The workers’ camp

That was hard. About as hard as they’d thought but in different ways. And possibly more dangerous than they were aware of. (But the new guy is a very good guy!)

We’d really have to go to the workers’ camp now, something we weren’t looking forward to at all! We needed a guard, but no way would we take Rava; instead, we called Nisha’s brothers (at least the gifted one) and asked them to come with us. We’ll be there in the morning!

And indeed, when we got up at the crack of dawn they were already in the kitchen, dressed in impressive Ishey finery, eating Aine’s porridge.

“Can I come?” Nisha asked.

“Of course not!” Amre said. “Anyway, school starts again today.”

Who did come was Halla, who knew the way, but mostly she was curious if it was really as bad as she remembered. “The road’s not suited for carts,” she said, “we have to take the donkey.” The donkey wasn’t convinced. She’d been mostly pulling the cart, not carrying loads as heavy as the one we put on her. Doctoring stuff, lots of clean linen because Halla said nothing was clean in the camp, two rolled-up stretchers.

We went up along the lake, the cranes, the running row of boxes that carted the rubble away. Nothing grew here, not even the despondent grass that we’d seen lower down. One crane was dropping stuff into a hole, perhaps filling it with some of the rubble. At the far end of the lake we followed the river, which was a fast angry stream here, until we came to some ruined workshops and an intact tower. From the tower, ropes went into the mountain. Between the ruins some huts had been built. Guards were patrolling; by their uniform they were town-council guards. I wasn’t surprised.

One of the buildings was a bit larger, with some women sitting in front of it. “Hey, beauties!” they called, “come to work?”

We told them what we always say to whores, “yes, but not that job!”

One of the women was cooking something on a much too small fire — lukewarm, greasy, thin soup. “Those young men are pretty too,” she said, “they can earn well here!” I could feel they were blushing, though they were so dark that you couldn’t see it.

We laughed. “They already have a job too, as our bodyguards!”

Once they knew what we’d come to do the women said, “You’ve got your job cut out here! The clap, the runs, burns, broken bones!” Yes, that was what we’d been afraid of. I took out the slate from the donkey’s basket and started to make a list of what this place would need. Clean water, healthy food, drainage — apparently this was in the old river-bed filled up with mine rubble, and the river still thought it ought to flow here but had to do it through the soggy ground — and no end of soap and medicines.

“You can write!” one of the women said to me. “Clever!”

“You could learn, too!” I said.

“Nah, I’m too old,” she said. Well, in Turenay there was an evening school for people who had never learned to read and write when they were children! But other things were more urgent here. I did add ‘school’ to the list on the slate. Fuel, too, because there should have been enough wood but everything went to the foundries, apparently nothing could be spared for heating water to cook or wash.

“How many people live here?” we asked.

“Eighteen,” a woman said, but we didn’t mean in the house, we meant in the camp. They had to count on their fingers. “I had six men last night.” “Six! You’re lucky! I had only four.”

“Well, let’s make it five,” I said, “and eighteen of you, that makes ninety.” But of course not all men came every night, some never came at all because they were saving their money, and there were women as well and men who were more likely to be interested in our Ishey boys. But eventually we came out at three to four hundred in this camp, many more men than women. That wasn’t counting the Velihans who lived further up the hill, or the “real foreigners” who lived further down.

We found three men in a hut who had “the runs”, fever and all, so badly that they’d die within a day if we didn’t help them. We found a bit of higher and cleaner ground — apparently the people here had never heard of having your latrines somewhere else than where you cooked or slept. “Do you have a broom?” we asked the whores, and they brought one, and also water from the river — as clean as it got– and a piece of clean cloth from our baskets.

Getting water into the men was the first thing, then getting the fever out of them. The first man seemed to be too far gone already, whatever I tried to do slid off him like water from a duck, but Amre was having success with the second, and the third was easy and he tried to sit up by himself as soon as we were finished. “Am I dead?” he asked when he saw Amre. “Not yet,” I said.

Each man had a bracelet with a numbered lead tag on it. I thought for a moment that it was to recognise them if they died during work, but it was because they were saving their money with the paymaster, at the end of their stint of work (usually a couple of years) they could redeem the money with the tag. “We’re out of here,” they said, “we’ll hand in our tags and collect the money, never mind the penalty for leaving early.”

