“Follow the swords.”
Those were Tukka’s father’s last words before he died. Tukka, only nine years old, and the only boy among six sisters, was now man of the house. But he had no idea what those words meant.
“Tukka,” his mother had said as she handed him the soul crystal. “Be careful on your journey.” Worry creased her face. She’d always warned him to stay away from the forest, but now his travels would take him straight through the woods.
“Yes, mother.” He took the crystal, which had a hole pierced through its’ top and a leather thong strung through it, and hung it around his neck. His sisters supplied him with cheese, dried meat and water skins.
He’d made his way to the edge of the village to the path through the forest that led to the city gates. He’d been to the city once before with his father but he remembered little of it, and even less of the forest. He peered down the path. Patches of sunlight littered the ground, but mostly it was dark.
He wasn’t afraid of the dark; many nights he laid awake listening to the sounds. Owls, wolves, dogs, sometimes the cobbler tapping his awl, or sometimes a drunken oaf trying to find his way home. So what could possibly be in there that would make his mother – and his sisters – try to keep him away? He decided there was only one way to find out.
Cool air washed over him and the sweet scent of the trees filled his nostrils. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. That only lasted a moment before he heard a loud squeak. His eyes popped open and he looked around but saw nothing. An eerie tinkling sound floated on the breeze. His Uncle Leif had told him ghosts made that sound. He made his feet move, faster and faster, along the path, his boots pounding the ground, or was that his heart in his throat? He didn’t think it was far to the city.
He kept running until a hand grabbed his shoulder and a voice said, “Hey, kid.”
Forced to stop, Tukka screamed. Then he remembered that he was now man of the house, and men didn’t scream. He looked up. A man with long black hair and one eye looked back. He grinned revealing broken yellow teeth.
Tukka’s heart beat faster but he stood tall and faced the man.
“What are you doin’ in the woods all by yerself?”
Was this what he’d been warned about? Was this a robber? Tukka darted away as fast as his feet would take him, in spite of the man’s shouts. Only when his burning chest and sides wouldn’t let him go any further did he stop. He swung around, searching the path, the trees. He was alone. Except what was that glimmering beneath some old leaves, at the base of a tree?
He stood for a few minutes catching his breath and trying to watch every direction at once. Finally he knelt by the tree, reached out to the glimmer and pulled out several pieces of coloured glass on strings. He held the odd thing up wondering what on earth it was. When the breeze caught it, it made that eerie tinkling sound. Tukka let it go, then laughed at himself. It was glass and string. But what was it doing here in the woods? Shaking his head he got to his feet figuring he’d probably never know.
“Tukka,” he said to himself, sternly. “You are man of the house now. You have six sisters and a mother. You must take care of them.” But the first thing he had to do was take care of his father’s soul. He touched the bump in his shirt where the crystal lay beneath, against his skin. It was only then that he remembered he had a small sword stuck into his boot sheath. The sheath had been made directly into the boot, but Tukka hadn’t even seen the boots until his mother had given them to him a few weeks ago when his father had fallen ill. The sword he’d gotten from his uncle just before his father died.
He slid the weapon out of its’ case and looked at its’ silver blade, its’ golden handle. Two green gems glittered on the either side of the hilt’s crosspiece. Gold and green were his family’s colours. ‘Follow the swords’. What did that mean? He knew he had to release his father’s soul from the crystal but where, and how? His mother had only told him to go to the city. She said he would know when he saw it. Saw what? Sighing, he slid the sword back into his boot. He’d best be going if he ever wanted to find out.
* * *
Inside the city walls he found people milling about stalls where food and weapons of all kinds were being sold, wagons loaded with wine barrels came and went, and the clang of the blacksmith’s forge rang loud over the clamour. In the distance he could see the turrets of a castle. The flags that flew from them were white with three wavy blue stripes in the middle indicating they were at war with no one.
He looked around. Where could he find swords in the city? The blacksmith? No, of course not, Tukka, he said to himself. The swordsmith or the weapons master? Maybe the blacksmith could help him. He followed the clanging, and the acrid smell of the smithy’s smoke.
A large man with barely any neck at all, banging on a dented piece of armour, looked up as Tukka entered his small, open shop.
“Who ye be and what can I do for ye?”
“My father told me to follow the swords and I don’t know what that means,” blurted Tukka, then realized that he hadn’t told the man his name or his father’s name. His face burned, but whether from the smithy’s heat or his own embarrassment, he wasn’t sure.
The blacksmith stared at him a moment as if trying to pull information out of him. Then he shrugged. “Try the swordsmith.” He pointed.
