Well, that escalated quickly. We could have had a winding-down session after this but we all felt it would be better just to let these people go on with their lives without us. But I’ll miss them!
We really had to hold a guild meeting before it started to snow. It was in our kitchen, of course: the largest room anyone of the doctors’ and midwives’ guild had. First we did the ordinary things: new journeymen, new apprentices. Halla was going to be apprenticed to either the apothecary, Perain, or the herbalist, Faran: she wanted to do both, and we wanted to sponsor her to do both, but it was hard to figure out which was best to do first. “You can brew already, and make herb tinctures, I think you’d do best to be apprenticed to Faran first, and to Perain after!” I said. She concurred; I don’t know if she had any opinion of her own about it.
Then it was the uncomfortable part. Who would sit in the council of heads of guilds? None of us really wanted it. Then Perain asked Aine for a jar, which every master would put a piece of paper in with either their own name or nothing at all. I pretended to write but left my paper blank, and when the jar was upended it turned out that each one of us had done the same.
The consensus was that Amre and I would have to do it because we were the doctors of the hospital. As Luthjul said, “one seat, but two chairs”. “I can’t!” I said, “I get angry too easily!” But I’d have Amre to mitigate me. And she would have me to keep her from worrying too much.
Then it suddenly became relevant that we’d instituted the Turenay custom of putting money in the pot, because we won it, all the hospital people together. We were called to an accident, or rather, the accident was brought to us: a carter who had fallen off his ox-cart, flat on his back in the street, and of course the ox had kept going as oxen do. A wheel had gone over the man’s lower belly and crushed everything that was there. Not his family jewels, it was just a little higher, but hip bones and guts and bladder and all.
Because the whole guild was still there, it became almost a lesson: everybody stood around to watch, though they knew enough not to interfere or even ask questions while we were working. Fortunately the cart had been empty or the man would have been cut in half. Now there was something to repair, though it was difficult work, and a lot of work, and all of us were exhausted and sweating when we could finally hand the man over to the nurses who carted him off to the ward.
“Great gods,” Sidhan said, “I’ve buried people in that state or better!”
“You may have to bury this one anyway,” Amre said, “we don’t know if everything has taken properly.”
While we were washing up there was a knock on the front door. Not another, I thought, but it was Rhanion and his twin brother, bubbling with excitement. “We’ve come to tell you that Rayin is back in town! With ten armed men and women!” “No, twenty! They rode through the gate just now on horses!” “And he said he’s the boss of the town and everything’s going to be different!”
That some things were going to be different became clear at once because we heard horses, two soldiers riding through the street. “Curfew! Everybody inside!” they called, pointing their spears at people who were still outside. We hurriedly got the boys inside, they could go home over the garden wall!
But instead of the boys going over the wall, the neighbours called to us, and we took a couple of boards out of the division between us and the baker’s so the baker and his wife and their son could get through– as well as all the other neighbours who were already in the baker’s yard! The chickens and the calf thought it a very good idea, too, and we hurriedly had to put the boards back when the people were through.
The more people arrived, the more soldiers were said to be with Rayin! I was inclined to believe forty rather than four hundred, though.
We’d been interrupted in our dinner so there was plenty of food to share with everybody. And after all that work, what I wanted most was a big portion of Aine’s almond and apple pudding!
We talked about how to protect our houses, the whole block — Rava had already closed the front, and the back gate of the alley that went all through the block past our brew-house and bake-house. “But what about the people on the other side?” someone asked. “The carpenter, the tailor, the butcher? Can’t we protect the whole neighbourhood?” It was mostly the teenagers who were busy making plans for that, even those of Archan, “at least none of us are with that creep Lathad, we can protect against him!”
And suddenly it was morning. We did a round of the wards as if there was nothing strange going on. The man we’d been helping last night was doing fairly well, though he still couldn’t piss without pain, and perhaps never would. But at least he could piss, so he’d probably live. “Next time, when you’re too drunk to see straight, let someone else drive your wagon!” we told him.
