Thursday, November 26, 2009

Here and Now: Preparing for the season

You might think, having lived in the remote mountains a third of my life, I would be a skier. However, I do not view skies and snowshoes with the joy of a sporting enthusiast. Any trip that required that sort of exertion in the depth of winter meant something had gone horribly wrong. No, winter sports, for me, began the first winter of my apprenticeship at the schloss.

I first learned to ice-skate there, with borrowed wooden skates strapped to my old winter boots in the month before my first Yule away from home. The apprentices are given an hour break in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, a chance for the younger of us to have some exercise, while the instructors and masters had their kaffeeklatsch. It kept us fit, and gave us time to pursue outside interests. I am just now learning how important those interests were to promotional reviews.

However, in ice-skating, it was my first chance to view winter as a season to enjoy, not just endure. The very young knew to anticipate Yule, wait patiently for the arrival of Grandfather Krechun and stay out of the reach of the Krampus. The long stretch of cold from the New Year to Snowmelt was characterized by digging out from the periodic blizzards, repairing or making new tools, knitting, or taking into hand some artistic carving to decorate the housen.

Down in the town around the schloss, the winters were not so hard, but the great lake would freeze hard enough for the Jaegerkin to play a grand rough-and-tumble game involving many sticks and much swearing. They used the rougher ice near the river's inlet, and the ice-dancers had the smoother spot near the weir. Both had their fascinations, but I became entranced by my classmates demonstrating the grace of the fey on the ice.

Now I find it is a common thing here to leave skates and such available for visitors, and began to see the varied ways people take to the ice. My very dear friend accompanied me to several places when we found ourselves free of immediate duties at the same time. I think the only thing that could make it better would be to find a way to ice-waltz, here.

It is my hope to have such a gift box available for visitors when the consulate office in Victoriana has the official opening this Saturday. It is the first time I have been involved in a large event. We have a few finishing touches to add tomorrow, and the seasonal items as well. I hope I do well by my patron.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Convincing the Family

Early in the morning, I gathered the eggs from the chickens while my sisters milked the goats. The talk was of the tax patrol, or more specifically, of the men in the patrol. I tuned it out for the most part, as it was silly to moon over soldiers that would be gone in days, and not a peţitoare in sight to negotiate a betrothal contract. I was counting the eggs, noting there were just enough for the guests and my brothers as I found the last of the usual hiding spots. It would be a relief to have them in a proper coop soon, but the building crew had not gotten to ours yet.

I took the eggs upstairs to Mamă, who still had her worried frown from last night, but it did not look as if she were more upset than before. Tată and my brothers were coming in from hauling the hay from the cobbled shelter, noting they might need to take the herds to the summer pastures sooner rather than later. I took my griddle cake to my usual morning niche in the shadow of the door, which just happened to be near the assessor.

Unchi Costin seemed slow to wake. I would later learn it was because in the village, we rose with the sun, not with the clock-tower as was done in the schloss. He was blearily sipping his tea and nibbling a griddle cake, and nodded his thanks to my mother as she put a plate of egg and mititei before him, before continuing his quiet conversation with his second. "We should have the numbers by this afternoon, and we can get everyone's tallies squared tonight, I hope." Her eyes flickered in my direction and she said something I did not understand to Unchi Costin, but it sounded musical. He chuckled, but did not respond to her. I waited as long as I could, but they did not drop any more hints.

While the building crews were at work in the morning, the youngest of us took care of the herd. We had to be careful in clearing the stalls, as the chickens were hiding their eggs in all sorts of places. Mamă had said we should be grateful they were still laying after the fright they had during the wolf attack. Since we had lost our rooster in the attack, the ones found in the rake-out were generally part of dinner. That day we found six, which was a bounty! We left them in the kitchen, and had piled the rake-out in the compost heap. Then my sisters began that day's laundry and I dashed down the lane to help Mătuşă Ecaterina with her chores.

