ERIDA

by Aldus Baker

Fear and loss twisted their way into Erida. What could he do without his father? Why had he not gone to look for him a day sooner? Where would he go now? A hand grabbed him by his arm and hauled him to his feet.

A voice as rough as the grip on his arm said, “Come with me, pup.”

Erida blinked to clear his vision as he was half pulled and half pushed along. He tried to slow down and get his feet under him. Fingers dug painfully deeper into his arm and drug him forward all the harder.

“I’ll tell you now,” said his captor. “You don’t work then you don’t eat. By the look of you I’m not going to get much work out of you anyway, but I expect you to do all you can.”

The stumbling forced march ended at one of the stalls in the corral. A harsh shove sent Erida crashing into the stall door.

“Here,” said the rough man from behind him.

Erida turned and got his first good look at his tormentor, a sinewy thin-boned brute with a wrinkled sun-darkened face. He dressed common like Erida, a faded stained and patched tunic over equally tatter and patched pants that bloused from the tops of worn cracked-leather boots. This must be Saff, the one Tristan said would come for him. Saff held out a three tined haul-to.

“Take it,” he said.

When Erida reached for the rake, Saff tossed it at his feet and said, “Faster, boy. Now rake out that stall. Then use the barrow to carry it all to the dung hauler’s wagon.”

Erida picked up the rake. He did not see a wheelbarrow or a wagon anywhere. “Where is the wheelbarrow?”

“No brighter than your old man. It’s over behind the inn with the dung wagon of course. Do you think we keep it with the horses?” He sneered as he spoke and tilted his head in the direction of the lane where it turned the corner behind the central building. “Once you finish the stalls, you can eat. Now get to work and stop wasting time jawing.”

Erida picked up the haul-to. He wanted to hit Saff with the rake, but his shoulder hurt from bouncing off the stall door and his arm felt like Saff tried to pull it off. Combined with his aching feet and pounding head, he knew he had no choice but to do as Saff ordered. He turned toward the stall and went to work. He consoled himself by imagining something horrible happening to Saff. By the looks of him, something horrible already had.

The unoccupied stall required little work to rake out. Erida though about getting the wheelbarrow, but decided to work on the second stall instead. He felt winded and a little dizzy by the time he finished it. He knew what his father would say if he saw Erida working so slowly. His chest tightened and he struggled to keep his emotions in check. His father would never make another barbed comment about how Erida did things.

A dark bay mare occupied the third stall. He found the mare’s tack and saddle at the back of the stall. Unable to reach high enough to place the bridle over the horses head, Erida searched along the row of stalls hoping to find something to stand on. At the middle of the row stood a door that opened into a windowless space half the width of a stall.

The room smelled like moldy straw and urine. A narrow cot sat in the center of the room. The odor emanated from the mattress. Various tools hung on the loose fitting plank walls. Two wooden buckets rested on the dirt floor. One held brushes and a curry comb. Erida lifted the empty bucket by its rope handle. He backed out of the tight space and closed the door, relieved to breathe the open air again. Even the dung he raked smelled better than the crowded tool room.

He used the upended bucket as a step stool and slipped the bridle onto the bay mare’s head. After he led her into the corral, Erida raked out the stall and garnered much more dung and spoiled straw from his efforts. He trudged from the corral to the back of the inn and found the wheelbarrow next to an old wagon that smelled like dung. A wide-bladed wooden shovel lay in the wheelbarrow. Thoughts of food intruded on the mixture of aches and pains that accompanied pushing the barrow back to the corral. His hunger rose up so strong that Erida started to envy dung beetles.

That disgusting thought did nothing to quell his appetite. His empty stomach drove Erida forward as he pushed himself harder to finish the stalls. He hoped that Saff’s comment about working and eating meant that he could eat when the stalls were clean. He tried not to think about what would happen if Saff gave him more to do.

He returned to the dung wagon with his load of horse droppings and fouled straw. His arms and back ached. When he set the wheelbarrow down, he leaned forward with his hands still on the handles and took deep slow breaths until he stopped feeling dizzy. A few shovel loads of dung tossed up into the wagon made it clear Erida would exhaust himself trying to empty the wheelbarrow. He needed to find a better way to unload it.

Besides the dung wagon, there were three heavy wagons, two open carriages and two covered carriages. Those last two were better built and painted black with gold edgings that gleamed in the afternoon sun. Erida hobbled to the far side of the wagons and carriages where he found a long wood plank stacked with other lumber. Erida tried to pull the plank out of the stack, but could not budge it. The effort left him wheezing with a splinter in his hand and more tired than tossing dung up into the wagon.

“Hey, you there. Boy!”

A thrill of hope ran through Erida when his tired ears thought they heard his father speaking. As the words registered, they brought disappointment. Looking between the carriages he saw a young man wearing a floppy wide-brimmed felt hat and a gray jacket like the one Tristan and the heavyset Gramble wore.

