I’m Venlei Halla and I’m going to tell you about my life.
It’s a good life! I can’t remember ever going to bed hungry except the times that I’ve been sent to bed without my dinner, and that hasn’t happened for a long time now. It’s so much better in our village than in the other villages nearby, we’ve had whole families from the other villages wintering in our barn because they didn’t have enough and we did, even enough for them as well. Perhaps it is because Mother is such a good farmer. She’s good with the land and I’m good with animals. I can milk anything! I even milked a mouse for a bet when I was eleven, and I’ll tell you, it was only one little drop of milk because mice are so tiny, and I let the baby mice lick it off my finger because it was theirs really, but I did it! And people still talk about it. (Serlei Arin may say he can milk an ant, but I don’t think ants give milk at all! They lay eggs, don’t they? Nothing lays eggs and gives milk, it’s either one or the other.)
Our village is Vezenay. The priestess says it’s called Veshinay really, but she went to learn in the big city and everything is different there. Anyway, at least she came back from the big city! Not everybody does who goes there, I think it’s so big that they get lost and never ever come back because they forget how. We have a bit of hill that isn’t very steep and forest and fields and a brook, everything that a village needs! The brewery is upstream and the tannery (which belongs to my father, by the way) is downstream, and in between we get all the water we need and do our washing.
I have a sister, Venla, who is almost seventeen and works in the tannery, she’s engaged to Jilan the carpenter and I think they’ll get married come Midsummer, which is only a few days away! And then there’s me, I’m fourteen, and my brother Farin who is hardly younger than me because we were born at the same birth, but I came out first. When we were smaller we were never apart, we thought the same thoughts even, but a while ago I started turning into a woman and he started turning into a man and it was all so strange! Now it’s like he’s afraid of me, but that’s silly, there’s nothing to be afraid of, I’m still his sister. And there’s Arvi who is ten and Arin who is five. And Grandmother Halla lives with us, she’s Father’s mother, she takes the ox-cart to the market every week with leather and vegetables and cheese so nobody else needs to do that. Grandfather used to do it, but he died a couple of years ago because he was too old to live.
We’re all of Anshen, the whole village, except the scary man on the hillside and his even more scary son who are of the Nameless. The scary man does sell the best tools, combs and spindles and shuttles made of bone! But his son is a wastrel, all he does is eye the girls. I won’t name their names because there are lots of good people who have the same names and I’m not going to sully good names because bad people happen to have them as well.
So today I’d finished all my morning work and I was sitting on the bench outside the kitchen, because it was splendid weather, doing some mending. Jeran the goatherd was there too, he’d finished his milking, and we were talking about the feast and the dancing. He likes boys, and so do I, but not the same boys so there was a lot to talk about.
Suddenly a pair of hands grabbed me around the waist and a pair of lips kissed me on the back of my head! That was Imri, my dearest friend, Lord Arin’s youngest daughter, a couple of years younger than me but you wouldn’t think it, so forward and clever as she is. It’s probably because she’s got four older sisters! And I’ve only got the one. Her sisters are all married and living elsewhere, though. She does have a mother, but nobody’s ever seen her outside of the house, as if she’s afraid of being out of doors or something, I’ve never dared ask.
Imri kissed me on the lips then and said “You’ve been eating bacon! I can taste it!”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s amazing that you’ve still got bacon this late in the year!”
“Mother saved some for the feast,” I said. And even though it wasn’t the feast yet, she’d cut a little piece to have with our breakfast eggs.
Imri pulled me into the house and said, “seriously, about the dancing at our house, Father has noticed you! I thought I’d warn you.”
“I already thought of that,” I said. Lord Arin noticed every girl in the village who grew tits, and I’d been growing tits quite noticeably in the past year! “I’ll stay away from him if I can.”
“You don’t need to stay away! You might get a pair of oxen out of it like Lyse last year.”
I wouldn’t know what to do with a pair of oxen, we have an ox already to pull the wagon, it’s not as if you can milk them! “Your father is forty! Forty-five even! I wish you had a brother, I prefer someone of eighteen, or sixteen! And your father notices all the girls.”
“He doesn’t notice me,” Imri said.
“That’s a good thing, because you’re his daughter! That he doesn’t notice you in that way, I mean.”
