Clatan 2, 1014
Seumas had made it out the door, to the market. He and Glenna had counted the pooled food coins three times. And they had been sure — sure enough even for Seumas — that they had enough not just for necessities, but for a treat. One for each of the kids. Glenna had made him promise to get them. She said it wasn’t enough that the kids had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies; they needed to have some fun, some surprises, too. And Seumas had reluctantly agreed.
And it was just his luck that, now that he was here, he couldn’t remember what the kids would like!
Did this make him a bad brother? It was thanks in part to Seumas’s work — on the du Lacs’ lands and in making ready the garden — that they were able to afford the treat at all. The problem was … it had been so long. Sometimes, when their father had gone to market, he’d come back with treats for all of them. Currant buns, or cinnamon rolls, or gingerbread. And they all loved whatever he brought home. But … each of them had a favorite, and as luck would have it, they all had a different favorite.
If Seumas couldn’t manage to get the treats as often as his father had gotten them, then he thought he owed it to each of his siblings to get their favorite.
“Are ye gonna buy somethin’, or not?” asked the surly young man behind the cashbox. “‘Cause there’s other folks that might if ye ain’t gonna.”
Seumas flushed. “I will. I’m thinkin’.”
He loved gingerbread, but he didn’t count. He knew that Beatris had once gone wild over some sugared almonds that their father had brought home, but they didn’t have sugared almonds at this market. Seumas had checked. Niven … Niven liked the sweet beignets, didn’t he? Or was that Peadar? Or did Peadar like the soft pretzels drizzled with honey?
“How hard can it be ter figure out what bread ye want?” asked the boy behind the cashbox, glaring.
“Ye know, if ye weren’t so rude, ye’d probably sell more bread,” Seumas snapped. “Ye could axe me if I wanted help.”
“I could, but I ain’t paid enough ter do that,” shrugged the boy.
“An’ who’s payin’ ye?” Seumas asked.
“Me da. An’, strictly speakin’, he ain’t payin’ me.”
Seumas glared — but then again, what was the point? This boy had no idea how good he had it. So what if his father was making him spend his day standing by his family’s bread and cheese? At least he had bread and cheese to sell. At least he had a father to make him stand here, because that meant that he had a father to take care of him.
But even if there was nothing to be gained from arguing with the boy, nobody said that Seumas had to buy something from him. He would go. He would go to the Thatchers’ stall. Even if Ash Thatcher was a barkie, he was Kata Thatcher’s stepson, and since Kata was always helpful to Glenna and Billy was always nice, it would be good to repay the favor by patronizing him and his wife. Plus, their strawberries and apples were the biggest and sweetest that Seumas had ever tasted. The kids would love some and think it a fine treat.
He was about to turn to go–
Seumas felt hands pull on hist tunic–he stumbled forward–
He didn’t fall. But he heard someone behind him hit the ground with a thud. Seumas’s hand went to his purse–he’d heard that thieves would try all sorts of clever tricks to part you from your money–but his purse was still there, and to a quick inspection, so were all the coins.
So he turned around. “Oh no! Are ye all right?”
The boy sprawled on the ground before him smiled sheepishly. Seumas wanted to kick himself — with a tunic and hosen and hood that fine, there was no way that this boy was a thief.
At least, that’s what Seumas thought he was basing his judgement on. He certainly couldn’t be basing it on the boy’s smile, which was as disarming as it was shy.
“Well, my bum hurts,” the boy replied with a bit of a chuckle, “but I think my pride’s sorer.”
Seumas glanced around on the boy’s behalf — and sure enough, the ass behind the cashbox was laughing. Seumas extended a hand to the boy. “Here–lemme help ye.”
“Thanks!” The boy turned the hand up to a handshake as soon as he was steady on his feet. “I’m Podrag, by the way. Podrag Carey.”
The boy wasn’t handsome. His nose was too big for his thin face, he had the complexion of a monk who saw sunlight once a year if that, and his hair was just a disorganized mop. But his wide smile made it seem like he was happy — genuinely happy — to see whoever it was in front of him. And the handshake was warm and happy, too.
It was only after a few minutes that Seumas realized he might be expected to reply. “I’m Seumas Ruskin. At yer service.”
For some reason that made Podrag chuckle, but he didn’t explain why. “Sorry for bumping into you, by the way. I didn’t rip your tunic or anything, did I?”
Seumas’s face burned. His tunic did look like it would rip if you looked at it funny, didn’t it? It was the only one he’d had when he and his family had fled from Glasonland — when armies raided your village, they usually didn’t give you advance notice and let you pack a change of clothes, after all. And yes, the tunic did look like it had been through a war. But it was sturdier than it looked, and it still fit, and even if Seumas had gotten a nicer one when he moved to Albion, courtesy of the du Lacs, that one was for his Sunday best.
“Er … no, no, ye didn’t. It … well, it always looks like this,” Seumas admitted.
“Aww, cheer up! It doesn’t look bad!” Podrag was either blind or lying — at least, a boy in a tunic like his ought to have known better than to say that about Seumas’s functional-but-hardly-fine model. Then again, other boys tended to be pretty blind when it came to clothing. Seumas sometimes wondered why that was, and why he had to be different in that regard.
