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Better Than Boys

So taking the village was our top priority.

Before our lads attacked, though, we needed intelligence: how many braves were defending it? How good was the stockade – any weak points? What about the gate – could a direct assault break through?

And guess who was selected to find out? Me. Seer. It’s always the shaman’s job to pull the chestnuts out of the fire.

I set my girls out to check the outer perimeter, trace paths and find useful viewpoints, while I slithered down through the bushes past the village and began to work my way back up along the river on the opposite bank to the village. The fact that I could do that showed how sloppy the defenders were; any cover in slingshot of the village should have been burnt off, and kept burnt; that was itself something worth reporting. The gate at the south end of the village looked even stronger than the one on our side, but again, it didn’t look in perfect repair. The river wasn’t more than waist deep, but the banks were very soft and slimy, and hard to cross without slipping or getting stuck in clagging mud – potentially a real barrier.

I worked further north, back towards us. Ah – now that’s interesting. I wriggled closer, as close as I dared to the river while staying in cover. A jetty had been built out across the stream, its tip dipping into the water almost at my nose; and at its root there was a break in the stockade. A gap three or four poles wide, completely unstrengthened or defended – it was just as if some poles had fallen out of the stockade and the gap just left! These folk knew nothing of war!

A group of women were standing chatting on the jetty carrying full waterbags and waterjars. I waited in cover, and soon they drifted into the village through the gap. I wondered what to do: this gap was obviously important, and the boys would need to know about it; but should I go on round the stockade, or try to slip into the village? There were a couple of spare waterjars lying around, and no one ever looks at a girl carrying water; almost certainly I could get away with it.

I worked closer, thinking it through, but then another woman came out to the tip of the jetty and began filling a jar. I thought I was hidden and silent – apparently not.

“Come out of there!” she exclaimed suddenly. “Patch – is it you? To your basket – bad dog!”

I’d got blotches of mud all over my skin from the mud alongside the river; she must have glimpsed a bit of me. No use just lying quiet – could I bluff my way? I wondered how far she’d bought into the local stories…

“I’m not a dog,” I crooned. “I like dogs, though. Delicious, dogs are.”

“So? So who are you, then? What’re you doing here?”

“I’m just here for a drink. It’s been months since I had a good drink of manblood, and Kilger says – you know Kilger, of course? Kilger said there’s likely to be a battle somewhere along here soon. I wouldn’t miss a chance like that.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Then come out where I can see you!”

“I’d love to,” I said, “but that’d mean shape changing, and I find shape changing so tiring. Do you find it tiring too?”

She laughed – in a way that was bad news. “Nice try, nice try,” she said through the laugh. Then she glanced sharply around. “Look,” she went on, her voice lower. “You’re a spy, aren’t you, from the enemy – what do you call yourselves – the Caswy, is that right? You’re a spy for them, aren’t you?”

I’d given it my best shot, and there really was no point in pretending – especially as her attitude suggested that all was not lost, yet. A good tribewoman would’ve run into the village and raised the alarm; she was crouching down to talk. So I compromised: I kept silent.

“Fine – that’s a yes.” She bent even lower. “How about – I live in the village; I know everything about it; if you agree to take me into your Tribe I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

That was unexpected. I needed time to think it through, so I sidestepped.

“Take you into the Tribe? That’s asking a lot. Straight from enemy to Tentwoman!”

“No, no, I couldn’t expect that. Just as a servant – an outsider. I’m a good worker – my man says it’s the only reason he keeps me. I can do a lot around your camps. Just give me a bit of food, a dry corner to sleep, and safety from this lot.”

“And a man to hold you?”

“No. No man – not unless I choose. That’s why I hate this village – I told them I didn’t want a man, but they just picked one to give me to with no say from me, and I’ve hated him for ten years. That’s why I’ve made sure I never had a kid by him. No man.”

Did I trust her? No. Did I have the authority to agree to terms? No. Did I think the others would accept her terms? No – traitor to one, traitor to all, that’s what they’d think. On the other hand, this was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I needed time.

“There’s no way I can get you out of here in broad daylight in full view of the village,” I said.

She nodded. “I can get out late, though. Around midnight. The man’s still got half a skin from the party – he’ll be far too drunk to know I’m gone.”

“Ye-e-es. Yes, all right. Look, there’s a clearing about fifty paces north of the north gate, just past where the path bends to the ford – it’s got two ash trees from a single root growing right at the northern tip.”

“Masimlad. It’s where the village lads play their games. Yes, I can get there.”

“Good. About midnight. And tell no one about it – not a word – not a hint to anyone. Understand?”

“Can I bring – er – a few things out with me?”

“As long as they don’t involve explaining why! I mean it, not a word about this to anyone at all.”

“Yes. Not a word.”

“Promise? If you let this out you’ll be in big trouble.”

“Promise. Not a word about this to anyone. Midnight, about, in Masimlad. You’re wonderful!”

Well, I knew that already. And I’d got her to agree without actually promising her anything. A win, I reckoned.

I had ample time to get back to our camp, tell the lads what I’d seen, and tell them about our snitch. They were as dubious as me.

