--Chapter Ten: Helping Hands
By chance, Ewen happened to be headed up the front staircase at the same moment Isa came home that night. The mother turned around to greet her daughter, but the latter could only respond with a tired sigh.
“Something wrong, dear?”
Isa answered, “Just exhausted.”
“Well, no wonder, dear; you’ve worked so many long days and nights lately. Maybe you should take tomorrow off. We’ll get Till to close up or something.”
Isa nodded. This sounded like good sense. She could definitely use a break.
“Have you noticed anything strange about our customers lately?”
“What do you mean, dear?”
“I mean... There are a lot of soldiers around.”
Ewen walked back down the stairs (she had stopped halfway up) and said, “Why yes. Yes I have noticed that. There were three I saw today, all saying they were from Desdon. They seemed like fine young men, too, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
It was all Isa could do to keep from rolling her eyes.
“That’s not what I mean, Mom. There are... Look... An elf stopped by, and he said that the war in the East is coming here pretty soon. I don’t know if that’s really going to happen, but with all the Desdon troops here lately...”
“Oh, but they aren’t fighting over our little town, are they?” Ewen tried to take a comforting tone, since this was her instinctive reaction whenever Isa looked worried about something—regardless of what that something actually was, or whether or not it warranted concern. “I mean, you see Incria troops, too, right?”
“I haven’t seen one for days now, and including him... that’s only one this whole year. Desdon doesn’t care about our little town, I don’t think... but what Diamo said—”
“The elf, Mom. Don’t get your hopes up so quickly.”
Ewen sighed so deeply, it looked as if she would deflate. “Go on.”
“They want the road. If Desdon can control the road, they can control land trade, and if they can control land trade, they think they’ll win. But if they come here, Incria will come soon enough... I think we might be in the middle of a battle.”
Ewen put her right arm around her daughter’s shoulder and led her up the staircase, which was barely wide enough for both of them.
“Well, if the elves are saying it, it must be true,” said Ewen. “Have you told your father?”
“No... I haven’t told anyone.”
Ewen nodded. “Probably best. That way people don’t get too scared. When are the troops supposed to arrive?”
“I don’t know... All I know is, we don’t have long. Diamo said he’d try and do something about it, but I don’t know what he has in mind.”
“Okay. Tell you what we’ll do.”
They had reached the top of the staircase. From the other side of a bedroom door at the top, both of them could hear Isa’s dad, Harro, snoring at his usual pace.
“We’ll tell your father and all the town residents in the morning. None of this is to get out to our visitors, though. We wouldn’t want to concern them or tip off the Desdon soldiers that we know something about their plans. We’ll make some preparations, but we’re not going to evacuate. As for fending off any sort of invasion—no matter how preposterous that is in this village—we’ll just have to trust this Diamo or whoever that he knows what he’s doing. Now, get some sleep, and don’t worry about waking up early tomorrow. Just rest. Okay?”
Ewen gave Isa a warm hug and said, “Goodnight, dear.”
Isa did not fully wake until noon. Even then, she did not feel like getting out of bed. In her bedroom, the lonely light came from the window to her right—and it was raining outside, so the gray that streamed in did little to stimulate Isa to want to stand up. With her head propped up on her pillow, she looked over the room, only to find every object in it just as nonchalant as she. The wardrobe and mirror stood like statues in the shadows of the far right corner. The door to the left was open, but nobody else was stirring in the house. The sight would have been eerie had it not been for the rain hitting hard against the window, each drop a subtle reminder that the rest of the world was still moving, even though Isa was not.
Eventually she did rise, though she could not guess how much time she had spent awake in bed. She dressed, took care of her basic hygienics, and when she looked in the mirror and saw she was ready for the day, she went downstairs and grabbed her wooden umbrella from beside a coat tree in the front hall. Even if she were not going to work at the tavern today, she still needed to go there for breakfast. Her own home, having been designed specifically for the purpose of housing the tavern owners, did not even have what one could call a real kitchen—just a wood-burning stove and a water pump in the same general area of the living room, with no counter space at all.
When Isa entered the tavern, she was surprised to see it lively. For one, rainy days were usually very slow for business. Also, while Isa knew she was there later than normal, it certainly was not evening or anytime close to then, and normally, there would not be a crowd this early.
At least twenty customers were there, though. Isa saw that they were all wearing the habits of healing friars. This was a rare occasion but a welcome one; healing friars were always very nice customers, even though by custom they paid no price for their meals (the trade-off being that nobody had to pay the friars for medicines and such; it was a mutual charity at work).
