They rode on for an hour, keeping the horse at a steady walk once they no longer could see the manor. The late spring air was still chilly, making Hamelin shudder in his seat.
He tried speaking to his father several times, but the man was like a stone, his expression unwavering as he led them down the road to a crossroads, and from there into the forest. They followed the road until it ended abruptly at the stump of an old tree.
Here they dismounted, and Hamelin watched his father tie the horse to a nearby tree. “Father? Where are we going?” He was starting to grow annoyed with the theatrics, and wanted to know what the hells was going on.
“Follow.” Was all the word he received for his efforts. His father circumvented the tree stump and led them further into the forest. Hamelin had spent a lot of time in the forest, training his withermancy, but he had never delved this deep.
They followed what looked like an animal trail deeper still, until his father pulled away a particularly thick bush and revealed a small clearing. In the middle of the natural circle was a small shed, next to which a simple roof protected a stack of firewood.
“Come,” lord Whitter said, dragging Hamelin closer to the firewood, “Have you learned to chop wood?”
Raising his eyebrows at the strange request, Hamelin ultimately shook his head.
“Then you will learn. Take this.” His father handed him an axe much too big for his size. “Lift it.”
Seeing no wait out, short of murdering the man in cold blood, Hamelin held up the axe, making sure to display enough difficulty that it would not be suspicious.
“Good. It seems that you are strong enough,” his father said, and placed a piece of wood on the chopping block, “Now, use it on this. Let the axe do the work, don’t force it. You are guiding it to its destination, nothing more.”
Hamelin did as he was asked, and let the axe fall onto the wood. It did not go all the way through, but got stuck in the middle. “That’s fine. Just pick it up with the wood and let it fall again.”
Eying his father, who still held a stoic expression, he repeated the motion, only now with the log on the end. The axe cut a little deeper into the wood, but it was not enough. He had to repeat the action five more times, while hiding his strength, to achieve the goal of the exercise.
“Good. You will soon be able to chop them in one swing. For now, I’ll do the rest.” With those words, lord Whitter took away the axe and chopped through another ten logs before he put it down. Hamelin had to admit that the man’s concentration and technique was impressive, as he seemed barely to break a sweat with the difficult work.
“Let’s go inside,” his father said, and led them into the shed, carrying the wood. Inside, there just a small stove, which doubled as a heater, with an iron pipe leading the smoke outside, next to table with two chairs. Aside from those, only a basic cot was all there was room for.
Hamelin’s father walked inside and put the wood in the stove, and soon had a fire going. Once the preparations were done, he walked to the table and moved it. Grabbing a small hole in one of the boards, he pulled to reveal a hatch leading down below.
“Go down there and bring back what’s in the sacks,” his father said, and handed Hamelin a small bowl, “Use this.”
Since he had resolved himself to follow along until he found out what was going on, Hamelin did as he was asked and crawled down to find a hollowed out space with plenty of sacks. Opening one of them, he found it full of grains.
What is this place? He wondered, as he filled the bowl with grain and crawled back up. Topside, his father was pouring water from a bucket into a pot on the stove. He looked over his shoulder when Hamelin emerged and said, “There’s a well in the back, next to a small patch of soil well-suited for growing herbs. Did you bring it?”
Why is he telling me this? Hamelin thought, but said, “Yes, Father.”
“Give it here.”
Hamelin offered the bowl, and his father drew a chair next to him and pointed to it. “Stand here. Have you ever cooked before?”
“Cooked? No,” Hamelin admitted. He had not had the opportunity in this life, and as a vexen he had been able to eat anything without the need to cook.
“Then you will learn.” The man repeated himself, as if it was a mantra of his. Hamelin observed as he poured the grains into the water and let it boil up until it achieved a soggy consistency.
“There’s not much salt, but it should suffice for a while,” Hamelin’s father said, as he retrieved a small canister and poured a few crystals into the mixture. When he was finally done, he poured the gruel into a bowl and said, “Now, you do it.”
Following his father’s direction, Hamelin imitated his actions and made a decent enough concoction. It was not a difficult recipe, and therefore he did not have to hide anything this time around.
When finished, his father poured the mixture into another bowl, and put it on the table next to his own. “Sit. We will eat together,” he instructed. Hamelin dragged the chair he had been standing on to the table and sat down, picking up a wooden spoon and tasting the gruel he had made.
It was as bland a food as could be, with no discernible texture or taste of any kind. Hamelin did not mind it that much, although he personally preferred to rip into his food and chew, which was not really an option with this.
They ate in silence, until they had both finished. Only then did Hamelin make another attempt, hoping to finally receive some answers.
“Father, what is this place?”
Lord Whitter had been picking at his food more than he ate all this time, and when he let out a sigh, it seemed he was finally ready to talk. “It was intended as a hideout, in the case of an attack I could send you, your brothers and your mother here. Only myself and the servant I send here to restock it from time to time knows about it.”
That seemed sensible enough. Hamelin tilted his head, trying to think of what kind of the threats his father was expecting for him to be this careful.
His reaction must have seemed like confusion to his father, because he gave another sigh and said, “As expected, this will be difficult to explain to a five-year-old.”
