A Midsummer fight
I sat on the wall for a bit after the doctors had gone back to the Stone House with Imri and my brother and sister to our house, just to be alone. But I wasn’t alone for long! Merain sat down next to me. He didn’t speak right away, though, only when I greeted him.
“Hey,” he said, “there’s the dance at the Stone House tomorrow, but would you like to come to the tower instead and have the wake with me? Imri will be there too. And probably Jeran, and the doctors might come later. I know you’re all of the Nameless, but I don’t care. I’ve got stuff to eat, and Imri is bringing wine.”
I liked that! A really good excuse not to be at the dance under Imri’s father’s eyes. “I’ll bring cheese and strawberries,” I said, because those were so plentiful at our house that they wouldn’t be missed. I went home glowing with pleasure, crawled into bed beside Arvi, and in the morning after milking I started filling a bucket: a cheese in a cloth, a knife to cut it with, a good picking of ripe strawberries.
Suddenly Grandmother appeared in the doorway. “So, you’re going up the mountain tonight?”
“You’ve heard? Merain asked me.”
“Do you intend to come back alone or will there be two of you?”
It was a while until I understood what she meant. “Of course I’ll come back alone! Well, or with Imri. Merain and I are friends but not that kind of friends.”
Grandmother nodded. “I just wanted to make sure.”
I thought about what Arni had said to me earlier, that I had to see some more of the world before I decided to stay in the village. “Grandmother? Next time when you go to the market, can I come? I can drive the ox-cart.”
“I’ll see,” she said. She was gone as quickly as she’d come. I covered the bucket with a cloth and put it with the milk buckets so it would be easy to grab, then went to help prepare the village for the feast.
In the middle of the day I found myself doing something together with Arni, while Hylti went to talk to Grandmother carrying her notebook. She was going to write down everything that Grandmother knew about the village and was willing to tell her, I’m sure! I don’t know how it came up, but I said at some point that I was glad I had something to be already and I didn’t need to choose an apprenticeship. “And I don’t want to be a priestess of Naigha either.”
“Why not?” Arni asked.
That was a hard question to answer. “I can teach my little sister things but I couldn’t teach a whole classroom full of children,” I said.
“That’s not the right reason.”
“And –” it became harder, “– I think I like life better than death. Animals. Growing things.”
“That’s not the right reason either. Priestesses of Naigha deal with life a lot too, and farmers with death!”
(Now I realise I should have said that Naigha hasn’t called me, but I didn’t think of that then.)
Towards evening Imri came from the Stone House, carrying a basket. “Coming?” We went up the hill, but before we even got to Merain’s house we saw his father standing in the middle of the road. “Evening, master,” I said, though his face looked like nine days of storm.
“Did my son invite you?” he asked.
“He did,” we said. I wanted to ask “Do you disapprove?” but didn’t, and that was a good thing.
“I shall guard all of you,” he said, and let us pass.
“Thank you,” I called over my shoulder, but he didn’t seem to be paying attention to us any more.
Merain was already in the tower, with his dog (I scratched the dog’s ruff and made it wag its tail at me), and he’d made a fire that a small goat was roasting over. “Sorry I started the fire already,” he said, “but otherwise we’d have had to wait much too long for the meat! And I used my tinderbox, because I can’t light a fire with my mind. Can you?”
“No,” I said, “I tried, but I can’t.”
“I’ve never even tried,” Imri said.
Then we got talking, all about the gods, and about the Guilds, not as enemies, but as people who each want to know what the others think and why they think it. That’s a good kind of talking, and it can really only be done in the dark, when your friend is sleeping over or at the Midsummer wake. We forgot to eat and drink until the smell of well-done goat was too delicious to ignore, and then Merain tore strips of meat off and put it in some flatbread he’d brought.
As we were eating we saw that there was something going on outside, flickering light as if something was on fire, so we looked out. Merain’s father was standing in the road, his arms spread out, and there was a whole wall of fire on both sides of him. “You’re not coming through!” he said to someone we couldn’t see.
