Well, that was unexpected. And there will probably be more.
Anyone listening? My name is Coran and I’m going to tell you about the adventure I had. Not one of those nice cosy adventures where a prince rides away on a horse and pirates catch him and he meets a beautiful brave princess and they beat the pirates together and they come home with all the treasure and get married, but a real nasty adventure where nobody was brave or beautiful or rich, and people got beaten a lot, but that’s a different kind of beating.
It starts last autumn, just after the wine feast, with the weather already getting cold and nasty. I was minding my own business in town when old Erne saw me and asked if I wanted to earn fivepence. Well, I always want to earn fivepence! That meant eating bread for a week, and if I could scrounge some leftover apples and carrots at market close even eating really well! Or I could save the money until I had a shilling and get myself new breeches, because the pair I’d got was falling apart. And too small for that matter. Or get a threepenny pie from Rani, with actual meat in it, not rat, probably pig, and still have some left over to buy bread later.
So I said yes, and she gave me a huge stack of linen sacks to shake out and wash. I stuffed half in one sack and half in another and lugged them to the upstream washing-pool. There are usually other people doing their laundry there but it was deserted now, perhaps because of the vile weather. And a vile job! Grain sacks that mice had got in, and I had to toss several dead mice away, not to speak of all the mouse shit. My shirt was on a bush to keep it at least a little clean, even with the icy rain pattering on my back. But fivepence was fivepence, and it was getting so cold that a hot pie was more and more attractive.
I was about halfway, perhaps a bit more, when I felt someone looking at me. I didn’t look at once because, well, I had work to do and if they wanted to watch a fellow in tattered breeches rinsing filthy sacks, let them! But it was getting annoying so I looked over my shoulder.
There was a man standing there, a bit large, a bit pudgy, but with a nice smile and friendly blue eyes. “So, hard at work?” he asked. “I’ll bet it’s made you hungry. Care for some bread and dripping?” “When I’m finished,” I said, but he insisted, “when is the work due?” Well, not until tonight in fact, and it was still light enough that I could take time off to eat and still finish before dark. “Yes, please,” I said and got a thick slice of bread with lots of dripping, and bits of salty crackling in it too! He wanted to know if I had any family, and I said my dad had gone off to the war and my mum had died of the fever, and he said that it was just the other way round with him, his daughter had died in the war and his son of the fever. He was called Arin, and I told him my name too. “Are you a carter?” I asked, because I could see his wagon in the road, the horse nibbling on leaves at the roadside. He said yes, driving from Turenay to Veray and back, and I thought I could perhaps ask him if he needed an apprentice, but I didn’t dare to yet. Then he brought out a jar of weak ale, which made me remember that I’d already needed to piss before I stopped work, so I went into the bushes to do that.
And that was the last I knew for a while.
When I could see something again I was somewhere else, in a clearing in a wood, where there were lots of other people, all dirty and hungry and miserable. “Am I having a nightmare? Where are my sacks?” I asked, and some people laughed at me because I was so confused, and other people beat them with sticks when they laughed. I got a whack with a stick too, though I hadn’t done anything except ask a question! It must really be a nightmare. But it became real enough when I saw Arin the carter among the people. He grinned and said, “Hey, lad, congratulations, I’ve found a job for you! Room and board included! “How much does it pay?” I asked, and that got me another whack. “Pay? Free beatings, as many as you need! Get along, Erne will tell you what to do.” It was a different Erne, of course, and she took me to a place where there was a heap of dirt and leaves and sticks and showed me how to put some small wooden boards together so I had a kind of box and fill that with the dirt, and again and again until I had a whole tray of full boxes, and carry those to a great big oven standing nearby, a baking-hut really.
The next part of the adventure is very boring and I won’t tell all of it, but I was there the whole winter, and a very cold winter it was, with snow all the time. That made me think I was in the north, because my mum used to tell me that when she was growing up in the woods in the north there was snow all winter. We got soup in the evening, with water in it and not much more, and sometimes a bit of hard grey bread, not enough to keep warm on. But then I’ve always been tough, and when other folks dropped dead I just stayed alive and kept going.
