Somewhere, pine boughs and red shirts mean something in a land called...
by Erin Halfelven
Chapter 16 - Pine Boughs and Red Shirts
No one asked Valto, but the rest of us assumed that he had men following behind him in the pursuit, probably lead by his lieutenant Asamund who had helped him capture Zenner before. Was that just this morning? I shook my head, no wonder I felt a bit disconnected. Pulled out of my own world, given an instant family, already equipped with someone else’s plans for me, not to mention the gender-bending mind twist—that I had any sanity left was the only surprise left.
I must have let some of my dismay show because Lillakatye leaned back to look at me around Valto. “Chin up. What ho! It’s only a flesh wound,” she said with a manic John-Cleese gleam in her eye.
Startled, I looked at her grin. We definitely had to have a talk alone. Maybe we could go to the ladies’ together? Did they even have a ladies’ room or whatever in the Dark Ages? Was this the Dark Ages? It was certainly getting dim even with the fireplaces, torches and candles.
I was working out how to ask about going to the necessary in Bloddish, but as soon as everyone had drunk their last cup of hot cider, Rotgar said we needed to leave. This might get desperate soon, Kilda and I had managed to take a quick leak in the frozen bushes back at the Great House on the way to meet Borgifu with the horses, but the less said about that, the better. I wasn’t near the trying to walk with my legs crossed point yet, but the two cups of cider would be working their way through my system quick enough.
And as soon as we stood up, a serving wench arrived to start cleaning the table. The place was beginning to get crowded, and it occurred to me that this was the local equivalent of a night club, she was going to need the table to seat new arrivals. Two colorfully dressed musicians were getting set up on a raised platform in the corner of the big room, a lute player and a flute player, a lutist and a flutist? Flautist? In Bloddish, they were a luttelegger and a fyffeblegger which were even funnier than lutist and flutist.
I certainly didn’t see any signs showing where the facilities might be as we proceeded out of the main room and through the little corridor where people removed any mud they had collected before entering. Rotgar opened the heavy door to the outside, and it was like opening the door to the walk-in refrigerator at the deli I had once worked at back uptime. The cold hit us immediately but moving around seemed to have eased off my distress a bit.
Fortunately, there was no wind, but a quiet, half-hearted sort of rain continued coming down. The courtyard was busy, and men were going around lighting more torches in the tin-roofed baskets sitting atop wooden pillars. It took two of them to do this. One used a pole to lift the lid and drop a bound faggot of wood into the basket at the same time, and the other lit the prepared fuel with a torch on another pole. They pulled a wagon loaded with supplies behind them as they moved from post to post. I wondered vaguely what kept the basket from burning up with the fuel, but I didn’t ask anyone for lack of time and fear of sounding foolish.
We moved around the corner of the building, staying under the overhang but out of the traffic. I kept a hand in one of Kilda’s to keep from being knocked around accidentally in the traffic. Moving seemed to have eased my distress a bit, but all these big people tramping this way and that reminded me of how small Alenna really was. And that made me somewhat grumpy.
After a short discussion, Zenner and Valto went to fetch the horses while Rotgar spoke with some of the locals and Kilda fussed over me, adjusting my coat and patting at my hair. “Don’t be such a mother hen,” I complained.
Lillakatye grinned at me. “Your own fault for being so small and fluffy.”
Fluffy? Okay, maybe she meant dainty but that was not any better. The word was ‘fluffig’ and it was appropriate for a baby bird, not me. “How is that my fault?” I protested. I hated being reminded of my physical size. Lillakatye, nearly a foot taller than me, snorted in amusement and I glared at her.
Kilda wasn’t discouraged. “You’re my only chick, heart. And I’m not too happy at this idea of riding on to Lundenna in the dark.”
And it was dark now. While technically, there might be an hour more before sundown, the clouds and rain made it dark as night. We stood under the eaves of the weghus and watched it come down. The torchlight showed drifting sheets of icy falling mist, really, not honest raindrops.
“Raindrips,” I said aloud, pleased that the joke worked in Bloddish as well as English. That was not a fortunate thought, and I felt my bladder muscles twinge.
“Raindribbles,” said Lillakatye and we giggled, an odd sound coming from the tall war-wife. Laughing out loud was a bad idea, too, I decided.
Rotgar came to stand beside us; he looked a bit worried but smiled at our expressions. “There’s been some trouble between the next two weghussen on the way to Lundenna.” He actually seemed his age for a moment, a teenager doing a man’s job. He put a hand to his chin and stroked his skimpy beard, looking harrassed.
“What kind of trouble?” I asked, welcoming a bit of distraction from my internal developments.
