s muffled shouts, a hump of broken stone and wood beams, all covered in thatching like a mound of hay. We flung and we dug, knuckles scored and nails broken. We were tired, backs already seizing and legs trying to give way, but we clawed the mess clear until we found her.

Maribel, legs crossed, dog in her arms, was sitting under a thick, oak table, completely untouched.

“That’s my table,” said Darten, a smile on his face like a slice of watermelon. “Quality craftsmanship saves the day.”

The group ignored the carpenter, pulling free the girl and her dog. Maribel and the dog shoved past the group without a word of thanks or even a nod of gratitude. It was only then that I realized we were at the Marshes. Maribel was one of five children.

The girl stood on the pile of her toppled chimney, turning in small degrees until she understood the position of her home’s remains. She pointed to a corner, now splintered wood beams and smoothed stone.

“That’s ma and pa’s room,” she said.

Darten and Grove began clearing the pile, Grove doing his best with one good hand.

“I heard ma moaning for awhile, but it’s been a longer while since she stopped.” Maribel moved her finger to the opposite corner. That’s my brothers and sisters’ room.

I scrambled to the children’s room along with the Trank sisters. Throle was throwing mud bricks through his legs like a dog, and with a bark, Maribel’s dog joined in. Even after the other men confirmed what the girl already knew, that her parents were dead, we hoped the chilling silence was due to piles of dampening rather than lack of life.

When Throle found the frame of a small bed, we hoped they were safely hidden under it like their sister had been with the table.  Throle pulled the blanket free from its bed, then collapsed, sinking his head into his hands.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You can stop digging,” he said. “I found the kids.”

We pulled the Marsh children from the rubble anyway. We gave Maribel her privacy as the girl said her tearful goodbyes.

Stepping back to the broken mound of chimney, I pulled the frame of a painting from the pile, tearing the canvas across the faces of the Marsh family portrait. Nancy and Mark embraced the four kids (the painting was completed before little Aaron came along) and I stared into Nancy’s green eyes, rippling on the breeze.

I set the painting back on the ruins of the mantle, propping the broken frame to keep it level.

***

Everyone congregated at what was left of the village meeting hall, and I nodded out a head count. There were nine of us. Nine people in a village of 112.

“Was there anyone we didn’t find?” I asked, brushing dust away from my vest for the dozenth time. “Anyone that wasn’t home?”

“The Littens were away,” said Grove, soot smeared over his face, his hand crushed and bloodied.

“And me,” said Alexander, ambling over from out of nowhere. “Nobody bothered to look for me I guess.” He held a baby over his shoulder like a half-full sack of corn.

“Whose baby is that?” asked Throle.

The squat man, scratches across his neck and tattered clothes dangling from his chest, shrugged and grunted. “Hell if I know. Found it in the street, if you can believe.”

I stepped to Alexander and held out my hands, then I pictured the old bachelor throwing the baby to me with careless indifference.

“Wait,” I said, and I took the child gingerly from his shoulder. Its breathing was weak, but it was alive.

There were three newborns in Randgren Village. Yeb Triker and his wife were dark skinned. This baby was pale like buttercream. I held the small thing up and delicately opened one of its eyes. Its pupil slowly shrunk with the sun, but it was encircled with a vibrant blue.

“It has blue eyes,” I said.

Throle stepped to my side. “All babies have blue eyes, ya wooly turd.” He squeezed the child’s arm, as if baby fat could prove its origins. “Looks like Archie to me.” Throle looked around the group. “Anyone seen Archibald, the smithy?”

The Trank sisters shook their heads. “Dead.”

Others were still sorting through rubble or lying on the ground, coming to terms with truths they’d rather dismiss or sending their thoughts away from injuries. Archibald was the town blacksmith. Among us was Throle the tax collector, me the cook, a cobbler, a seamstress, three farmers, a carpenter, and an old man.

“Ain’t seen tha mister, but the missus sits over here.” Darten jabbed an arthritic, weathered finger at the stone stoop of the meeting hall.

Archie’s wife sat, eyes glazed, mumbling, picking at the skin of her thumb. I leaned down and held the unidentified baby near her. “Maisy. Is this your baby?”

Maisy’s eyes shifted and she looked at the baby like she’d never seen one before. She stroked its cheek and was lost in thought again, peeling skin from the edges of a wound of her own making. “I’ll ask you again later,” I whispered, then stood and faced the small crowd. “So did anyone actually see what happened?”

