Note from YARN (November 2012): We regret that because of a technical difficulty, we had to delete most of the illustrations for this story.
By Michelle Barker
“Beautiful or useful, one or the other,” growled Jimmy to his son. “The rest ain’t worth spit.”
Halen Minn had heard those words every day of his life, and as the wooden trading cart rattled along its pot-holed muddy course from their Brinnian village into Hellarsburg, he heard them yet again. It was his father’s code as a trader, and it must have worked because Jimmy was a legend in the city.
“Everyone lives by a code, boy,” Jimmy would say. “Healer, lawman, or washerwoman.”
Above all, Halen knew, you couldn’t get attached. You hunted for treasure in order to trade up, not to collect. Not to hoard. Hoarding was a trader’s death knell. The Minns’ small house had the barest of walls and the most meager of furnishings. Mistress Liedermann, their landlady, claimed it was because there was no woman at home, but she would have fastened onto any excuse to cause mischief. She looked for worms in her salad simply to have a reason to complain. She had bad teeth and a greasy kerchief she dressed up with pigeon feathers, and Halen often wondered how a home would improve with her at the helm.
“We’ll have to come up with somethin’ to trade for the rent,” Jimmy was saying as the spires of Hellarsburg came into view. “That middling wench of a landlady got barely a sliver of mercy in her. She’ll have us out this time for certain.”
Every morning Halen and his father rode into Hellarsburg, old Meg pulling their cart of wares. You didn’t call it junk. Halen had only made that mistake once, and his father had set upon him with the whip he normally reserved for their horse.
“’Tis what fills yer belly, boy. Yer lowly. Don’t let it shame ye. Own who ye are.”
But Halen’s lowly origins were indeed a source of shame to him. They curled his tall fifteen-year-old frame into the boundaries of lowliness. Caste was a merciless tyrant: it dictated what you did for a living, whom you spoke to, where you lived. Halen had had little choice but to become a trader, like his father. Junk dealer, two-timer—call it what you liked. It meant a life on the road, wandering and seeking and sometimes stealing to make your way. Jimmy never admitted he stole, but Halen had seen him do it and had sworn never to allow the world to bend him as low as that.
This morning there had been a sheen of frost upon the cart, which meant winter would come early. Halen dreaded those hungry months. There was no trading when the roads froze up and became impassable with all the snow. The Minns might not have hoarded their treasures but they did collect food stores and firewood to make it through the winter. Halen also collected one thing his father did not know about: books.
Long winter nights Jimmy could content himself with a bottle of fire whiskey and a sharp knife to carve the wooden figures he would trade in springtime, but Halen was no good with a knife and did not care for drink. At a young age he had taught himself to read and he’d had the good fortune to befriend a Hellarsburg bookseller—an unlikely union, to be sure. “No attachment, no collecting,” were his father’s watchwords, and Halen saw the sense in them in all things except books. If his father had known about the books he kept stored beneath his mattress he would have berated him for putting on airs and then used the books for kindling. Beautiful or useful—and useful they would have been.
As the mud changed to cobble stones, Jimmy growled, “Get yer gloves on, boy, we’re comin’ into town,” his pipe clamped into a corner of his mouth. Halen pulled on the brown gloves the lowly were required to wear if they intended to handle anything owned by middlings or high-borns.
The sun was still low in the sky as they passed the long windows of a school, and Halen’s stomach churned with an emptiness that had nothing to do with hunger. How well he recalled that morning some years back when his father had been busy with a trade and he had wandered over to these very windows. Shushing Meg, he’d listened to a man speak about the organization of Brin into ten provinces. Ten! He’d known only of his own, the Province of Hellar, and of course the Royal Province where the king lived. The man spoke of thousands of miles of land, of the king’s palace and a Hall of One Hundred Rivers, and Halen’s heart had swelled with possibility. How much there was to know!
And then Meg, who did not like lingering unless there was the promise of fresh grass, did something terrible: she snorted. It brought three faces to the window and when they saw Halen with his plain brown clothes and his lowly-born gloves and his trader’s cart, they began to laugh. Feather pens and ink bottles flew out the window, and then came the teacher who had yelled at him to be off, boy and to go clean the public latrines, which set the entire class to laughing. That was the day Halen had met Asa Gunnar.