“Be careful,” they said. “There might be braves in the bushes ready to ambush you.”

“Oh I will,” I smiled. “I don’t want to be a hostage, and make you have to buy me back.”

“Pay them to keep you, you mean.”

Loftily ignoring that last remark, I got some things together and left for the clearing. I timed it exactly right; it was just full dark when I got there. I checked around and found no sign of anything suspicious, so I set things up, found a convenient tree and settled down for a three hour wait. I was undisturbed – no ambushing braves, no scared deer, not even a sniffing fox. Quite disappointing. As was the steady drizzle.

It was a bit before midnight when I heard her coming – along with most of the valley, I should think. I’ve known quieter herds of geese. And when she finally appeared in the clearing, I saw why – she was pushing a wheelbarrow! A full wheelbarrow at that, with a hide thrown over it to keep the rain out, which was about the only sensible thing about it.

I watched her trundle this – thing – into the clearing, and of course she will have seen the little flame of the rushlight I’d stuck in the shelter of the ash tree; at any rate she went straight up to it without stopping. The next light was about ten paces away, and the next another ten paces away across an open strip, so I could be sure whether or not she was being followed – all good that I could see. I slipped down from my tree, worked round ahead of her, and lit the rest of the trail. She followed it accurately and without hesitation, but – honestly: a wheelbarrow? In a forest? What was she thinking?

So it was well into the small hours by the time she finally manoeuvred that great unwieldy thing to the front gate of our camp, where I was standing waiting for her. Not alone, obviously.

“Hello,” I said. “So who are you?”

“Er – hello – er – Mar. I’m Mar. Er…” and her eyes flicked from one to the other of us.

“I’m Seer,” I said, “and this is Stack, who leads our fighters in battle.”

“And I’m responsible for the safety of the camp,” Stack added. “So you can take that wrap off that wheel barrow and empty it out. Here. Now.”

I don’t suppose that she’d have hesitated anyway, but Stack is wide enough across the shoulders that no one disobeys an order from him. Not even Hawk, and he’s our chief.

“Er.. Right.” She bit her lip. “Right.”

She pulled the hide off and tipped the wheelbarrow out. Its contents stood up and shook herself out.

“What the – are you serious?” Stack almost exploded.

“Did I not say – did I not get you to promise,” I said sweetly, “not a word to anyone? Not one word?”

“I never said a word!” Mar answered. “Not about it! Honestly. I just said to her, word for word, ‘Be in the warrob at niy febore dimtighn, distaff.’ That means –”

“Be in the barrow at one before midnight.” I interrupted her – I didn’t want her to think she was cleverer than me. “I can do backslang too. But distaff?”

“We’re best friends, but we’ve been given to men who don’t like us being together, so we use backslang and we’ve got a system of codewords. ‘Distaff’ means ‘this is category one important to me, just do as I say and please don’t ask questions.’ So you see, I never told Jini anything. This is Jini, by the way.”

“You’re best friends?” Stack sounded sceptical.

“Yes,” answered Mar. Then both of them broke into a chant:

“Better than toys, better than boys, always together, best FRIENDS forever!”

And they slapped right hand to right hand high in the air on the word FRIENDS.

Oh I know, I’m a real softie. It just got to me. I think it even got to Stack, a bit, and he’s not the sentimental type.

“Fine,” he said. “Is there anything else in the barrow? No. And you’re not hiding anything in your clothes.” That was certainly true. Insofar as you could call them clothes, they were definitely not hiding anything at all. “So if Seer will just check your hair for pins or anything? No? Let’s go inside. Seer, you’re responsible for these two, understand? If there’s the slightest doubt about them, kill them.”

“Of course.” I’m not a fool – I could work that out for myself. “You two, walk in front of me, keep your hands where I can see them and don’t look as though you’re signalling. I want some sleep tonight, and so you’ll be sleeping in my hut. I’ve only got one sleeping-stead made up so one of you will have to –”

“Wecansleeptogether!” exclaimed Jini.

“Yes! We can sleep together! All night!” Mar twinkled her toes. Then both of them:

“Better than toys, better than boys, always together, best FRIENDS forever!”

And they did the high slap on Friends again.

It was so sweet.

“Fine, fine,” I said. “Well, first let’s give you a wash in the river – did you have to use a manure barrow? – and then you’ll both be sleeping right over there, as far from me as possible. You will excuse some basic precautions, of course? I need to be sure that in the morning you’ll still be here and I’ll still be alive.”

In the – late – morning I untied their toes and offered them a drink.

“No food,” I said. “Even I’m still not sure I trust you, and the boys certainly don’t; and it’s bad luck to kill someone who’s shared your food.”

They looked suitably meek, and drank their hot mead-and-water.

“Now let’s go and see the chief.”

They nodded and looked at each other. Then “Better than toys, better than boys, always together, best FRIENDS forever!” and the high slap on Friends.

Fair enough; they needed all the courage they could get. But it was somehow not quite as sweet as it had been the night before. Probably just my lack of sleep.

So to Hawk. He’d walked out in front of his hut, so that we were looking into the sun and he wasn’t. The sunlight behind him lit up his yellow hair. Mind, with Hawk that’s a long way up.

