Chapter Three: Downpour
Every few moments, a drop of water would persist through the thatch, landing rhythmically in an old wooden bucket beside the young man’s bed. The pitch had consistently risen throughout the night, but it was a sound Maximus was used to. As his eyes fluttered open, he focused instead on the rapid descent of the rain outside.
He sprung up then, stifling a growl. Rushing to a small table just beside the door, he gathered a tattered old tunic, and hurriedly stepped out the door. His father’s door remained shut, and Maximus breathed a sigh of relief. That knowledge did little to slow his pace.
When he opened the door of the cottage, he understood why the bucket beside his bed was nearing full. The storm was torrential, not unheard of for the early autumn in their region.
Maximus fell to his rump as though he had been pressed down by a heavy weight. He reached to his side though, gathering up his old and worn boots. They were immediately placed upon his feet, laced then tied. He clambered back to a standing position, watching the rain for only a few moments longer.
The young man took a deep breath, and stepped outside, shutting the way behind him.
He neglected to consider how cold it would be. Every drop of rain that fell upon his skin had an almost icy bite. Not a single thought was given to the prospect of retreating back indoors, though.
His eyes focused on the building in front of him. The stable was adjacent to the pen, but the gate had been closed for the night. His father warned of the portending clouds, and Charcoal was relegated to his sanctuary.
Maximus dipped his head, and jogged in that direction.
The rain pattered down on the roof of the building like an insistent drum. That tempo was unyielding, urging the lad on quicker. He sped into the stable, shaking off the excess water that hadn’t absorbed into his frigid skin. Still, he could not shake his smile.
The stable was dark, but he could see the typical tools of his day. A shovel was near the far end of the building, and against the entry wall, a wheelbarrow sat.
Charcoal stuck his head over the railing, eagerly anticipating his visitor. Maximus stepped closer and placed his hand on the steed’s muzzle. Nudging against those fingers, the horse seemed content, despite the disparaging weather.
“I’ve got you,” the young man said. “Don’t think for a second that I’d let a little rain stop me from taking care of you.”
His words were disingenuous, however, for it was not some paltry amount of precipitation. It sounded like hail upon the roof, yet not all of it was held at bay. Just like the thatch of his room, there was a hole above his horse’s stall, just at the corner of the stable.
Maximus entered the stall and lightly pressed against the massive steed’s neck, spinning Charcoal around. Both faced the leak, and the puddle that had formed upon the floor. A pile of leavings was just at the edge of the small room. Combined with the scent of the intruding rain, the scent was quiet potent indeed.
Taking a step back, the young man reached over the failing, moving his arm around the corner. He awkwardly grasped at nothing for a few moments before retrieving the shovel. A quick sigh was the only respite he allowed himself before he scooped up the straw beneath the horse feces. He deftly swung the shovel, landing all of the refuse within the wheelbarrow across the way. He turned, then, to the damp straw beneath the puddle and collected that as well.
He took care with that bit, turning Charcoal back the other way while he carefully balanced the shovel with his other hand. Once he was out of the stall again, he dumped the contents of the spade into the wheelbarrow.
“You hungry, boy?” Maximus asked.
The horse stamped and snorted in response.
The young man reflexively smiled, but that mirth quickly faded. He turned toward the darkened corner of the room, where a tall wooden barrel stood. He ground his teeth together as he hesitantly approached.
Another sigh escaped into the air when he was beside the barrel. He laid his hands upon it as though it held the most ferocious of beasts within. Swallowing hard, his face contorted, but he was finally able to lift the lid from the container.
Inside, it was nearly black. A potent smell lifted from its depths, powerful enough that Maximus had to peer over his shoulder to breathe. He swung back, and as his eyes continued to adjust, he confirmed that the barrel was not as empty as it appeared to be.
A wriggling black mass of flies congregated on the contents of the barrel. Their endless orgy was foul, but not as foul as what lay beneath, the young man knew. He gagged at the mere thought, and looked away.
Charcoal eagerly leaned out from his stall, his ears pointed toward his friend. After several moments of convincing, Maximus finally began to nod.
Just beside the barrel, a small iron pan leaned against the wall. It had seen better days, but it still served its purpose well. The young man bent down and retrieved it, savoring every action as if the delay could somehow save him.
There was no such luck, he knew.
Taking a deep breath, he braced one hand on the barrel, and plunged the pan inside. The color of his skin disappeared beneath the void, as if it had been instantly severed and thrown through the aether. He could feel the flies fluttering against his arm, buzzing this way and that as they sought out one of their myriad potential mates.
Maximus looked up, concentrating on any other thought than the task at hand. An unpleasant burp escaped his lips, however. He could never truly escape that discomfort.
He began lifting the pan, and stepped away, turning to look over his shoulder again. That desire was foremost to catch his breath, but he also saw the wooden bin against the wall. He quickly made his way beside it, dumping the contents of the pain into the long, narrow box.
Black specks took to the air, attempting to return to their breeding ground. In their absence, they left a small, beige pile. Maximus was already aware of the contents, but he stepped closer anyway. Oats were stacked high, and their scent wafted into the air, mixing with the pungent rain and the acrid horse dung.
