Choosing Options

In which the salt workers consider the future . . . (Tarno is a widower.)

Tarno joined the line of salt-workers waiting to be allowed into Korvaal’s temple. No other place in Hallfeld Flus had enough room for all of them and their wives. For a few hours, the widows and women salters ran the salting house, earning twice wages for their efforts. He found space on a bench along the side of the temple’s great hall.

A statue of the god, twice man height, loomed at the far end of the chamber. He stood beside a plow, one hand resting on a sheaf of wheat, a pruning hook in his other hand. The god smiled at his followers, or did he? Tarno studied the face and wondered. The eyes alone did not smile, the mouth alone did not, but still, he sensed that Korvaal looked with pleasure at his followers. Fruit and grain decorated the god’s robe, and more fruit and vegetables sat heaped at his feet. A castana tree and an apple tree grew behind him, a reminder that Korvaal controlled the woods as well as the farmed fields. Niches along the wall beside the statue held early grain and some hay, the first-fruits of the looming harvest.

A priest walked out of a door at the god’s left hand, bowed to the god, then turned to the gathered salters. They stood with a rustle and some groans and creaks. The brown clad priest raised both hands. “In the name of Korvaal, lord of the fields, be welcome.”

“Our thanks for the welcome, and our thanks for the bounty of the lord of the fields,” Master Schaefer replied from the front row. He bowed, and the others copied him. “Our thanks for the use of Korvaal’s temple. May it prosper and may His servants be blessed.”

The priest kept one hand aloft, two fingers curved like the tip of a wheat sheaf. “Korvaal’s blessings on you in turn. May your work prosper, and peace grace your business.”

Schaefer bowed once more. “Praise to the Lord of the Land.”

The priest departed through the same door. Master Schaefer, Rand Graber, and a third man stood in front of the statue’s base. Schaefer gestured for everyone to sit, or at least relax. “First, to answer the question before it is asked, two eight-days more, then the season ends. Donwah’s Son and the Scavenger’s Son confirm that.” Murmurs and rustles rose and fell, like the wind through a summer orchard. Tarno frowned, as did the man beside him, but no one argued. “Rella, Donwah, and Korvaal permitting, we should have a spell of hot, dry weather, although extra prayers for such would not be amiss.”

“I don’t like the short season,” the woman standing at Tarno’s left hand whispered to her husband.

“No, and I don’t think anyone does, besides Karluh,” he whispered back, nodding toward a shaggy-haired figure on the second row, near the side aisle. Several people around nodded or chuckled. Tarno made Donwah’s sign, warding off the seniors hearing them. To accuse a fellow worker of light-laboring without proof was not wise, especially in the house of a god.

Schaefer waited for the murmurs and whispers to fade away. “Second, barring guidance or word otherwise, the prices for salt will not change. Donwah and Scavenger willing, we will not lose any more work-days to weather or distress. We will work through the market-eighth.” He glared at someone who grumbled. “Without salt, man and beast both suffer. We must work as long as we can before the season ends.”

A sigh of agreement drifted over the salters. Tarno agree with the sigh. No one wanted to work all year long -— that would kill a man, had killed men, back when salters had been property of the lords. But a short season made for tight belts and unhappy customers. What would be the best length of the salting season? That men had been arguing over since the first salt-makers sat down over ale to discuss it!

Rand Grabar and his guest stepped forward. The stranger dragged his right foot. Had he suffered injury?  Rand cleared his throat, distracting Tarno from his wanderings. “Some of you have heard rumors, mostly from outside the walls of Halfeld Flus, that the salt spring fails. By the records we have, and the word of the Daughter of Donah and the Scavenger’s Daughter, the spring remains as strong as when first opened. However,” Rand raise one hand. “However, it appears that we will lack preservation mages for some time to come.”

“No one’s found a mage-tree, yet?” Someone called from the back of the temple hall. Laughter flowed through the room.

“Nae, Waduz, they grow at the same rate as salters.” Rand let the chuckling fade. “People need salt, will need salt and more of it, especially now that the south lands cannot provide either. The elders have been looking for another spring, one not inside a place with city-right, or on noble lands. We might have found one.”

The stranger nodded. “I am Thorkal Ottmarson. I am a mine-finder. Normally we work with rock miners and the Scavenger-born to locate seams or quarries in new places. Master Schaefer and Master Graber hired me to look for salt, since salt comes from the Scavenger as well as from Donwah’s waters.” He smiled a little, but only the left side of his face moved fully.  “It appears, and the priests confirm, that a ghost-spring exists upstream twa milen, on the half-slope south of the river.”

