Most of it wasn’t technically difficult, but it does give them a first glimpse of what they’re up against.
We left Tal-Serth early in the morning. The children were sad to leave their new friends but at the same time glad to be on the road again, and so were we, it was splendid late-spring weather. (In Ryshas that means that sometimes there’s a sudden downpour out of that single cloud in the sky, half an hour at most, and then the sun dries you up almost as fast as the rain drenched you.) There was a long stretch without any villages, and when we stopped for the lambs and goats Jeran decided to go hunting. “Any of you coming?” he asked, and Serla and I stayed with the children and the animals while Amre went along. “I can hunt!” Serla said. “I’ve been on hunts anyway. But I don’t have the right things for it here: a falcon, and a pony, and a blue satin dress.”
“No, I don’t see you riding out to hunt on a mule,” I said. “We’ll teach you our way of hunting. But not today, not when we’re travelling and need food.”
Instead, we went through Serla’s notebook and drawings again and watched the children from the corner of our eyes. They were building towers from mud near the little stream that we’d been following, getting very dirty but not in any danger. The stream wasn’t any deeper than the twins’ ankles; there weren’t even any large fish in it, only tiny minnows and one bold crayfish that crawled out from under a stone and nibbled at Hinla’s toes.
The hunters came back late, carrying only two yearling roebucks. “We did kill something larger,” Amre said, “a big woolly sheep thing, but then first a pack of wild dogs came to eat it, and then a bear chased the dogs away and carried it off!”
“Then it’s for Mizran,” I said, sparking a discussion about whether only foxes were of Mizran or bears as well, like in Velihas. But at least we knew now that we had to be careful of bears — as almost everywhere in the hills — and of wild dogs as well. Monster would handle the dogs, but perhaps she couldn’t handle a whole pack at once.
Jeran thought that Serla should learn to clean the catch, but she could do that already! “I said I’d been on hunts, didn’t I? Got myself taken along since I was ten. This, I can do even without my equipment.” And she did it very competently, too.
When Serla was washing in the stream Jeran came back from offering some of the entrails to Mizran in the wood, and blushed as he saw her naked. But she made a kind of seal that blurred her body, like mist or very thin almost-see-through linen. Later, we saw them sparring: Jeran had a scary mask of ryst, with big teeth, and tried to frighten or at least distract her with it. Next, he gave her the illusion (well enough that we could see it too) that her tongue was a foot long, and she retaliated by giving him donkey’s ears.
In the morning we had a whole gaggle of a kind of wood-fowl in the pen, pecking for grains in the animals’ droppings. I sneaked through the gate and grabbed two by the feet, but at the same time I felt something hard hit the back of my head: Amre had shot a slingstone just when I started to stand up. I let go of one of the birds when I wanted to rub the spot, and all the rest of the fowl ran away, of course, but Monster caught two and ate them in a couple of bites. I wrung my bird’s neck and hung it on the cart, because it would take too long to roast it for breakfast. Anyway, we had “Khas food”, stew from grain with leftover meat and lots of herbs. The herbs made it a lot better than what I imagine real Khas food to be!
Then we noticed that two of the black lambs were missing. Jeran found them at the watering-place, one with a broken leg. He splinted it, because the lambs were still too small to slaughter and eat — we couldn’t see if they were any good yet!
We crossed the stream and reached the Rycha itself again, where we could see heavy-laden rafts and flat-bottomed boats, covered so we didn’t see what was in them. On the side of the next hill we now saw a sprawling village, and we reached it through fields with hops and grain and grapes. Clearly they’d got beer and wine here. A woman looked up from her work in the field, “guests!”
“We’re travelling doctors,” we said.
“Well, we don’t really need a doctor now, the travelling doctor from Tylenay was here five days ago and he fixed Arin’s broken ribs! But you’re welcome anyway, of course.” She took us to the lowest part of the village where there was a temple of Naigha, and a large pen where we could put the animals, though Jeran had to close some of the low openings in the fence so lambs wouldn’t get through again.
The village headman was the priestess’ son, a middle-aged man who was also called Arin. His mother was a broad strong woman of about sixty who looked as if she should have been a smith. (When I asked her about that later, she said “Naigha had other ideas” — calling, not tradition!)