“Set-thieves,” he said, which meant almost nothing to me for a moment. Then I mentally retranslated, highwaymen who struck from ambush. Crap.
“Oh! Heart!” Kilda grabbed at me and I put an arm around her to steady her. I dropped my other hand to the lump I could feel through my coat: the outline of the baby Glock in my new pocket.
Rotgar had evidently had military training and been raised to be in command. He recovered his composure and spoke decisively. “We can’t ride as fast in the dark, even on a good road and there will be no moon showing through these clouds. I’ve hired two men to ride with us who have made the trip daily for weeks.” He gestured at two of the locals who were coming up with their own horses. “Lang and Cortle,” he said. “They’re getting ten fenik each for coming with us tonight and a bonus when we make it to Lundenna.” Not if, when. Rotgar was good officer material and I could appreciate that.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or shriek when I saw that both of the locals were wearing red shirts. I wasn’t sure if it made me feel more or less safe. Actually, the red shirts were leather coats dyed the same ruddy earth color as the building but symbolically, I knew they had been hired to be expendable.
The two men responded to his greeting, calling him, “Kanobbelon,” which meant roughly boss-man but was more subservient than the friendly and ironic Alter-Nobbe that Zenner had used. They didn’t look directly at me, giving only glances in my direction.
Valto and Zenner came riding up along with two weghus grooms leading the rest of the horses, distracting me from the regard or our new hirelings.
Valto’s two Easterling mounts stood as tall as Rotgar’s warhorse but seemed constructed of wire stretched over frames. Not skinny but lean like marathon runners compared to the football-player build of Groddikin. The Black was truly black, glistening in the torchlight and The Gray was a silvery copy with a black face, legs, mane and tail. They looked almost metallic the way they gleamed. I had never seen such beautiful horses. I think my mouth fell open because I had to close it.
“How much did you pay for this pair?” Zenner was asking Valto.
“Two hundred marks, each,” said Valto. Four hundred total, and a mark was a gold coin worth eighty to one hundred silver pennies, each of which was around twenty dollars in uptime money…. Holy frozen carp! That would be as much as $800,000 in my idea of real money.
Zenner nodded as if he had expected such a sum. “A lot for geldings,” he commented.
Valto grinned, the scar near his mouth turning it fierce. “I’ve won back half of it on wagers already.”
All the men laughed, and Kilda, Lillakatye and I traded glances. Kilda added an eye roll, and I suppressed a giggle. Encouraged, Lillakatye whispered to me, “Nobbenir unt dem legosen.” The boys and their toys. Or possibly, the boys and their Legos? The giggles escaped and I winced again. That cider would have to come out soon.
One thing about the story impressed me, though. Alenna’s family was rich if her brother, who wasn’t even the heir, could spend that much on a pair of horses, however fine they might be.
Rotgar started to help me up to my seat on Honig but I stopped him. It was now or never, I had to find the necessary before I got on a horse. “We drank a lot of cider,” I said, not wanting to spell it out to him.
“Ach,” he said, catching on. “Du heb nodde den sette abt lette.” You need to sit at ease. Oh, that’s how you say it.
“Den noddel, ikka,” agreed Kilda, taking my arm. Another way to say it, of a small need. She seemed to know where to go and we hurried off, followed by Lillakatye as both guard and co-sufferer.
The “ladies’ room” proved to be off behind the weghus itself, away from other buildings in a sort of outhouse like you still might find in very rural areas of my own world and time. In fact, it was called althus, old house, which even sounds sort of like outhouse. Cut pine boughs instead of a half-moon decorated the door as a symbol of its purpose.
Surprisingly, a small iron brazier just inside the door heated the building, or at least, knocked the edge off the chill. Little stalls with half-doors seemed almost familiar until I realized that the ‘toilet’ was just a hole in the floor one had to squat over. A basket of leaves and scraps of cloth served as toilet paper and more cut pine boughs on the walls helped with the odor.
The whole experience was so strange, due to both cultural and physical changes, that I completely forgot about wanting to question Lillakatye over her enigmatic pronouncements until we were back out of the althus on our way to meet the men and horses again.
“Skaite,” I said out loud.
“You should have taken care of that,” said Kilda and made to turn and go back.
“Did you forget to use the three sea shells?” asked Lillakatye, another remark that needed explanation.
“Neg, Niffelen skaite den Hela,” I said. Frozen hell-shit. Bloddish had some satisfying curses. I wavered on going back and getting into that discussion but maybe not while people were waiting for us.
“We have to go but you and I need to talk,” I said to Lillakatye as we hurried around the building and back under the overhang, out of the rain.
“Gehebe den durvelk sprekken mitt mynvelk,” she said. Have your people speak with my people? Oh, we really needed to talk.
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