Lots of soldiers

We found a sharp stone to cut open the beast we’d caught and ate as much of the meat as we could. There wasn’t much on it and it was hard to get it off the bones, so we had to leave most for the foxes and we were still hungry. “Now let’s go to Lady Mialle’s house,” I said, but Kehendaki wanted to scout out the house first to make sure it was safe. We found another spot where we could see the back door, and look into the nearest courtyard, but nobody was moving where we could see them. There was smoke coming from a chimney near the door, though. “They’re cooking,” I said, “they must be alive!” We knew that Lady Mialle hadn’t been seen for two years, that she was probably sick but not dead because there’d been no burial. And if you’re sick and not dead, you must eat or you will die, so someone must be cooking for her.

Just as we were about to scramble down the hillside a lot of soldiers came into the street, Iss-Peranian soldiers, arm in arm and singing, very drunk. They went towards the pleasure quarter, where we could now see three columns of smoke. To fight the thugs or to go to the houses that weren’t on fire? We sure weren’t going to ask them.

And now there were Valdyan soldiers too, a dozen or some more, who surrounded Lady Mialle’s house, and some of them went in and after a while we saw them on the roof, and then the rest went in too. We scrambled down the hillside anyway and kept out of sight until we were close enough to the back door to knock on it. A little window opened above our heads. “Who is there?” a woman’s voice asked.

“It’s us, we don’t have a house any more and we’re hungry,” I said.

“Step back so I can see you.” We did that, and then the door opened and the woman of the voice beckoned us. “Come in, quick.” There were two soldiers standing just inside the door and they looked at us but didn’t ask any questions. We got huge bowls of hot soup! The woman who gave us the soup, Ailin the cook, did ask us our names and where we came from, and some of the other people had seen us at the print shop so they knew we weren’t thieves or enemies. Then Ailin got called away because Lady Mialle wanted her. “Lady Mialle is sick, right?” I asked. “Is it catching?”

“No,” someone said, “she had her babies two years ago and she hasn’t stopped bleeding!” But the babies were all right. I could hear them from somewhere in the house, I know the sound of hungry rugrats and after two years they must be that size!

Then another soldier came in and got a bowl of hot soup too. But before he ate it he said “We have to make ready for the defense.” There was a lot of talking back and forth, and more soldiers in the kitchen all the time, and then suddenly we seemed to have volunteered to take notes to the print shop and the Temple of Naigha and a few other places so people would know to get together here and defend the house against the Síthi boss and his thugs, and against the Iss-Peranian soldiers who had defected and were now fighting for the other side. We were better messengers than the soldiers because we were small and used to being invisible in the street. We got a handful of notes, all looking the same, sealed, without any writing on the outside but they sort of tingled in our hands.

When we came back Ailin got us a place to sleep, a bed in a little room on the same courtyard as the kitchen (there were four courtyards!), softer than the beds where the highest-ranked girls worked! “We’ll call you in eight hours and you can do a stint on lookout,” she said. “Don’t open the door for anyone but me or the sergeant.” That was the soldier who’d given us the notes. I’d almost have gone to sleep on the mat in front of the bed but Kehendaki pulled me next to him and fell asleep so I couldn’t very well get away.

Then Ailin knocked on the door — I couldn’t remember going to sleep! We got porridge with honey and dried fruit and then it was time to go to the roof and stand behind a bit of wall (called a battlement, it was for people to stand behind and be safe from arrows) and look out, and if we saw anyone coming and we knew and trusted them we had to shout that it was all right, and if we saw anyone coming who looked like bad news we had to scream. That was easy! I shouted when I saw two girls from the next house over from ours, carrying bundles of what looked like clothes. And I screamed when I saw the bunch of soldiers running after them. Our soldiers shot arrows at them until some where dead and the rest ran away, then they went outside to get their arrows back.

We did that for a long time, with more shouts and screams, and then one of the soldiers sent us downstairs, “end of your shift, go get yourselves something to eat”. But we didn’t make it all the way to the kitchen, because when we passed a room in the first courtyard someone called us, “strange voices? Please come in!”