We exchanged similar stories, of being woken by noise or by the roof collapsing over us. No one really saw anything, but we shared a sense of a single presence that trampled our town like a wild horse in a vegetable garden. We knew that whatever caused the disaster, it was malicious.

Alexander grimaced at the Findel castle over our shoulders. “Of course the castle still stands.” The east wing was toppled, but much of the main section and west wing were intact. “Well, most of it.”

“Oh damn,” I said. “We haven’t searched the castle.”

***

The group made our way to the stone palace. Weary, covered in grime and blood (some not our own), and not too anxious about digging up Findel bodies, we moved like wayward moths to a guttering torch.

As we reached the main entrance, Traive Findel exited through the grand doorway, shielding his eyes from the sun. We stopped on the cobblestone road, the only finished road in Randgren, but it too was damaged, though long before today’s events.

Traive caught sight of us and sneered. “In no rush to help your lord?”

The villagers reluctantly bowed their heads.

“We apologize, sir,” I said. Traive was only a year older than me, but being the son of the Randgren lord granted him an age and wisdom that demanded our respect. In theory.

“Mother and Father are dead.” His speech was slurred and he was bleeding from a gash on his forehead. It was unclear if he were drunk or if the knock to his head had rattled him, but both were likely. “If you care.”

“We are sorry to hear, sir.” No one else feigned condolences, but I tried to give a respectful pause before the next question. “And the staff, sir? Is anyone else alive?”

Traive shrugged as he looked out over the village. “How the hell should I know?”

“Of course, sir.” I waved the others on. “We’ll take a look,” I said, but Traive put out his bloodied hand.

“You’re not going to hold up in my house like some retched vagabonds. Go back to your own homes.”

Alexander grunted. “We got no homes, you-”

Traive shot him a daggered look and the old man reconsidered his wording.

“Our homes are destroyed, sir,” said Alexander, spitting thick mucus to counter the forced grace.

“Sir, we should really check on everyone. The maids might still-”

“They’re dead!” shouted Traive, clutching his head with new pain. “The west stairwell collapsed around us as we tried to get out.”

“You were with them in the west wing?” I asked. “Why…”

Traive raised his eyebrows and I let the question trail off. It was not uncommon for Lord Findel to diddle the staff when bored, but I was unaware his son also partook.

Shellie Trank stepped closer to Traive. “You need to get your head stitched up, sir. That’s a bad cut.”

He stared at the blood on his hands.

“I can help with that,” she said. “Maisy could do a clean job, but she,” Maisy was glaring intently at a pebble between her feet, mumbling to herself, “is not right just now. Sister and I make all our own clothes and I have the steadier hands.”

Callie Trank snorted, her lips curling up in a scoff.

“Sir,” I said, “are you certain about the lord and lady?”

His eyes welled and he nodded, perhaps from the remnants of dust. The baby shifted in my arms and Traive looked over the disheveled villagers forming a gallery around him, small spires of smoke behind us from fires still burning in collapsed hearths.

“What happened?” he asked.

“We don’t know, sir.”

Sighing, he waved us on. “Barro, I’m famished. Get us something to eat.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Barro.” He put his hand on my shoulder. Other than serving him meals, Traive and I had not come in remotely close contact since we were boys. A long time ago, some might have said we were friends. “My parents are dead.”

I didn’t know what he needed to hear, but I couldn’t think of any comforting words. “Yes, sir.”

“Then you’ll call me Lord Findel, and if you’re all staying here, then you’re the new castle staff. Is that clear?”

He walked away before I could answer. The others dismissed the entrance fee, too distracted by the thought of a hot meal to care what it would cost. Traive entered through the same great doors and we all followed, now officially the new staff of Lord Findel’s castle. Darten dragged Maisy by the sleeve while she kept her eyes on the pebble, as if saying goodbye to a friend parting for a journey from which they might not return.

***

The main dining hall had three walls and no roof, but the hearth was whole despite the chimney being clogged higher up. Traive and Throle had disappeared to the wine cellar, but none of us had needed orders to know what needed doing. Randgren was a village of hard workers, and seeing our labors benefit the Findels was nothing new, but we were all hungry, and the idea of doing something other than digging out bodies gave us razor focus.

