Arin wasn’t there when we went to sleep but the next morning he was back. When we told him our adventure he said “don’t do that again! You shouldn’t go into town!” Why not, we asked, we could just get away from the people watching us and catch things out of their sight. “I know about the people watching you,” he said, “I’ve joined them!”
That made Rhinla so angry! Me, too, but she shouts more when she’s angry. “You’re supposed to protect us from those people! Not be one of those people! What do you do, anyway? Keep people from catching stuff?”
“No, not at all!” He laughed. “We do catch stuff. But when we do we give some of it to the boss. We watch people who don’t. And we’ll stop watching you when you join us, too.”
“That’s stupid.” I agreed with Rhinla, and we went away and let Arin do his own thing without us.
And then of course we went into town anyway! First we made another reed boat because the old one was no good. This one was bigger! Rhinla is really good at it, and I’m getting good at tying up the front and back. We didn’t go to the same place as before, because we’d seen Arin go off that way with his raft, but around the big island and through the channel on the other side of it.
We were getting hungry! Rhinla dived down in the water and caught a huge fish that swam just in front of her. It fought her a lot, so she bit it in the nose to calm it but that worked only a little. I got a bit of floating wood and socked it behind the head where you hit fish to kill them, but that didn’t kill it, it just made it thrash a bit less. Then Rhinla stabbed it with her brass hinge and I hit it some more and it died at last.
We didn’t have anything to cut it up with except the hinge, but that worked well enough, and we also pulled bits of fish-meat from the bones with our hands. The fish was so big that we couldn’t eat it all in one go, so we left it with the boat which we’d put under a house to keep it safe. There were wooden boats under the house too so we knew it was a good place.
Some of the other boats had poles in them, and we used one of those to wedge a hatch open in the floor of the house. Perhaps we’d get into a food storage, where people kept food they weren’t eating!
And yes, once I’d let Rhinla climb on my shoulders so she could pull herself through, and she’d pulled me up, and our eyes got used to the gloom, we could see barrels and sacks. One sack was full of green beans! We’d have to come back later to catch it!
There was also a black cat there that wound around our legs, probably because we smelled of fish. I slid back down the boat-pole to get the rest of the fish, and the cat came with me and dragged it to a place too narrow for me and started to eat, growling. No petting any more!
Then we explored a bit more of the house. There was a room with a hole in the wall where a fire was burning, and a pot hanging above the fire that had some kind of thin soup in it. Why didn’t they put beans in the soup, then it wouldn’t be so thin! Through a doorway we got to a room with things like square boats, made of wood, each with a sack in it that felt like it was full of cut reed. And that room had a hole in the wall that we could look out through!
“Let’s see if we can climb on the roof here,” I said, “to watch the people who are watching the people watching us.” Because we were sure that someone must watch the people watching us, or else Arin wouldn’t have been such a scaredy-cat about it.
It was easy to climb on the roof! For me at least, because I’m a bit taller, I had to haul Rhinla up the last bit because she couldn’t reach the edge. There was a sort of overhang that we could sit behind so nobody would see us if they weren’t looking for us in particular. And we did see people on other roofs! Three on the other side of the water and a whole handful (that’s five, I think) further away. We couldn’t see who was watching who but it looked as if nobody was watching us. The closest ones were looking the other way and the others too far away to see us with only the top of our heads peeking over the roof.
Then a boat came by full of people in uniforms! They looked like the bridge guards, but they weren’t on a bridge, they were on a boat! And the people on the near roof climbed down quickly and we couldn’t see them any more. We got down too, and followed the boat with bridge guards a bit, but they went to a house full of guards where we didn’t want to go so we decided to go back to the house for the beans. And perhaps the cat would have finished eating fish so we could pet it again!
We didn’t see the cat, but we did see other exciting things: in a room where we hadn’t been before there was a table full of papers with writing on it, and a pot of thin black stuff like paint that Rhinla painted her eyebrows and eyelids and lips with so she looked like the girls in the house where Jerna doesn’t want us to go. And I painted stripes on my arms so I looked like the priestess of Naigha. And we overturned the pot! But it was almost empty anyway, it only stained the papers a little.
And where the thin soup had been there was now a pot of PORRIDGE! Delicous smelling hot PORRIDGE with pieces of apple in it! It was too hot to eat really, but we ate a lot of it anyway, never mind that the black stuff got into the pot from our fingers. But then we heard someone coming! Rhinla hid under the table and I hid behind a pile of sacks full of stuff in a corner. And then a woman came in and of course she saw Rhinla, so she yelled, and Rhinla ran away into a corridor, and I ran after her.
The woman wasn’t coming after us, but she went the other way, so we thought we were safe but then we heard footsteps! There were doors but they were all closed and we couldn’t open them. Rhinla climbed one of the doors, it had ridges and handholds all over, and I pressed against the wall and thought very hard that I wasn’t there.