“What do you think you’re doing there?” said the newcomer in the felt hat. He did not sound as annoyed as the porchman had and certainly not as cruel as Saff. But, his tone demanded an answer.

“I’m cleaning the stables and I need to get the dung into the dung wagon,” said Erida.

“And how does standing around the lumber pile get that done?” The man walked closer. He looked several years older than Erida and had the complexion of someone that spent most of the day outside, but not as wrinkled and leathery as Saff.

“I want to use this plank as a ramp for the barrow. Then I could walk it into the wagon to dump the dung.”

The young man rubbed his weathered chin and said. “Then why don’t you?”

“I can’t get the plank out.”

“Mmm,” said the young man as his hat’s brim flopped to exaggerate his nod. “Let me give you a hand.”

He stepped over and and took hold of the plank. Even he struggled, but managed to free it from the pile. “Whew. That was really stuck in there. The name’s Matrick. What’s yours?”

The introduction took Erida by surprise. “Erida,” he said after a small hesitation.

Matrick helped Erida get one end of the plank into the tail of the dung wagon. He watched as Erida lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow and then said, “Hold a moment.” He traded places with Erida and then took a quick jog with the wheelbarrow up the the angled plank and into the wagon where he tipped it forward and dumped the contents into the wagon bed. Then he walked the empty wheelbarrow back down the plank.

“There you go,” said Matrick. “Good to meet you. Now we better both get back to work.” He gave a quick wave and walked in the direction of the stables.

“Thank you,” said Erida.

“Don’t mention it,” said Matrick without turning around.

By the time Erida had trundled the empty wheelbarrow back to the stable yard, Matrick was leading a roan mare out of the corral.

“That’s my father’s horse,” said Erida.

Matrick raised an eyebrow and said, “Your father? I heard the man that owned this horse died.”

Erida managed to nod in acknowledgment. It felt too painful to say anything.

A look of realization passed across Matrick’s face. His expression softened and he said, “Oh, I didn’t know. Sorry about your dad.”

“Thanks.” It was all Erida could manage to say.

“I’m supposed to hitch her up and and see how she does with a wagon. Did your father ever use her as a draft horse?”

“My father drove our wagon to town with her,” said Erida.

“What happened to the wagon?” said Matrick.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what happened after my father left our place. When he didn’t come back, I walked to town to find him. When I…” Something caught in Erida’s throat. He pushed his words past it. “When I got here, Tristan told me he’d been killed. But I don’t really know what happened. I don’t know where our wagon went or if my father managed to sell our crops. I…”

Erida’s words failed, but his thoughts ran on. $I wish I had come to town sooner. I wish I could have talked to him. What is wrong with me? I didn’t even ask Tristan where he’s buried.

Erida’s vision blurred as he blinked back tears. He tried to hide them by turning to look at the horse. He sat the wheelbarrow down. Moving next to the horse, he reached out to pat her shoulder. Everything about the gesture was familiar. He could not remember a time in his life without both the mare and his father. The mare probably knew more about what happened to his father than anyone. $If only she could talk.

Matrick gave a quite cough and said, “It’s getting late and I need to go. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of her.”

The moment where Erida had lost himself in the presence of the horse and his father’s memory was gone. Its place taken over by his pounding head, aching muscles and empty stomach. He wanted to sit down where he was and stop moving forever.

“You alright?” said Matrick.

#

Erida did not try to answer Matrick. Instead, he used whatever power might have gone into speech to make his legs move. He went back to his wheelbarrow, lifted the handles, and started pushing. He told himself that every stride forward was one step closer to eating.

He focused on nothing beyond the most immediate task. Each pull of the rake was the only one. Erida avoided counting them, or his steps. When he led a horse out of a stall, he stubbornly refused to think about having to lead it back in later. He could not stop himself from counting the number of stalls. Eight. He had done it before he made the pact with himself to only do one thing at a time. He had no strength to worry about what came next. He did one thing and after that only one more thing again. It would end whenever there was no more to do.

He heard a snuffle from the last stall as he approached with his bucket stool in hand. The sun hung low behind buildings to the west of the inn. Daylight no longer angled its way into the southern facing stalls. Erida could barely discern the shape of a black horse within the gloomy interior. The odor of dung almost overwhelmed him despite how desensitized his nose had become. His eyes stung from the stall’s rank vapors.

“Oyah! What is that smell? I’ll bet you’ll be glad when I’ve cleaned this out,” he said to the horse. Erida opened the stall’s half-door and wondered how anyone ever allowed it to get this bad.

$Just one more thing, he told himself as he closed the door behind him and upended his bucket stool on the squishy ground. Some of it felt like straw beneath his feet and the rest reminded him all too well of the alley he had taken earlier in the day.