We offered to see how Arin with the broken ribs was recovering, and someone took us to a house up the hill where a man with a bandaged chest was lying in a bed. There was a strange sweet smell in the room — opium! Arin himself was barely conscious. When he saw us he said dreamily “pretty girls! THREE pretty girls!” and was away again.
It was clear that the doctor who had set the broken ribs had done that with his hands only. Arin’s wife told us that doctor Orin from Tylenay thought that Doctor Cora’s way of working was quackery! Even though he was in the Guild. If we were up against that… But we could do something for Arin, at least, there was a splinter of bone that wasn’t back in its place and was working its way to Arin’s lung — hard to move or even find that without your mind. “Watch closely,” Amre told Serla, but after a while Serla went completely green and ran out to vomit.
Arin’s wife came in with a bowl that smelt like more opium. “He shouldn’t have that,” I told her, “it’s poisoning him, give him wine with a lot of water. ”
“But Master Orin said he should take it! It’s quite expensive, too, we paid all of our savings for it. It’s one shilling a day and we’ve got enough for twenty days.” She showed me a glass jar with large round pills in it. “Half of one in wine and water in the morning and half in the evening.”
And he’d been taking it five days. Long enough to poison him well and truly. I took a rider from my purse. “Look, I’ll buy the rest from you, it’s good stuff to give to someone when they’ve just had an accident and they’re in a lot of pain and you want them to sleep while you set the bones, but even a couple of days is too long. Now make sure he drinks a lot — water, with a dash of wine or vinegar. He’ll piss a lot too, that’s a good thing, he’ll piss all the poison out.”
What was this doctor thinking? He’d obviously been to a different school than we had. Or, Amre said later, he was trying to get people dependent on expensive medicines so he could keep extorting money from them. But would that be profitable enough in villages where one rider was all of a family’s savings?
We went back to our camp to investigate the medicine. “I want to meet that apothecary!” I said, because the pills were very regular, all the same size, wonderfully smooth on the hard outside, and when I cut one open it turned out to contain almost pure opium, the resin ground to a fine powder. It had been mixed with something sweet and a bit of wax, perhaps to make it stick together better. No wonder they were so expensive: they were actually expensive to make, unless someone had a field of opium poppies here. They would probably grow in Ryshas, it was warm enough but it might be a bit too wet.
A young woman came and asked if we could look at her. Well, we’d promised to help if it was necessary, we’d help if we could! But we couldn’t do much — she had the clap, and had had it for so long that copper ointment wouldn’t work any more, it was all through her body. It couldn’t be sieved out like the silver sickness; all we could do was ease the symptoms. “You can get old with this,” I told her, “but it’ll never go away.”
“Not sleep with any man ever again?”
“It was only the one! When the soldiers came through here on the way to the war.” That was slightly more than a year ago. “The priestess had called all the unmarried women and warned them not to sleep with the soldiers, but he was so nice! And so handsome, red hair and freckles, from Velihas!”
“And you didn’t go to the priestess when you noticed you were sick?” Amre asked.
“I didn’t dare! She’s so strict!”
“We’ll have to check everybody,” Amre said with a sigh when the woman had left. “And let’s go talk to the priestess.”
“Yes,” the priestess said, “I did warn them all, but I can’t check back on every one of them!” (Later, we wondered why not, but perhaps it’s tradition, that isn’t part of a priestess of Naigha’s work. In that case, it was already more than her mandate to warn them!) She did have medicines for several different diseases that we didn’t know about, made from herbs that grew in the hills here, and we got our herbals out of the wagon and spent the rest of the afternoon comparing and copying.
A young girl came in with bread and cheese and ale, saying, “Grandmother, don’t keep working all day and all night again!“, but the priestess laughed and we finished the work. But then most of the rest of the villagers were at the door to hear news from the east. They didn’t know yet that King Athal had won the war in the south and was on his way back. “Then the twins will come back!” someone said. “Halla and Merain, they joined up when the regiment came through here.”
The next morning we went to check up on Arin. He was very sick: sweating and thrashing, and still dreaming but now it was nightmares, still about women but they were all monstrous with eyes and tongues and teeth where no woman ought to have those. “How can you dream something that doesn’t exist?” Serla asked, and she couldn’t understand me when I said I often dream things that don’t exist, that’s the fun of dreaming for me!
