My Name is Honor: Chapter 10 (Orin's Tale Part 2)
Orin leaned against a boulder, his lungs burning, sweat streaming into his eyes, carrying with it the dirt and grime that clung to him everywhere, blurring his vision. He bent over and wretched miserably, nothing left in him to come out.
Water... the word played over and over in his head. He just needed some water... and rest... He shook his head ruefully, not until the task was done. He knew the rules. Gradually, his heart slowed, breathing regulated, and though his head still throbbed with exhaustion, he was able to put his thoughts in order. The doe had run this way, and he had wounded it for sure, he knew it. There had to be a trail...
He had only just begun to learn about tracking his quarry. Everything at first had been basic survival skills and plant life. Orin could identify every plant in the forest, but it was not helping him track the doe.
Blood the word popped in the forefront of his mind spontaneously, ringing in Rafter's voice.
He wiped his eyes and focused, his mind suddenly clear. The trail of blood seemed to glow in the daylight, it was so obvious. He cursed the blind mile he had run after losing the trail. Rafter would not be pleased. He could hope that his mentor might be impressed with his young student. After all, it wasn't every twelve year old who could accurately shoot a deer, let alone chase it over miles, track it, and drag it home. He was not looking forward to the last part. Still, he knew none of it would matter once he reached Rafter's hut, as he had failed to track it properly from the beginning in his haste.
Hours later, as he dragged his quarry back to the hut through the dark, he marvelled at how far he had strayed from their usual hunting grounds. His victory was short, lived however, as he finally, overcome with relief, pulled the deer into Rafter's butchering shed. The back door of the hut burst open, Rafter's hulking frame blocking the light from inside.
"Well, and here I was jus' considerin' who might replace ye with, but I see ye'v found yer way back!
"Aye!" Orin said brightly, beaming at his mentor, though he knew he was not exactly being praised.
"And how far did she get?"
Orin's smile was gone as quickly as it had appeared, his eyes downcast. "two miles.."
"Bah! two miles, boy?! Did ye just find a deer and chase it or did ye shoot her?!"
Orin felt his cheeks grow hot as his face flushed, embarrassed. "I shot her, Meantóir.. but.." He scrambled within his mind for a better reason than that he had simply failed to execute the hunt properly.
"Did ye track her?" Rafter questioned, as if he could smell the lie Orin was attempting to concoct.
Orin's shoulders sagged. It was hopeless.
"I lost the trail..." he mumbled.
"Speak up, boy!"
"I lost the trail, Meantóir!" Orin answered loudly, looking Rafter in the eye was he knew he was expected to.
"Well, I expect it was a lesson for ye, then. Clean the carcass and hang it, then come in and eat."
Orin, through his exhaustion, could not help but smile at the thought of a meal. His stomach rumbled loudly as he spend the next hour cleaning the doe, but finally, he had the animal tied firmly by it's back legs. He tossed the rope over a stout beam and pulled with what little strength he had left to hoist the carcass into the air, tying it off on the old anvil which sat at the door as he had seen Rafter do so many times.
The next morning, Rafter woke him before the sun rose, as always, and sent Orin off on the journey back to his father's farm for his weekly visit. Over the last two years, Orin had spent less and less time with his family and more with his mentor, as was the custom. He was still expected, however, every Sunday for church services as well as to stay at home through the annual shearing and lambing times. He jogging through the woods, a shorter path than by road, his young body hardly effected by the previous day's exertion, hardened beyond his age by years of farm work and enduring his father's wrath as well as his time with Rafter.
He found his father in the field, tending a group of pregnant females soon to give birth.
"'Have to pen a few in the barn tonight." His father said by way of greeting, not taking his eyes from the ewe he was examining.
"Aye" Orin concurred, kneeling next to him.
"Your brothers will be coming in tomorrow morning. Should have a few on the ground by then. Long night ahead."
WIth a grunt, he got to his feet, the ewe lumbering away as he released his grip on her. He looked his son over with scrutiny and nodded stiffly, extending his hand.
"You look well, boy, a bit dirty... I daresay you've grown an inch since you were last home."
Orin shook his father's hand and grinned broadly, knowing this was as close to a compliment as he would receive.
"Thank you sir."
