10 min read

Written in Lace, by Samantha Rich

Circular white lace doily hanging on a worn wooden frame
Photo by Erik Mclean / Unsplash

Guardswoman Ysris brought her along to the captain’s tent, which was exciting in a way. Teys had never been in one of the big tents before. She slept with the field-kitchen workers, six to a little tent where they all tangled up like puppies in order to sleep. Only the very top officers had tents to themselves, she knew—even Ysris had to share with her shield-partner.

“Stay here by the door until I tell you to come forward,” Ysris said when they got to the Captain’s tent. “Don’t wander off and don’t touch anything. You have your wool in your pocket to keep your hands busy? Good.”

As if she was ever without it. Teys kept her wool with her morning, noon, and night. It good combed roving, cleaned and tidy. She had her spindle at her belt, of course, and she set to spinning while half-listening to the argument going on in the main part of the tent.

There was always an argument when the officers were around. What was the point of being in charge if you couldn’t tell them all to be quiet and do what they were told? Tey wouldn’t let them shout and carry on in front of her the way the captain did. It made her feel like she was being hit with sticks or caught in a thornbush.

But right now the arguing was in the next part of the tent. She was alone here, it was dark and quiet and out of the rain, and she had her spinning to keep her hands busy.

“We need to get this information through,” the captain said. “We can spare a rider, but not any of you. I need you here.”

“We can’t give a rider the details,” said one of the lieutenants, the one who shouted the most of any of them. “If they get caught, they’ll be tortured until they talk. We can’t risk it.”

Tey made a face at that and added the next bit of roving on. Two scouts had been captured and tortured earlier in the month. The enemy brought their bodies back and left them at the edge of the camp. Tey had seen them when they were brought in to be properly burned, and she wouldn’t even have known that they were people once if Ysris hadn’t told her. They were just… meat. Bits of leather and canvas. Dried blood.

“We’ve been over this.” That was Ysris’ voice, and Tey perked up a bit, in case the guardswoman was about to call her in. “We need to send the information in code.”

“Any code can be broken,” another of the lieutenants objected. Tey dropped her gaze back to her spindle, then looked up again as Ysris answered him with obvious pride.

“This code won’t be. It won’t even occur to them. I told you, this girl, she can hide it in plain sight and no soldier will ever even think of it.”

“The kitchen girl.” That was the captain’s voice again.

“You said she has a talent?”

“She does. I’ll show you. Tey, come in now.”

That was clear enough. She slipped her roving back into her apron and put the spindle back in her belt, then stepped through the entrance into the main part of the tent.

It was astonishing in there—brightly lit and warmed by the braziers in the corners, with a thick carpet on the ground and a big table with chairs set around it. Ysris, the two lieutenants, the captain, and the captain’s valet all sat there, looking at her like they’d never seen a child before.

She probably did look a bit odd there in the tent. She wasn’t dressed well enough for it, by far, but they knew she was a kitchen girl, they couldn’t expect much else.

“Come look at this,” Ysris said kindly, and Tey obediently went to her side. On the table, there was a little wooden model of a fort, with blocks set around it.

“All right,” she said after a moment. “What is it?”

“This is the fort at Red Horse Ford.”

“Hold on,” the loud lieutenant said. “You can’t tell her all this. What if she tells everyone in the kitchens?”

“No one will believe that a kitchen girl knows the plans,” the captain said, giving a little wave of his hand.

“Everyone will ignore her. Go on, Ysris.”

“This is the fort,” Ysris said again. She touched the blocks to the left side. “There are five units of soldiers here. And three over here on the other side. And here, where the fort backs up to the cliff, a scout could cut across here, at the third pass, and slip in unnoticed.”

Tey studied the table for another long moment, then looked up to find them all staring at her. “Okay.”

The loud lieutenant threw his hands in the air and looked away, but the captain met Tey’s gaze steadily.

“Our friend the guardswoman here,” he said, “believes that you can put this information into a code that can be delivered to the general at High Aerie.”