Tarnow half-closed his eyes as he tried to place the ghost-spring. One milen would be just over a Halfeld league, so call it one and a half leagues or so, so near the schaef rocks and the first bend. The river made a slough there, marshy and full of rotten air, before the land rose again.

“Does he mean the grey bald at the schaef rocks?” The woman on Tarno’s left asked.

“He must,” Tarno said. “That would explain the bald, if the land is salt-laden.”

Rand gestured for quiet. “The guild is looking at the field. The good news is that the current owner is the temple of Korvaal, because it came to the temple as blood tithe after a kin-slaying over the pasture.” Several people groaned. Everyone made warding signs, Donwah’s waters or the horns. “The bad news is that we, the salt workers, would have to buy it outright in order to put a salt-shaft into the land. Because that requires wood. Lots of wood.” Even more groans rose. Tarno winced, imagining the cost.

Master Schaefer stepped forward once more. “Explain the ghost-spring please, Brother Ottmarson.”

Ottmarson nodded. “A spring once flowed from the ground, as the brine spring here once did. It carried salt, and fed into the marsh and river. Perhaps because it carried soil with it, perhaps because of drought, or because of an earth-shake, the spring returned to the Scavenger. It left salt in the soil. That means that if a man were to dig there, he would find salt. How pure I do not know, although I suspect not as bitter as coast-made salt.”

Tarno made a face as the man beside him mimicked choking. They had tried coast-made salt once. No wonder only tanners and glass-makers wanted it if earth-salt could be bought or made.

“Even if it is not as pure as spring-salt, tanners and farmers and others will want it,” Rand said. “That will ease the calls for lower leb-prices on food salt.”

There was that. And lower prices for animal salt and tanning salt would make the farmers — not happier because no farmer Tarno ever met had appeared happy — but less likely to snarl at the salt-workers. As angry as some remained about the wood-fight, keeping the peace might be worth the cash cost. If the Scavenger granted that the ghost-spring would provide.

“So, two questions for you to consider,” Master Schaefer declared. “First, do we expand into salt mining, should the ghost-spring mark a place of earth-salt? To do so would require permission of the Scavenger, and some of us to create a branch of the miners’ confraternity. Second, if so, do we buy the field and begin work there, Scavenger and Korvaal permitting?”

Because Korvaal would have to release the field, thus buying it outright. Especially since it had been given to Korvaal to end a blood-feud ending in a kin-slaying. Tarno frowned, as did several of the people around him. Blood-washed land often carried bad fortune with it. Was that part of why the family had given it to the temple?

“Will the cost of mining be more than we earn?” One of the men asked his neighbors. “That’s most of our mercy-fund spent on a field, and should magic return soon, we will make no profit from a salt mine.”

“The wood worries me,” a woman stated. She folded her arms, frowning under her black widow’s cap. “The farmers and charcoal-burners , coopers and house-carpenters and others grumble about our using so much of the wood. To buy a cursed field from Korvaal’s temple, then dig there and use even more timber and fuel wood, all outside walls?” She shook her head. “I do not like the idea.”

Tarno and several of the men nodded. She spoke sense, good sense. Here they stored wood inside walls. The Halfeld Flus watchmen could alert others to mischief and worse. Not so that far outside the walls. They’d have to guard the works. That cost silver as well, and time, and the neighbors might cause problems on the road. Talk rose and fell.

“How long to train a preservation mage? Ten years and more from birth? And the tanners and others still need salt, as do cooks. That’s time enough for a salt digging to pay for itself.”

A tight, almost squeaky man’s voice. “Nae, ill omened, and arrogant. We need wood and good will. A salt digging will lose us both those and more.”

“Will Donwah take offense at a mine and close off Her waters because we favor the Scavenger?” The woman’s whisper carried well.

Wood thumped wood. Tarno looked up and saw Korvaal’s Son standing with the salt-masters. Those still seated stood, and all bowed to the priest. “Sit, please.” The man’s deep voice reached every corner of the temple. Leather creaked and fabric rustled as the men and women sat. “There is no need to decide this day. Indeed, it is better for you to decide after an eight-day, so that all may think and consider and pray.”

Several people ducked their heads, unhappy. Tarno hid his flinch, because he too had failed to consider that.

“Do not speak of this outside the salt family,” Master Schaefer ordered. “Should any ask, tell them of the end of work, and of the stable price.” He looked to the priest, then back at the salt-workers. “In fact, spread the news of unchanged prices far and wide. Good will at the end of the season is always welcome.”

