The Bastion of Beleaguered Brothers
The noise was inhuman, more like an animal in pain than a sick woman. The cough was now so frequent that she could barely catch a shallow breath between. Her daughter, Louizel, held her left hand as her right held a cloth to her mouth. “Be strong mother, father has gone for the laech. He’ll be here soon to ease your pain.” said Louizel, her voice wavering as she tried her best to be strong. Her mother tried to calm herself enough to speak “Lou, I love you and your father so much.” She took a slow shallow breath, “you’re so special to me. You’ve grown into such a beautiful, strong young woman. You’ve made me so proud.” A barking cough punctuated the final sentence. The fit was worse than any Louizel had seen before. Holding her mother’s hand, she felt the grip tighten with each cough, before going limp.
Meredith Smith fell under the red mist two months prior, and though she tried to ignore it, soon the strength left her body. Friends and neighbours would tell her how she’d soon be back on her feet, but behind closed doors they’d lament for poor Louizel, soon to be motherless, and she before her flowering. So sad. Through whispers it was known that very few of the poor residents of Raven’s Rest survived once the red mist took hold.
Meredith tried to say more, but she couldn’t finish a word before a cough would shake her body. She managed “Lou” before a cough cut her off, ripping through her body. With each cough, the pale cloth she held to her face grew stained red with blood. The horrifically dry cough became laced with a gurgling aspect. In a moment’s respite, Meredith reached out to her dear Louizel, laying her bloody cloth on her blanket. Both of their eyes were wet with tears. Meredith tried to sit up but the effort brought on another cough. Before she could bring the cloth to her mouth, a spray of bright red blood erupted. Louizel turned her head, the fine mist of blood landing on her light blonde hair. Her mother mixed an apologetic look of horror with a pained grimace. Meredith convulsed with the constant coughing and then exhausted, lay on the bed, shaking as the coughing grew more rapid. Louizel was torn between staying with her mother and rushing out for help. She had never seen her mother that bad, and the blood was startlingly red. If these were her mother’s last moments, Louizel knew she had to stay. Nobody should die feeling alone.
Her father’s running footsteps sounded like thunder on the stairs. He had been as fast as he could, but he was too late. Meredith lay motionless on the bed. Around her mouth was a faint red taint, where Louizel had tried to clean up the blood. Louizel still held her mother’s hand, as the warmth slowly drained away. The father stood silently at the door for a moment before rushing to his wife’s side. “Is she…?” he asked as he stood over his wife. “Yes. She passed ten minutes ago. At the end she said she loved us both dearly.” Louizel spoke without emotion, but her red teary eyes showed the truth. Adrian gently touched his wife’s face. Her cheeks where so gaunt and pale, where once they were full and rosy. Her eyes were closed, her mouth closed. Adrian wondered how much his little Lou had cleaned up her mother. His daughter was burdened with so much for one still so young. He looked over at his daughter and for the first time noticed the red flecks drying into her golden locks. He walked around the bed and put his hands on his daughter’s shoulders. Louizel turned to look at him and he brushes the hair from her face and gently removed what blood he could. She looked up into his eyes, “I’m so sorry, Lou.” The unspoken bond between father and daughter was interrupted by the laech entering the room. “Ah, I fear I am too late,” the laech said, standing at the foot of the bed, observing Meredith from a distance. “Well, you’ve paid me in advance. Here is a tincture, mix it with double as much water and use it to wash yourselves and the corpse. With luck it will remove the shadow of the red mist from your bodies.” The leach placed a dark brown bottle on the floor, turned and left, never once removing the mask that covered his face and nose. The Smiths were left to their grief.