Asa had been in the alley behind his bookstore setting out trash and had called to Halen, who had still been young enough then to allow tears. He’d learned something about dignity, since. But back then, his lack of it had allowed for friendship with Master Gunnar. The bookseller had taken pity on Halen, invited him into his shop, and asked if he could read. When Halen shook his head, the bookseller began that very day to teach him.
“You’ll not clean the public latrines,” he had whispered to Halen. “You shall learn to read, and then I will give you books to take home.”
Halen had never traded the books Asa gave him. He had every one of them stored beneath his mattress. This morning, while Jimmy was negotiating for stolen jewels, Halen planned to visit the bookseller and find some books to keep him company over the winter.
“Ye’ll see to some bread for our supper while I’m gone,” Jimmy said, spitting a long brown stream onto the cobbles right in front of a group of well-dressed gentlemen who hooted for him to move along with his stinking beast. Halen hated when his father acted the way everyone expected a lowly-born to act, but it was as if he did it on purpose. How strangely he would regard the gentlemen, as if with a desperate longing to be one of them. And yet his clothes were stained and his beard was unkempt and his teeth were brown from all the dried dung he smoked, and he swore and spat and showed everyone where a fellow had once bitten off a corner of his left ear in a trade gone wrong.
Halen promised himself he would not end up like his father. He took pains to wash his clothes once a week in a big metal bucket and hang them out under the keen eye of Mistress Liedermann, who would grumble about his motherless state and threaten to report his father to the officials. Every morning he brushed his hair and tied it back with a long strip of leather. And he found things, and used them.
If his father’s code was beautiful or useful, Halen’s was more like anything can be treasure if you make it so. He’d fashioned shoes from stiff pieces of leather he’d found discarded near the tannery, and had made a tolerable coat from an old horse blanket.
“Does no good to pretend, boy,” his father said. “Just makes ‘em laugh harder.”
Halen didn’t care. At least he did not look like a beggar.
As Jimmy rode away, Halen drew his horse-blanket coat across his slim shoulders to guard against the autumn chill and made his way into the alley behind the bookshop. He could not enter through the front door. A lowly trader was not allowed into a middling establishment. Normally a merchant would only speak to a lowly-born if it was strictly related to business but Asa Gunnar was not your usual merchant.
Halen knocked the way Master Gunnar had shown him, and waited. The bookseller could only grant him entry if the store was empty, so sometimes Halen had to wait a long time, but this morning the door swung wide and Asa said, “Take off those silly gloves and come in. I’ll brew us some tea.”
One of the bookseller’s legs dragged from an accident with a horse cart, and he walked with the aid of a cane, but Halen had never thought of him as crippled. He was a large man who carried himself as if he were filled with great thoughts.
Halen stepped inside and stood still for a moment. There was nothing like the smell of a bookstore, and it wasn’t just the paper. It was the scent of a promise, the way possibility sat upon every shelf like so many sweet cakes. Asa seemed to understand that and always allowed Halen to savour his first moments in the store before they would perch upon tall stools at the back and take their tea. He had a gentle way about him, as if the books he tended were alive and needed a soft voice and a steady hand in order to thrive.
“I declare you’re taller every time I see you,” he said, “and more like a man.”
Halen smiled as he made his way towards the stools. He had discovered whiskers only a few mornings ago and was quite proud of them.
“Have you already finished the last book?” Asa asked.
“I ‘ave, sir,” said Halen. “And winter’s coming.”
“Ah, yes, winter. We will find you a tome so thick you’ll not be able to store it beneath your mattress.”
They both laughed, and Asa poured the tea and said, “Tell me what you learned from the last one, Master Minn.”
Asa knew how to make Halen talk. Just by calling him Master Minn, Asa could have made him do anything. A high-born was a lord or lady, and a middling was a master or mistress, but lowly was lowly and you didn’t get a name for your misfortune from those above you. To most folks, Halen was boy if he was anything at all.
He cleared his throat and spoke about the geography of Brin, which he now knew very well indeed.
“Excellent.” Asa clapped. “Well then, go see what speaks to you next.”