“Besides,” Podrag added, “the last time I fell down the stairs, I grabbed my sister’s shoulder and ripped her dress — so I figure it’s best to ask!”
“Ye–ye fell down the stairs?” Seumas asked, mainly for lack of anything else to say.
“Oh, aye, all the time! I think it’s because my feet are twice as large as they should be! But you know what they say about men with big feet!” laughed Podrag.
Yes, Seumas did know what they said about men with big feet. And he thought it was just his luck that he had feet on the small side of average.
“So what brings you to the market?” Podrag asked with that big smile firmly in place.
Seumas did his best not to blink. That was … awfully friendly. When was the last time anybody had been so friendly to him?
“Oh–shoot.” Podrag rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “I’m sorry. That was kind of creepy, wasn’t it? It’s just …”
“Naw–naw, it weren’t creepy,” Seumas said quickly. “An’ …”
“It’s stupid. But — you know, unlike just about everyone else,” Podrag laughed, “I wasn’t born here. My family came over from Glasonland about a year ago, and, well–”
“Ye too?” Seumas blurted out before he could think better of it.
Podrag’s eyes widened. “You’re from Glasonland? Really? Where?”
“Uh … well, it were a little village called Kilconcath … in Rhyndshire. Ye ain’t probably never heard o’ it.”
“Rhyndshire? We were in Mirtoanshire! My father was the steward for the Baron.”
Mirtoan? That was only two shires from Rhyndshire! And … it had been before Rhyndshire in the rebel army’s path. Francis of Lothario’s men had raided the towns and villages closest to Port Graal first, and only later fanned out to places farther afield, like Kilconcath.
Bastard, came the unbidden thought. But everybody in Albion knew what had happened to Francis of Lothario by now. And Seumas was glad that he wasn’t the only one to think he had gotten exactly what he had deserved.
But … Podrag had said … “Was?” Seumas asked in a small voice.
“Well, when the castle was taken, we barely made it out,” Podrag shrugged. “But we got to the border safely! And now my father is Sir Lamorak’s steward.”
So his father was still alive. That was lucky. “Ye an’ yer parents an’ all — d’ye have brothers an’ sisters?”
“Aye! There’s Vanessa, and Alyssin, and Hamrick — and then there’s me — and last of all is Electra,” Podrag replied. “What about you?”
Well. Seumas had just gone and stepped in it there, hadn’t he? “There’s me sister, Glenna — an’ then there’s me — an’ then there’s the kiddies — Beatris, Niven, and Peadar. An’ …” Seumas felt his stomach start to plummet. He didn’t want Podrag to think less of him … but leaving Seona felt … wrong. “Seona. Glenna’s baby.”
“Aww, you’ve got a niece? That’s great!” Podrag replied.
Seumas blinked — but, then again … maybe Podrag wasn’t the type to assume. And if Glenna had been married … well, wouldn’t it be great if Seumas had a niece? Maybe that was all it was.
He wouldn’t mention everything that had … happened. Glenna wouldn’t like it. And what Podrag didn’t know, he couldn’t judge about.
“Aye. She’s — well, she’s real little; she’ll be six months old in two days. But she’s a good baby. A laughin’ baby.” Seumas could just remember Beatris laughing as much and as much as Seona did — Niven and Peadar hadn’t been anywhere near as happy as Beatris and Seona. It was probably a good thing that Seona was so content. Glenna sometimes seemed to have almost … well, not forgotten, but disconnected Seona from how Seona came to be. Seumas wondered if that would have happened as easily as it had if Seona had been a fussy or sad baby.
But he wouldn’t go on. How many boys his age liked to talk about babies of all things? Seumas certainly hadn’t before Seona was born — and not all that much now that she was born.
Suddenly, Podrag gasped and leaned over Seumas’s shoulder. “Hey — the log-rolling! It’s empty!”
“It is?” Seumas turned around. That was unusual, especially on a hot summer day like today. There should have been a line three Sims deep waiting to go on the log rolling.
“Want to try it?” asked Podrag, grabbing Seumas’s arm. Seumas felt something like a shock at the touch — like what happened if you touched a doorknob after shuffling your feet on a skin rug. “I’ve always wanted to try! This could be our chance!”
“But we’re …” too little, Seumas started to say. But were they? Seumas hadn’t developed the kind of muscles he wanted, but he knew he had a wiry, ropy strength now that he hadn’t had last year. And Podrag looked about his size, so he was probably about as strong.
And Seumas knew how to swim, too. The water under the log wasn’t too deep, but some of the tallest men couldn’t stand up in it.
“Come on, Seumas! It’ll be fun!”
That was a big smile. And his teeth were so white and straight and even! It made Seumas want to close his mouth forever. “Well–if ye want,” he said,trying to show his teeth as little as possible.
“Awesome! Come on!” Podrag lead him away, and Seumas had to jog to keep up.
“Whoa–easy there, Podrag!”
“Sorry. But this should be great!” Podrag shot him another smile. “And all my friends call me Dragon.”