Maribel watched the baby, padding one of the cauldrons for a reinforced crib. Stones were still falling from the ceiling, Throle’s thick and matted hair acting as a helmet more than once. Darten brought in water and filtered it as best he could, given the well walls had shook loose and the soil and its residents crept in the spring. Farson, Maisy, and Alexander sat in wait, Farson too old and too comfortable exploiting his old age to do anything. Maisy was still incoherent. Alexander was just openly defiant, as Alexander often was. Grove started a fire, while the Trank sisters helped me clear the kitchen.

I had worked in the Findel’s kitchen since I was six, spending year after year washing what seemed to be an endless pile of dishes. Though the patterns of the fancy kitchenware wore down after time and were replaced with modern-style plateware, the images of dragons and knights, geometric cuts and raised gold leaves that adorned them all had become an amalgamation, one giant dirty dish that represented two decades of my humble life.

Now all those dishes were shattered. The pantry had given way, thankfully after I had made my exit, but the vegetables and fruit, provided fresh daily from the locals as a tax to their lord, were flattened, their ripe insides squeezed into the rubble around them.

The Tranks sisters volunteered some of their crops, already upturned from their fields. I managed a vegetable stew in a broken pot over the fire. Two stacked shields pulled from the wall were bound together to from a small oven for bread.

We ate our survivors’ feast in silence. We didn’t want to talk about what happened. We didn’t want to face the sorrow and anger rolling around inside us, but of course we eventually had to talk it out. We had to move past the shock and the carnage and talk about what was next.

Traive and Throle waddled into the dining room, slamming a wine rundlet on the table.

“I need the castle repaired at once,” said Traive, motioning for Throle to grab cups.

“Lots of things need repair,” Alexander said, tearing free a favorable hunk of bread.

“What is your name?” asked Traive, pouring himself a deep mug of wine.

“Alexander Flain,” bread spat onto the table and Alexander stuffed it back in his mouth, “my Lord.”

“Mister Flain, something attacked us and we need to be ready to defend ourselves if it returns.”

“Your daddy’s castle didn’t stop the first attack. How will it do any better the next go ‘round?”

“This is not a council table, Mister Flain. I was not asking your opinion.” Traive ran a gloved hand through his black hair. “Contradict me again and your next meal will be in the dungeon.”

“Heh, this whole place is a dungeon.”

“Alexander.” I motioned for him to sew his mouth. “Lord Findel is concerned for our safety.”

Callie Trank drank from the wine, her full stew cooling before here. “Things need rebuilding, sure, but Alexander is right. Even if we get this castle upright, who’s gonna defend it?” She waved her hand around the table. “This lot? We’re no fighters.”

“Where’s the nightwatch?” asked Traive.

“Crushed in the guard house,” said Throle.

Traive finished his cup and served himself another. “Then we’ll seek aid from the kingdom army.”

Grove laughed. With his right hand bandaged, he struggled to spoon stew into his mouth. “They call it the kingdom’s army, but they won’t lift a finger for our village.” He fumbled and the spoon splashed into his bowl.

“Damn right,” Alexander said. “When those wanderers came through two years back, scavenging our fields, the army couldn’t be bothered to help us. Wasn’t ‘til they went ‘round Kingstone did the army finally step in. When the king’s food is in peril, them boys sure swoop in fast, but nothing for us. The king doesn’t give a lick for Randgren. Probably why he let you fools be in charge.”

“My family deserves respect!” screamed Traive, thrusting his fists into the table. His chair tumbled behind him and wine sloshed over top the cups.

“Your family is dead, you shit! ALL of our families are dead! You want us to serve you, lick your boots like you still mean something? You’re the lord over a wasteland!” Alexander threw his stew at Traive, soaking his tailored trousers and waistcoat.

“You bastard!”

Traive climbed onto the table. Alexander reached out and took his feet, sending the young lord to his back. Traive rolled on his side trying to catch the breath he’d lost in the fall. Darten and Grove shoved Alexander back from the table, the farmer still shouting and cursing. Maribel’s dog ran at our feet, barks echoing in the grand hall. The baby cried within its cauldron crib, the close walls amplifying the shrieks.

“Stop it!” Maribel shouted, picking up the baby. As she rocked and shushed the unclaimed child, the crowd calmed, retaking their seats. Throle and I helped Traive Findel from the table. He left the room without looking back.

“The army will help,” said Throle. “When we can’t pay our taxes to the Findels, the Findels can’t pay their taxes to the king. That should be enough to make him want to fix the situation. He’ll want his money.”

