Going north

Things I should probably try to cram into the previous episode: (item) Mazao offered to take everybody away from the cart occasionally so Amre and Venla could have the exclusive use of it; (item) Amre and Venla dragged Asa to Veh to talk to him, and Mazao and Tao dragged Veh to Asa to talk to her, making for quite amusing teenage drama; (item) Amre advised Asa to make something to give Veh, and Venla advised Veh vice versa, and Veh then started to make a shirt for Asa from a bit of the ancient silk.

I have a faint suspicion that our going north is partly a way to extricate us from the royal party– but it’s so much fun, and Venla at least really wanted to see the north.

We ate in our own little camp and sat around afterwards, looking forward to a quiet evening. Suddenly Asa jumped up and shouted at Veh, and then Veh jumped up, and they yelled at one another for a while and then suddenly sat down again, glaring but tamed. “Girls are stupid!” Jeran remarked, and that got the little girls angry at him, but they could handle it with “No, it’s boys who are stupid!”

We decided to have a bit of semsin practice: see how far we could get if we all looked together, and if we could see any people. Everybody wanted me to lead, “because you’re a budding grand master”, as if I didn’t need to practice and learn as much as anyone else! But I did lead the way, to the north, where I first stumbled on the king who was at a banquet in town and saw us. “We’re practicing,” I said. “Good,” he said, and went back to what he was doing. North of Tal-Ven there was a lot of empty land, but we did see some people who looked more like travellers than a village, one of them gifted but not strongly, and too far away to speak to them or even see them properly.

That was enough for Asa (it had been hard enough to get her to see anything in the first place, it wasn’t only dark outside but, as she said, also in her mind), an in fact all of us were tired enough to sleep.

The next morning we went north first through thick wood, then through sparser wood, and where it looked as if the wood was ending we could see a cart on the road, coming in our direction. Two soldiers rode forward to talk to the people and came back saying it was a fur merchant with his family. After a while we reached him and the king came down from his horse and talked to him. ‘Jichan. King Majesty!” he said when asked for his name. Jichan –the gifted one in the group– and his wife, their child and a servant were coming from the north with a load of furs that they’d bought from northern hunters. Those were splendid furs! All white, or at least light in colour: foxes, wolves, great spotted light grey cats with tufted ears, little pelts we didn’t recognise that were white with a black tail-tip, very thick creamy-white pelts that Jichan said came from sea-dogs (“they kill them when they’re still puppies, after that the fur becomes hard and grey”) and, most magnificent of all, a huge bearskin that was completely white too. We teased Veh a little, “you should get a sea-dog, then you can become a sailor!” but then Jichan started to tell the king about the places in the north and we wanted to hear that too. Some of the furs he’d bought from hunters on the plains, but the sea-dogs and the bear and some of the others came from Dol Donanei in the far north where the northern people had a market. “City of the Mother?” I asked, and yes, that’s what it meant, there was even a huge statue of the Mother there. But nobody lived there any more, there was just the market every summer. “If you’re quick you can still get there before they go back over the mountains! Beats me why they go south in summer and north in winter, if I was them I’d do it the other way round.”

Jeran had been as enthusiastic about the furs as everybody else, but when Jichan started talking about Dol Donanei he looked a bit frightened. and when we asked him what he was afraid of he said “We’re not going there, are we? To the ghost town? Made all of ice that doesn’t melt?” I said “Listen– when we were inside the mountain, where the tunnel was so low that even you had to go on hands and knees? I was so scared that I thought I’d die of fear. But you weren’t scared then. You’re much braver than I am.” But Mazao said that being brave was when you’re scared and do it anyway, not when you’re not scared at all. That seemed to help Jeran, “if you’re going, I dare too!”

Then the king and Atash and we and Jichan had a sort of conference, trying to decide whether to go straight north to the places the fur trader had talked about and then try to find a road east, or to turn right as soon as possible to join the main road north at Gulynay. “I would like to see all those places,” I said. “But perhaps we can go there later, when we’ve finished school.” The king was tempted, after all carts could go north because Jichan had come south with one, but nobody knew whether there was a proper road from Dol Donanei to Rizenay, not even Atash, because all his map showed there was a lot of mountains. He grumbled, “it’s just like that river at Trynfarin, whoever drew that bit of map knew that there are mountains in the north so they drew a lot of mountains, never mind if they’re accurate”.

Then Mazao had a brilliant idea! “What if we go north, Athal, only us Ishey, we’re used to travelling in all kinds of terrain, and you go east with the court, and we’ll probably be in Rizenay before you, one cart and a handful of people go a lot faster! And we can tell everybody to go to Rizenay if they want to celebrate Midsummer with you.” “Hm,” the king said, “I don’t know if it’s safe, but it’s a good idea. You can have some of the horses, there’s a Brun castle at Lanyasinay where they have a small stud farm, we can get replacements there.” And he pointed to a place on the map along the road east, about halfway to Gulynay. “I trust you ride?” “Er,” I said, “I can sit on a horse without falling off. When it’s going forward, too.” Amre said something like that, too. The boys could all ride though they hadn’t for quite some time. Atash said he’d come with us to put all those places on the map, everybody knew where Lanyasinay was anyway, he didn’t have to go there himself. He could drive the wagon, too, take turns with Jeran or drive it all the time so Jeran could ride, too– Jeran had been teaching himself whenever he got close enough to something that could be ridden, even billy-goats.

