Midsummer in Hostinay

The GM asked me “how much script immunity does Athal have?” and I said “well, it would probably not be a good idea if little Prince Vurian had to be king right now, so please leave him alive and mostly whole.” Famous last words…

That was some party! As it got later, more people came drifting in, I think it was the whole Guild of Anshen in Rizenay. There was dancing– Amre danced with a tall boy who was a bit shy but danced very well, she said. He wanted to take the road to Turenay and see if he could start his own mill there, he was a journeyman miller now. I stood talking with the boy’s sister. Everybody admired our babies, they thought their snub noses were cute!

Finally people started going home, and those who were left sat inside, talking. The queen was staying the night, and so was Roushan. There was an elderly couple who looked richer than most people here; the man was the head of the Guild of Anshen, “what there is of it in this town”. The queen was worried, because it was only two days until Midsummer and she hadn’t heard from the king yet. “I hope that idiot takes care of himself,” she said, “he’ll come back with his shoulder in tatters, no doubt, like, what, three times before.” Then she wanted to hear all about the white city, and we told her as well as we could, showing her the statue of the Mother (which creeped her out almost as much as it had done us). “That can’t continue!” she said. “We’ll have to send someone there every year to collect the babies.” I wondered whether the Mother would be angry, but frankly I didn’t care and clearly Raisse didn’t either. “The city is in Valdyas, our laws prevail here.” Then Veh said, “Asa and I have been talking about that– it’s not so far from Rizenay, perhaps we could do it? After we’ve been to Turenay and finished our business there?” I imagined them living in Rizenay together with an ever-growing brood of children!

One of the neighbours took me and Amre home with her. She had a baby of her own, asleep in a basket. “Just call me when that little one of yours gets hungry,” she said, “Jichan won’t mind!” And as if he’d heard it, her baby woke up and cried for milk. She laughed, “I’ve got enough for two, anyway!” Her house was a short way up the street, a bit smaller than Jeran’s parents’ house, with a half-loft like most Valdyan houses I’d seen. There was a small wooden fence along the side of the loft, probably to keep crawling babies from falling off. As we came in a girl looked down sleepily from the loft, “are you home, Airyn? Oh! The foreign girls with their cute baby!” and she came down and said her name was Layse and she was the maid.

It was an unquiet night, with babies waking up all the time, and also we were lying on straw with a blanket on top and the straws kept poking me through the blanket. And very early in the morning Jeran came knocking on the door, “are you ready?” but we were eating porridge, and wanted to finish that first. Then the baby’s father came home, Coran, who kept an inn in town. (“The only inn that’s ours in the whole town!” Airyn said, “the rest are all of the Nameless!” He had a black eye, and one shoulder was battered, and he limped badly. “Twenty of them,” he said, “against five of us. Midsummer, you know, it’s always the same.” His knee-cap was broken right in two, and we fixed it but it would have to heal, of course. “Don’t walk on it for a week if you can,” I said, “if you absolutely must walk, use a stick.” He gave us a lopsided grin and put his foot on a stool. When we said we were off to have the babies’ name-giving, he said “Oh, I’ll provide the ale,” and called someone with his mind to bring a barrel.

Then Veh and Asa came to get us because everybody had come for the name-giving. Almost everybody who had been at the party! Roushan came up to me and asked “Have you been working already? I felt power flowing!” so I told her about Coran’s knee. “It’s a good thing you’re on your way to Turenay,” she said, “or there won’t be anything left to teach you!” But there was so much more I wanted to learn… I’m probably the kind of person who learns by doing something that’s just too hard, though. I know that Amre is!

We had the name-giving in front of Jeran’s house, with Airyn prompting us because neither of us knew the words solidly enough, but it went very well! We called our little one Hinla after my mother, and Kheili after Amre’s mother. (Amre asked “but what shall we call her in daily life then?” but we have two names each as well, and that’s never confusing either. I’ll just call her Hinla, and Amre will call her Kheili, and she’ll grow up knowing she has both names.) Then it was Veh and Asa’s turn –Veh let Asa do everything– and they called their little boy Athal, which made the queen blush a bit. And then, of course, both babies needed milk, and clean nappies, and they were tired enough to fall asleep. Everybody got ale who was at the barrel fast enough, and then the schoolmaster (he’d been at the party too, a thin young man called Master Jichan) took his pupils away with Tao and Mazao and Veh to practice with the sling.