Healing friars were often from third-borns of families in the East. Because no friar would ever fight in the war, the brothers saw each other as equals no matter their place of origin. Likewise, any place in all of Aren Country (except perhaps Pril, because that city was an exception to almost every rule in the land) would accept the friars, since it was an unwritten law that no one should ever turn a healer away from their door.
Till had just arrived at the tavern to learn that his shift would involve overtime today. He did not mind; this only meant more tips for him, assuming anyone would come tonight... He sincerely hoped the rain would ease up soon, though that looked doubtful.
Isa walked to the bar and thanked him personally for taking over for the night. Then she asked him for a light breakfast and, when he left to get her usual rolls and tea, she turned on her stool to examine the friars more closely.
They were all in good spirits, as friars usually were: calm, smiling, talking (truthfully) about how the rain had soaked their outer robes through and through... The tavern floor was practically soaked from the water dripping off the clothes, and the friars seemed very apologetic for this, though it really could not be helped. And now the rain was getting worse... Isa wondered how so many people could spend the majority of their waking hours talking about the weather and its effects; every time she saw them, albeit not a common event, she heard them talking about sun, rain, wind, or temperature... whichever of these were in effect at the moment of conversation.
One of the friars at a table in the middle of the tavern had apparently gotten much too wet outside; his face looked red, and his body shivered. He sneezed gently into the sleeve of his drenched robe.
Immediately, every other friar stopped his conversation, and the room went silent. What followed was as entertaining a turn-based dialogue as ever Isa had witnessed, with every healer talking at random:
“Are you alright, Benjin?”
“I think Benjin’s sick!”
“A cold. I have some herbs.”
“He doesn’t need herbs; he needs some warm soup and a dry habit.”
“But we don’t have any dry habits.”
“We can still warm him up. Get him over to the fireplace.”
Five friars at once lifted poor Benjin, still in his chair, and carried him across the room to be next to the fireplace.
“Does he have a fever?”
“Let me check.”
As one friar put his hand to Benjin’s forehead, Isa looked at Till and said, “Quite impressive; I hope if I’m ever sick I should be lucky enough to have these guys around.”
Till nodded and set Isa’s breakfast before her.
“I suppose I should tell Harro to make some soup,” he said.
Isa laughed. “That would be a good idea, yes.”
Till smiled and went around the bar to the door leading to the kitchen. Isa had always admired Till’s wit, and from time to time she wished he were her age instead of twice her age. The waiter, who was the second son of a nearby farmer, had come to work at the tavern twenty years ago (twelve was seen as a good age for children to start part-time work). He understood fully that Isa was being raised to take over her family’s business one day, but while he may not have admitted it, he could probably have run the entire operation himself if he had the ambition. He was smart and quick to learn, but he had never been taught much except for how to cook basic meals and serve drinks. Farmer’s sons generally were not expected to be scholars. Isa wondered from time to time whether or not that was fair. Still, Till seemed happy doing his job, and like the others among the staff, he enjoyed it mostly for the wide variety of customers. He also took comfort in the simplicity of his life, another quality Isa respected in him. All too often, some people would make the most out of the tiniest problems and not count their blessings along the way. Perhaps it was because Till had met so many people over the years in the tavern, and some of those people had much more serious issues from day to day than a village waiter might ever have in a lifetime. For this or whatever reason, Till was generally content with his life, and his cheerful demeanor tended to brighten those around him, as well. If Till had one flaw, it was that he could at times be so content, he would slip into laziness over things that really needed to be done, as he had a few years ago when he took a full month to fix a simple leak in the thatch roof or the numerous times he had forgotten to clean all the dishes before the dinner crowd arrived.
By the time the soup arrived, most of the chaos surrounding Benjin was over. Two friars still watched him closely, but most everyone else was back to the usual routine of talking and eating.
Isa would have gone back to her house, but she did not know what she would do there to keep from being bored. She considered helping the staff, since her parents and Till were the only ones serving the friars at the moment, but then she pushed that idea aside. A day off was a day off, after all; she would not waste the opportunity while she had it.
She asked Till for another cupful of tea, since because of the dreary day, she was still tired after her first serving. When she had her cup refilled, she walked over to one of the tables where three friars were sitting and politely asked if she could join them. They, of course, acquiesced. She introduced herself, then found out their names were (from her left to her right) Commus, Waller, and Detonne.