I found out quite soon that it was bricks we were baking. Every once in a while, I think always on the Day of the Nameless but I can’t be sure, a man came with a wagon to take them away on the only road leading out of the clearing. This was a dark man, Síthi I think, called something like Capo (but that’s probably wrong because I don’t know any Síthi). One of the older lads, a man really, at least seventeen, warned me to stay out of his way because “the foremen will have a girl at times but this one likes young boys, especially as tender as you”. And then he offered to swap work with me for the day that Capo was coming so I would be out of his sight, and I’d also get warm for a change because his work was at the charcoal oven. “Thank you!” I said, “for the work and for the warning!”
I hadn’t realised people would still call me young and tender, because I’d been doing a lot of growing up over the winter, not my body but the rest of me. I was telling other kids what to do now! There was one boy of about eight, Jilan, really cute with curls and freckles, who I showed exactly what Erne had shown me on my first day, and we became real friends after that, it was just like being his big brother. I let him sleep close to me in the warmest spot, and made sure that if there was bread he got some. When I warned him about Capo he was shocked, “you don’t do that with boys!” But I said some people did, and Capo liked it with young boys like him.
Also I thought a lot about trying to find a way to get away –I knew all the weak spots now– but I didn’t tell anyone.
The feast of Timoine must have come and gone, but we only noticed because the working days were longer, we started at dawn and worked as long as the light lasted. But suddenly it was Midsummer, and carts full of food came in. Suckling pigs! Sausage! Berry pies! Barrels of ale! But only the foremen and the guards got anything. They got so drunk that I dared say to Jilan “let’s go! I know the way!” and we sneaked off through the wood along the road, but not on it, a good thing because we heard wagon-wheels and horse-hoofs and someone singing, and it was Arin the carter! With something in a sack that squirmed in the back of his wagon. We’d heard him say that there were plenty of orphans, so I figured he’d caught another one or two.
We walked all night, it seemed, though it must have been only part of the night because it didn’t get light yet, and then we came to a place where the hillside was a sheer cliff that we couldn’t climb, especially in the dark, so we went along it. We kept going until we heard voices. People! But before we could see them, we were caught– we’ been going right back to the work camp. “Here are our little runaways! You’ve been missed, lads. Where did you think you were going?” I didn’t say anything, and Jilan didn’t say anything either, fortunately, so all we got was a beating and still more work.
More people died, and new kids came, and Jilan stopped looking cute and started looking as tough as I imagined I did. Then one day Arin the carter came back early, and on foot, and cursing, after driving away with a wagon full of bricks. “Broke my wheel! Give me some of the lads to help clear it up. You, you, you, and you (including me and Jilan), come along. No dawdling.” So we went, and one of the guards also went, through the wood (there were berries, and I stuffed a lot of those in my mouth and gave handfuls to Jilan) until we came to a bend in the road where we could see the wagon toppled over and the load spilt everywhere. This was the place where the sheer hillside met the road, and we’d gone the wrong way! If I screwed up my eyes a lot I could see something in the distance that looked like houses. The town! I didn’t know which town, but surely not Veray.
The guard helped Arin get the wagon upright and the wheel sort of repaired while we workers put the bricks back. “Don’t leave a single one behind!” Arin said, and that gave me an idea and I put a broken brick in the waistband of my breeches. When we started to drag the wagon back to the camp –it wouldn’t go properly any more, of course, not fully loaded with a wonky wheel– I took care to be pushing behind rather than pulling in front, and dropped the half-brick at the roadside where someone coming from the town might see it. Jilan saw me do it, fortunately nobody else, and gave me a wink.