The protections that the teenagers had been laying were so strong that it was hard to see or hear through them, but we got a call from Ardan: he was at Jeran’s mother’s bath-house, just at the edge of our neighbourhood. I couldn’t get through. I’ve got Senthi here with me.
We’ll come to you, we said; not a good idea to let anyone in before we’d seen them in person. Amre and I both went — we seemed to have been working all night, we needed a break — and took Orian and Rava as an escort, one with a sword, the other with a club.
All of Ardan’s slick manner was gone: he was an ordinary worried man. He did have Senthi with him, in a wheelbarrow. It was very clear that she was dead, and she must have been since last night at the latest.
He wasn’t very coherent at first, but we gathered that Rayin had barged into a town council meeting that was already going on and cried wildly “all is lost, we must take what we can and leave!” Doryn had agreed with him, but Lathad had proposed proclaiming an independent kingdom of Tylenay instead, getting Arlyn on his side. Ardan hadn’t dared say anything, but Senthi, as the only reasonable voice, had said that they’d better wait and face the consequences. Then Lathad had stabbed her with something –“I couldn’t see the knife! But she was badly hurt, and I tried to take her to the hospital but I couldn’t cross the bridge.”
“I think she was dead the moment she was stabbed,” I said. “Lathad must have used his mind to kill her. Nothing you could have done would have saved her.”
But now Lathad and Arlyn had taken the south gate as their stronghold, and Doryn and Rayin had fled towards the north.
“You can come with us,” I said, “and we’ll take the body too, the priestess of Naigha is at our house, her temple is in Lathad’s area and she can’t reach it.” But when Ardan started to follow us, he slipped on the wet steps and hit his forehead on the marble.
“He should really be in a dark room here but I want him in the hospital, or we’ll be going back and forth all the time,” Amre said. And Jeran’s mother will be fussing all the time, she added privately. She was starting to fuss already! We asked Rava to carry Senthi’s body so Ardan could have the wheelbarrow.
We hadn’t gone ten yards or a pair of guards waylaid us. “Pay your passage money!” they said.
“Get that from the town council,” I said, “we’re taking patients to the hospital and the hospital belongs to the town.”
“There is no town council any more. Here, our law prevails.” They drew their swords. Orian drew his sword. “Rava,” I said, “if one of those men hurts one of us, then you may hit. No sooner.”
“Right,” she said and put the body down gently to stand next to Orian, club at the ready.
There was a standoff. Orian looked as if he wanted something to happen. “Want to fight, do you?” He bared his breast to show the scars. “Four times champion in the Turenay fencing meets and twice in Veray. I can beat both of you.” He gestured behind his back, “you go to the hospital, I’ll keep them busy long enough.”
Rava picked up Senthi’s body again, and the next street was in our own neighbourhood so we could reach the hospital unhindered and put Ardan in the dark room. Orian was back surprisingly soon, not a scratch on him. He shrugged. “They ran away. Cowards, when push comes to shove.”
There was fighting in several parts of the town, and Jeran and his friends let everybody in who really needed to reach the hospital, so we were treating the wounded like our first days in Albetire. With the difference that we were the doctors now, and other people the nurses. Aine had given up trying to get us to sleep, but she did enforce a break every couple of hours with tea and food.
In one of those breaks Jeran came to see us. “I can’t see past the town borders because of Lathad’s thing at the gate, but will you let me go out of town so I can talk to Coran and the others in High Penedin? Perhaps they can see what’s going on.”
“Go,” I said, too tired to argue even if I’d wanted to. Serla made as if to hold him back, but then she said “Yes, you should go.”
Lathad’s thing at the gate? I hadn’t looked for the gods knew how long. When I did look, all I could see was a heaviness, a darkness, like a sack filled with despair weighing on the ground, puling everything around it towards itself. I stopped looking at once — despair was the last thing we needed!
Serla was weak with worry, and the only thing she could think of to do against that was work. And there was enough work: now people with burns were coming in, one of Selevi’s wine-merchant daughters among them. She was burnt all over her body, mostly not badly, but we did fill the largest tub we had with cold water to cool her in. Once the nurses knew that we could leave it to them while we attended to worse cases: only every couple of hours we had to go and take the heat off the water.