The first time Master Gunnar had told him to find a book that spoke to him, Halen had asked, “Can they really talk?” How the bookseller had laughed. But over the years he had come to believe that books could talk, in their way. He would scan titles and hold the more tempting volumes in his hands, listening for their whispers of interest. He always chose well.
But today he did not need to read the titles. There was something in the bookshop that drew him as if it had two strong arms and a heartbeat. He moved towards a book with a heavy leather cover and gilded pages. When Halen opened it and saw the richly drawn illustrations, it was as if a world had opened at his feet. Every page mirrored a landscape in his life, yet this was no ordinary looking glass. It transformed his common surroundings into riches and beauty and power. Instead of the scratched wooden kitchen table he knew, he saw shining golden tables lined with food. No horse-blanket coat for him; here were embroidered shirts laid out upon a canopy bed, and a servant on bended knee.
It was an intoxication of finery, and it pulled at him so strongly he forgot the world around him. He felt the fingertips of one hand being drawn into the page—his working hand, which was no loss since he didn’t have to work in this book’s world. And look at his fingers: no more cuts or ragged edges. They were clean and polished. He noticed there were other beautiful hands lying about the room, not attached to anything, just sitting upon tabletops or resting in comfortable armchairs. It must have been the hand page and Halen’s fingers fit right in. He was mesmerized. These were high-born hands, not hands that would scrabble for a meal or fight to….
Asa had snatched the book from Halen and slammed it shut. With a start, he looked up. He felt as if he’d fallen out of a dream and landed upon his head. There was his horse-blanket coat and the reddened, calloused fingers of his working hand. Nothing had changed. Except that now, the contrast between this world and the one he’d just left was almost intolerable. He had to get back there.
“What will ye take for the book?” he asked in a whisper. “My father’s got trinkets and…some silver, and a fine candelabra.”
“It isn’t for sale.”
Halen regarded the bookseller, the grooves in his forehead that came from squinting so long at parchment and thinking his great thoughts. “I want that book right bad, sir.”
“Badly, Halen.” He shook a long pale finger at him. “Have you grown attached already?” For even a bookseller knew the dangers of attachment. It was all about what you invested in your objects. If you made them too important, if you made them into pieces of yourself, you were doomed. But this book was different, so much more than just an object.
Suddenly the bell jingled on the shop’s front door, and Halen had to race to hide behind a shelf. In walked a fellow dressed in a black suit so fine Halen could almost feel the soft fabric upon his fingertips. He spied his lowly gloves still sitting on the table next to his teacup, and hoped he had not gotten Master Gunnar into trouble.
But no. The bookseller turned himself to block the table. He still had the strange book in his hands and was showing it to the high-born fellow.
“Hold up your working hand,” Asa said.
The fellow laughed. “Now, which hand would that be?” Even from where he hid, Halen could see both of the man’s hands were manicured and unblemished. A working hand indeed.
“Which is the hand you write with?” asked Master Gunnar.
The man held up his right hand and Asa showed him how to press it up against the page of the book so that it went straight in—not just the fingertips but the entire hand.
“Isn’t that a dandy little trick?” said the customer, slipping his hand easily from the book. “My wife would be delighted.”
Delighted? thought Halen. That was it? The transformation that had turned Halen’s world upside-down had done nothing except amuse this man. Of course. But why would this high-born desire such a thing? All the book did for him was to place his hand in a familiar environment. But oh, he was charmed, the volume was so pretty, and then—how much is it and could you wrap it in paper and thank you very much and that was that. The bell rang with the fellow’s exit, and the book was gone.
Halen stepped out from behind the shelf with his fists pressed into his armpits. “Not for sale, then?”
The bookseller colored. “Please understand: I could not permit you to own such a book. There are very few in existence and they pose a great danger to one such as yourself.”
“Ye mean a lowly-born,” muttered Halen. The injustice that had been simmering inside him for years boiled over. “‘Twere a danger for me, but a pretty package for that fop, eh? That book made promises.”
Asa placed his hands upon Halen’s shoulders. “Master Minn, that book does not make a single promise it can keep. All it does is show you something that this world can never give you: the life of a high-born. That’s no danger to a man like Lord Emmenhausen: he is already high-born. But for a middling or a low-born it delivers only grief. It cannot transport you anywhere. It takes your working hand, so that you aren’t even any use to your own world anymore. There is peace in accepting your lot in life, friend.”