Mătuşă had been mustered out when she lost her foot, but had remained a merry sort. She was quite able on a stalking hunt, but there were some household tasks that were easier with four hands. Taking care of the pigs was one of them. Ecaterina had come from a family in the lowlands, and when she had married, they sent her dowry in pork on the hoof. It did mean another source of food for the village, as she traded the spring piglets with the rest of the family for that season's goat milk and cheese for her household. She also managed to trade some for flour from the village in the foothills. Truth is, she did not need the help, but I needed her advice. I ran up to her house and she called to me, "Ho, Leetle Bord! Hyu timing is goot, Hy chost feenished der rake-hout! Hyu help mit der straw, ja?"

I helped her carry the new straw in for the sows, and I asked, "What's it like to be at the schloss?"

She shrugged, and said, "Hit's like henny odder post. Hyu gets to hunt de t'ings what hunt de farms, or hyu gets to fight bandits. Vhen hyu don' fight bandits, hyu fight in der pub, and hyu giff hyu pay to der beitzerin to pay hyu bar tab. Hwy?"

"I might get t' go if Mamă and Tată decide t' let me get 'dentured."

"Ho, hyu don' like us no more?" Mătuşă gave a friendly grin that only showed half her fangs.

I shook my head and the floodgates opened, "I wanna help with the taxes, and Unchi Costin liked that I understood about there being less this year, 'n' that I explained it. I got t' help, if I can, I mean, there are enough of us in the house that me being gone won't mean the chores are not done, 'n' If I'm not here, 's one less person to feed, so Sandu 'n' Petre 'n' Vali won't have t' go on short rations in the summer meadows this year, 'n' Unchi says I will get clothes as part of it, so Crina can get my hand-me-downs straight from Lenuta without me puttin' more holes in the knees, 'n'..."

"Henof, henof!" Mătuşă laughed, interrupting my torrent of words. "Hyu got de right hydea, hyu chost needs to calm down when hyu sez dis to hyu Mama und Papa." She patted my shoulder gently, "So we gets hyu organized now, und hyu tell dhem et lunch. Now, forst, hyu gots to stay calm. Hyu gets wound up, und they see de keed, not the happrentice, ja?"

I took a breath and nodded, "Da. So's I have to show them I can act right. What else?"


The family trooped in for the noontime meal, with the assessor and his second joining us. The quiet murmurs seemed genial, and for the most part relaxed. Mătuşă told me to wait to ask for my apprenticeship after everyone ate, because hungry people are more apt to argue, and full people might take more time to think. Looking back, I think my aunt Ecaterina might ought to have been an officer, the way she knew how to manage people. I was able to eat enough that Mamă did not get that worried look again, without making my stomach upset from my nervousness. As everyone was finished, but before everyone left on their afternoon chores, I went to stand beside my father's chair. "Tată, I want to ask everyone something." His eyebrows raised, and he nodded for me to speak.

I took a deep breath and started to give my request, speaking slowly so I could be clear. "We send goats to the schloss to feed the ones that defend the pass. Magistrat Horatiu Loewenstein trains the soldiers that defend us and serve with Lady Heterodyne's Jaegermonstern, and she and her lord protect us from the Madboys that have more smarts than sense." That part was easy enough, it was part of the civics lessons all the children got, and it was the beginnings of the tales the old aunties and uncles told about the Lady's adventures before she settled down. The next part was harder. "Goats aren't the only things the villages like us send. Sometimes there are soldiers that go to train, 'n' sometimes there the ones who make sure the soldiers get paid. Unchi...Portărel Grigorescu said I might could train up to be one to help, and Miss Tarkeshwari said I would train for a job. But Mamă and Tată have taught me that we serve the best we can, in everything we do, because we are stronger together. Our village, with the schloss and the Lady and her lord... we're all working together to take care of everyone." Builder bless Mătuşă Ecaterina for helping me with the words. I knew this was part of the duty, but I did not know how to say it.