Then Naigha came for the first man. One of the whores saw her, “was that Naigha?” and as soon as she was certain that the man was dead she cut his bracelet off and ran off with it. The other women attacked her, and there was a brawl that the Ishey boys tried to interfere in, with the result that all the woman attacked them! This made the woman with the bracelet run off downhill, with all other women after her. The boys were bruised and battered and needed wet compresses and chamomile ointment.

“I wish we had captain Aidan and the regiment here!” I said. But of course Aidan was in the south, and most of the regiment as well.

“To fight?” Amre asked.

“To dig latrines and make camp!” I said. “They know how to do it. They’re a setting-things-right regiment, mostly.”

“Let’s get out. Now.” Amre said quietly. We put the two surviving men on the stretchers, one in front of the donkey and one at the back, each with an Ishey boy on the other side. Halla led the donkey and kept it from nibbling on the front man’s toes. They started out downhill while Amre and I took the tag bracelets to the office.

On the way there, we found the woman who had cut off the dead man’s bracelet, her skull smashed in. She’d been dead for about an hour, we judged: the wound had stopped bleeding. Nothing we could do.

The office was easy to recognise: a small squat brick building with barred windows and two guards in front of it. Several people were waiting on a bench, so we just joined the queue at the end. When it was our turn, we found a thin woman of about sixty with an account-book. She looked up the numbers –Arin was number 2941– and did all the sums in our sight when she noticed that we could do arithmetic. Two riders a week in the first year, three a week in the second; in a couple of weeks it would have been five, but they were leaving now, so that wasn’t going to happen. But there were deductions for everything, not only for housing and food, but for the tools they had used and all materials they needed for the work! Bricks, even, and the use of the smelting-fire. “Bricks?” I asked. “Yes — they should be more careful and not break so many! Better still, they should just have died like Moryn. So. The contract-breaking penalty, and that’s it. Arin owes eight riders and Jeran twelve.”

Everything had gone into paying for the work they should have been getting paid for? I couldn’t believe it. “And if they –or you on their behalf– choose not to pay, if they’re not back at work in one week they will incur the no-show penalty.”

I was so angry that I couldn’t say a word. Amre took me by the arm, “we’ll have to talk it over with Arin and Jeran, won’t we?” and led me out of the office. “The contract can’t be broken until everything is settled,” the office woman called after us.

We easily overtook the slow donkey. “No way we’re going to pay that!” I said, and Arin and Jeran didn’t intend to pay either, they were leaving with money or with a debt, but they were leaving!

When we passed the big house on the way into town Lathad and Doryn were just coming out. Doryn was looking well! They were surrounded by clerks and servants, but Lathad came up to us. “Has there been an accident up there?”

“No, illness, we’re taking these two men to the hospital to recover,” Amre said.

“Good thing,” Lathad said. “There really ought to be a hospital on the hill, don’t you think?” I still didn’t trust myself not to say the wrong thing from anger, so I let Amre do all the speaking, and frankly I don’t remember what she said but it must have been something noncommittal.

When we got home it turned out that Amre had already told Serla to expect us. The patients went to the ward, Halla went to the bath-house — I suppose she wanted to be alone for a bit, apart from getting clean –, the boys washed at the well, and Aine had a warm bath and hot food for us. Once we were comfortable, at least in our bodies, Amre took me to the surgery and said “Now you can get angry!” but of course it didn’t work like that, except that I said “I’d like to strangle them all! But we’re doctors, so we don’t do that.”

Then we heard Aine talking to someone at the front door. I recognised Aldan’s voice. “Let him in,” I said, and Amre went to the door to fetch him.

His voice dripped with honey. “I heard what happened at the camp,” he said, “of course that was all a misunderstanding, the secretary made an error in calculating.” I knew for a fact that she hadn’t; she’d done it in plain sight and both Amre and I had checked her sums. “Here are the correct versions.” And he gave us a letter of credit from the Temple of Mizran for each of the men with the calculation attached, which came to a total of more than three hundred riders! No deductions for tools or materials, no penalties, only an allowance for food and housing that I thought fairly reasonable and a small fee for breaking the contract before it had run its full term.

“That’s quick,” Amre said. “Your people must be very efficient.”

“My people are mostly in the town,” Aldan said, “but I heard from some of the others.” Lathad, I thought; hadn’t I heard that he had rather a lot to do with the work camps? And he’d seen us come down the hill with the patients.

Aldan took his leave, and we went to give Arin and Jeran their earnings. We met Serla there, who said, “oh, while you were away Cynla from the farm brought someone in, she found him on her land, looks like he got hit on the head, we don’t know who he is!” And indeed, there was an unconscious man lying in the dark in one of the side rooms, wearing simple farm clothing, but that was because he’d been found completely naked.