Trying not to breath, Erida slipped along the wall until his outstretched hand touch the back of the dark stall. Worried that the tack would not be where he expected, he grabbed the first bridle-like thing he chanced up. In his retreat toward the front of the stall, he notice that the dwindling daylight silhouetted everything. A few quick steps carried him to the half-door where he stuck his head as far out over it as he could and sucked down several lungs-full of air. By the third or fourth the spinning lights behind his eyes faded. He felt ready to step up on the bucket.

He shook out the bridle and got it ready to slip onto the horse. He put one foot on the bucket and one hand on the wall to steady himself, but before he could step up with his other foot, the horse dipped it’s large head down and waited while Erida slipped the bridle on. Erida obliged the patient animal without too much fumbling. He got the bridle in place before the burning muscles of his neck and shoulders could make good on their threat to stop working.

Genuinely grateful, Erida said, “Thank you.”

The black horse shook its head and stamped once on the filthy ground.

“You’re right. Let’s go.”

Erida grasp the reins that dangled from the bridle, opened the half-door, and led the horse outside. He examined the creature in the waning light. The gelding’s black coat looked like a piece of equine night that arrived early. If the huge black horse had not lowered its head to him, Erida wondered if even standing on the bucket would have worked. The black had to be several hands taller than his father’s mare.

Curiosity caused him to look around the corral; he did not see the mare. Perhaps tomorrow, if he got the chance, Erida would stand them side by side to see how much taller the gelding truly was. A jaw cracking yawn interrupted his speculation. Erida shook himself and found his haul-to.

His tired mind mulled over the thought that there would be a tomorrow. There had to be. The only thing that made today bearable was that it had to end. Except there would be no tomorrow for his father. That loss, worse in its way than the bone deep weariness that threatened to drop him where he stood, would not end. He did not want to face that now. He could not.

“One more thing. Just one more,” he said

It took Erida two more trips with the barrow to move the last stall’s rank corruption to the dung wagon. On the second trip, Erida pulled the plank off the tailgate of the wagon and drug it to one side where he hoped it would be out of the way.

Back at the corral, night had arrived. The greater size of the black allowed him to pick it out from among the other horses in the corral. Once he had the gelding’s reins in hand, he led the horse back into its newly cleaned stall. Erida did not know if the horse cared, but he imaged the animal was happier in a clean stall. He knew he would be. The absence of the stench alone deserved celebrating. Again, when he could think of no other way to remove the bridle except to step up on the bucket, the horse dipped its head.

Outside, after blindly returning the bridle to where he thought he found it, Erida stood in front of the closed half-door and addressed the deepest shadow in the stall, the one he assumed had to be the gelding.

“You’re too fine an animal for this place. How did you ever come to be here?”

The horse whinnied from within the blackness. $Had the horse tried to answer him?

“You didn’t go in with that beast did you, boy?”

#

Erida’s heart jumped even though his exhausted body gave no outward sign of the shock that came from hearing Saff’s unexpected voice.

“I cleaned his stall as you told me to do,” said Erida. He turned to face Saff. Someone had lit lamps. One shown from where it hung beneath the roof of the inn’s side porch. A closer one, affixed to the top of a tall post near the corral gate, burned bright enough to reveal Saff’s form where he stood a short distance away. The black’s whinny had been a warning.

“You are a fool, boy. And slow. I told you you could eat when you finished, but its late now and the kitchen served its last meal. Lucky for you this is an inn. There’s always something to eat lying around.” Saff moved and Erida watched his outline to try to determine what he did.

“Well come on, fool. I’ll show you to your supper,” said Saff. Erida could not see the sneer, but he could hear it in the vile man’s words.

He followed the thin man around the back of the inn. Saff stopped short of returning to the wagon yard. Revealed by the light from another lamp, several open topped barrels stood next to each other against the inn’s back wall. No longer surrounded by dung, Erida smelled the aroma of food as well as the putrid smell of rotting garbage.

“Go on, boy. The best is on top. Though even if you dug to the bottom of the barrel it would be too good for the likes of you.”

The garbage. Saff had led him to the garbage barrels and now he expected Erida to eat it. Even knowing what it was, Erida’s hunger started his stomach growling. His head hurt more than it ever had in his life. His knees wobbled. He felt the muscles in his legs twitching. It had been too many uncounted hours since the lard he had eaten that morning. With a mingled sense of desperation, relief, and revulsion, he stepped up to one of the barrels. He picked up something from the top and sniffed it. The aroma made his mouth water, meat of some kind, maybe lamb.

Erida closed his eyes, put the morsel of garbage in his mouth and started chewing. It tasted wonderful and he swallowed before he had time to think about it. He picked through the items at the top of the barrel and smelled each one first. Nothing smelled rancid or putrid, although those odors certainly came from other things deeper in the barrel.