We let the little girls choose whether to travel with us or with the princes, and of course they wanted to come with us — “we’re Ishey!” So there were ten of us in all, seven adults and three children. Jeran wanted to count as a man, but he was only about nine years old; and though Amre was still thirteen, she thought –we’d lost count a bit– she was clearly grown up.

We spent some time making sure that we really had everything we needed in the cart, while some of the soldiers brought us horses, grumbling because they would have to walk until Lanyasinay. Amre’s horse was a yellowish gelding (that’s a eunuch, only a horse), fortunately not very big, with a large friendly face and pointy ears. Mine was much like it, only with grey spots. There was a horse for Asa too, though she’d said that she wouldn’t ride, but we tied it to the cart as a spare.

So we had to learn to ride! We figured out soon enough how to make the horses go forward with a click of the tongue like the cart mule, but they wanted to go after the king and the soldiers instead of on the north road. “Pull the bridle to the left!” Jeran said, and that made the horse go to the left too, with a surprised look on its face. Eventually we got the hang of it, though we were still bouncing up and down like sacks. “Go with the movement!” Asa called from the cart. “Just like making love!” That made me and Amre giggle, but not do any better, until I suddenly understood what the horse was doing, and could show Amre as well, and we were riding almost as smoothly as Veh (who looked as if he’d been born in the saddle, or at least on the Plains).

We had to stop after a few hours because the horses got hungry and the people got tired. I could hardly stand when I had both feet on the ground again, and even the boys walked stiffly. Then it was very hard to ride again! But the boys gave us their blankets to put between the saddle and our bottom. “There’s a blanket under the saddle too!” I said– I hadn’t noticed that before. “Yes, that’s for the horse!” Mazao said.

This was not forest any more, but rocky and slightly hilly open landscape with clumps of bushes and little bits of wood. The road was more or less straight, though it went around some of the bigger rocks, Every now and again , it crossed a little stream, sometimes so shallow that it didn’t need a bridge, sometimes with a couple of logs, sometimes a proper wooden bridge. There were little fishes in the streams, but we didn’t see much game. “They’ll be in the woods,” Tao said, and just then we went over a particularly hilly bit and looked down on a meadow that was completely white, and wavy like the sea. And it said “baaa!”

“A herd!” one of the boys said. “A huge herd!” When we looked longer, we could also see shepherds: two boys a few years older than Jeran, with two immense dogs, easily the size of a sheep. They growled at us: strange people on horses that they had to defend the herd from! The children were scared, even Jeran a little, and I’d got used to dogs but these were really large, with deep-set eyes and large sharp-looking fangs. The shepherd boys came along, greeted us, laughed and called off the dogs. “You’re not Jichan!” they said, and when they saw how black the boys were, “Are you real people?” “Yes, we’re real people all right,” we said, “and no, we’re not Jichan though we met him, we’re the Ishey, going north to tell everybody that the king is going to celebrate Midsummer in Rizenay.” “The king! Really?” So we told them a bit, and they said they were going to the village anyway because they had to bring the herd in. “We have to treat them,” they said, “some are sick, it’s footrot, they have to get out of the wet field.” They showed what was wrong, a sheep with what looked like a sore on its foot. “What do you treat it with?” I asked, and something inside my head said “brandy” just as one of the shepherd boys said something I couldn’t understand, and started to explain that it was made of something from a tree– “Ah well. Brandy from trees.” “That’ll kill it all right,” Tao said, and the boy, “yes, brandy kills anything, even my old grandmother!”

We all went to their village, we and the shepherd boys and all the sheep. There was a wooden wall around it that the sheep stayed outside, and inside the wooden wall there were lots of little fields with vegetables, and another wooden wall around the houses. “If you need a doctor for people we might be able to help,” I said, “Amre and I are both apprentice doctors.” But there was a travelling doctor who came twice a year, from Lanyasinay where Lord Fian astin Brun’s castle was. “He’s a good man for one of the Nameless!” the older shepherd boy said. “I’m afraid you’ll think we are of the Nameless too,” I said, “and the king as well!”

This village was called Ilinay. There were no more than twenty people living there, and they all came to look at us– the shepherd boys weren’t the only ones to wonder if Ishey were real people! The priestess of Naigha took us into the temple, she was a very holy woman of about seventy, and the boys kissed her feet (which made her laugh a bit bashfully) and said we had to do that too, after all we were Ishey as well! So Amre and I went down on our knees and kissed the priestess’ feet too, wondering if the boys were having us on again. Probably yes! But the priestess didn’t mind, and she had people bring water for a bath for us, first me and Amre because we were stiffest from riding, while Jeran showed Asa how to brush horses (Atash already could, I think) and the boys went off with the shepherds to help with the footrot. We washed, and when I said that I felt like sitting in a basin because I was so sore from riding the priestess said “Oh! With vinegar!” and that stung, but it did make my skin feel a bit firmer, like tanned leather. “We’ll tell everything tonight, when everybody is there,” we said. Then the others came in to wash too, and the priestess lent Amre a shirt made of wool because her clothes didn’t keep her warm enough, it was beautiful (I decided to make a drawing of it so I could make one of linen) but it scratched! So she wrapped a cloth around her shoulders under the wool shirt and that helped a little.