The town of Raven’s Rest grew in the shadow of the Raven Rock, a rocky mountain ending abruptly in sheer cliffs. In days beyond common memory, a fortress was carved into the rock of those cliffs. The people who created it had been forgotten, but for living memory it had been used as a base for The Order. Initially used as a beach-head for their crusade to spread the good word to the nation, the fortress was now one of The Order’s many regional bases throughout the land. At the foot of the cliffs lay a sloping plane, created from hundreds of years of sediment deposited by the slowly sweeping path of the Bally river. On this plane, settlers came to supply the holy men in their fortress, and as the local sect of The Order rose in prominence, so too the town grew with affluence.The river was the lifeblood of the town, transporting all goods and travellers. The town was divided into strata of prosperity. At the base of the cliffs were the powerful and wealthy clerics, those who preferred to live closer to the amenities of the town. Next down the slope was a circle of rich administrators and merchants. The further down the slope one went, the poorer the inhabitants. Below the middle district a stone wall was erected, allegedly for the dual purpose of defence and flood protection, but it was commonly acknowledged that it prevented the riff raff from freely associating with their betters. At the waterfront prosperity once again reigned, with merchants’ offices and prosperous taverns. There was another wall, made of impermeable granite, that was praised for protecting the poor from flooding, but in reality both walls could allow for the poor to be locked away to rot, if the local Order Communer decreed it.
Frederick made his way to the base of the cliffs before dawn. It wasn’t considered appropriate for a a sludge pusher to be seen in the upper quarters while good folk were going about their morning business. His daily routine saw him check the upper systems for blockages, before passing down beyond the wall for his real work. The town’s sewage was built in such a way that all waste flowed down into the river. The upper sectors had the advantages of small covered channels dug into the street, while the poorer parts of the town had open channels, so the inhabitants had the pleasure of looking at faeces float by. The job of the sludge pusher was a simple one and contained in the title: patrol the channels, clear any blockages and keep the system moving. Few in society were looked down upon more than the sludge pushers, and for some it was a genuine toss-up between their honest meagre wage and the beggars in the street. Frederick didn’t mind what most people thought of him, or the names they called him. In a world where your position in life is largely dictated by the family you’re born into, the orphan Frederick was a dreamer fuelled by possibilities.
“There’s always a good chance of a blockage outside Convener Lavelle’s building, too many feasts I guess” Fredrick said to himself as he took the sack off the end of his sludge stick. No one in the upper districts would look at him, never mind talk to him. He committed his observations to memory by saying them out loud, though his mind ran fast with thoughts he kept to himself to savour later. His stick was long and sturdy, broad at one end and more like a paddle. Plunged properly into the sludge channel, there was very little space, allowing for some control of flow. His superiors would tell the young boys how it was a grand job, once they got used to the smell. Frederick never got accustomed to the stench, but on the bright side, he always knew his sense of smell was working. A day of dealing with the town’s faeces made even something as simple a fresh bread smell heaven sent. He earned twenty cornets a day, with most of it spent on food and the rest going towards board in Mrs. Cranstock’s halfway house. A sludge pusher had no chance to save or buy luxuries, it was a life to keep one living. As Frederick broke up the blockage with quick stabs, he whistled a jaunty tune.
The ceremony had been simple, for they could afford nothing more. As with all those who died of the red mist, Louizel’s mother was burnt on a pyre. Neighbours and friends donated what wood they could. As the flames consumed all sight of the body, Louizel swore she smelled lavender in the air. Louizel remained when the crowd dispersed, most heading back towards the poor Crover district where they lived. In the local inn they’d find cheap ale and warming broth. Eventually, with enough drunk, they’d share memories of golden-haired Meredith, a true lady and genuine beauty. Sober thoughts were too consumed with her last days of sickness and the ever present fear of the red mist. Louizel had stayed with her mother as she died and she was determined to stay until the funeral deed was done. When the fires died down, the carrion carers approached with a large wheelbarrow. There was a procedure written down in old books, saying that a carer should block the sight of family members while the remains are transferred, but demand was so high that a single carrion carer approached the heap and unceremoniously shovelled and dragged the altar’s contents into the wheelbarrow. A blackened skull fell from the pile and rolled passed the carer, who shot his foot out to stop it but missed. The charred remains came to a rest in front of Louizel. She realised there was nothing of her mother left in that place. She turned and with each step towards home, her barriers dropped and the tears came. As she reached her door, she was trembling uncontrollably; barely able to see through the constant tears. She found her way to her small room and crashed down on her straw-filled mattress, where she she’d stay for two days.