“I’ll take you to the apothecary,” Roushan said, “to replenish your stock.” This was a shop on the main square of the town, next to a huge temple of Mizran and a great house that had royal banners flying from it– usually an inn, Roushan said, now the royal palace. There were two pretty young women working there, as well as an older man who was the master apothecary. We ticked off on our fingers what we were running out of: sage, vervain, willow bark, bandage linen, suture thread… “Copper ointment!” Amre said, and the apothecary looked strangely at her so I hurriedly said “For our patients!” Everything was made into parcels, and Roushan said to charge it to the court.

The master whispered something to Roushan, and Roushan nodded. “Won’t you young ladies buy something for yourselves?” the master asked, and when we looked blank, “for your lips, your eyebrows, your eyelids, your lashes! And something to make you smell nice!” The young women showed us a large selection of face paint (“imported from Iss-Peran!”), but neither of us had ever used any of that so we didn’t know what to choose. Fortunately Roushan did, and as we were trying to find something to suit us Asa came in too. “I don’t really want to paint my face!” Amre said, but I said “do it for me, and I’ll do it for you! I want to see you like that if even once!” And Asa promised to help both of us, because she was used to it. We also bought sandalwood soap, and the apothecary gave us henna for our hair for free. (I wonder how red my hair will become, it tries to be red already but it’s usually a kind of sandy dark blonde from the wind and the sun.)

When we came out of the apothecary’s shop, Roushan told us that Selevi who we’d sent to Gulynay was in town, in a room in the inn, er, royal palace. “Ooh, can we visit her?” we said, and yes, of course we could! “It was a big growth all right,” Roushan said. “I got it out, but I doubt if she can ever have children any more.” “We didn’t dare do anything,” I said, and Roushan turned to me and almost shouted: “If you had tried to do anything I’d send letters to every doctors’ guild in every town in the whole world to warn them never to have you as apprentices!”

Selevi was in a very clean bed in a small bright room, looking cheerful. “Oh, it’s you! It was really true about that doctor! Thank you!” She was still too weak to stand up, it was very frustrating for her because she couldn’t get up and cook! “I’m so bored!” she said, but when we suggested that she do some sewing she said that that was even more boring. When we told her that we’d brought Jeran home, she said that one of the maids had lost her little brother! “We’ll talk to her,” we said, but before Selevi could tell more little Hinla woke up and Selevi cooed over her, “what a sweetie, can I hold her?” We did learn the maid’s name: Jinla.

We had to go and find Arvi then because Hinla was hungry. Selevi asked “Will you come again?” and we promised. Arvi seemed to be getting worse, she was sitting on a bench outside the house and she took the babies without saying anything. Arin had an arm around her, but couldn’t do anything to make her feel better either. Roushan had said that there was only one doctor who could help her that she knew of, and he lived in Turenay. The queen had said “it’s almost too much to ask, but…” and we’d offered to take her, if only because we still needed her to feed the babies!

Then Jeran came running up and said “The queen had a letter from the king! He’s in Hostinay, and he’s wounded, and there will be a lot of news soon!” That made Arin get pale, and he said “Don’t underestimate Hostinay! I know, I was born there.” It seemed amazing that people could actually have been born in Hostinay! I’d thought it was only a bandit camp, but it seemed to be a proper village. “It’s defended better than Valdis,” Arin said. “And there are people from Lenyas there now, where they were chased out of the forest — a lord there razed a whole forest because it was full of bandits. There’s Jarn and Faran, they’ve been organising everything.” We promised to tell someone in charge; there was hardly anything that we could do!