Tukka went in the direction the smithy had pointed out and found the swordsmith sitting outside his hut, smoking a cigar. This man was even taller and rounder than the last. But this time Tukka would give out the proper information. “My name is Tukka Erikkson. My father was Olaf Erikkson. He told me to follow the swords.”
The man frowned and Tukka realized he probably didn’t know Olaf Eriksson. If he was going to take care of his mother and sisters, he had a lot to learn. He should have taken up his Uncle Leif on his offer to come along. But he’d stubbornly refused. No wonder Leif had hidden a grin behind his hand.
“Was?”asked the swordsmith. He spoke with a different accent than the blacksmith. “Then your father has died?”
“And where have you come from?”
“The village of Vakka.”
“And he told you to follow the swords?”
The swordsmith leaned forward. “Do you wear the soul crystal, boy?”
Tukka’s hand itched to reach up and touch the crystal. Leif had told him that these crystals were often stolen then sold for gold, but Tukka didn’t understand why anyone would want to steal another’s captured soul. What use would it be to anyone else? He’d thought Leif had been telling him a joke, but what if he had meant it?
The swordsmith stood up and reached for Tukka. His heart pounded faster and his legs refused his brain’s command to run. The smithy’s large hands grabbed the boy’s shoulders. Tukka grasped the crystal beneath his shirt. The smithy grinned and knelt to look him in the eye. “Listen to me now. You mustn’t let anyone know you have this. Those crystals are worth a lot of gold. Many people would kill to have them. They’ll spill out your father’s soul and it’ll wander the earth for all of eternity.” He gave Tukka a shake, and repeated the command to listen when Tukka took his eyes off him for a second. “You go to the other side of the city and stand at the top of the hill. There you’ll see the swords your father told you to follow. Quick now, boy. Waste no time.”
When he let go of Tukka’s shoulders, Tukka ran along the streets until he came to another gate. There were fewer people here. He darted out.
It didn’t take him long to get to the top of the hill, and even less time to see the swords. Three giant stone swords, across a river, reaching up to the sky. Soul City. Something he’d heard his sisters whispering about, but he hadn’t believed it really existed. He wasn’t sure they did either, they never seemed to really know what they were talking about when they mentioned it.
He reached up and grasped the soul crystal once more, this time more gently. He caressed it with his fingers. When he arrived at the base of the three swords, he’d smash the crystal, releasing his father’s soul. Then he’d burn the braid of sweetgrass so the smoke would take the soul to the Great Beyond in the sky. Tears filled his eyes as the reality of it all crashed into him. He fell to his knees.
“Hey, kid! You okay?”
Tukka brushed his hand across his eyes then turned to see who spoke. A thin boy a little older and taller than Tukka himself. Tukka nodded.
“I heard you tellin’ the swordsmith you’re from Vakka.”
“And that your father has died.”
Tukka hesitated. What did this boy care about Olaf Eriksson? When Tukka gave no response, the boy sat down and pulled a cloth from a pocket in his shirt. “Hungry?’
Shaking his head, Tukka sat down along side the boy. Maybe he was okay. “I have some cheese and dried meat.” He pulled out his own cloth-wrapped food.
“My name is Esa. Who are you?” He unwrapped two slices of thick bread with jam oozing from between them.
“And you came all the way from Vakka by yourself. Was it scary?”
Tukka took a bite from a strip of meat, then shook his head. “Well, a little bit,” he admitted.
The boys laughed, then Tukka asked if Esa had ever seen glass on strings. Esa snorted. “Of course. You must have run into Vlad. He’s from faraway and he lives in the woods. He makes those crazy wind chimes and hangs them all over the woods. He says they keep the evil spirits away. He’s quite harmless himself.”
“Wind chimes? Evil spirits?” Tukka began to laugh and couldn’t stop. So much for the sound of ghosts.
In the middle of his laughter, Esa attacked him, pushing him down and sitting on top of him. The older boy put his hands around Tukka’s neck, feeling for the leather thong. Tukka grabbed his wrists and sat up, tumbling Esa over. For a second the boys remained suspended, glaring at one another. “You pretend to be my friend, then you try to rob me?” growled Tukka.
“My family is poor,” said Esa, pulling out of Tukka’s grasp. “My father cleans the guarderobe pits in the castle and my mother is a scullery maid. That crystal of yours will bring us lots of gold. Then I won’t have to work there when I grow up.”
“I’m sorry your family is poor,” said Tukka, getting up. “But – ”
Esa gave him no chance to finish. He leapt to his feet and slammed himself into Tukka knocking him down again, his fingers once more searching for the crystal’s thong. Tukka rammed his fist into Esa’s side. Esa curled his hands around Tukka’s neck, cutting off the younger boy’s breath. Tukka gasped, gripped the older boy’s wrists again and squeezed, hoping to force him to release his grip. Esa held on. Tukka squirmed, trying to knock him off but he held Tukka fast with his legs. Reaching into his shirt, Tukka pulled out the crystal and croaked, “Take it.”