“A code?” Tey shook her head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. Ysris, why would you say that?”

Ysris laughed before either of the lieutenants can say anything. “You just don’t call it a code, that’s all. You learned it from your gran.”

It took a moment for Tey to realize what she meant, and then she couldn’t help but laugh as well. “Oh, is that all? Yes, I can do that. Five units by the river, three on the other side, cut through at the third pass behind the fort. That’s what you need?”

The captain smiled and settled back in his chair. “That’s exactly what we need to send through.”

Tey looked at Ysris again. “Gran’s the only one who can read it, you know.”

“We know. Your Gran is safe and sound at the High Aerie, under the general’s personal guard.”

That seemed silly—what would Gran need to be guarded from?—but it was good to know she was safe and would be able to read Tey’s message. “All right, then,” she said. “I need yarn and needles.”

The captain produced a bag from under his chair and handed it to her carefully. “Will this do?”

Inside was good soft yarn, finely spun, in the deep brown color of the fine breed of sheep only nobles were allowed to own. The set of needles was carved from some pale wood she’d never seen before. Amazing that the captain had such good supplies just lying around at hand. “These are lovely,” she said, because her mother had taught her manners. “Where can I sit?”

The captain gave her his very own chair, which was kind of him. Her feet didn’t reach the floor, though, so she sat curled up in it like a cat and set to work.

Ertys had seen many wars come and go in her time. Sometimes it seemed like that was the natural state of things. Little wars that lasted only a summer but ruined the crops; longer wars where villages and forts burned.

This was the first time she had spent a war tucked away in a castle instead of in one of those villages. The High Aerie, they called it. It was impressive, she had to admit that. They gave her her own room, which they said was just a little closet but was bigger than anywhere she’d lived in her whole life til now. They kept a fire burning in it all night and gave her thick blankets to sleep under. She was treated as well as a noble’s dog or horse, here at the Aerie.

No one would explain why they’d brought her here, but she was used to that. When had anyone with a sword on their hip ever explained anything to the common sort?

The page-girl came to get her on a cold morning, when Ertys was sat warming her bones at the fire. She had one of the warm, thick blankets over her lap, fingers moving back and forth over the fine, tight weaving. It was good to her fingers and soothing to her mind, letting her wander back through her memories in peace.

But the page-girl said that the general wanted to see her, and Ertys hadn’t lived this long by telling the rank-to-their-name, sword-on-hip sorts no. She followed the girl through the narrow corridors of the Aerie to the general’s workroom, where she was ushered in without a word and left to her fate.

A tall man sat on the other side of the table, looking at her with wide, dark eyes. “Mother Ertys, correct?”

“I suppose so. Ertys is my name, and I gave ten children to this world.”

The tall man—the general, most likely, since the other two men in the room both looked to him before reacting—nodded and held out one hand. “Please, sit. We need you to read something for us.”

Ertys shook her head. “I can’t read, good sir. That’s for nobles and priests, you know.”

“Apologies. Not words. Ah…” He looked at the man to his left, who looked like he’d ridden all the night through to get there. Mud was spattered all over his uniform, there were dark circles under his eyes, and he looked like he hadn’t eaten a good meal in a month. The only odd thing about him was the scarf wrapped around his neck—it was far too plush and fine for a common soldier.

“Take that off and let her look at it,” the general said, an edge coming into his voice, and the tired man scrambled to obey. He unwound the scarf from his neck and lay it on the table in front of Ertys, then stepped back, wrapping his arms around himself.

Ertys stared down at the strip of knitting. It was very fine quality, as she’d seen from the first look. The stitches were even, with an odd, asymmetrical lace pattern embedded in them. She leaned forward to study it, frowning. It was good work, careful work, but the pattern wasn’t any one of the hundreds that she knew.

She’d had a lifetime to learn them, after all.

“Can you read it?” the general asked.