Nothing happened for a while, except work of course, and the weather getting colder and wetter again, and Arin driving a wagon with four new wheels with iron rims. Then one day we heard barking and shouting. First a huge dog came charging into the camp, grey and shaggy and really huge, its head higher than Jilan’s head. Jilan was scared, and some of the others too, but I like dogs a lot, I slept in Erne’s shed with her dogs more often than not when I was a kid. Some people on horses came behind the dog, and also people on foot. One man on a horse looked really rich and noble, like a prince, and some of the people on foot had even darker skin than Capo, and there were lots of soldiers or town guards all in the same uniforms, not like the camp guards who all had different uniforms and you could only see they were uniforms because there was braid sewn on.
All the guards and bosses were running away! Some of the soldiers went after them, but the man who looked like a prince got off his horse and came to talk to me, “you look as if you’ve got some experience here, now tell me, what’s going on?” It turned out that someone had found my brick! “It worked!” Jilan said and poked me in the side. “Did you do that?” the rich man asked, and I said yes and half expected to be whacked with a stick, but he nodded and thanked me for it. “Are you members of the brickmakers’ guild?” he asked. “No,” I had to say, “we wouldn’t have the money to pay the fees, would we?” When the rich man heard that we didn’t earn any pay he was even more angry, and I had to hold Jilan with one arm and Alyse with the other to make it clear that he wasn’t angry at us. Not that I was all that sure, mind you! Then the rich man (he was called Lord Radan and he was some kind of boss of the town) started ordering people about and it all got a bit mixed-up, but they were going to take all of us away from the camp at least.
“Hey!” I called to the others. “All the guards have run away, and their shed is full of food!” And we all ate and drank until we couldn’t possibly eat any more, bread and sausage and salt pork and apples and ale and everything! (We got sick, of course. But it was worth it.)
Lord Radan asked me to find out if everyone was there, and there were three people missing but one was lame so he wouldn’t go far, and I could see the others trying to get away into the forest, probably because they thought we were all being arrested. And to be honest I wasn’t completely sure about that either, it was a lord of the town and we had been working outside the guild. And stealing food, now, as well. But one of the dark people came and talked to me, and I started to believe him. He was called Veh, of the Ishey people –never heard of them, but I understood the king likes them and has given them some land to build a village. The dog was his dog, I think. He said the doctor would be so angry at our bosses, only she was away, but they’d take us to the hospital so other doctors could help anyone who was ill. And we’d all get a bath and good food and clothes.
It was a while until we were on our way, with having to count everybody and people stopping along the way to puke, but we arrived at some houses and then a bridge where a young man and woman were kissing. “Merain!” Veh said. “Run to the hospital and get the cart, there are people here who can’t walk. No, don’t run, just call them.” And the young man stared into the air for a bit and said “They’re coming” and continued kissing the girl.
We waited, and presently a cart pulled by a mule came over the bridge. The driver was a boy a bit younger than me but older than Jilan, with very light hair and skin, and there were two pretty women on it! One was a priestess of Naigha, that spoilt it a bit, but the other was Síthi or something, anyway dark and pretty. “I’m doctor Ghamri,” she said, “from the hospital, now who is it who can’t walk?” So we helped lame Jeran and the old woman whose name I didn’t even know and Ailin who had hurt her hip on the cart and all the rest of us walked behind it until we came to a big bath-house.
In the bath-house I got to wash properly for the first time in… it must have been over a year! I think I must have been a grubby little boy when I was little, but it was so nice to be completely clean after all the dirt in the camp that we hadn’t even had time to wash off. Everybody had lice, of course, so we all got our heads shaved, boys and girls and men and women. There was warm water here that came out of the ground, just like that! “That’s because this is Turenay,” one of the soldiers said, “built on hot springs.” This turned out to be the sergeant, Liase, who wrote down everybody’s names and asked if there was someone who might miss us so she could write to them where we were. But I had nobody, perhaps only Erne but she probably thought I’d run away or fallen into the Rycha and died.
