“Greetings, Overseer.” I call.
I do not need to turn around, I have been watching the expression on my apprentice's face, the way boredom has transformed to fear. My sandals lie discarded some distance away so I can feel the mud between my toes. The energy of the land runs tingling from the soles of my feet to my eyeballs.
“Why are you still on the lower fields?” She snaps. “The orchards have been untouched.”
I plant my faddystick back into the soil carefully so that it stands up neatly on its own. The scurrige that has nestled so peacefully with its tail held between my elbow and ribs and its head in my hand begins to wriggle wildly as soon as I hand it to the cowering girl. If she is to learn the craft then he will have to overcome her distaste of the beasts.
“The lower fields must be planted, sprouted and wormed before the rainy season, Overseer,” I point out. “The orchards are fine and can wait.”
Figuring that I have spun out my rudeness as far as the overseer's temper will stretch, I reposition myself so that I am facing her. Her feathered headdress and multihued garb are as ridiculous and out of place as ever, but there appear to be more lines on her face this year and a weariness in her eyes that was not there before. The sterry she rides shuffles its six feet, not enjoying the sticky, red mud, it cranes its long neck forwards and sticks out its tongue at me, remembering past acts of kindness.
“Have you seen this year's quotas?” She blusters.
Behind her the birds flit in and out of the hedge, making their own preparations for the coming rains. Workers pass carrying the timber for the new barn. I can hear the shouts of the supervisor making sure that the planting team work at his preferred rate.
“No, I leave such things to the storemaster.” I tell her. “I rely on the overseer's excellent choice of staff to deliver the demands of the high council.”
On the road sterry-carts transport our crop of spring gourds to the town. Piled high with the green and orange striped fruit and pulled by the six-legged beasts they make slow progress. They will return lighter, carrying tools and the latest influx of displaced workers from the north.
“May I remind you of the fate of your predecessors?” she warns. “Perhaps you spend too much time scurrying off to Seven Summits Estate and not enough concentrating on your own duties.”
There are many things that drag me beyond the boundary of the farm. The thought of a hidden glade where two strange trees now grow side by side and the image of Verrita, leaning on her faddystick to support the weight of her rapidly growing belly leap into my mind. If I have been neglecting my work here then it has been with good reason.
“Maintaining a viable scurrige breeding stock is one of my duties,” I respond. “Co-operation between farms benefits us all, am I to understand that you were not appreciative of the sterry-cart of excess feed I brought back last week?”
She is city-born and has never fully understood the freely trading relations between farming estates. Soon the sun will have climbed high enough to make the air uncomfortable and she will retreat back within the estate's compound, then we will work without fear of interruption.
“Be very careful,” she growls. “It would not be much of a stretch for the high council to declare the craft of the galaflarge outlawed.”
My eyes flick involuntarily towards the purple-grassed hill and the gallows that have become a permanent feature there. A sign of the present, I tell myself, just another pressure to endure. The overseer turns her sterry around and spurs it back towards the compound leaving me and my apprentice alone in the mud.
“Don't just stand there, hand me that scurrige, girl,” I order. “Can't you see we have work to do?”