That evening we actually went to bed. We took Serla into the bedstead with us, where there were already several children and a cat. We must have slept all night, because in the morning a knock on the bedstead doors woke us up: it was Jeran! We evicted first the cat, then the children, so there was room for him to come in and tell us what he knew.
“The king’s soldiers are coming,” he said. “Sergeant Liase and half the regiment passed the village, the rest have gone south to Low Penedin. And there’s Leva astin Brun with soldiers from Veray, she’s pretending to besiege the south gate.”
“Pretending to besiege the gate?” I asked.
“Well, yes, she’s just making a noise to distract Lathad while Liase’s people take the town.”
That was the best news we’d heard in days. We immediately left Jeran with Serla in the bedstead and went to clear the hospital of everybody who was only using it as a convenient sleeping place, because if the regiment was going to take the town we could expect lots of wounded. Everybody who didn’t need to stay at the hospital but didn’t have a place to go, we could quarter with the neighbours.
But there weren’t so many wounded! A handful of soldiers and town guards who’d got into a tussle near the gate, cuts and bruises, and they needed to be kept apart from each other or it would be worse, but that was all. It felt very strange — as if something really big was just round the corner.
Then Orian called us, There’s a big man here on the north side, and a lot more big people with him, he says you know him and he wants to talk to you.
That’ll be Faran, you can let him through.
But that wasn’t what Faran wanted; he wanted us to come and talk to him. Well, we didn’t have all that much work at the moment, so it was easy enough. “You’ve sealed off your neighbourhood, right? Couldn’t you let us use this bridge so we can get to our wagons?”
“Sure,” we said, “our people can probably extend the protection as far as the North Gate.” But not including the North Gate: Doryn and Rayin were still holed up there and it was closed off with a seal that smelt very much like Lathad. I suspected that he’d imprisoned them so they couldn’t escape with their part or more of the money.
“We only need the bridge,” Faran said, but it proved actually to be easier to include the whole north side! And a gifted man in Faran’s company, Arin who had been at our fire for Anshen, would keep an eye on the gate and find friends who could do that too, and warn us if anything changed.
When we came back to the hospital we found a lot of scantily-dressed women (and a sprinkling of men) who wanted shelter and were willing to work, so we let Ardyth and Arieth organise them. They were very smug, being allowed to boss around people who had once looked down on them. Before long we saw the new helpers everywhere, cleaning, sewing, doing all the small jobs that would keep the nurses from nursing otherwise.
Then Liase wanted to talk to us! She was in the bath-house where Orian had set up a command post. “Hey, doctors,” she said when we arrived there. “Good work here, I’ve heard.”
“Good work from you, too, I’ve heard,” I said. “Have you come from High Penedin?”
“Yes, with half of my troops.” We’d seen some of the troops outside — some veterans, but mostly young people including a lot of students from the school. Most of the regiment had gone to the war with Prince Aidan, of course! “We’ve come by the mine road to avoid the gates. The rest are at the Temple of Mizran right now.”
“And Leva astin Brun is pretending to besiege the gate,” I said.
“Right! She has sixty troops, I have eighty.”
That didn’t sound like a lot as armies went, but it was certainly more than the town guards and the bosses’ personal guards put together.
As we were talking, a group of people came down the road. They looked like miners, and the ringleader was a woman I remembered. “Moyri!” I called.
She looked down at me; she wasn’t only taller than me but she also stood on higher ground.
“What do you want?”
“What you’re giving everybody else! Food, shelter. The bosses are gone and they’ve taken all that’s rightly ours, now we’ve come to get it!”
“We don’t have the power to give that to you.”
“You don’t? You’re in with the Brun family, who have come to seize everything and leave us to starve!”
Orian came out of the bath-house — Hayan rather than Brun, but he looked noble enough. “Lay your weapons down,” he said.
“We don’t have any weapons.”
