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Refusing to be Named

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Refusing To Be Named

***

What are you, fire refusing to be named?
I will tell you what you are not:

You are not an afterthought.
You are not a magic lamp
Whose only purpose is to fulfill
the desires of another.
You are not a oracle
Or a muse that can be used
And left, tapped dry, exhausted,
Convulsing on a mountaintop.
You are not a lonely night
or a place to hide secrets
When no one else is watching.
You are not a bodiless voice
That whispers comfort to the demons of desperate men.
Not a vessel from which they can
Thieve their vitality

& my god, you are certainly not
A second choice.

 

-Amanda Torroni

***

He came in trailing behind the last cart in a merchant caravan, his black and pink spotted tongue hanging from one side of his mouth. Under the dust, his coat was probably brindle, red and tan. He had too many thick, blunt bones and not enough muscle to stretch over them.

“Pity to treat a good warhound so poor,” the gate guard on the left said, after the Manali had trotted by in the settling swirl of road dust.

“Bag of bones mutt, more like,” the other guard said, tugging irritably at the narrow braids in his rust orange beard. He was a surfacer, born and reared, but still a dwarf. The Ferelden obsession with all things canine annoyed and confused him.

His fellow guard shook her head. “Nah, s’got really good lines; tall shoulders, thick chest, broad head. Wants feeding up, is all.”

The lean hound paused in the stone arch of the gateway, looked to each side, and trotted on.

***
The caravan lined up their wagons in the yard beside the quartermaster’s office. The square of beaten down grass was crowded with the usual controlled chaos. Druffalo and pack brontos bellowed, impatient for the stable, the water trough. Stocky horses twitched their skin at flies, tossed their heads up and down with a jingle of harness, as stable helpers buckled on feedbags

Every able body turned to, tossing burlap bags of potatoes over their shoulders. A small puff of dust rose from the fibers of the sacks as they landed. Soldiers loaded stacks of wooden crates into canvas slings, then squatted to hook the wooden yokes of the carry slings over their necks. Through it all, the quartermaster and his assistants wove, clipboards stacked with pages of neat invoices, making notes.

Once or twice for each wagon, the drover and quartermaster met by the tailgate to pry open a box lid with a groan of cheap iron nails, or untie the loops of coarse hemp twine around the neck of a sack. They plunged their hands into bags of oats, letting them stream back into the sack to see how much chaff blew away, then pried open barrels of apples, hardtack, salt pork, to slice a sample taste. Horsemaster Dennet broke open a bundle of hay, twisted a hank of it between both hands, and gave his tight flat smile of approval when he found it dry yet flexible, pale green and sweet smelling.

The hound found a shady corner next to the stone step of the office door and bellied down into the cool dirt.

“Dog’s had a rough trip, belike,” Dennet observed to Hartford, the caravan master for this journey.

“Reckon,” Hartford replied, “He’s been following us since Crestwood. Guess his people left him when the village got flooded. Or mayhap they died. Same thing either way. Been feeding him what we can spare, hoping he’d bond to some’un among us. Seems like it’s not to be, though.”

Dennet nodded, tucked a stalk of hay in the corner of his mouth as a toothpick. “Aye, well, that’s how the highly bred ones do. They choose, and we abide their choice.”

The wagons were unloaded an hour before dusk came creeping down the mountainside.
Hartford used the last daylight to get the wagons levered up onto wooden jackstands, wheels pulled off, spokes looked over.
The wagoners poured ladlefuls of boiling water over the wheel rims to tighten them, greased the hubs with brushes dipped in thick black grease, and hammered the wheels back on with huge wooded mallets. Apprentice drovers rubbed down harness with sweet oil smelling of beeswax and lavender, or drilled new holes with hand augers, then nailed loose planks back into the wagon beds with white oak pegs.

In the stables, brontos roared their grumbling complaint as the dracolisks peered over the edges of their stalls. The pack horses snorted and showed the whites of their eyes, but settled when the reptilian mounts sniffed at them, then returned to their meal of dried fish. Druffalo rolled over in the dirt of their corral, fat bellies and stubby legs turned upward as they wallowed the feel of harness from their hides. Stablehands trotted up and down the corridor between stalls carrying heaped forkloads of golden hay, looking like little haystacks with legs. Younger hostlers and wagoners joined in the task of hauling wooden panniers of mixed grains, or bent together under the weight of tall leather buckets sloshing with cool well water.

The last of the work was finished by torchlight. Men and women clapped each other on their shoulders, laughed, exchanged friendly insults about who worked hardest. The wagoners and drovers lined up by the water trough in among the soldiers to take turns pumping cool sloshes of water over each other’s heads and hands. They ducked under the stream of water and splashed like bathing ducks.

