Prologue. The real campaign will start about two years later.
Hey, I’m going to tell you how I went to town to get apprenticed and met a kid from another village and didn’t join the army.
I’m Ravei Ferin, eleven and a season when this happened, just come from Ashinay where my Ma is the smith. I have sisters. Rava is a carpenter, she just got her journeyman’s letter and married her sweetheart on the strength of that. And Aine has been working at Aunt Alyse’s farm forever but this time Aunt Alyse hung a wreath of flowers round her neck on the Feast of Archan and said she was a full farmhand now, not just a helper. So Ma grumbled because she was going to need two lots of twelve riders, one for me to be apprenticed and one for Aine in case Aunt Alyse wanted her to buy in.
But the Feast was nice! I wore my new embroidered shirt, and my cousin Jilan wore a shirt exactly like it, I’d made both and he’d embroidered both because I sew better and he embroiders better, fair’s fair! We roasted a goat and there was berry pudding and cheese and new peas and apple-wine, and I drummed all night for the dancing. And I’m good at that! When I was seven or eight I already got to stay up at feasts to drum, and that made my sisters angry because they got sent to bed though they’re both older.
Da got in a tussle with a wild boar when I was a little kid and it killed him so at least I don’t have any more sisters. But Ma has Tylse as a journeyman and she’s as bossy as any big sister, so I was glad when Ma gave me the purse and said she’d written a letter to Master Rhanion the blacksmith in town (Nalenay, the town is called, because of the old stone bridge) to take me as an apprentice, and I should go at once and not dawdle and not lose my way. She keeps chewing me out for losing my way once, when I was eight, staying lost for three days because I couldn’t seem to find a track away from the brook and kept coming back to it. Well, at least the brook was full of fish. There are better things to eat than raw fish but at least you don’t starve.
So I went up the hill, past the place that nobody else knows full of wild strawberries, so I stuffed my face and picked as many more as I could hold in one hand for later, because I needed my other hand to climb. It’s much harder to go down that hill than up. And at the bottom of the hill there was this scrawny kid looking unhappy. She hid herself in the bushes when she saw me coming but I’d seen her already when I was scrambling down. I knew why she was unhappy, she looked as dry as dust and the brook there is in a gorge, with a steep slope that’s too hard to go down if you’re not a squirrel or a marten (and even if you are a marten, I saw one plummet down once but it shook itself and ran off, a person would likely break something). So I held out my handful of strawberries and said “want some?” and she looked suspicious but took them, after all strawberries are full of juice!
“Thank you,” she said when she’d scoffed them all, “what do you want from me?” I had to think of something quickly, Ma is probably right when she says I’m way too nice, so I said “do you know which way the town is?”
“That way,” she said, and pointed in the right direction. “Are you going there to be apprenticed too?”
“Yes, with Master Rhanion the blacksmith,” I said. “I’m Ferin.”
“Me, with Master Valyn the coppersmith,” she said. “And I’m Mialle. Ravei Mialle.”
“Don’t tell me your mother is a smith! Mine is, in Ashinay. She’s called Rava too.”
“Yes, she is! In Tal-Polsen.” So that explained the way she talked, as if there was fluff in her mouth.
We walked on for a while, through the boring part of the wood, until we came to the brook that’s as far as I’ve ever been, and if we crossed it I’d be really away from home.
We washed ourselves in the brook first, and I caught a fish that was trying to swim upstream but not getting anywhere much because the stream was going so fast. I gave it to Mialle and she bashed it against the rock to kill it and then cleaned it, while I made a fire to roast it over. This time I had my tinderbox with me so we didn’t have to eat the fish raw. It looked a bit pink when it was done, and it tasted very nice, but then we had to wash again because we were all fishy! And we filled our water-jugs because we didn’t know how long we’d have to walk without another brook. After all this was a place neither of us had ever been.
Mialle picked up some stones from the path because, she said, she liked the way they glittered in the sunlight. I didn’t see anything special about the stones, they weren’t iron-stones or flint or anything, but it was okay as long as she carried them in her own pockets!
Then we got to a clearing and there was a village in it! With people working in the field and all. In the middle of the village there was something that looked like a heap of stones, and we couldn’t see from where we were whether it was something built or just a strange kind of rock, so we went to have a look at it. Then we could see that it must have been made by people, but not what it was for, it was just a heap of stones!
A man came by and asked our business. “We’re going to town to be apprenticed,” we said. And he told us that the village was Ilsinay (at least I know that’s what it’s called but what he said sounded like ‘Ishnay”) and that the heap of stones wasn’t for anything, it was just there, too solid to break up to build things with.
Then I’d finished the thinking I’d started when I first saw there was a village, and asked “Can we do some job for you for a meal and a place to sleep?”
“There’s always the weeding,” the man said.
“All right, or I can haul stuff, or do carpentry if you need that.” I was sure that Ma and Rava taught me enough to mend things in a village, fences and window-frames and cart-poles.
