The ‘Guesters’ were Latrones: three of them, two men and a woman. Youngish, gawky, dressed like scarecrows - all rags and fray-ends and bits of twine. The woman stared at me and Odolghes when we came in and I was afraid for a moment she might have recognised us from the winter we had spent working in their mines, but it wasn’t that, she was just eyeing our clothes with envy. Think of being envious of my bulgy breeches.
It was the first of several visits from neighbouring tribesfolk, and since the Cajutes were very proud of having some kind of entertainment to offer and show off about, Odolghes and I were now kept very busy. After the Latrones we played for Peleghetes, Trusani, Lastojeres and for a group of noisy Ampezzani who talked in gibberish to each other all the way through, greatly annoying the King. I felt very sorry now for the birds we Miners took down the earth with us in cages, because that was what I felt like: a caged-up song bird. My fingers were starting to peel from all the playing, and Odolghes’ voice was getting hoarse.
(I felt quite sorry for the Ampezzani too, because after they had left the chamber, the King turned to the Chief Counsellor and made a slitting motion across his throat with his finger and said, ‘Schlagen!’ and the Chief Counsellor motioned back and nodded. Stiff punishment, just for not appreciating music.)
It seemed like ages before we were able to go back to our quest again, but when we did we learnt a lot. We learned, for example, that the iron works were situated close to the castle but not inside the walls, and that they were reached by an underground passage whose entrance lay in the scruffiest and remotest corner of the castle, close beside the sheep pens. We worked this out for ourselves, without so much as setting a foot down the passageway, on account of the metal dust that wafted out of the entrance and settled on the sheep’s legs and bellies, turning them black. We discovered, from seeing some children sneak into the passage laughing and then shoot out again holding their backsides and not laughing any more, that the entrance was guarded on the far side and that no casual visitors were allowed in.
The deliveries of metal puzzled us for a while because we never seemed to see or hear carts of any kind coming up the hill, but one day when we were exploring the tower in the same far-off area, trying to get a bird’s eye view of the forge and outbuildings, we felt a kind of rumble under our feet and the mystery was solved: the underground tunnel continued in the other direction as well, right down to the bottom of the hill, and it was through this unseen pathway that the carts passed on their way to the forge.
Odolghes looked very pleased about this discovery and I couldn’t think why until he explained it to me. I thought it meant the mines must be miles away from the castle. But ‘Just the opposite,’ he said. ‘It means they’re close, right under our silly noses. Why should the Cajutes go to all the bother of digging an underground passage for the iron to come through? It’s not as if they had anyone to hide it from. If it came from far afield it would come openly, along the road. No, they’re working the veins in this very hillside, and it’s in this very hillside, somewhere, in someone’s bag or someone’s pocket or in some secret place that only the person who uses it knows about, that the magic stone is kept.’
So at last we could set about our main quest. Who was it that used the magic stone or was allowed to use it, and where did they keep it when it wasn’t in use? I thought it would most likely be entrusted to the head metal scout, or else to the master smith or someone like that with a high-up job in the armoury process, but Odolghes disagreed. ‘Use your muffin, Mara, I mean Vanna,’ he said. Vanna was the new name he was supposed to call me by but he kept on forgetting. ‘It’s not the sort of thing you leave to a worker, not even a head worker. You know who used to use it in the old days when it belonged to your kinsmen? Your great grandfather in person. The other Miners knew about it and what it looked like, but he was the only one with the right to use it. My mother saw him at it, several times. He used to wait until the scouts thought they had found a good thick vein, or a good place for the diggers to start their chipping, and then he’d go down and check it for them, spreading his cloak around him like a tent so that nobody but he could see the actual way the stone performed its magic. That’s how secret it was.’
‘So you think the King is the one to watch out for, eh, Father?’ That would make things difficult. The King was hardly ever to be seen in the castle except at suppertime, and by then he was usually dribbling drunk and halfway under the table.
