Chapter 3: Meat and Bone
The world was full of beasts. Some walked on four legs, creatures of hoof and paw that were covered with skin or fur, like the snufflers that provided meat for the eating, bone for the crafting, as well as leather and fur for when the cold crept in. Other creatures walked on six, eight, or too many legs to be counted; small creatures of chitin that crept along the ground or hid in shallow water. These were snacks and little more, loved neither for their taste or texture. There were also creatures with no legs at all, who swam blindly through rivers and lakes that surrounded hot springs. The most feared of beasts walked on two legs: dim men and worse, fabled drinkers of blood and devourers of man flesh that cloaked themselves in the form of the bright children.
Most of these creatures ate the lichens and moss that populated the world of darkness, clinging and growing wildly around all sources of heat. Their meat was bland and lean, sustaining but seldom pleasurable. Dreadtusk, by contrast, was awash with flavor, tantalizing the senses of smell and taste with hints of sweet mixed with savory, salty and hot, with a robust fat coloring everything warmly. Nobody knew for sure what dreadtusks ate in the wild, for nobody was so foolish as to follow them into the deeps and darks, but it was believed they ate meat and not mosses, coming out of the wild to eat livestock only when pickings became slim. The flavor meat-eating-meat was the rarity of the dreadtusk, yet not so rare as to make any man seek them out.
Aphella considered this as she ate, savoring the long fibers of cooked muscle that covered her silver plat. She sat at the long stone table, lit by crystal lamps suspended overhead by arches of wrought iron that were the only semblance of a ceiling in the outdoor banquet ground. The cooking pit, still glowing as the last large pieces of the beast roasted out, warmed her back. The area to her left and right sat vacant. The one on the right was occupied her folded long coat, holding the place where her father would sit once the feast had been seen to. The other was eyed by a few young men, but each one would pause, and silently considering things, turn toward the other end of the table. Even when a place was reserved at his father’s side, it was assumed Ty would sit with Aphella, probably because he almost always did, and that made men leave the space empty.
Ty was neither the strongest of the village youths, nor the most skilled with lightweaving, but because of his father’s place as both head of the Elder Council and as the town’s richest trader, the other young men have him deference. Normally, this would not bother Aphella. Most of her interactions with young men frustrated and annoyed her. This was particularly true on the few occasions when the boy would try a turn in courtship, which made her feel angry and hot-headed rather than complimented. When it wasn’t that, it was all business with a left-handed remark about Ty’s relationship with her. Aphella’s only real regret about the boys’ attitudes was that it spilled over into the girls of the village, making her somewhat of a pariah to her peers, either out of jealousy or disgust.
Aphella sighed as she looked down the length of the banquet table. Ty sat beside his parents, his plate full of steaming meat. On his other side sat Maeven, a bright-eyed yellow-haired girl who had just celebrated her seventeenth turn, making her officially eligible for engagement, though she could not marry until her twentieth by village law. It was no secret that Zyteus had been arranging her consent for some time; the feast represented an opportunity to both present her formally to Ty for consideration and to allow her to be seen with him. Even if the arrangement did not work out (I hope it doesn’t! Aphella thought bitterly as Ty laughed at some inaudible nothing) it would provoke the other families in town into a competition for the family favor.
“Is that seat taken?” Aphella looked up to see the kindly face of Frey the trader, an embroidered long coat now covering his grey silk shirt. Seeing him standing for the first time, she noticed that he wore grey leather boots that went nearly up to his knees over black trousers, both spotted with mud from the road. He held a plate of fresh carvings in a wide-knuckled hand.
“I suppose not,” Aphella said, then added, “No, it is free.”
Frey nodded and stepped over the stone bench, placing his plate in the empty spot. Settling down, he prroduced from inside his jacket a silver knife and fork in a leather wrapping. Each was decorated with gold fillagree. He sat more than a head higher than Aphella, who was tall even by a man’s standard, and his shoulders were wide, causing his elbows to bump into Aphella as he scraped his knife over his fork. Sitting away from him in the council chamber she had not been able to gauge the man’s true size, since no part of him seemed exceptional or out of proportion. He was simply… large.
“You must do well for yourself,” Aphella said, watching Frey scrape the knife along the edge of the fork as if it were a sharpening steel.
“Fat years, lean years. I always manage.”
“Plain steel seems it would suit the road better than silver.”
Frey smiled as he cut the strips of lean meat into small chunks. He examined the intricate gold design on his fork before shoving a bit into his mouth. “A good merchant only sells things for a price that he feels himself to be fair. The monetary value could never match the sentiment attached to these.”
Aphella nodded and fell quiet again. She ate a few bites, wondering what to say to the stranger, content to eat his dinner with a permanent half-smile, looking at nobody in particular.