That was a thorough robbery!” I said. We examined the man — he looked to be in his thirties, muscular, scars on his chest that looked like he’d got them in fencing competitions; calluses in all the right places for a bowman; hair almost as light as Jeran’s but a large Hayan nose. And he’d clearly worn a ring on his right hand, but that was missing too, of course. Yes, he’d been hit on the head: blood was pooling under his skulll, but the skull itself wasn’t cracked. I tried to push the blood away but it wouldn’t budge; it would probably clear up by itself, anyway.

“Cynla has been looking after him,” Serla said.

“She can keep doing that — in shifts with the others, she can’t keep it up day and night but we do want him watched, and they should give him some broth if he doesn’t wake up soon.”

He didn’t wake up soon; it took ten days. The bruise inside his skull had indeed cleared up by itself during that time. Cynla nursed him during the day, the others watched him at night. He got thinner, but didn’t seem likely to die, though he was so unconscious that we couldn’t see his mind at all.

Then one of the nurses came to fetch us: the mystery man had woken up! He was even sitting up weakly, looking around as if he saw the world for the first time.

“You’re dashed pretty girls,” he said when we came in.

“Thank you,” I said, “you’re not bad-looking yourself!”

“Do you by any chance know who I am? Because I don’t seem to remember.”

“No, we don’t — what do you remember?”

“Not much… There was this little bloke, he must have hit me on the head, mustn’t he?”

“Yes, someone hit you on the head. Near Cynla’s farm.”

“I don’t even know why I was there. I don’t think I’ve ever been in this part of the country before.” He checked himself. “Gods, I’m hungry! I’d like a roast partridge and a jug of good red Ryshas, please.”

That made us laugh. “You can have chicken and white bread and watered wine and stewed apples,” we said. “If you eat anything heavier you might not keep it down. You’ve been living on broth these past ten days.”

We could see now that he was gifted, in the Guild of Anshen, but his mind was a wreck. Either the bash on his head had done that, or he’d taken a hit to the mind as well.

He couldn’t eat much, or fast, and Cynla had to feed him little bits because he was too weak to hold a spoon or keep the plate straight.

In a couple of days he got so much stronger that he could get up, and we took him to the little temple. “This is a good place,” he said. He still didn’t know his name, but he did remember more than at first. “I was in a town, and there was a doctor as pretty as you.”

“That’ll be Cora, in Turenay. She taught us.”

“Hm. Turenay, yes. She was very worried. I think she sent me, but I have no idea why. And there was the sergeant, a woman like a small mountain, all muscle and freckles, and she said to me, Orian, if you’re not back by the feast of Mizran I’ll come with the regiment to fetch you! — Oh! That’s my name, my name is Orian! And now I know who you are too, you were field surgeons at Hostinay, but you were hardly more than children at the time.”

“I think I remember you,” I said, “you were wearing a blue tunic and you had a dislocated shoulder. It was easy to fix so you didn’t need to spend much time in the hospital tent.”

“Blue? That’ll be the king’s own regiment. So I’m an officer, right?” He looked at his hands. “A swordsman and an archer.”

“And a Guild runner, I think,” I said. If Cora had sent him, and Sergeant Liase was willing to go and retrieve him, he could hardly be anything else.

“Will you allow us in your mind?” Amre asked. “Perhaps we can see what’s wrong and what caused it.”

He nodded cautiously. Amre tried to go in but seemed to hit a wall, and it hurt them both and she stopped trying. I was warned so it was a little easier, and I was careful not to push on too fast, but it was hard to see anything! It was like the scenery of a theatre group, those different backgrounds that they push in front of each other when the play is in a different place, like a wood and a castle and a town. This all looked like Orian’s memories, but the moment I thought there was something I recognised it changed again. It looked like something he was doing, but without thinking, as if he’d been practicing it a lot. And now that he didn’t have control of his mind, the mind did it by itself and he coudn’t get at the right places.

There was something Timoine-like about the whole thing, playing hide-and-seek. I pulled back. “Who trained you as a runner?” I asked.

He thought about it. “Must have been in Valdis — small man, red hair. Oh, and very bad eyesight.”

“That must have been King Athal,” I said.

“The king’s apprentice?”

“I’m not surprised,” Amre said, “he’s been having apprentices ever since he got back from the war in Solay.”