‘The King,’ Odolghes said, ‘or the Chief Counsellor, or the Commander of the Guard. One of these three, I should say for choice. We’ll have to keep our eyes skinned to find out which. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Whoever it is is bound to be using the passage fairly frequently, every time a metal check is needed, so all we have to do is to stay as close to the entrance as we can, as often as we can, and keep watch.’
‘And keep count.’
‘Of course, and keep count.’ I’m not sure Odolghes like me telling him what to do all the time, it may have reminded him of my mother. ‘And keep our mouths shut, dumb girl,’ he added rather tartly.
So that was what we did. Every moment we were not working we spent sitting in the far-off area by the sheep pens, trying to look natural, as if we were there because we liked the sheep and felt at home among them, but in fact observing all the comings and goings through the underground passage.
In the course of the next fortnight we saw the King go down there and out again twice, the Commander of the Guard fourteen times, once a day exactly, the Chief Counsellor twice, with the King, so that didn’t help much, not for drawing differences. And once, just once, we saw the Queen do so, all on her own, without any of her usual attendants.
Odolghes wouldn’t pay heed to me at first. For some reason (probably to do with Sommavida again and the way she bossed him) I don’t think he wanted the guardian of the stone to be a woman. But I was sure from the moment I set eyes on her that it was the Queen, the person we were looking for. She was hugely fat for one thing, and she was expecting another baby on top of it: what was she doing visiting the iron works in that condition? Certainly not in order to fit herself out with armour. And what was she doing there alone? She was never alone; always with a fluttery group of older ladies round her, winding her wool for her and straightening out her skirts and brushing away the flies and doing things she could perfectly well have done for herself. ‘Here, you Majesty, There your Majetsy, Let me, your Majesty, Oh, let me, let me.’
‘She could just be nosey,’ Odolghes said shortly, dismissing the matter. He was plumping for the Commander and his count of fourteen.
But the Queen wasn’t nosey, she was about the most droopy and lethargic member of the whole Court, and that was saying something. Odolghes hadn’t observed her properly like I had; hadn’t seen the way she huffed and puffed and trailed her fat swollen feet as she waddled down the opening of the passage, kicking up the iron-dust. She wasn’t making the trip out of curiosity or pleasure: she was going because she had to, because it was her duty.
Of course I might have been wrong: her purpose might have been quite different. But a hunch is a hunch, and my hunch was so strong that I decided to follow it up - without saying anything to Odolghes who would only have fussed about my safety. Next morning I told him I had a pain in my middle, and stayed put on the mattress while he went back to our lookout post to continue the watch over the passage. When he was gone, I got up, put on my shoes, thought better of it and put on my bed socks again, and slowly, cautiously, stopping every now and then in the shadow of the walls to make sure nobody was paying attention to me, made my way towards the large round tower where the large round Queen’s apartments were.
I had no intention really of doing anything except look, the way Odolghes recommended. (Even if I was secretly getting a bit fed up with all this caution and longed for us to be doing something more adventurous.) I reckoned either that the Queen herself would be there breakfasting, or whatever she did at this time in the morning, or else that the place would be full of her attendants, smartening things up in her absence. However, when I reached the doorway and peered inside, all was emptiness and silence, save for a boy pushing a grey rag about the floor with his foot. He stood with his back to me, so I couldn’t resist padding a little way up the staircase, just to see what went on on the floor above. I suppose it was risky, even foolhardy, but it didn’t seem so at the time, it seemed the obvious thing to do.
The stairs were wet under my socks: the boy had already wiped them. Good, that meant he wouldn’t be coming up again in a hurry. The upstairs floor, when I reached it, was dampish too. It didn’t take me long to find the Queen’s bedroom because there was only the one round room occupying all the space. It was divided into four by curtains, but the Queen’s bit was easy to recognize on account of it being much bigger and with a much wider bed. Who slept in the other sections? The little Princesses, I imagined, and the Queen’s ladies.
