Apples for Books
There was no denying the awful truth: he had to turn back. He took a risk by trying to skimp on materials and if it worked, he’d pocket some extra drinking money but the coin had to be spent on more supplies after all; One sack of mortar just wouldn’t be enough. With the embezzlement scheme collapsed, Jaupis Landree, the fattest man in Windy Wood, faced a worst case scenario: not only did he have to mix a second bag of mortar but he would have to walk back home to fetch it.
The bridge he was repairing was a thirty minute walk both ways and he had been working on the project all day; Well, almost all day. He woke up late but only because his lazy rooster didn’t think to crow loudly enough to penetrate his hangover. He ate a lunch big enough to compensate for missing breakfast. He gathered his tools, stopped to hydrate, hiked in the blazing heat to the bridge and took another hydration break upon arrival with a snack of cheese and jerky. ‘Those who adhered to a rigid schedule lacked confidence in their skills,’ Jaupis often said. As far as he was concerned, he had put in more than an honest day’s work. He belched and savored the ghosts of jerky and cheese while his tongue begged for a frothy beer.
The sun raced towards the horizon and Jaupis inspected his work. He wiped his bald head with his soaking shirt. The bridge arched twenty feet above the dry creek bed Jaupis stood in. Windy Wood’s mayor paid the mason out of the town’s sparse coffers to patch an eroding section of the bridge’s support. It was clear the job required more mortar but did it also require a thirsty man to slave away by lantern? The only use the old bridge saw anymore was the rare trip to the doctor’s cabin since that hermit refused to come into town. Jaupis made up his mind: the incomplete patch job would hold as long as a parade or a heavily laden wagon didn’t traverse it.
“I’ll get out here early tomorrow,” Jaupis compromised as he packed his tools. “It ain’t like they’re paying me enough to miss dinner.”
“No way Dad is going to make us work through the night again,” Addison Trueheart looked at the cloudy, moonless sky and would have prayed but his hands were filthy and hurt to move. “We’ve already missed dinner.”
Addi’s father rustled in the darkness, pushing through the low hanging branches of their apple trees. Frank Trueheart inherited the three acre grove from his dead wife’s brother. Although Frank’s experience with apples primarily included drinking cider, learning something new didn’t scare him off an opportunity to work for an honest living. If his wife’s family had given him a manure farm, Frank Trueheart would have packed up and moved just the same.
Addison Trueheart was the spitting image of his father. Both men were large and thick-chested; Both had heads of flaming red hair, though Frank’s hair had been retreating for years. Being larger than most other men might have had its advantages in the adventures written about in Addi’s books but in Windy Wood, it just meant having a backlog of requests to help relocate heavy items for your neighbors. To make matters worse, his father owned a large, flat bed wagon so Addi was never safe from an invitation to “help me with this for a second.” While he inherited his father’s strength, Frank Trueheart’s love of labor had skipped his son altogether. Whenever given a choice, Addi chose a book and shade over all else.
“Yep. I think that’s as good as it’s going to get. Should help with those deer anyway. Next year, we can tear this old fence down and start from scratch,” Frank said, wiping his hands on his overalls and already looking forward to the project.
“Great idea, Dad,” Addi groaned.
“Did you see that goblin again?”
“Yea, same as yesterday. Just sits out there and watches me. You didn’t see him?”
“Nope. Too busy working,” Frank poked his son in the ribs. “But I figured there was a tribe of pinkys in those hills. There always is. Just leave them alone and they’ll do the same.”
“Come on. Get up. Let’s go inside and get some late supper.”
“Go on without me. I’m heading into town for a minute.”
“Don’t stay out all night drinking with Nadler. I need you ready in the morning,” Frank said. He wished Windy Wood had more young men for Addi to pal around with but as far as best friends went, there were worse options than Nadler Kilson. The youth seemed honest and was respectful enough to his father to help at the family’s tavern. Frank Trueheart just didn’t like his son spending so much time in a bar. The atmosphere bred laziness.
