Johuocin stared at his mother lying in bed under a patchwork quilt she had sewn from old clothing and sackcloth. She had barely enough strength to pull it over herself the last time she had gotten up to stoke the fire. With her every breath, she was now wheezing from “winter’s curse” and calling his father’s name in her delirium. It was apparent she continued to love and miss his father, though he’d been dead more than seven years. It was with good reason. Johuocin’s father had always taken good care of her and Johuocin, ensuring there was always meat on the table, wheat to make bread, and wood for the fire, even in the worst of times. Johuocin had realized what a good man his father was before he was ten. He was the only child he knew who had two pairs of leather shoes, one for chores and one for town. Johuocin was often distressed in the knowledge that many of the children he knew had none. He remembered the mixture of pride and guilt he would experience, seeing other children wearing hard, unforgiving, wooden shoes, or having to wrap their feet in burlap cloth.
After his father’s death, Johuocin and his mother struggled to survive, causing Johuocin to become more resentful of his father’s death and less concerned with how he and his mother survived. The years after his father’s death filled Johuocin with thoughts of revenge and hatred.
His mother drew his thoughts back to her as she coughed again, showing the pain of it was worse than it had been. She had found the energy to get out of bed and build a fire with the last of the embers from the night before. Unfortunately, it was also nearly the last of the split wood in the house, and Johuocin felt his uselessness to her as the wind howled outside, knowing he could do nothing to help her. There was perhaps enough wood for one more fire. He knew she did not have the strength or energy to retrieve more in her condition. It hurt Johuocin to think that this last fire may never be built. Despair filled him, knowing his mother’s illness was becoming worse. Maybe the home his father built for them so long ago would keep her warm a while longer.
His father had been one of the finest stonemasons in the kingdom before the time of the new crown. Now he was gone because of the taxes that rose with the banner of the new king.
Because of the rising tide of taxes, an honest man could find it hard to feed his family, so it was that many of the folk were forced to do tasks without reporting the wage. Johuocin’s father made just enough of a living to be suspect in the eyes of the crown, and local magistrates feared the king would suspect them if no others were reported to his court.
The only court of the land was that of the king, and if you were brought before the court, you surely lost your head. This was because the man who ordered people brought before the court was the king, and the judge was the only man the king trusted: himself. So it was that Johuocin’s father, Jorgan Mark, was brought before the court and proceeded to lose his life.
Some said that it could be the king was right. Some even said that what the king was giving was justice. Some even went as far as to praise the king. But those few never knew Jorgan Mark, never knew him as a man or a father. They never saw him split granite block so evenly that you would think a dwarf held the chisel. But many did, and they knew Jorgan to be a good man, unjustly punished.
Johuocin had never felt this cold in all his twenty-seven years of time in this world. The wind blew more fiercely outside the hovel now. He knew snow would be piling up soon and leave no way in or out for anyone. That could be both good and bad. It was good because it was tax time again. (The old king, Aldwa, always stopped taxes after the last harvest and started again after planting; this king failed that mercy.) It would be bad, because without visitors to the home, he would have no way to help his mother.
His mother coughed again, hacking from deep within her chest and decreasing to a harsh rasping in her throat.
Without hope of shaking his chill, Johuocin placed himself over the embers in the fire, and there he was, without hope.
Then there was a loud rap on the door. Johuocin thought that perhaps the wind had thrown something against it. The rapping became persistent, repeating itself in groups of three. That was the knock of the king’s guard.
Johuocin’s mother, Riselna, lifted her head and tried to call out. She was too weak, and her head fell back to the small rolled blanket she used for a pillow. Johuocin rose from the fire and started across the room just as the door flung open from the force of a guard’s boot. Johuocin, seeing a captain’s rank on the soldier’s collar, stepped into the soldier’s body just as he had begun to yell, “Taxes …” He continued, “… will not be necessary here.” The men behind him achieved the most unusual look. The two came running in, expecting some crossbows to be pointed at their captain’s head. But they found only an old woman lying on her straw mattress.
“Calm yourselves,” came from the captain’s mouth. “I know this woman.” After a momentary examination, Johuocin continued, “She looks to have a touch of the creep.”
After barking a few orders to the soldiers to get the fire started and retrieve wood from the pile outside, Johuocin felt the warmth of the man’s body run through him and the sharp feeling of guilt start to settle deep inside his soul. One of the two men that came with the captain returned to the house and instinctively began going through the cupboards and pantry. Johuocin let him go on about his business when he saw that the soldier was looking to prepare some food. Johuocin was now feeling the hunger churning in the captain’s belly. It felt absolutely glorious to him—a hungry belly and the warmth of life flowing about him.