“Might be the exact reason they won’t help,” said Grove, finally switching to his left hand to eat. “If we can’t pay taxes, then we’re not really kingdom citizens anymore. Why would he send the army out to help us if we can’t contribute?”

“What?” asked Alexander, grabbing more bread now that his stew was gone. “Help or not. I’m not paying any more taxes.”

“You better.” said Throle. “I’ll be out of a job if you don’t pay.”

“You need a new job anyway. Who volunteers to be the tax collector? You’re a twat.”

“Hmph,” said Throle, pulling free a wedge of bannock and stuffing his cheeks.

“Taxes or not,” said Callie Trank, “I’ve got ruined crops, and nobody to sell them to anyway.”

“We supposed to go clear over to the Mashta market?” asked Shellie Trank. “That’s a four-day trek one way over them retched hills.”

“I make that once a month,” Throle said. “Ain’t so bad.”

“You folks disgust me.”

The old man Farson had said little until now, shuffling around in his nightshirt like a phantom. He slammed his fist on the table. Weakened with age, the effect was a soft thump. Still, the group respectfully listened.

“We just lost our families, our friends, our fellow brethren, and you’re going on about taxes and crops and hills.”

“I don’t think anyone was trying to be disrespectful, Mister Farson,“ said Grove. “We’re just…coping, you understand?”

“I need to bury my wife,” said Farson. “That boy,” he pointed to the doorway where Traive had exited, “needs to bury his parents. There’s dozens of townsfolk who ain’t got anybody else to bury them. We’ll need to bury them too even if they got no family left to mourn them, no one to know what terrible fate has befallen them.” Farson trailed off into quiet sobs. Darten squeezed the old man’s shoulder, his wrinkled hands just a few years shy of the same frailty.

“We still don’t know what fate has befallen them,” I said. “The best guess we have now is giants, which makes little sense to me. Giants are recluses, keeping to themselves. I don’t know what would have driven one through the village with such careless regard for our brethren.”

Alexander grunted. “I knew a giant once. He was an asshole. Maybe this giant is just an asshole.”

“Doesn’t much matter what it was,” said Darten. “Bury the dead. Rebuild. That’s all well and good, but If that thing comes back and we’re still here, then we’ll be dead with the rest of them.”

The group quieted, finishing their meals, pouring cup after cup of wine. We knew we couldn’t stay but we were exhausted, ready to end the day as quick as we could. I watched Maisy, hoping she would come out of her daze and claim the child. She hadn’t touched her food, but she bit her lip so much it was bleeding.

“We’ll leave for Mashta tomorrow,” I said to the few remaining at the table. Most had formed makeshift beds in the dining hall, too drunk or scared to venture off into the other parts of the castle, and were fast asleep. “Darten is right. Maybe the army won’t help us, but if Traive could tell Lord Tigren what happened, then he might do something. At the worst, we take shelter in Mashta.”

“That sounds good,” said Throle, “until they get attacked too, if they haven’t been already.”

We looked at each other, old enough friends to know when the other was frightened, but neither of us knew what comforting words should be offered. We poured more wine instead.

DRAFT 1:

I suppose it was my sense of responsibility that saved my life, or that if I missed a day of work my family might starve. Ironic, considering I work in the Findel’s kitchen. I wouldn’t know my family was dead, along with most of the village, until well after the ground shook and the Findel’s castle crumbled above, trapping me in the pantry. I wouldn’t know the Findel’s were dead until Throle dug me clear and we surveyed the damage. I wouldn’t know a lot about what happened or what was going to happen for many days, and I’m glad I didn’t, or I never would have agreed.

The air was thick with stone dust and flour, but the lower levels of the castle were built to hold three stories of wealth and extravagance, with the added bonus of separating classes so that the real work within the castle was confined to its bowels. I had worked in the Findel’s kitchen since I was six, spending year after year washing what blended into one ornate dish. Though the patterns of the fancy kitchenware wore down after time and were replaced with modern-style plateware, the images of dragons and knights, geometric cuts and raised gold leaves that adorned the dish had become an amalgamation, one giant dirty dish that represented two decades of my humble life.

Now all those dishes were shattered. The vegetables and fruit, provided fresh daily from the locals as a tax to their lord, were flattened, their ripe insides squeezed into the rubble around them. My oldest friend Throle was out collecting taxes for the Findels when, as he explained, “God decided we’d had enough of the day, and something large burst from the forest and plowed the town like a fallow field.