“Don’t worry. I saw that trader’s wagon this afternoon and he said he’d bring me the new Landyn Broxton novel last time he was here.”
“Wow. Broxton? That’s the famous one, right? No wonder you were distracted all day. Who wouldn’t be excited?”
“Alright, Dad. Alright. Thanks for trying.”
“Fine. Go. See you soon. Good work today,” Frank said warmly and stepped through the back door of their cabin.
The Truehearts’ property was a pleasant distance from the collection of cottages and small farms that composed Windy Wood, a town too small to earn a cartographer’s ink when the continent of West Cartia had been mapped. Nadler’s father, Timos Kilson, owned the only bar in town and when Addi wasn’t buried under apples or reading a Broxton novel, he was at the bar arguing with Nadler about a Broxton novel. Books were difficult to come by and fiction even rarer. Few were willing to spend hard earned coin on written fantasies that had to be hand copied and bound. As far as Addi and Nadler knew, they were the only two people apart from the town scribe who could even read well enough to consider it a hobby. Once they discovered their shared passion, the pair bonded like paper and glue.
Addi entered the Kilson Tavern and marched to the bar. Nadler was behind the counter and eating roast beef with his back to the entrance. The tavern wasn’t large and a dozen tables adequately hosted the regular tides of business. The ample fireplace kept the main room warm and smelling of sour beer soaked into the wooden floors.
“Well?” Addi said to Nadler’s rear.
“No luck,” Nalder spun around. He was lean, handsome and his smile could be charismatic if it weren’t so smug. His brown hair, undamaged from days spent indoors, was tied back.
“Did he forget it?” Addi asked.
“Nope. Says he sold it to someone else along the way.”
“What?” Addi sucked his teeth. “What an asshole.”
“Yep. Said he’ll bring us another copy next time. Whenever that it is. How do you think I feel? You never even heard of Landyn Broxton until you moved here. I’ve been waiting for this book my whole life!” Nadler griped.
“Yea, yea. You’ve been telling me that my whole life,” Addi leaned against the bar and spotted the table where the trader sat. The foreigner was animated and laughing at the punchlines to his own stories. Jaupis Landree, the only man Addi had ever seen composed entirely of tallow, sat at the table and wheezed at the trader’s jokes while sloshing his beer without concern. A young lady wearing an oiled travel cloak also shared the table and dodged the mess made by the obese mason. Her hood was down and she kept her hair in a thick, blond braid. The trader often boasted how he’d pay for the most stunning women in West Cartia to ride with him, and on him, during his travels.
Addi stewed like the iron pot hanging over the fire and pounded the bar top. To make matters worse, his stomach refused to be ignored any longer and wailed.
“Do you have anything to eat? My dad had me working all night.”
“Oh, is that why you smell like shit? Don’t worry. You know I can’t refuse royalty and you can’t afford to pay so: what are you having, Prince of Apples?”
“Cut me some of that roast you were stuffing into your face when I walked in.”
“Certainly, your grace.”
Nadler turned and worked on dividing his food while Addi waited and fed his foul mood by dwelling on his disappointment. He had thought about that book every day since Nadler got word of its release. Why in the world would that trader, or ‘traitor’, let them down? Addi pounded the bar top again.
“Hey! If my Dad comes back to a cracked bar, I’m going to be out there chucking apples with you,” Nadler said over his shoulder. “Which reminds me, he wanted me to ask you to help move that bed in the guest room out so we can scrape the floors again.”
“Sure. Why not? You know, maybe we should just go into the city and find a copy,” Addi suggested.
“Yea right. Like your dad would ever let you take a week off to buy a book. Besides, even I wouldn’t know where to look. We don’t even know the name of it,” Nadler perforated Addi’s idea.
“The Chosen One!” someone shouted and the words echoed through the rafters.