This was Lady Mialle! She was lying in a bed nursing a toddler on each side. But the bed was all red with blood between her legs. She said that nobody ever told her what was happening, so we told her everything we knew (not very much, but much more than she knew). “When I ask my husband he starts to yell and scream,” she said, he’d gone half crazy because all his soldiers had run away and he couldn’t make love with his wife and had two daughters and no son. “There’s nothing wrong with daughters!” I said. Especially not with these daughters who were now in the crib sucking each other’s fingers and looking very cute. But the lady’s husband was Iss-Peranian (that was Lord Koll Dishab of the Iss-Peranian regiment) and they all want sons.

“Can you change my sheet?” she asked, and pointed to a chest that had clean sheets in it. “Shall I wash you too?” I asked, and I was going to ask for warm water in the kitchen but Lady Mialle held her hand over a bucket of cold water and after a while it started to boil! Then I had to wait because it was too hot. “There’s nothing wrong with my mind,” she said. I wished I knew how to call the doctor, but when I said that Lady Mialle said “I think I might know your doctor. Sober or drunk?”

“Drunk, and when she heals someone she drinks brandy, otherwise she makes do with wine.”

“Yes, she’s been to see me several times but she couldn’t do anything, worse luck. Now run and get yourselves something to eat!” We took the laundry basket too, and after we’d eaten we started washing the sheets in the courtyard, and people kept bringing us more washing, but this was work we were used to so it was easy and we could talk and look around. There were two young women in long grey robes in the courtyard too, plucking fluff from something that looked like large fruits. “For bandages,” they said when they saw us looking at them, “when the wounded from the fighting come here.”

“You’re the priestesses of Naigha!” I said. “You got our note!” And they laughed and said yes, they were, and they had.

This time we didn’t sleep in our soft bed in the little room. Lady Mialle asked us to come and sleep in her room, perhaps because her husband was getting more and more crazy. There was a smaller bed next to her bed. We played with the twins first. They could walk though they’d rather crawl, and they didn’t talk yet at all. And they didn’t have any toys! Rugrats should have toys, even if it’s just an old wooden spoon with a cloth around it so it looks like a doll. Then they drank milk from their mother’s breasts, and we put them in the crib and put the bar on the door so nobody could come in. Lady Mialle was asleep too, and we fell asleep in another very soft bed.

It went on like that for some time, perhaps a week, and the little kids really got used to us. We still had lookout duty in the morning, and did laundry and other work in the afternoon. The house got fuller and fuller! I think it was the only safe place left in town. Some people brought food, others clothes, and every now and again there were raids on warehouses for more food.

One day when we were on lookout duty the house got attacked by Lord Koll Dishab’s own Iss-Peranian soldiers. Our soldiers were shooting arrows, and Kehendaki and I and the other lookouts threw stones, and I even hit one on the helmet! Then the lord himself came out on the roof and stood on the battlements telling them “you are MY soldiers! You are mutineers! I’ll have you all hanged for that!” and one of the soldiers shot an arrow that hit him in the chest. Kehendaki was closest and tried to keep him from toppling over the edge but had to let him go because he was too heavy. Then I threw a stone at the archer, but he shot another arrow and hit me in my left shoulder! One of the soldiers pulled it out. “Is it still whole?” I asked, and he grinned and said, “Yes, we’ll shoot it right back! Go catch a few more for us, will you?” Kehendaki got a wooden board from somewhere and held it between the battlements and threw a stone from behind it, and he caught three arrows right away.

My shoulder started to hurt a lot and I felt faint and a priestess of Naigha came and bandaged it, with some of the fruit fluff between the layers of bandage to push the wound closed. So that was what it was for!

Then we heard Lady Mialle call from downstairs “Yes! They’re here!” at the same time as the sergeant called “They’re coming!” and we could see lots of sails on the sea. Lady Mialle got carried up to the roof in a chair and called us to her. “You two saw that Síthi boss arrive, right? And you’re eyewitnesses of his first crime?” Well, we didn’t know if it was really the first thing he’d done but he hadn’t had time for much more, so yes. “If you trust me to look at what you remember, look in your mind, I can show that to Leva and she’ll know where to start setting things right.” We didn’t know someone could do that! We looked at each other, and then we both said yes. Lady Mialle took my right hand with her left hand, and Kehendaki’s left hand with her right hand, and we joined our other hands without thinking. It was strange! I could feel that Lady Mialle was proud of us, and that someone else was proud too, perhaps of Lady Mialle. We didn’t even have to think of what happened, it was as if someone was showing it to us.

“They’ve got half a hospital with them,” Lady Mialle said. Real doctors! Perhaps they could do something for her that the drunk whore-doctor couldn’t. “Kushesh is going to be a barony, a real part of Valdyas. It seems that the king is really angry about what’s been happening here!”

