Arcanum 1780: A New World
Tales - The Harvest
The young moon on the horizon promised to be orange and full in the night sky, visible from the tiny mirror Romina had inherited from her mother, passed on down the line since her family was prosperous before the world was ruined. The corners of the mirror were cloudy with age as the silvering was wearing from constant handling – a physical imperfection manifested in an object which so perfectly matched what was slowly happening to her eyes. The English medic who had come back to their town had taken a look at her, but could only express his regret that there was nothing he could do. Romina bore no ill-will towards him – he was English, after all, and could hardly be expected to have the skill of a Spanish doctor – but still she was filled with sadness. Even the impending harvest festival could hardly compete against the knowledge that she was slowly going blind.
She grabbed the stick she used to get around and left the house of her family, knowing this would be one of the few times she would be able to do so without someone accompanying her. The dimming light started to give her a bit of trouble as she moved towards the giant post that had been erected in the town square. She was fairly sure even if she could see nothing at all, the giant post wrapped in colorful cloth would be visible to her. It was brightly lit by a circle of braziers lit around the edge of the square, and even now people were milling around, talking and setting up for the evening. Her father had even donated his time and tools to building a small stage for the musicians to play upon. He had done so after she begged and pleaded, but Romina felt that he would have done it even if she had remained silent. She saw the blurry forms of two musicians testing her father’s work as they tuned their instruments – the Spanish Mandolin playing alongside the English Fife.
Even though the two men were just practicing, the sound prickled the gooseflesh on her arm, causing her to stumble slightly. Were it not for her cane, she undoubtedly would have had a fall. None around seemed to notice, or at least pretended not to, as they were used to the poor sighted girl stumbling around the town. She sighed, longing for the days before her affliction, when she used to leap and frolic around the town, climbing trees with the other children and getting up to other mischief. The small squabbles her friends had with the English children from the other side of the village. Long ago she had decided that they could be an entertaining diversion, but her friends never were able to quite have the same adventures when the English were around.
As the night descended around her, the fires grew taller, giving Romina the distinct impression that everything was rimmed with oranges, reds, and yellows. The band had taken the stage and was working some intricate and quiet music together, equal parts Spanish and English, working together, a perfect representation of their little town of Lima. The farmers were slowly filtering in from the fields, now, intermingled English and Spanish farmers, coming from all directions – everyone able had been out in the fields all day, helping bring in the crops. The Spanish wives prepared delectable desserts for the evening’s treats, while the New Englanders prepared more common fare for fending off starvation in the event the lines for the Spanish food were too long.
From her seat by one of the braziers, Romina saw a Spanish farmer walking into the square, arm and arm with a plain, mousy looking woman, and she turned her head. It was becoming all too common, now, for Spanish men to take up with the womenfolk from the other side of town, and Romina couldn’t fathom why. More and more, they wouldn’t settle down with a nice, beautiful Spanish lady, and instead settled for a stocky workhorse of a wife. The injustice of it made her cheeks burn. Her vision settled on the pole set in the center of the town square, painted bright red on one side and left raw wood on the other, the pole served as a reminder of the official separation between the English and Spanish towns of Halstead and Lima.
After they had been established by their respective nations so close by to each other, their borders had succumbed to the inevitable sprawl new towns underwent until they began to bleed into each other. Relations were tense, at first, but slowly eased even when the tensions between their respective nations did not. After all, it’s harder to hate someone when they’re just a field over, struggling over the same rocks you are. Eventually, the two towns merged completely when they both suffered a blight of their crops and had to pool their resources to survive the harsh winter. For reasons Romina couldn’t fathom, both nations still laid claim to the same town, even sending separate tax collectors who turned a blind eye to the fact that half the people they were collecting money from didn’t speak their native tongue.
