Bad News

Little Tam's voice bubbled through the house in excitement as he ran to greet Uncle Antony. He was barely through the door before Tam was on his shoulders and pulling his hair. Wynne smiled with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement - she still had no idea why Antony ever visited this madhouse, especially as there was never enough to satisfy his large appetite and he was generally used unanimously by the children as a climbing frame. But when his son came in, however, Tam and the twins disentangled themselves and ran to meet him, dragging him excitedly into the rickety sitting room to show him their new "toys".

"Alright, sweetheart?" he said to Wynne, with a sheepish, uncle-ish grin. "Still helping your mother out?"

"Aye, I am, there's plenty of doing round here -"

"Good boy, that's what I like to hear."

Wynne was too used to his banter by now to be offended by this one-liner.

Before long, he had been seated at the scrubbed table, a steaming plate of food set in front of him and his pack stored safely away under the rickety stairwell.

"So - what's been going on in the world of war?" said Wynne's mother genially.

"Lenna, Lenna, we live in a world at war, you can't expect me to know everything!"

"But Stonewall's been at peace now for years. I heard from old Mildred -"

"Yeah, she was speaking to me today as well," Wynne piped up. "Nosing around about your private business -"

"Don't worry, I'm used to it," said Antony tersely. "An old maid's no trouble, no trouble at all ... but anyway, Lenna, you're right to ask. The situation's changed."

"Is that why you've come back here? To gather an army?"

"Aye, so it is ... you're sharper than I remember you, Wynnie. You sobered up?"

"Excuse me?"

"Well, you know, last time I came down you liked your little sorties down to the alehouse with a few of the alley boys and -"

"Yeah, well, trust you to never let me forget it."

"Anyway, the Tashens have gone one step too far. Old Dog up't the High Palace is furious. He got a missive from them about a month ago and his right-hand man's been making all the preparations. I mean, the fact he's drawing people from Westgate and Centre Stone, this must be pretty serious."

"Tashib is a dunghill, why on earth is the king worried about that?"

"Because, Lenna, they're trading in gold by the barrel! You should see their ports - full of the stuff, exporting it to the Western Mounts. I was sent out there a few years ago when they thought the Soubeyrans were going to attack ... you should see what this shipmaster did to a stable boy he caught nicking some coin ...

"But the king's been receiving taxes on all these exports, and not two months ago they raided the ports. Shot all the taxmen where they stood. The king's not had a penny in his coffers from that lot for weeks."

"So we're declaring war on our own people?"

"They're not our own people, Mother," said Wynne quietly. "They're desert rats, gold-horders. They worship sand, for king's sake!"

"Er - I didn't bring my children up to talk like that!" said Lenna stiffly.

Wynne ignored her. She'd had enough of her mother's sniping.

"When do you leave?"

"Not a day later than Freeday."

"You have time, then?"

"Aye, I have time."

Wynne sat quiet for a while as conversation turned to more mundane things. It was all too rare that their family got together. She hadn't cherished the time as much as a child, and now she wished she had - with old Uncle Antony going away to war, and the whereabouts of her own father ... no, she didn't want to think about that.

All in all, the day went much too fast. Wynne went to bed with a heavy heart, wondering if she had been a bit harsh to her mother after all.

The End

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