When Esa released his grip, Tukka punched his face, knocking him sideways. Then, scrambling to his feet, he ran down the hill, not knowing where he was going, but knowing that if he had to cross the river, there had to be a ferryman somewhere at the bottom of the slope.
At the foot of the hill, Tukka found himself on a muddy road that snaked alongside the river. Looking back, he saw no one had followed him. He touched his chest. The crystal was still there, dangling from its leather thong. He tucked it back inside his shirt then went to the river side of the road. He looked up river. There was a wharf where trading ships could dock but no ferryman, and dark clouds were building in the sky, He looked down-river. The hill continued that way, sloping the road along the riverbank. There, at the very bottom, in a little bend in the river was what he was looking for. He hurried down to the ferry.
The ferryman wore thick trousers and a thick cloak. Gnarled, bony fingers gripped a long, thick stick, and long white hair hung over his shoulders from inside the hood. A scarred and wrinkled face stared at Tukka. He stepped forward, to get on the ferry, but the old man grabbed his shoulder. “And where ye be goin’, young lad?”
Tukka swallowed hard. “To. . . to the three. . . three swords.”
The ferryman squeezed his shoulder and narrowed his eyes as he peered closely at Tukka. “Very well, climb aboard.”
Just as Tukka got on the rickety boat, which must have been as old as its operator, a young girl, dressed in men’s clothes, came running up. “Wait,” she panted. “Please wait. My father, he can’t walk fast but he needs to cross the river.”
“Tell him to hurry,” snarled the old ferryman.
The girl frowned, but then she nodded and ran off. With a sigh, the ferryman leaned on his stick. He eyed Tukka from time to time, which frightened the boy. Was the ferryman angry because of the delay, or did he want to grab Tukka, checking for the soul-crystal? Or was he angry because the delay meant he couldn’t steal the crystal in private? Tukka wished more than anything that his father was still alive, or at least that his uncle Leif had insisted on coming along in spite of Tukka’s protests. Swallowing hard again, Tukka pushed down his fear, and any tears that may have come along with it.
Suddenly cramps gripped Tukka’s gut. He needed to use the privy, but there was nowhere to go. He had to keep an eye on the old man, and what if the girl came back and caught him with his pants down? He stood as still as he could, yet broke out in a sweat. He leaned against the side of the ferry. The old man took a step towards him. The cramps spread into his legs, his lungs. His heartbeat echoed in his ears. Gnarled hands reached for him.
The old man backed off and turned towards the girl. Tukka looked in her direction. She was back, this time with a man limping along behind her as she led him onto the boat.
“Thank you for waiting.” She smiled at Tukka as the old man pushed off.
Tukka managed to return the smile before he turned to stare at the water. What would Uncle Leif say about that, being saved by a girl? He gripped the crystal through his shirt, and laid his head on the edge of the ferry’s wall. He hoped that once he’d released his father’s soul, the going back would be easier. But then after that, he had to take on all the responsibilities that used to be his father’s. He took a deep breath of the cool river air.
He jumped as the girl came up beside him. She laughed. “My name is Kaarina. What’s yours?”
Go away, he wanted to tell her, but his mother would have slapped him for being rude. Except now that he was taking his father’s place, she couldn’t do that. Could she? “Leave me alone,” he grumbled.
“She only asked your name, son,” said a soft, calm voice.
Tukka looked up to see the girl’s lame father smiling at him. He reached out and touched Tukka’s tightly curled fingers. “I’m sorry. Kaarina, maybe we should leave him alone with his thoughts and duties.”
Kaarina obeyed her father and left Tukka’s side. He turned back to the water. ‘Tukka’, a voice said inside his head. ‘There’s no need to be rude.’ It wasn’t his mother’s voice, but his father’s. ‘Remember my son, no one knows another’s pain.’
But Kaarina’s father had understood Tukka’s pain, and respected it. He deserved respect back. Tukka turned back to the other two passengers. “I’m sorry. My name is Tukka.”
Kaarina grinned. “Tukka. You’re going to the three swords.”
“Yes. And you?”
“My father is going to the apothecary. She’s not allowed to have her shop in the city, but she’s the only one around that has the right medicine for my father.”
“Will our journeys take us on the same path?” Tukka asked, suddenly hopeful that he might have travelling companions.
“For a little way,” Kaarina told him. “Then we must part.”
Tukka nodded. At least it was something.