The unmistakable and unintelligible sound of English was coming closer, breaking her out of her silent musing. There was a gaggle of English boys strolling around the perimeter of the square – you could tell they were English by the foolishness of their looks more than the words coming out of their mouths. Not wanting to deal with the adolescents, Romina pushed herself up from the bench with the aid of her walking stick and began making her way towards the center of the square. As she moved past a crowd of men of both Spain and England, the unmistakable smell of stickybuns curled into her lungs, bringing a smile to her face, causing old memories to surface, and she began to cast about for the vendor who was selling the sweet treats.
Perhaps it was her cloudy vision, her unsteady gait, her aromatic distraction, or the sudden resurgence of childhood memories, but Romina stumbled. As she stumbled, she tried to steady herself with her walking stick, but found it unreliable in her hand, almost as though it had snagged on something. As the ground rushed up to meet her, she threw her hands up to protect her face, abandoning all hope of recovering from her loss of balance. Her palms slapped into the cobblestone square, heat rushing again to her face in embarrassment, and warmth flooding into her hands as she felt the skin abrade on the rough stone, marring her soft skin. She turned to look for her untrustworthy walking stick only to find it absent from her side. She turned her head further, righting herself until she was sitting, turning her head slowly as she searched for the stick on the ground
It wasn’t until she realized she was hearing harsh English laughter that she started looking upward. The troupe of English boys were standing together laughing, handing her walking stick between them, each taking a turn to glance at her, each glance causing more laughter from them. Romina’s face burned with embarrassment and rage, longing to take one of those brats over her knee and spank them just as she used to do when her little brother got out of line. The memory cooled her cheeks somewhat as she dragged herself to her feet, using the town’s pole as a crutch. She took an unsteady step forward towards them, hand unwilling to leave the solid two-colored stave. Her other hand stretched out towards the boys as she pleaded with them to return her walking stick, but their laughter only doubled, matched only by the intensity of their inscrutable jeering.
One of the nearby Spanish men started forward only to stop abruptly as a hand settled on his chest. From the cloudy periphery of her vision, an young Englishman stepped forward toward the boys, scolding them in the strange tongue Romina never bothered to attempt learning. The boys clustered closer together until the one holding her stick poked it at the man – the first poke jabbed him in the stomach, but when the stick came in a second time, the larger man wrestled it out of the child’s hand, whipping it across his buttocks so quickly that Romina winced at the crack it made as it connected. The boy yelped loud enough to give the musicians brief pause before their music came back in and drowned the sound of his tears. The cluster of boys fled the square when their leader had been sufficiently cowed, leaving the lone Englishman standing there, turning her walking stick over and over in his hands, taking occasional glances at her.
As the band moved from one song to another, so, too, did something move within this young man. He slowly started towards her, his manner might have been considered shy if Romina weren’t positive he was mocking her. As he approached, her chin rose until she was fully braced for whatever unintelligibly insulting words he chose to throw at her. Instead, he waited, perhaps for a break in the song to deliver what he thought was some crushing witticism which is brain was struggling to come up with – the conflict was plain to see on his face.
When he finally spoke, his words were halting and slow at best, but Romina found herself both astonished and appalled that he would dare demolish her sovereign language with his uncouth tongue. Her shock was so complete and utter that her chin fell and she stood there dumbfounded, having to work quickly to decipher what he had actually said. “I think this stick belongs to you.”
Romina was affronted, her stomach churning in a way she had never felt before. The sheer audacity of this man to presume that her stick belonged to anyone other than her. She unleashed upon him the full brunt of her displeasure, her language colorful, expressive, and if his face was anything to go by, utterly incomprehensible. As she watched him struggle with the complexity of the words she had burdened him with, the color drained from her face, ashamed at what her pride had made her do. He must feel like she had when those boys were taunting her. She bowed her head slightly by way of apology and stammered out a weak, “Yes.” Her only concession to his inferior mind was the small nod she gave him afterwards, for she refused to stoop to using his language.
The grin that spread across his face was at once ridiculous and embarrassing – he had taken on the grim visage of one of the apes her grandfather had described to her. His next words were even more confusing, in that he spoke at all rather than just returning her property to her. After suffering through their interminable slowness, Romina pieced the words together; “I hoped so. I will give it to you, if you will dance with me.”
