Clatan 10, 1013
“An’ this,” Basil said, skipping backwards up the path and spreading his arms wide, “is our house!”
The reaction was all he could have wished for. Niven’s eyes went round as saucers and he stared up and down the house. “Wow,” he whispered.
“It’s pretty great, ain’t it?” preened Basil.
“Aye,” Niven added. “You’ve got a real big house, too!”
Huh? What does he mean, “too”?
But Basil tried to shrug it off. Niven was just from Glasonland; he had barely been in Albion a month. Maybe he’d seen a lot of castles in Glasonland. Basil had only seen four: Sir Bors’s chateau, Sir Mordred’s keep when he went to visit his Grandma Betsy, Lord Pellinore’s big castle when he went to visit Auntie Joyce, and last but not least, the tips of the spires of the grand Pendragon castle every Sunday when they went to the cathedral for services. Basil’s Grandma Cerise used to say that the castles in Glasonland were big and grand, and there was a huge one in every village if you knew where to look for it. Maybe that was what Niven mean.
“Who else has got a real big house?” Basil asked, trying to sound more curious than piqued.
“Well, we do,” Niven replied. “Ours has got two different floors — not a regular floor an’ a loft, neither, but two big floors that even Glenna can stand up all the way in!”
Glenna was Niven’s big sister, who was kind of like his mama, because his mama was dead. Basil wondered how tall she was, if it was such a big deal that she could stand up in both floors.
Then Basil stopped wondering, because Niven said the words most gratifying to a six-year-old’s ears: “I think yers is bigger, though.”
“‘Cause ours gots a roof that goes like this,” Niven made a triangle with his hands, “in the front o’ the house, an’ that takes up some space. Bea thinks …” He clamped his mouth shut.
Bea was Niven’s other older sister, the one who was only a little bit older, and so like a sister instead of like a mama. Basil wondered what older sisters were like. He knew what younger sisters were like — Lisette was annoying as anything, always crawling around and getting into everything. But older sisters were a mystery. He’d asked Uncle Lukas once if big sisters were like little sisters, but Uncle Lukas had just laughed and said, “Worse!” The trouble was that Basil wasn’t sure whether he was kidding or not.
Still, Basil had to know what Bea thought — especially since Niven really didn’t seem to want to tell him. “What?”
Niven wrinkled his nose up and scrunched his eyebrows together, but he told. “She thinks it looks like a princess’s cottage.”
“A princess’s cottage? Whoever heard of a prince livin’ in a cottage?”
“I know!” Niven gushed. “I told her it were dumb! But Seumas had to go an’ spoil it all by sayin’ that he knew what she meant.”
Seumas was Niven’s big brother, who was still small enough to go to school — Glenna was a real grown-up, but Seumas wasn’t. Seumas sat in the back and laughed with the other big boys, so Basil didn’t know much about him, except that he barely knew his letters. The teacher had already yelled at him for that, and everyone had snickered behind their hands to see a big boy who could barely spell his own name.
Niven couldn’t spell his name, though, either, before he started school. Neither could Bea. The littlest brother, Peadar, couldn’t as well — but nobody thought much of that, since he wasn’t even five yet, and nobody expected much out of the not-quite-five-year-olds. Basil sometimes — when he wasn’t thinking of fun things for him and Niven and their other friends to do — wondered why that was.
Still, Basil hadn’t brought Niven out here just to talk about dumb sisters and their princess cottages. “Say! Ye want ter see the garden? We can go play in that!”
“Ain’t ye got chores?” wondered Niven.
“No!” Basil huffed, mostly because he did have chores. But Papa was working in Sir Bors’s fields, like he did almost every day, and if Mama wasn’t at work, she was at Auntie Joyce’s house. Auntie Joyce had had a baby not quite a week ago, so whenever Mama wasn’t here or working, she was there. As for Grandpapa Edmond, he was probably so busy with Felix and Lisette that he wouldn’t notice if Basil hadn’t started on the chores yet.
“Ye don’t have chores?” Niven gasped. “Everybody’s got chores!”
Well, of course they did, unless you were a baby or too old to work — but Basil had yet to meet anybody too old to do some work. Then again, come to think of it, Basil was pretty sure lords and lords’ children didn’t have chores. They had all the luck.
And thinking of luck reminded him of something Grandma Cerise used to say: “Don’t ye be talkin’ about luck ter me, young man! Ye have any idea how much luckier ye are than all the boys in Glasonland?”
