Arduous Tasks

by Charles Matthias

The twilight air was brisk as the night wore off in the predawn air about Metamor Fields. Michael walked alongside the towering figure of Lindsey whose broad back carried both a widebladed axe and a short sword - the same sword that the man had asked him to carry only two days ago. Michael had spent a good portion of his time with Lindsey as the larger of them spent him time teaching him the rudimentary basics o flogging, as well as fitting his beaver body for a mail vest. Stretching his shoulders out, he could feel the kinks in the mail shirt pull at the undershirt that he had to wear. He could not imagine how painful it would be to were that mail without an undershirt; his fur would get pulled this way and that at every motion from the links. As Lindsay had said, the mail did not feel that heavy, and the almost dagger-like weapon that he carried on his belt did make him feel a bit safer.

Michael never remembered ever leaving the Keep, or even going out to the outer wall, so found that the walk to the North gate where the others would be waiting to be the longest single walk he'd ever taken since he'd arrived here. Of course, one could walk four hours through the castle and never happen upon the same place twice, he still had never found any inclination to do so. As they walked, Lindsey would point out landmarks, referring to how far an invading enemy had managed to reach before being pushed back or to where he had been on the front lines before the spell had taken effect. Michael did not ask why they had let a woman join in the fighting, he knew why. Lindsey was simply an immense person, he had to be at least seven feet in height, and to think that before the change he had been a woman and had been just as big. Michael shook such speculations from his mind as he continued striding along on his webbed toes through the dew-drenched grass. Not having met any of the other members of the timber crew, he was sort of anxious to get underway. It would be nice to feel welcomed. He still wasn't too sure he liked being a beaver, but there was nothing he could do to change that, so he might as well take advantage of it. He wrinkled his nose in satisfaction, Tallis had been right about it; it felt good to turn his problems into opportunities.

The far gate grew closer, and he could a single figure standing next to a wagon with a pair of horses tethered at the lead. As they approached, the first rays of the sun began to come over the mountains, casting long shadows over the damp landscape. Michael heard a bird calling out in song off in the distance; there were no trees or nests in the open field. Staring at the figure, he felt a bit confused. Wasn't there supposed to be a team of them waiting? Or were they early? Michael chuckled dryly to himself; he would have been late had Lindsey not banged on his door so hard that it nearly cracked. He wondered if that was the treatment that all new recruits received, but he was certainly glad for it. He could not fault the big man's exuberance anymore than he could change the fact that he was a beaver.

"Where are the others?" Michael asked as they approached a deep maroon furred man dwarfing the carriage. As they approached, he could see that the man looked to be a bull, with two black horns coming from the side of his bovine head. The bull's arms were crossed, and he appeared to be calmly waiting for him, tail flitting rhythmically back and forth.

Lindsey squinted his eyes, "I don't know." He began walking a bit faster and quickly outpaced Michael, whose short legs made it nearly impossible for him to run. He glared after the big man, trying his best to keep up, but completely falling behind after only a few steps. The braids in Lindsey's red beard flapped behind his head as he ran to the waiting figure. The two exchanged a few words as Michael caught up, panting a bit from the run.

The big man smiled broadly down as Michael caught up with him and the bull. "Ah, Chief, this is the beaver I told you about. His name is Michael. Michael, this is Chief Tathom."

"Just call me Chief." The bull inclined his head speaking in a low gruff voice.

Michael nodded, one paw on his knee as he caught his breath. He was a bit startled to see that Lindsey had to actually look up at the Chief, though not that much. Were all the members of the timber crew this big? Was he at only five feet going to be dwarfed by everyone about him so much that he would barely be noticeable in there midst? He hoped not, but he had a suspicion that it was going to be so. The Chief, even broader in chest than Lindsey was, looked Lindsey square in the face, staring down his thick black nosed muzzle. "The others have gone on ahead. I want you to go join them. Same place we were last time. I'll take Michael here to the edge of the woods and see just what he can do."

"All by myself?" Lindsey looked out through the open gate at the field beyond and the mountains that flanked them on either side.

One of the bull's ears went flat, "Afraid? I thought you were more of a man than that."

Lindsey glared back at the Chief for a moment, then waved a finger in front of the bull's muzzle. "You know me better than that!" He then set off through the front gate, taking large strides as he mad his way down the slightly muddy road through the ridge. Michael turned to look at the imposing figure of the chief, his whole body quaking in uncertainty.

"Are you sure it's safe for him to go off by himself like that?" Michael asked taking one last glance at the rapidly disappearing figure of Lindsey.