“What is that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Merain said, “but it’s nothing good. Let’s hold hands.”
That made us feel a lot safer. We all knew how to protect ourselves, and we did that, and the power came together and raised a ghostly tower on the bit of wall that was still there! And that made us feel safer still. But then the fire went out and there was a big man in heavy boots coming in our direction. “It’s my uncle Radan astin Eraday!” Imri said.
“Your uncle?” I thought for a moment that it was the uncle she’d talked about earlier, but that uncle had been Jichan.
“We’re Hayan, everybody is family.” The big man was just outside the ghostly tower now, looking angry. He pointed a finger at Merain. “You,” he said. “I thought we had an arrangement, little one.” (Merain was the biggest of the three of us! Tall, and broad as well.) “And I see you’ve brought in some girls. They’re of no import.”
“I owe you nothing,” Merain said. I stood up straight and put my hand on my knife but the man ignored me completely. I was much more angry than afraid! But I was afraid too.
Our ghostly tower was so strong that he couldn’t get through! We made a circle with our arms around the others’ shoulders and made it stronger still. Now we noticed that there were rather a lot of goats here (but without Jeran), all getting in the way, and Merain’s dog was getting confused because it didn’t know what to do with the goats when there was no room to herd them.
“I need Archan,” Merain said. “Is he inside or outside?”
I could tell that there were gods present, but not where they were! Then suddenly a boy stood between me and Imri, looking about Imri’s age, who looked first at her and then at me and said “I can’t speak to you any more and you are too old for me really! But my brothers are both outside.” And he disappeared. I could see Anshen and the Nameless now: two young men looking almost the same, one just a little more handsome than the other, but I didn’t know which was which.
“Timoine just told me they’re both outside,” I said to Merain, who nodded grimly. “We’ll have to hold out,” he said. “Say, if we come out of this, let’s go to Turenay or Valdis, the three of us. Never mind the gods.”
Then the doctors suddenly stood outside the tower, and we didn’t see Uncle Radan any more. “Let them in?” I asked, and we made a gap in the ghostly wall and they came through, all between the goats.
The priestess of Naigha had been behind the doctors and she beckoned Merain over. “You will have to come with me into the cave in the morning,” she said.
Merain was whiter than I’d ever seen him. “He fought for you,” the priestess said. “He died for you.” He nodded but didn’t say anything, obviously not trusting his voice. Imri and I put our arms around his shoulders again.
“Who did he fight?” I asked. I was afraid it was the Nameless, but it had been Uncle Radan.
“He was a grand master in the Guild,” Arni said, “and Merain’s father only a master, he had to give way.”
“That’s not fair!” I started to say, but then I remembered that I couldn’t expect servants of the Nameless to be fair.
Hylti, meanwhile, was very interested in the tower itself. “I knew there was an eight-sided tower here!”
“I didn’t tell!” I said. “It was Merain’s family secret. I didn’t betray him!”
“No, you didn’t,” Hylti said, “your grandmother told me. She’s known about the tower all her life.”
Arni led us all out of the tower to the summer meadow, the goats following. Jeran appeared too and took charge of the goats, leaving the dog to comfort Merain. “Let’s finish the wake here,” Arni said. I had the bucket but Imri had left her basket in the tower, so we had cheese and strawberries but nothing to drink until someone got water from the stream.
Merain took me and Imri aside. “After tonight we’re all like brother and sisters,” he said, “I want you to come into the burial place with me.”
“If Naigha doesn’t mind,” I said, and we asked the priestess, and she asked Naigha, and it was all right.
There had been stars earlier, but now it was completely dark. Arni was looking towards the hill as if she was waiting, and then there was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder and something that looked like a very quick fire. “Ha!” Arni said. “I was waiting for that. Good riddance. The Nameless takes care of his own.”
“Did he kill Radan astin Eraday?” I asked, aghast. “His own servant?”
“His useless servant,” Arni said. And then it was day, and time for milking, but I was still confused even though cows are very calming.