Imri nodded. “Right. Like Jeran who was hanged last year because he didn’t know the difference between daughters and other girls. Whose daughter went to the city with the inheritance. But well, I just thought I’d warn you.”
So I gave her the red ribbon I’d been saving for the feast because it was so sweet of her, it suits her better than me anyway because she has brown hair and I have reddish-fair hair, I’ll wear the blue ribbon or the white one if I can wheedle it from Venla. Jeran played hurt, “Imri, you’re disappointing me, I’ve got such a nice ribbon for you!”, taking a bit of goat’s wool out of his shirt. She took it with a laugh, “I like the wool! I’ll put it in my tapestry.”
Mother had something to discuss with Imri too, whispering in a corner, and I couldn’t understand it but it still made me blush. Then Imri said, “have you heard? We’re getting a couple of Anshen preachers for the feast.”
“Preachers? Don’t we know enough about Anshen already?”
“Father says that we know how it is, and they’re going to tell us how it’s going to be! They’re very strict, he says.”
“Well, perhaps they can dance, and they’re handsome!”
“They’re both women, Father says.”
“They could still dance, and be nice to look at!”
Then she went home, and Jeran to his goats, and I went to milk the cows. Then two strange women rode up on shaggy horses, both carrying babies in slings — three babies between them.
“Good morning!” I called, without ceasing to milk.
“Morning — who is the village headman or woman here?”
“That’ll be Lord Arin at the Stone House,” I said, and pointed.
“I wouldn’t have thought there would be a stone house here!” the shorter woman said. (I could see now that one woman was tall and the other short, because they’d dismounted. Also, they weren’t much older than my sister Venla. They didn’t look like I’d imagined preachers but they could hardly be anyone else.)
“Well, it’s not all stone,” I said, because I’m a truthful sort of person. “But there’s some stone so that’s what we call it.”
“Can you take us there?”
“When I finish this cow,” I said, and did so, and then the babies started to cry and they had to feed them so I could do another cow and put the bucket in the scullery with a cloth over it. I got to hold a baby while her mother did up her shirt, and then change the nappy, and the little warm body felt so nice in my arms that I said “I wish I had a little sister like that! My youngest brother is five and obnoxious. May I carry her?”
Yes, you may, I heard in my head. That was strange, it was almost like Farin and me thinking the same thoughts but different! I didn’t have time to think about it much, though, because the women wanted to go to the Stone House now.
When we got there Lord Arin was already in the courtyard, and he took me by the elbow very courteously. We all ended up in Lord Arin’s writing-room, and we all got cups of wine, even me! Lord Arin’s clerk was there too, who is his son by another woman than his wife. (So he can’t only make daughters! See, Imri was wrong when she said that!)
The women were from Three Hills, they said, and Lord Arin thought that was bad news, but they said that the queen had taken care of the lord of Three Hills and he was relieved. It must have been the lord who was bad news! Then there was a lot of talk that I didn’t understand, “investigating the pattern of spread” and things like that, but I rather thought it was about Lord Arin bedding everybody in sight! It became embarrassing after a while even though it was hard not to listen, but I couldn’t get out because by now I had all three babies on my lap and one was investigating my hair and getting tangled in it. But their mothers took them back, and I said “can I go and milk my other three cows now?”
Everybody laughed — I hadn’t said anything funny, had I? — and Lord Arin took me to the gate himself. When we were almost out he looked at my tits, then vaguely at my face, then really at my face, and said, “You should go and talk to the smith’s wife before the Feast. Or to the people on the hillside, if you prefer.”
“The people on the hillside are creepy,” I said.
“Then talk to the smith’s wife,” Lord Arin said, “and she won’t charge you twelve riders.”
“I don’t want to be a smith!” I said. “I want to be a farmer.” But then I realised what he was talking about. “Oh! It wouldn’t be right to pay twelve riders for that, it’s not as if we don’t have it but Grandmother would be annoyed!”
I went back to the cows, and when I was finishing the last one Aine, the smith’s wife, came and sat on the fence next to me. “Lord Arin told me to speak to you,” she said, “I’m to take you as my apprentice after the Feast.”
Well, I’ll see what that comes to! And I wonder if she wants Farin too, we’re so alike even though we’ve grown apart lately.