“Gladys rared up in a start and turned our cart clear the other direction. I might have seen a flash of a toe before I was turned about, speeding like fire from the destruction. Took me an hour to calm the girl and set her back this way.”

My head hurt and my lungs still struggled to bring air past the floating debris, but we searched the castle and houses as best we could for survivors. My own home was smashed right down its center, the outer walls standing like flickball posts. My in-laws were still in bed when the village was attacked.

“You think it was a giant?”

“Dunno,” Throle said, throwing mud bricks through his legs like a dog. We were at the Marshes. Nancy had five children and we were hoping the chilling silence was due to piles of dampening rather than lack of life.

I pulled the frame of a painting from the pile, tearing the canvas across the faces of the Marsh family portrait. Nancy and Mark embraced the four kids (it was done before little Aaron came along) and I stared into Nancy’s one green eye, rippling on the breeze.

“I’m glad Laura wasn’t home,” I said, more to myself than Throle, but he heard.

“Little chance of that, Barro.” Throle found the frame of a bed. It was small. “She’s been gone two years now, almost as long as my own dear wife.” ‘Dear wife’ was what Throle said in place of expletives and degradations, a practice he adopted after being scolded by his sister when the nieces and nephews took to calling Aunt Greta colorful terms beyond their years. “Good thing we’re terrible husbands or both our wives might have been killed. After we clean up this mess I think we should go see ‘em, tell ‘em they owe us a bit of gratitude.” Throle chuckled, pulling the blanket free from its bed.  Then he collapsed and put his head in his hands.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You can stop digging,” he said. “I found the kids.”

***

Everyone congregated at the town meeting hall, well, outside what was left of the town meeting hall. Throle and I had cleared ten homes, accounting for nine dead families. Had the hour been later folks would have been out in their fields, hawking market wares or haggling over the price of a turnip, but as it was there was nine of us standing. Nine people in a village of 112.

“The Littens were away,” said Grove, soot smeared over his face, his hand crushed and bloodied.

Alexander held a baby over his shoulder like a half-full sack of corn.

“Whose baby is that?” asked Throle.

The squat man, scratches across his neck and tattered clothes dangling from his chest, shrugged and grunted. “Hell if I know. Found it in the street if you can believe.”

I stepped to Alexander and held out my hands, then I pictured the old bachelor throwing the baby to me with careless indifference. “Wait,” I said, and I took the child gingerly from his shoulder. Its breathing was weak, but it was alive. There were three newborns in town. Yeb Triker and his wife were dark skinned. This baby was pale like buttercream. I held the small thing up and delicately opened one of its eyes. Its pupil slowly shrunk with the sun, but around it was a vibrant blue.

“It has blue eyes,” I said.

Throle stepped to my side. “All babies have blue eyes, ya wooly turd.” He squeezed the child’s arm, as if measured density was going to scientifically prove its origins. “Looks like Archie to me.” Throle looked around the group. “Anyone seen Archibald, the smithy?”

The Trank sisters shook their heads. Others were still sorting through rubble or lying on the ground, coming to terms with truths they’d rather dismiss or sending their thoughts away from fresh injuries. Archibald was the town blacksmith. Among us was Throle the tax collector, me the cook, a cobbler, a seamstress, three farmers, a carpenter, and an old man.

“Ain’t seen tha mister, but the missus sits over here.” Darten jabbed an arthritic, weathered finger at the stone stoop of the meeting hall.

Archie’s wife sat, eyes glazed, mumbling, picking at the skin of her thumb. I leaned down and held the unidentified baby near her. “Maisy. Is this your baby?”

Maisy’s eyes shifted and she looked at the baby like she’d never seen one before. She stroked its cheek and was lost in thought again, peeling skin from the edges of a wound of her own making. “I’ll ask you again later,” I whispered, then stood and faced the small crowd. “So did anyone actually see what happened?”

We exchanged similar stories, of being woken by noise or by the roof collapsing over us. No one really saw anything, but we shared a sense of a single presence that trampled our town like a wild horse in a vegetable garden. We knew that whatever caused the disaster, it was malicious.

***

There were five houses that still needed clearing; we owed an accounting for everyone, dead or alive. We all knew the folks under the stone and brick and mud were beyond saving, but we grabbed shovels and picks and set to work with blind hope. And hope is a powerful tool all its own.

When we heard the girl calling, her faint, soft voice like a bird song in the breeze, we dismissed it. Only after what must have been a half dozen pleas did the group look at each other to confirm the sound to be more than in our heads.

