Next morning, when Binshala was admitted to help Gannara get me ready for the day, the light pouring in the door was a blinding white. It was as if it were the White Hall in the Marble Palace on a sunny day, but along with a blast of frigid air instead of cool, stone scented.
“Good Morning, Spark of the Sun’s Ray,” she said and set my brushes down next to the washbasin. Gannara got my slippers and my robe. I slipped my feet into my slippers and made to go out to the garderobe and Gannara stopped me. He had a chamber pot in his hands.
“You don’t want to go out there in the wind.”
“I don’t? Oh.” The thought of the open log framework with no walls, nor even a windbreak to block the wind from my delicate, vile parts was chilling in and of itself. “All right.”
At least the Mahid weren’t forcing him to go naked now. He went out with it and Binshala had me sit cross-legged on the bed. The drafts across the floor would chill me. There were little white sprays forced in from the windward wall and the edges of the floor all along that side showed frost. I guessed there was more snow outside. I had read about it, and seen the beginnings of it last night, but the most snow I’d ever seen had been a sculpture made out of snow carried down from these mountains for the fat man’s birthday celebration.
It had filled a whole room but had been like melting marble, with sharp edges going soft and dripping, wafting an alien cold.
I was so thankful to feel her careful hands on my head. She paused once holding my head in her hand so she could work out a tangle near the bottom. To be honest I didn’t feel the knot she was supposedly working but just leaned my head into her hand. “Spark, what you did yesterday was commendable.”
“Thank you, Binshala. I’m just so sorry you and Ailadas and Kannara… the slave’s name is Kannara…" I couldn't say it correctly, giving the soft sound a hardened edge, though he said he didn't mind. "Even Kyriala and Kaita are stuck here with the Mahid.”
“I am happy to be with my charge.” Her brush stroked smoothly all through my hair and for a second I was back at the Marble Palace and a lot littler. One way she used to get me to sit still for my hair to be brushed was to lay me across her lap. I loved that. “I have devised a way that the Coronet might have his cake, Spark.”
“Really?” I opened my eyes and sat up straighter. “How is that?”
“I attempted it this morning and it seemed to work well, so I will have his cake for him for dinner. I am not good at cooking, but I make a breakfast cake… the fry-cakes that the Spark has eaten before?”
Those had been good breakfasts. Fried flat cakes that the Mahid made were almost like slices of slate, dark on the outside and undercooked inside. “The nice, fluffy ones were yours? Oh those are wonderful! And you’re going to make a cake out of them?”
I could hear her smile in her voice behind me. “Yes. I intend to layer them between whipped cream, crushed nuts and honey and the dried fruits that have been soaking in the wine since last night. And I will cover all the layers with cream.”
“That sounds amazing. Binshala… I don’t know what I would do without you.” I smiled at her and her fine-boned features softened.
“I am certain the Spark would find a way to cope.” She bound up my hair with deft fingers just in time for Gannara to come back, stamping white stuff off his shoes, followed by the Mahid squiring for me today with my armour. It was 4th Boras. There are so many Boras’s and Joras’s in the Mahid that I was starting to appreciate them numbering their names.
Geared up I went outside for the first time and found the wind had died down. I stepped into a world I couldn’t have imagined. It was white. White everywhere.
There was snow almost up to my knees in places. It didn’t just cover the ground, it clung to things. Every needle, every tree, every rock. It clung sideways to things. Everything... the mud the dirt, the leaves, everything was covered and the sun shone on it so brightly I had to fling my hand up over my eyes.
It sparkled in all colours of the rainbow and it was cold. It was cold enough to strike through my leather boots where I stood and that had been swept. The Mahid were laying out my practice ground in the snow. That was going to be interesting.
“Do not venture into the open, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. A track in the snow will be visible from the air.” The 1st 2nd, of course.
“Very sensible.” If I wanted us to get caught all I’d have to do was stamp a message into the snow somewhere but then I didn’t want to get caught and executed either. The Mahid were piling a stack of wood inside my cabin, obviously to keep the brazier going all day. This was so far from home that I wondered for a moment if I’d just dreamed of silk curtains blowing over my bare, sweaty body. “I suppose... the Coronet wishes to play what he calls hide and seek with me today, my guardian. And... are there games to play in snow?”
“Games.” Selestialis, of course the word would have the same effect on him as ‘birthday’.
“Yes. For the Coronet’s birthday games.”
He sidestepped the issue to give himself time to think. “Your practice waits, Spark. Then breakfast. And the riding lesson you wished to give the Coronet.”