And perhaps the Queen’s dogs. The smell from the bedclothes was so strong it made me want to sneeze, and I put my finger under my nose just in time to stop a snorter. If I was caught downstairs I could bluff my way out of it – me being mute, the Cajutes all thought I was half-witted as well – but up here was a different matter. In next to no time I would find myself out on my ear and dangling from one of the spikes.
I drew the curtains of the Queen’s compartment together, screening myself from the rest of the room, and began looking around. Not searching for anything in particular – you couldn’t hope to search in such a higglepiggle – but just curious to see the way she lived. There was a metal pot beside the pillow. What was that for? To drink out of? Ugh! No, it was for piddling in! Just imagine keeping a piddling-pot right under your nose while you sleep. My mother would have had a fit. And what was that beside it, all covered with brownish spots? It looked like a lynx fur but, oh, no, it wasn’t a lynx fur, it wasn’t a lynx fur at all. And all those chests? What were they in aid of when the Queen and the Princesses so seldom changed their clothes?
Gingerly I opened the lid of the largest one and began examining its contents: they were clothes, they were dresses, dozens of them, all different stuffs and colours. I had never seen so many dresses before belonging to one single person. They must be part of the Queen’s dowry: outfits for a lifetime. Some of them were lovely too, with ornaments sewn on the front: corals, beads, feathers, all sorts of pretty, dangly things.
One by one, I began taking the dresses out of the chest to have a closer look at them, and laying them on the bed. From my gropings I could feel there was something else in the chest underneath, something different, harder, lumpier: maybe shoes, maybe jewels. All Miners are fascinated by jewels and I was no exception. Just as I was getting down to the interesting part, though, I heard a noise of feet on the stairway, and then voices – women’s voices. It was the Queen, or the Queen’s ladies, or both, coming back from breakfast. Help! I must cover up my traces before they found me.
Hastily I started packing the dresses back in the chest, but for some reason, perhaps because I didn’t fold them properly, they wouldn’t fit. Still more hastily, close to panic now, I yanked them out again and stuffed them under the bed, upsetting the contents of the metal pot as I did so and splashing some of the hems. Would anyone notice? I doubted it. They would notice the empty chest, though, if anyone chanced to open it. So instead of crawling under the bed with the dresses, as had been my plan, I snatched up a few of the ones that had lain on top and jumped into the chest with them, covering myself entirely (or so I hoped), then pulled shut the lid and began praying as hard as I could to the Earth Goddess to watch over me. Not that she is a very reliable deity, but she is supposed to protect Miners in tight spots, on account of all the service we do her with our digging.
I was only just in time. The footsteps were inside the room now – more than one set of them, stompity, clompity, stomp - and from my muffled position I heard a swishing noise as the curtains were swept aside, and then a groan and a creaking sound, horribly close to my ears, as someone of considerable weight plumped themselves down right on the chest where I was hidden. The Queen?
‘Fatty’s slopped her night-pot again,’ said a voice. Or something of this kind: many words of the Cajutes’ language were still strange to me but I could nearly always pick up the gist. ‘Dirty swinchen. Lazy hen.’
No, it was not the Queen. And yes, whoever it was had noticed the spillage.
‘All the better,’ said another voice, and there came a great thud as its owner flopped down on what I presumed from the sound of it was the Queen’s mattress. ‘Less work for us.’
‘Gerrup, you ninny!’ came a third voice, an older sounding one. ‘Off the bed. She’ll have you skinned if she finds you there.’ But the order was given without much drive, and shortly afterwards there was another, lighter flop and a murmur of, ‘Move over, then, make room for a littl’un,’ as the older speaker joined her colleague on the mattress.
After this there was silence, at first welcome, but then, as it began to be riven by grunts and one or two actual snores, rather worrying. I could foresee the chest, which had been my refuge, turning into a death-snare. I tried to move the lid a titch to let some air in, but it was useless, you might as well try to move aside a mountain. It is the Miners’ nightmare to be buried alive under a heavy weight; the stories I was told as a tiny child were always full of it: villains being crushed by landslides, heroes wiggling their way out of underground prisons. We call it the Mouse’s End – ‘u Fin du Ratt’ – and now it looked as if I might be going to suffer it myself. Oh, Earth Goddess, I pleaded silently, hear me! Do something, I beg of you! Save me from such a fate!