Korvaal’s Son raised his hand. Tarno went to one knee, as did the others who stood, while the seated salt-workers bowed their heads. “Go in the god’s peace, and may his bounty and discernment touch you in equal measure. Blessed be the lord of the fields and forests.”

“Blessed be Korvaal, lord of the fields,” came in unison reply. The priest departed, and sunlight washed into the room as the doors opened behind them. A beam of light touched the tree carved into the gods platform. Tarno noticed several other people making god-signs at the reminder.

Three days later, Tarno watched his sons rinsing themselves in the back garden. The step-stones did not steam, although they should have. Rella of the Lights blessed the day with enough heat to bake bread on the stones of the market square. Tarno had taken the boys with him on his shift, and they had joined other children carrying drinking water to the workers. Even so, two men had collapsed with work-fever and been carried out of the salt-house. Rand had refused to allow them to return once they woke. Yes, the rest of the shift had to work harder. But if a man fell into the pan, or collapsed as the boiling brine poured? Disaster and ill omen, and all work would stop until a priest could come and bless the works to lift the ill. Better to go shorthanded.

Donton looked ready to fall over himself. He’d worked hard, as hard as his older brother. Tarno took the bucket from him and handed him a piece of toweling to dry himself with. Kyle shook like a dog, then put his own bucket in the proper place. “Inside to food, both of you,” Tarno ordered. They dragged themselves into the house. Tarno had bought potted meat, cheese, and bread, trading fresh greens and red-root from the garden for pickled white-stem. The boys devoured the food, then fell asleep on the floor under the table, too tired to go to bed. Well, it was cooler, too. Their father cleaned up, banked the fire, and barred the doors.

#

The salters returned, but by ones and twos, to Korvaal’s temple on the next Eighth-Day. Those who worked visited early, before their shift began. Priests and priestesses of Korvaal, Donwah, and the Scavenger guarded a dark wooden box, one with the lid both locked and sealed by the temples. A small hole in the lid allowed man or woman to drop in a small stone or bean, black for refuse, white for buy-the-field. Each salter kept a decent space between his fellows, not watching as the men and women added their beans or rocks to the count. The confraternity’s seniors had been firm — no grey, no speckled. Tarno had not been the only salt worker to spend several time marks in Donwah’s temple, considering matters and praying for Her guidance. He’d also added a bit to his gifts to both Donwah and the Scavenger, just in case.

“Rella has blessed us,” Waduz said, voice quiet. He glanced back to Tarno and the others. Tarno nodded his agreement. The hotter and drier the weather, the less wood they needed and the faster the brine thickened.

“Blessed us indeed,” Jasko said from behind Tarno, voice also quiet. The tip of his crutch scraped a little on the stone floor. “She dries wood as well as salt. We’ve used only two-thirds the usual wood these past days, thanks be to Rella and Korvaal.”

“Thanks be,” everyone murmured. The line moved steadily as the workers reached the box, dropped in their bean or stone, bowed to the gods, and departed. Several of those in line appeared deep in thought or prayer, and one of the widows fingered memory beads as she walked.

The temple smelled of wood and sweet incense, like apples. Or did the wood itself release the benediction in the heat? Tarno wondered, then turned his thoughts to the field, the mine, and the future. He had heard of brine-springs fading and dying, sometimes when men tried to deepen them by digging the spring and instead breaking it, or offending both Donwah and the Scavenger. Would that happen in Halfeld Flus? It might, Donwah have mercy. Or an earthshake might shift the waters or bury them, as happened near the southern mountains.

Waduz made his choice, bowed deeply to the gods, and stepped to the right, out of the way. Tarno took a deep, settling breath, reached into the pouch on his belt, and removed his white bean. He dropped it into the box, bowed, and eased out of the way before turning and departing the temple. The bright sun outside bleached everything and he hesitated just outside the doorway, blinking until his vision returned. A weight eased from his body and heart. He’d chosen, as best he could discern, what was right. Now all depended on his fellow workers and confraternity members. He raised the hood on his sleeveless jerkin and pulled it over his head, a weak defense against the brightness shining from the stones of the way and the whitewashed walls around him.

When Tarno approached the salt works the next day, groups of men and women clustered in tight clumps, some waving arms, others murmuring quietly before separating and going their ways. A piece of pale cloth hung on the wall beside the door to the changing and preparation area. The salters would buy the field and start work.

“Hai, Tarno, what say ye?”