The chief turned to watch him vanish around a bend in the road, "Him? He'll be fine. The patrols have kept this area pretty clear because of the festival, there shouldn't be anything out there at the moment."

"Um, why am I not going to go with the others today?" Michael mouthed quietly.

Tathom leaned against the wagon with one arm. "Most of the people on my crew are at least a foot and a half taller than you, and all of them are at least twice as strong. It is dangerous out there. I have not had a year yet where at least one of my men does not die in either an accident or from a sudden attack by Lutins. Lindsey said you were a smart fellow. Brains don't cover everything. I have to see that you can do the job. You are fortunate that there is still snow in the foothills, I would hate to have to make you climb up the mountains on your first day. Now, I can see you don't have an axe, that is all right, I have one here for you." The Chief pulled from the back of the wagon a nice weapon with a firm handle, and a very sharp edge. "Don't touch the sharp end. You can slice yourself."

"Why do I need an axe? I have my teeth." Michael felt the weight of the item. It felt good in his paws, and he could easily get a good grip about it. It didn't weigh much either. That at least was good, the axe was well suited to his new proportions.

"You will use the axe; now get in the wagon, we have a long day ahead of us." The Chief then stepped around to the front end where the horses waited with their heads in the water trough. Michael then heard the sharp clatter of Tathom's own hooves as he stepped along the cobblestone courtyard just inside the gate. Michael climbed up the back of the wagon, and toppled inside landing on top of a large rolled-up canvas which was firmly locked with thick rings in the sides of the wagon. There were a few bags of feed and a couple provisions for them while they were down there. It looked like quite a feast, and Michael was glad to see that the Chief had brought as much as he did. This was going to be hard work and he was sure that he would be quite hungry by noon. He laid the axe down on the wood, and sat down next to it in the middle of the wagon, keeping his tail behind him and out of harm's way. Gosh he hated that tail. He could deal with the rest of it, even the short legs, but that tail was just too much. Not only did it look ridiculous but also it was cumbersome and quite unwieldy. However, it was his tail, and he was stuck with it for the rest of his life.

With a sharp crack of the whip, breaking the stillness of the early morning, The Chief brought the horses about and got them moving. Michael watched as the wagon turned about and began heading out through the gate. Watching out the back, his paws leaning against the canvas, he saw the guards closing the northern gate, sealing them outside the Keep. Turning about in all directions, he noted the sloping ridge away from the outer wall, and the slick road that they were travelling down on. The incline was steep in some places, but the road that passed through it was gentle, though a bit long and it occasionally turned back on itself. It took them only a few minutes, passing back into the shadow of the nearby mountains, to reach the edge of the forest below. The road continued on through, a good ten feet of woods cleared off to either side. They continued up along the road, taking the first right fork back up into the foothills. There was still snow in many places throughout here, and the brisk brush of the wind chilled his face and ears. Michael looked back at where the Keep had been, and could only see a blur. It was too far away. He sighed. That was another thing he was going to have to get used to.

Finally, the bull brought the horses to a halt, and jumped from the bench, putting the reins back on the ball. Turning his head to stare at him from just one side, he said tersely, "Coming?"

Michael grabbed his axe in one paw and jumped from the wagon, nearly falling over in the snow as he landed on his webbed feet. His short legs buckled under his weight, from the mail shirt and from the height. However, he was proud of himself for managing to stay up and fall in beside the bull who was leaving large tracks in the couple inches of snow that lay on the hard ground. The bull looked along the array of trees, pine, oak, aspen that were scattered about them among the rocks and the hills. Tathom then suddenly sat down on an old stump that looked to have fallen over naturally, and pointed at a nearby oak, "I want you to chop down this tree."

Michael turned to follow his finger and saw a small oak, barely a foot wide at the base with its empty branches reaching up towards the lead sky. Michael walked over to it, and put one paw on the gnarled bark, "All by myself?" Tathom nodded, idly scratching at one knee with his thick black nails. Michael sighed, taking the axe in both paws and pulling it behind his shoulder. He'd seen the larger man at the farm do this before; it couldn't be too hard, at least not really. He swung it solidly and heard a sharp crack as it hit the base of the tree. He pulled the blade from the bark and saw that he had nicked it a bit. This was going to take sometime though. He looked up at the dark sky, wondering how long before the morning sun cleared the mountains. Aside from the pine and a few buds on some of the taller trees, but for the most part they were empty of any sign of life. Taking another swing, he was not pleased to note that he had hit the tree a few inches above the original spot. He grimaced; his accuracy needed a lot of work.

Tathom called out behind him, "Swing it around, put your hips into it, or you are never going to get anywhere."

