Master Sef stretched the wet woolen cloth to its full extent. He walked his fist, thumb and little finger spread wide, across the fabric from one selvage to the other, measuring its width.
“It’s coming along well. Give it another five hundred strokes, lad, then come fetch me.” He scowled at Josiah. “And mind you don’t go off into one of your dreaming fits. There’s a representative of the Wizards’ Guild coming to check on their order, and we need to show him our best work—not cloth beat full of holes because a lazy apprentice couldn’t keep his mind on his task.”
“Yes, Master Sef.” Josiah gathered the loose end of the bolt of cloth and returned it to its place, bunched in even folds against the back of the long, low box. When he moved clear, Master Sef scowled at him for a moment, then pulled the lever that set the fulling mill in motion.
With a creaking groan the gears engaged, and the six stocks began to move. The heavy wooden heads crept back and swept down. They slammed into the folds of wet wool, sending spray flying. The mill beat the newly woven cloth rhythmically, binding the loose threads together, shrinking and thickening the web into a dense, warm fabric.
With a pointed look at Josiah, Master Sef left the room. Josiah grabbed a bucket and went to the open arch to dip it in the millrace, just below where the great water wheel turned the massive drive shaft. He returned to the box and walked its length, pouring water onto the wool to replace what the pounding stocks threw free.
“Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine…” Josiah chanted under his breath. Five hundred more strokes. That should be just long enough.
Pushing his unruly mop of brown curls out of his eyes, he glanced around furtively. He was alone in the main room of the mill. Through the arch, past the wheel, he could see only the river and rolling hills beyond. On the other side, a window looked out over the tenting fields, where journeymen stretched bolts of cloth fulled this morning on drying frames. But they’d never see him, even if they happened to glance his way.
Gold light from the westering sun streamed past the wheel and through the arch in the stone wall. It shimmered into rainbows as it passed through the stocks’ spray and cast a glowing semicircle on the far wall, swept by shadows of the turning spokes. Josiah examined where the sharp curve of light lit a series of tiny scratches.
He’d begun making the marks from idle curiosity, searching for some distraction during his long hours tending the mill. He’d watched the sunlight creep across the wall and wondered if he might use it to measure time. That was how the shadow-clock in the square outside the Mother’s Hall worked, wasn’t it? The steady beat of the stocks provided a measure, and he’d whiled away a whole afternoon marking the edge of the sunlight every fifty strokes. With mounting excitement he’d realized that the scratches could free him from the drudgery of counting strokes, his least-favorite task.
Josiah counted out nine scratches and smudged a bit of dirt to mark the place. With a sigh of relief he released the numbers from his mind, though the racket still pounded in his ears. He returned to the end of the row of stocks, breath quickening and heart racing.
Ever since he’d come up with the idea, weeks ago, he’d been waiting for a chance to try it. The space between the stocks and the box was small, but as each stock pulled back, just enough room opened up for a skinny boy like Josiah to slip through. As the stock reached its full height and began to fall, the next space formed. With careful timing, Josiah was sure he could make it through.
He watched the stocks. Every other one rose as the cam shaft turned and caught their pegs, drawing them back until the pegs slid free and the stocks crashed down. At the same time, the cam caught the alternate three and lifted them up. He glanced at the beam overhead from which the stocks hung, pivoting back and forth like children’s swings. He looked down at their heavy heads. The dull points slammed into the wool and slid under it. The curved and serrated upper surfaces lifted and turned the wool as they withdrew. The stocks would crush him if he made one wrong move. He pictured his body, beaten and broken, pounded by the relentless hammers.
If his old friends were here to watch, he wouldn’t hesitate. They would be impressed by the danger of the stunt, awed by his daring, elated by his success. But they were apprenticed to other guilds and Josiah barely saw them anymore, except on the occasional Restday. Master Sef’s other apprentices were years older than Josiah and far too busy learning the finer points of their craft to be interested in the antics of their newest guildmate.
He had to decide soon. Master Sef didn’t leave him alone with the mill very often, and he might not have another chance before Springtide. After that, with any luck, he’d be free of this place.
Josiah was going to request a transfer to another guild as soon as he summoned the courage. It wouldn’t be easy. Everyone would know he’d failed at his apprenticeship. People would talk, his friends would laugh, his parents would be disappointed. But not doing it would be even worse. He couldn’t face spending the rest of his life at the fulling mill.
He wiped sweaty palms against his tunic and looked around again, almost hoping to see his master or anyone else entering the room. But it remained deserted. The sunlight was well shy of his mark. He breathed deeply, trying to slow his racing heart and still his shaking hands.
This was it. Now or never.
The first stock crashed down and began creeping back. As it cleared the edge of the box, Josiah stepped forward.
In front of him, the second stock fell, and began to rise. Wait, a little farther, a little farther…
Josiah stepped again. Behind and before him, the stocks swept down. The breeze of their passing tickled his neck and lifted his hair. They slammed into the cloth, sending droplets of water splashing over him. No going back. He wobbled, caught his balance. Ahead of him, the next stock lifted.
Step. He was deep into the gauntlet. His feet felt sure on the slippery wet boards of the floor. The stocks to either side fell, caging him. The cam turned; the way opened.
Step. The rhythm felt as natural to Josiah as his own heartbeat, as the rise and fall of each breath. There was no room for fear, or even excitement, just an intense awareness of the moment.
Step. Crash. Ahead of him the final stock crept back, revealing freedom beyond.
Step. His pulse thundered in his ears. He stumbled forward and collapsed in a heap as the sixth stock thudded home.
He panted, staring back at the swinging stocks and the course he’d just walked. He’d done it. He’d faced his fear and overcome it, kept his composure and performed as he’d envisioned, and made it through an obstacle most would deem impassable. He had done it.
A wild surge of elation surged through Josiah, and he laughed. He glanced at the sun on the wall. Plenty of time yet.
He barely hesitated before stepping in a second time. The crashing stocks and opening spaces were like a dance he moved through with confident steps.
One, two, three, four, five, six, and he was at the far side, turning to enter again without pause. The danger and the rhythm and his skill blended into a heady brew. Why had he worried? This was easy.
After a few more passes, his exhilaration calmed enough for caution to intrude. How long had it been? He should stop soon and check. But not yet. After the next time through, or maybe the time after that. Reaching the far side, he turned and stepped back in.
He was at the fifth stock when it happened.
“Josiah!” his master bellowed.
Josiah’s head jerked up and his foot slipped. He teetered, arms flailing, desperately trying to regain his balance. Before and behind him the stocks crashed down. The stock to the rear brushed his backside and knocked him sprawling into the box.
Find out what happens next: http://amzn.to/1PXfRHP