“Is that so?” Halen glared at him. “I wonder why it is ye bothered teaching me to read then. Did ye figure I should just work my way up to middling?” He took up his brown gloves and pushed open the back door. Asa knew as well as he, there was no working one’s way up in the Brinnian castes. Where you were born was where you remained. Anyway, he knew why Asa had taught him. The bookseller had confided long ago that he thought it a sin that low-borns should be kept from reading. Teaching Halen was, as he put it, his private rebellion of the written word.
Halen let the door slam and was down the alley before Asa could call him back. If he ran, he might still catch that fellow in the fine black suit. That high-born fool could never appreciate the value of such a book. Its promises would be meaningless to him.
He found the man two streets down buying flowers.
“M’Lord,” he said, bowing as was required by law. He took out a pair of silver candlestick holders from his satchel. “Might ye take these in trade for that package ye carry?”
“What use is a book to a simpleton?” said the man, his voice a nasal sneer. “Be gone or I’ll have you arrested.”
“On what charge?” asked Halen, dumbfounded.
“Stupidity.” The man spat on Halen and paid for his flowers.
Halen waited for him to walk away, and then he followed, waiting outside as the gentleman went from one shop to another, and into a building and out again. Always the book, wrapped in brown paper, was tucked under one arm. Surely he’ll set it down, thought Halen. But it seemed he would not.
Then it happened. A merchant was arranging a display of hats outside a haberdashery. To a lowly-born there was nothing to a hat: you put it on your head and were done with it. But a high-born had to fuss over his headgear. He needed a looking glass and two hands to adjust the hat just so and then a great deal of time to admire himself in it; for all that, he had to set down the book. Halen watched and waited for his moment and when it came, he slipped by as quiet as the night, one hand upon the precious package before the fellow had a chance to realize it was gone.
He raced down alleys and around so many corners he feared he had lost not only the gentleman but had gotten lost himself. Around the next corner he ran directly into Meg being harnessed by his father who was smoking and spitting and showing the missing piece of his ear to a street sweeper.
“Well,” said Jimmy. “If it ain’t his own highness. Where ye been? And I sees ye ain’t got our supper.” His eyes flared with anger, and then he spied the package in Halen’s hands and said, “What’s that? Somethin’ to help with the rent?”
“’Tis nothing.” Halen hadn’t intended to show the book to his father. This was his, his own private world, and he planned to disappear into it over the long cold winter—but his desire for it, and the relief he now felt in possessing it, had made him careless.
Jimmy’s eyes went narrow. “What did ye trade for that bit of nonsense? Is that where our supper went, then?”
Halen colored, as the truth of what he’d done rushed at him.
“Ye stole it,” said Jimmy. “And ye been running—which means ye bungled the job. Show me what ye risked yer freedom for.”
Halen considered fleeing, perhaps hiding the book in one of the safe places he’d found around Hellarsburg; but that would only confirm its value to his father. After all, to Jimmy Minn it was only a book, and he did not know how to read. Though he knew it was a gamble, Halen unwrapped the package and handed the book to his father, who stared at it.
“A book?” He regarded Halen the way a man considers a fool, and Halen sighed with relief. All was well. But then, his father did something unexpected: he opened it.
“No!” Halen cried, and lunged for the book. Jimmy was not a large man but he was strong, and his determination when he wanted something made him even stronger. He held the book hard and gazed into its illustrations. As his eyes went flat and his shoulders dropped, Halen muttered a curse under his breath. How could he have been so stupid? The book’s magical effect was immediate and all-consuming.
Halen stared at his father holding the book the way a hungry boy might stare at another man’s meal. I’ll steal it back, he thought, as Jimmy closed the book and tucked it into his coat. “See to Meg,” he mumbled.
Halen’s anger simmered as he finished getting the horse ready. All the years he had squirreled away Master Gunnar’s precious volumes beneath his bed, Jimmy had never noticed. He chose this moment to show an interest in books? He waited for his father to make a spectacle of stomping to the baker’s to buy the bread he’d forgotten, which would push Halen to breaking—but it didn’t happen. Jimmy settled himself onto the worn wooden bench of the cart and opened the book again.