By the time the work crew began toweling off with lengths of clean tan sackcloth, the kitchen's bakers had begun carrying out wide flat baskets of steaming rye bread, followed by a tall elven man carrying two metal buckets filled overful with layers of large potatoes that had been baked in the hearth, then split open and stuffed with slices of sharp cheese and pats of salted cream butter. The two youngsters behind him each held one handle of a wooden platter the size of a tower shield heaped with the dark juicy haunch of sliced roast druffalo. Following the children came a quartet of kitchen maids hauling two cauldrons, each big enough for a dwarf to bathe in. There were two women to each cauldron, carrying them with a wooden pole slipped through the heavy chain handles of the pot.
One pot gave forth a savory gravy smell of stewed beans in a rich broth, and the other a spicy chowder scent, heavy with onions and salt fish.

The kitchen staff loaded their burdens onto long trestle tables made of planks set across hurdles, then hurried back inside for stacks of tin plates and leather tankards, followed by pottery pitchers of sparkling cider and small beer. The pitchers had dark green napkins tied around them, soaked in well water, to cool the contents as the water evaporated. Skyhold’s cook could be a tyrant and a terror, but she knew her work well.

The dog wove among the crowd, stopping in front of occasional people to cock his head and stare soulfully at a bite of food being lifted to a person’s mouth. Sometimes he lifted one paw and let his ears tremble a bit. Almost always, this tactic resulted in the morsel of food being redirected to the Mabari, followed by a few choice tidbits from the chosen mark’s plate. He usually repaid the gift with one restrained lick to his benefactor’s hand, or a soft bump of his head against their knee, before moving on.

By the time the last few latecomers finished heaping their plates to the edge, the first to arrive were seated on the open tailgates of wagons, upturned buckets, small barrels, sturdy crates, bales of straw with horse blankets folded over them for padding. Someone among Skyhold’s scouts had found a shepherd’s pipe, and a Starkhaven soldier joined in with a round flat drum.

As the first spoons and eating knives scraped across empty plates, the kitchen crew arrived again with shallow wicker trays stacked with shortbread cakes drizzled with honey and walnuts, and apple raisin popovers sprinkled with cinnamon and folded into a buttery crust that crunched delightfully when one bit into it.

The cook joined them, wiping her hands on her flour-dusted apron. “Everyone get enough?” she asked, voice pitched to carry over the clatter and hubbub of a busy kitchen.

“Aye, mistress!”

“A feast!”

“Our thanks, we’ve not eaten so well in weeks.”

The gathered hostlers, wagoners, and soldiers called out their gratitude. The mabari barked, once. The cook’s sharp face softened around the eyes as the dog waggled his nub of a tail at her.

“Sophie,” she ordered, “Just go get me some of those mutton bones I was saving for soup stock.”

The lean brunette in the blue skirt nodded and scampered off to fetch the treat.

“Can’t have anybody as skinny as you running about the place,” the cook scolded the warhound, “It’ll give me a bad name, now look you. They’ll think I can’t keep this rabble fed up.”

The dog flattened his chin to the packed earth of the yard and gave a guilty whine.
The cook chuckled. “You don’t fool me, dog.”
Soldiers who were used to having their knuckles bruised by a rap from her heavy wooden spoon when they reached for food before the blessing of Andraste was spoken over the meal looked on in bemused surprise.

Sophie returned with three thick sections of mutton thighbone in a stoneware bowl. The hound wagged harder as the cook set it in front of him, and gave a gruff little half bark of thanks.

“No need to thank me,” she said, mock stern, “Just doin’ me job.” Her voice was rough and husky, probably from shouting dinner for fifty into existence within two hours deadline. She scratched him quickly behind one ear, a motion that could have been mistaken for a accidental brush of her hand in passing, before striding back into her kitchen.

The last stragglers of the kitchen workers dragged out oval tin tubs of hot water, steam rising in the cooling evening air. White suds slopped over the sides as they swung the washtubs up onto the overburdened trestle table.

Hartford stood, stretched. “All right you lot. Can’t speak for you soldiers and stable folk, but my lads and lasses, you each wash your plate and cup, and stack it neat on the tables, hear? No need to make more work for them as set out this good food for us.”

“Aye, da,” the oldest wagon driver called back, with a bad parody of a Ferelden salute, fist across her ample chest. Since she was clearly at least ten years Hartford’s elder, the crowd broke up in laughter. Still, the first to carry his plate to the dishtub and roll up his sleeves was Blackwall, with a sheepish expression. After he set the example, the soldiers and stablehands of Skyhold dared do no less.

In the middle of the line came the dog, his empty dish clamped between his teeth. Blackwall laughed and took it from him, sloshed it through soapy water and clean water, then handed it back.

“You hang onto it, laddie, and I bet our lady Cook will fill it again for you on the morn,” the Warden advised.

In ones and twos, the crowd straggled away. Those with coin to spend or gamble made for the Tavern. Some who’d made new friends or renewed old frienships among the inhabitants of Skyhold retired to the soldiers’ quarters with them, or a soft nest of hay in a barn loft. The youngest struck up the music again and began a dancing game, of matching more and more difficult steps, and quicker and quicker speeds, until someone mistepped and was counted out of the circle of dancers to wait for the next round.

The dog lay on his back on top of a discarded horse blanket. His belly was so full that pink and gray skin showed through his fur. He snored and licked his chops in his sleep.

***