“I can make another version of it, if that’s what you mean. It’s easy enough to figure out the count and the stitches when you’ve been doing the work as long as I have.”

He smiled, though it was less patient than before. She was wearing on them, then. A common thing for the old to do, and likely to get her thrown out of this fine castle before too long. Ah, well.

“Your granddaughter made that,” the general said.

“Overnight, they tell me. She sent it for you to read the stitching and tell us the message in it.”

“Oh! You should have said so right off.” She leaned in closer, her nose an inch from the wool. “Tey made this? Give me a moment, then.”

Tey was the only one of her children or grandchildren who saw things the way she did, who could read the patterns in knitting or weaving as easily as priests read the stars or farmers the clouds. The only one Ertys had taught how to speak with lace.

“Well?” the general asked after a while. “What does it say?”

Ertys shook her head slightly, fingers moving carefully over the yarn. “It’s fifty-four stitches across. That’s a twelve-stitch pattern repeated four times, plus three stitches each side for a border.”

“That’s not what I—”

“This pattern here.” She touched the first inch of lace.

“This pattern is called Red Bird Hopping, but she cut it off halfway through and changed to a pattern called Old Horse Comes Home.”

The men looked at each other for a moment until the third one, who hadn’t spoken until now, said “There is Red Horse Ford, sir.”

“Red bird to old horse, red horse. It could be.” The general tugged at his lower lip. “What next, Mother?”

Strange to be called Mother by a man she’d never met before. Still, best to go on. “This next part has sets of five stitches, made with a stitch that twists to the left. And the next has sets of three stitches that twist to the right.”

“Five somethings to the left, three to the right,” the third man echoed. “That could be units or it could be individuals, sir.”

“Best to assume units.” The general was starting to look truly excited. Perhaps if the rest was what he wanted to hear, Ertys could trouble him for something to eat. She’d missed the alms breakfast at the temple for certain by now.

“There’s a strip of plain stitch,” she went on, touching the fabric even though none of the men knew what they were looking at. “Which means the next pattern is a new idea. It’s repeats of three again, a variation on a pattern we call the Mountain.”

“The fort at Red Horse backs up to mountain passes,” the general translated. “Are there three of them?”

“I’ll check the maps, sir.”

Ertys was growing tired. Once she could have picked apart knitting all day, but her eyes were weary at this age.

“This next section is plain lace, but the stitches are all knit from the back. Does that mean anything to you?”

“Those back passes.” The general nodded and slapped his hand on the table, a loud sound that sent Ertys flinching back. Gods preserve her from the sword-on-hip kind in this world. “Anything else?”

She looked at the remainder of the scarf; plain stitch for a hand’s width, and then a basic Clouds Above lace pattern just to hide that the first ones were meaningful. Good work, Tey. Ertys hoped that wherever the girl was, they had rewarded her for this. And all overnight, too! Fine work.

“That’s all.” She pushed the scarf away and folded her hands together. “Might I trouble someone for bread or porridge? I haven’t eaten.”

“Mother Ertys, you will have a feast this morning, complete with coffee and crème diplomat.”

She’d never heard of such things. “That’s likely to make me sick to my stomach, I’m afraid.”

The general laughed—though she certainly hadn’t said anything funny—and swept out of the room, followed by the other men. Ertys stayed where she was, in the absence of any idea where else to go.

After a while, the page-girl appeared again, with a tray of good plain breakfast, bread and porridge and an egg.

“I knew you wouldn’t want the rest,” she said quietly.

A good girl. About Tey’s age. “Thank you, child.” A few bites revived her, and she found her fingers itching for wool. She couldn’t think without it to keep her hands busy.

“Do you have any spindles about this place?”

Samantha Rich

Samantha Rich (she/her) is a lifelong fan of speculative fiction.
She lives in Michigan with a (bossy) cat and a (nervous) dog.
Website: https://srichfiction.wordpress.com/my-work/
Bluesky: srich-writer.bsky.social