Addi spun and found the trader behind him and pointing. The Dealer was tanned with a close haircut and armed like someone more aptly named ‘The Duelist’. He carried a short sword on each hip, a knife strapped to his right calf and a deck of cards hidden in his boot. “Hired security is unnecessary overhead” was his justification for the weaponry.
Nobody in Windy Wood knew the man’s real name but when the foreigner first parked his wagon of goods in their town, he announced himself as The Dealer. The moniker, he explained, fit better than his given name as his heart pumped for two purposes: making money and playing cards. His regular route ended in Windy Wood and he’d often stay a night and gamble with the locals before setting off again. At Nadler and Addi’s insistence and promise of coin, The Dealer had recently added ‘Book Broker’ to his resume.
“What?” Addi didn’t hide his annoyance.
“’The Chosen One’. That’s the name of the new Broxton novel. I’m assuming your boyfriend gave you the bad news,” The Dealer grinned beneath a perfectly trimmed moustache. “Do not worry. I shall find you lovebirds another poetry book as quickly as my beautiful horses can run. That I swear.”
“You better,” Addi armed his wits, “or next time I’ll take your beautiful horses for my lovebirds.”
A near miss. Addi’s best lines required preparation or arrived late; Most often while bathing.
“Let’s leave the innocent out of it, shall we?” The Dealer reached high and patted Addi on the shoulder.
“Who’d you sell our book to?” Nadler tagged himself in.
“I cannot tell. I respect my customers’ privacy and besides, it was never your book to begin with. No money up front, no reserved stock. We’ve been over this before. Hey! How’s your pinky-speak coming along, friend? Did that goblin dictionary help?”
“Cheuuughiig wheeg,” Nadler squealed a response that sounded like a sneeze battling a hiccup.
“Not bad. Wait until you get to the fun stuff. Awruuuhigg huc huuuuc!” The Dealer struggled to swallow a horseshoe.
“What does that mean?” Nadler asked excitedly.
“I cannot say with such tender minds present,” The Dealer patted Addi a second time and touched the thin, gold chain the young man wore around his neck. “One of these days, you’ll let me have a look at that.”
“Don’t you have places to go?” Addi knocked the hand aside.
“I do. Young barkeep, please send another round to my table and then I must be on my way. No room for me tonight, thank you. Oh!” The Dealer flipped a heavy coin onto the bar. “Give your father my regards when he returns.”
Nadler pocketed the coin and went to work on filling three mugs from a keg of his father’s brew. “Stick around. Dad won’t be back until tomorrow.”
“No. I’m going to go read and sleep.”
“’The Sword and the Road’ probably. Better than nothing.” Addi had read the Broxton trilogy four times already. His stomach berated him on the walk home for forgetting to eat Nadler’s food but another night of apples would shut it up until breakfast.
Addi lay on his cot and read by candlelight while his dad snored and rattled the glass in the cabin’s lone window. The Sword and the Road was Landyn Broxton’s first heroic trilogy. Each book was bound and copied by hand from Broxton’s original manuscript and The Dealer charged Addi an entire summer’s allowance for the complete set but it was worth it. Addi would pause while reading to caress the book’s covers and breathe in the smell of the pages.
Broxton’s early writing was unpolished and derivative of every story in the heroic genre that Addi and Nadler collected. The protagonist always started from humble roots and was met with a life altering tragedy in their quaint town with a quaint name. The new hero swears revenge just to discover he shares blood with an ancient line of kings or an extinct race infused with magic. Sure, it was all a bit silly but they were also fun and if Addi had his way, he’d stay home and grow old reading fun books.
‘Give someone else adventure and tragedy,’ Addi thought as he blew out the stump of a candle. ‘All I want is that damn book.’
While Addison Trueheart and his father snored in harmony, not too far behind their modest farm, in the dark hills flanking the outskirts of Windy Wood, another sound echoed through countryside; A sound of foreboding and doom; A violent boom-boom-boom of goblin war drums.