by Graham B.
If pigs had wings, they could fly... and change the world.
Zatia raised her hand to shade her eyes from the sun as she called. The boy didn’t answer.
Inside the stye, irate grunts sounded from hungry pigs, still waiting for their slop which hadn’t come. Zatia cursed the boy and turned toward the house where the buckets of slop still stood. Shaking her head, Zatia seized the slop buckets and headed toward the stye, this time cursing the fates who had taken Dobry’s parents in a winter avalanche and left their son in her care.
As slop poured into the troughs followed by happy grunts and gobbling sounds, Zatia’s eyes wandered up the crags toward the top of Gronnsmeier Peak, where Lord Kroll’s fortress stood. She saw the glinting of metal in flashes. That would mean the army was on the move. Banners fluttered upon a bone-chilling easterly wind which brought bitter scents of the coming fall.
Zatia turned, bucket in hand and saw Janne approaching. Janne who owned a stead just over the southern ridge. His pigs were sickly this year, and he probably wanted some more of Zatia’s remedies.
Janne looked up toward the Peak.
“Old Toothless is off to fight another war with Firebeard, eh?” he said. “It means more tribute.”
“Eh, we’ll survive. Always have.”
Janne scratched his balding head and wiped the sweat from his brow that beaded despite the cool mountain breezes.
“Lord’s wanting half the drove. Not just the sucklings. Half! That will cut into the breeders. Someone’s needing to explain to his lordship that we won’t have as many next year if’n they take our breeders.”
The pigs grunted loudly as they ate, and they flexed their empty pinions while jostling for more slop. As Zatia continued to pour she noticed a few feathers. She would have to crop the pinions further. It wouldn’t do to have her pigs flying over the fence and off the cliff.
“So, did you come for more root?” she said.
“Surely! That trickleroot is a right miracle. The fever is almost gone from my drove! Just one more feeding should clear ‘er.”
Zatia motioned him over to the house and set the buckets upside down on the grass. It took a moment for her to find the bag of powdered trickleroot and measure out six drams, enough for Janne’s drove. As she exited the house to the waiting Janne, a squeal drew her eyes to the sky. A shadow streaked across the sun, heading for the stye. Jaji alighted among the drove, ruffling their feathers as he squirmed his way to the slop. Seconds later, Dobry arrived on pounding feet, his blond hair a sunny sail behind him.
The sharp call froze him and brought his eyes to Zatia’s for an instant, then they dropped to her feet where they stayed.
“Weren’t ya supposed to slop the drove this morn’?”
Dobry didn’t answer but shuffled his feet. Janne gave a weak chuckle.
“Well, I guess’n I’ll be taking my medicine and…”
Zatia ignored Janne and stomped over to the nervous boy. She grabbed under his chin and forced him to look up at her. Dobry’s blue eyes darted around her face, as if exploring the angry creases but refusing to meet her own eyes.
“Ya didn’t do any’ve your chores!” she said. “I don’t give ya much!”
“M’sorry, Aunt Zaty.”
More shuffling and Zatya released him. She handed Janne the medicine and stomped back to the house. Janne followed her inside.
“I don’t know what I’m to do with that boy,” Zatya muttered as she grabbed the cauldron and lugged it to the door. “Such a meek thing, not like’n his father. He was nay right in the head. Ever since Hieron…”
She trailed off as her late husband’s name escaped her lips.
Janne placed a hand on her shoulder.
“None of us ever believed the accusation,” he said. “Kroll is a tyrant and a murderer.”
“You could be strung up just for sayin’ such things,” said Zatya.
“And if I’ve done worse?”
Zatya turned away.
“I know all about your schemin’ and plannin’!” she said. “Taking Lord Kroll down, like you could ever do such a thing.”
She heard Janne take a deep breath and hold it. Then she spun and looked him straight in the eye.
“You know I would never speak against ya, Janne. But my Hieron got the rope meant fer ya. Yer scheming will be the death of us all if ya don’t stop. I’ll not risk Dobry.”
Janne seemed to come to a decision.
“But it needn’t be! Zaty, you knew Hieron’s friends. Ya got contacts in the Peak!”
“You could lead us!”
Janne grasped Zatya’s arms and stared into her stony eyes.
“You got a strength in ya, like a mountain beneath a winter snow! I seen it! Ever’one on the crag listens to ya, and they’d follow ya! The folk of the crags are restless, and anger spreads like the fever. It’s why Toothless Kroll’s been hanging so many these past winters!”
Zatya was shaking her head, but Janne pressed on.
“Together we could kick Toothless’s bony arse right off the Peak. No more droves for tribute. No more ropes for our folk!”
“No, no, no! I won’t hear any more! You place the rope around my neck yerself speaking such things to me! Now go tend yer drove and speak ta me no more!”