Arin’s wife came in and asked “shan’t I give him a little more of the medicine after all?” when she saw in how much distress he was, but we told her he was so sick because his body was getting rid of the poison, and more poison would make that worse rather than better. Serla was warned now, and she could make the poison not affect her as much as before — I’d seen her working together with Jeran, and the way she let it sluice off her like water could very well be from that. (We’ll have to see if water is what she gets her power from; I wouldn’t be surprised. When she’s tired or upset she sits with her feet in the river as often as she can.)
And Arin did have the clap. We’d been so busy with his ribs and the opium poisoning that we hadn’t noticed. And his wife too: by the way it had progressed he’d caught it from her, not she from him. “He’s going to kill me!” she said, and we said we thought he probably wouldn’t go that far, but we couldn’t stay around to save their marriage.
“Can’t we wash him on the inside?” Serla asked when we were back at the camp. “The way I wash the poison off myself?” We talked about it for a while and decided to try, but we took Jeran and two friends of Arin’s along to hold him so he didn’t injure himself.
It had been a good idea (and we told Serla so), but it didn’t work: the ryst part of the poison, what it showed up as for our minds, was as sticky as tar. “Like the inside of a chimney!” Serla said. All our efforts to rinse it with water, soap, vinegar, whatever we could think of, came to nothing. But after drinking and pissing even more he was much better already, still having nightmares but no longer thrashing about in the bed.
We couldn’t do any more now, so we went back to our camp. This village was almost like home, the Ishey house, for the children: they’d all found friends who they were proudly showing the little goats and lambs, and running with them to their houses and, most importantly, kitchens.
We found Hinla at the wagon, dragging a boy about her age by the hand. “This is Orian and we’re going to get married,” she declared.
“Well, Orian, do you want to marry Hinla?” Amre asked.
He shuffled his feet. “Yesno.”
“Hmm. Hinla, why do you want to marry Orian?”
“His mother makes the bestest pancakes!”
“Then you should marry his mother, not him! Anyway, aren’t you a bit young to marry? Both of you.”
But Hinla had a better idea. “You should marry Orian’s mother! I’ll go and ask right now!” And she sprinted away, Amre after her, leaving me with the reluctant groom.
He was a lot more talkative without his bossy bride. “Hinla promised to give me a deerskin sling-thing if I married her!” he said.
I cut some of the leftover deerskin and tried to teach him how to make a sling for himself, but he hadn’t got the hang of plaiting yet, so I made it and gave it to him. He picked up a stone and put it on the sling lying on the ground, then jerked it by one handle so the stone jumped about an inch. “I’ve got a sling-thing!” he cried, and ran off, swinging it.
Then Amre called me, Orian’s mother invites us all for dinner! Jeran and Serla too. The village will take care of the animals, she says.
I hurriedly washed the twins, who were playing with the baby goats with some friends, and took them and Jeran and Serla to where Amre was. Hinla was there too, and Orian with his sling-thing, happily eating pancakes. Even Amre was eating one! “One thing is true,” she said, “Orian’s mother really does make the bestest pancakes.”
Orian’s mother was a round and cheerful woman, very pregnant, busy with the fire and several pots hanging over it. We talked while she was working. Monster got a large pan of her own, filled with something that looked like thick stew and smelt like everything delicious to dogs, and she ate every scrap of it and went to sleep, head on her paws. “My own recipe,” Orian’s mother said. Her husband came home from the field and embraced her, then greeted us. “Thank you for curing my cousin,” he said.
“He’ll have to do most of the cure himself,” I said, “we’re staying only one more day.”
If Cora was the best doctor in the world, this woman might well be the best cook. Vegetables roasted and drenched in herby butter, spiced goat meat, bread baked in the fire in a clay crust. Even Amre ate a lot. The children fell asleep quite soon, and even Serla and Jeran were nodding but the talk was so interesting that they tried to stay awake. “We don’t concern ourselves with the Guilds much,” Orian’s father said, “of course most people around here are with Archan, but we’d rather keep the village together than fight over that. The priestess knows enough to protect the gifted people so they don’t go bonkers over not being in a Guild.”
“And that doctor who came for Arin is in the Guild and what good has it done him?” Orian’s mother added. Well, yes, I was wondering about that too. A gifted doctor who called healing with semsin quackery? And they hadn’t had much help with the smallpox a couple of years ago, though there’s little doctors can do in a smallpox epidemic except tell people to stay away from the sick and wash their hands. Orian’s twin siblings had died, and so many other people that there were several empty houses higher up in the village as the remaining people had moved closer together.
