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They Boil a Broth of Loves and Nightingales

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I.

She is not clumsy. If anything, Raina has finally located some measure of grace and bearing in her body. From a chubby child to a straight-backed young woman, over the course of a few dry winters, she grew, and her muscles grew longer and leaner as her lungs expanded. Now she stands tall and slender with a chamber in her chest. She sings like a hammered tin bell: ringing out, clear and persistent, higher and stronger the longer she tolls.

Tonight are the Easter ceremonies. Her hair is braided with flowers. She sings at the front of the chorus. She sings for herself, to fill the silence left when her father went to the war, or possibly, when her mother died in childbirth. She sings to wake grandmother, whose poor health compels deep sleep for most of the day and night. Raina sings through the whole village when she stands in the chancel. She sings as if the stars are her audience--because often, she feels that no one else will truly hear.

After the service, Raina fills a silver pitcher with water. So tradition prescribes. She waters the garden. Then there is a yank. There is a tear in her skirt and in the fabric of the world, and suddenly she is tumbling backward.

She is not clumsy but, like anyone, she does, from time to time, tread on a loose stone with the expectation of meeting hard ground. It's ok: her skin is hard, too. Her bones are not fragile. Bodies are built to misstep and to endure what follows. For years she has been making her own way and picking herself up when she steps wrong. This time, however, this night, Raina did not step wrong--nor does she meet hard ground.

What does it mean to fall, and have someone to catch you?

 

II.

His name is Krabat.

She listens for it, takes it, and tests it in her mouth immediately.

She says it whenever she leaves the house after dark: Krabat. Names have a kind of power. They are a kind of prayer. She swears she can feel him out there, thinking of her, responding to the whispered name. It feels so natural, like holding out seed to a timid bird.

It is said that the lads at the mill practice the black arts. Krabat. Perhaps it should feel less like a prayer and more like a summoning.

 

III.

He answers the summons much later than she expected. He's rushed, sweating and frightened, tossing a sack of flour beneath the overturned tree in the bog. Something haunts his eyes, though still, they marvel at Raina when she speaks his name. She notices. They speak briefly about Tonda--a lost friend, a ghost who can only live in the words they trade about him. Krabat is afraid to say much. Raina listens that much harder.

She can tell that Krabat's heart beats for her, but there's more than that. There's a song inside him for this fallen comrade. A funeral dirge. That night in a dream she hears it and she takes care to learn the rhythm and the melody. She learns all the words, too, though she does not know the language. She commits them to memory and sings them like a bell at dawn. More than once, she hears herself crying, "Tonda."

She can't help but know that, when you love someone, it feels right to love whoever they have loved.

 

IV.

The first night, they make camp. No one feels eager to build a bonfire after what they've seen at the mill but neither does anyone care to freeze in the snow. The village is short on spare housing since the fire at Easter; Raina could take Krabat home, but there is reluctance to part. They have all come together to escape. They all share this moment.

There is plenty of flat, frozen ground beyond the swamp. Raina runs to the village for wool blankets while the lads make beds of whatever weeds and bracken they can find. After sleeping on death's doorstep for so long, they find it comfortable enough. Raina is comforted by their jovial mood, their songs, and by the twisted apple tree standing sentinel watch over the camp. Still, she shivers. It takes a long time to start the fire without sorcery. When it's going, Juro tends to it, keeping it cracking and smoking with dense hardwood and too much kindling. Raina smells apple and hickory. The fire is noisy when talk dies down.

Krabat holds Raina from behind. He is warm and relaxing. There is a sudden awareness of the potential of their bodies, their nearness. Raina's heart begins to pound. She blushes. She does not feel self-conscious or shy, even surrounded by the other journeymen. Some are dropping off to sleep. Moreover, they are Krabat's fellows. They belong here. Only the gaze of the master was a heavy burden; only his watchful eye meant possible annihilation. There is liberty from that, now. The threat is vanquished. As Krabat nuzzles her neck, Raina invites his hands to wander.

There is no sound of birds or wailing of wind in the trees: only the silence of winter, and the distant noise of the river. Their breathing fills the night, mists the air. "Raina," Krabat whispers. He has only known her name for a few hours. He says it now to draw her attention to movement on the other side of the fire. Juro is still awake and tending the flames. He is making his presence known--shuffling around, breaking some firewood, casting his blue eyes nervously in their direction. There is a sharpness in that gaze that almost makes Raina feel--caught? Scolded? She has never responded to that sort of intimidation.

"Come here," she says to Juro, through the fire. Her voice is soft but still rings clear like a bell. He appears struck. Startled. "Yes, you. Come here."

Juro trudges around the fire, his shoes crunching against the snow and drawing the few weary eyes still open. When he reaches them he stands over them, too close to the fire and slouching. Raina clicks her tongue at his posture. He has ceased to play the fool but some habits die hard.

"Do you want to join us?" she asks.