They worked side by side well into the afternoon, setting up a suitable birthing pen near the barn. Large flat boards were nailed to the fence, affording the ewes and their newborns more protection from possible predators. It was a vulnerable time for the already vulnerable animals. Finally, his mother's voice came from the open kitchen window, calling them in for lunch.
Orlagh had seen her son coming across the field, she'd been watching since sunrise, watched him work alongside his father, knowing she shouldn't interrupt. She'd expected Ronan to tell him the big news but could tell as soon as her son came into the house, he had failed to mention it.
"Orry! Come here, son. " She stepped toward him, arms wide.
Orin held out his hands, warding her off.
"Wait, Ma, I'm filthy."
Ronan clapped his son hard on the back, dust rising off his clothes as if to demonstrate to his wife just what was meant by "filthy"
"Oh my..doesn't Rafter have a washtub? You are to learn his hutning skills, not his hygiene habits." Orlagh scolded him gently, shooing him back outside to the washtub.
"I'll bring out fresh clothes for you."
Later that evening, after Orin had returned from checking the ewes at the barn, he found his parents sitting at the kitchen table, a single candle lit. Ronan puffed his pipe at usual, his mother working at her mending. For a moment he missed the quiet evenings in the familiar old house, his soft bed, and the comforting knowledge of his parents nearby, a stark contrast to Rafter's cramped single-room cabin and the straw pile which served as his bed, tucked away in the drafty loft.
As he bid his parents goodnight, his mother set aside the shirt she was mending and looked poignantly at her husband. Ronan cleared his throat, setting his pipe aside.
"Orin your brother will be here tomorrow."
"Yes sir. For the lambing.."
Ronan shook his head. "No, boy, Jarlath. He is accompanying the new Priest Apostles coming to serve in the church here-"
Orlagh, seeing the furrow in her son's brow at the mention of his eldest brother, interrupted her husband.
"- Orry, your brother was selected as one of The Council's Honor Guard! Isn't that exciting?!"
Jarlath. Orin had only a fuzzy, faded scrap of a memory of his eldest brother, gone to serve the Council when Orin was but 3 years old. He remembered a brute of a boy, who always seemed to be scowling always reading scrolls. He remembered that he was frightened of him as a child, and that he had shed no tears when Jarlath had left home.
"Your Ma asked you a question." His father's voice brought him back to the conversation at hand, and Orin knew full well he was expected to return his mother's jubilance.
"Yes Ma'am." He mumbled, wanting nothing more than to leave that very moment and go back to Rafter's cabin. He had no interest in seeing the brother he did not know, the brother who had chosen a life of protecting the pompous men who dared to link themselves to The Gods.
"Get some sleep now, The ewes will have us up in a matter in hours, I imagine." His father said, ending the discussion with a wave of his hand.
Orin lay awake, staring at the ceiling beams, a storm brewing within him. Nine years Jarlath had been gone; so long that Orin had nearly forgotten about him, and certainly hadn't missed him. Not like Kane, who he wondered about daily, who he longed to see and share everything with. His parents had not even mentioned him, where was he? When would he be allowed to see his family again? Orin shook his head, knowing they probably had as little knowledge about Kane's life as he did. This was the way it went for the families of those who served. Once a child was chosen for or decided to go into service, their life was forfeit to the will of The Council. The future Apostle would study with their local Priests until they were deemed ready for the next step of their training, at which time they would leave the home of their birth and journey through the wilderness to where The Council themselves resided. After that, depending on their appointed station, they may never be seen by their family again, and if they were to return home at any point it would be several years before that came about. Orin gritted his teeth, feeling the familiar, searing anger as fresh as the day he watched Kane wave goodbye, fading to a speck on the distant road.
Ronan knew the boy was not asleep. He had long since memorized the natural rhythm of his breathing when he slept. This was not it. Even with his back turned to the open door, the rise and fall of his ribs was too fast.
"Orin." He spoke from the doorway softly.
Orin rolled over, his father's shadowed figure already retreating down the hall. He had gone to bed fully dressed, knowing it wouldn't be long until his father woke him and when he did, it would not be leisurely. He tugged on his boots and followed out into the yard.
"Is she distressed?" He queried upon reaching his father's side.
"Not at all, a perfect lamb, a male. Just need a hand for the butchering."
"Firstborn lamb of the season shall be served to the firstborn son of the house upon his return home." His father replied simply, as if reciting a verse.