He had no idea what several of the bits he ate were, but everything had flavors and textures he never suspected existed. When garbage tasted this good, he could hardly wait for a real meal from the inn’s kitchen.

“You eat garbage like a dog. Do you like that? Do you, dog?”

His stomach wanted more and his hunger bloomed full. Saff’s words cut deep. The pain Erida felt from them outweighed even his hunger. He dropped what he held and stepped away from the barrel.

“Has the dog finished? Are you sure you don’t want to knock a barrel over and root around in it?”

Erida started to shake. He had heard enough, too much. He spun around and reached for his knife.

As quick as any snake, Saff closed one hand around Erida’s throat and the other grabbed his wrist. He shoved Erida hard into the barrels. As Erida struggled for air, Saff leaned in, his wrinkled dark face close enough for Erida to smell his noxious breath.

“You upset with me, dog? Do you think that maybe you’d like to hurt me? Forget about that, dog. Forget about it right now. If a dog turns on its master it has to be put down. And I will put you down, because I can always get a new dog. Now drop the knife. Drop it, dog!”

Erida let his knife fall from his hand.

Saff flung Erida to the ground where he remained on his hands and knees, gasping for air.

Saff kicked him with one of his worn dirty boots.

Erida cried out from the pain in his side and rolled into a ball on the ground.

“That’s better,” said Saff. “Don’t forget who your master is.”

Saff gave him another kick, in the back this time and not as brutal as the first. “Get up!”

Erida bit his lip to keep from crying out again and scrambled to his feet.

“Now go back to the stables and get in your kennel, dog.”

Erida ran.

“That’s right, dog. You run. When I tell you to do something, you run!”

When Erida got to the corral gate, he glanced behind him. Saff had not followed him. He leaned on the gate, panting, too exhausted to open it. The fire of anger had heated his blood and given him strength for a moment, but Saff had beaten that flame out with ease. Erida choked back a sob and notice the plume of his breath. It was not only Erida’s anger that had grown cold. The temperature had fallen with the sun.

Saff’s taunting words came back to him. “… get to your kennel, dog.” An image of the cramped tool room and the cot that smelled worse than Saff’s breath came to him. He thought he’d rather freeze until the first shiver shook him. He used both his arms and his legs to move along the gate and reach the latch.

For a moment he saw his door back home, looking at the latch while a stranger pounded, demanding to be let in. Then another shiver rattled him and he forced his eyes open. Swaying on his feet he fumbled with the gate latch and managed to slide the bar free. He kept hold of the gate, letting it swing open only enough to admit him.

“One more thing,” he mumbled and pulled the gate closed. He had the bar slid back into the catch almost a minute before he realized he had done it.

$One more thing. The door to the tool room looked impossibly far away, but he was not going to the tool room. He was going farther. $One more step. $One more step. He repeated the altered phrase in his mind like an incantation, summoning each footfall. Erida followed the fence and held to it for support. It guided his tired feet in the right direction. When the fence stopped at the west end of the stalls, Erida looked at it as though it had turned traitor, abandoning him at a wall with no way forward. His next moment of clarity put him back on track when he remembered to turn right and follow the wall.

The walk to Shantown had been long, the search through it to find the inn, longer. Cleaning the stalls had been a torment of drudgery. But walking from the gate to the very last stall was a stumbling nightmare slog. Somewhere along the way, Erida watched his feet intently to make sure he did not trip and when he placed his hand against the wall next to him, there was nothing there. He fell sideways through the opening above the half-door of an empty stall. It hurt almost as much as when Saff kicked him.

He would have called out in pain and frustration if he had the energy to manage it. A moan escaped his parched lips as he pushed himself upright. He changed his mental chant from $One more step to $Hand, feet. Hand, feet…, studiously looking from one to the other in case a hole suddenly appeared where he intended to place them. He hated the cold because it made his feet hurt even worse, tensed up his overworked muscles, and set his teeth to chattering. He longed for the fire in the hearth back home and tried not to think about his chances of ever experiencing it again.

Finally, on the verge of complete collapse, Erida found himself at the door to the black gelding’s stall.

“It’s me. It’s just me,” he said in a hoarse over-loud whisper.

His stiff cold fingers had trouble opening the half-door. “One more thing,” he said as he got it closed and latched. “One more thing.”

Completely night blind, Erida could not see the large horse, but he could feel warmth radiating from the gelding. Using the wall as his guide and support, he shuffled his way to the back of the stall and found a blanket that his beleaguered arms strained to wrap about his shoulders.

His legs buckled when he tried to sit down. Erida leaned back into a corner. His head fell forward. His empty hand upset him. One last instant of wakefulness passed as Erida wished he had remembered to bring his mother’s necklace.