Louizel was familiar with her responsibilities and it was these that finally made her leave her grieving spot. Her father was a local blacksmith, dealing mostly in the smaller items the other blacksmiths would ignore. He had been an apprentice to the legendary Bronson Sedgwick and was in line to take over the master’s famous forge, but his love of a travelling soother named Meredith brought him away from the Landslow province and to Raven’s Rest. Adrian Smith found the town’s blacksmiths had an unshakable monopoly on the fine ferrier (horse shoes etc) goods he specialised in. Add to that the low number of horses in a town surrounded by a river and cliffs and problems arose. He managed as best he could, because he was skilled and hardworking, and with money from Meredith’s work as a soother, they could afford a small forgery with an apartment above. As Louizel grew older, her tasks around the forge and house increased. She was often curious about her mother’s work, but her parents said she’d have enough time to see the dying during her life; how true they were. She began her day by going through the supplies list. Her father, despite his size and appearance, was more teddy bear than grizzly and would too often cave to the sob stories of suppliers and creditors alike. Louizel had a gift for seeing through the lies, and her father was far more useful as a last resort type threat. She sighed when she saw the accounts were heavily stacked in the minus. Her father always ran along the fence of liquidity, but with his wife sick, he had spent more than he had on laechers and potions. The greater proportion of poor dying from the red mist was not solely down to money, but also access. None of the best physikers or grand laeches would stoop to the level of practicing in the lower districts. Supplies of leather strips were running low; she would have to go to the tanners.
Louizel disliked going to the tanners. The smell was unpleasant and it was across town in one of the poor west districts. “Your father is already behind on payment for the last order” Ollie Ternstock said when Louizel placed her order. Ollie was a senior apprentice tanner, a title bestowed on him to allow him authority but not the pay due to a novice tanner. He was seventeen and confident in his skin. “We’ve just had some unexpected delays. We’re working through orders, but we can’t complete them with leather strips. We can’t pay you if we can’t complete” Louizel was not going to use her mother as a cheap bargaining tool, and she was not ready to talk about it with a relative stranger. Ollie was holding firm, there was good reason for his role as negotiator. Suddenly, his expression softened, as if hit by a thought thrown through the air. “Oh.” Half words and mumbles fell out of Ollie’s mouth before he stopped himself. “Well your father has been a good customer for many years, I guess I can let this one order go through… but make sure you pay promptly. I’ll have Johnson deliver it to your father’s forge before noon.”
Louizel left the tanners with a sense of relief. Her productivity was a sliver of light in a twilight day. Walking home, Louizel was shaken from her thoughts by something smashing the back of her head. As she spun around, she felt some wet and slimy trickle down her neck. Three local boys stood laughing as she her hand came back from her head covered in rotten egg yolk. Louizel stormed across to the boys “What the hell did you do that for!?” she shouted. They laughed in her face. One of the boys stood up, a foot taller than Louizel, and said “Aww, is the little girl going to cry? Why don’t you go back and cry to your mommy? Oh, wait… you can’t!” The other two boys laughed. A cruel laughter. The lead boy was looking back at his two friends, soaking up the glory. When his head turned it was met with a lightning quick punch to the nose. The bully stumbled backwards and Louizel followed with a furious flurry of punches. All the built up rage and frustration was unleashed at once, but the bully was too big and managed to push Louizel to the ground. “You crazy harpy! You’re going to pay for that!” he said as he stumbled back, a trickle of blood from his nose. His two friends were on their feet as he gather himself. Together they slowly approached Louizel. As she got back up, they began circling her. Someone unnoticed cleared their throat with a deliberate “ahem.” The three bullies looked at the interrupter and snorted. It was just a sludge pusher. They turned back to Louizel who was shaking with anger. “Maybe I didn’t clear my throat loud enough? What do you three think you’re going to do to that lady?” the sludge pusher asked. “Clear off you shit flicker, this is nothing to do with you!” On command, a brown clump splashed on the bully’s face. Froze in horror, as the stench crawled up his nostrils and the brown goo dribbled down his neck, the bully took a step towards the sludge pusher, before hesitating. The sludge pusher already had another clump of crud balanced on the end of his stick, “you seem to have something on your face” he said with a smile. The lead bully tried to wipe his face without using his hands, but got his grey shirt stained a horrible brown. Frustrated, he stormed off up a lane, calling his two friends “c’mon you two, we can deal with these two trudgers later!”
