Away

Merain and Imri hung around while I finished the milking, and then Merain said “we’re going now, we can’t risk the doctors meddling again”. He’d gathered all the leftover food, and Imri had a purse full of money, I don’t know whether she’d run home to get it or had it with her all along.

“I can’t go away without telling Grandmother,” I said, “but I promise I’ll talk to her only.” I knew she was likely to be up, and so she was, in her rocking-chair in the little bright room off the kitchen.

“I’m off to Turenay right now,” I said, “with Imri and Merain.”

“Guild trouble tonight, eh?” she asked. “Take this.” She got a little linen-wrapped package from among the cushions of her chair, about the size of an egg. “Give that to the masters in Turenay and you’ll be all right. Blessings on you.”

And then I was outside again, and we were on the road. Before long we were in the next village — not Woodbridge, where we’d been to the harvest feast, but in the other direction where I’d never been. There were the remains of a Midsummer fire there, with some people still asleep around it, and a couple of young men raking up the embers while singing to Anshen. I sang along in my head but didn’t stop to join in. A bit further on we sat down on the bank of a brook and ate our bread and cheese. I showed Grandmother’s package to the others and Merain said “it looks like a master’s ribbon!” which I didn’t understand, because it didn’t look like a ribbon at all!

“Grandmother says to give it to the masters in Turenay,” I said, “so I know it’s something to do with masters. Do you know where Turenay is?”

Imri had seen it on a map, and Merain knew it was in the east. “When we get to the big road we have to turn east and then we can’t miss it,” he said.

It was getting warm. We came through another village, where a small girl was herding geese and two big shaggy dogs ran after us barking until we left the village on the other side. Good thing that Merain had left his dog with the goats or we’d have had a dog-fight! Then we came to the big road — sandy like the small one — and turned east on it.

It was getting warmer, and we were thirsty. The brook was far away now. We slogged on for a while, until a wagon caught up with us. “Hey, youngsters! Would you want a ride?”

Yes, we would! We were hot and tired and dry and the carter looked friendly. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Turenay,” we said.

“That’s a long way! How many water-sacks have you got with you?” We’d forgotten to bring any. We were so used to the brook being near! “Never mind, hop on.” He gave us an earthenware mug, full of water from a barrel on the back of the wagon.

“Those are pretty donkeys,” I said. They were large and dun-coloured, with big soft ears and long faces.

“Mules, their mother was a horse,” the man said. “Sandy and Ashy, I call them. I’m Jichan.”

We said our names, and I heard Imri swallowing her house-name. Of course she’s used to giving strangers her full name!

Well, we’d thought that it was at most a couple of days to Turenay, but even on the wagon it was a couple of weeks. The wagon was full of wool: spun yarns, some plain and some dyed, to get to the weavers so they could make cloth and ribbons in time to sell at the autumn fair.

Imri parted with some of her money to buy two more water barrels and food for everybody in a village, and later we stopped at an inn and she paid for us to have a large meal and to sleep in the hayloft. Not that there was much hay left at the height of summer! But we had a quiet place and a blanket each.

Jichan let only Merain help with the mules, though I’d have loved to get my hands on a brush! But at the inn there were chickens and sheep and a couple of cows and I helped with feeding and milking. And in the night the innkeeper came to wake me up. “I’ve seen that you’re good with animals. My best cow is calving and I don’t think it’s going right.”

So there I was with my arms in a cow almost to the shoulders! I had to turn the calf, and when I was doing that I felt that there were two! After a while they were standing on their spindly legs and the cow was standing around with a very cowish “what do I care” expression on her face. “Bull calves, both,” I said.

The innkeeper scowled. “One of them will be in the pot before the week is up,” she said.

“Take this one, then, the other one is stronger, he’ll make a fine ox.”

She looked at me as if she hadn’t seen me before. “You’re a real farm girl, right? Jichan thinks you and your friend are noble girls running away from home.” I didn’t tell her about Imri, of course, but I said “yes, I’m a real farm girl, I could milk a sheep when I was six and a cow when I was nine, but now I’m off to school. In Turenay. You know, I’m not even sure any more that Turenay exists.”

“Oh, it does, Jichan goes there every so often with his wagon. It’s a good thing you met up with him, he’s completely trustworthy,” she said, but we already knew that.

(Somewhere along the way I told Merain about milking the mouse, and showed him when he looked as if he didn’t believe me, and he said “don’t ever do that again or I might hit you!” “What, milk a mouse?” I said, but he meant show him something without warning. Fair enough. And anyway, my hands are too big now to milk any mice.)