Mamă's face started to crumple, like she was going to cry, but I went on. "If I go, there'll be one less pair of hands to work in the dairy, but there'll also be one less mouth to feed. I only eat about half what Sandu, Petre or Vali eat, but they each do more that twice the hard work I can do yet. If I go, there is that little bit more they can take with them to keep up with the goats in the summer meadows. They need all the energy they can get to protect the herds." My oldest brother smiled thoughtfully, but Petre and Vali looked confused. I looked away from them before they made me giggle and ruin it.

"Part of apprentice agreements is that I would get clothes as part of the training. That means Lenuta's out-grown clothes would go to Crina, and last longer 'cause I dinna wear them first." I did not promise to send clothes home, because I did not know if I would be allowed that. "Besides, the girl's side of the loft is getting awful crowded, and that might have been good this winter, but until the peţitoare comes around, it is going to get worse." There was a rumble of chuckles from the old aunties at the fireside, as my sisters blushed.

"We have not hunted anything but the wolves that hunted us, because the elk are not ours to hunt, and poaching is wrong..." I said, and was interrupted by Mătuşă Oana. "Bah, honor - ye can't eat honor!" she querelously declared, but then Unchi Boian shushed her, "We honor the agreement, and it is an honor to serve the Magistrat and the Lady."

I looked at Mamă and Tată, and said, "I just want to help." Mătuşă Ecaterina had been solid on my instruction here, I had to stay quiet and let them talk, or they might change their minds later, thinking others had decided this for them. They looked at me, and then looked at each other for what seemed to me to be a very long time. It was hard to stay quiet and wait, but finally, Mamă sighed, and nodded. Tată kissed her on the forehead, and said to me, "You will write to us."

Mătuşă Oana creakily stood up and dusted her hands off, saying, "We need to get to work if we are going to have the belting feast ready by sundown! Sorina, get you to the others and let them know." My oldest sister nodded and dashed out. Tată and Mamă had not risen from the table as the rest of us cleared the dishes, when Unchi Costin and Miss Tarkeshwari sat with them. Mătuşă Selena had me help her with the kitchen duties, so I was not able to hear the conversation.


Portărel Grigorescu addressed the village in the nearly finished community barn, standing on the broad hearthstone that would eventually support the summer ovens. We usually had a communal dinner after his assessment, but this year the buzzing conversations died down faster than usual when he stood to address the village. "The usual taxes for the village are around five thousand leu. However, the heliograph and hunting reports have made the district qualify for the Dire Need reductions. That would reduce the entire village's share to send to three thousand leu." The elders smiled, and relaxed a bit, but there were some nervous shuffles with the younger set. "A son of the village has also contributed: this year's pelts from Plutonier Decebalus have been, at his insistence, counted in the tally towards the village's share." A cheer went up from Mătuşă Ecaterina and the Jaegermonstern in the patrol, which explained why I had not heard anybody talk about him going to serve in the schloss - he had left the village ages ago, but still remembered us. "That brings the total of the reckoning still owed to two thousand, one hundred, seventy leu."

There was some shuffling in the group, and a few glares at my father at this point, which confused me. Unchi Costin went on, "However, because of a new development, there will be a bounty returned to the village." The people glaring at Tată stopped, and turned their attention to Unchi Costin. He beckoned me to stand with him, "Alesander and Ştefania Hâjdău have agreed to allow Mara to enter the Baronial Apprenticeship contract, and have requested the balance of the contract bonus be returned to the village in flour and iron." Mătuşă Ecaterina cheered again, and picked up Unchi Radu in a bear-hug. Now he would have more metal to work at his forge! I hugged Unchi Costin, and everybody seemed to be ready to celebrate.