Then a man came, big and fat and wearing very rich clothes. He didn’t see me but he saw Rhinla. He plucked her off the door, and I couldn’t stand that, so I yelled “Hey! Hands off my sister!”
“Another one!” the man said, “where were you hiding?”
“I was being invisible,” I said.
“I can see you now. Who are you, and what do you want?”
“We were just trying to catch some beans!” we said.
“Catch some beans? Beans aren’t wild!”
“They are if nobody is eating them. And you weren’t eating them because you didn’t put them in your soup!”
“If you take something that belongs to someone else without their permission it’s stealing,” he said. Just like Arin’s boss was doing, then!
The man took us back to the room where we’d painted ourselves and complained about the papers. “You’ve spilt all my ink,” he said. So that was what the black stuff was called: ink. A nice word! “It’s not for painting on yourself, it’s for writing on paper. Can you write? Or read for that matter?”
No, we couldn’t, but we didn’t tell him why we weren’t going to school. But he made us tell him what we’d been on his roof for, and how many people we’d seen. I could tell him, I’d counted them on my fingers. He got very serious and said, “If you can do something for me I’ll give you a bag of beans.”
What we could do for him was to climb on the roof again and look what the people were doing and where they went, and tell him if we saw anything important. We were prepared to go through the room with the strange square boat again, but he made us go out of the front door and climb on the outside.
For a long time we didn’t see much but then some of the people came back, and after a while two of them got down off the roof and caught a man in the middle of the street that we could just see into, and they took him each by an arm and made him go with them to a house. Well, that looked important all right! So we went back to tell the man, and he wasn’t even angry that we didn’t come through the front door because we didn’t know how to make it open, he asked us to take him to where we’d seen the two people and the man. And we took him to that house, it wasn’t very far, on the other side of the same island, but he didn’t go in, we all went back to the house and we got a big bag of beans. “Come back when you run out and then I might have something else to do for you,” he said.
Beans that we didn’t need to catch but got for doing something we liked! And Jerna was so pleased, she set the beans to soak right away and we could eat soup that evening.
The next day we didn’t need anything from town, we wanted to stay out of Arin’ sight anyway, so we went fishing. I caught the Really Big Pike!! It had a jaw full of strong sharp teeth, and we really wanted to do something with that, and Jerna said fix it to a stick so we can comb our hair with it. But our hair was too stuck together to comb, so Jerna washed it! And cut off a lot of it too, because it was too stuck together to wash. But then we could comb our hair with the pike jaw. Rovan didn’t escape, she caught him and washed and cut his hair and it made him look very cute.
The day after that we didn’t want to stay home, we wanted more adventure! And there was still enough for breakfast, we didn’t need to do anything for that, so we could leave early. “Do you think the beans man has more work for us?” Rhinla said. “He did say come back when you run out of beans.”
“But there are still beans left,” I said, “in the pan!”
“But the sack is empty,” Rhinla said, and she was right, of course. So we went back to the beans man’s house, and this time he asked us to go to the house where we’d been but not gone in, and sneak in, and see how many people were there and what they looked like.
Now sneaking is something we’re really good at! And perhaps I could make myself invisible again.
It was easy to find the house, and easy to get there without anyone seeing us, we could just swim under the houses most of the way. And then we climbed up the wall at the back where nobody could see us who wasn’t on the roof, and there wasn’t anyone on the roof. Except us. The roof was made of reed so we could push some away to get in. Then we were in a big room with lots of those square wooden boats for sleeping in, the beans man had told us that that was what they were for, like a hammock. And yes, in some of them someone was sleeping! I counted three sleepers but we didn’t see if any of them were the man I’d seen being taken to the house because we didn’t come too close for fear of waking them up.
On the other side of the room there was a staircase going down, and we could hear a lot of people downstairs! First Rhinla crept downstairs a bit, then I did, and we both counted on our fingers, Rhinla the people near the fire (who were wearing all the same clothes like they were bridge-watchers, only different from the bridge-watchers, and they were doing things like cooking) and me the people sitting at the table. One was a big man in rich clothes with a large hat, and he had only one hand, the other arm ended in an iron hook. He wasn’t sitting on a bench, but on a chest! “There’s probably treasure in it.” I whispered to Rhinla. The treasure man was talking to a small man with grey hair and a little grey beard and a grey shirt, he looked exactly like a rat! Sly like a rat, too, and I think he was cleverer than the big man but the big man was still his boss. And there was a woman, and I one other man but the treasure man didn’t talk to those two so much.
Then the woman and the other man got up from the table and we crept up the stairs very fast and silently. I think I can be invisible for one person but not for a lot of people at the same time! But at least we had something to tell the beans man. “Perhaps he’ll give us bacon for it!” Rhinla said. “That’s better than beans!”
We got out through the hole in the roof and closed it again, perhaps it would leak when it next rained but it wasn’t raining now. And then they’d probably just think it needed mending. Reed roofs do that, leak sometimes!