Not even that awkwardly foul bouquet could induce the sickness in his stomach like the other small objects in the pile. There, moving in and out of the grain, little maggots burrowed. After a few moments, Maximus was unable to see the oats anymore.
Charcoal eagerly snorted, and stamped his foot.
Breathing out, the ranch hand dragged the bin to the barrel. He wasted no time, then, repeating his actions until the box was mostly full. Maggots squirmed through the grains while flies propagated on what remained.
Finally, he was able to set the lid back upon the barrel. He placed the pan back in its spot, and lifted the wooden box into the air, extending his arms as far from his body as he could.
The horse could barely refrain from burrowing his face into the box as Maximus approached. He lifted the bin over the gate, and then hooked the lip upon it. As he stepped away, Charcoal buried his head into the maggot infested feed.
“I don’t know how you eat that,” Maximus said.
Full of delight, the horse raised its head, masticating all of the food that was in its mouth. The man almost retched when he saw a tiny beige maggot drop from Charcoal’s lips.
“Well, you enjoy that. I don’t think you and I’ll go out riding today. Too wet and too cold.”
The horse snorted in protest, but dove back into the feed. Maximus gently patted Charcoal on his muzzle. Too involved in eating, the animal never saw the young man pull the wheelbarrow out of the stable.
The rain still fell at a feverish pace. Maximus grew tense as his skin felt the chilly bite of that precipitation. Gradually though, he began to acclimate.
Bending low, he wiped his hands on the wet grass. His arm remained covered in black refuse, the foul remains of the flies and maggots. Still, it was somewhat cleaner than it had been. He sighed, pressing it out of his lips like an arrow he meant to fling over the far side of the field.
He turned then, and grasped the wheelbarrow again. Without pause, he headed for the gate of the pen.
Warm moisture coated his brow, and beneath the boughs of those trees, eh was able to avoid the cool reminder of many of the falling raindrops. Maximus looked up, knowing that the majority of those shielding leaves would soon be gone, stripped by the cold air and the autumn breeze.
He lowered his head as one of those zephyrs shivered the branches. Precipitation shook from the leaves and fell upon his damp tunic. Focusing ahead, he attempted to remain ignorant of each drop of water on his skin.
The sound of the nearby creek overpowered the light wind then. A babbling brook, the body of water stretched long to the south. There it became a powerful river, but behind the farm, it was calm and peaceful.
The rain had ensured that the serenity of the creek was not so certain that morning. Water rushed forth like small rapids, and the clarity of its contents seemed somewhat diminished as well.
Maximus shrugged, holding out his dirtied hand before him. He continued along, pushing the wheelbarrow through the wet grass until he reached the creek, and could better see the rush of the water.
Bringing the wheelbarrow up against the creek’s edge, he could feel the ground giving way beneath the weight of the odorous cargo. Eager to be free of that freight, he lifted, dumping the horse droppings into the stream. On calmer days, the water would have responded with a series of audible splashes. Beneath the sound of the rain and the running current, it disappeared without a sound.
With the load lightened, Maximus easily pulled the wheelbarrow onto more solid ground. He walked back to the creek, keeping along the bank, until he was several feet upstream from where he dumped the load.
He bent low, his knees almost touching the wet sand beneath him. His hands were submerged a moment later, and he rubbed them against each other furiously. The cold bite of the stream was apparent then. He lifted his hands from the creek, the breeze doing little to warm them.
Maximus shook his hands in the air, the remnants of the water flicking off of his fingers. He looked up, distracted by the state of the sky. A dismal, dark color was returning once more. There wouldn’t be much time to travel home before the clouds opened up.
Lowering his head for only a moment, the young man looked up again almost immediately. There, high above and several yards downstream, was a bright red apple, clinging on against all odds, fighting past the furious wind that howled through the nights. Somehow, despite many other apples falling to the ground in the days past, that one piece of fruit persisted.
Wiping his hands on his britches, Maximus rose to his feet, and approached the tall tree. That massive sentinel rose high, as determined to grow as the fruit it bore was to cling on for one more day. Its highest bough reached out over the water, as if it believed it could mend the meandering gap between the banks.
A wry grin crept to the man’s face, and he placed his hands against the rough bark. Hoisting himself up, he could feel the tree’s protest. Branches gently shook, quivering against the weight of the intruder. Settled precipitation was thrown from various perches, some landing upon the man’s upturned face. Still, that did little to stifle his eager anticipation.
Higher and higher he rose, until he was standing on a branch just beneath where the apple hung. He took small steps, gauging the strength of the bough beneath him. Unfortunately, he remained just out of reach.
A quiet sigh passed through his lips, and he bowed his head. He was surprised, then, to see the man just beside the creek several feet below and several more feet away.
The stranger wore grey britches that tucked into brightly polished brown boots. A long white tunic sank past his belt and opened up almost like a robe below his waist. Though Maximus could not see the man’s face – for he stood with his eyes toward the southwest – he knew that the stranger was older than he. Bright greys had begun to pepper the fellow’s dark hair.
Briefly, Maximus remained quiet. He turned to begin walking back toward the trunk of the tree, but steadied himself, focusing intently on the stranger.