Michael nodded, and began to twist with the swing as the axe sailed once more into the base of the tree. He blinked as a bit of the bark shot off into his face and then wiped his eyes just to make sure that it was all gone. "That was better, but don't you think you need to keep going?" The chief's voice was a bit sarcastic, and already Michael wasn't sure if this was a good idea. However, he was not going to give up. He'd like to have just used his teeth; that would not have required as much effort. His jaw muscles were very strong now, that much he knew, but still, he did not want to know what that bull would do to him if he tried that now let alone what he could do to him! Tathom was much bigger than he was, and those obsidian horns on his head looked awfully sharp.

Taking another swing, Michael decided that what he needed to do was to set up a rhythm. First he would pull back, then swing with his entire body, and then pull back on the axe and do it again. Simple rhythm, and if he kept swinging around the same area he would actually get somewhere with it. After what seemed a few minutes of doing that, he could already feel his arm muscles becoming sore, tense. He kept on going, gnashing his teeth together, ignoring the flecks of bark and wood that shot from the tree with each swing. However, the rhythm kept him going, and even while his body ached for him to stop, he was able to keep going. He had always been a strong young man, though the last few days with his family had been rather strained. Michael wondered just where Lindsey and the others had gone, and how in the world Tathom expected to protect them both if the Lutins should decide to attack. After all, they were only two.

Swing the axe again and again, Michael could begin to see that he was actually getting somewhere, though it was still far to go. He heaved the weapon again, twisting with all his strength, and still, the difference was negligible. Why did he have to cut down this oak all by himself? It was not that large, but it was large enough. From what he had seen the logging teams were composed of a great number of people. Though he had never actually seen them working or seen any wood brought it, he knew that the supplies for winter were restocked nearly every other day. How many of them must it take to chop down a single tree? And how long did it take them? Why was The Chief expecting him to cut down a tree all by himself? It was ridiculous. He swung the axe again, trying to think of some better way to do this. His teeth ached to bite at the wood. It was what beaver's did best. They felled trees, and it did not take them nearly as long as it was going to take him to use this axe.

When the sun finally did strike upon his shoulders, Michael had gotten only a few inches into the base of the tree, barely a fourth of the way through. The chain mail stank of rust already, and he'd only had it for a day. He wished he could take it off. There were no sleeves to it, so it did not hamper his movements, but it did bear him down a bit. At first he thought the weight was easy to carry. Now he felt as if he would collapse form it if he didn't keep swinging that axe. Tathom was sitting silently behind him, occasionally throwing pebbles against some of the larger rocks. Michael tried to time his swings to strike the tree just as the rocks hit, just for variety and to keep his mind active. Most of the time he was off badly, but once he did manage to do it and that had been enough. It also had caused another pebble to be thrown at the tree just over his head. The rebuke from Tathom had been enough to get him back into the set rhythm.

Stroke after stroke, swing after swing, Michael continued moving that axe. He felt as if his arms would fall off. His tail kept slapping against his legs as he twisted about, bouncing up and down in time to his rhythm. The fur on his webbed feet was completely soaked from the snow and his tows were cold. The ground offered little support. His legs were too short for him to get much power behind them either. Still, he had to cut down this tree, despite all of his pain and all of his stiffness. His back groaned and he could almost feel each bone snap in place as he twisted. The wind licked up about him, sending drafts of the snow into his face. He snuffled once, and continued swinging the axe into the base of the tree, noting that a bit of wood chipped off each time. There was a good-sized hole forming, but still, it was only that, a hole. It was nowhere near enough to make the tree topple.

The wind did not let up either. It had of course been getting worse, and the storms in the area were more frequent. It still snowed up in the mountains, although it was now beginning to melt. By the middle of April it should begin melting in earnest. However, that did Michael no good. His feet were freezing, while he felt as if his chest were on fire. The rusty odour of the chain mail only made things worse. With each swing he had to take a quick moment to pant. There was one disadvantage to having fur, he couldn't sweat. Well at least then his mail shirt wouldn't get any worse, but still, the heat could do him some serious damage. Unable to stand either holding the axe, it had rubbed his pads raw, or the heat of his exertion, he slammed the axe into the tree and fell to the ground, and rolled about in the snow. For all of one second he was able to enjoy the chill of its touch, cooling him down and being able to just lie down and stop holding that axe felt odd. His body still wanted to swing, but he couldn't do it anymore.

"Get up, and take the axe." Tathom's voice rang out clearly.

Michael lay in the snow, staring up into the grey sky. He did not want to move.

"Get up, and take the axe," The Chief snorted. He sounded a bit miffed.