Now that we knew what we were doing, we could find the right memories and lead Orian to the place where he’d hidden them behind the changing pictures. Five men with leather jackets, the boss a small man with a little grey beard, who’d stopped his horse while he was on his way to Trynfarin. The small man had hit his mind so hard that his training had kicked in and done the hiding. He’d never even felt the actual hit on his head.

“I had letters,” he said. “For you. From Cora and from the queen. They’ve got them now. And my seal-ring.”

“Do you know what was in the letters?” we asked, but he’d been a conscientious messenger and kept them closed.

“I don’t think I could have opened them!” he said. “I have a feeling that when Cora seals a letter, it’s sealed. Those thugs couldn’t have opened them either.”

But perhaps Lathad could. We didn’t know who hadn’t wanted a messenger and the letters to reach us, but we could make a good guess: the town council, or at least some people on it. Those five men hadn’t worn full livery, but still looked like town council guards, Arlyn’s people. And the one Orian had just seen from the corner of his eye was young Arin.

He had a headache again then and went back to bed — in the room we’d given him when he didn’t need to be in the hospital any more but hadn’t got enough of his memory back to go wherever he needed to go. And it seemed our house was where he’d needed to go in the first place!

Orian was a pleasant person to have around. It was clear that leisure didn’t become him: he wanted something to do. “I can give fencing lessons,” he said, “I need to go to the weaponsmith. And to the Temple of Mizran for some money, I can’t keep living on your pocket forever.”

“You’re welcome to everything in our household,” we said, but we did accept that he wanted to get at his own funds. He went to the temple and to the weaponsmith with Jeran and Rava as an escort and came back with two practice swords — Aine was working on the real sword to his measure — and a strange story. On his right hand there was a Hayan seal ring!

“I got access to the family accounts on the strength of my nose,” he said, “and then the priestess, a young one, name with J–”

“That must be Jinla,” I said, “she handles our affairs.”

“Yes. She’d been to do some administration at Master Lathad’s house, and when she came back to the temple her clerk found this ring in the bag with the papers! She thought it might be mine, and see, it fits exactly so it must be.”

So had Lathad been behind the whole thing, or was it someone in his house who’d planted the ring to cast suspicion on him? Or someone who had gone to his house to do that? We couldn’t be sure until we knew more. And at this point Orian didn’t know everything yet. His semsin was coming back, he joined in our lessons, and he intended to teach runners’ skills to whoever wanted to learn as soon as he recovered completely. “Yes!” I said, “I want to learn to make the shifting backgrounds!” We’d learned so much, but never this kind of thing.

Coran came back from Veray, and a visit to High Penedin was long overdue anyway so we went. taking Orian with us. Being in the village made him remember another thing: what had been his pretext for going to Tylenay at all. It was Serla’s reports about villages with a charter that made them independent and collective, like Tal-Serth and Silvermine. “I went to trade school in Valdis when I got out of the army,” he said, “and those reports got through there. It was supposed to be my cover, but also for real, people really wanted to know! Doctor Cora’s friend, the one who married my distant cousin, they have a village north of Turenay but it’s not like the villages here that belong to all the villagers together.”

We’d really have to send someone to Turenay or Valdis: letters weren’t safe enough any more. “I will write a letter,” Amre said, “with precisely nothing in it! Well, all the day-to-day things, of course, that’s all right. If they intercept that they won’t be any wiser and they won’t look for a messenger.”

Some of Coran’s news from Veray was what we’d expected: he’d delivered the bandits to the new, temporary baron. Fortunately that wasn’t Rayin but one Merain, sent by the queen. He’d promptly hanged them all. And he’d lent some of his troops to Sergeant Liase to go to Tylenay and set matters right, they might even arrive before the feast of Mizran! “Then I won’t have to send the sergeant a message after all to say that I’m all right,” Orian said, “I can just show her my face!”

We suddenly realised that it was only two weeks until the feast of Mizran, and we really wanted to be in the village for that! There was no harvest yet from the farm to have a proper harvest feast, but that wouldn’t keep people from celebrating. But there was Ruby Village that we still felt we had to go to — a week each way. Either we’d come back too late, or we wouldn’t have time to do anything there.

“I don’t want to go,” Amre said, “but I feel that we must go!”

“I don’t want to go either,” I said, “and I thought that you wanted to go. Instead of only thinking you must. You know, they’ve been doing without us for all those years, I don’t see why they can’t do without us until spring.”