Oliver shifted his heavy school bag from one shoulder to the other, the greasy leather strap sliding through his sweaty palm. The sound of raucous singing from the invaders encampment rolled over him, like a bawdy tavern wench’s entertainment while several pints to the good.
This, however, was not good.
He fervently wished he’d waited for his elder brother, who had nearly finished milking when Oliver bolted out the door with the single-minded ambition to be first in line at school.
Once a year the magicians came to town and this time he vowed to not be stuck at the back of the crowd, unable to see anything but the heads and shoulders of the older kids. His father had said they could go see the magicians as soon as their evening chores were complete. Oliver had wasted no time mucking out the stalls and tossing hay down to the horses.
Oliver stopped in the middle of the dusty road, gazing up towards where it disappeared over the hill.
The singing had stopped abruptly. Nervous, he slid sideways off into the cooling shade of the woods lining the road, picking up the faint deer trail which angled away roughly in the direction of the school, hoping to skirt the soldiers camp. As he crept through the verdant undergrowth, a high-pitched metallic shriek assaulted his ears along with the clang of metal on metal.
The trail followed the meandering length of a burbling brook and twisted around several mossy boulders then spilled out into a meadow overflowing with grey tents. Hundreds of them dotted the field, the once tall grasses trampled and matted into a muddy mass, bordered on two sides by the brook and the other two sides by the forest behind his back.
Oliver jerked to a halt, nearly stumbling into that which he was trying to avoid. He shook his head at his stupidity. Of course they were not camped across the road! Drunken men sang and swayed around
He scanned the camp, trying to decide which way to skirt the morass of men, when his eyes fell on the source of the grinding noise. Curious, he made his way through the tangled undergrowth towards the sound.
A soldier, stripped to the waist, was working a large round stone, spinning it with the pumping action of his foot. The grinding noise came from the sword he held in his meaty fists, drawing it slowly back and forth along the whet stone. Fascinated, Oliver watched the man work, stroking the stone first one way then the opposite way along the tip of the blade. Fine rivulets of sweat ran down his chest in the late afternoon sun, glistening off the flexing pectorals.
He looks like a God, Oliver thought, fascinated by the scene before him.
So absorbed was he in watching the man work, he failed to notice the soldier behind him until the beefy hand clamped down on his shoulder and a sword tip touched the side of his throat. Oliver froze, sucking in a panicked breath.
“So, what do we have here?” the man drawled, drawing him to his feet. “A local school boy by the looks of you!” He gave Oliver a shove, sending him sprawling out into the open, keeping his sword trained on him.
The man at the stone stopped his work and straightened, his eyes taking in the scene. With a hand, he gestured for Oliver’s capture to bring him over. Beefy Hand hauled him to his feet and with another shove, Oliver stumbled into motion, his legs quaking.
He was jerked to a halt in front of Sweaty Chest and trained his eyes at the ground, afraid to look up.
“Whats your name, boy?” he grunted
“What were you doing in the woods?”
“I was on my way to school, sir?” he replied.
Sweaty Chest snorted a laugh with no humor in it. “School is already out, boy. Do you take us for fools? Speak up, and speak up now, before we decide you are a spy.”
Oliver’s head came up, when he realized his mistake. “I’m sorry Sir! Yes Sir! You see, sir, a magician is coming to town. I mean he is in town already and he is going to be giving a performance at school.” He swallowed past his dry throat.”I mean he is giving a performance tonight at the school.”
“So why are you spying on the camp?”
Oliver shook his head. “I wasn’t spying, i was curious as to what you were doing.” He hung his head again.
Sweaty Chest wiped the blade on an oiled cloth, wiping away the minute pieces of steel. He inspected it again, then looked Oliver over.
“Come here” he commanded.
Oliver stepped closer to the soldier.
“I want you to pump this pedal. When I say faster, you pump faster. When I say slower you pump slower. If, at the end, I am satisfied with your effort, I will let you live. If not, I will test your lack of skill on your neck. Understood?”
Oliver nodded mutely.
“Then lets begin.” Beefy hands grinned as he watched Oliver scramble over to the pedal and begin to pump the platform.
Oliver kept his head down, afraid to look away from his task. As he work, he heard the shuffling of feet and rough laughter over the new serving boy who the quarter master (Sweaty Chest) had acquired. Other soldiers wandered over and seeing the activity, fetched weapons of their own to be sharpened; long and short swords, knives of every length and even the cook’s tools made their way to the stone with its new and highly entertaining monkey working the pedals. The last weapon to arrive was a double-bladed axe the likes of which Oliver had never seen before.
The sun dropped below the ridge of trees and the blue skies faded and darkened through sunset, to twilight and eventually to full dark. When there was no longer any light to see with, the master called a halt. At that moment, bells sounded, followed by a trumpet announcing the opening act of the magician’s show, with a clear thrill that carried on the night air.
The master folded his arms and frowned down at Oliver.
“Well, what are you doing here, you slacker? Didn’t you hear the school bell? Didn’t you hear the show has begun?” Get going you lazy brat! Get out of my sight! We have no used for lay about commoners such as yourself!” With a shove of his foot he knocked Oliver over into the dirt.
Oliver scrambled away on all fours, afraid that the next time the boot swung at him it would be with more serious intent. He staggered to his feet and looked around. The laughing soldiers spat at him, but no one made a move to restrain him.
Oliver turned and ran for the woods, as fast as his exhausted legs would carry him. He ran and ran, panting with exhaustion, until he stumbled onto an abandoned fishing hut set at a widening of the stream, upriver from the encampment. Falling to his knees at its edge he gulped water then crawled into the fishing hut and was asleep before he hit the floor.
Idiom: “Axe to grind” – A selfish aim or motive… This frequently used idiom comes from a story by Charles Miner, published in 1811 about a boy who was flattered into turning the grind-stone for a man sharpening his axe. He worked hard until the school bell rang, whereupon the man, instead of thanking the boy, began to scold him for being late and told him to hurry to school. “Having an axe to grind” then came into figurative use for having a personal motive for some action (Mid-1800s).
-The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
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