The Woodcarver's Secret (Samantha Sweet Mysteries)

BOOK: The Woodcarver's Secret (Samantha Sweet Mysteries)
8.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

In the early twenty-first century a woman in
Taos, New Mexico, falls heir to an extraordinary mystical artifact, a carved
wooden box, which she discovers has a long and complex history. What follows is
a glimpse at that history.





Heavy, lead-colored clouds
hovered ominously at the horizon, stealing the last scrap of sun that had
peered tentatively around them half the morning. A frigid wind came off the
waters of Galway Bay, whipping the gray waves to a foamy froth that licked at
John Carver’s feet. He studied the clouds as the next wet salvo washed over his
thick leather boots, filling the left one, draining out through the hole near
his big toe. Maggie would give him the devil for his carelessness the same way
she reminded the children to care for their things. “An’ where do you think
we’ll be
’ a new pair of boots?” she would
surely prod.

Already this morning his wife had
thought of a dozen chores he might do at their small hut—sweep up his wood
shavings, clear his wares to the outdoors so there would be more space, watch
the children while she kneaded bread. The woman always became demanding of him
when she was expecting another one, and by the size of her belly the new mouth
to feed would arrive within a few weeks.

He pulled his woolen cloak
tighter to his shoulders and walked away from the shoreline, staring at the two
tall alder trees on the rise beyond the gray stone city walls. Both were long
dead, gnarled old things whose smaller branches had been stripped and taken for
the fires in a dozen homes. The last of the leaves had blown to the far corners
of the county four or five seasons ago. The trees interested him, though, far
more than anything else in his life right now. He put his walking stick ahead
of him and began to make his way toward the stately silhouettes, black against
the billows of cloud. Thunder rumbled somewhere behind him.

Plates. Bowls. Cups. The words
drummed through his head as he walked. Common kitchen utensils comprised his
work these days. People had no money for niceties or trinkets in these times.
They bought wooden plates and cups because the pieces were durable, wouldn’t
break like real crockery could. Each week at Market Day, John managed to sell a
piece or two, enough to buy flour that he hoped would not turn out to be
infested with weevils. Sometimes there was money enough for some carrots or
potatoes, or he simply bartered for what they needed. Four weeks ago the
butcher’s wife had fancied one of John’s bowls on which he’d applied a simple
inlay pattern, and the man grudgingly traded a half leg of lamb for the bowl.
Maggie had given him no trouble on that day, when he showed up with the prize.

If only he could make another
desirable object like that bowl, something one of the wealthy merchants’ wives
would take a liking to, something which could command a handsome price. He
stared again at the two dead snags—some fine wood there, nicely dried already.
He would not have to store it for months before beginning to work it. He would
need to first cut the wood, then examine it. A piece of quality wood always
told him what object it was most suited to become.

A figure interrupted John’s
concentration. The man walking along the hilltop was someone he recognized.
Tyrel Smith spotted him and crossed the hill, raising a hand in greeting.

“Greetings—fine morning!” Tyrel
always had a way with irony, John thought as a spatter of rain grazed his

Perhaps his friend was right;
being out in the open, no matter the weather, made for a better beginning to
the day than performing household tasks at the whim of a woman. Tyrel waited in
place until John caught up.

“I’ve given some thought to my
next piece of woodcraft,” John said, not admitting his pleasure at selling a
single, artistic piece rather than the utilitarian ones he normally made. “And
I’m thinking ... these trees are doing no one any service up here on the hill.”

“That one’s worm riddled,” Tyrel
said, pointing at the southernmost of the two. “It will not be suitable for any
fine pieces. The other, however—that one would catch my fancy. If I were in the
business of wood carving.”

John patted the side of his
carry-bag, assuring himself that he had brought his axe. He walked up to the
huge tree, admiring the jagged arms it sent skyward. It would take a mighty
effort to fell it. Perhaps he could climb up, take the large limbs one at a
time. He touched the trunk; most of the bark had fallen away, leaving a smooth
surface and an indication of the beautiful bowls that could be carved from this
wood. One limb of decent size was within his reach. He drew his axe from his

Tyrel had moved down the slope,
and he shouted something to John now. But the woodcarver didn’t catch the
words, lost as they were to the rising sounds of wind and storm. He hefted the

Thunder shook the earth and brilliant light blinded him. He
felt his feet leave the ground.