So Basil said to Niven, “Not in Albion! Come on, let’s go!” He dashed into the garden, Niven startled at first.
“Hey! Wait fer me!”
Basil continued to run, laughing with every step. The plants were looking a little overgrown and weedy, every improper leaf prickling his conscience — but did a few minutes, an hour or two, actually matter? Weeds didn’t grow that fast! As long as he got the weeding and watering done before his parents came home, they’d never be the wiser.
Niven finally caught up with him and barreled into his shoulder. “Tag! Ye’re it!”
“Tag?” Basil laughed. “Ye want ter play tag?”
“Why not?” asked Niven.
“‘Cause it’s a baby game, that’s why!”
Niven looked confused, probably because Basil had been playing a rousing game of tag with Thorn Thatcher (who his Grandpapa Edmond had asked him to be extra-friendly to, even though none of the other boys liked the Thatchers much) just this afternoon, when they got a break from classes.
“Big boys play real games — like Soldiers!” Basil lifted an imaginary bull and pulled an arrow back. “I’ll be an archer!”
“All right, you can be an archer — I’ll be a pikeman!” Basil cast about for a long stick that would make for a good pike, making sure to look only on the grass. The last time he pulled a stick off one of the fruit trees for a game, he had gotten yelled at.
“What, ye want ter be a pikeman too?” Basil groaned. “What don’t ye want ter be? I’ll be that.”
“I don’t want ter play Soldiers,” Niven mumbled to his boots.
Basil’s jaw dropped. He didn’t want to play Soldiers? Who didn’t want to play Soldiers? Even Basil’s papa and Uncle Simon and Uncle Lukas would sometimes join in for a game of Soldiers!
“What? Ye don’t want to play Soldiers? What’s wrong with ye?” demanded Basil.
“I don’ like that game,” Niven mumbled.
“I jest — don’!” Niven cried, recoiling.
“Not right now?” Basil asked. Maybe that was it. Maybe Niven just wasn’t in the mood for Soldiers right now, just like Basil wasn’t in the mood for tag.
Not ever? That was just ludicrous. The boys played Soldiers at school at least twice a week! Niven must play it all the time.
He never did, did he? He always managed to disappear when the boys gathered for a game of Soldiers. He would say he had to go off and use the privy, or he wanted to eat a bit more of his lunch, or else he would just slip away without a word — and he wouldn’t come back. Whenever the boys said they wanted to play Soldiers, Basil wouldn’t see Niven again until after lunch time.
Basil didn’t know what to make of that. So he did the only thing that made sense to him. He attacked. “Niven’s a sissy chicken! He don’t want to play Soldiers! Bawk-bawk-bawk!”
Niven didn’t even blink.
“Chicken! Chicken!” Basil yelled again, a little louder. Niven still didn’t react.
So Basil up the stakes. “Niven’s a lily-livered coward!”
Niven reacted this time — but not the way Basil intended. He snorted. Truly snorted! “Ha! Like that matters! My pa always sa–”
Then Basil got a reaction — a real one. Niven’s face went pale. His jaw started to quiver. And then — he ran off.
He didn’t run far. That was what surprised Basil the most. If he had run all the way home, Basil would have shrugged it off, maybe crowed in victory. And then he would have forgotten about it. But the way Niven ran …
He only made it a few paces. Then he stopped. And he rocked back and forth on his heels, holding his stomach, like he was going to be sick. Basil gulped, hesitated, then trotted up to Niven. “Niven?”
“Shut up. Go away!” Niven gasped. He didn’t sound sick. Instead, he sounded …
He sounded an awful lot like Basil had, for a few weeks, after Grandpa Martin had died and then Grandma Cerise had died, too. Like there was a caged dragon clawing at his heart, and the only way to kill the dragon was with water — tears — but boys weren’t supposed to cry. So Basil had to hold it all in and hope the dragon didn’t burn him up from the inside out.
He wondered if he ought to go get Grandpapa. Then he shrugged that idea off. Grandpapa hadn’t been much help with Basil — he was fighting off his own dragon. But Grandpapa at least could cry. Basil heard him, sometimes, at night when he was supposed to be asleep.
So instead, Basil patted Niven’s shoulder, like Papa would sometimes pat Basil’s. “It’s all right.”