Zatya turned away and heard Janne slowly walk to the door. He paused.
“Dobry will be reachin’ conscription age next winter, Zaty,” he said. “More warm bodies fer Kroll’s wars. Thinka what I say. No more droves fer tribute.”
He left, and Zatya stared into the dark mouth of the cauldron, still with bits of porridge clinging to the mouth. Her calloused hands clenched as she remembered the face of Hieron, pinched and blackened as he swung from the rope Kroll’s men had hung him with. The faded memory of her own father’s face intruded from years past, smiling at her before he left to die in one of Gronnsmeier’s many wars. More faces crowded in of friends and relatives now gone, and Zatya was surprised to be blinking tears back. She couldn’t remember that last time she cried.
A crash outside brought Zatya back to the present. She hurried outside and caught a glimpse of Jaji tearing past, with the laundry line trailing from his hoof. Jaji flexed his wings wide and alighted next to Dobry, who was standing next to the water barrel. The laundry line dragged into the mud as he did so, along with the morning’s laundry.
Zatya stomped to the woodshed and rummaged through it until she found what she was looking for. It was a span of rope and a filleting knife. She went back outside to where Dobry was pulling Jaji loose from the laundry line. He looked up at Zatya and his grin faded when he saw the rope and knife.
“It’s time to do it, Dobry,” said Zatya. “He’s long overdue to be cropped. It ain’t right fer swine to take to the air when it pleases ‘em!”
Dobry threw his arms around Jaji, who squealed.
“No! Aunt Zaty, he’ll be good! I promise! He won’t do it again! I’ll do the laundry, I will!”
“It ain’t about the laundry. All the drove is cropped ‘cept’n your little favorite.”
Dobry was in a panic, and tears streamed down his face as Zatya approached Jaji with the rope and reached for the pig. Before she could react, Dobry lowered his head and charged at her. Shocked, Zatya was bowled over and the rope and knife went flying from her hands. Dobry then ran at Jaji waving his arms, and the startled pig took to the air and flew off.
Zatya climbed to her feet and dusted herself off. Then she turned her wrath on Dobry, who stood in front of her, eyes downcast.
“Why, I… I’ve a good mind to flay you, ya brute!” she cried. “What do ya mean attacking yer poor Auntie?”
Dobry stood with shaking hands, trying to meet her eyes. Zatya heard Jaji touch down on the roof of the house behind her, and Dobry’s hands finally stopped shaking. His eyes met her gaze squarely.
“Yer not cropping him!” he cried.
“He belongs with the drove, not with the birds. I hafta do it!”
“I won’t let ya! Jaji’s my friend!”
Zatya, taken aback, regarded the boy who was almost a man, standing in defiance.
“Ya really care if I crop yer pig?” she said. “And if the Lord’s taxman takes ‘im? What then?”
Dobry folded his arms.
“I’ll stop ‘em too!”
Something strange like regret combined with determination and curdled in Zatya’s gut. She glanced up at Gronnsmeier Peak and saw no more movement. The army was gone. Many would not return from the war. She had seen many winters of it, and it never changed.
Zatya spun on her heel and walked away. She had no plan for what she would say or do, but simply walked. She was distantly aware of crags towering above her, the majestic mountains that had stood through millennia which had watched impassively as lords came and went, and nations rose and fell. How many generations of farmers had raised the winged swine on the crags here, scratching out a living on the rocky, unforgiving soil? How many were buried in the plains where everyone finally found their rest in the same soil that was imbedded beneath her fingernails? How many indifferent lords had inhabited the peaks, getting fat on the labors of calloused hands like Zatya’s and Janne’s?
After her feet found their way along familiar paths next to the ancient brook which tumbled down the crag, watering every farm that clung to the mountain, Zatya suddenly found herself at Janne’s door. She knocked and Janne’s face lit up when he saw her. Before he could say anything, she spoke:
“No more droves for tribute.”
On her way back to the house, Zatya contemplated Janne’s reaction, one of confusion followed by delight. There was no going back. She was now part of whatever Janne and his crew were planning, and they had something big planned for her. Yet she felt no fear or trepidation. Only the inevitability of action, as if she were riding an avalanche that had just begun to fall, the avalanche that would take Lord Kroll and his court right off the Peak forever. She knew this with as much certainty as she knew pig farming.
Back at the house, she saw Dobry standing on the roof and Jaji flying in circles around the laughing boy. The squealing pig flew up high into the sky above Dobry’s head, then plummeted like a hawk, leveling out just above the stye and ruffling the heads of the other swine. Their eyes followed Jaji’s joyous trajectory with an unmistakable longing. Then, almost as one, they spread their wings.
Word count: 1833