* *


“By the gods, man. Wake up!”

John’s eyes flickered open. A
familiar face hovered over him, a rough hand slapping at his cheek.

“Carver! Wake up!” The rough
hands pushed John’s hair away from his eyes. “The rain’s coming, we have to get
out of here. Can you stand?”

John reached for his friend’s
shoulder, thinking to pull himself up. But his arm refused to rise. He willed
it to move. His fingers tingled, as if he’d fallen asleep with the arm pinned
beneath his body. Tyrel took him by the forearm, tugging at him, but John
barely felt the contact. His legs felt similarly unconnected from his wish to
make them move.

“Can’t you move, John?” Tyrel’s
face had a look of alarm. “Come on, man, try again.”

“What happened?” John looked
around but could not see beyond the bulk of his friend kneeling beside him.

“Lightning. It struck the tree
and flung you down the slope. I feared you were dead.”

John stretched his fingers. This
time they responded, tingling painfully.

“Nay, I’m not dead,” he said,
trying to put a chuckle into it.

Heavy raindrops struck his face
and he rolled to his side. Feeling rushed back into his arms and legs, jabs of
pain that made him grimace and catch his breath. When it subsided he rolled to
his hands and knees, wondering if the limbs could take his weight, frightened
that he might have been rendered a cripple.

Tyrel placed an arm on John’s
shoulders, bracing him as he hung his head. Finally, like a dog, he shook
himself and then sat back on his haunches. With numb fingertips he brushed the
hair away from his face. One hand came away bloody.

“You’ve got yourself a nasty
splinter there,” Tyrel said, plucking the shard of wood from John’s temple with
a delicacy incongruous with the size of his thick, calloused fingers.
“There—it’s out. You’ll want Maggie to tend to that when you get home.”

Maggie. John wondered at the
reception he would receive. “How long have I been here?”

“A few minutes,” said Tyrel.
“Looks like we’ve missed the worst of it.”

He tipped his chin to the north,
where the furious black cloud blasted the earth with rain only a mile or two
away. John shook his arms once more, started to rise, reached for the support
of his friend’s shoulder. One at a time he stretched each leg before requiring
it to take his weight.

“I was about to take my axe to
the—” He looked toward the hilltop.

The magnificent old tree with the
arms was gone. A smoldering stump marked its
location and pieces lay about—from entire limbs to tiny shards like the
splinter taken from John’s own face.

“Well, you’ll not be
’ to cut him down now, will ya?” Tyrel said.

John couldn’t speak. Surrounding
the debris field he saw a brilliant orange aura. He stared as it faded to
yellow and then transformed itself to deep red. He squeezed his eyes shut and
pressed his dirt-crusted fingers to the lids.

“Carver? What is it?”

When John opened his eyes again
he saw only the wisp of smoke from the trunk and the profusion of fragments
covering the ground. The colors were gone. The air smelled of freshly cut wood.
In the distance, the purple-black clouds had dissipated to gray, the storm
quickly becoming only a memory.

“John Carver?”

“It’s nothing. Just a mite dizzy
for a minute.” He knew he could never tell anyone of this experience, not
unless he wanted to be branded an idiot—or worse.

Tyrel nodded. “Well, as there’s
two of us here, shall we take up some of the wood, carry it home for your

John’s legs ached with the first
few steps, but as he approached the abundance of wood lying on the grassy hill
he felt his strength return. He examined a few of the larger pieces. By god, he
had a treasure here, enough wood for a decade’s work if he saw fit to use it.
He began to envision how to use these pieces to best advantage.

“I’ll borrow a cart,” he said. “I

He paused, unwilling to divulge
his plans. Tyrel Smith was his friend, but word had a way of spreading through
the village as quickly as a flash flood. Competitors would arise from the men
who had little work in these hard times. Or, worse yet, the overlord would
appear and claim the bounty as his own, creating a method for taxing John until
any profit was gone.