Orin's feet suddenly stopped working and he found himself planted firmly, just short of the birthing pen, his father walking on a moment before he realized his son was not beside him. When he did, Ronan turned to his son questioningly.
"You're going to kill him? A perfect, healthy lamb, just born!?" Even as he spoke the words, he knew they were beyond his station. His tone was insolent, incredulous, as if his father had just said the most preposterous thing he'd ever heard.
Even in the darkness, Orin could see the familiar cloud of disapproval cast over his father's features. He knew exactly what followed as Ronan stepped toward him, eyes narrowed, jaw sternly set. The blow was not as painful as he remembered, it had been two years since his last punishment. Perhaps Ronan was growing weaker... or perhaps he was stronger. In spite of the taste of blood in his mouth, the thought he would one day be strong than Ronan, and that day was coming very quickly, brought a slight smile to his face. It earned him a second strike across his face and Ronan took him gruffly by his collar.
"Perhaps you have forgotten I will not have you question me or spout blasphemy. It is tradition for those whose firstborn sons go on to become Apostles of our beloved Council. It is an honor for that lamb to be given in sacrifice to even an Apostle of the Council, and your brother is a Captain of the Honor Guard. I would slay fifty lambs if the Council requests it. And you should be honored to help in the preparation, boy!" Ronan's rant had left him slightly winded, his breath coming in puffs in the cool night.
Orin held his father's gaze boldly, but Ronan had more pressing matters and dropped his son, striding briskly into the birthing pen. Amongst a frantic chorus of bleats and bellows, he came back into view with the newborn lamb, it's mother desperately trying to follow.
"The gate, boy!" Ronan shouted, sending Orin into action. He swung the gate closed as his father slipped from the pen.
The lamb, too terrified to struggle, lay quietly in his arms.
Orin followed his father tentatively around the barn to the butchering shed where a clean, fresh plank of wood had been set over the usual stained table. Ronan laid the lamb out and held it fast while Orin hung back just outside.
"Come in here, Orin."
He stepped just inside, dreading the thing to be done. He'd always hated butchering the animals they raised and had grown to know, but something about the innocence of the newborn lamb made it even worse. Ronan nodded toward the knife strapped to his side. Orin hadn't noticed it before. Now he didn't understand how he had missed it. In the place of his father's usual bone-handle knife hung a beautifully tooled leather sheath from which protruded the handle of a knife sure to be perfectly crafted once drawn. Gilded in silver, it appeared to be formed of black stone, and glinted int he shafts of moonlight peeking their way through the slats int he shed walls.
"Take it." Ronan ordered.
Orin drew the knife slowly, holding it out to his father. The blade was perfect, slightly curved, and looked to be of pure silver. Orin had never seen something so beautiful. But his father was shaking his head... Orin didn't understand.
"You, son. It must be you who does it."
Later, as Orin scrubbed the blood from himself in the outdoor washtub, he fought back an urge he had not felt in years. Tears burned behind his eyes as the final, desperate bleat of the lamb played over and over in his mind. He would never forget it.
Over the next few hours they delivered four more lambs in silence, Ronan too stubborn and Orin too angry to speak. Finally, when the final newborn was inspected and deemed healthy, the ewe were give a bale of hay and Ronan dismissed his son, finally breaking the silence. Even after Orin had scrubbed himself down a second time and settled under his blanket, the smell of blood still clung to the inside of his nasal passages. He squeezed his eyes shut against the nausea he'd been fighting since the slaughter. He listened to the creak and groan of his parents' bedroom door as his father retired to sleep as well. Orin, knowing sleep would not come, instead began reviewing his lessons with Rafter in his mind, silently reciting the names of different plants, then the animals, he had gone through it all twice when he heard the familiar quiet shuffle of his mother coming down the hall to the kitchen. The sun would be up within the hour, bringing Jarlath's arrival ever closer.
When the smell of fresh bread wafted in through his window, Orin swung his legs over the edge of the bed, unable to resist the scent or his growling stomach. He found his mother just where he knew he would, at the brick oven tending the day's bread in the brick oven just outside the house.
"You should be getting some rest, Orry" His mother said without turning to him, pushing the last loaf into the oven. She wiped her hands on her apron and turned to him, brow furrowed. "Was everything alright last night??
