Chapter One: Idris
The first time Idris heard about the Treasury he was five years old. His favorite cow was being led away by his father, and he had asked his mother why.
“Do you remember that Grandpa died last summer?” she asked kindly.
Idris nodded his small head.
“Now that a year has passed, it is time for us to pay his death tax.”
His mother’s words were a mystery to the small boy.
“What is a death tax?” he inquired.
His mother sat down on the stool that she used while churning butter and she set him on her knee, just as she always did when she was about to explain something to him.
“Idris, do you know that we have a king?”
Idris nodded with enthusiasm. He had been told of their great and generous king, Nikolas the Bold. The king had won the war with the barbarians to the east, and because of his bravery Idris and his family remained safe.
“Our land is called Calaris, and we have always been ruled by wonderful kings and queens,” his mother continued. “A very long time ago, one of the kings looked at his vast treasury and decided that it was more than he could ever need. He loved his people, and he decided that all of the riches of the kingdom should belong to them, too.”
Idris looked around with wide eyes, expecting to see piles of gold hiding among the haystacks of his father’s field. “Where is it?”
His mother laughed merrily. “It is still in the Treasury, but when each child turns fifteen years old they are allowed to go and choose something to keep.”
Idris’s eyes grew even wider. “Anything?”
“Well, anything in the Treasury,” she explained. “I got a beautiful necklace of sapphires that I wore at my wedding. Your father got a pouch of gold with which he built our house and the new barn. Your grandpa got a beautiful milk cow, and that was the beginning of this farm. Now that Grandpa has died, though, we must repay what was taken back to the Treasury. That is called a death tax.”
“That was not Grandpa’s cow,” argued little Idris. “That was our cow!”
His mother smiled gently. “The cow that Grandpa received from the Treasury is long dead. Everything we have on this farm is because of what Grandpa did with that one cow, and so we wanted to give our very best cow back to the Treasury.”
She looked at the horizon with a thoughtful expression on her face, and there was a wistful tone to her voice that Idris was too young to understand.
“My necklace will be returned to the Treasury when I die, because we have nothing of equal value to give in exchange. With something like livestock or the coins that your father received, we just need to give the same type of thing back to the Treasury.”
A fierce frown spread across Idris’s small face. “Do you mean that my cow will not come back?”
“No, my darling.”
Tears welled up in his brown eyes and his voice rose with childish anger. “I love my cow! I want her back!”
His mother enfolded him in her warm embrace. “I am sorry, Idris. I know you love that cow, but it belongs to the Treasury now. We must give back what we received, otherwise there would be nothing left. If we did not give our very best, then we would be taking away from the boys and girls who will be going to the Treasury this year.”
Idris’s small shoulders shook with his sobs, and he sniffed as he spoke. “When I get big, I am going to get my cow back. I will get her from the Treasury.”
She smiled down in understanding. “We shall see.”
The bright sun filtered through the dusty window into Idris’s bedroom. He muttered sleepily and turned over on his side, away from the light on his face.
Incoherent thoughts of confusion drifted across his mind, and then he bolted upright in his bed.
If the sun was up, that meant he was very late in beginning his chores.
Why hadn’t his father called him?
Idris scrambled off of his cot and pulled on his clothes. It took him a moment to realize that his best clothes had been laid out instead of his usual work clothing, and he stared at the carefully cleaned trousers in bewilderment.
A soft knock sounded at his door and his mother stuck in her head.
“Oh, you are already awake,” she commented.
Idris began to stammer an apology. “Mother, I did not mean to sleep in…”
“Sleep in?” she repeated. “Idris, dear, you are not doing chores today.”
“I am not…?”
A wide smile spread across her face. “Idris, have you forgotten what today is?”
The last bits of sleep faded from his brain and his thoughts cleared. He returned his mother’s smile sheepishly. “It is my birthday.”
She leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Happy birthday, my darling.”
Idris waited until his mother left the room and then he hurried to finish getting ready. It was his fifteenth birthday, and that meant that he would be travelling with his father to Marath, the city of King Nikolas.
He brushed his long black hair and twisted it up into a topknot, as was common with the farmers of the area. Then he walked out of the bedroom and climbed down the ladder that led to the main room of the house.
His mother was baking bread, and two of his younger sisters were helping to knead the dough. Elain and Dafina both looked up when he walked towards them and chorused, “Happy birthday, Idris!”
He grinned in return. “Thank you.”
“I saved you some breakfast,” his mother said, pointing to a covered plate on a shelf.
“Deri tried to eat it,” Dafina added, eager to report on the wrongdoings of her twin brother. “He said he needed it more since he was doing chores and you were not.”
“Yes, well, he ate plenty even without it,” said their mother, not looking up from her task.
The fare was simple, as it always was. It consisted of a bowl of hot cereal made from roughly cut grain, three boiled eggs, and some bread topped with marmalade. Idris sat down at the table and chatted with his mother and sisters while he ate.
“Where is Adwen?” he asked.
His mother dusted the bread dough with more flour and continued kneading. “She is out gathering eggs.”
Idris was the eldest of seven children, and Adwen was the youngest. She had always been rather pampered, and pouted whenever she was given chores. Idris was glad that she was being given more work to do, though. After all, she was seven years old, and when Idris was that age he had been doing chores for half of his life.
As if on cue, Adwen flounced into the kitchen looking sulky and carrying a basket full of eggs. Her long black hair was plaited into two braids just like her older sisters, but her clothes looked less worn and her hands didn’t bear the calluses of hard work.
