The second part of our exploration of How Meltyre Is Great At Fishing. (If you missed part one, it’s right here.) This story time includes an animal death. That seems obvious to say, but better safe than sorry. The animal is a fish.
Meltyre was ten years old. Still.
It was funny, he thought, stealing from tree to tree, how long it took to get to your next birthday. Theoretically, Mother had said, Dad would be home just after his next birthday. She had in fact been saying that like a mantra, and Meltyre was so sick of hearing about his birthday.
He was tired of waiting for it too, he thought, taking one last look around. Okay, the coast was clear.
Casually, he moseyed up to the magistrate’s private pond and sat down, pulling a line out of his pocket and looking for a bug to bait the hook with.
Meltyre nearly jumped right to his feet, and was snatched up from behind by the collar of his shirt by that guard Mother knew, Connie.
“Let me go!” he yelled, shielding his face.
“I don’t think so,” she said, holding him out at an arm’s length. “You are in violation of trespass laws, young man. No one but the magistrate can fish here.”
“I wasn’t fishing!” Meltyre protested. His teeth were starting to chatter in fear—he couldn’t get arrested, he couldn’t, his mother needed his help.
“You have a fishing line and hook,” Connie scoffed. “Come on.”
She dragged him along, and Meltyre squirmed as much as he could to no avail. It took several minutes before he realized he wasn’t being dragged to the magistrate’s manor, but to his own house.
Connie knocked on the door, and held Meltyre up in front of her when his mother answered. “You need to control your son.”
Meltyre’s mother didn’t flinch. “Put him down.”
“I caught him with fishing line and a hook outside the magistrate’s pond, Gallea,” she said, allowing Meltyre’s feet to touch the ground. The moment he felt her let go, he scrambled inside behind his mother. “You have to—”
“I have to what, Connie?” his mother demanded. “Tell my son not to try and feed his sisters?”
“I don’t want to arrest him,” Connie replied. “Or you.”
“If you didn’t want to arrest people over trifles, you shouldn’t have become a guard.” His mother began to close the door.
“Wait,” Connie said, jamming the toe of her boot in the door.
“What,” Gallea snapped.
Connie sighed and pulled a small paper bundle out of her pocket. “It’s not much. But it should hold you over for a week or so without fishing. Please, please don’t come back to the pond, kid.” This last she addressed to Meltyre.
Meltyre watched the calculus cross his mother’s face, the warring forces of spiteful rejection and the hunger they were all feeling gnawing at her belly. She’d been eating less, Meltyre had noticed, saving up every bit they could to free his father, since there were no guarantees that this harvest would be any better than the last one.
Finally, she took the parcel from Connie’s hand without a word and closed the door.
“Mother, the fish in the stream are so much smaller than the ones in the magistrate’s pond,” Meltyre explained hastily, as soon as the door was shut. “And they like to hang out in the sun, they’re not always moving, so it’s easier, and—”
“Meltyre,” his mother said softly, ruffling his hair. “I know.”
“I can’t stop fishing at the pond,” he said, almost unable to stop talking, desperate for her to understand.
“I’d rather have a few little fish than both the men of the house in jail, ” said his mother.
Meltyre paused. “So…are you telling me to not?”
She pressed her lips together thoughtfully. “I would rather you didn’t. I won’t forbid you. But…”
“But?” Not for the first time, Meltyre wished for his dad, who had a knack for straightening out the tangled mess of his mother’s philosophical musings.
“If you do, it would be best if you weren’t caught,” she said finally, and pulled back the paper of the parcel. “Oh, salt pork. This will do nicely.”
His mother left him puzzling over that. Don’t get caught. That wasn’t the same as “Don’t do it.” Just…don’t get caught.
Meltyre was still ten, and damp—very damp, all the way up to his shoulders but not in the center of his back, which was annoying—but for once the constant buzzing in the back of his head that Something Was Wrong was in remission.
It had taken nine or ten tries, hours of effort, but it had worked. His dad was right, trout tickling was a thing and it worked! There was a whole fish in his basket that he’d pulled from the river with his bare hands! And true, it was not a big fish, but today his sisters would eat. Meltyre almost skipped. He loved learning a new thing, perfecting a tiny new skill. Why, he hadn’t felt this confident since—
“You there! Boy!”
Never mind, never mind, the confidence trickled away as Meltyre froze, unable to move. It was the magistrate’s lapdog, Yannick, and Connie as well.
Yannick approached Meltyre with menace, like a stork eyeballing the next minnow to dig out of the pond. “Well now, what do we have here? Stealing the magistrate’s fish?”
Meltyre quivered. Now it was the real test: don’t get caught. “N-n-no sir.”
“That’s a kreel, boy,” Yannick said, pointing.
“It’s j-just a basket, sir,” Meltyre said, glancing at Connie, who was grimacing.
“If there’s a fish in this basket—” Yannick began.
“There is, sir, but I bought it in town.” Gods, why did his voice have to waver so much? He sounded like he was about to cry, but mostly that was because he was about to cry.
“Prove it,” Yannick sniffed.
With shaking hands, Meltyre turned out his pockets. “I don’t have a hook or line, sir, how could I catch a fish?”
“Why are you damp?” Connie asked.
“I was washing some mud off,” Meltyre explained, scrambling desperately for a lie that sounded plausible. “One of the—one of the boys in town pushed me down.”
