The eight-sided tower
Whee, a duyin house that we didn’t know about! It’s canon that there used to be several small houses, most of which have been assimilated into the larger ones, so this is definitely a normal part of the world. “Ichalan” can mean “the two Guild runners”, suggesting interesting backstory!
I wasn’t the first one up the next morning: one of Ashti’s patients had started making porridge, so I said “Oh, good, you’ve found the grits!” And not only grits: Raith found a basket at the jetty that was full of flowers and herbs and fish. “Thank you, whoever gave this to us!” I said, though that person was probably far away now.
Everybody was getting up now, even Arin, who looked fairly well. In the smithy, one of Ashti’s girls was taunting the boy that he couldn’t pull the bellows, but he was strong enough. “Everybody who is tall enough to reach the bellows can try to pull them, everybody who is strong enough for the bellows can try the hammer,” I said. But the hammer was still beyond any of them. “You can take turns at the bellows when I do smith-work,” I said, “that’ll give you muscles and you can watch what I’m doing. I learned it that way myself, started when I was nine!”
But there was not enough smith-work to do to fire up the forge; instead, we started to lay foundations for another house for the new people to live, and to dig some of the ground for planting our vegetable seeds. I only had to say what I thought had to be done and someone went and did it — easy to be the boss this way!
“You’re not needed here at the moment, right?” Arin asked. “Seems a good time to have a look at that tower.”
At the jetty I found Serian who was talking to two other little boys, who might have been there last night but I couldn’t be sure. “We’re going to get a fat goose so we have goose fat!” he said. Obviously he’d heard us talking about greasing the tools in the smithy.
“Do you need the boat for that? Because we need it now, if you need it you can have it later.”
“No, we’re going in Paran’s boat,” he said.
“PHaran!” one of the other boys said. “With a HHHHH in!”
There was no way to keep Raith and Lyase-Lédu from coming along — well, I could have been strict, but there was nothing against it — so I let them row. The landscape changed from water with occasional small islands to reedlands, marshland with creeks, then wetland wood with alders and willows and occasionally a small oak trying to establish itself. We saw people on some of the islands and I waved to them, but we never came close enough to talk.
Finally we got to more solid land, and then the boat bumped into a masonry wall — it looked like a retaining wall, and when we’d gone along it for a while Raith spotted an iron ring set into the masonry, just at the right height to tie a boat to. It was almost rusted away, though. Further on there was a proper quay where Jeran’s flat barge was already lying, and we could tie our boat to the same mooring-post. A large flat space contained piles of wood in all states: whole tree-trunks, sawn planks, chopped firewood, and everything in between.
Jeran himself was nowhere in sight, neither for our eyes nor for our minds, but then he wasn’t gifted so not so easy to see. “In the wood, I suppose,” Arin said. For there was indeed a thick wood behind the castle.
I have to call it a castle, though it was half ruined: a rectangular house that had once had pointed windows and a high roof, but now had a thatched roof that started halfway what was left of the windows, with only some of the tracery still intact. And the eight-sided tower, twice the height of a person now though it also looked as if it had once been higher. A short flight of steps led to a pointed opening that I could step through because the tower was full of soil, grass growing on it, to the level of the opening. In the middle there was what looked like an eight-sided stone basin or fire-pit, also filled up. On the opposite side a similar door led to the house, which was mostly empty but at the far end a pallet-bed stood next to the hearth. I didn’t want to go into Jeran’s house when Jeran wasn’t at home, so I called Lyase-Lédu and Raith and we found a place outside to make a fire and cook the ducks we’d caught on the way.
When we were eating them we heard hoofbeats coming from the wood. A man with grey hair and a grey beard appeared, leading a donkey pulling a cart full of tree-trunks. He started at seeing us, then recognised first Arin and then me. “Arin! You’re looking better than last time I saw you.”
“Less of the tipple,” Arin said with a wry grin. Jeran sat down with us and someone passed him the last duck leg. For a while nobody talked — not only because we were all eating, but also because I didn’t know what to say (or at least how to say it) and apparently Arin and Jeran didn’t have much to say.
Raith and Lyase-Lédu, who probably expected boring adult conversaton, went to brush the donkey. Jeran got a jug and a couple of earthenware cups from the house — “drink up fast, they’re not glazed” and poured me and Arin and himself each a cup of harsh-tasting wine that probably wasn’t made of only grapes, but of other fruit as well.
Arin stood up and tugged at his clothes. “I’ll go and cleave some willow wood,” he said. “Getting stiff.”
“It’s for clogs,” Jeran said.
“I know,” Arin said, “done it before, adze still in the same place?” And he was gone without waiting for an answer.