Michael rose to one elbow, "I am too hot, and my whole body aches. Except for my jaw; my jaw is fine."

The bull looked square at him, those milky black orbs fixed on him. "Get up, and take the axe." His voice was strong, and Michael found that he did not really have it in him to resist. He slowly rose to his feet, the webbing stretching out again to take hold in the snow covered field. He reached out with one arm, and lancing pain shot up it as he did so. He pulled it back, barely able to hold back the tears. This was too much, his whole body ached. He needed rest. One look at The Chief's bovine face told him that he would not receive any respite. He reached out his arm again, the pain returned. To hold back the pain he gnashed his teeth together, wishing that he could use his front incisors. They ached to gnaw at the wood. It was not entirely a new sensation, but it was a strange one. He needed to gnaw at the wood; he could not resist the urge much longer. With a calm he yanked the axe back out from the wood, and quickly got back into swinging the axe into the tree again.

With each stroke he sent all of his energy. Michael wished that he could just fell this terrible foe. If he could only strike down this one tree, then his day's labours would be at an end. He could lie back down in the snow, relax, and enjoy its cool embrace. He wished for the wind to blow against him again, to bring its chill touch. Each time it blew was a respite among the series of pain and frustration. The tree just would not fall down. He continued slamming the axe with all of his might that was left in him and then sliced into it again. It would have been better if he could have placed a face there, some person that he hated, some person that frustrated him beyond all capacity for redemption. Perhaps if his family had been murdered he could have put a face there, yet they had died from a faceless thing. Perhaps this was that faceless thing; this was the reason why his family had died and why he was a beaver now. He felt as if he would explode with the fury, it gave him strength to continue and to push harder and harder, despite the pain that threatened to bring him to his knees. He focused on that anger, and cultivated it. This tree was a faceless thing, and because of that could be considered responsible for his family's death.

The tree finally came crashing down shortly after noon. Michael felt like he was going to die from exhaustion. Tathom had one of the feed bags and was eating from it while he sat upon the decaying stump watching him. Michael fell leaned against the length of the tree as it lay in the snow. The axe was right beside him. His paws felt as if they had all the skin scraped off of them. Somehow, he was not really satisfied. He regretted bringing back the memory of his family. He could see their graves, the piles of stone he'd placed himself, at least what was left of their bodies after he'd burned them. The thought made him feel ill, but he was too sore to do anything about it.

Chief Tathom stood up from his perch and walked over, his hooves making loud gushing sounds as he walked. Michael stared up at the massive figure as he stood over top of him. He really didn't care; he just didn't want to do anything but rest. Tathom leaned over a bit, and pointed with one hand at the branches along the length of the tree, "You need to chop those off."

"Can't I rest a bit first? I'm dead."

The bull looked up at the dull soon overhead and then back down at Michael as he lay prone on the ground. He was sitting on his tail, and it hurt, but he didn't really care either. "I will tell you when you can rest. Go back to the wagon, and get yourself something to eat. Bring it back here, and eat it. Then, you chop off the branches." Tathom looked back at the road they had come riding up. Michael winced as he pulled himself to a standing position. He peered over at the wagon that seemed miles away. The horses had their heads back in the feeding bags. When had they been put on? Michael sighed, and walked back over to the wagon, feeling stiff already. The walk was not as long as he imagined it, and soon he was standing facing the wagon. He reached over the edge, and pulled out an apple and some bread that had been packed away. He wanted to bite right away into the apple, but he remembered what the Chief had told him to do, and so began the walk back to the felled tree. He could see then end of it sprawled out in the middle of the road. It was not really a big tree, for which he was thankful. It had been big enough.

Michael dropped next to the tree again, this time getting his thick tail out of the way - it was more of a canoe paddle than a tail really; he probably was a very good swimmer now, though he wasn't really ready to test that theory yet. The apple was luscious though it did not last long - he took too many big bites. The bread took a bit longer, but it too was equally satisfying. He felt a bit refreshed, though every muscle in his body ached and gave him pain in some way. Trying to think back on whether he'd ever been in this much pain before, Michael had to admit that he was amazed to realize that this was probably the first time. He hoped it was his last. However, if he was going to be a member of the timber crew, he was going to survive this and he was going to learn to deal with it. Finally catching his breath and in between bites he asked, "So, is it like this everyday?"

"Are you finished up yet?" Tathom asked, pulling his muzzle out of the feed bag; bits of grain were stuck to his thick black nose.