Tarno considered his words. Sullen expressions alternated with satisfied among the workers and assistants. “I say that first we have to buy the field, then confirm salt. After that?” He shrugged. “The way the past four years have gone, like as not we’ll find gold or something else equally useless.”

Laughter met his words. Even Anders and Waduz smiled a little, or frowned less angrily. Hildi pointed to the doors with her mangled arm. “An’ like yon banner or no, work waits or we all starve.”

“Aye that.”

Four days later, Master Schaefer and Donwah’s Daughter walked with slow dignity into the boiling house. They carried an ancient leather bucket on a pole between them. The salters stopped their work and bowed as the two set the bucket onto the ground. Rand Graber steadied the pole as the veiled priestess slid the bucket off the end, then lifted it. “Behold the blessing of the Lady of Waters,” she sang.

“Thanks be to the Lady of Waters,” the salt-workers chanted.

The priestess lifted the bucket as high as she could, turned in a circle, then poured the water into the pan. “The Lady closes the spring. Bank the fires and take rest, that you may do Her work with all your strength of shoulder and heart in the future.”

“Thanks be to the Lady of Waters.”

The priestess departed, for now. The salt-workers returned to stirring, pouring out brine, and watching the fires. Except when a pan emptied, the tenders scraped the coals out of the fire-boxes. One by one, the great pans yielded up their contents and went cold. Tarno watched as the last drops of water dripped into the jars. The apprentice watching the fire scraped the last embers out to the mouth of the pan rest. Tarno and Anders waited, resting a little. The smoke above them thinned and faded away, allowing them to see the black bars of the rafters high above, and the women gathering around the wall of the building.

As the last jar of boiling brine filled, first one woman, then another called, “Salt of your mercy, salt for the humble!” By ancient tradition and right, the poorest widows and daughters of the city claimed gleaning rights.

“As the gods show mercy and provide for us, so we do for you,” Master Schaefer called. At his words, then women hurried to the pan-rests. They carried small containers and wooden spoons. They scraped the pans with care, freeing any crystals left on the metal. Tarno and some of the other older salt-workers steadied the pans, and held out their stirring paddles so that the women could scrape those as well. A priestess of the Scavenger had checked so that no one smuggled a metal-tipped tool in with the wooden, lest damage follow. The women cleaned the pans better than the apprentices did, but then, this was leb-salt, mercy-salt. The last two jars made would go to the Scavenger’s temple as a mercy offering.

“Let the fires be cold, the pans empty, and the doors closed until the turning of the seasons,” Master Schaefer called.

A cold voice called back, “So commands the Lord of what is hidden, all under the earth.”

“So commands the Scavenger, Lord of what is hidden. Blessed be the Scavenger,” everyone replied, bowing to the hooded figure standing beside the great doors.

The Scavenger’s priest led all the workers and gleaners out of the salt house. Master Schaefer and two other men close the doors, and Schaefer lowered a small wooden bar over the pegs on the doors, a token lock. He turned, bowed to the Scavenger’s voice, and handed the man a metal key, the symbol of work. Until the priest returned the key, no brine could be boiled.

The women of the confraternity waited inside the city gates. They gave the men bread and meat made without salt, a reminder of why they had labored so long and hard. No one gave any to Tarno. He no longer had a woman. He eased past Anders and trudged to the house, bone weary.

He rested the next day, watching the boys work on lessons and going through the household supplies and stocks. The weather turned wet and chill, a fitting end to the salting season, and good cause to stay indoors if possible. Kyle needed winter trousers, and both boys needed smallclothes and socks. Tarno collected the old, worn-past-repair items to sell for rags or for yarn credit toward new socks and sweaters. He also went through the food and fuel stocks and account list. Preserved meat was dear, far more than in the past, but fresh would be available in greater quantity soon, at least for a short while. He needed to arrange the kitchen hearth for smoking meat. So much to be done before winter, including inspecting the roof and walls for leaks and to see that the draft-blocks remained in good repair. The Scavenger’s rats always took a small toll, but too much and men could take their own toll in return.

All this was a woman’s work, Tarno grumbled to himself. Oh, how he missed Annaka and her thrifty ways as well as her smile and spirit. The storm that grumbled in with the night matched his own spirits, chill and dour in the darkness.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “Choosing Options

  1. Nice reminder of the importance of gleaning for the very poorest, and the charity involved. Not like wringing every last bit out in the name of efficiency. A new, probably fortified salt works outside a town or aristocrat’s domain makes for an interesting new start in several ways.

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