Now Amre and I were yawning as well, Orian’s father took all three of our children in his arms and carried them down the hill. Serla hung on to Amre, and Jeran was stubborn enough to want to walk alone but leant on me before we were back.
In the morning we weren’t up as early as we’d liked, not even the children. Monster was back, very cheerful, and of course the whole farm in the pen was awake and the kittens were mewling for food in the basket. We didn’t dare let them out to hunt for their own, not until we had a place to call home that wouldn’t move almost every day.
The priestess had already set up her scullery for us to work and called all the villagers: some were queueing up. We found a handful of cases of the clap, different kinds, one kind which the priestess (who was sitting where she could see and hear everything, shelling peas) had medicine for and another kind that really needed copper ointment.
One woman, Tylse, a widow of about fifty, didn’t want us to help her, it wasn’t any good anyway, what did she have to live for? That soldier had been nice to her, she’d thought she needed that but of course it had all been for nothing as well. Her sadness made us so sad that we needed a break, and while we were drinking the priestess’ herb tea a middle-aged man came and asked “Can’t you do anything for Tylse? It would be — well, I’d like to marry her.”
Amre and I looked at each other and thought the same thing. “You could go to Turenay together,” we said, “there are doctors who can treat illness better than we can without a hospital, and there’s another doctor who knows what to do when life makes people so sad. We’ll write a letter.”
“And seal it?” the man asked. “With a red seal? If it’s got a red seal she’ll have to admit that it’s real.” Yes, of course he could have a red seal: we’d got the hospital seal and red sealing wax.
In the last lot of patients there was a fifteen-year-old boy, Jilan, thin and looking put-upon. “Did you meet a nice girl soldier?” I asked, and he shook his head dejectedly. “Oh! A nice boy soldier?” And he nodded, but no less dejectedly.
The other lads, he told us, had been bullying him for liking boys instead of girls. “It’s probably not even that,” I said, “bullies will always find the thing that’s different, if you’d had a crooked nose they’d have bullied you for that! But we can send you to Turenay with Tylse and her intended, they’ll be glad of an escort and you can go to the hospital doctors. And there are lots of people there who’ll think liking boys instead of girls is absolutely normal, even the king of the Ishey is married to a man!” We wrote a letter for him too, red seal and all.
Next was another boy about the same age, but they couldn’t have been more different. This one was all brash defiance. At first we thought he’d been fucking the soldiers too, but it became more and more clear that it had been Jilan he’d fucked. “He was asking for it!” he said, “I just gave it to him! Well, he said no, but I knew that he meant yes.”
“Shall I get the village elder?” Jeran asked. I nodded, and he went off and came back after a while with Arin and carrying his Ishey staff, which he laid in front of the door to anchor a seal. We could prove with the law in the hand — literally — that fucking someone who said no was rape, and that rape was punished by hanging. “We can’t do that here,” Arin said, “he’ll have to go to the authorities in Tylenay.”
I had a sudden vision of taking this young man to Tylenay ourselves, with all the children and Jeran and Serla around. Well, Jeran could take care of himself, and probably of all the rest of us too, but I didn’t want to do that to him. “We can’t take him,” I said, “not with small children, and we’re travelling very slowly and probably not going directly to Tylenay either.”
Arin nodded grimly and found two strong men and a strong woman to take the boy away, and later we saw them leaving on the eastbound road.
Jeran and Serla talked for a long time that evening, and the next morning — when we were leaving, after seeing Arin for the last time, who still had nightmares but was otherwise a lot better — Jeran came to talk to me. “Can I ask you something? And won’t you say it’s a dumb question?”
“There aren’t any dumb questions,” I said, “only dumb answers and I promise I’ll try not to give you one.”
“It’s like this, Serla and I — well, she’s a girl and I think girls are stupid, though she’s okay for a girl, and she thinks boys are stupid, and neither of us wants to make love yet, but we’ve promised that if we do want to make love in a couple of years we’ll only do it with each other. Because you can only get sick when you do it with someone who is sick, right?”
“So if we don’t do it with anyone else than each other we’ll know we’re both healthy, and we can see if we like it without getting sick from that. Is that a very stupid thing to think?”
“No,” I said, “I think it’s a very clever and wise thing to think.”