She involuntarily gasped at his insolent behavior, her hand flying to her mouth to cover it, as her mother had taught her. A lady must never show her open mouth in public, after all. Color flushed to her cheeks at the impropriety of the situation, only to make things worse as he mistook her reaction for enthusiasm – that he was extorting anything out of her for the sake of returning a simple wooden stick was beyond anything Romina had ever imagined. She shook her head in small bursts, settling back towards the harvest pole, her hand seeking it out for its steadying influence.
The fool boy stepped forward, his mouth working around the rich complexity of her language, but the words came clearer to Romina this time. “What do we have musicians for if not for dancing?” Romina stopped and tilted her head to consider the wisdom of his statement and prepare an adequate rebuke, and that was her undoing. The man slipped under her guard, taking up her hands in his before she could withdraw them. She felt color creeping up her neck as her stomach warned her that she was in dire circumstance, unable to see beyond his youthful, ugly, English face, ringed in the glowing fire of her ruined vision. As she struggled to free herself from his hands, she couldn’t help but notice how soft and smooth they felt pressed against the warmth of her irritated skin, couldn’t help but feel tiny prickles of lightning as the pressure between them brushed against the cuts on her palm.
Very well, if it was a dance it took to get him away from her, Romina decided she could suffer through it, taking glee in the fact that she would make him suffer as well. Much to her mother’s chagrin, she had never been much for dancing, and she fully intended to turn that to her advantage. As she stepped gingerly, she found her feet in contact with his more often than not, which for some infuriating reason made his eyes twinkle in the most peculiar way. She did not care for it in the slightest, and it only made her scowl more pronounced, which only served to encourage him to smile more broadly. Determined to scold him in a language he could understand, she made to stamp on his foot to express her displeasure, but the brute seemed to read her intention and moved a hand to lift her by the waist just delicately enough to remain proper in public, but remove most of the force from her stamping. She wrinkled his nose and went after his other foot, determined to act quickly enough to catch him off-guard, but he seemed to have planned on this – his foot rose to catch hers, and then her world began to spin.
As her eyes tracked every strong feature of the man’s vile face, she felt her hair whipping around as he smiled incessantly at her – she felt her feet situated on top of his, but she couldn’t convince them to move as she clung to him in terror. If he kept them spinning for too long, she was sure she would faint dead away, much as her mother was want to do whenever father became too much to handle. She curled her head in as she clung tighter to him, resting her head against the boney structure of his chest, feeling a shriek of terror coming from her mouth, though she had no control over it – her panic only caused him to laugh louder, and she could hear the rest of the village around laughing at her.
Her shriek stopped when she ran out of air, forcing her to take a deep breath when something gave her pause – the smell of stickybuns had returned, stronger than ever. She pulled away from the man sharply, glaring into his face with her narrow eyesight – his eyes had wrinkled in a facsimile of happiness, his grin infectious to the point where she felt herself smiling at the torture he was putting her through. The smell was fainter out here, and the spinning had slowed and they were moving gently back and forth, occasionally bringing the warm smell nearer to them – they must be near to one of the vendors. She looked about but all she could see were smiling faces everywhere – they were still by the harvest pole, still moving to the music from the stage. She sagged against him, defeated, and was surprised when the smell returned – was it him? Romina could hardly help but inhale deeply, burrowing closer to the man, but then all too quickly the dance came to an end.
A pit returned to her stomach as the man stepped away, setting her walking stick against the harvest pole and turning to leave her alone again. Her hand leapt out, unbidden, and grabbed the uncultured hand of the New Englander, her eyes pleading him not to leave her. A quiet, “Wait,” escaped from her lips, crossing the language barrier she had barely felt while they had danced. As he turned back to her, his smile illuminated in the light of the harvest moon, she felt herself truly smile for the first time.