He held up his hand and waited for everyone to settle down. "As a representative of Magistrat Loewenstein and Lady Heterodyne, it is my joy and my duty to pass along my knowledge and skills, and to foster and encourage those with talent. To this end, I would take Mara Elisabeta Hâjdău as apprentice, to encourage her skills in the arts, sciences and crafts of government and in service to the people of Transylvania and the lands of the Baron's Peace. Do you, Mara, wish to take on the responsibilities as well as the rights that come with this bond?"

"Yessir," I responded. He took my left wrist in the gentle grip of his left hand, and I wrapped my hand as much as I could around his wrist in the same manner, and repeated the oath Mătuşă Selena had taught me this afternoon as we had worked. "I, Mara Elesabeta Hâjdău, in the presence of my village, swear m'self to the service of my land with the guidance of you, Constantin Grigorescu. As your sworn student, I promise to study and faithfully apply m'self to the dev... development of my skills in the arts, sciences 'n' crafts of the government and in service to the people of Bihor Judete, Transylvania 'n' the lands of the Baron's Peace."

He smiled, and squeezed my arm a little, letting me know I got it right. "In return I, Constantin Grigorescu, Portărel for Bihor Judete, out of friendship, fidelity, and fealty as come to me from the Lady Heterodyne, swear before these witnesses to teach and encourage you, to listen and to learn from you, and to support you in your quest for knowledge. I further swear to protect and to foster you as my liege-person, aid you in your time of need, and pursue justice in your causes to the highest levels. I pledge to reward your fealty with love, loyalty with honor, and oath-breaking with vengeance. In return for your service I will owe to you the hospitality of my table at any time that you might call upon it, and six bani a year, payable at Yule and at May Day. This contract shall bind us both for the period of seven years, at which time you will be released to seek a lucrative contract as a Journeyman." He grinned, and I was dumbfounded - I got pin money on top of the training? No one had mentioned that part! He then turned to the village and asked,"You who are our witnesses, do you affirm this bond that we have made?"

The village elders barely got out their assent before the rest of the village cheered. Unchi Costin leaned forward to tell me, "You did good, Pitulicea! I promise we will take care of you, me and Sorina, and if the weather is good next year, you will be back to visit."

I hugged him, and the aunties started calling the children to help serve, as the food had been prepared at all the hearths in the village. The ones that had glared at Tată went to him and congratulated him and Mamă. I found out later they had thought my parents had been withholding money for my apprentice fee, instead of sharing it out when we needed supplies to rebuild. Primar Lupescu shook hands with Unchi Costin, and me, and then went to talk to my parents. Miss Tarkeshwari, who had been standing by with the oath book in case I needed it, stepped forward, smiling. "Very well done, Miss Mara. I am glad you will be joining our ranks." She then stepped to say something to Mamă and Tată. After that, the pattern repeated with the flow of the elders and other adults congratulating me, and then my parents. We were not a large village, and most of us family, so it did not take long, and soon we were sitting down to as great a feast as we had been able to muster since Yule.

Ending the feast was a surprise of hazelnut cakes and blueberry tea, my favorite treats. My aunt Ecaterina had been sure I would convince my parents, and had started baking as soon as I had left her house. Throughout supper, small packages appeared on the table near me, and I soon had a pile of treats such as maple candies, a small bouquet of spring flowers, a bright headscarf and a bead work belt-pouch. Then when Mătuşă Oana put a small hand saw by my plate, I finally felt a twinge of fear of leaving home. This was a saw for fretwork like what Mamă and the aunties used to rough out the decorations for the houses on long winter evenings, something I would miss this year, because I would be away.

I looked up at Mamă, and she still had that worried crease between her eyebrows. The twinge grew a little, and I asked, "You aren't angry, are you? I just wanted to help." She hugged me and whispered, "I am proud of you Mara, I know you will do well. I know you will all leave the nest eventually, I did not know you would be the first of my children to fly."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My Apprenticeship

This tale is told through the veil of years, and though I lived it, there may be a haze of golden nostalgia blurring the sharp edges, along with the experience of adulthood focusing on things that were not important to the child at the time. But I wish to note my perspective on a turning point in my life, that time I took my first step towards my adulthood.