“What are you doing there?” he asked, curiously.
With one foot splashing into the stream, the unknown man leapt into the air. He spun around, exasperated, looking out at the surrounding wilderness. His sight finally settled upon the young man in the tree, who gnashed his teeth, and subtly bowed his head.
“You nearly scared the life from me,” the fellow below said, stepping out of the creek. He shook his wet boot, the excess water flying off in every direction. “What are you doing up there?”
An ever growing look of disdain crept to Maximus’ face. His lips parted, but before he began to speak, his brow furled. “I asked my question first.”
The stranger stood up straight, his eyes lifting somewhat, as if he saw that question manifest before him. He nodded, his jaw protruding slightly.
“That’s a fair point,” he conceded. “I’m sanctifying this water. It goes down through Greenwood, and I want it to be blessed when it arrives there.”
Maximus held on tightly, and stretched far, but managed to snag the crimson fruit from the branch above. Cautiously then, he released his grip on the guiding limb, and bent his knees.
“I’d move a few dozen feet upstream if I was you,” he mumbled to himself.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” the young man insisted.
He wrapped his legs around the branch, allowing his body to swing to the underside. He tightly grasped the bough once more, but slid his feet apart. A moment later, he hung several feet from the ground, and dropped to his feet.
“If you were that hungry, you could have always come to our house,” the stranger offered. “There’s no need to scrounge for food.”
“It’s not for me,” he informed. As the man’s words hit him, he arched an eyebrow. “Pardon?”
“Well, I only assumed that you and I are neighbors,” he said. “Your cottage is the only other one around for miles.”
“You moved into that new, white house,” the young man excitedly surmised.
“That’s right.” The stranger stepped forward, extending his hand. “My name is Richard. You and I might have been introduced sooner, but it’s my understanding that your father isn’t keen on guests.”
“To put it lightly. Oh. I’m Maximus,” he said, accepting and returning the gesture.
“Well, Maximus, now that we’re properly acquainted, maybe you can do me the honor of answering my question,” Richard insisted.
That powerful tone had the young man standing up straighter. He hesitated for a moment before shrugging, a sheepish grin creeping to his face.
“I come here at least once every three days to leave behind our horse’s… leavings.”
“Ah, then I should leave you to it,” Richard offered.
“That won’t be necessary,” Maximus clarified.
Richard’s eyes widened then. He looked to the water beside him. “Oh. ‘I’d move a few dozen feet upstream if I was you’,” he repeated.
“Sorry,” Maximus said.
“No matter.” As Richard spoke, however, he was already turning from his new acquaintance. He began back toward his spot at the creek, and just beyond, where a small brown satchel was waiting, nearly blending into the color of the sediment on the bank. “I know what a mess horses can be.” He gathered the container and returned to the younger man. “Here,” he said.
Maximus looked to the ground, and bent low, placing the apple at his feet.
Out from the satchel, Richard retrieved a glass bottle. It wasn’t labeled, but had two thin straps of leather that crossed diagonally over its face and back. He handed it to the other man.
“What is this?” Maximus wondered. “Holy water?”
Richard shook his head. “It’s a cleaning agent. My friend Gregor left me with a whole chest of the stuff. It’s like soap, but in liquid form.” When the young man seemed confused by the offer, Richard rolled his eyes. “It’s for your hands. If you’ve got a horse, I’m sure they’re filthy.”
Maximus drew the cork from the bottle, releasing the scent from within. He narrowed his eyes as he attempted to indentify the familiar bouquet.
“It’s extract of lavender,” Richard revealed. “Now, just a little on one hand.”
The young man dripped a coin sized amount into the palm of his hand. Without much time to ruminate, Richard snatched the bottle from him. He gestured toward him then, fiercely rubbing that hand with the one that yet remained free.
Shrugging, Maximus did as he was told. A slight tingle rested upon his skin, and the aroma rose even more potently. More surprisingly, the darkness of his skin began to wash away, leaving his flesh unmarred.
He looked up, a smile upon his face. Richard had replaced the cork in the bottle, and held it out once more. His young acquaintance began shaking his head and raising his hands to protest.
“Take it,” Richard said. “I’ve got plenty at my cottage. I couldn’t keep Gregor from giving them to me.”
“Well… thank you,” Maximus finally conceded. He received the bottle, and placed it into his waistband, his belt keeping it snugly in place.
Richard nodded. “Think nothing of it. I’ll leave you to it then.” He turned, and walked along the creek. “Oh, and Maximus,” he said. “Now that we’ve been properly introduced, I hope you won’t be opposed to visiting us. I doubt your father would be inclined to accept, but you’re always welcome at our house.”
Nodding graciously, Maximus couldn’t contain his smile. The older man gave a slight bow, and proceeded upstream.
A sigh of contentment rose into the air, and Maximus bent low to retrieve the discarded fruit. He skirted around the apple tree, then, and reached his wheelbarrow. When his gaze led him back to the creek, he shook his head.
“Richard,” he said, gaining the man’s attention. “A few more feet.”
Both shared a laugh then, before Maximus turned, and began back home.