I’m Rhinla. Yes — that means duck, and that’s my name! My best friend’s name is Lesla, and that means kingfisher. And that’s not weird! We’re named like that because we’re with the Waterbirds. That’s what we call ourselves. We, that’s me, and Lesla, of course, but also little Rovan, who is only five or so, and Faran and Jerna and Arin. Faran and Jerna sometimes make love! They are old, Faran older than Jerna, but old all the same. Arin isn’t that old, but much older than us. Lesla and me, we’re nine or ten, or eleven, depends on whether we’re quarreling. But we don’t quarrel a lot! And we’re the Waterbirds, we’re waterbird enough that we don’t eat duck or goose or teal or mallard or swan.
Faran is big and strong, and usually has a strong stick with him, but he uses that mostly to lean on, he doesn’t beat us! And Arin has got a real knife, made out of iron, and I am allowed to keep it sharp! Jerna cooks for us, except when she’s really ill, as she was some years ago when she had a big, swollen belly and the swamp lady had to come and make it go away. Then Faran cooked, and really badly, too! The swamp lady has forbidden us to eat water fowl, she also sometimes comes to make us better, when we’re sick with a fever. She lives in the swamp, in a house near a little lake, but I’ve never been there before.
We live in a lovely place, just outside the city. Essle, I mean. Hidden behind the reeds, we’ve got three islands to ourselves that hardly ever drown! On one island there’s the boy’s house, on the other one our house, and in the middle, we’ve got our rain barrel, and a piece of sailcloth with a hole in the middle, so the rain drains into the barrel. We don’t drink river water! That’s bracken anyways. And the sailcloth also keeps us dry when we eat!
We’ve got enough peat and rushes and things for a fire, a kettle, and Jerna makes us clothes out of reeds and bits of cloth and bark. And I can make boats out of reed bundles! And there’s fish in the river and in the swamp, and crayfish and shrimp and eels and voles — all good to eat! Sometimes Faran or Arin go into the town to catch town food, like onions or turnips or bacon (bacon is the best food!), and altogether, we’re never really hungry, we’re never really cold, and we’re never, ever alone, so we’ve got it good!!!
Only, now we’ve had an adventure, or really two, even though the second one was because of the first one, and Faran has been asking us stupid questions, and — but that’s for later, but someone else also has been asking us stupid questions. Anyway, I want to tell you about our adventure! It includes bread and people hiding on roofs.
So we got out of the women’s hammock — which is a bit complicated, because me, Lesla and Jerna all sleep in the hammock, Jerna who is biggest in the middle, so Lesla and me, we had to get out at the same time to make sure Jerna wouldn’t be tipped out. Oh, this was in the morning, of course. We’re not thieves, we sleep at night. And I went to rekindle the fire, and Lesla went to catch a fish, and she caught one, and when Jerna got up, she was like there was not going to be any food until the evening, but there was. So we made fish gruel, and took a bit up to the boy’s island, so Rovan could have something warm to eat as well. It was a trout, but only a small one…
And Jerna asked us to go out and get something for dinner. She doesn’t boss us around! And neither do Faran nor Arin. So we were free to decide whether to get swamp food or town food, but town food is nicer, if you can get it. Bacon!!! So Lesla and me, we improved my reed boat, and Lesla started learning how to make reed boats, too, and then we drifted south with the tide and the current.
The current was stronger than I had counted on, and soon we had to decide — go along with the current and duck under one of the bridges, or moor at one of the bigger islands. Well! Bridges have tall men and women with tall halberds and altogether too many questions, so we moored. There was a bit of muddy bank, and we secured my boat securely. Next to a small shed made from stone, wood, canvas and whatever.
Lesla peeled away a bit of the canvas, and we could sneak in. We’re good at sneaking! It’s an accomplishment! Inside, there were some rather interesting-looking sticks, some pieces of bent wood — and a barrel. It’s usually apples that you find inside barrels, and apples are good! So I wanted to open the barrel, but it was very tightly shut. We were looking around for something to force it open with when I saw that this shed had a door with two bronze or iron or whatever hinges. We forced one of the hinges loose, and with the hinge, we prised off the barrel’s lid.
Weird! Inside there was a little tub of butter, covered with linen and a piece of string (which I claimed for myself, Lesla has a piece of string to tie together her hair already, and I have to make do with reeds or mud), a bottle with a lacquered cork and three packages of herbes, in water-proof sailcloth. Why would anyone hide that in a barrel! But we took it out, and hid our catch in between the rushes of our boat, and then went on to look for real town food.
We sneaked across several backyards, not finding anything! Well, one was full of washing hung out to dry, and we were careful not muddy it, but you cannot catch laundry, it’s other people’s clothes, it’s not a fair catch. Then we came to a backyard that had a big cupboard in it that radiated heat, and it smelled, it smelled… It smelled better than anything I’ve ever smelled, and everyone will tell you that I cannot smell anything.
