Sofina had all the advantages that accrue to an only child, but with the advantage of having an older sibling who could be relied upon to spoil her. Her mother had been widowed young and had married again some years later. Thus her son, Thaddan, was (as Sofina so wisely put it) blessed with the most charming and adorable younger sister.
Let us be fair here, Thaddan was suitably grateful for his advantages and could be relied upon to spoil his sister shamelessly. Given he was almost sixteen years older than her, this was entirely right and proper. If there was a fly in Sofina’s ointment, it was that Thaddan was a man-at-arms with Lord Cartin’s company. Now Lord Cartin was a true gentleman and a good employer. He had been known to grant his men leave so they could see their wife and babe in arms. But even Sofina at her most adorable couldn’t convince him to keep Thaddan in Port Naain so he could spend more time with his devoted little sister.
Let us be fair to her, she did try, and discovered to her surprise that in Lord Cartin she had met somebody immune to her charms. But even he, on discovering she had slipped away from school to meet him, had her escorted back to school by a full company of horsemen in full parade order. The effect on her classmates was most gratifying, but still, Sofina had to resign herself to losing her brother every spring. She wept almost inconsolably when he left. After all she was old enough to realise that she might genuinely never see him again. But each autumn he would return, to cast (sometimes literally) the plunder of Partann at her feet. Then he would regale her with tales of his adventures, and she would hold court for him and such of his companions who lacked family. An older girl would have been overwhelmed by the genuine affection she received from a collection of tough young men, but Sofina was young enough to accept it naturally, as her due.
Yet, Sofina was aware that Thaddan was failing her in one particular respect. She was growing older. There was a limited window of opportunity for him to present her with nephews and nieces for her to dote over. Not only that but in ten or so years she would hope to play the role of glamourous aunt. If Thaddan didn’t bestir himself, she could be an old lady in her thirties before she got to play this role! She hung on the conversation of Thaddan and his companions, listening carefully for hints that there might be a lady in the offing, but she gleaned nothing.
It was as he rode south in the spring of her eighth year that she saw an opportunity and took it. During the previous winter, Thaddan had made the acquaintance of Mistress Nadeen. Sofina rather approved of Mistress Nadeen, she seemed adequately pretty, conversed nicely with younger sisters and did not attempt to mother them, and (an important point this) was the youngest of a family of seven, and all her siblings had large families. On discovering that Nadeen was an accomplished flutist, Sofina, sacrificially, developed a love of the instrument and managed to convince her parents that Nadeen was the perfect person to teach her. During the lessons Sofina would occasionally read portions of her brother’s letters.
So with Nadeen now under control, Sofina pondered her brother. Perhaps, she mused, if she could win him wealth and fame he might have the courage to propose to Nadeen, marry her and have lots of children.
Obviously to do this she would have to learn about soldiering and Partann. So at the age of eight she sat down to read the Campaigns of Ortar Dreen, the warrior king who had finally united Partann. As an aside, I asked her father where he found the copy. He didn’t know, assuming it was in the house when he bought it. I’ve never seen another copy. The book was originally written nearly two thousand years ago, this copy appears to be one of a small private printing done in Prae Ducis perhaps two hundred years ago.
Still wherever the book came from, Sofina would sit engrossed in the text, occasionally having to go to the library where she could study the maps. Over the weeks she not merely followed the campaigns of the great Ortar, but from her brother’s letters, Sofina plotted the route Lord Cartin’s force had taken.
Finally an obviously frustrated Thaddan let slip to his little sister that Lord Cartin was facing stalemate. Bugat the Bloodyhanded was leading them a merry dance. He had a base in the valley of the Upper Freel River. This somewhat grandiosely named stream runs out of a range of hills known as The Border Palisades. If Lord Cartin attempted to force the valley, he risked losing large numbers of men as they fought their way through a narrow gap barely wide enough for two men to ride abreast. All the while being pelted with arrows and boulders from the cliffs above.