Obviously, he meant to leave me and Jeran alone together. “So, you’re the girl from the island,” Jeran said. “From Turenay, I take it. Did the queen send you to find the last duyen of Essle?”
“I admit that the queen sent me,” I said. “But not for that. To teach, and to learn too. To do good.”
“Doing good is a thing without meaning,” Jeran said.
I tried a different way. “To help people to become themselves.” That made him look more alert. “To be… to be an anchor for Anshen, establish a fixed place.”
Now he peered at me from under his eyebrows with a piercing gaze. Finally, he nodded. “I trust you. Because — well, for no reason really. What do you want?
He knew it wasn’t only willow-wood for clogs, then. “You have an eight-sided tower. We’d like to use it occasionally.”
“What would you use my tower for?”
“I think it was built as a temple of Anshen,” I said, “and I want to use it for that again.”
“Not a temple,” he said. “Anyway, Anshen or the other one, it doesn’t matter. But you said an anchor — yes, that’s what it is, an anchor in the world. This house has been in my family for five hundred years or more. I can’t even recall our house-name any more.” (Later, I realised that it was probably the House Ichalan, that I’d learned in school had died out). “My son and daughter have gone to the war — one against the Khas and the other with the young king to Ashas. None of us have the gifts, my wife did, but she’s long dead. I’m the last, the place will need a guardian after I’m gone.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “You can use it, every Day of Anshen, and clean and repair as much as you need.”
“Thank you!” I counted on my fingers: the Day of Anshen was today. I could hear the girls playing tag on the edge of the wood. “We’ll start now.”
Then Jeran held out his hands as if he expected something to be laid in them, and motioned for me to kneel. I put my hands in his, because that looked like the right way, but no: I had to kiss his hands. Just as I was doing it the girls came running up. “What are you doing that for?” they asked.
“I made a promise,” I said. At least it felt like that. “We can use the tower, but it needs a lot of work.”
Arin was still busy with the adze so I didn’t disturb him. I cleared the moss from the outside of the tower, and the girls borrowed a spade and a bucket and got most of the soil and silt out. Then it turned out that the fire-pit was a basin, as high as my hips and with the bottom level with the tower floor, and that the floor had once been all mosaic but was now damaged a lot. “There are lilies in this corner!” Raith said, and Lyase-Lédu then found roses in the next corner, and on the other side there was something that might have been flames, with traces of gilt on the tiles. I wondered if the corner where the tiles were completely gone had been bees; if we could repair it, that’s what I’d want there.
The basin was of an almost translucent kind of white stone; it would need scrubbing with soap and perhaps even lye to become really white again, but we could do that next time. It was carved with roses and grapevines. And when we looked up, we saw that in all the corners there were things sticking out like huge nails but made of hard black stone, the heads the size of my fist, about a foot apart. Every one was carved differenty: heads of people and animals, birds, insects. “This isn’t a head, it’s a butt!” Lyase-Lédu said, and yes, it was the tail-end of a cat, and Raith found the cat’s head on the outside. There was only one other on the outside, in the lowest rank, the hind legs of a mole whose head and digging paws stuck out inside.
“Now I know that the people who built this can’t have been bad people!” Lyase-Lédu said, “they knew how to make jokes!”
The sun was way down by now. “What can I do for you?” I asked Jeran. “Any iron that needs fixing?”
“This saw could do with some sharpening,” he said, and when he gave it to me I saw it badly needed setting too.
“I can do that,” I said, “I’ll send Serian to drop it off tomorrow, he’ll be wanting to catch ducks anyway.”
When we got back to the island it was full of people again: some who had been there last night, several I’d never seen before, and Lochan who had come in hopes of a lesson. “Can do,” Arin said gruffly, “I’ve been working with my body all afternoon, I can work with my mind now.”
Moryn beckoned me over. “Those two there,” he said, “I know them, and I don’t trust them one bit, but they’ve brought their mother so I think they’ll behave.”
“What have they come for? To get something fixed, or do they need food?”
“Evening prayer,” Moryn said. So we did that first, with Lyase-Lédu leading the invocations as she’d done in Merain and Raisse’s house. And then there was food for everyone; people had brought fish and bread again.
I looked at the people Moryn had indicated: two men, neither young nor old, and they both looked damaged but each in a different way: one as if he didn’t feel anything at all, the other as if anything he felt was far too much for him. “My sons,” an old woman said next to me. “Thank you for doing this for them.”
“We do the prayers for the gods,” I said.
“Nah, the gods don’t matter, prayers are for people.” I could see her point, in fact. “They’re so at a loss, their boss went south with his wife, now they don’t have a boss any more.”
“Do they need work?” I asked. Two more strong men for the building would be welcome.
“No, don’t offer them work, they just need to come here for the prayers.”