After I finished writing The Golem Doll, I found myself thinking of another Alistair-ism that I've always wondered about the story behind. Young Alistair promptly started poking me in the back with an idea for it. This story is set in the same fiction as the Golem Doll, several years after it, but can be read independently of it.
"All men are the Work of our Maker's Hands,
From the lowest slaves
To the highest kings.
Those who bring harm
Without provocation to the least of His children
Are hated and accursed by the Maker."
- Canticle of Transfigurations
Alistair knew it was a bad idea, but it sounded like so much fun. The weather had been uniformly hot and sticky for weeks; the stable boys were stripping down as much as they dared to do their work, sweat pouring off them as they struggled to muck out the stalls and kennels, change the bedding straw, haul achingly heavy bucket after achingly heavy bucket of water for the horses and hounds.
They stripped right down to their smalls one day, only to be roared at by the stable master when he came in unexpectedly and caught them at it; it wasn't decent of them, and what would have happened if it had been one of the ladies of the castle who'd walked in on them dressed like that, and so on, and so forth. The stable master would ideally have preferred to see them remain dressed in the long pants and sleeveless thigh-length tunics that were their usual summer uniform, but had to grudgingly admit that with this current hot spell, they'd all be keeling over from the heat instead of completing their necessary work. So he'd compromised, allowing the boys to cut down pairs of their older, more badly-worn and muck-stained pants into short pants to wear for the duration of the heat-wave, their tunics temporarily abandoned.
He'd also had strong words to say about wasted time and wasted water the day he caught several of them having a water fight near the well. Alistair was glad he hadn't been part of that; as deliciously cooling as it sounded like it had been, the extra hours of work the boys involved had all earned didn't sound in the least enjoyable, especially in this weather.
But a group of the boys had a rare half-day off this afternoon, and Simon had suggested that they sneak down to the lake and go boating. His father was a fisherman; he knew how to handle a boat, he said. And out on the lake it would be much cooler, and they might even be able to find some place safe to swim. Or at least safe enough to wade around and play for a while in the shallows; water that was deep enough to really swim in was water deep enough for the more dangerous denizens of the lake to swim in as well.
The decision having been arrived at that sneaking off for a boating trip was a most excellent idea, everyone turned and looked expectantly at Alistair.
He'd never been quite sure how it had developed that he was the leader of the group when it came to these sorts of things. It wasn't like he was the biggest or strongest of them or anything – quite the opposite, in fact, he was small for his age and skinny as a rail – and it wasn't due to any particular popularity on his part. When he'd first been made a stable boy, the other boys had hated him.
They'd tolerated his presence in the stables when he was just the quiet child who lived in one of the stalls, the one who'd once been rumoured to be the Arl's bastard son. He supposed back then they'd lumped him in with the other young things in the stables; the foals and yearlings and mabari puppies and so forth. They'd certainly seen to the changing of the straw in his stall, and the supplying of food for his brunch and dinner, with the same silent efficiency they treated the other animals with.
And then he'd been made one of them, moved from his solitary stall to the small dormitory off the hay loft where most of them lived. The stable boys had made their displeasure about his addition to their numbers felt very early on; he quickly got used to having to check his pallet in the loft for nasty additions before climbing into it, and slept in his clothes so they couldn't be stolen and hidden or befouled.
He'd been too young and too small to do a proper day's work; it had taken both hands and a lot of effort to haul even a single half-bucket of water from the well, or grain from the feed bins, while bigger, faster, and much more grown-up boys hurried around with a full bucket in each hand. Pitchforks were impossibly big and far too heavy for him to use, and forget about trying to lift and push a manure-laden barrow. He couldn't even be given many of the lighter chores, like currying the horses, since he only stood about belly-high on them.
The stable master had muttered and grumbled and complained under his breath about the decisions of the Arl, and eventually found things that Alistair could manage to do. He'd cleaned and polished tack until his hands seemed permanently coloured by the dark brown wax, the smell of the conditioning oils always clinging to him even when freshly bathed, and picked burrs from dog's coats, and measured out grain into feed pails, and ran messages, and scrubbed the cobblestones of the small courtyard the stables curled around until they were nearly clean enough to eat off of.
And, eventually, he'd learned to use his wits to outsmart many of the tricks the other stable boys liked to play on him, and after successfully pulling off some pranks that got several of the more persistently nasty of them in trouble, they abruptly started accepting that he was one of them. Much to his surprise, they'd also started turning to him when it came to planning pranks and illicit trips – he'd somehow gotten a reputation for having a quick wit and a calm head.
"We'll have to sneak out in small groups," he said. "You know the stable master doesn't like us all going down to the town at once. Not after that last time."
That brought a chorus of groans and a lot of nods of agreement, the last time having involved a market day back in the spring, too many sweets, and an argument with a group of town boys that had led to several knocked-over stalls and a severe talking-to from the stable master. He'd made them work off the cost of the damage done, and forbidden them the town for weeks afterwards.
Alistair frowned in thought for a moment, then started pointing at people and giving them orders. "Simon, you and Peatrick go down together, if the guards ask you can say you're taking him along to lunch with your family because he's sweet on your sister. Jory, say you're visiting the smith to pick up an order of new buckles. Tam and Leon, you want to buy sweets at the store. And Jase, you're on your way to pray at the Chantry, and yes, you really can stop and do that first," he told the pious boy.