“Is this enough?” she demanded plaintively.
Their mother didn’t even glance at the basket. “Did you get them all?”
“How am I to know where they all are?” whined Adwen.
“The henhouse is not big, dearest,” said their mother patiently. “Just be sure to look everywhere.”
Adwen scowled. “Make Idris do it. He is just sitting there.”
“Idris will be leaving shortly with your father.”
With a huff of displeasure, the small girl stomped out of the house and back to the yard. The older children exchanged smiles, but said nothing about it.
“What do you think you will pick from the Treasury?” asked Elain.
She was two years younger than Idris, but already she was trying to decide what she would choose when her turn came. She talked about it at length with anyone who was willing to listen.
Idris’s brow furrowed and he felt a familiar weight in his chest. He had been giving it a lot of thought over the last month, but he was no closer to a decision. “I am not sure,” he said slowly.
“I am going to get a beautiful necklace like Mother’s,” declared Dafina.
Their mother shook her head. “Oh no, darling. Do not waste the opportunity like that.”
Her children stared at her in surprise.
“What do you mean?” asked Elain.
There was a moment of silence while they waited for her to speak. When she did so, it sounded as though she was choosing her words with care.
“I was very vain when I was young. I had often been told I was the most beautiful girl in Rest Stone Valley, and I believed it to be true. I hated that my family was poor, though. I wanted beautiful things like dresses and jewelry, and I wanted to go to fancy parties and dances.”
Dafina’s expression became dreamy and she nodded with enthusiasm.
Their mother went on. “When it came time for me to go to the Treasury, I knew I wanted to pick out something beautiful to wear. That sapphire necklace was exactly what I had dreamed of having, and I chose it without hesitation.”
Elain was watching their mother’s face and said shrewdly, “But you regret it.”
“I have only worn that necklace a handful of times since it became mine,” she said in a practical tone. “It is not something to wear while milking cows.”
Idris and his sisters laughed at their mother’s comment, but she went on seriously.
“I could never sell it, because we would never be able to earn back enough money to repay the Treasury. All I can do is keep it safe until I die, and then it will go back from whence it came. I could have chosen something that would have been a benefit for the rest of my life, but instead I chose a few moments of vain glory.”
She reached over and placed her floury hand over her eldest son’s. “Do not make the same mistake that I did.”
“I will not,” he assured her.
Her smile became more lively as she said to Dafina, “If you wish to have something beautiful to wear, you may borrow my necklace. You do not need to get one of your own.”
“Can I wear it next week?” Dafina asked eagerly.
Elain snorted. “To the barn-raising for Selyf? That does not seem the time to wear priceless jewels.”
Dafina looked crestfallen, and their mother put her arm around her shoulders.
“Not next week, but perhaps for your first valley-wide dance.”
The glow returned to the girl’s eyes, and she resumed kneading bread dough with vigor.
“Prydwen,” shouted a deep voice from outside the house. “Prydwen, is that lazy boy up yet? It is time to go.”
Idris grinned at his mother and went to answer his father personally. He walked to the open door and began to pull on his boots. “I am ready, Father.”
Idris looked almost exactly as his father had at the same age. He was tall and slender, with hardened muscles and rough hands from working on a farm. His skin was the color of cinnamon, and that was only partially due to the days spent in the sun. His father shared all these traits, only maturity had given him a broader figure. Not a single grey hair marred his father’s black topknot, and it would be easy to mistake the two as brothers instead of father and son.
Idris took the pack that was handed to him by his father and slung it over his back. Between the two of them, they carried enough supplies to easily make the journey to Marath and home again.
Idris’s mother and sisters appeared at the door to wave farewell, and Prydwen kissed her husband and son with tears in her eyes.
“Now, now,” scolded Idris’s father gently. “There is no need for tears. We will be back in a few days.”
She nodded as she embraced her firstborn. “I know, but I just cannot believe that my baby has grown up so quickly.”
Idris patted his mother awkwardly on the shoulder, and looked to his father for some clue as to how to respond.
His father simply smiled and shrugged.
“Well, hurry along,” urged Prydwen, as if they were dawdling. “You have a long way to go before dark.”
There was another slight delay when Adwen came running out of the henhouse.
“Papa, take me with you!”
Their father chuckled indulgently and swept the child into his arms. “You know I cannot, poppet. Your mama needs you here with her.”
“Only to sweep floors and gather eggs,” Adwen answered darkly.
“Such important tasks would never be entrusted to me,” said their father with mock solemnity.
“I never get to do anything fun,” wailed the girl.
Prydwen took Adwen from her father’s arms and said, “You will have plenty of fun when you get older. Cadell, you really must get going.”
Idris’s father nodded and raised a rough hand in farewell. Idris did the same and turned to follow his father down the dusty dirt road.
The path led them past their fields, where Osian, Deri, and Rolant were busy at work with their uncle and cousins. Idris waved to his brothers, who paused from their labors to watch him leaving the farm.
“Safe journey, Cadell, Idris,” called his uncle, Tegryn.
Tegryn was married to Idris’s father’s sister, and they ran the farm together. Tegryn had brought land to the partnership and Cadell had brought livestock. Together they had one of the most prosperous farms in Rest Stone Valley. Idris was proud to be a part of such a family.
Cadell clapped a hand on Idris’s shoulder and looked at his son with pride in his eyes. “Are you ready for your first adventure as a man?”
Idris tried to seem confident and excited, but deep down he was wondering that very same thing.
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