The Earth Goddess gave no sign – trust her. So to take my mind off things I began feeling around with my fingers, trying to identify the objects underneath me in the bottom of the chest. As I thought, they were mostly trinkets and jewellery, and very uncomfortable too if you had to lie on them for any length of time. I began cautiously to shift the sharpest objects to one side, out of spiking distance. If I could still bother about that, it struck me that suffocation was not yet a problem: air must be getting in somehow even if I couldn’t see from where. This calmed me down a bit, and from the jewellery I passed to the dresses, which were easier to get at, being on top. What sort of fastenings did they have? How well were they sewn? Did they have any pockets? And if so, was there anything interesting inside?
Timewise, I suppose, it must have been round about now that I made my great discovery, but what with the fright and the kafuffle its significance didn’t sink in till later, when I was telling Odolghes all about it in the safety of our hut. I remember coming across the three identical little secret pouches, sewn into each dress at exactly the same spot, and remember probing my fingers into them by turn and feeling the same prickly, gritty substance inside that clung to my fingertips and slid under my nails, but I think that was as far as I got.
I must have made a noise, you see, or made some sudden movement. Large posteriors are probably more sensitive than we give them credit for. Anyway, one moment I was lying there in total darkness, fiddling around with these pocket arrangements and their contents of grainy powder, drawing my conclusions or not as may be, and the next moment a bright shaft of light shot down the side of the chest as the lid was taken off.
I still couldn’t see anything but material: the dresses luckily covered me completely, but I could hear much more clearly than before. And what I heard made my scalp prickle. My hiding place had been discovered and I was being ordered, in the plainest possible terms, to leave it. ‘Yaar! Gotcha! Come on out, you little varmint! I know you’re there, I heard you scratching around!’
I was about to obey – it seemed I had no choice – but then the voices of the other two ladies, aroused from their slumbers, started to join in, and I decided to stay where I was.
‘Wàswara?’ they shrieked together. ‘Wàswaraaa?!’ And I heard the bedboards creak as they leaped off the mattress to their feet. Was it a snake? Was it a rat? Let it be, Hedjar, for the sake of gravy! Don’t go prodding around or the wretched thing would bolt and then they wouldn’t know where it was. Better in the chest than running loose around the room. Ugger! Shugger! Eeeyak! Horrors! I have never heard such a fuss over a small wild animal, which was fortunately what they thought I was. These ladies should have taken a turn down the mines.
‘I think it’s a rat, not a snake,’ the Hedjar woman said, her voice fading a little as she backed away. She was evidently braver than the other two, but not that brave. ‘A big one. Un grosser. I’ll show it, the cheeky beast, scrabbling about right under my you-know-what!’ And through the folds of the dress that covered me I saw the point of something – maybe a stick, maybe the tip of a shoe – make a light dent in the material and then a heavier one.
One toe’s breadth deeper and I really would have been done for, but the fright of the woman’s two companions must have been catching. Either that or else they must have bounded towards her and grabbed her, because amidst a noise of crashing and flapping and struggling, the stick or shoe or whatever it was suddenly withdrawn, and the next thing I heard was the sound of all six of their feet clattering across the room and down the stairway to safety.
So the end of the mouse is not always a bad one, not when there are stout-hearted warrior ladies like that around. Quickly, before anyone else arrived on the scene, I climbed out of the chest, piled all the dresses back into it any old how – the mouse would take the blame for the untidiness – and slipped across the room and down the stairs the way I had come in. Past the boy, past the three women, who were still there shouting orders at him, and out into the open unnoticed. I must say, I was glad to see the sky.
(Chapter 5 coming up next Sunday, 16 May 2010)