With a piece of cloth, we managed to open the door of the cupboard, because when I touched it with my bare fingers, it hurt, and inside was bread. With my hinge I teased out one of the breads, and juggling it from hand to hand, I took it to a hiding place behind two rain barrels, while Lesla closed the cupboard’s door. We couldn’t take the bread home to Jerna! Bread melts in water, everyone knows that. So we shared it, and it was lovely. Warm and chewy, and we had round paunches when we were done! At that point, a woman came out into the yard, opened the door of the cupboard and started pointed her index finger at the other breads. She did that twice, three times, and then she got angry and started shouting something about rats!
A man came out and started looking around the courtyard, but he didn’t see us, and then, after she’d taken the breads out, the woman put white lumps back into the cupboard, and after that, went inside again.
But the man was still around, so we didn’t investigate the white lumps, and went on. Then we found a pig… A whole pig. It was still grunting, and when I asked whether it could give us some bacon, it didn’t answer! Just like the cat we petted didn’t answer when we asked where we could find some bacon…
And then… I saw that there was a man hiding on the roof of the house with the pig! He was looking at us. I was sure of it, he really was looking at us! What for? I mean, why would anyone spend time on us??? It’s not like we’re thieves or anything! But we sneaked into the water and swam for the other side of the canal. There we walked around, but everyone was on their guard, and there was no place where we could catch some town food to take with us.
Not even from the carts… There were horse and ox drawn carts moving over a bridge, an endless stream, one after another. All were checked by the men with big halberds, and all of those carts had boxes and barrels and crates on them, none of them was stacked with, say, cabbages, that a well-aimed flint could dislodge and allow us to catch it. And then… We noticed a young man, not the one from the roof, but another one! He was hanging about in an alley, cleaning his nails with his knife and looking at us.
We decided to just leave, and go back to my boat, maybe look a little around on the other side of the first island. But there was nothing to be found! And when we came back to our boat, the first man was standing next to it! And poking inside the rushes! So we decided to rush him, and Lesla tackled him, and he went down into the mud, and we took the boat and our scanty catch and paddled upstream!
He came after us, first swimming and then running along the shore. He always seemed to know where we were going to be, and he was always shouting, thieves! So Lesla slid off the boat and started pushing it, swimming, underneath some of the houses thare are on poles, and we went from creek to creek until we finally arrived a bit north of our islands. We load the boat there, and took our catch home!
We were a bit sorry for not having caught any cabbages or things, but Jerna was happy enough with the butter, and agreed we should bring the herbs to the Swamp Lady; and the bottle, she didn’t know what was in it either, but wanted to wait for Faran to return before deciding whether to open it or not. And we, we took our flints and started sharpening our sticks so we could use them as fish-catching spears!
Lesla had found the haunt of a big, bad old pike, and she really wanted to catch it, so we went to its lair, but we didn’t manage to catch two pikes, both almost as big as the old pike! And when we came back with our pikes, Faran and Arin came back as well, with a bag full of ONIONS! Onions are awesome, and we got one to divide between the two of us, but we gave Rovan a piece as well, but he found it sharp, so Jerna made it soft in the kettle, where the pike and and onion stew was bubbling.
Two times that day we had our bellies full and round! Nobody was going to get their bread back until early in the morning, that’s sure and certain. Faran decided that it would be best to sell the bottle, and agreed that we should bring the herbs to the Swamp Lady. Then he started asking us really weird questions — like, what we wanted to be when we were grown up. Well, a grown-up, of course! With a knife, I said. Lesla said, with a house with a bread-making cupboard, and maybe a pig. And I added a cat. But I guess that wasn’t the kind of answer he was after, and he told us about how he used to be a fisherman, going out to sea, but that he’d hurt his head so bad he was always getting seasick.
So we kissed the top of his head, and with that, and smelling of pike and onions, Lesla and I went to sleep in the hammock. Jerna would wriggle in between us later, and tomorrow, well, we’ll go and visit the Swamp Lady!
The swamp lady lives long way to the west, where the sun sets. It was a twisty little path, that we followed, and half-way we found bird skulls! A kind of upside-down fence with bird skulls! Then we knew we were on the right way, because Jerna had told us about that.
The Swamp Lady has a little house next to a pool, and there were big swans floating on the pool, but we went inside. The Swamp Lady was dead! At least, that’s what we thought, but when we came closer, she started to move, and warm up a bit, she told us she often went that way, but not how she did it. Not that I want to look dead, and not move, although Jerna might like that, she sometimes complains I cannot sit still.
Anyway, we showed her the herbs, and she was interested! They were good herbs, and well-packaged, and she was wondering what to do with them, but first we asked her if it was all right to eat duck’s eggs, from the first nest, and she said yes, we could eat the first eggs, but not ducks or ducklings, which is good, because duck’s eggs, you can make pancakes with! If you’ve caught some town flour, that is.
The Swamp Lady was asking all kinds of weird questions, too, which I don’t remember, because they were weird. But she did want to try the herbs! So we cooked some up in water, and tried it, and it was so weird…
When I had had a sip, I thought a lobster was climbing out of the pot! And the Swamp Lady, she started walking away, through the marsh and the quicksands, and we had to catch her. And Lesla, she told us the river was flowing through the kettle, like it was just after the Feast of Naigha, when the river overflows and sometimes even our islands get drowned.
But then it stopped, and it was all not true! The tea made us see things that were lies! Stupid tea. So we went back home.