“Is the king of Valdyas very powerful?” I asked.

“King Athal is clever, and generous, and honest to a fault, and when he’s righteously angry he’ll stop at nothing,” Lady Mialle said.

The big ships were coming closer but not very fast, but there were smaller boats, like tenders but bigger, coming to shore really fast, and when they lost their sails they went faster still. They came right on to the beach and the salt plain and soldiers poured out, a hundred to a boat, with spears and shields. Well, if you have a hundred soldiers to row I can imagine you go a hundred times as fast!

I was really tired and faint now from the wound in my shoulder and showing stuff to Leva, so I offered to go downstairs and take care of the twins. Lady Mialle looked relieved, “yes, they’re used to you.” She wondered where Lord Koll Dishab was, she didn’t even know that he’d been shot yet! But when she heard it she said “well, he had it coming to him” and didn’t look very sad.

I sang silly songs to the twins and played horsey with them on my knee –one at a time because I could use only one arm, and not my best one– and peekaboo with a cloth from the chest. Then Kehendaki came in with some strange people! A young woman who looked very Valdyan with speckled-white skin and red-blonde hair, and a stocky grizzled man. “Your friend –brother?– tells us you’re the other witness. I’m Cynla astin Brun, I lead this army.”

“You’re the general?” I asked. I was proud that I knew the Valdyan word.

“Yesss! I’ve always wanted to be the boss of something, and now I’m the boss of fifteen hundred soldiers!” She slapped the man on the shoulder. “Couldn’t do it without Felan, though. But will you come with me? You can take your children along.”

“They’re not our children,” I said, “they’re Lady Mialle’s children.”

“Mialle is already on the flagship, with the doctors.”

Kehendaki took a kid from me and I carried the other one, with the cloth she wouldn’t let go of. We went in one of the fast boats — not a hundred soldiers to row, only about ten, but it went fast enough — to the largest ship, and then it was a bit hard to get up a rope-ladder while carrying a large toddler and with only one arm to climb with so a soldier took the kid and another stayed behind me and kept me from falling.

Lady Mialle was on the deck of the ship on a sort of table, naked from the waist down, and two people were doing things with her like our doctor used to do with the girls! “Left that much too long,” one said, “I don’t know if you’ll be able to bear any more children!” “I’m a widow anyway,” Lady Mialle said, “I’ll be very pleased if you can fix me so I can piss and poop through two different holes again!” And the other one said, “Two hours of light left. Cynla, come put her to sleep, will you, so we can get the rest of the work done?” And the general went over to the table and put her hand on Lady Mialle’s forehead and she fell asleep just like that!

Cynla took us to her boss, the governor, no, I have to say the baroness, Leva. I’d thought she’d be forbidding but she was very nice, motherly, with soft round breasts (we felt that when she hugged us, and she hugged us a lot) and smelling nice. She wasn’t wearing army uniform, but rich clothes that looked as if she’d just got them from a chest and put them on. “So you’re the witnesses,” she said, and when she said it I knew she was the same person who had been there when Mialle looked into our minds. “I’m going to ask you do something very hard. I know what you’ve been through already, but I have to ask you to tell me everything so we can write it down. A testimony by mouth carries more weight than a testimony by semsin.” I didn’t understand half of that last sentence, but telling it so someone could write it down made sense. She took us to a room somewhere inside the ship, and apart from her and us there were two men there, one with a stack of paper and a pen and ink. Leva introduced the other one as Jichan, “my — what do you call it?” and Jichan said the harbour word for the eunuchs who go around with posh merchants to do for them, but Leva said “yes, that’s in Iss-Peranian, what is it called in Ilaini?” and they settled on “aide”. Jichan wasn’t a eunuch anyway, he was definitely a man.

Leva made us sit down on a bench and said again that she was going to ask us difficult things. First she asked our names and where we were born and how old we were, that wasn’t difficult! Except that neither of us knew exactly how old we were, ten or eleven or so. But we’d both been born here in Kushesh, we were sure of that, and we had to be the same age too because we’d grown up together all our lives. And then we had to tell everything we’d seen, from the moment we’d gone to see the ship arrive in the harbour.