Michael sighed. The Chief probably didn't want him giving up yet. Why was he doing this? He doubted he'd ever understand. He stuffed the last bit of bread in his mouth, and looked down at all the branches that were coming off the tree. They were all about it spreading out in every direction, though most on the underside had snapped off when the tree had fallen over. Michael reached for the axe with one paw, but then changed his mind. It ached too much, and besides, he didn't want this to take forever. He was not going to dredge up bad memories to chop off the branches. Did it really matter which was the branches came off as long as they were off? He hoped not. He leaned over towards the first one, and set it to his front teeth. The feel of it was almost divine; it almost made him forget the pain throughout his body. He chewed at it furiously as if he would never get another chance. The wood gave way; he could taste the bark in his mouth, though he spat it back out as he gnawed away and through the root of the branch.

"I though I told you to chop the branches off. Not chew them off." The Chief reminded him in a stern voice.

Struggling to stand, Michael looked up at him, "I am in pain from using that axe. I have these teeth; I am going to use them. I can work faster with them." He then fell back to his task, and had the first branch off. He moved to the next nearest one, having to bend over slightly to reach it. He could see Tathom just stand there off to the side not moving. The bull's tail swayed back and forth in the gentle breeze, but otherwise, he was completely still. Michael wondered if the Chief had relented because of what he said, or because this was some bizarre test. He groaned as he managed to free the next branch. If that was what it was, then he would be sorely disappointed. Then again, that would imply that the work wouldn't be this bad. He hoped then that this was just some sort of test to see how dedicated he was or how ingenious he was. Lindsey had almost certainly told him about how he had carried the sword that was obviously too heavy for him without letting the blade touch the ground. Perhaps Chief Tathom wanted to see for himself?

Thankfully, the debranching took much less time than did the felling of the tree in the first place. Plus, Michael felt much better, though his jaw was a little sore now, it was good to use his teeth. Matthias had told him once about how the teeth of rodents would just keep growing unless they continually gnawed on things like wood. At first he thought Matthias's description of gnawing on his chewing stick as a wonderful sensation as a bit ridiculous. Now he had to admit that Matthias had underestimated its feel. It was the next best thing to euphoria. It almost was enough to take away the pain he felt in the rest of his body.

After dragging the last of the branches out of the way, he slumped near the fallen tree. The sun was still high in the sky, though the day was half over already. He was glad that Tathom had let him use his teeth. Glancing down at his paws he noticed that they were bruised a bit here and there from the swinging. Michael rubbed them tenderly together for a few moments, grimacing as the pads scraped together. That was more pain than he wanted to feel. Of, pain was not something that he had not had to deal with. It was an everyday affair. Life was full of it, and it did not just strike the body either.

Michael noted a disapproving glance from Tathom and felt a cramping of his stomach. "Now, how do you plan on getting this tree back to the Keep?" Michael turned to look at the length of the tree and felt all his pain come back. He leaned over the stump, his head in his paws, the fingers pulling on his ears. "Well you aren't going to get much done that way." Michael sighed and walked back to see what he could do with the remainder of the tree.

It was almost sunset when he finally managed to crawl back into his bed at the Keep. Every single muscle in his body cried out in anguish at every move he made. He'd had to divide that tree up into several different sections, and that saw that the Chief had forced him to use had been terrible. Then there was the disastrous rolling the logs onto the canvas; he lost count of the number of times that the logs squished his sensitive toes. That wasn't the worst of it though. While he was driving the horses to take them back, Tathom insisted he do so, one of the links in the chain holding the canvas in place snapped and all of the logs had gone tumbling down the road. Tathom sat on the wagon the whole time and watched.

Michael groaned on the bed, as he heard his door opening some more. He peered over, but did not move. It was Tathom, practically kneeling to stand within the room. His eyes were for the first time all day not solid, but instead were almost warm. His voice was friendly even, "Michael, I'll go tell Coe that you need some help. We will be going out again tomorrow, but I assure you it will not be like it was today. You won't have to use the axe unless absolutely necessary."

Michael groaned some thanks, but couldn't say anything. He just wanted to fall asleep.

"Oh, and Michael," The Chief said in a soothing tone, "you are going to make a fine timbersman. Sleep well, I shall see you tomorrow at first light."

Pushing himself up slowly, Michael stared back in a daze at the bull. "Thank you," he muttered before collapsing back on his bed.

"I'll go get Coe now. He'll fix you up." And then Tathom was gone and Michael was left in his room by himself. As he lay there on the pillow he wondered if he would even be awake by the time Coe arrived. From the ache in his body and the sheer exhaustion, he knew that he was not going to see Coe arrive. He couldn't even think to dread what awaited him tomorrow; he was just thankful that this day was over.