Portărel Constantin Grigorescu was an important man, as the tax assessor for Bihor Judete, but on our riding in the Gilău Mountains, he was also a trusted friend. I did not know this as words, but as we children had been raised to call him "Unchi Costin", I felt it. This was why, in the spring shortly after my ninth birthday, the family awaited his circuit with worry, but not fear.

The previous winter had been hard, and the melting snows gave the relief that our stores of food would be renewed soon, and we would not have to sacrifice any more of the goats to survive. The herds had been thinned enough by the wolves and the caprăvită, as had the chickens before they were brought into the stables under the housen. My older brothers were allowed eggs more often than the younger of us, and had them every morning that spring, but we did not begrudge them the extra food. We all saw how hard they worked, dragging the great felled trees to the village to help rebuild the communal barn and gathering hall. It was not just where celebrations were held, but also communal storage for what few harvests we had and fodder over winter. It had been wrecked by a wicked storm a month after Yule. All told, it has been an extremely hard winter.

The intense industry of the whole village rebuilding is what greeted Portărel Grigorescu's patrol, instead of the usual gathering of village elders. As soon as he entered the pocket valley, however, the elders left their sons and daughters to continue the tasks and greeted him. I was diverted from hauling water for the mortar to help water their horses, so I could overhear my father and his brothers apologizing for the informal greeting.

"Not at all, Hâjdău! I understand! We got the heliograph reports, and the Jaegermonstern have had a good hunting season." The Jagers with his patrol grinned, and the portărel then clapped Tată and Unchi Iosif on their shoulders, "I can give you the reassurance that the wolf population has been thinned, and there are three caprăvită shipped to the labs in Mechanicsburg. The Madboys will find out what we can do to deter them, should they get that numerous again."

The tension seemed to lessen in the village as a whole, as the news filtered through the work groups. The Sergent and his soldiers stabled their horses, and conferred with my aunt Ecaterina, to find out where any lingering pockets of troubling predators might be. Before she had come to wed my uncle, she had been one of the soldiers on patrols like theirs, and was able to lead them to the trails the wolves had used, in spite of her missing foot. While getting Unchi Costin and his assistants settled in, I heard people laughing more, but there was still a worry in the back of my mind.

If you are small and quiet, you get to hear a lot of things with which the adults do not want to burden their children. My penchant for blending in had caused my family to call me Pitulicea, for the little brown bird that was overlooked until she sang. I did not understand it at the time, as I did not sing more or less than the others in the village. Now, with the years to reflect in-between, I see it was when I spoke up, I usually surprised my elders. In this case, I knew, approximately, what the family had paid in taxes last spring. I also knew what we had on hand, and it would not be enough, and I had worried this information about in my mind since the snows had started melting. The discussions at the fireplace seemed to confirm my fears.

The first night of the assessor's visit was always social, not business. In later years, I found out it was in part because Unchi Costin really was a distant relative, as his home village was two ridges south of us. He knew the area, and held the mountains and her people in his heart. Horatiu Loewenstein was the landlord over our district in that time, and though he had served in the Long War, he was still a man of the district. However, he had certain obligations to meet to our Lady of the Fifty, and my parents had obligations to him. So the talk around the fire was not of how hard the winter had been, but news of the rest of the district.

Unchi Costin nodded by the fire, "We do have the hunting reports from the Jaegerkin, and the river is flooding now. Luckily, the rye harvest has been saved in most areas, and there is a section of the valley that has been selected for a new grain experiment, something that will prefer the flooded fields, so the government grants will cover that loss."

My father thought a moment, "That means we have only our own losses to make up. Magistrat Loewenstein is a fair man, we will honor our part of the bargain. How, I am not sure, but we will."

I could not stand the suspense any longer, and spoke out from my nook in the chimney-corner, revealing I was not in bed as I should have been. "How, Tată? We do not have but five parts of the seven we gave last year."