She sees in his eyes that he knows what's she's asking. He's intelligent--how was anyone ever deceived?--but terrified. He is almost scandalized. He cannot believe she would ask him. He cannot believe anyone would. Raina sees him grasp for his loneliness as if it is the only way to hold onto himself. He has been holding on too long. "Join you?"

"You know what she asked, Juro," Krabat says. The name sparks in the air--an invocation. As if to close the circle, Raina pulls fluidly at ties of her blouse and grabs for the hem of her skirt. She is abruptly undressed. There is a shocked silence, punctuated by a muffled howl of delight from one of the lads in the dark. Something like silent thunder is rolling through all their veins, hurtling in from the dark horizon. Everyone is paying attention, now.

Juro casts his eyes to Krabat, still asking permission. "Don't look at me!" Krabat exclaims. "It's up to her."

Raina takes Juro's hand and places it on her breast. Her eyes meet his. "It's ok," she says. She thinks to herself, "I'll catch you."

 

XIII.

In the morning, Lyschko is gone.

His absence is somewhat noteworthy since they all wake in closer contact than they'd made when first laying down. Hanzo and Andrusch share a blanket. Kito, Kubo, Merten and Petar are entangled. Raina is nestled between Krabat and Juro. She can't see Lobosch, Staschko or Michal, but she remembers feeling their hands and hearing their voices in the night. She smiles as she remembers.

The light is dim and grey as it only can be in the hour before dawn in winter. A bird is cawing, though its voice is lost when the wind picks up. They will have to rouse soon and go to their fates. Raina's stomach turns over. She knows she can go home to a hot meal, but what of the others? When they're dressed, they search for Lyschko. His tracks lead to Kamenz and then vanish mysteriously near the river.

"I see no paw prints," Merten sighs. "The wolves didn't get him."

"He probably headed toward Dresden to celebrate," remarks Andrusch, "as we all should, as soon as possible."

"A fine idea," Kubo agrees. "He was smart not to bother with goodbyes." Juro looks at him with deadly ice in his stare. Raina can almost hear the freezing--or perhaps that is the sound of her own heart, breaking.

"It seems a shame that we have to split apart," she says.

"Why do we have to?" Krabat answers. "I have been down the road to Kamenz more recently than all of you but Lobosch. All there is that way is war, starvation and plague."

Heads turn to Lobosch and he nods. "Yes, it is true."

"Well then, if you'll all listen," Krabat says, "I have a different plan."

 

XIV.

They wait until spring to begin, taking odd and assorted jobs in the meanwhile. Then Staschko draws up two schematics; one for something rough and quick and another for the long-term. Raina goes with clever, quick-talking Lobosch to the market to see if they can't secure creditors in the project. With some difficulties they obtain a loan and spend it quickly on grain and tools. As they work, supplies run low. Merten, Michal and Petar must to go into business selling kitchen wares. Juro, who learned to read and write over the Koraktor, earns extra working as a scribe. Hanzo and Andrusch leave to serve as plague-helpers. However, finding the worst of the war and the sickness is passing--or at least, that the best of the raiding is already done--they do return. They all return.

They all toil at the lumber and the building until their new mill is standing again. The cabin is crude and small but the millstones move as they should and sound like music.

Within two summers, all is going well. They have many clients as soldiers come home and the fallow land returns to use. There is a new inn at Schwartzkollm, attracting travellers and their wealth. Raina brings Krabat round the village to dispel any talk of sinister, mystical happenings and Black Schools. For the benefit of the townsfolk, they declare their intentions to marry--though in her heart, Raina has been married since she cut her hair and made a ring.

All the lads fear now is tax, conscription, and other unfavorable attentions of the nobility. At last, one day, these fears catch up with them. A carriage arrives at the mill, unannounced except for the snort and stomp of horses. The hitch is very ornate; the driver holds silk reins and a gleaming whip. He is finely dressed in a flashy tunic with silver buttons and embroidery in silver thread. When he steps down, Raina spies tall leather boots, a three corner hat with a plume, and a very splendid dress-sword.

Fearless and poised, Raina steps forward. She conjures her clearest, most euphonius lilt. "Good morning, sir," she says, "and may I ask your name?" She intends to speak to him as a person, not as an official. If he reveals his name before his business, she knows, this power is within reach.

Slowly, he lifts his head, and pushes the hat and hair from his face. "Lyshcko!" Krabat cries at the stranger. Raina sees that it is Lyschko. He has returned, he explains, now a personal squire to the elector, to pay the 'brotherhood' a visit. There is much laughter and embracing.

"We thought you'd come to collect!" Raina cries. "I was certain this land would be seized and soldiers quartered."

"Not as long as I maintain my current position," says Lyschko. "None will come near. As far as the court's concerned, this mill is haunted."

"So it is," Krabat jests, "by the lot of us, still." He is gripping Lyschko's shoulder with one hand and pulling Raina close with the other. There is a tremor in the air--some breath of wind through distant trees. A kind of eager pause flows beneath the sound, and Raina knows that the stars are listening. She drops her head against Krabat's shoulder. She invites Lyschko to stay for the night.