When we got to the brothel with the story Leva made us stop, and it looked like she made everything else stop as well, as if nobody would be able to hear us however loud we were! “Now I’m going to ask you something that won’t be written down,” she said, “but it needs to be witnessed so the clerk will be listening. Did either of you ever make love to someone for money? Willingly or unwillingly?”

“No,” I said, “not even not for money either! Madam Doryn didn’t want us to do that until we were fourteen and I think I’m not even eleven yet! And when someone did want to do it we got away before he could.” And Kehendaki said about the same.

“Fourteen is too young too, I’d say,” Leva said, “but I grant that customs differ.” And she made things go ordinary again, and the clerk picked up his writing-stick.

Then we had to tell how we’d made the soldier fall down the waterfall, and Leva didn’t get angry at us but at him! “Good riddance,” she said, when it was clear from our story that he’d fallen to his death. “No concern of mine.”

And then we told her how we’d knocked on Lady Mialle’s back door and brought round the letters, and stood lookout, and did laundry and other stuff to help the defense. She looked very thoughtful and said we deserved a reward for doing all those things and for being witnesses of the Síthi boss’s crimes, did we have any plans for the future that she could help with as a reward? But we didn’t have any plans because only weeks ago we didn’t think we had much of a future. “There’s time enough,” Leva said, and then people came to call her, the ship had come into harbour while we were witnessing and she had to go and make a speech.

People had built a wooden platform while we were on the ship, and she stood on that so everybody could see her and said a lot of things about the king who wanted to make Kushesh and the land around it part of Valdyas, it would be called South Idanyas and the city that he wanted Kushesh to grow into would be New Dol-Rayen [1]. After she finished the speech we wanted to get the twins back to the house because they were getting hungry, and Leva and her aide and the general and the general’s sidekick caught up with us and came along because Lady Mialle’s house was now the headquarters of the army. Along the way we heard that the pleasure quarter had been “cleared”, and the soldiers had built a pen to lock up the Síthi rabble and the defected Iss-Peranian soldiers in, and they’d also put up tables with clerks behind them who were asking everybody for their name and what they did for a living. “Many of them seem to be experienced seamstresses,” someone said, and Kehendaki said “yes, they know how to thread a needle” but nobody got it.

[1] “Rayen” already means “new” among other things, and we didn’t realise that until I wrote it up, so this is unintentionally hilarious. Also this, “New New Street”.

We didn’t recognise the house! There were beds with wounded people in all the courtyards. Lady Mialle was in one of those beds too, and when the twins saw her they stretched out their arms and cried so she nursed them while the doctors were doing more work on her. “Well, it seems like this is the hospital now,” she said, and then she told us that she owed us a huge debt and asked us the same kind of questions that Leva had! But we’d had some time to think about it, so I said that I wanted to learn, that I wanted to be able to do things. I didn’t know what things there were to learn, but one thing I’d like to learn was to make water warm like Lady Mialle, if I could. And Kehendaki said that he wanted to be important! “I don’t care about that,” I said, “he can be important for both of us!” But I don’t think he meant that he wanted to be the boss of anything, only that he didn’t want anybody to be the boss of him ever again.

It was very late now, and we went back to Lady Mialle’s room to put the twins to bed but it was full of high-up people, Leva and her aide and the general and her sergeant. “We need this room for a command centre,” the sergeant said, but Leva said that it was all right for us to sleep here, we were officially taking care of the twins after all. And the room was plenty large enough! All the officers lay down in Lady Mialle’s bed, it was big enough for all four of them, and we in our own bed and the little girls in the crib. “Oh! The seal,” Jichan said, and pushed light away from him so it reached all the walls of the room, and made more light in his hands and prayed for a bit, I could only understand that he said ‘Anshen’. Then he smeared a bit of the light on his forehead and on the other people’s foreheads, and noticed we were still there and flicked a bit of light to me and to Kehendaki and the twins, and we all went to sleep.

In the morning all the light was gone, and the officers were gone too, and we went to Lady Mialle so the kids could have milk. “Oh, grand masters,” she said when we told her about Jichan and the light. Then she sent us into town to talk with people, and she made Ailin give us a handful of shillings so we could buy ourselves food and drink, and for the people we talked with, too! There would be sailors, and soldiers, and soldiers’ families because they were going to stay here for a long time, and builders and other working people, and perhaps we’d find out about something we wanted to learn or about a place where we wanted to go. I know one thing: Kehendaki can be a pain in the behind sometimes but if we’re going somewhere else I want us to go together.