Round the village

When I looked up from my pail Aine was gone, and instead the shorter preacher was leaning against the fence, chewing a stalk of grass. “Hi,” I said, “where did you leave your babies?”

“At the Stone House, with Arni, asleep,” she said. “Can you show me around the village?”

I could! I had to wait for the cream to rise before I could skim the milk anyway. I put the pail with the other one, covered it, gave my skirt and headscarf a pull and then I was ready to show her around. “I want to know where everybody lives,” she said, “and to see if they’re healthy.”

Then I thought of telling her my name, which I hadn’t done at the house, and Lord Arin hadn’t called me by it either. Then the preacher told me that she was called Hylti, and that they weren’t preachers at all but nurses and apprentice doctors! Hylti had been to school in Turenay and helped in the hospital, and she’d met Arni in Valdis when Arni had still been with the Nameless. Arni was from Rizenay! That was why she was so tall and light-haired, most people from Rizenay are, Grandmother says.

Showing Hylti around was easy and fun! We went to Jeran’s house first. He wasn’t in, but Hylti looked into the house and found it neat and clean. I could have told her that: Jeran is neat and clean! We could see him sitting with his back against a tree, knitting, while the goats roamed the hillside. He came when I called him and was kind of amused when Hylti wanted to see his bare pecker. “It’s not often a woman wants to see that!” I wandered away for a bit, no need for me to see Jeran’s bare pecker, and found a cat to scritch behind the ears while Hylti worked.

“Right,” I heard her say, “you should go to the market once in a while, meet other people than the village! Experience, that’s what you need.” I didn’t catch what Jeran answered but it sounded cheerful.

The next house was the scary man of the Nameless! I realised that I didn’t even know his name, only of his son, Merain, who was a couple of years older than me. Hylti took Merain into a side-room of the workshop first. It wasn’t long until he came out to talk to me.

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, it was just talk, because it turned out that though we both thought the other was of the Nameless we sort of liked each other. “Do you want to see our family secret?” he asked. I only nodded — he must really like me, and trust me, if he offered that! And then he took me up the hill some way and opened a hole in the bracken that I hadn’t seen was there — it was a miracle that goats didn’t fall into it! — and jumped down, and handed me down too.

We were on a flagstone floor, inside a bit of brick wall, and the wall was eight-sided! And as I stood there I could imagine, I saw in my mind’s eye, the tower it had been. “That’s why we live here,” Merain said, “it’s been entrusted to our family, to take care of Archan’s tower.” Then he took me back to the house and, before his father or Hylti could see us, gave me a beautifully carved bone comb that he had in his pocket. “That’s a secret too,” he said.

Hylti had a lot to say to Merain’s father, but eventually we were on the road again. “You have a stone bridge here, right?” she asked. “Is it old?”

“I think so,” I said, “there are carvings of people and animals on it but they’re all worn.”

When we got to the bridge Hylti plunged into the water! It wasn’t deep — they’d probably come by the ford where it was really shallow, but even here the water came only halfway up her thighs at the deepest spot. That was a good thing, because she took out some sheets of paper and a charcoal stick and did something with it that I couldn’t see on the underside of the bridge, then gave me one paper after another, and the people and animals were on it, clearer than they were on the bridge itself! I was sure it wasn’t a drawing, it wasn’t in lines, but all in black and white patches. “How do you make those?” I asked, and she showed me on a bit that I could see, lay the paper flat on the carvings and rub the charcoal on it so the high bits came out in black. “That’s clever!” I said.

She finished — I think she got pictures of the whole bridge — and climbed out of the water, dripping wet. Fortunately she was wearing a short skirt so only the hem was wet! “I wrote a book about bridges in Lenyas,” she said, “it’s in the palace library. This one is like those, made by the Ishey.”

“What is the Ishey?” I asked.

“They’re not what, they’re who, people who lived here before the kingdom was the kingdom, more than six hundred years ago, perhaps a thousand years ago. There are still Ishey, but only very few in Valdyas.” She carefully rolled up her papers and put them in her satchel. “I didn’t expect an Ishey bridge here. All it needs is an eight-sided tower now!”

But I didn’t tell her about the eight-sided tower: after all, it was Merain’s family secret that he trusted me with!

When we got to the Temple of Naigha we ran into Farin, wool on his clothes and wool in his hair. Of course, he’d told me he’d go to the far pasture with the shepherds and help round up the herd so we could start shearing right after the Feast. “You stink of sheep,” I said.

You stink of the Nameless!”

I shrugged. “I’ve been talking to Merain. Up the hill.”

“Do you fancy him?”

“No! But I sort of like him, we get on.”

“How long have you been getting on?” (Brothers!)

“Since this afternoon in fact,” I said.

Hylti was in the temple and stayed inside for a long time! Come to think of it she had a braid like a priestess, but hadn’t she said she and Arni were married? And she didn’t dress like a priestess or have snakes on her hands and arms either. Then Arni and Imri came from the Stone House, carrying babies. We sat on the temple-yard wall, Imri and I each holding a baby on our lap while Arni fed the third. “Which of them is whose, or do they all belong to both of you?” I asked.

“They’re all ours, but the one on your lap comes from my belly,” she said. “That’s Ruzyn.”

“But you didn’t make them together!” I said. “You’re both women!”

Arni laughed. “No, but we have friends, two men in Valdis who are together, and they were very obliging.”

I took Imri home to eat with us, because at the Stone House there was a banquet for the doctors and she’d only be bored or embarrassed or both. Then I went to check on the milk, skimmed it, and let Arvi start churning the cream until it became too heavy for her and I had to do the rest. Before I was finished the doctors suddenly stood in the dairy! “It’s your turn now,” they said.

It took a while before I understood what they meant: they were going to check everybody for sickness, us as well! “You can use the little back room,” I said, “if you don’t mind the cheese on the shelves.”

Farin was completely healthy, and so was I, but Hylti scolded Arvi a bit because she could tell by the way she looked that she didn’t eat her vegetables! “If you don’t eat your greens you’re going to have a bent back like a donkey! And legs like a goat! I’m going to tell your mother that she shouldn’t give in when you only want to eat meat and bread.” How did she know? Because that was exactly what happened.

But Imri stayed behind when Farin and Arvi went back to the house, and she beckoned me over. She was sick! And she wasn’t a virgin any more, either. “Who did you make love with?” I asked.

“Nobody!” she said and burst out crying.

Arni put an arm around Imri’s shoulders while I held both her hands. “But someone can have made love with you, or at least pretended to.”

“It’s Uncle Jichan,” Imri said, still sobbing. “You can’t say no to him. When he comes here with my eldest sister. Father doesn’t know, and I’ve tried to tell Mother but she doesn’t ever listen.”

“Where does your Uncle Jichan live?” Hylti asked.

“In Valdis!”

“Well, you’ve got two witnesses now, me and Arni, we can round him up and take him to court. And perhaps you should go to school for a bit.”

“But I’ve already been to school! There’s nothing the priestess can teach me any more.”

“The school I’ve been to,” Hylti said. “In Turenay.”