But if the king could write letters he probably wasn’t about to die. The rest of the news came to us soon enough: all carts and all doctors and all people who could fight were to go south as reinforcements, right the next day, on Midsummer! And there was a meeting of the doctors’ guild in the ‘royal palace’, where we were also expected. But first we went to collect our babies from Arvi, who had laid Hinla down right there in the mud between the houses. We washed her, and Asa washed little Athal, and we went to sleep for a couple of hours because we hadn’t had much sleep the night before, and we didn’t expect to sleep much the next night either.

Then it was suddenly late afternoon, and trumpets were sounding in the street and someone was calling that all wagons and all men and women sixteen years of age or older and fit to fight must assemble and go to the king’s aid. Jeran came to get us again, “I’m your driver so I get to go! But I’m the only one going who isn’t sixteen yet. The doctors’ guild meeting is tonight, you need to get dressed!”

As we walked to the royal palace a boy bumped into us, “Sorry!” and ran on, shouting “Venla! Venla!” First of all we checked whether we still had our purses, then I called to the boy “I’m Venla– or did you want someone else?” He came back –he wasn’t as young as I’d thought, about my age, but scrawny– and said that he’d lost his little sister. “When did you last see her?” Amre asked. He’d left her at the neighbours’ house while he went to work, she was too young to go to school, and when he’d come back in the middle of the day to eat together she hadn’t been there. “The neighbour had to go to work too,” he said, “but usually when that happens she just stays there, she doesn’t run away!” “I don’t think she’s run away,” I said. “Is she pretty, with light hair?” “Everybody in town has light hair!” the boy said. “But yes, I think she’s pretty.” “Come along with us,” we said, “we know someone who needs to know this.”

On the way we overheard a couple of wool-merchants talking about the situation– it was a good thing, they said, that something was being done, because Hostinay had been very bad for the wool trade.

When we got to the royal palace I called the queen with my mind, and she was talking to someone but paid attention immediately. “Two vanished children? Come here at once.” She was in the innkeeper’s private room, a really nice room with wall-hangings and carpets, and the sheriff was with her. He protested a bit that two girls and a scruffy boy were coming in just like that, but of course it’s no use protesting against the queen. The boy told her about his sister disappearing, and we told her about Jinla’s brother, and the queen took us very seriously! She called the town watch and told them to close all the gates. The sheriff protested again, and the queen said “Fine! You close the gates then.”

The boy turned out to be called Ferin, and he said that he was fifteen. “Just too young to go and fight,” he said, and I said that in that case he could be the queen’s bodyguard! “That’s actually a good idea,” the queen said, and Amre became enthusiastic and said that everybody who was just too young but wanted to fight should be in the queen’s bodyguard. “You thought of it, you organise it,” the queen told her.

But first we had to go to the doctors’ meeting. It was just starting when we came in. There was almost the whole doctors’ and midwives’ guild of Rizenay: all three doctors led by Master Aldin, two of the three midwives and two priestesses of Naigha in grey with a long braid, as well as the two of us and Roushan. It was a real guild meeting, they first had to talk about all kinds of stuff that didn’t have to do with Hostinay but had to be got out of the way (that’s what Roushan told us, anyway) but then we got down to business, making a plan. All the apothecaries had been told to load everything useful in wagons: bandages, herbs, suture thread, whatever could come in handy in a field hospital. The midwives were coming along because they had experience stitching up wounds, “if anyone needs a midwife they can go to Hylti, she can handle it alone for a couple of days.” The priestesses wondered whether they’d be needed more here or there, but one of them said “Aine can go, as long as she doesn’t need to do any lifting.” I said that there would be lots of soldiers to do the lifting!

Amre spent the next couple of hours getting hold of young people and got them organised with a captain (Imri, the cleverest, who was an apprentice in the Guild of the Nameless) and sergeants (two boys and a girl who were the strongest and quickest). She was so good at it that there was nothing to do for me there, so I went to see to our wagon, to leave behind anything we wouldn’t need and stock enough bedding to take the wounded to town. Asa, in the meantime, had dressed up as a princess and gone round the inns asking for food! “It’s a good thing Veh wasn’t there,” she said, “he’d never have allowed me to make a spectacle of myself like that! But it worked.”