“Carpentry, hmm,” the man said, and he called someone to take Mialle to the field for the weeding and showed me the well that had a little roof over it, on two uprights, with the pulley hanging under it. I could see at once that the uprights and the roof-frame were rotten, and it was missing one of the supports on the side. I thought for a bit, and said “I can fix that. But not on my own and I want two shillings for it.” I didn’t know if two shillings was the right price, but it was too much work to do only for a meal and a bed in the hay!
The man went and talked to a couple of old women sitting in front of a house, and came back, and said “It’s reasonable. You want your buddy to help you? Then you help her in the field first.” That was all right, all I needed was an extra pair of hands, I didn’t care if it was Mialle or the man or one of the old women as long as they could hold things in place for me. But when Mialle and I were finally working on it, it turned out that she knew woodwork! She’d made her own weaving frame, and the roof-frame was the same kind of thing so she could do that by herself (except, of course, that she needed an extra pair of hands too to put it together).
Then there was suddenly a lot of noise! Half a dozen people who looked like soldiers, on horses, with a trumpet and a drum! (A wonderful drum, I wish I could have tried it, and I wish I had one! I can make drums but not like that.)
“Hear, hear, the proclamation of King Athal!” they called, and a woman with more braid on her clothes than the others got off her horse and unrolled a letter she had and read it to everybody. The king was calling for soldiers to go to fight the Emperor of Ashas! Men and women of sixteen and older. I so wanted to go too! As drummer, so I could use the wonderful drum! The other soldiers said all kinds of things too, that they’d go south to Valdis and Essle and Idanyas and Solay “where the brown people come from”. I get brown too, in summer, from the sun, perhaps the sun shone a lot in Solay! And one soldier said that you could get rich in all those places but in Solay there were the prettiest boys! “And the prettiest girls,” another soldier said, and the first soldier said “Yes, but that’s because you like girls and I like boys!”
I put my bit of work aside and stood behind the village people who were signing up. I was big and strong, perhaps they’d believe I was old enough!
“You want to join up?” the woman with braid on her clothes asked when it was my turn. “You’re sixteen?”
I knew I couldn’t trust my voice so I nodded.
“Hm.” She stroked my cheek, then suddenly put a hand down my breeches. “No hair up here, no hair down there. Go back to your master. We only take lads who can get it up.”
I went back to where Mialle was still working on the roof-frame. “They didn’t take you?” she asked. “I don’t want to join the army.”
“I do! Fight for the king and come back rich!” Because I’d heard a soldier say to the other recruits that Ashas was full of gold and that everyone would get their share.
“But your mother sent you to Master Rhanion!”
I shrugged. “I’d have been back before she started worrying.” And then I didn’t talk about it any more, but we finished the work, and put the new roof on the well and the tiles on top, and I got the man to look at it.
“Decent work,” he said, and gave me two shillings, and I gave one to Mialle, “you did half the work, you get half the money!” And the man nodded when he saw that, like he thought it was a good thing.
Then there was food! Nice filling food, and a lot of it. And Mialle and I each got a huge tankard of small beer. The soldiers had made their own fire next to the heap of stones, and it looked like they’d brought their own food too, so we didn’t get to talk to them more, but Mialle had heard that the recruits were going to the camp in Nalenay with all the other recruits from our villages, so she went and asked if we could travel with them. Much safer! And perhaps we could do some little things for them for a share of their food.
I trailed after her, but I didn’t want to be the one to ask the head soldier, not after she’d shamed me like that.
“We’ll be going to Ashinay and Sorynay and Tal-Polsen next,” the head soldier said, “and there’s this place called Telhynay or something like that.”
“That’s full of the Nameless!” I blurted out.
“Oh?” She raised her eyebrows. “I thought… oh well. Anyway, Vurian is taking the recruits to the town. I’ll ask him.”
Then a man came running from the other side of the village with fire in his hands! At least that was what it looked like. He was throwing the fire from one hand to another. “We don’t want those of the Nameless here! Or at least fight me to give me my master’s trial!”
One of the soldiers got up, a woman no taller than me. “Yes, I’ll fight you,” she said, “that’ll be fun! But why not wait until tomorrow when you’re a bit more sober? You know you’re not at your best now.”
I didn’t know what to think. Did the soldiers belong with the Nameless? They were the king’s soldiers! But then I remembered someone saying that the king had married a woman of the Nameless, too. Well, he was the king, he would be strong enough to handle that.
The head soldier now had her hands on the other woman’s shoulders and said “you don’t have to do that, you know”, but the soldier really wanted to fight. I agreed, that’s what soldiers are for, right? And if this soldier belonged with the Nameless it was a good thing for one of ours to fight her, even if he was drunk and shouty.
“Not here, though,” one of the old people from the village said, “use the fallow field, we don’t want you to set anything on fire by mistake.” And off they went to a field just outside the village and everybody followed them, us too, because we wanted to see what would happen.
It looked like dancing at first, but then I saw that they both had weapons in their hands, sticks or knives or swords made of light! And they were really hitting each other with those. Mialle saw that too, but not everybody did, I think. They had a kind of thing around them that I saw but Mialle didn’t, as if they were fighting under a giant upside-down bowl. Made of nothing, but I could still see it! And I knew that nothing could get in or out.