“Never mind,” he said. “I’ll take
a log or two. But let’s not mention this to anyone.”

Tyrel shrugged. A smithy’s trade,
with its requirement for special tools and years of apprenticeship and
training, never seemed in jeopardy, whereas every man in the land with a knife
or chisel could claim to be a woodworker.

“How about that one over there?”
John said, pointing out a section of the tree’s trunk that was nearly a meter
long and several inches thick. “Carry it for me? I’ll get this other.”

John’s imagination went to work as
the two men walked back toward the village. Perhaps a wooden box of some sort.
One of the fine ladies had mentioned such an item to her friend when they
browsed at his market stall a few weeks ago. He could add decorative carving,
perhaps something inspired from nature or from the rich fabrics the women wore.
With the two pieces of wood, he could use one to make a practice piece and the
other for a finely done one. Surely, the wife of the lord would appreciate such
an item. And if not one of the titled ladies, certainly it would catch the eye
of the butcher’s wife or the mistress of the sheriff. With the right buyer John
could make more money than he had in many months. That would surely quiet his
wife’s nagging tongue.

The storm had unleashed rain in
patches. The two men crossed fields where the earth was completely dry, only to
come upon a gushing stream where water poured from higher ground and formed in
puddles at the lower roadway. In the bay, the surf pounded the shore in muddy,
foam-topped anger, as if to make the point that a mere batch of clouds was no
match for the sea. The men spoke little, each concentrating on finding the path
of least difficulty while walking with his sizeable burden hefted to his

On the outskirts of town lay a
huddle of small cottages, John’s home only by virtue of the fact that Maggie's
brother farmed a few acres of the nearby land. Tenant farmers were provided a
home in exchange for dawn-to-dusk labor and the baron receiving an outsized
share of the food they produced. If the day came that Sean chose to marry, John
and Maggie and the wee ones would have to either take up farming to earn a home
of their own or move into the town in order for John to keep up his woodcraft.

He preferred to watch his children
play and work out here where there were grass and plants, rather than in the
winding, muddy streets of Galway where household waste was tossed from upper
story windows into the shallow gutters and sickness ran rampant. For now, his
brother-in-law showed no inclination toward women and seemed content to abide
among the extended family with his sister as housemaid and cook. John put the
thoughts aside; making radical changes to their living situation was something
they did not discuss.

Outside the one-room stone
structure with its roof of heavy thatch, John spotted his young son Ethan, the
eldest of the four, loading his arms with blocks of peat from the stack near
the door. When the six-year-old saw his father, he abandoned his chore, dropped
the peat and came running.

“Da’, da’! Look what I found!”
The boy reached into the pocket of his woolen trousers to bring out his
treasure, but pulled out only a few fragments of pale blue shell and a slippery
mess of yolk. His small face crumpled and a tear threatened to slide down his

“Oh, a robin’s egg,” John said
gently. “I’ll bet it was beautiful!”

Ethan nodded.

“No matter. We’ll find another,
you and me together.”

Ethan noticed Tyrel and went
quiet, rubbing the remains of egg on his pants and lowering his gaze to the

“We’ve found some beautiful
timber,” John said. “Go, finish helping your mother and I’ll show them to you
when I set them down.”

He led the way to the lean-to
structure he had constructed against the side of the stone cottage, a place
where he could keep his wood pieces dry and work in relative quiet outside the
house where seven people, a cow and two goats provided nothing in the way of
the solitude needed for creativity. Inside, he’d made shelves for finished
wares. For pieces of wood that he’d not yet worked, there was a small bin,
empty now.

“Put it there,” he told Tyrel,
nodding toward his small bench.

He set his own length of the
alder on the three-legged stool where he sat when working and stared at the
two. These were fine pieces with a unique grain and no knots. He could create
something worthy with them.

BOOK: The Woodcarver's Secret (Samantha Sweet Mysteries)
8.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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