“Why are we here, Fath—?” Hamelin began, but was interrupted by a raised hand. “Wait, Hamelin. From this moment on, you can no longer refer to me as ‘Father’. I fact, you may no longer identify yourself as a son of the Whitter house either.”
“Let me finish,” His father’s voice was iron now, as were his eyes, “Let me be clear, from this moment on, as far as the kingdom is concerned, Hamelin Whitter is dead.”
Looking at his father’s stern expression, Hamelin did not know how to react.
“I know this will be difficult to understand, so I will try to make this as simple as possible.”
“Why? What did I do wrong?” Hamelin said, putting on his best, puppy-eyed expression.
“You did nothing wrong, Hamelin, you just did something which normally is not possible. Being summoned at your age is not supposed to happen, but once it is done there is little I can do.”
“What does it mean, being summoned?”
Folding his hands, Hamelin’s father studied him closely. “Perhaps you are not as stupid as I have been led to believe. Being summoned usually means that you are extraordinary, which must mean you possess something others do not. Contracting with a niling may only be the tip of the iceberg.”
Hamelin tried to look as blank as he could, although his father’s scrutiny made his face twitch.
“As to your question,” he continued, “Do you remember when we discussed sending you to the Inverse, some time ago?”
“Yes. Mage Correl wanted to send me in return for a reward,” Hamelin nodded, remembering the episode. He had yet to pay back that little mage for attempting to use him like that, and had no intention of forgetting the incident. When it came to revenge, a vexen’s memory was long.
“Quite right. That would mean offering you to the kingdom, in return for favors. Every year, the kingdom must send a set amount of people into the Inverse from all walks of life. Any noble who offers their children are rewarded heavily— and don’t ask me why,” his father said, stopping Hamelin just as he opened his mouth, “I am just a minor noble; I’m not important enough to receive such information.”
Nodding, Hamelin crossed his arms and said, “So an offering is different from a summon?”
“Very much so. Looking back, offering you back then would have been a kindness, at least that way you could have retained your family name.”
And you would have been able to claim your reward, Hamelin thought to himself, narrowing his eyes.
“In any case, as a summon, the Inverse has claimed you, far different from being offered. No one can refuse the summon, not even a king. If you refuse to enter the Inverse of your own accord, you will be forcefully summoned, in which case not only you yourself will be dragged in, but anyone nearby as well. According to some stories, entire cities have been summoned alongside one who refused the summons in the past.”
So, you cut ties with anyone summoned, making it impossible for them to live on this side as anything other than an outlaw. In that case, it is easier just to enter the Inverse, rather than staying here. Hamelin scratched his chin as he thought.
“For this reason, you can no longer remain in the manor, nor live anywhere else for that matter. The kingdom will have already received your name and location in their charter, and anyone harboring you will be considered as harboring a fugitive.”
“But… I’m just a child?” Hamelin said, trying his best to look innocent.
“I know, Hamelin. I know. Like I said, children are not supposed to be summoned. That rat catcher did not have to present the summons immediately if he was going to give you ten years anyway. He could have waited, if he wanted, but instead he chose to present it now and purposefully put you in this position.”
For a moment, Hamelin’s expression became ice. That bastard, Piper, was screwing with him, making him go through this on purpose.
Wait… go through this? I was going to leave anyway, wasn’t I? Hamelin thought. The glass marble at his chest seemed to burn again. The image of his mother, crying as she held him, came to his mind, and a sudden, unstoppable nausea overpowered him. Leaning over the side, he expelled all of the gruel he had just eaten onto the ground.
“Hamelin… Are you alright?” His father stood up and walked around the small table, kneeling down to look at him. In a fit of fury, Hamelin slapped away the hand reaching for him.
“So this is it?” He said, his voice cold as ice, “You are throwing me away?”
His father looked at him with an expressionless face. Finally, he closed his eyes and turned away. “You can indeed think of it like that, yes.”
“I see. Then I will consider my debt to you for raising me forfeit.” Staring up at his father, Hamelin threw off the affected mannerisms of a five-year-old, eyes burning with yellow fury.
His father furrowed his brow, clearly unsettled by Hamelin’s change in tone and mannerisms. “You have been hiding very deeply, haven’t you, Hamelin,” he finally said, nodding.
Hamelin gave no answer, but just stared at the man who had been his father with deep-felt anger. Why he felt so strongly about this, he was not fully able to understand, he just knew that he would never forget or forgive this.
“You can stay here and prepare yourself until it is time. I will send someone by every so often to restock your supplies, so you will not go hungry. I will also do what I can to help you become stronger—”
“I don’t need your help,” Hamelin said and stood up on his feet, “Nor your food. I will accept this place as my inheritance, but other than that I don’t want anyone to come here. I will kill anyone who gets close, do you understand?”
Looking at his son, as if seeing him for the first time, lord Whitter stretched his lips out into the semblance of a smile. “I should have seen it,” he admitted and stood up. At the entrance, he stopped and looked over his shoulder. “I am sorry, Hamelin.”
“I don’t care,” Hamelin said, crossing his arms, “Leave.”
With that, his father disappeared, leaving Hamelin alone to stew in indescribable anger.