“Father, ye can’t even read.” Halen felt mean as he said it, but Jimmy ignored him. He’d figured out that the magic was in the illustrations.
It was Halen who made the grand display of buying bread. Jimmy showed no interest. The fingers of his working hand had already slipped into the page.
The ride home was long and silent. As the sun sank lower and the air grew cooler, Halen held the reins while his father disappeared into a world he had never imagined possible. At first Halen glanced jealously to his side, but as the silence endured he began to feel angry not just about the book being in his father’s hands, but also that it had the power to so fully capture his father’s attention. The ride home had always been the time for father and son to discuss the ups and downs of the day’s trading, to exchange gossip and make plans. There was none of that tonight. He was not ready to admit the possibility that Asa Gunnar had been right about the book, but he wished now more than ever that he’d thought to hide it instead of bringing it with him.
When they arrived home, Mistress Liedermann was waiting for them. She thrust one empty hand towards Jimmy, who was usually afraid enough of her to offer some small token of the day’s work. Today he pushed past her without looking up from the book.
“I want my money by tomorrow,” she said, wagging a fat finger at him, “or I shall report you.”
Halen shut the door, knowing she would remain standing there for some minutes, as if her mere presence were sufficient reason for him to produce a bag of coins from thin air. He busied himself with cooking the last of their eggs, and then cut up some cheese to go with the bread, but when he called his father to supper Jimmy did not come. He was sitting in a crooked chair by the window’s waning light, his entire working hand captured by the book, a glazed look on his face that frightened Halen. The real world no longer held any charm for him. Halen ate alone, full of a resentment that left him in turmoil: his father now had the book that he had taken such pains to acquire, and yet look what it was doing to him.
Night came, and Halen lit a lantern, but Jimmy didn’t move. As Halen prepared for bed he risked jostling his father, but Jimmy dismissed him as if he were a fly.
Early the next morning when it was time to depart for the day’s trading in Hellarsburg, Jimmy was still in his chair. By the way he was admiring the page with his hand in it, Halen guessed that the book had filed his broken nails, straightened his bent knuckles and erased every lowly scar and callous. Yet surely he would set it down for a day of trading. Jimmy Minn lived to trade. He loved the back and forth of it, the slip and slide of deal-making, the gratification of getting the better end of an exchange. Jimmy was always up at dawn; he was the one who woke Halen. But not today.
How had the book taken him captive? He’d never cared about being lowly, had had nothing but scorn for those above him. And yet…was that really true? Halen remembered the way he had often regarded those finely dressed gentlemen in the streets of Hellarsburg: with scorn, yes, but tinged with longing. It seemed he was not as satisfied with his status as he pretended to be.
Halen took him by the shoulders. “Father! Up with ye. The best trades are made early, that’s what ye’ve always said. And that jeweler man ye met yesterday, he’ll be waitin’. And the rent is past due. Come. This book is naught but a nasty ruse and when ye wake ye’ll feel the worse for it.”
*But Jimmy would not budge, and Halen had to set off with Meg and the cart alone. The ride into town gave him time to consider what to do. It was Asa he needed to speak to, but what could he tell him? He would have to admit to the theft, and Master Gunnar had always given Halen more credit than that. Yet, what choice did he have? His father was bewitched. He had not taken food or drink since having picked up the book. Magic was called magic for a reason: it did not behave like regular life where stones fell when dropped. How would he break this spell?
With a heavy heart he brought Meg to the back door of the bookshop and knocked in the way he’d been instructed. He wished he could disappear. The world seemed made of sharp edges and sour wine. It was another cold morning, and when the bookseller heard what he’d done surely he would not give him anything new to read. Those long dark winter days of excruciating boredom would be fitting punishment. Halen would have to listen to his father’s drunken songs that never made sense and carried on forever.
He pressed his forehead to the cold door. From inside the shop he could hear voices, which meant he’d be waiting. He drew the edges of his horse-blanket coat closer and, for want of anything better to do, he listened.