The ‘Upper Freel River’ was familiar to Sofina, at least in prose. She went back to the Campaigns of Ortar Dreen and there it was. Ortar had come across the same problem, two millennia previously. Sofina re-read the description of that campaign. Apparently there was a path which led into the valley from behind. The author of the history had himself walked the path and described it in some detail. Passable for a fit young man on foot, at one point it debouched onto the top of a low cliff overlooking the valley, before descending down a narrow cleft to the valley floor. Sofina meticulously copied out the text. She included this in her letter to her brother.
In Partann, sitting under a canvas awning, chewing on a midday meal of dry biscuit and red wine, watching as later summer turned into autumn, Thaddan was cheered when a messenger passed amongst the men, handing out precious mail from home. The young man recognised his little sister’s handwriting and immediately opened the letter. He read it twice and abandoning his meal he made his way straight to Lord Cartin’s tent.
Lord Cartin was also staring out at the rain that was steadily turning his supply lines into mud. In a week or two at the most, he would have to pull back, leaving Bugat the Bloodyhanded free to move out from the valley once more and continue his campaign of conquest. He read Sofina’s letter with growing interest, and even before he’d finished he had shouted for Stanlan Needleborne, the captain of his infantry. An hour later, Thaddan, at the head of a score of dismounted men-at-arms, and Stanlan, leading two hundred crossbowmen, filed out of the camp. Their march was hidden from any watchers by the constant rain. They swung wide, taking fifteen miles to reach a place a mere five miles from their starting point, but they had arrived there unobserved.
Stanlan sent forward three of his youngest and fittest men. Ten minutes later they came back, they had found the path. With these three probing ahead, Thaddan led the dismounted men-at-arms along the path. Cursing their heavy horsemen’s boots and half armour, they did their best to keep up with the three scouts. Behind them in single file wound the rest of the crossbowmen, their weapons in canvas cases to protect the strings from the rain. An hour later Thaddan was halted by one of the three scouts, they had arrived at the top of the low cliff. Lying on his belly, looking over the edge, he could see the camp of Bugat the Bloodyhanded perhaps fifty feet below. The rain had slackened and as Stanlan spread his crossbowmen along the edge of the cliff, Thaddan led half his dismounted men at arms down the narrow cleft to hold it against any counter attack. He sent the rest of his men at arms and a score of crossbowmen to make their way along the top of the cliff hoping to drive off the guards holding the mouth of the valley. At the foot of the cleft Thaddan found the enemy horse lines. Swiftly he and his men cut down the horse guards. Then from above him came the sound of a horn blowing. His men had obviously taken the entrance. Bugat’s followers came boiling out of their shelters to see what was happening, only to die in the hail of crossbow bolts. At the same time Thaddan and his party cut the horses loose and drove them through the camp, adding to the chaos. Minutes later Lord Cartin led his force through the gap. By sunset the fighting was finished. The head of Bugat the Bloodyhanded decorated a spear, and those of his men who hadn’t fled on foot into the wilds were either dead or in chains. The camp was now methodically looted.
It was nearly two months later that Thaddan arrived home. He’d sent a messenger ahead, so he was expected. Sofina had made her plans carefully. Firstly she’d booked a flute lesson. Thus when her brother hammered on the door and the maid let him in, he had to brace himself as Sofina abandoned both her flute and Nadeen. She ran down the passage from the music room and threw herself onto him and hugged him. As he struggled to untangle himself he said, “I’ve a present for you.” Then he corrected himself, “Lord Cartin told me to give you this, he said it was your share of the loot.”
As she stepped back, Thaddan produced from his pack a rope of pearls that would have paid and provisioned a mercenary company for a month. Somewhat awed, Sofina stared at them. Then she remembered herself. Rather sternly she said, “Now you’re back, there’s a lady I think you ought to meet.” With that she led him by the hand into the music room.
Visit Port Naain. The perfectly holiday destination, no quarantine and masks are only worn as a fashion statement or by competent professionals intent on ensuring you walk more easily with a lighter purse.
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.
As a reviewer commented, “More of Steelyard’s vignettes on the life of a jobbing poet in cut-throat literary world of Port Naain. Wittily written, a fascinating backgrond and and an ever-varying cast of colourful characters. An excellent way to spend a rainy afternoon.”