Mazao, with Tao and Veh as his lieutenants, was getting the main army ready. He’d styled himself –or the army had styled him– “commander-in-chief of the army of Rizenay”. They were all camping in the town square, more than two hundred people. Everybody who was gifted here was in the Guild of Anshen, and there weren’t many of those! Mazao saw me passing and came to talk, “I went to whatshisname, Lyan, the head of the Guild of the Nameless here, and he refused to go! He said it wasn’t his business.” “Coward!” I said, and Mazao agreed. “The worst thing is that he told all his people not to go either. But I think we’ve got enough.”

Then I found Amre again, and we went back to Jeran’s house which was on the north side of town, the Anshen neighbourhood. As we passed one of the small streets going east, a man in uniform hailed us, “you’re the foreign doctors right? Could you please come, it’s an emergency!” It didn’t look like a trap, so we went with him, and on the way he told us that one of his comrades had a sword-cut in his belly, “we’d closed the gate and two men with a wagon wanted to get through anyway, so we tried to stop them.” We came to the guard-house where a man was lying on a bench, bleeding, and a woman guard was holding the wound together so he didn’t bleed to death. “Good!” I said. “Keep doing that!” We washed the wound and drew out the fever and stitched him up– fortunately he had such a thick layer of belly fat that the cut hadn’t hit anything vital. Then we gave him a drink of willow-bark, telling the other guards to go to the midwife Hylti if the fever came back, because we would be gone the next morning. “Oh, I know Hylti,’ the woman said, “needed her twelve times! Well, thirteen times, but one didn’t go right.” “It’s a pity those people got away,” we said, but it turned out that they hadn’t, they’d turned and fled instead in the chaos around the wounded guard.

The next morning we set out very early. The little girls had offered to look after the babies, and we asked Asa to look after Arvi– of course she’d be looking after the babies and the little girls too, but it looked like Arvi would need it more. There were about eighty wagons in all! Veh and Tao went ahead with a crew to make a road where there was none. Then came the troops in ranks –some, especially the younger ones, in very neat uniforms with weapons that looked Iss-Peranian, they must be veterans of the war. The wagons were last, and from where we were we could see the dust cloud that the soldiers were working up. It took several days to get near Hostinay. First we came to White Tower, where more people joined us. Just after White Tower a wagon in front of us lost a wheel, but that didn’t hold up the rest, we just went past it while it was mended. And a bit further on we lost a wheel too, which rolled into the ditch at the side of the road. I climbed to pick it up while Jeran and Amre got the wagon out of the way, and when I came back up I thought I saw, from a wagon passing us, a child’s face looking out. I wasn’t sure, and neither Jeran nor Amre had seen anything. The man on the driving-seat hadn’t looked like he was from around here, dark hair and sallow skin, but he looked Valdyan all right, not a real southerner.

Finally we got to a lake with an island in it. There was one bridge connecting the island to the shore, and a small army camp was besieging it. On the island there was a village, or perhaps more like a town, it had an earthen wall that thorn bushes were growing on. There was a great chaos of wagons and people for a while, but Mazao was organising everything, making everybody put their wagons and tents in designated places. I walked through the camp with Jeran, but we didn’t see any children or the man who looked like a southerner, and very soon Veh came to point us to our place. “The hospital is in that corner, you can take the wagon over there and come back here to camp when you’ve unloaded. Latrines on the far side, men on the left, women on the right.” He scratched his head and said, “I didn’t know that Mazao could do that! He works it all out in his head, and then he can just put everything exactly right in one go.” We hadn’t known that either, though we’d known Mazao even longer than Veh had known him. Everybody was calling him “the black king” now.

The field hospital was in a large tent, “welcome to the party tent!” one of the doctors from Rizenay said. It was the tent that they erected on the snow to celebrate the Feast of Naigha in: Mazao had asked for the biggest tent the town had. We were busy setting up cots and work-tables for hours, and only then we thought of asking after the king! Someone took us to him, in another tent in the hospital corner, where Roushan was attending to him. It turned out that he’d lost his right eye, “Raisse will be furious!” he said with a wry grin. “I’d forgotten that they were –no, won’t say that in front of you– er, shepherds. They have staffs with a sling on it. Goes much further than those Ishey slings of yours.” “Does Mazao know that?” I asked. “Yes,” the king said, “I spoke with him for a while just now.” Then Roushan shooed us out, and anyway we had more work to do.