“No! No, it ain’t!” Niven cried, spinning around and scowling at Basil.
“Er …” Basil scratched his head and shrugged. “Why not?”
“‘Cause Pa died anyway!” Niven shouted back. “He always said — when — when the other boys called ‘im a lily-livered coward ter me, that it didn’t matter none, because he would still be alive when all of their pas were dead!” Niven’s jaw began to quiver. “But he ain’t! He died anyway, an’ he promised he wouldn’t!”
“Bein’ a lily-livered coward means ye don’t die?” Basil gasped. If that was the case, why hadn’t more Sims tried it?
“That’s what Pa said,” Niven repeated stubbornly. “He said — he said he weren’t gonna go an’ get spitted in no nobleman’s dumb war. So when the Baron came ridin’ through, callin’ up all the men an’ boys, he took Seumas an’ they hid in the woods. Seumas didn’t want ter go, but Pa made him.”
“Why?” asked Basil.
“Ma said it was because her an’ Pa both had buried enough kids. But I don’t ‘member ’em,” Niven added. “They was all in between Glenna an’ Seumas an’ Seumas an’ Bea.”
“Oh,” Basil replied, as if any of that had made any sense.
“But Pa still died,” Niven repeated. “When they attacked our village. None of the other boys’ pas did, ’cause they wasn’t there, but my pa did.”
“Oh …” Basil murmured. He gulped and pulled on his hat, his sleeve, the hem of his shirt — anything. “Who — who attacked yer village?”
“The ones who attacked our village,” Niven replied.
Basil sensed that he wasn’t going to get any more of a specific answer than that. “Oh. … Why did they attack your village?”
“Seumas says it were ’cause we had food, an’ they didn’t. It were winter, an’ cold,” Niven said. “One-Eyed Ander back at the camp, when I axed ‘im, said it were because they could. An’ Glenna don’t say nothin’ at all when I axe her.”
None of those struck Basil as being satisfactory answers. After all, why would you attack someone just because they had food? You bought food. Or if you couldn’t buy it, and you were a very bad Sim, you might steal it. But you wouldn’t attack a whole village.
… Would ye?
“So …” Basil bit his lip. “Ye … ye don’t like ter play soldiers because … because soldiers made yer papa die?”
“An’ me ma,” Niven added, his voice curiously listless. “With a big sword. It hit her here,” he touched the back of his head, “an’ she fell down — an’ she didn’t move no more.” He looked down and scuffed the grass with his boot. “Seumas says I’m not supposed ter talk about that.”
“Ye — ye won’t tell him, will ye?”
“I guess–” Basil started, and froze.
Grandpapa Edmond was walking, slow and deliberate, to the garden. To Basil. And he didn’t look happy. He was probably going to send Niven home and yell at Basil and make Basil do his chores —
And why did that prospect come as a relief?
Basil couldn’t even get scared when Grandpapa took in the choked and overgrown vegetables and shot Basil what passed for a black look. Grandma Cerise’s had been better, but Grandma Cerise wasn’t here anymore.
“Hello, lad,” Grandpapa said, nodding to Niven, before turning to Basil. “Basil — why ain’t yer chores done?”
“Niven came home with me, an’ I wanted ter play with him before doin’ chores. I’m sorry, Grandpapa. I know that were wrong.”
Grandpapa blinked, his jaw hanging open.
“So’s I guess ye’re gonna have ter go home, Niven. See ye tomorrow in school.”
“I … oh …” Niven looked from Basil to Grandpapa. “Sorry, sir,” he muttered, tugging on his hat.
“Don’t … don’t ye worry none, lad. I don’t expect ye ter know our rules.” Grandpapa kept shooting funny looks at Basil, which Basil avoided by staring at his boots. “D’ye know how ter get back ter yer house?”
“I know how ter get back ter the school, sir. An’ I can get home from there.”
“Hmm. If ye run inter any trouble, you head straight back here, mind? An’ I’ll walk ye home a bit later, so’s I don’t leave all these kids alone.”
“Aye, sir. Bye, Basil.”
Niven walked out of the garden, up the lane, and slowly out of sight. As soon as he was gone, Basil tried to sneak over to the nearest plant, to start wedding —
Grandpapa Edmond stopped him. “Wait, lad. Is everythin’ all right?”