Dragon? Podrag was the least dragon-like boy Seumas had ever met. “Me friends jest call me … Seumas,” Seumas admitted, mostly for the sake of having something to say.
Podrag chuckled. “Well, we’ll just have to fix that, won’t we?”
They hurried over to the log-rolling, which was still unoccupied when they got there. And Seumas felt himself start to flush all over. You had to strip down to your breeks when you did log-rolling, otherwise everything would get wet and muddy when you inevitably fell in. But when was the last time Seumas had done that? Not since he had been Niven’s age — certainly not since his body had started growing and changing in strange and unpredictable ways.
But … Podrag was wiggling out of his hood, and then his tunic, and then his shirt, and now his hosen, rolling them off and tossing them into the pile with the rest of his clothes. His skin glistened like fine marble in the bright light. Seumas gulped and pulled off his tunic. And his undertunic, and his hosen. And, after a moment’s hesitation, the leather thong that held back his hair. His father had given it to him when he first started to grow his hair out. It was a stupid thing, it wasn’t even special … but Seumas didn’t want to lose it.
Podrag took the near side of the log-rolling, Seumas the far side. Then they both started to move their feet.
It was a hell of a lot harder than it looked, staying on. Seumas’s feet felt like hooves that couldn’t catch purchase. And Podrag’s clodhoppers, as he called them, laughing, had much better stability. They formed a weird contrast to the rest of him: long and thick and sporting a few wiry golden hairs, while the rest of Podrag was smooth and slim and boyish.
Then–without warning–Podrag stopped moving.
“H-hey! That’s not–”
Splash! “Beat that, Ruskin!”
Podrag started to run again. Seumas was strong from all his time working in the fields. Podrag couldn’t compete against that; he was a steward’s boy, after all. But he had a natural grace that Seumas wouldn’t have guessed at, given his falling earlier. And the faster he ran …
Well, when Seumas finally went face-first into the water, all he could think was, I’m surprised it took this long!
Splash! The water was so cold! Shouldn’t it be warmer, having sat out in the sun all day? It wasn’t even that deep!
Or maybe … maybe Seumas was just warm. It was hard work, log-rolling! And part of the reason why it was so popular on hot summer days was because you were supposed to fall in …
He kicked to the surface and broke it, shaking out his hair. “Had enough yet?” Podrag called yet.
“Not on yer life, Dragon!” Seumas answered as he climbed out of the water and shook off some of the excess moisture. “We’ll see how ye fare in the water, fire-breather!”
“Ooh? Is that a challenge?”
“Ye can bet yer last copper it is! Ye’re on, Carey!” Seumas hopped onto the log and started to run.
This time he was going forward, forcing Podrag to go back, so Seumas had an easier time of it … for about ten seconds. Then Podrag caught his balance and started giving Seumas hell. But Seumas was able to hold his own, and this time …
When Podrag knelt down to splash him, Seumas knelt too, and they stood for a moment, poised in a pose of perfect unison.
Unfortunately, it was soon spoiled by the mutual splashes. And then they started to run again. And then Seumas went butt-first into the water when Podrag reversed directons without warning.
He was just coming back up again when he heard someone call out, “Hey! Dragon! We’ve got to get home! Mum wanted us back by None, remember?”
None? Oh good Lord — Podrag had said that his father was Sir Lamorak’s steward, and the market was on Sir Lamorak’s lands. Which meant he couldn’t live too far from here. But Seumas did live a ways from here, and he still needed to get all of his shopping done in enough time to walk home for supper …
What had he been thinking, goofing off like this?
“Sorry, Seumas,” Podrag said, grinning sheepishly. “But duty calls.”
Seumas’s heart started beating fast, and in that moment he forgot all about what an idiot he was, not getting the shopping done faster. “Don’t–don’t worry about it.”
One last grin from Podrag before both of them scampered off to put on their clothing. And though wet breeks were supposedly the worst article of clothing since the chastity belt … well, Seumas barely noticed.
He especially didn’t notice when Podrag turned to him. “Well, this was fun! Do you think we could do it again sometime?”
Again? Of course! At least — that was what Seumas thought in the moment. “S-sure, if you want.”
“Awesome! When do you usually come to the market? On market day?”
“Shut up, Hamrick!” Podrag called over his shoulder. He shrugged at Seumas. “Brothers.”
“Amen,” Seumas answered, even though if he had thought about it, he would have realized that he spent way more time in Hamrick’s shoes than he did in Podrag’s.
“So–when do you come to the market?” Podrag asked again.
Usually he tried to get Beatris or Niven or both to handle at least some of the essential buying — if only so that Seumas could sit down at the end of a hard afternoon’s work. But not anymore. “Every market day,” Seumas replied, and intended to make so.
“Awesome! So I’ll see you–”
“Coming!” Podrag rolled his eyes. “I’ll see you next week. For our rematch!” Podrag clapped his shoulder. “Maybe you won’t get beaten so badly next time!”
“Oh … we’ll see,” was all Seumas could say.
Podrag flashed one more grin at him, then he was gone to rejoin his brother … and Seumas?
If Seumas had ever felt this happy before … he certainly couldn’t remember it.