“You have hammers and pickaxes, aren’t those weapons? Put them down and we’ll talk.”
“Talk! That won’t fill our bellies, or keep the frost off us come winter.”
Amre and I didn’t have enough power to do anything, but these people did need to eat! It was disconcerting that we didn’t know what to do because there was nothing we could do.
Some of the people with Moyri were retreating, but others stayed. “If you don’t let us in, we’ll let ourselves in! We’ll take the houses of the bosses who ran away.” (Privately, I thought that was a very good idea, but I wasn’t going to say it because I didn’t want to be responsible for it if they did it and it went wrong.)
“We’re not responding to threats,” I said.
“That isn’t a threat, it’s a warning! I’ve got a threat if you want threats: you probably know what hunger is, but we can throw one of those slag heaps into the river, and then you’ll know what thirst is!”
Now that was indeed a real threat. But if we gave in to one, they’d just go on and on.
Orian broke the stalemate. “You can have the black house with everything in it. There’s been a fire, it’ll be damaged, but it’s probably easy enough to patch the roof.”
“The whole black house? With all that’s in it?”
“All of it. You can go there now, across that bridge.” That was the north bridge that had been damaged by fire, they’d get their feet wet, but it wasn’t impossible to get across.
A while later, a soldier with a single stripe on her sleeve –probably meaning she was a squad leader– came to report to Liase. “We’re safeguarding the black house,” she said, “and the bakers’ guild is providing bread for all who are in there.”
“Good thinking,” Liase said, “when we’re back in Turenay I’ll make you a sergeant!”
Liase also told us that Radan would be here in two weeks — he wouldn’t need to be there for taking the town, but there would have to be a lot of judging and things like that later. And Nisha’s brothers had come to town with her! “This lady sergeant said the town would need builders. We’re builders! We’ll start on the Temple of Naigha because we’ve heard that it’s all broken.”
We lost track of time a bit after that. There was a lot of work, but also a lot of hands to do it, and we didn’t need to remain in the war mode we’d prepared for. Lathad and Arlyn were still in the South Gate, but their territory was shrinking, it was no more than an oval area around the gate itself. And then one day we could look right through the wall! With our minds, but when we went there out of curiosity with our eyes as well. There was a stocky cheerful captain in her thirties on the other side, who waved to us but didn’t come any further “because of the archers”. And indeed, there were archers in Town Guard uniforms on top of the gatehouse. The gate itself was still closed.
The new Temple of Naigha, which was what we’d come to look at, was impressive! Larger than the old one had been, and a roof in the shape of half a melon with small round bits of roof stuck to its four corners. All whitewashed where it hadn’t been made of white stone. “We found a quarry,” one of Nisha’s brothers said, “so we took the stone from there. That’s what a quarry is for, to take stone from when you need it. And we found a lot of people who will carry stone if you give them a shilling.”
“Did you have any shillings then?” we asked.
“Oh, there were enough people who will help with shillings if you ask them nicely!”
Hmm. Better not to ask, with Ishey who are this Ishey.
The gate was sagging. One day the big oak doors fell out, and the next day the new temple had a nice wooden floor. Once the gate was open, the army came through, under much cheering. We went to look, and to join in the cheering, and then suddenly Radan was next to us and greeted us warmly.
“Come to dinner tonight?” I asked, and then sent Erian to Aine, much as he wanted to stay and cheer, to announce guests for dinner because I didn’t think Radan would come on his own.
The priestesses of Naigha liked the temple but it was so cold, all of stone! They’d probably need a wattle-and-daub house to live in, either inside the temple or next to it. But that wasn’t a concern of Nisha’s brother, who said to Radan “excuse me, I need this one” and pulled one of the granite blocks out of the foundation of the gate.
The gate sagged even more. Arlyn came down the stairs and collapsed in front of the gate; soldiers arrested her immediately. Now Lathad also came out, demented with anger, crying “The gate is closed!” when everybody could see that it was wide open, and he didn’t seem to be able to close it with his mind either. Two soldiers each took hold of one of his arms and took him away as well, while he was still ranting.