Louizel was about to chase after them, but the cavalry piped up “I wouldn’t waste any more time on those morons.” A hand was offered “Are you ok? I’m Frederick.” “Gah! They’re such crud kickers! I hate them!” Then Louizel noticed the hand still extended. “Oh! Sorry, they just make me so mad, I’m forgetting my manners, I’m Louizel, but friends call me Lou.” Hands were shook. “You can call me Lou” she said. “Nice to meet you, Lou. Do you mind if I walk you home, I think giving one bloody nose a morning is enough” Frederick said with a smile. And so they walked.
Louizel was afraid. She had kept a level head for as long as she could, but now the fear dug in deep. She remembered how her mother had died, she didn’t want that. Her father was in debt, but her mother had been strong and silent and now mixed with the waters of the Bally. The pain had followed Louizel for days, stabbing at her insides. The warm herb broths did liitle to help. She wasn’t ready to die, she hadn’t even kissed a boy. Louizel had woken early to find the pain lessened. She felt relieved until she noticed the bed was damp. Jumping up, she saw her sheets stained with blood. “No, not the red mist, not so soon!” she said to herself. Quickly cleaning the blood off herself and dressing, she ran to her father, who proceeded to tell her to calm herself and have some breakfast. He said he would send for Nana Rouge, which confused Louizel, for though wise, Nana Rouge was no laech.
Louizel sat, wondering who would reach her first, Nana Rouge or the black reaper. There was a quick triplet of a knock. Her father opened the door to and an elderly woman wearing a much repaired faded red cloak. “I’ll leave you to it” Adrian mumbled as he rushed past out the door, which Nana Rouge closed behind him. Carrying a wicker basket, Nana Rouge approached slowly with a limp. As she rummaged in the basket, the sound of metal on metal hammering could be heard. Louizel stared at the basket and listened to the clangs. From the sound it was the set of fire pokers the Rookery Inn had ordered, but they weren’t due for a week, and surely not urgent enough to abandon his dying daughter for. “There we are!” said Nana Rouge, as she produced a tied package. She proceeded to the kitchen with the package and placed a frying pan over the fire. The package contained bacon, which was soon followed by some sausages, soon sizzlingly pleasantly in the pan. Louizel was dumbfounded, it was as if the whole world was oblivious to her impending oblivion. “So my dear, do you remember me?” Nana asked, as she tended to the fry. Louizel knew quite a few stories about Nana Rouge, but she couldn’t recall meeting her and shook her head. “Oh, I’m not surprised, the last time we met you still had your birth cord attached, I had the privilege of snipping yours myself. A good fourteen years ago that was, and you’ve grown into a fine young woman, your mother is so proud of you.” There was an awkward silence. “My mother died…” said Louizel quietly. “Oh, I’m not so old that I’m going senile. I mean she’s proud of you where she is now, in the ether.” “Oh. Thanks” Louizel said meekly. “Right, now young lady, let me start by saying you’re perfectly ok, so stop worrying.” Nana Rouge planted a hot plate of bacon, sausages and egg in front of Louizel “eat this up now, it’ll do you good.” Louizel was still confused, but calmed by Nana’s matter of fact way of carrying on. When Louizel was full of pork goodness, Nana said “now, you strip off young lady, you’re going to have a nice long hot bath while I tell you all about your flowering.”
“Well young Adrian, you did the right thing calling me. Hopefully I did justice to your wife’s memory. I’m no real replacement for a child’s mother, but I think her fears have passed” Nana Rouge said, peering over her large cup of hot tea and whiskey. “Thank you so very much. I wouldn’t have known what to say to the girl. To be honest, I’ve found it easier to treat her as a son, but that was when her mother was alive and keen to see her grow up as more than just somebody’s wife. I should make more of an effort to treat her as the young lady she’s becoming, rather than the little forge monkey I remember” said Adrian with a feint smile. “I fear there may be more pressing issues than whether Louizel wears a dress or trousers to work.” Nana took a large gulp of tea before continuing “there’s the old saying that the longer the fruit takes to ripen, the fuller the flavour.” Nana could see Adrian didn’t quite follow. “Let me put it simply: young Lou has been going to some lengths to hide certain changes. Big changes. Now that she has flowered, you know the Order claim the right to secure her into the sisterhood. Now, normally they’re dealing with young waives of no interest to them, but Louizel is nearly a full grown woman, and taking after your beautiful wife.
