Saxo looks in on the birds.
Mistress Clarey looked from her husband to Saxo and back. “As close as Huw is to rising to journeyman, I think we need another apprentice.”
“Not unless prices for birds rise. And Master Jeaspe says Saxo needs to be trained, in case he has a beast healing gift. Can’t happen until Huw’s better and we finish with the female, and get the entire team ready to sell at the Scavenger’s Winter Fair. Law says the gifted have to be trained, but not that a man ruins his business doing it.” With that he seemed to remember Saxo. “When you finish, feed, then see about the pasture birds.”
“Feed, then the pasture birds, yes, sir.” If he was careful, he could gather some of the herbs of the field while he worked. He’d marked a dozen root plants, the ones that gathered goodness over the summer and had to be dug after the first true cold. Goodwife Eadburg had explained the most important ones to him, and what they could do for people, and maybe for the birds.
Saxo watched as Mistress Carey began turning the paddles inside the box. He broke up several lumps. Green hay always clumped, no matter how evenly spread in the mill. The eich-wood paddles pulled the feed into the metal teeth below. The teeth broke any remaining grain husks and tore up the hay more finely. The birds could eat both without mixing, but they did better during the cold season with the blend. Green and tan trickled out of the bottom chute and into a basket. Once it had almost filled, Mistress Carey shoved it out of the way and nudged the next basket into place, not stopping on the crank. Saxo broke up another lump, then pushed some hay closer to the paddles and scraped the sides of the hopper, just in case. Then he half-slid down the ladder and moved the next basket clear, pulling the replacement into position before returning to his task.
Once they finished, and he cleaned out the bigger pieces of the mill, Saxo fed the great-haulers. He fed the mated females first, since they tended to eat more slowly than the others. He tipped each basket into a long trough, spreading the feed out for the birds. They’d been trained not to come too close to a person with a basket, but he worked as fast as he could. Only a fool let the birds eat out of a basket—they’d eat the basket too, then get very sick or worse. Then he fed the geldings, any one-year females, the full males, and the last bits from the baskets went to the pasture birds. The mated females also got a bit of powdered bone, to keep their natures balanced so the egg didn’t drain their bones of goodness.
Mistress Carey and Goodwife Eadburg had given him some worn cloth bags and old baskets to use for gathering herbs and plants. Saxo took two of the bags and a small wooden digger, and tucked them under his jacket. If he didn’t find any proper roots, at least he’d be warmer with the extra cloth. The wind had begun to blow from the west, bringing wet with it. Saxo checked the birds’ water as he passed the pens. Before he entered the pasture, he stopped at the tiny shrine mounted onto the fence. Miniature images of two gods stood within the ornately painted wooden box. Saxo bowed and murmured, “Thank you, Yoorst, Lord of the Beasts. Thank you, Korvaal, Lord of the Fields, for your bounty and mercy.” He bowed again, then opened the gate for people and wormed his way through. Master Agri did not want the birds sneaking out, and even if a bird got the inner latch open, she’d have to step into the space, close the inner gate, unlatch the outer gate, and then step sideways and around to leave the pasture.
Saxo looked left and right. Three birds rested near the thorn-fruit tree, grey and tan lumps dozing quietly. Four more, including one of the males, made trilling sounds at each other beside the big rock. Saxo averted his eyes. He didn’t see any signs of distress among the birds, so he eased along the fence to his right, one eye on the fence and the other on the birds. The first of the plants he wanted grew near the rough corner, the patch none of the birds grazed. That was good. Saxo found his marker beside the now-withered heart shaped leaves and slender stems of the waybread. He pushed away the dead leaves and other debris, then used the wooden trowel to dig out the soft, black soil from around the roots. He didn’t find any spots or other signs of weakness or decay on the first root, so he dug a bit deeper. Then he worked his fingers under the root and pulled the slender, slightly hairy tuber out of the ground. He brushed every bit of dirt free from the waybread root. Any left would offend the plant and weaken the goodness, or so Mistress Eadburg swore. Using a metal trowel also interfered with the healing powers of the plants.
Saxo dug two more hand-sized roots, then filled in the hole and pushed all the dead grass and leaves back into place. At least four more small roots remained. Gember, Lady of Grain, and Korvaal of the Fields both punished the greedy, and some plants would wither from loneliness without their kin, just like some great-haulers stopped eating when penned up alone. Saxo also pulled up his little wooden marker stick and added it to the cloth bag.
As he worked, one of the geldings, the one with the dark neck feathers and pale wings, wandered closer and watched. Saxo stood slowly. “Chrrrrr, Chrrr,” he trilled, calm and quiet.
“Trrwee?” The bird blinked, staring down at him. It sniffed the air, then turned and left him alone. Saxo waited until the bird was well out of kicking distance before moving again.
Saxo alternated watching and counting great-haulers, and digging plants. He went as far as the little stream in the rough end of the pasture. His marker had washed away and the stream had revealed one of the roots he sought there. “Thank you, Korvaal of the Field and Donwah Lady of Waters.” He used only his fingers to pull the water dock from the bank. His hands hurt, then went numb and clumsy before he got two of the big tubers free of mud and bits of gravel. Some tiny silver and black spotted fish darted by. Two stopped and sniffed his fingers, if fish sniffed. The water looked and felt whole, not fouled by dung or a rotting carcass. Even so, once he got the tubers tucked into the bag, Saxo went upstream as far as he could, checking the banks and stone-bottomed stream bed. Donwah of the Waters did not tolerate people who found a problem in Her waters and left it for others to fix. He found tracks of birds, great-haulers and the forest birds, and what might have been a flutter of leaf-tossers. He also found cervi tracks, and frowned. They competed with the great-haulers for forage, especially in winter. He’d need to tell Master Agri so he could get permission from the temple to hunt the trespassers.
“How many birds?” Master Agri demanded when Saxo returned from his chore.
“Twenty seven, sir. All looked well, all moved well. I found cervi track near the far stream.”
His master stomped his left foot in the dust of the farm yard. “Damn. I’ll ask at the temple next Eighth Day.” The wrinkle-faced man scowled from under his hood, back to the wind, arms folded. He stared at Saxo, looked him up and down. Master Agri sniffed. “Master Jeaspe sent word back. He wants to train you. I won’t have my birds go untended, especially since Huw can’t work that arm for at least an Eight Day, probably longer.” He looked Saxo up and down again. “Here comes first. After the Scavenger’s winter feast, you can train. And don’t dose the birds’ insides, hear me? Only the outsides.” One strong, knobby hand, like a great-hauler foot, shot out and grabbed Saxo’s shoulder, squeezed, then shook him.
“Yes, Master Agri, sir. Only the outsides, only things Mistress Eadburg taught or that all men know.” His heart soared even so. He could help the birds feel better!
Another shake. “Right, boy. Now go finish the dung rounds, then see about cleaning the training harnesses. I’ll need the heavy ones, since Huw won’t be fit to help for five days or more.” Master Agri stomped off.
Saxo spread the roots in the place Mistress Carey had given to him in the barn for that, then traded the wooden trowel for the dung shovel. At least he’d be out of the wind and the little spits of cold rain while he cleaned and mended the bird harnesses, Yoorst be praised.
(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.