I had been right that Radan wouldn’t come alone: Leva astin Brun was at our table too, Liase, Ardan who could now sit up and eat without getting nauseous, Orian, the rest of our household, as well as the temple builders and several of the new helpers. There was roast chicken, but only for the guests and the household: the builders and the helpers got thick soup from Aine’s perpetual soup pot, but the same fresh bread that everybody else got as well.
“I’ll have to stay the winter here,” Radan said, “I’m starting with the hearings in a couple of days. I may need you too, as witnesses. There’s nothing left of the Crown, I’ve been quartered in the bath-house! They can’t cook for love or money there. I might as well move in here.”
Perhaps he wasn’t completely serious, but Aine too it literally, “all right, I’ll make a room ready for you next to Lord Orian!”
Leva was teasing Orian, who was really getting something going with Cynla. “You’re making me so sad, think of all those summer nights in Albetire!”
“Hey, wait, first, it’s never summer in Albetire, it’s rainy season or dry season, and second, I’ve never been to Albetire in my life!”
“Don’t worry, I haven’t either,” Leva said.
But Orian still wasn’t sure if he hadn’t left a wife at home… On the other hand, Leva might like to tease but she wasn’t cruel, and if she knew him well enough to treat him like this she’d know if he was married and wouldn’t let him make a fool of himself.
“I’ve heard that there’s something new written on the door-lintel of the black house,” Radan asked one of Nisha’s brothers, “what does it say?”
“Oh, that’s secret, you can only read it if you’re Ishey.”
“All the same I’d like to have a look tomorrow.”
When we went there, we saw that it said “Ishey have been living in this house for two thousand years!”
“We’ve made them all Ishey,” Nisha’s brother said. “Come in and have a look!”
The house was full of people, and almost everyone was busy making something. Sewing, metalworking, painting, making furniture, wood-carving, repairing the house itself. Nobody looked underfed any more, and most people looked happy.
“Who is paying for this?” Radan asked.
“Oh, we found a gold mine and a silver mine under the house, people are using that to make jewellery that we can sell!”
There was twinkle in Radan’s eye that he couldn’t suppress. “You are aware that it’s only a mine if the gold or silver is fixed in the ground, not lying around loose?”
“But it is! Come and look!”
We went down a flight of stairs from the scullery, crossed a lot of cellars, and finally came to a room where a pile of gold had been melted into the cellar floor by the fire. “See? Fixed in the ground. Isn’t that a mine?” And there was another room with silver in the same state…
We’d been worried about our winter provisions — after all there had been so many soldiers coming through Low Penedin that they might well have been requisitioned — but the first lot was brought with a promise for the rest. Good thing, because it was starting to snow. Radan was busy having hearings every morning in the Temple of Mizran; Ardan was one of the first to be judged, required to pay a hefty fine for withholding funds, but somehow he could get the money out of the mines under the black house. Arlyn was in no state to be heard: her mind was completely gone, we thought ravaged by Lathad as he used her power to boost his own. She could sit, eat, drink, but not wash or dress herself, and we set her up with a maidservant to care for her. Lathad couldn’t be heard either: he died before Radan got round to him. He’d been in his eighties, after all.
Even before Lathad’s death, when the gate fell, the protection around the North Gate had gone, and Doryn and Rayin were nowhere to be found. “I bet we’ll find them come spring,” Faran said, “overcome by the snow! Those people don’t know how to travel in winter, and they were weighed down by all that money as well!”
Serla and Hylse were working on Selevi’s daughter, making a project of it: to make her as pretty as she’d been before. If Serla had been Hylse’s age, I’d have been expecting a master’s trial from it, but she was only thirteen.
Orian was holding classes for all the students who had come as soldiers and couldn’t go home any more than he could, and for anyone else who wanted to.
And it was a long time until I realised that we’d missed yet another feast: instead of celebrating the Feast of Mizran in our own village, we’d been safeguarding our neighbourhood. But then nobody in town had been in any sort of mood to celebrate the Feast of Mizran.