Maribel was sitting legs crossed with her dog in her arms under a thick oak table, completely untouched.

“That’s my table,” said Darten, a smile on his face like a slice of watermelon. “Quality craftsmanship saves the day.”

The group ignored the carpenter, pulling free the girl and her dog. The dog sprinted from her arms to lift a leg on the shambles that was formerly the house of Maribel’s neighbors.  The girl stood on the pile of her toppled chimney, turning in small degrees until she understood the position of her own home’s remains. She pointed to a corner, now splintered wood beams and smoothed stone.

“That’s ma and pa’s room,” she said. Throle and I began clearing the pile. “I heard ma moaning for awhile, but it’s been a longer while since she stopped.”

We confirmed what the girl already knew, her parents were dead, and the full account of Randgren Village was complete. The west wing of the Findel’s castle was partially standing and we made our way there, silent, covered in grime and blood (some not our own), like moths to a torch.

***

The main dining hall had three walls and no roof, but the hearth was intact despite the chimney being clogged higher up with its own pieces. Grove started a fire while Alexander, Throle, and the Trank sisters helped me clear and search the kitchen for food and cookware. Darten brought in well water and we filtered it as best we could given the walls had shook loose and the soil and its residents crept in the spring.

The Tranks sisters volunteered some of their crops, already upturned from their fields. I managed to make an unlevened bread and a vegetable stew in a broken pot over the fire. Two stacked shields pulled from the wall were bound together to from a small oven for the bread. We each did our part to prepare a feast, no one ever agreeing on what needed to be done or why. We were hungry, sure, as no one had yet had breakfast and it was past lunch, but mostly we just needed something to do, something normal after our lives had all been changed. Mostly, we just didn’t want to talk about it or face the sadness and anger that was rolling around inside us, but of course we eventually had to talk it out. We had to move past the shock and the carnage and talk about what was next, and when we sat to eat our survivor’s feast, words flowed. The tears would come later.

“Least we won’t have to pay taxes no more,” said Darten, running his hands along the grain of the Findel’s grand dining table, “now that are lords are… squished.”

“That’s good news for you,” said Throle, “but I’m the taxman. I’ll need to find a new job!”

Alexander had a mouthful of stew, but it didn’t keep him from speaking up. “You needed a new job anyway, you twat.”

Throle answered back with a “hmph,” pulling free a wedge of bannock and stuffing his cheeks.

“I have no particular sorrow over Lord Findel’s death, but taxes or not,” said Callie Trank, “I’ve got crops I can’t sell, and nobody to sell them to anyway.”

“We supposed to go clear over to Mashta?” asked Shellie Trank. “That’s a four day trek one way over them retched hills.”

“I make that once a month,” Throle said. “Ain’t so bad.”

I cradled the baby, giving it cooled stew broth and soaked bread. It still hadn’t cried, but it stirred as if waking, only occasionally opening its weary eyes. I watched Maisy, hoping she would come out of her daze and claim the child. I don’t know what I’ll do if she won’t. I was never keen on being a pa, just one of the reasons Laura run off. Maisy hadn’t touched her food, but she bit her lip so much it was bleeding.

“You folks disgust me.” The old man, Farson, had said little until now, shuffling around in his nightshirt like a phantom. He slammed his fist on the table, though, weakened with age, the effect was a soft thump. Still, the group respectfully listened. “We just lost our families, our friends, our fellow brethren, and you’re going on about taxes and crops and hills.”

“I don’t think anyone was trying to be disrespectful, Mister Farson.” Grove had his hand bandaged, but stubbornly unwilling to switch to his other hand to eat. “We’re just…coping, you understand?”

“I understand that I need to bury my wife, and I’ll need to bury dozens of townsfolk who ain’t got anybody else to bury them. They got no family left to even mourn them or know what terrible fate has befallen them.” Farson trailed off into quiet sobs. Darten squeezed the old man’s shoulder, his wrinkled hands just a few years shy of the same frailty.

“We still don’t know what fate has befallen them,” I said. “The best guess we have now is giants, which makes little sense to me. Giants are recluses, keeping to themselves. I don’t know what would have driven one through the village and with such careless regard for our brethren.”

Alexander grunted. “I knew a giant once. He was an asshole. Maybe this giant is just an asshole.”

“What if it comes back?” asked Grove. “Our paltry nightwatch was crushed in the guard house.

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