"Simon, where would be a good place near the docks where we can meet up without anyone noticing us?" he asked, turning to look enquiring at the boy, the oldest and tallest of their particular group.
"That bit in behind the smithy, where the big tree is; it's all overgrown and shady, and people walking by have no reason to look back that way, if we're quiet."
The boys nodded. They all trooped off to the dining hall to have lunch, then slipped off down to town in their ones and twos, Alistair leaving last of all, skipping along like he didn't have a care in the world.
"An' where are you off to, young trouble?" one of the guards called after him as he started across the bridge.
Alistair turned, and gave the man a cheerful smile, walking backwards a few steps as he talked. "I'm supposed to meet my friends Tam and Leon at the store, to buy candy," he said, making his eyes as big and innocent as he could.
The guard smiled. "You'd better run then, they're well ahead of you. They'll buy out all the sweets before you can get there."
"They better not!" Alistair exclaimed, and turning away, sprinted off along the bridge, concealing a smile that wanted to be a wide grin as he did. The one benefit of his small frame; all the guards tended to forget his real age and treat him as if he was still a little kid of six or seven, not nine-going-on-ten.
The others were all waiting quietly in the shadowed corner behind the tree, except for Simon and Jase. The latter showed up a few minutes after Alistair did, a quiet smile on his face, and joined them in the shade. No one teased him about his visit to the chantry; for all his pious ways, he was a demon in a fist-fight.
Simon finally hustled up a few minutes later, looking breathless. "I've got the boat," he said. "Follow me."
He led them into the shadowed recesses among the piles holding houses up above the lake water. It was dark down there, and smelly, the odour an unpleasant combination of rotting fish, water weed, and chamber pots. The boys all held their noses – manure and horse piss was one thing, what came down from the garderobes in the houses above was another. They were all relieved when Simon led them into the cleaner waters along the lake side of the huddle of houses, to a boat roped to one pile.
Simon and Peatrick steadied the boat while the younger boys climbed in, everyone taking the time to swish their feet around in the cleaner water offshore before stepping in; they didn't want any of that joining them in the boat. Once the smaller boys were all settled, Simon and Peatrick climbed in as well, Peatrick shoving against the pile to start them moving away from shore while Simon unshipped the oars and rowed them away from town as quietly as he could.
They headed west first, quickly putting a fold of cliff between them and the town, eventually passing under the castle bridge and out into more open waters beyond the end of the small steep-sided island that the castle sprawled over top of like a sun-bathing dragon.
As they passed out of the island's wind shadow, the first lake breezes ruffled the hair of the boys, making them all sit up and grin.
"Not bad, isn't it?" Simon asked with a grin. "If it gets a bit stronger, we can try raising the sail and see if I remember how to tack. Peatrick, your turn on the oars, my arms are getting tired."
This drew hoots from some of the younger boys, since Simon always made such a big thing about how much he could fork or haul.
"Hey, it's harder work then it looks, you lot! And it doesn't use all the same muscles as stable work does."
"He's right, you know," Peatrick said, frowning as he concentrated on pulling the oars in tandem, without too much splashing about. "This is hard work."
Of course that meant that all of the other boys wanted to try their hands at rowing as well. Simon and Peatrick were happy to oblige them, and they were a good hour out from town before they tired of rowing and decided it was time to start looking for one of these fabled safe spots to get out and splash around.
Simon frowned at the cliffs still looming overhead along the shore. "We won't find any good swimming here," he said firmly. "It's all deeps in this area. But there's supposed to be some rocky islands out into the lake a bit, with sandy shallows around 'em. If we can get the sail up, I think the breeze is strong enough to push us now."
This suggestion met with hearty agreement from everyone, as by now they'd all had enough experience handling the oars to firmly move that particular activity from "play" to "work". With Simon giving instructions about loosing or tightening lines, and a lot of very cautious scrambling about, they got the small mast properly seated and the sail raised. One oar was stowed, and the other moved to the back, to act as a tiller.
It took Simon a few tries to get the hang of tacking – it had been years since he'd last been out on the lake with his father, and his father and older brother had always handled all the tricky bits, something he hadn't told the other boys – but after a while they were progressing in reasonably good fashion out into the open lake, the boys whooping and hollering, sometimes leaning over the side so they could flick handfuls of water at each other.
The rocky islets eventually came into view, further out from shore then Simon had thought they'd be, but still close enough that they should be able to reach them and spend an hour or so playing there before they'd have to start heading back. They might be a little late returning the boat and getting back up to the castle, but since he hadn't asked before borrowing it anyway, that wasn't going to make things any the worse for them. Besides, he planned to just leave it tied up somewhere near town where someone could find it again, not return it to the dock he'd taken it from; with luck, no one would ever figure out where the boat had been for half a day, nor who had taken it.
Eventually they reached the vicinity of the islets, and then it was just a matter of finding one with suitably shallow water around it. The sandy bottom shelved up into sight well out from them, but it wasn't until they'd penetrated well into the cluster that it finally grew shallow enough for wading. They'd lowered the sail again and were using oar-power by then, and happily jumped overboard, dragging the boat over to one of the clusters of rocks and wedging the front end securely up on shore.
After that they raced around in the shallows, screaming and having water fights, falling over backwards with tremendous splashes, and generally having a lot of fun.
Alistair stopped his rampaging around for a moment to grin happily at Simon. "This," he said, "Was a brilliant idea!"
Simon grinned back in response.