Those wretches in the church will be salivating to make her a Sister. Mark my words, no good will come of it.” A frown creased Adrian’s face “well they can’t have her, I’m not losing my wife and daughter in the same year, to the depths with them! What can we do?” Nana Rouge drained her cup “well, I could give her an elixir to prevent her moonly, but that would be harsh on one so young and not appropriate for a long spell. No, better to keep things natural and healthy. You could take to hiding any evidence, but you must be thorough, those rats up the hill have smaller rats around these parts. You know how the Order deals with even the slightest sign of disobedience, and that’s without a treasure like your daughter involved.” Nana stood up slowly “Now, it’s time for me to move these old bones and see how the Widow Foxfire is getting on with dinner. Tell Louizel to call by my home, twenty one days from now, I’ll give her something to help. She’s one of the good ones.” Nana Rouge wrapped the faded red cloak around her and left.
The pair walked along the icy street, occupying themselves with their visible breath. “I’m like a dragon biding it’s time” said Louizel as she allowed warm air to slowly escape the sides of her mouth, condensing in wisps as it touches the cold. “Hah, well you’ve certainly been grumpy like a dragon the last day or two!” Frederick chuckled, as Louizel stuck a red tongue out. “That reminds me,” she said “I need to visit Nana Rouge!” Louizel waited for a gasp or exclamation, but none came. Nana Rouge was a legend and an enigma amongst the province’s youth, Louizel expected at least some reaction from Frederick. They turned a corner. “Aren’t you curious?” Louizel asked. “If it was my business I’m sure you would have told me.” They turned another corner. “You’re not one bit curious? And where are we going by the way?” She asked as they turned into a narrow lane. “No, I find people prefer to keep their dealings with Nana Rouge private. She would never say it, but she knows people enjoy keeping things mysterious, it makes them feel special and keeps her from the eyes of The Order” Frederick stopped talking and Louizel stopped walking “Eh, how do you know so much, and where are we?!” Louizel was greeted with the signature chuckle she hated and loved. “When you’re an orphan on the street you have ample chance to meet her, and as to where we are, you’re looking for that door over there with the red ivy painted around the corners.” He’d done it again, he always did it, he stayed pleasant and calm and made Louizel’s doubt seem foolish. “Well, who said I wanted to go straight there?” Her dirty look didn’t last long, she’d found Frederick could always see through it when faked. “Well, since we’re here, I guess I might as well go in. You wait here!” as she said it she realised she was confirming his special privacy theory. The boy was infuriating!
Nana Rouge’s door opened when knocked. The smell of sage and some herbs Louizel couldn’t place came wafting out. “Hello?” she called, before turning around to see Frederick staring and smiling, only to look nonchalantly at some woodwork when their eyes met. “Well? Come in or come out, child” Nana’s voice came from somewhere inside. With a final glance back at Frederick, who now seemed deeply interested in some joinery, she stepped inside and closed the door. The house was dimly lit, pleasant rather than dark. Nana Rouge was sitting at a solid oak table, weaving a wreath of holly and mistletoe. “Sit down, dear. How are you feeling?” “The pain came back a day or so ago, but I didn’t want to come before the appointed time.” Nana Rouge poured Louizel a cup of tea, “It’s nice that you’re respectful, dear, but you should never hold on ceremony for old me. This world has plenty of suffering in it for all of us, there’s no point in you suffering more than you have to.” Louizel sipped the tea, hiding a faint smile behind the cup. She liked feeling special enough to visit Nana Rouge whenever needed. “Now, there’s no cure for the pains, that’s just nature’s way of reminding you of the great power of life you hold in you, but you can make things easier.” Nana produced a small brown bottle, sealed with a cork, “this tincture is a concentrate made from the essence of a number of herbs that will calm your bits and make things more bearable. Mix it in with a hot drop and drink in the morning and at night. There should be enough there to last you nearly a year, I reckon, so you understand how little is needed in each cup, only two drops.” Louizel took the bottle and held it proudly. It was another sign of her womanhood. She had so many questions for Nana Rouge, mostly about Nana Rouge, but she didn’t know how to phrase any of them, instead she sat in silence, drinking her tea with one hand and feeling the small bottle in the other. “Tell me,” asked Nana, “why do you feel you have to hide yourself?” Louizel looked confused “but, you told my father we had to hide my flowering for a year?” Nana nodded ” That’s right, dear, but you don’t always have to hide who you are. Baggy clothes and other measures are best left to the old. You’re young, don’t be afraid to be yourself. When you learn to be comfortable in your skin, you’ll discover how to carve your place in this world, until then you’ll just keep filling the moulds others make for you.” Louizel nodded without fully understanding. “Now, I imagine that little Freddie is done looking at the local woodwork, off you go.” Louizel’s mouth opened but the question never escaped, instead she stood, thanked Nana Rouge and left.