“Hail, Hawk, chief of the Causeway Tribe,” I declaimed. “These are Mar and Jini who wish to leave their tribe and join themselves with us.”

Hawk looked at me, and then at the two women.

“Stack tells me you bring information our Tribe can use against your village.”

“Yes, sir, your honour, er, chief…” Mar dribbled to a halt.

“So you are traitors to your tribe.”

“We’re not traitors!” exclaimed Jini. “Er, I mean, sir chief, sir, we are not traitors because we were never loyal to them. We hated them – they wouldn’t let us be together, and they forced us, just gave us to men we hated even though we shouted at them not to.”

“So what did you want?”

I could see it coming.

“Better than toys, better than boys, always together, best FRIENDS forever!” And don’t forget the high slap on Friends.

Yes, I had seen it coming, but of course Hawk hadn’t. He seemed a little, well, taken aback.

“Oh.” He said. “I see. So you feel you owe that village nothing of loyalty.”

Mar and Jini nodded.

“And so you are willing to work here –” I noticed he was careful not to imply that they would be Tribe; Hawk’s no fool – “as long as we don’t force you apart. And of course give you an occasional scrap of food and let you sleep an hour or so now and then in a corner of the dungheap.”

Jiri managed a very forced smile. Mar nodded. “Yes. That’s all we’re asking. Just to be together – nothing else matters. Er, sir, chief, sir.”

“I see.” Every bone in his body added “but I don’t believe you” but he didn’t actually say it. “So…” He looked across at Stack, who shrugged and nodded. “You will go with Stack here to the rest of our braves, and tell them everything there is to know about the village, the other villages, and all about you southrons, while I decide how to kill you, or just possibly, what else to do with you.”

He turned away, and Stack paced off without looking at them. They hesitated, and then followed Stack.

Once they were a few paces away from Hawk and me, and without breaking stride, they glanced at each other and…

“Better than toys, better than boys, always together, best FRIENDS forever!” And that high slap on Friends.

“Do they do that all the time?” asked Hawk.

“Pretty much,” I said.

“Oh great. It’s rather sweet, I know, I mean, it was the first time, but…”

“I think it’s all that’s kept them going through the last ten years,” I said. “It’s been hard – we need to allow them that.”

“Yes, of course. But… well, maybe they’ll do it less now they don’t need to.”

“So will they live?”

“I’d say yes. They’ve got a really good reason to hate their village – it’s not a simple betrayal for gain. I’d be inclined to trust them. What about you?”

“Oh I agree. They may be getting on for ten years older than me, but they’re really almost children still. Just…”

“Yes?”

“Please PLEASE give them a hut to themselves. Or at least, not mine!”

Hawk laughed. “Anyway, we need to hear Stack – he’ll have a pretty good idea how honest they really are. After all, between your scouting and the information from our friends over the hill, we already know quite a lot. Stack will know for sure if their tale adds up.”

It did, apparently.

“But,” said Stack, “well, you know that thing they do?”

I nodded. “’Better than toys, better – ’”

“Yes yes. That. I know it’s rather sweet, but…”

“It is sweet, isn’t it!” I said.

“Yes, but they did it three times just while we were talking. I could see the reason each time. It’s just, well,”

“I don’t think we should cut their throats just because of their little chant,” I said. I admit I didn’t sound convincing even to me. Stack just shrugged. Hawk sucked his teeth and sent to fetch them.

“We have decided not to kill you straightaway, but to let you live for the moment,” he told them. “You will be given somewhere in shelter to sleep, and you will eat with the other helpers.” He paused, probably for effect, but it was a mistake.

“Better than toys, better than boys, always together, best FRIENDS forever!” With that slap.

“But you must work for your keep,” he went on – looking slightly desperate, I thought. “At the moment we need extra hands gathering fuel and cooking for the camp; you can help there and eat with the others there too. That hut with the black lintel,” he pointed, “only has three girls in at the moment and will take two more sleeping steads with still lots of room, so –”

“Oh, we will sleep together!” exclaimed Jini. And guess what…

“Better than toys, better than boys, always together, best FRIENDS forever!” It’s that slap, I think, that really makes it… unique. You find yourself actually waiting for it, and then when it comes, it seems even louder.

Our boys attacked next day at dawn.

We could probably have taken the village anyway, but even Stack admitted that it was their information that meant we had no losses at all on our side: not one death. Some bad wounds, but everything healed in the end. The defenders didn’t do so well: they fought bravely, but they’d no chance from the start.

Afterwards, we sent the women and children back to our camp to work out what to do with them later, and then we killed the men who hadn’t died in battle, with a quick spear thrust to the heart; they’d fought bravely enough for us not to dishonour them.

Oh, all except for two. At their request, and as a thank-you for the information they’d given us, Jini and Mar were allowed to point out their men, to be put on one side. Then, when all the others had been dealt with, Jini and Mar castrated them with two heavy stones and speared them in the guts.

The last thing they knew was Jini and Mar going:

“Better than toys, better than boys, always together, best FRIENDS forever!” The high slap on Friends was louder than ever – and just that one time, I didn’t mind.

But that was the only time.

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