“It’s been the longest time since we’ve seen friars here,” said Isa. “So pardon me if this question seems kind of silly, but... What’s it like being a friar? Do you guys just decide where to go one day just because you haven’t been there for a while, or is there a reason you go places?”
Waller answered, “There is reason, indeed. We go wherever we are most needed at any time. For years, we have helped towns afflicted by the horrid war East of here. Whether they are towns in the Incria area, or whether they are by Desdon, there are innocent people everywhere who need our help.”
“Do you help the soldiers, too?”
“We used to,” said Commus. “But in an effort to stem the tide of war, we have made a pact with other bands of friars that says, ‘No soldier shall be helped unless they promise not to fight again when healed.’ Soldiers who promise and then fight, we do not even offer to help anymore.”
“It was a tough decision to make,” said Detonne, “but we all felt it was necessary.”
“There are exceptions for people fighting in self defense,” Commus added. “But in general, the rule stands.”
“I see,” Isa said. “I didn’t know the war was that bad; we’ve never seen it around here... at least, not yet.”
“Indeed you haven’t, Miss Isa,” said Waller. “But I am afraid that will not be the case for long. You see, there are troops now coming westward. Both armies are converging on the road. Hopefully, they will see each other and fight before they get this far, but in case they do not, we have come here ahead of them—and treading through the downpour to do it, I might add. We mean to warn all the citizens of this town to take shelter.”
Said Detonne, “We have already told the man who owns the hotel next door, and we warned several farmers on the way here in the past few days. A few moments ago, Trand over there told the man and woman who own this tavern. We don’t mean to cause panic or alarm, but what is coming cannot be stopped.”
Isa did not know how she should react to the news. She knew she ought to be thankful for the friars’ presence in a time when healers may very well be necessary, but on the other hand, they had just confirmed her worst fear: not just one army, but instead, the entire war was coming to her village. Isa wondered just how many villages in the East had seen the war already. How had they fared? From the armies’ collective point of view, The Windmill Road was just another piece of territory, a strategic location, the conquest of which would mean tactical advantage, one step toward reaching some far away victory. But to Isa, this was more than a place on a map; this was the only home she had ever known. What if these armies were to destroy the village’s buildings, or worse, harm the people in the heat of battle? She had not seen true war yet, but deep down, she already knew she hated it more than anything else in the world right now.
“Cannot be stopped,” Isa repeated under her breath as she looked down at the table.
Waller tried to cheer her up. “Not stopped, no. But at least the rain will delay both armies’ movements. Even so, if they are to come here, all is not lost. Everyone in the town should be fine so long as they stay inside.”
“You’ve warned and tended to villages before?”
Waller answered, “Yes we have, Miss. Yes we have. We have gone all over the East, and we have seen many battles before. We have stayed with innocent citizens in the village and helped them recover losses afterward. Usually, both armies are good about not attacking people who stay inside their homes. The majority of all battles take place outside the towns, anyway; there’s more room in the open fields for cavalry and infantry to fight. Eventually one side retreats, and the other side knocks on everyone’s door either to brag about the defensive victory or to say, ‘Hello. You’ve been conquered.’ The most common worst case scenario is when a stray lighted arrow or catapulted rock goes off its target and hits a building in the town, sometimes forcing people to evacuate that place. If that happens, it’s best just to run as quickly as possible to another building and take shelter there. It is very dangerous to be out in the open.”
“The armies try not to destroy the towns, so that’s pretty rare,” Commus said. “They’re smart enough to know that a victory doesn’t mean much if all they win is dominion over rubble.”
“Well, I hope you’re right,” said Isa, thinking aloud. “And I hope it passes quickly.”
“Most battles do,” said Detonne, nodding. “The average length is a day, give or take depending on how many troops are involved and how important each side sees the battle.”
Isa shook her head slowly. “How can you all be so merry right now? I mean, you clearly have seen some horrible things to know so much about war... How do you keep your spirits up?”
The friars looked at each other as if to ask with their eyes, “Who wants to field this one?”
Eventually, Commus answered, “It is true that we’ve witnessed some of the worst sides of humanity, but we have also witnessed the best. We’ve seen people come together and rebuild. We’ve seen the joy on mothers’ faces when an injured child is healed. We’ve seen many uplifting moments, and I think I speak for every friar here when I say that for all the troubles we’ve seen, we could not imagine a more rewarding way of life.”
This made Isa feel better. If these men, who had experienced so many battles before, could be so calm before the coming of another fight, then why should Isa be afraid? Nonetheless, a nervous voice called in the back of her mind and said, I still wish it would all be over with soon...