Back on the street, Frederick fell in step by Louizel’s side as she walked back the way they’d come. Louizel was waiting for Frederick to ask how it went, but it drove her mad that he never would, he’d respect her privacy to the end. “So, that went ok.” She said, giving Frederick an opening. “I’m glad. There’s nearly never anything to fear from a trip to Nana.” Said Frederick with a slight smile. “She called you Little Freddie. How cute!” Louizel stuck her tongue out. “She has nicknames for everyone, more than one for some. She’s careful when she uses them, and when she wants one to stick it always does, just ask Ratface Boucher.” Nana Rouge was so interesting, and Frederick seemed to have an insight. “Tell me what you know about Nana Rouge?” Frederick hesitated. “Aw, c’mon Little Freddie, I won’t tell anyone.” Louizel did her best puppy dog eyes, which made Frederick smile and give in with a chuckle. “Ok, I’ll tell you one of the stories I heard. Some of it may make no sense, but it’s the most suited tale I’ve come across…”
“As you’d expect, Nana Rouge was once a young, and by all accounts, beautiful woman. They say she had dark black hair, the colour of a raven. She lived in this area at the time. Her father had died at an early age and her mother raised her to be fierce and independent. Her mother taught her herb-lore and she acted as a soother for the king’s wounded soldiers, who were garrisoned in The Raven Rock. The soldiers, like the local men, tried to woo her, but none of them were right. Years went by and people commented on how she had left it too late for a husband. She was still beautiful, and at twenty seven could still bare children, but it was long past the usual marrying age. Her mother had always told her to do what she believed was right for her, and not let others push her around. When her mother died, Nana Rouge became more determined not to settle. She eventually found love in a soldier, a brave man who had been badly injured in an ambush. Unlike the other men, this soldier didn’t treat her like an object to be won, but rather like a person to befriend. He was good and kind and admired her skill and strength of character, rather than her curves. At first, while he recovered, she was the sunshine in his day, but soon he became her reason for rushing to work. When he was ready to go back into service, he summoned up his courage – legendary on the battlefield but unsteady with this woman – and he asked if he might court her. Nana Rouge wasn’t one to stand by tradition, or so they say, and she suggested marriage after only a short period of courting, for no amount of dancing could compare to the bond that developed during those weeks by his sick bed. They were married the night before he was due to go to war. Before he left, he gave her a fine red cloak to keep her warm while he was gone, and she gave him a packet of envelopes so he could write. The soldier died in one of the kingdom’s first battles with The Order. Nana Rouge never married again and never had any children. Her name was lost over the years, an the elderly wise woman in the red cloak earned the nickname ‘Nana Rouge’. The rest is pretty much the same as today, as far as I can tell.”
Louizel waited until he was finished before asking her burning question. “But the kingdom was defeated nearly one hundred years ago, and The Order have been in place in The Raven Rock for even longer. If that story is true it’d make Nana Rouge more than one hundred and thirty years old!” They stopped at a corner. “Yeah, makes you wonder really. Either way, it makes her help no less wanted” Frederick said “well, I have to go do the midday shift and you should get back before your father burns down the forge.” He winked and then waved as he walked backwards towards the service yard. “Um, ok, bye!” Louizel said and found herself very close to the forge. In future she would really have to pay attention to the routes Frederick took them on, his knowledge of the city streets seemed magical. As she approached the rear yard of the forge, she disturbed a stranger rooting through their reed waste basket. “What are you doing?!” Louizel shouted. The stranger partially covered his face with a cloth and barged past Louizel, knocking her to the ground. “What the crud!?” she shouted, before noticing the sheets sticking out of the basket.