* * *
Craning his neck way back, Tukka could just see the tops of the giant, stone sword handles in the sky. How much farther he wondered, would he be there by nightfall? Though it had only been half a day, it felt like he’d been gone for a week.
“Tukka,” said Kaarina. “Do you see this sign?”
He turned his gaze to where she pointed. A small, rectangular wooden sign with painted symbols: a mortar and pestle, and three small swords. “Yes.”
“We will see more of them. You will follow the ones that have the swords on them.”
“Thank you.” At least that made things a bit easier. He glanced at the ferryman who’d just pushed off with a small group of women headed to the city. “Is he always so grumpy?”
“Yes,” said Kaarina’s father.
“He always scares me,” agreed Kaarina.
As they began to walk along the road, Kaarina pulled a cloth from a pocket in her baggy trousers. Opening it, she gave her father a strip of meat and a small chunk of cheese. Tukka searched his own pockets and found that he’d lost his food, though he still retained his water skins. He took one and put it to his lips.
“Do you have food, Tukka?”
He finished slaking his thirst, then stammered, “I did. But it. . . I. . . it was. . . stolen.”
“Did you eat any of it first?” asked Kaarina.
She held the food out to him anyway, and he took a small piece of cheese and a little strip of meat.
Soon after washing the food down with more water, they came upon a path leading off to their right.
“This is the path you must take, Tukka,” said Kaarina’s father, pointing to a small wooden sign with a sword on it. Then he pointed along the path they occupied. “The apothecary is just around the bend. We will reach our destination much sooner than you.”
Tukka looked at the path that led up through sparse woods. “How long will it take me?”
The man shrugged. “You will most likely arrive close to sunset.”
Tukka nodded. He had to do it. Perhaps he could even find a jobuck or some jennyberries along the way.
* * *
The sun was low in the sky when Tukka arrived fighting the desire to flee, to hide, to sleep. Shadows and noises had followed him all the way along his lonely journey. His feet and legs ached, but he had one final thing to do before he could rest.
Full of awe, he looked up, up, up at the stone swords. He walked over to them, reached out to touch one. It was warm and vibrated slightly beneath his hand. “We’re here, Father,” he whispered. “You can join the others.”
He released the two jobucks he’d killed with his small knife, and tried to wipe the dried blood and jennyberry juice from his hands onto his pants. Then he knelt, lifted the crystal from its place against his chest, and kissed it. As tears came to his eyes, trees rustled behind him.He brushed his hand over his eyes and turned but saw nothing – it was just the wind.
Placing the crystal on the ground, he reached into his pocket for the sweetgrass braid his mother had made. Just then something. . . someone slammed into him, knocking him over and forcing a cry from his lungs. A hooded figure snatched the crystal.
“No!” he shouted, grabbing the figure’s cloak and pulling. The movement shook the hood off. Kaarina! “You!”
“I’m sorry,” she said, holding up the crystal. “But these are far too valuable.” She tugged her cloak from his grasp, rose, then kicked him in the stomach. “It seems I’m far smarter than my brother.”
“Brother?” he tried to gasp, but there was no air in his lungs.
“Yes,” she said, bending down to pick up a small, loose stone. “You met him on the mountain top. Esa.”
She knelt and placed the crystal on the ground then lifted the stone high above her head. Tukka reached for the crystal, but she slammed the stone down on his hand. Gasping, fingers throbbing, Tukka feared he would die, here in a place reserved for souls, a place foreign to his sisters. Without the smoke to ferry them into the Great Beyond, he and his father would remain here.
“No,” he shouted again. He’d not die here. He pulled in a breath and pushed his pain away. But he was too late for his father. Kaarina smashed the top of the crystal then gathered up the pieces as a filmy spirit spiralled into the air. He could still light the braid, he realized and pulled it from his pocket along with some matches. He quickly struck one of them on the ground, held it to the brown braid, then held the sweetgrass up so his father could find it. “Your father,” he said, watching the spirit flit around. “Is he really lame?”
No response. But he refused to take his eyes off his own father. Sweet smoke joined the spirit in the air. All his pain and everything he’d been through suddenly became worth it. Tears filled his eyes again. He whirled around gently to get the smoke moving. He was doing it, accomplishing what he’d come here for.
“Yes he is.”
Tukka jumped and turned his gaze beside him. Kaarina had come to stand beside him, focussed on the dance of the spirit and the smoke. He turned back to it himself.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed.
She tucked her arm inside his free one and moved closer to him. “You achieved your goal, and I can sell this crystal for enough gold to pay for my father’s medicine. We both gain.”
Perhaps his father had been right when he’d said that no one could feel another’s pain, but Tukka proudly felt Kaarina’s joy.