"Yes'm" Orin mumbled, avoiding her gaze.
Orlagh, seeing plainly in his face the truth of the matter, sighed and reached a conforting hand out to her youngest child, who seemed less and less a child every time she saw him.
"I wanted to tell you about the butchering, dear, but your father, well... you know him.."
Orin wanted to shrug his mother's hand away but knew she meant well. Instead, he did his best to smile as he nodded in response, and though Orlagh knew it was a mask, she did not press him further. Ronan was right about one thing, he was becoming a man and she must treat him as such.
"Go and get the ewes fed, your father will be pleased to see you've started chores without him." With that, she planted a kiss on his forehead and hurried back into the house.
Orin was well into the morning chores by the time his father rose, and was sitting in the field amongst the ewes still to give birth when he heard his name called from the house. He stood up, squinting against the bright morning sun, and saw three figures standing just behind the house at the field gate. Orin knew at once, even from a distance that his brothers Ultan and Keiran had come. He didn't dislike his brothers, they were simple enough men. They enjoyed farming, tending their sheep, were not terribly pious but would never oppose anything above their station. Orin found he somewhat envied them, blissful in their ignorance. While Kan and Jarlath toiled for the Gods and The Council, and he toiled over his general ill-fit in the world around him, Keiran and Ultan chose the middle ground, to keep their heads down and live mundane but pleasant enough lives, abiding by the rules and laws, and all the happier for it. As he approached, he observed something he had not seen in years; His father's smile. Ultan and Keiran were smiling as well as the trio carried on animatedly, recalling various tales to each other. No doubt Ronan was most proud of his two sons who had gone away to serve the Council, but the two who had stayed near home and followed their father's footsteps; they were his favorites. He was at ease and jovial with them in a way he was not with his other boys.
They set out together across the field together, Orin filling his father in on the condition of the newborn lambs, all in good health, and of the ewes yet to deliver still at pasture. They had just reached the flock when a shriek came from the house and then two black and white streaks shot out the back door and toward the across the grass. Keiran and Ultan burst into laughter while their father scrunched his face into a mock scowl. Orin watched the streaks coming toward them, realizing it was a pair of dogs, twins just like their masters. His father had never used dogs with his flock, he held a strong dislike for them.
"I thoguht you said they would stay back." Ronan grumbled sourly.
Keiran clapped him on the back. "I forgot to mention they only listen when they're working."
Ultan knelt to greet the pair of Border Collies as they nearly crashed into him. They were identical, in look and manner, both jumping up to lick Ultan's face.
"They're only pups still, Da, they won't bite." He grinned mischievously at his father, leading the pups over to him.
Orlagh watched as they worked through the afternoon, doing her own chores between her home and the small garden she tended just beyond the house. It was good to see them all together, the twins playfully teasing Ronan as only they were permitted to do, Orin hanging back, preferring to entertain himself with the dogs. Even if the picture wasn't complete without the oldest boys, it still brought warmth to her heart. Thoughts drifting to Jarlath's arrival, she impulsively rushed to the brick oven. The lamb to be served first, and the larger roast to be served after, sat in seperate clay pots, simmering contentedly in the heat. The lamb had to be cooked by itself, to retain the purity, but as it was not yet a day old, the poor little creature had not rendered much meat, and as she was unsure if Jarlath would be coming alone or with other Apostles, she felt compelled to prepare a second roast. The slaughtering of the firstborn lamb was a custom she was familiar with from her own eldest brother's homecoming when she was but a child. She knew what Orin must have felt, for she had been the one to do the slaughtering once. In accordance with the verse, 'The blood of the lamb must be spilled by an innocent, a child, and blood relative of the firstborn son. Being the only child left in the famly, like Orin, she had taken the dagger from her father's hands and performed the butchering exactly as he told her. Afterward, as he wiped her tears, he explained what she had done had sent that little lamb directly to the Gods, to run in beautiful lush pastures forever and never know a single ounce of pain. She was sure Ronan had given their son no such reassurance...
Her thoughts were interrupted as she turned away from the oven by the sight she had been waiting for all day. In the distance, along the road, really more of a dirt path, which passed the farm's edge, a cloud of dust rising, barely visible within it, three men on horseback. Orlagh's heart leapt in her chest. Her eldest son, her Jarlath, was finally home.