“I’ll let you do the easy work,” Master Aldin said when we came in, but Roushan told him that each one of us probably had more experience as a field surgeon than all the rest of them put together. “Well, do the hard work then,” and he pointed us to a young man waiting his turn. “You probably can’t do anything for his head, but his leg will need stitching.” It was a nobleman, his head bandaged up to the bridge of his nose. “I can tell that you’ve been buying perfume in Rizenay,” he said to Amre, “I smell sandalwood!” He took off what was left of his breeches to show a deep gash in his groin. “I was stupid,” he said, “stepped off my horse right into some bushes.” He’d been lucky: it was a deep flesh wound, but it had missed everything vital. It was in fact easy work! His head looked freshly bandaged, so we didn’t disturb that. Later we heard that this was Fian astin Brun, the lord of Lanyasinay. A sword-cut had taken out both of his eyes, “the worst thing is that I’ll never be able to read again,” he said, “but fortunately my wife has a splendid reading voice. Are you sure I’ll still be able to make babies? –The first is on its way already.”

We slept in the wagon –telling everybody who didn’t know yet to do that too, and to close it as tightly as possible against the midges– and the next morning we were on our post, while the soldiers made to attack Hostinay. “It’s just like Albetire!” I said to Amre, “waiting until we won’t have time to wait.” And just then the wounded came streaming in and it was just like Albetire, except that we now knew much better what we were doing. And we found that we could send people to do things for us and we’d be obeyed! The old priestess of Naigha did the sorting, “this one will die, this one will live,” and we got the worst cases of “will live”.

Just as we thought we’d had the worst, a lot more people were brought in, many of them with burns. Also badly burned children. “Stupid,” someone said, “they’ve set fire to the town.” We sent Jeran, who had been bringing us food (and urging us to eat), to fetch water, and more water, and ask anyone who wasn’t fighting or wounded to bring water too, and keep pouring water on burn wounds. “It’s from the swamp,” he said, “is that all right?” “To cool it off, yes,” I said, “to wash it later we’ll need clean water.” One man was so badly burned that I said to the priestess of Naigha “I don’t think he will live,” and she said “Yes, you’re right” and took her silver knife and cut his throat. Someone carried him out –I think it was Veh– and others cleaned the cot and the floor to make room for another patient.

Suddenly the king was there, between me and Amre, giving us strength. “I’m not using it anyway,” he said, “take as much as you like!” After a while he had to go outside to pass judgment, and Roushan came to ask us not to tell the queen what the king had just done. “Why not?” I asked. “Wasn’t it a good thing?” “A very good thing,” Roushan said, “except that it interferes with his own healing.”

We stayed for another day, mostly mopping up, and then loaded all the wounded in the carts and started back to Rizenay. We’d warned Mazao about the wagon with children in it, and Jeran had organised the children from Hostinay who weren’t wounded to look out, but still nobody had seen anything. We were making sure that all wagons we had with us were going north, though. Just before we were in Rizenay I saw the wagon with the southern man halt, as if there was something wrong with it, and stay back. I said to the nearest soldier: “That wagon there– I think it’s the child-thieves.” He didn’t need any more than that, and took another couple of soldiers to investigate. After a while he came back and said “You were right! We’ve arrested them, there were four children.” “Is one of them called Venla?” I asked, and yes, Ferin would get his sister back.

Once in town, everything was taken out of our hands, and Asa and the little girls came and hugged us, and we found ourselves in a great crowd that all wanted to go to the royal palace. The first person we saw there was the queen, who took me and Amre to a back room where half a dozen of her young guards were lying wounded– there’d been fighting here as well, but fortunately nobody had been killed. “I’ve bandaged them,” she said, “but that’s all I can do, and there were no doctors here.” More work for us…