"Ach, Pitulicea! you should be in bed!" Mamă made as to shoo me off when Unchi Costin said, "Wait, I want to hear her." Mamă bid me stand with her in front of the fire, and Unchi asked, "Tell me what you are thinking, Mara."

Well, only the circuit priest had ever called me by my given name (other than Mamă, when she was upset, and then she used all of them) so I drew myself up as I was supposed to when declaring my vivas for schooling. "I don' know the hard numbers, but I do know the wolves took a tithe of our chickens when they broke into our coop, and the others lost that much, though Unchi Valreiu lost a double-tithe. If you divide the goat herds of everybody into seven equal herds, we lost two of those, mostly to the wolves and the blestematmâncător." Here, Mamă smacked my shoulder, and said "Language, young lady!" The adults rippled with chuckles when I said, "That is what Mătuşă Ecaterina called them!"

"That is a soldier's word, and even if she is retired, she can use that, but little girls do not." Tată said.

Unchi Costin got his snorting chuckles under control, and asked his second, "Good assessment, you think?"

"Aye, and better than some of the elders we have interviewed this season." The woman spoke with an accent that I had trouble understanding, being used to hearing my family. Miss Tarkeshwari's smile was brilliant in her red-dark skin, "A little unconventional, but with only the priest to come in on circuit every quarter, there are bound to be holes in the information."

Unchi Costin nodded, "And so she made the tools she needed. Well done, Mara."

I fidgeted a bit, and said, "That does not fix the taxes, though."

"It might. Do you like working with numbers?" he asked.

I frowned, doubtfully. "They behave better than the chickens, mostly."

Mamă's grip around my shoulders tightened at his next words, "Would you like to learn to work with them all the time?"

"Costin, we cannot afford an apprentice fee on top of the taxes!" my father muttered.

"What about the government indenture contract? She would get the training, and the bounty would cover your taxes this year." Unchi stayed calm in the face of my parents' sudden tension. I worried that my parents would send me to bed so they could argue, but I stayed still and quiet, hoping. "She would be my responsibility, and me and my wife would make sure she gets all the benefits of learning at the schloss. Sorina is in charge of the pages now, and we have several open spaces, with the kids growing up and into good positions."

Mamă murmured quietly, "I don't know, she is so young...."

Miss Tarkeshwari nodded, "It is a big choice, so you should sleep on it, but I will tell you it was the best thing that could have happened for me. Otherwise, I might not be alive today. And it is not as if she would never come home. Besides, the cachet of having someone in the family that can send news home would be good for the village in the future."

Unchi Costin had been scribbling on a bit of paper, "It could be good for the village now. The current indenture fee could cover the whole village's taxes for this year. I will have to see what we have in the other families, and I will not say anything of it to them, but it could give you the step up the village needs for the next year."

"By selling my child to the schloss?" Mamă whispered.

Miss Tarkeshwari stood up gracefully, "It is not slavery, it is what saved me from the slavers." She stood by my mother and murmured, "You must consider carefully, as the choices are different for every person. But please do consider, for during the seven years of her apprenticeship, she will be housed, clothed and fed as everyone else in the government standing. Her training will be for a job with the House, a good job that that is always in demand, and when she is twenty-one, she will be able to stand on her own." The reserved second placed her hand on my mothers shoulder, "It is an opportunity for her, but you should not decide now. Sleep on it." Then the woman turned to the cupboard bed where her packs had been placed and began readying for sleep.

"Sound advice, this is not a snap judgement." Unchi Costin stood and stretched. "We are going to be here another two days, after all, and the wagons will be here in a fortnight after going through the high reaches. Take time to think about it."

I did not say anything to Mamă, as she was guiding me to the loft ladder, but I was thinking furiously. I fell asleep to the murmurs of my parents in their cupboard bed underneath the loft, my mind spinning out threads of arguments.