“Ye look …” Grandpapa pushed Basil’s hat out of the way and felt his forehead, which was grown-up for I can tell somethin’s wrong with ye, but I can’t tell what. “Rattled,” Grandpapa murmured, almost to himself. “Ye look rattled. What’s wrong?”
Basil squirmed. “Shouldn’t I be doin’ the chores?”
“The chores can wait,” Grandpapa replied, and if Basil had had a calendar, he would have marked this day on it forever. “What is it? Ye know ye can tell me.”
Basil stared at his boots again. “… Grandpapa?”
“Why would soldiers attack a village that didn’t have no fightin’ men in it?”
Grandpapa Edmond’s jaw fell, and he blinked several times, each quicker than the last. He gulped, then gasped. Lastly, he put a hand on Basil’s shoulder. “Come on, lad. Let’s have a seat.”
He Basil over to the bench placed in the corner where one part of the house met the other. “Now, lad …” Grandpapa bit his lower lip. “What’s leadin’ ye ter axe a question like that?”
Basil’s gaze fell to his lap. “Niven said …”
“Niven said that soldiers killed his mama an’ his papa when they attacked his village. But Grandpapa, Niven said all the fightin’ men had left! Niven’s papa hid with his big brother Seumas when the men got took!”
“I … oh, Lord. Oh, Basil …” Grandpapa Edmond blinked many times — his eyes grew glassy and watery. He looked away, folding into himself, head cradled in his hands, elbows resting on his knees.
The first time Basil had seen his grandpapa like that had been the day he went to school and came home to find that Grandma Cerise had died. It was also the last.
“… Grandpapa?” Basil whispered, so low that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted it to be heard or not.
Grandpapa Edmond gulped. “Basil … my lad …” He took a deep breath, straightened, leaned against the house. His eyes were closed, his face turned up to the son. “What … what ye have ter understand about soldiers is … is …”
He turned to look at Basil, finally. “They ain’t nice, lad.”
“… Oh …”
“They … once ye get an army on a long campaign … the soldiers … they’re hardly even Sims any more.” Grandpapa’s voice echoed, like it was coming from a long way off. He didn’t look at Basil, either — his eyes were turned in Basil’s direction, but they seemed fixed on something beyond him. “They’re half-mad with fear an’ anger. Mostly fear. They ferget what it’s like ter be — ter be — normal. Especially if they ain’t had nothin’ good ter eat fer a while. Then — then ye get a pack o’ wild dogs, ye do. Wild dogs with swords an’ arrows an’ who know how to use them.”
“… Oh …”
“An’ like wild dogs … they’ll do anythin’. They’ll rip the throat clean out o’ ye if ye look at ’em wrong. Some o’ ’em, it’s because they’re scared — some ’cause they’re angry … some ’cause they’re hungry … others …” Grandpapa Edmond looked up, above Basil’s head, someplace far away. “Others ’cause they’re hurt an’ bleedin’ so bad inside that they think the only way to stop hurtin’ is ter make someone else hurt jest as much.”
“But — but Grandpapa!” Basil whimpered. “Ye was a soldier! Grandma said!”
Grandpapa Edmond’s gaze snapped back to Basil. “I were a soldier?” he asked. “That’s what she told ye?”
“I — I fought in a war, once,” Grandpapa Edmond answered. “I carried a pike an’ did me best ter use it, when we was in battle. I marched an’ I drilled with the rest o’ em. But I were never a soldier.”
“Are … are all soldiers bad, then, Grandpapa?”
Grandpapa’s mouth opened — then it shut again. His eyes narrowed, like he was seeing Basil for the first time. He shook his head. “No. No, they’re not. Most o’ ’em, anyway. Most o’ ’em don’t mean ter get caught up in all o’ it. It’s war what’s bad, Basil. War sucks all the goodness clean out o’ a man and fills ‘im up with anger an’ bile an’ fear. War ain’t glory, Basil. War is hell. If ye never remember nothin’ else that I ever told ye, remember that.”
“I — I will,” Basil said, because it seemed awfully important. He gulped. “But — but Grandpapa? What if we get a war here?”
Grandpapa swallowed, but when he spoke, it was firmly, just like he normally would speak. “It won’t. Don’t ye worry none about that. Our good King Arthur, he knows what war is. He won’t let it come here.”
“Ye promise, Grandpapa?”
Grandpapa hesitated, but after a moment, he nodded, slung an arm around Basil, and pulled him close. “Aye, lad. I promise.”