Misput Fealties: Prologue 3

…Continued from Prologue 2

Corporal Lytchett Miriam Matravers looked at herself in the mirror for the last time.  She checked her spotless dress uniform, put her slouch hat on and squared it. Picking up her gloves, Chet walked out of the room without bothering to shut the door. She was greeted with wolf whistles from the men and women of her squad, who had gathered to see her off.

“Cheers, corp.”

“Bye, corp.”

“Good luck.”

“I’m not gone yet.”

“Yeah, but you’ll be so pissed tonight you won’t know who we are!” This was Blandford, who hoped he was going to succeed her – the others laughed a lot.

“Yeah, well, I won’t be going far.”

She would shift over to the facing block, and her old friend Melbury Bubb would take over as Sergeant in this block. He would be good for them, although she didn’t think he would grant Blandford his wish; Mel could see through him as well as she could. She waved to her soldiers and left the wing, her hard, shiny shoes click-clacking down the stairs and over the linoleum floors to the foreside way in.

She stepped outside to find Lieutenant Loxbeare, her platoon leader, waiting under a cloudy sky. She liked her officer, but they had argued in recent months – Leigh had wanted her to go for officer training rather than waiting for her third stripe. Chet thought it wise but somehow unfair that only women could be officers. She felt she could not look her manly comrades in the eye if she took the smooth way out, as it seemed to her.

She saluted, and the Lieutenant saluted back, smiling. They marched together towards their Regimental HQ. From other barrack blocks, other Corporals and Officers did the same, but each two kept to themselves.

“Congratulations, Chet, you will be the youngest woman Sergeant in the Regiment’s yore.”

“Thanks, Ma’am.” Leigh always wore her feminism on her sleeve.  Chet wondered if her ambition was any better than the old Patriarchy.

“Chet,” she began awkwardly, “I have some bad news about your friend Corporal Bubb.”

The Lieutenant had never liked Mel. “Oh?”

“I’m aghast he’s not getting his third to-”

“Why the hell – ” She fought down her wrath, “ah, why not ma’am?”

“Being as,” said the Lieutenant, “he started a fight in the Capital last month that led to a riot.”

Chet kept her eyes forward. She had heard about Mel’s caper, but thought, as everyone else had, that he’d got away with it.

“He was identified last week and found guilty yesterday. He’s been busted back to Private and sent to the lockup. He won’t be joining you in the Sergeants’ Mess anytime soon.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh’.” They strode on for a few strides. “I’m sorry for you Chet, you were always a good sway over him. You saw the best in him – somehow.”

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Misput Fealties: Prologue 2

…Continued from Prologue 1

… the Story goes on, in Another Time and Place

The young man looked plain enough.  He wore the same clothes as all the other folk and shifted unseen among them as they walked towards the Burg. Their feet boomed as they crossed the metal bridge over the dry ditch, and they slapped on the flat stones under the Westgate.  Two bored soldiers waved them through, but they paid him no heed.  The crowd pressed on towards the marquees set up on the lawn inside the walls, but the youth split off to the right and went to stand behind some bushes at the footing of the wall.  He truly did need to pee; his hand shook as he directed his stream.

When done, he buttoned up his breeches and looked about:  I am alone.  No one had seen him go, let alone hung about waiting for him.  Walking along the inside of the burg wall, he dragged a stick against the stones – he would act like a halfwit if challenged.  He nipped over the gap and slid down the grassy bank to get underneath the great windows, then he crept back towards the meaner openings, windows with bars.

“Teacher,” he hissed.  No answer.

He walked on and tried two more windows, and then the last one.  In answer to his call, bent fingers grasped the black metal bars at the opening; part of a known face came into sight.

“Carl, is that you, boy?”

“Yes, T-Teacher,” he replied, the words catching in his throat. “How are you? Have they treated you well?”

“Well, for now, that’s enough I guess.”

“Is there anything I can get you?”

He waited for an answer and was about to ask again when the old man started talking. His speech wasn’t frightened, only tired.

“Carl, listen to me.  There is no hope for me here and you must go – you must get away from Lincolnshire. The jarl wants me to be his thrall and will stop at nothing to get me, and if he can’t have me he’ll want you.”  The fingers pushed a black shape through the bars.  “Take my Stone boy, I know you haven’t graduated yet, but you can do everything that I can.  I hope you’re old enough to deal with it wisely.  Get out of here and find yourself a new spot to live.  My first learner, Burton Pedwardine, went to Norfolk – you could go to him. Or tell folk that you’ve graduated and set yourself up somewhere. Don’t come back here, whatever you do.”

“But what will they do to you, Teacher?”

“I no longer care,” said the old man. “But I won’t help the Jarl anymore, he’s gone too far.  It’s time for you to go, my son.  Say goodbye and don’t look back: that is my last word to you.”

Carl heard the sadness but also the wisdom of the words. If he stayed, the Jarl could make him help by threatening the old man. He could not let his Teacher down. 

“Goodbye, Teacher.”

The precious Stone went into his bag and he plodded back to the pathway, re-joining some others – punters, traders or pilgrims, he couldn’t tell through eyes filled with tears.  He pressed into the throng and furtively dried his eyes: he must not draw heed.  Carrying on through the crowd, he made it look as if he looked at the stalls and smelt the food, as he passed through. By the time he was outside the walls he knew what to do, even though it was the last thing in the world he wanted: get as far away as he could.