I insisted that the heavy curb bit be removed before I put the Coronet anywhere near the horse. Even if it was stupid and vicious, I’d noticed it was worse with that bit in, even if it ostensibly gave me better control.
It was very funny to see Ilesias up on my big horse, stirrups pulled so high they might as well not been there, his chubby legs made chubbier with fur leggings sticking straight out either side on the saddle.
Armour, in snow, is not very sensible. It is cold. It is wet, wet enough to rust anywhere it is not enamelled, and once the padding is soaked it is all but impossible to move in. I didn’t care because Ilesias had so much fun tracking me through the snow... hide and seek in fresh snow is perfectly easy, even for a three year old.
Ilesisas insisted that everyone come out to play in the snow and because it was his birthday celebration they were required to, if they were not labouring to keep us. Ailadas showed him how to roll the snow and build a snowman.
Where the old man got some of his knowledge I have no idea, but he also suggested we build a wall for the snowman to guard, just at the edge of the pines where the snow had piled up thickest.
Amitzas allowed me out of the armour when I was soaked through and chilled, because the medic pulled his ear again I think, but I went out again with my new fur mantle on and my brother and a dozen of the Mahid – I chose all the younger ones, hoping they’d be less rigid – built a fortress.
Fortresses the Mahid understood and when someone -- one of the women, wonder of wonders, described snowballs, we built them with a will. And of course the senior Mahid attacked while we were still making them. It wasn’t precisely play. It was a lesson in siege warfare for me, with the First Second my advisor.
Ilesias hurled his snowballs almost straight up and laughed. He didn’t have to hit anyone and strangely, the snowballs that could sting viciously never seemed to hit him at any more than a fairly gentle ‘whomp’.
“Perhaps, my guardian, you would care to teach me by leading the next assault on the wall?” I tried to ask casually, thinking that he would never stoop so low, but after his usual hesitation while he thought through my unusual requests, he agreed.
Inside the wall that we had built between two trees, the snowman having long ago fallen on the field of battle and been buried under foot, we had Ailadas, Ilesias, myself and eight of the younger Mahid. Amitzas withdrew under the oak that still had its brown/red leaves clinging to it, to consult with the other senior Mahid, Joras, Boras and Donaras.
“Spark of the Sun’s Ray. We will make this an exercise. The women will join you. You will be besieged and these lines will be the imaginary walls of the fortress since they are not built. Our attacking force may not approach here because we are assuming a cliff edge.”
Ailadas leaned over and whispered in my ear. “He’s re-creating an old battle... a siege at what is now Tirikas.”
“They were over-run?”
“Yes, but they were outnumbered my more men than he has to throw at us.”
“Spark!” The First Second called from his troops. “You will have a tenth to prepare!”
“Spark of the Sun’s Ray,” Binshala called. “The Mirror has a suggestion.”
“What?” That was so weird. All the women had scarves across their faces and some had snug knitted hoods.
Whoever had thought of those... I wanted one now because my face was going numb. Over by the cabin I could see Gannara watching at the door. I whistled and he looked over, I waved him over to us.
“The women can gather snow and make the snowballs.” She said softly. “And carry them to you.”
“That is what the women at the siege did, though with arrows and stones--ahem -- rather than snowballs,” Ailadas said. “Historically accurate.”
“All right. Good thought.” Was it just me or did she smile behind the scarf? Girls.
Gannara ran over to me. “Slave, I’ve just dragged you into a battle.”
He nodded without speaking but his eyes twinkled. He started piling up snowballs next to a place on the wall without a word. I took up station next to him, peering over the wall at our opposition who were testing the snowballs in - slings? I’d never seen slings used and only two of the Mahid seemed to know how to use them. One or two others tried using their scarves but gave up the attempt.
“He’s going to have two slingers throwing these at us,” I said quietly to Gannara.
Without looking up he whispered back, “Hope they don’t put rocks inside the snowballs.”
“Shh, don’t give them any ideas.”
"Here take this pine bough as a shield."
I was amazed at how many snowballs the women -- even the Mahid women -- made in the next half-tenth. “Spark?”
“Yes, Binshala.” She held out her own mantle. “Let us exchange coats for this engagement.”
She was right. Hers was an off white, while mine was black. Against the snow I was the easier target. “Thank you, Binshala. Heya little brother! Do you think you can carry snowballs for me faster than I can throw them at 2nd Amitzas?”
“Yah.” He had his scarf off and had two little snowballs cradled in it since he didn’t have a basket.
“Good, ‘cause here they come.”