“Tall, skinny lowly boy,” said a clipped voice. “Stole it right out from under me. He’d wanted to trade, but I’d declined. I won’t trade with those people. They smell, and they’re dishonest.”
“I’m very sorry for you,” came Master Gunnar’s voice. “How can I make amends?”
“I’ll take another—the same volume, if you please. At no charge.”
Asa Gunnar had two ways of laughing: the way he laughed over tea with Halen, and the way he laughed with high-born customers who wanted something he didn’t have. It was the second laugh Halen heard that morning; it had a halting, false tone, like a street flautist who does not know his music.
“I’m all out,” he was saying, “but I could place an order.”
“Fine. I’ll expect my book by tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow! But Lord Emmenhausen, that will be quite impossible.”
“You will find a way, middling, unless you know where that trader boy is with my property. I should like to give him a beating myself before I have him placed in prison.”
“I’m sure I don’t, sir.”
The shop fell silent. Halen could have opened the door and spared his dear friend such agony. He did not. The will was there, but his body refused to comply. He stood frozen to the spot, Meg’s gentle brown eyes upon him as if she were at once accusing and forgiving him. Don’t snort, he thought, though a part of him wished she would. But she remained conveniently silent.
“Very well,” said the high-born fellow, probably wearing his new hat. “My book, by tomorrow.” The front door slammed shut, and before Halen could make an escape, the back door opened and there stood a white-faced Asa Gunnar.
“Master Gunnar, I’m right sorr –”
“Where is it?” he interrupted.
“My father’s got it. I didn’t mean for ‘im to –”
“Go home and fetch it, now, to save us both.” He shook his head. “Did I not warn you, Master Minn? Could you not control yourself?”
At the words Master Minn, Halen feared he would burst into tears. So much for dignity. “He’s bewitched by it, sir. His whole hand is in it and I can’t persuade him to pull it out. I dunno what to do.”
The bookseller’s face softened, as if with sadness. “You’ll not persuade him, not by any means. Take courage, Master Minn, and do it quickly, before that fellow finds you himself.”
“Do what quickly?” he asked.
But the bookseller was urging him towards Meg and the cart and wouldn’t meet his eye. “Your father needs you. Make haste.” Halen took one last glance at the books on the shelves behind Asa. If he hadn’t stolen that silly book he might right now be choosing something to read for winter. Instead he hoisted himself onto the cart and urged Meg into a trot. Do what quickly?
The stench as he entered their home was foul. His father had not moved from the chair, not even to the latrine to relieve himself. Halen gagged as he shook him.
“Father! You must come back to me.”
Jimmy wouldn’t even look up.
Halen tried to pull the book away but it was no use; Jimmy’s working hand was stuck fast. As he braced himself against the chair to pull with his full strength, the doorway darkened with the shadow of Mistress Liedermann.
“I’m not surprised,” she screeched. “The old man’s gone and soiled himself.” She marched into the simple room, swept Halen out of the way and planted herself before Jimmy, her hands dug into her hips as if they were pockets. “Put that book down, lowly fool. You don’t know how to read.”
“He can’t, Mistress,” said Halen.
“He can, and he will.” Mistress Liedermann took the book by both hands and pulled. It didn’t budge. She slapped Jimmy across the face, and Halen bristled, but Jimmy scarcely blinked.
“Ye won’t treat him like that. We’ll get ye yer rent. You leave off,” said Halen.
“Of all the insolence! You’re lucky I don’t throw you and your father out this very morning. As a matter of fact –”
But Halen never found out what she intended to say, for at that moment the sound of hoof beats drowned out her voice. The color drained from his face. That many horses all at once could only belong to a high-born. How had they found him so quickly? Had they followed him?
If most lowly folk feared the high-borns, the middlings had quite a different reaction. At the sound of horses, Mistress Liedermann began straightening her skirts and checking her reflection in the window. “How unexpected,” she twittered, forgetting the Minns and flouncing out the door to greet someone important.
Halen was in a panic. “Father,” he pleaded, but he now saw Master Gunnar was right. There would be no pulling or persuading. From outside came the low mutter of male voices; two men, perhaps three. Take courage, the bookseller had said. Do it quickly. He had to mean give himself up. Halen could not stand for anyone else to pay for his stupidity. He raced outside, his heart pounding as he stood before the three men in their elaborate riding gear, Lord Emmenhausen among them. Mistress Liedermann looked flustered; they must have told her they were not here to see her.