Through the Burg’s main gate, and into the cobbled square.  Down Steep Hill, the quickest way to the busy wharf and the fishing boats.  There, a coin got him on the floating bridge to the other side.  He trudged up the hill, and when he got to the top, turned about and looked back. From the top of the hill, he could see the Burg and the cathedral, all of Lincoln, with the Inland Seas to the east and west, and, below, the gap in the Lincolnshire ridge, where they met.  The city’s narrow finger of land stretched away north. It was all so fair and so unfair.

There was no way back for him now.  

The road headed south on the widening ridge towards Grantham.  He skirted his namesake spot, to keep away folk who knew him and would ask where his Teacher was, because they might soon be asked where he was by the jarl’s men. When he got to the borough, he had to gamble some Seeing – he was out of silver – to give for a bed and supper.  At dawn he was off, aiming to be long gone before any word of him got back to Lincoln.  They had come this way many times together, and he couldn’t believe that it would never happen again. 

He was his own man now, so he gave himself a stiff talking to and swore he would leave Lincolnshire forever – until he could get even with the Jarl for locking up his Teacher.  How the hell am I going to do that? he wondered.  Don’t try, said a voice.  He started.  It must have been the Stone, even though it was in the bag and not about his neck.  Did that mean don’t seek vengeance at all? Let the world unfold and take its way? 

Time would tell. 

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Misput Fealties: Prologue 1

The Story Begins…

Her brother had sung songs — work songs, so proper and not decadent – as they decorated the hall with bunting: black, white, red and green.  Normally she would have sung too, but you never knew who was listening, what they might say about her to undermine the cause.  The meeting was in an old theatre, so when they finished they went backstage, where she changed into traditional dress for the meeting, but she also got to see some of the costumes; the local players had been busy since strict Sharia relaxed.  Seeing the beautiful clothes, touching them, calmed her.  

Father had been out door-knocking with party volunteers, trying to rustle up a good-sized crowd for their leader.  Reporters were covering the whole political circus as it toured the frontier, and they wanted — well, Father insisted — that they all create a good impression.  ‘Momentum’ was his favourite word lately.  She couldn’t remember ever spending much time in their house in Birmingham, but they had been on the road for weeks now.  The Progressive Party was doing well, thanks to his words and its leader’s good looks.  The campaign buzzed along, and Father hoped that, at last, things might change, and Zoners might drag themselves out of the endless confrontation with the nations that surrounded them. 

They would hold part of the meeting in Anglish, as not everyone spoke the official language on the frontier. “The Progressive Party Welcomes Everyone” said the banner over the front entrance, in both Anglish and Arabic.  Father let her speak Anglish at home, so she could help if the speeches got too poetic and the official man could not cope. Playtime over, they watched the stalls and boxes filling up.  Her father looked over the sea of faces — Muslims and Kafirs sat together — and smiled.

“You see, it is possible,” he had said; as if it was as easy as that.

He let go of the curtain and they went backstage.  She had read the Theatre’s opening plaque to practice her Anglish: the Nuneaton Hippodrome had been rebuilt in mid C22 based on the old design, but instead of the original five dressing rooms there was a flexible space with partitions. The open-plan room was full of local notables, and she slipped to the back of the room.  There was a ‘thud’ and she looked down to see a glass paperweight rolling on the floor.  No one else paid it any attention so she knelt to retrieve it before someone trod on it and slipped.   The ring of flowers inside the glass was so beautiful, protected from the ugliness of the outside –

Heavy boots thumped into the room. From inside the theatre itself, screams were silenced by a bang.  She froze.

“Soldiers,” said her father to no one in particular, “and not ours.”  His voice was steady, but she could sense his fear; he had got where he was by being the one who held things together, the still point in any crisis.  She had to do something.  Realising she was by an open doorway she wriggled through and found herself back in the costume store.  Several racks of clothes filled the room, plenty of places to hide; she wriggled under the costumes to the back of the room. Then she crawled forwards again because she could not hear anything back there.

“Everybody keep slack,” a strange voice said in Anglish, “and no one gets harmed, me ducks.”  Did he really say ‘ducks’, she wondered; it sounded like a bad pirate film. Something moved near her and she strangled a cry. The hanging clothes parted, and her brother’s face peered into hers.  They crawled to the back of the room, so they could talk in whispers.

“What’s going on in there?”

“Soldiers from the east — Lincolnshire, I think,” he said.

“They must be after our leader and Father.”  She saw the whole thing: with the Progressives leaderless, the Neocons would win the election.  Then her people would remain isolated, and the conflict would go on and on; they’d heard those words – Father’s words – often enough.  “We’ve got to do something.”

“What?” he wanted to know, “clever words won’t work against muskets and swords.”

“No, I…suppose not.”

Her brother looked satisfied.  The moron thought that girls weren’t supposed to take the lead in their society.  Has he learned nothing? Has he not listened to father at all?  Her eyes narrowed as she realised that her big brother only looked like a man. He would rather stay a victim, see his people lose again than see his sister get above herself.  She looked at him and smiled; she had an idea, and it might even work.

“What are you up to?” he hissed.

“Praise Allah,” she said, “you’re not the only stupid male in the world.”

She kissed her scowling brother, perhaps for the last time.

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