“I don’t believe you,” Yannick said decisively. “I think you are a liar, and the magistrate will see to you.”
“S-sir, please, I—”
“I don’t think we can prove it, sir,” muttered Connie.
Yannick shot her a look of disbelief. “You want to just let him go?”
“Of course not, sir,” Connie said carefully, “but the magistrate doesn’t like to waste time on unverifiable suspicion. And we need to be getting back soon.”
“He might have thrown the hook and line away,” Yannick said, turning his cold gaze onto the nearby bushes.
“Maybe,” Connie said. “Do we have time to look?”
Meltyre stayed very still. Maybe they’d forget about him if he didn’t move.
After deliberating for what felt like ten or so years, Yannick made a dismissive little sound in his teeth. “Don’t let me see you here again, boy.”
“Yes sir,” Meltyre said quickly, and scurried away past the guards before they could change their minds.
Fish and don’t get caught. Done. Mission accomplished. Glad that his back was now to the guards, Meltyre dared a small smile.
Meltyre was nineteen years old.
“What do you mean we don’t have anything for dinner?” Fina demanded, leaping to her feet. They’d camped out in a little clearing and taken a moment to rest before the issue of food was brought up.
“Well perhaps if someone hadn’t had second helpings yesterday,” Sterling began from his seat on a stump, stopping as Fina shoved a finger into his breastplate.
“You and I both had second helpings, pretty boy, don’t you start,” Fina said.
“I think the fault may be mine,” Velune offered, an attempt at keeping the peace. “I thought we’d be at the next town by now.”
“We would’ve,” Betty rumbled, “if we weren’t moving so slow.”
“If you want me to move any faster, you’d better start carrying me,” Fina snapped.
“Perhaps someone else should read the map,” Sterling offered. “After all, Velune’s eyesight—”
“What’s this about my eyesight, young man?” Velune interrupted, affronted.
Meltyre was laying on the ground, saying nothing, because his nerves were shot from a long day of travel and his friends’ bickering wasn’t helping any. He squeezed his eyes shut. Could they not just try and solve the problem instead of pointing fingers?
Hm, what was that, under the sound of their voices….running water?
Meltyre rolled over to his hands and knees, and then stood up, brushing off his robes. The others didn’t seem to notice as he followed the sound.
He didn’t have to walk far—just out of earshot of the argument—before he found a merry little creek, buzzing with insects and little fish. And where there were little fish…yes, Meltyre spotted a trout, a huge one, sunning itself in a little eddy of the creek, waving its tail lazily.
Well. His friends needed to eat.
He carefully knelt down by the side of the creek, rolled up his sleeve, and went to work. You had to be slow, very slow, and oh so careful. If a fish this big escaped, he’d be hard pressed to find another. This one was big enough for everyone to have some, and it’s not like they didn’t have anything to eat, they had bread and a little cheese left, this would go nicely with that…
With a short deft movement, Meltyre scooped the fish out of the water and onto the bank. It flopped, alarmed, but Meltyre quickly hooked it by the gills.
“Sorry, fish,” Meltyre muttered, shaking his wet arm until the water was mostly gone and his sleeve slid back into place. He dipped the fish in water to rinse some of the dust off. It was an impressive fish, he had to admit. Not the largest he’d ever caught, but close. He admired the pink stripe shining along its body as he walked back to the camp.
They were still arguing.
“You can’t go one day without dinner?” Betty was scoffing.
“I will waste away,” Fina said, her hand dramatically on her forehead. “I will become a skeleton.”
“It will only make us move slower tomorrow,” Sterling pointed out.
“Surely we can find something to eat,” Velune said.
Meltyre cleared his throat, and all his friends looked right at him.
“Um,” he began, the sudden bite of anxiety catching in his throat. “I uh. I caught a fish.” He held it up.
Velune clasped their hands together. “How wonderful! Well done, Meltyre!”
“That’s an impressive fish,” Sterling commented, a little taken aback.
“Thanks,” Meltyre said, feeling awkward from the attention. “Um, I can cook it too, but I’m not great at cooking—”
“Absolutely not,” Fina said, taking the fish from his hands and bringing it busily to a flat rock. “This fish deserves a skilled hand.”
“Let me do it,” Betty said, sitting down by the rock. “You always leave bones in.”
Meltyre didn’t feel a lot of triumph at this. Mostly he was grateful the bickering was going to stop. Still tired, he flopped back down onto the ground, laying down again and closing his eyes.
He felt someone sit down beside him, and managed not to flinch—there was the ting of armor pieces, it was just Sterling.
“How long did it take you to catch our dinner?” Sterling asked.
Meltyre kept his eyes closed, because the absolute focus with which Sterling stared at people when he was talking to them was going to be too much for Meltyre’s shredded nerves today. “Just a few minutes,” he told Sterling.
“That’s rather impressive.”
Meltyre shrugged, feeling a rock dig into his shoulder as he did so. “I guess. Fishing is easy.”
“I don’t know about that,” Sterling said. “It’s never come easy to me.”
“It certainly saved the day today,” Sterling commented, sounding almost cheerful.
Unbidden, a smile crept onto Meltyre’s face. That felt pretty good, actually. Once again, Meltyre saves the day with fish. At least he was good for something.