Everybody who was clean got clean clothes, I had a pair of breeches with only one patch and a shirt without any patches at all that was only just too large, and all our old clothes were taken away to be burnt. They didn’t deserve anything better! A couple of Síthi boys came to hand out little pasties, “there’s no meat in these so you won’t get sick again, but take care you eat slowly”, and they were yummy, with carrot and turnip and something that tasted really sharp. Most people got beds in the soldiers’ quarters where there was a large attic, but Veh had been walking and talking with Jilan and me (and the dog) and took us to his house, at least not his house –they were still building that– but the house of doctor Cora who was, Veh said, a queen. Not the queen, but she’d been a queen in her own country. And she was married to the king’s brother! He wasn’t there, gone south on some errand, and the doctor wasn’t there either, gone north because her friend was having a baby. “My wife is about to have a baby too,” Veh said, “not mine, she was already expecting when we met, but I’ll be its father nevertheless.”
This house looked strange, as if it was somewhere abroad, painted all white with pillars in front and a sort of outside room with a roof and no walls. But inside it was very warm and cosy, and there were friendly people there, all women (though the baby that one of them had at her breast might have been a boy) and half of them foreign-looking. Well, only one in fact, a very pretty woman with a big pregnant belly, and Veh kissed her on the lips so she must have been his wife. And we were greeted by a young woman who promptly started bossing Veh around, “you made all those people wash and you smell like a cesspit! In the bath with you! It’s already warm!” There was a big basin in one corner of the kitchen, full of warm water, not from a hot spring but from a fire burning under it. But the bossy woman opened a little door and more water came through and flowed into the bath, while Veh took his clothes off.
Then I got a shock! Because Veh had a woman’s body under his clothes. I knew somehow that he was really a guy, though, not a girl dressed up as a man. The other people laughed at me, they must be used to it. “I have the best man in the world,” the pregnant woman said, “who doesn’t want to stick any part of his body in me!”
Jilan and I got a room in the attic with a straw pallet and a couple of blankets. Another woman took us there, blonde and big-breasted and still young, perhaps only a little older than me. “Sleep as long as you like,” she said, “and if you need anything ask me, I’m Jerna, I’m the maid here.” “I will,” I said, “tomorrow I’ll do nothing at all, the first time in ages that I can!” And I was asleep before I could say or think anything else.
In the morning I was woken up by something soft brushing my forehead, and there was a little girl there, brown and completely naked! I thought I was seeing things, but Jilan had seen her too. “Did I just have a vision of Timoine?” I asked, but he said “Nonsense! Timoine is a boy!” “I’m probably too old to see Timoine anyway,” I said, but Jilan didn’t agree, “you only stop seeing Timoine when you’ve been with a girl. Oh well, wanted to be with a girl.”
I think we slept a bit more, and then I needed the chamber-pot and started to feel hungry. Would I always be hungry now? Jerna was downstairs, making pancake batter. “Pancakes!” I said, and she baked a whole stack. The little girl was there too, now dressed in a shirt, carrying things. “That’s Dayati,” Jerna said, “she’s a bit sad, doctor Cora couldn’t take her along and her big sister’s gone away to learn so she needs a lot of cuddles. She’s an orphan from the war, she’s seen a lot.” I told her that I’d thought I was having a vision of Timoine (only as a girl) and Jerna laughed and said that ‘Dayati’ is what the Síthi call Timoine!
I’d said I was going to do nothing at all, but when Veh came and said that he was going to work on the house I started to feel like working. “Can I come?” I asked, “even though I’m not in any guild?” “We’re Ishey,” Veh said, “nobody needs to be in a guild, you just pick up something that looks as if it wants doing and do it.” That sounded like a nice way to work! So I went with Veh, and Jilan too, to work because we wanted to, not because anybody else made us do it.
While we were on the way, Veh stopped and looked very serious for a moment. “You know,” he said, “Lord Radan is going to want to round up those guards, and the man with the cart, but what would you like better, telling him all you know so he can catch that Arin or going after him ourselves?” And by the look in his eyes I could see what he would like better, and I agreed. “Go after him ourselves of course! And I want to club him on the head!” I demonstrated with my fists, “this one is for Jilan, and this one is for Alyse, and that one is for me! And then Lord Radan can have him to hang him, but first I want to give him back what I got!”