“’Twas me what done it,” Halen said. “I’ve got yer book, sir. Please have mercy. Whatever punishment ye got, give it to me and there’s yer justice.”
Lord Emmenhausen regarded him the way a scientist might consider a fly. “Yes,” he said, “you’re the scoundrel. Where is my property, then? Hand it over.”
“I can’t, ye see,” Halen stammered. “My father. It’s, he’s….” No other words would come. He indicated the door to their home and followed the men inside.
“Not fit for pigs,” one of the men murmured, and Halen’s face colored. Surely when his father saw the high-borns he would give the book up. Surely he knew when not to be stubborn.
“Trader,” barked Lord Emmenhausen, but this got no reaction. “Take it from him,” he commanded one of his men who commenced pulling.
“It’s stuck fast,” said the man.
“Then unstick it,” said Lord Emmenhausen.
Before Halen had time to understand what was happening, one of the men had pulled out a long sword and in a single blow that sent a foul wind towards Halen, sliced off Jimmy Minn’s working hand at the wrist. The book landed on the floor with a thud—the hand still inside it—and Jimmy screamed in pain.
*“Father!” Halen cried. Blood was pouring from the wound and Halen grabbed a kitchen rag and began to bind it, when Lord Emmenhausen’s men took hold of him, one at each arm.
“The middling will tend him,” barked the lord. “You are hereby under arrest for theft and insubordination. You will come with us.” He kicked the book clear across the room and then, as if reconsidering, went to fetch it. “Damn trifle, probably not worth the trouble.”
Halen tried to turn his head to see his father but they wouldn’t let him. “Mistress,” he called as they led him away. “Please see to him. Please. They’ve cut off his hand.”
As they forced Halen into the wagon and bound both his hands and feet, a strange memory came to him of that page he had seen in the book: all those hands. They’d been everywhere, beautiful high-born hands just sitting alone. He hadn’t understood before; he did now.
After the whipping they placed him in the stockades for a week. These were situated in the Common, a public meeting area in Hellarsburg so that everyone could witness any criminal’s disgrace. Every morning his father came to see him, his working arm bound in a bandage that ended in an angry stump.
“They will destroy our reputation as traders, Father,” said Halen. “I’m rightly sorry.”
“There’s a bucket of goat slag,” said Jimmy. “They’ll all know us now—we’re the ones what stole the book from Lord Mucky Muck. It’ll be good for business. We’re the ones what got an eye for what’s precious.” With one hand he fed Halen pieces of hardened bread. Halen couldn’t take his eyes off the place where his father’s hand should have been. It was a trade that made him sick.
He did not expect to see the bookseller, who would have been risking his entire livelihood to visit Halen, but late one night came the large slow silhouette of Asa Gunnar. The nights had grown cooler and Halen’s hands were freezing. Master Gunnar held them in his own.
“I took courage,” said Halen quietly. “I gave myself up quickly so no harm would come to you. I didn’t think they would –” He hadn’t the heart to finish.
Master Gunnar shook his head. “I meant for you to cut off his hand. I feared it would come to that. I thought if you did it…I thought at least it would be a mercy.”
“A mercy? I could never have done it. I did the only thing I could.”
“Then you did what was right.” Asa paused, placed a blanket around Halen’s shoulders. “Winter is coming,” he said. “What of your winter reading?”
Michelle Barker recently moved from Quebec to the Okanagan region of British Columbia. Her short stories have appeared in “Grain,” “Taproot II” and “Words Literary Journal,” and have won honors in several competitions. Her poetry has been published in literary reviews in North America, the UK (children’s poetry) and Australia, and has been selected for this year’s “Best Canadian Poetry” anthology. A chapbook of her poems will be published later this year by Leaf Press. Michelle has also published non-fiction, and has won a National Magazine Award in personal journalism. The world of “The Trader” comes from the young adult fantasy novels she is presently working on. She plans for Halen to play an important role in the third book. Please visit her at www.michellebarker.ca