The fight went on for a long time, and it looked like nobody was winning, but then there was a great flash of light and the upside-down bowl went away and the drunk man was holding his head and the soldier slapped him on the shoulder. “Well done! We’re both masters now. Have a beer on me!” And she took him to the place where other people were already drinking. I didn’t think he needed any more beer, but he thought he did because he went with her. The old men and women said that it was good to have an old-fashioned fight like there used to be, they hadn’t seen that for a long time.
Then Mialle and I went up to the hay-loft where we’d been told we could sleep. There was noise outside, and noise inside from mice and rats and cats, but we were so tired that we fell asleep soon anyway.
The next day the soldiers woke us up at sunrise (and that was very early, it was just after Midsummer!) to set out. The man who’d paid me the two shillings gave us a whole stack of bread and cheese to eat on the way! “Good work deserves good pay,” he said.
Vurian knew a lot of soldier songs and we learned them all. I found a bit of hollow wood at the roadside and drummed on it while other people sang, because my voice doesn’t really do what I want any more, not since the Feast of Naigha (Ma says it’s going to be all right but it’s really annoying now). Most of the songs were about fighting, what things you’d stick into a Khas (I didn’t know what a Khas was but Vurian said they were the enemy who the king had taken Solay from), and some made me and Mialle blush, and one was really silly, it was about someone who went on a ship and had a new girlfriend in every town and when he came home they were all in his house waiting for him so he went back to sea.
It was a couple of days’ more travelling, and it had been so much fun to march and sing and drum and sit down around a fire in the evenings and eat together, that it was kind of a pity that the soldiers were going to the camp and Mialle and I were going into the town.
It was a real town! With an earth wall around it, or at least parts of an earth wall, they were still building it. In a gap in the earth wall a woman was standing, in a leather jacket and leather breeches and leather boots, with a sort of axe on a pole in her hands. She said “Halt! I am Erne of the Town Watch.” And someone who was building the wall shouted “Erne is the Town Watch!” but the woman ignored it and said to us “State your name, age, where you come from, and what your business is!”
“Mistress Town Watch, I’m Ravei Ferin, eleven years old, from Ashinay, and I’m going to be apprenticed with Master Rhanion the blacksmith,” I said. Mialle said sort of the same thing (except that she said Mialle and Tal-Polsen and Master Valyn the coppersmith) but Erne didn’t understand her at first because she talks as if she’s got fluff in her mouth, because that’s how they talk in Tal-Polsen. I got used to it but of course Erne hadn’t been travelling with Mialle for a week. She had to say it three times! But then Erne let us go through and told us where to go.
“First street on the right, fourth house for you,” and she took Mialle’s hand and bent her fingers one by one as if she thought Mialle couldn’t count to four. “And fifth house for you,” she said to me, and I was out of reach before she could take my hand too. It was easy to find! The first street on the right was full of workshops, first a carpenter, then a tinsmith, then another carpenter, and the fourth house was the coppersmith’s and Mialle went inside. “See you,” I said, because if we were neighbours we’d sure see each other again.
So there I was in my new master’s workshop. It was a real smithy, a large one! Someone was beating iron into shape at the forge, a boy a bit older than me was pulling the bellows, someone else was tempering a piece in the water trough, all smells and sounds that made me homesick! But then the bellows boy saw me and came my way. “Don’t say anything! You’re … Ferin, yes, you must be. From Ashinay. I’ll get the master!”
Master Rhanion wasn’t very tall but he looked very strong. He got the guild book and pressed my hand in soot and then on a page of the book. “Do I have to write my name too?” I asked, but he said “Nah, we all know you’re Ferin. Do you have a leather apron?”
I did, in fact, but it was hanging on the hook in Ma’s workshop. And it was inches too short. “No, master.”
“It’s one shilling. And burn your name in it or the others will make away with it.”
I had a shilling! The one I earned in Ilsinay. So I paid him that, and gave him Ma’s twelve riders. He counted them, “one, two, three, five, six, six and a half, eight, nine, yes, that’s twelve riders all right” and put them back in the leather bag and the leather bag under his shirt. “Put your things upstairs, you’ll see which bed is yours, the one that hasn’t been slept in. I don’t beat my apprentices much, only when they deserve it. Shoo!” And when I was climbing the stairs I heard him shout “Jeran! Go tell Alyse to cook half again as much, the new apprentice is here!”
Jeran — the bellows boy — came up and gave me the leather apron and a shirt and breeches rougher than my own, to work in. I borrowed a nail and held it with the tongs and burned “Ferin” on the inside of the apron, and put it on, and then Jeran set me to pull the bellows instead of him! Well, I’d already been doing that at home so I’d probably be stiff and sore but not for long, and it was in a spot where I could see what everybody was doing.
And at the end of the day the master sent us to wash at the pump at the end of the street, beyond the potter’s workshop which was the sixth house. Mialle was there too, everybody used that pump!
“Is your master all right?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “yours?”
“Mine too, I think.” And that was all we said to each other then, we both went to our own place to eat and sleep.