The Sawmill

Set into a wide curve of the river, the mill employed a large water wheel to run the saw blades. The forest had reached around it at one point, but over the years it had receded on one side, the best trees having been sacrificed in construction of the building and the mechanisms within. The forest merely thinned after that as the loggers selectively cut their way back, leaving some trees to mature properly and others to grow in to replace those they'd cut. This forest had to last beyond their lifetime and the town husbanded it as carefully as they did their livestock. Every few years the men mounted an expedition up river to the other forest of hardwood and would camp there for several weeks felling trees and trimming the trunks before binding them together and sending them back downstream towards the mill.

The sound of the saw slicing through wood filled the air well before they reached the mill and Iain winced at the high pitched note. Several men moved in and out of the large shed, carrying large logs in and planks back out to be stacked in a waiting wagon. The mill owner had a few permanent employees, but he never minded men cutting their own wood. Besides the fact it freed his men for other tasks, it was just the way they did things here and throughout the bannorn. Men worked together, regardless of their calling. If wood needed to be cut, they all cut the wood. If a house needed to be built, they all picked up a hammer. Expertise was paid for, but labour often fell to family and friends.

Another log made its way down the path of the blade and a screaming sound rent the air. Iain grit his teeth against the noise and shook his head. He'd heard the sound before, of course, on and off throughout the years, but never before had it sent such a bead of irritation along the back of his skull. He did not know how the mill workers stood it. Perhaps they were half deaf.

Callum moved directly into the mill to talk to the overseer and Iain stood outside for a moment longer. He glanced back up the road towards the geese but they were too far away and he wondered if they were still camped by the river. Despite the squawking, he supposed their company might be more peaceful right now.

"Iain!"

Turning at the sound of his name, Iain jogged inside the mill and moved as directed to the other end of a large tree trunk. All limbs had been shorn from its length and now it would be split along the middle, then again, and again, until it had been reduced to useable planks. They would do this until they filled a wagon, and then they would coax an ox to cart the load back to the Darrow house. He helped heft the trunk towards the saw and steady it as it was set into the path. The saw bit into the top end and Iain felt the tremble of it down the length of the large trunk as the wood resisted then gave into the blade. The high pitched whine began and he attempted to block out the sound by humming to himself, tunelessly against the loud whine, and slowly walked forward with his load.

Another sound reached his ears as he moved towards the workings, a rhythmic clanking, and he looked down to see the cranks and gears that worked the blade. His breath caught and a memory flashed across his eyes, obscuring his vision for a moment – a face caught in a rictus of pain. The sound of the blade dropped as the log stalled and a shout brought Iain's attention back to the mill. He'd stopped moving. Swallowing, he stepped forward and the screaming began again, and the clanking and grinding, and then a loud pop cracked through the mill as the saw hit a knot in the wood. The trunk shuddered violently in his arms and Iain stepped back with a yell.

Callum waved a hand and one of the men disengaged the saw and the mill fell quiet. "Iain?" His father was at his side. "Are you hurt?" The older man was looking at him closely, his brow furrowed with concern.

"N-no," Iain stammered. He shook his head and then tried to wave the incident off. "Just the noise, sorry, I'm not used to the noise."

His father gave him an odd look, as if to say, 'But you're the loud twin, the noisy one,' and then he patted him on the shoulder. "Stuff some cotton in your ears."

An odd sensation fluttered at the back of Iain's throat and it felt as if a band of iron had been fastened about his chest. He recognised the symptoms, this wasn't the first time a sight or sound had plunged him back into the horror of the dungeons. It hadn't happened for a while though, not in six months. He'd thought it behind him, the nightmare, except for the occasional bad dream. Wiping his hands on his pants, Iain shook his head and indicated he was ready to continue. "S'alright. Let's just get it done."

He held his breath and then hummed loudly to himself as they finished pushing the trunk through the blade. The screaming tore at his ears and the clanking triggered anxiety that knotted his insides. He felt weak and his hands trembled as he finally let go of the wood. Then they had to do it again.

As he approached the gears a second time, Iain tried not to 'remember' the sound of them turning, of people screaming and of his own joints approaching excruciating tension. He tried not to think about the sharp crack of tendons snapping and shoulders dislocating. He had watched someone die on the rack and it had quite possibly been the most awful thing he'd ever seen. The harder he tried to push the thoughts from his mind, however, the more insistent they became. The scream of the saw and the turn of the crank defeated his efforts, utterly. Sweat beaded his forehead, some of it from his exertions, most of it from the memories. The wood shuddered again and he bit his tongue. The taste of blood in his mouth was so familiar...

They finished sawing the length, put it aside, and picked up the other half. Then they approached the saw again.

Iain wanted to stop; he wanted to walk away and take a break. He did not. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to stay and worked harder to concentrate on the task at hand. The next few cuts proceeded smoothly and he grasped at the sameness of the sound, the unrelenting whine of the blade. Then the saw blade hit another knot and the wood jerked hard in his arms. When the blade caught, a sharp crack rent the air. With a cry, Iain tightened his grip on the shuddering wood and then, at a yell from his father, he stepped back as the crack traveled away from the cut and split the trunk with a loud snap. Iain thought he might vomit.

"Crap!" Someone yelled from up front and the mill fell quiet as they disengaged the blade again.

"I'm sorry," Iain called weakly.

Callum looked up, his brows drawn together. "Not your fault, son, blade caught the wrong side of the knot is all. We'll have to shave this part off. Why don't you go catch your breath, I'll call you when we need you again."

Iain did not have to be told twice. He stepped outside the mill and drew in great a lungful of cool, quiet air. Then another and another. He closed his eyes and Thedas tried to spin away from him, so he opened them again and let his gaze roam over the wide open paddocks in an attempt to push back the dungeon walls. After a moment of stillness he felt the need to move and so he did, pacing up and down outside the building as he worked to calm his breath and his thoughts.

The battle did not haunt him like the dungeon. Fighting Howe's men, as unexpected as it had been, made sense. Someone had attacked the castle and he'd defended it, albeit unsuccessfully. He'd picked up his blade and used it for a purpose. When the pirates had boarded La Stella Cadente he had not hesitated to pick up a sword and defend the ship and her crew.

What had transpired in the dungeon made little if any sense. It had been torture, cruel and, for the most part, pointless. Iain often struggled to find a place for it in his thoughts, an appropriate spot. People were not born with a compartment in their mind labeled 'memories of senseless torture'. He'd had to invent one and as he had never had the most organized mind, the dark walls behind which he hid those memories were easily breached.

Someone called his name and he froze in place, afraid to enter the mill again. Then he huffed out two quick breaths and steeled his will. His father's words echoed in his mind. Keep going.

He walked back into the mill and lent his strength to the work again.

It took two hours to fill the wagon and Iain tried different ways of coping. For a while he let the memories come, wondering if he could exhaust himself with them, somehow burn them from his mind. When the memories persisted, he held himself still against the jerks of the wood and he battled against the constant screaming. He tried humming again and thinking about the ship and the ocean, the wide and endless swell of water. He recalled different memories, those of his adventures abroad and those of his childhood. The earlier ones confused him, the later ones were not strong enough to combat the dark tide. Then he withdrew into himself and tried not to think at all.

On the walk back, he did not realise his father had been trying to talk to him until the man fell silent. Then he recalled the sound of his voice in its absence, the silence. He looked over at his father and saw the older man looking at him with concern.

"Sorry," Iain whispered. "I was lost in my thoughts."

His father did not answer him, which was not entirely unusual. Callum often only spoke when he felt it necessary. Instead he nodded and resumed coaxing the ox forward and the animal's soft lowing, the steady clop of its hooves and the huff of its breath gave Iain a focus at last, something peaceful, normal, pastoral.

He had no appetite when they returned home that evening and excused himself from the kitchen by explaining he had a headache.

"The... noise," he explained. "The mill."

He asked for a mug of warm water and his mother handed it across, her eyes dark with worry. He collected his cat and slipped into the darkened bedroom. Panic clawed at him as he regarded the small dim space and his hand shook as he dispensed his herbs, then he drank his bitter tea and waited for the blissful nothingness to carry him away.

Iain was not a religious man, but he did offer up a quick prayer before sleep claimed him. He prayed the herbs would work, that he would not continue to hear the screaming in his dreams.