The priestess warned us of the marsh fever that we could get when we went further north in summer, where a lot of the country was wet. “It’s the gnats you get it from,” she said, “sleep inside so they don’t bite you. Otherwise you get the three-day fever, or if you’re lucky the five-day fever.” I thought at first that the three-day fever would kill you in three days and the five-day fever in five, but it wasn’t as bad as that: only, if you didn’t take the proper medicine soon enough, you’d spend the rest of your life having fever every three days. “Iss-Peranian bitter bark, that’s the only thing that works,” she said, and we had some but not much so she gave us some of her own stock. “I’ll get more from Lanyasinay, Lord Fian gives it to all the priestesses because he cares for his people.”

There were lambs and a small pig roasting when we came out of the priestess’ house, and people brought bread and vegetables, and we shared the three flasks of wine we still had — I hope we won’t have to make medicine with wine, I’m thinking now, though we can probably make do with brandy and water if that’s the case. The people here had beer but no wine, it was clear that they were even less used to it than we were, and everybody got very cheerful. These people had already heard that the king had won the war, probably from the lord in Lanyasinay, but they could hardly believe that he really wanted to see his subjects in the North! “Will there be another civil war, then? He’s of the Nameless!” But we could tell them that this king didn’t want to fight anybody except his real enemies: the Khas armies that wanted to conquer his realm, and people like the child-thieves. Not people who were just leading their normal lives but praying to a different god while they did that.

In the middle of Amre and me telling the story the boys slipped out with the shepherds to treat some more footrot. And then we danced, all three of us girls, very primly because there were lots of strange men present: Amre in her ordinary Iss-Peranian clothes, me in the Iss-Peranian clothes that didn’t really fit any more because I’d never bothered to make something else now that I was wearing Valdyan clothes all the time, Asa in the not-quite-finished silk blouse that Veh was making for her, with the skirt over it so nobody would notice. “I hope he doesn’t get angry that I know already,” she said, “but it’s so beautiful!” We got Jeran to beat the drum; I’d looked around for Veh first but of course he was away to the herd. Afterwards, a young woman –Mialle– came and sat with us and asked Amre if she’d teach her as well. “You’ve chosen the right person to teach you!” I said. “I learnt it from her, too.” And in no time we had all the women and girls of the village dancing, even the old priestess. Then the boys came back from the herd, and Veh did look a bit annoyed at first but he was so pleased with her dancing, and secretly with the way the clothes looked on her, that he didn’t mind. They went out together, to the cart so Veh could put ointment on Asa, and Tao and Mazao went to sleep with the herd, and someone took Atash and the children to their house, and Amre and I slept in Mialle’s family’s house. It was a small Valdyan house like most of the ordinary people’s houses we’d been in, but the woodwork was decorated with beautiful carvings, and inside most carvings were painted, too! “What else is there to do in winter when there’s no work on the land?” Mialle said. “Make love!” an old man said, probably her grandfather. Mialle gave us sheep broth in a wooden bowl, and the outside of the bowl was carved too.

In the morning we asked the priestess if there was anything we had that she was short of, and she wanted copper ointment — “the men do go to town for the market, you know.” Fortunately we had plenty, a big pot from Valdis that Roushan had given us, so we filled a carved wooden jar for her.

It was quite some way to the next village so we had to camp out, and we found a good spot near a pool in one of the streams where there was a lot of fish. We took the opportunity to gnatproof the tent and the cart with the fine linen we’d bought in Tal-Ven. While the fish was roasting over a fire, we heard bleating and barking in the north-east and presently a herd of sheep came to drink at the pool. Well, they’d have to go around us, we weren’t going to move our fire and our fish! Their sheepdogs were as big as the ones we’d seen, followed by an eager puppy that looked as if it was going to be quite as big. I put out a hand to the puppy, but it dug in with its front paws and growled at me. “He thinks he’s still defending the herd,” the young man said and slapped the puppy on the rump. We offered to shared the fish with the shepherds, a man and his son and the son’s girl (I don’t think they were married yet). “Your fish? Our fish!” they said, so I showed them the paper the king and queen had signed saying we were allowed to hunt, surely it stretched to fishing. The boy could read a little, “A-lysei A-th-al.” They were very impressed, and we told them that the king was going to Rizenay. “With an army?” the shepherd asked. I counted on my fingers: about six soldiers now that three and their escort had been sent back, and as many of the Order of the Sworn. “About a dozen,” I said. “Pity, not enough to put paid to Hostinay.” That was the place with bandits we’d been warned against! “How many bandits?” Mazao asked. “I don’t know, a hundred, two hundred, they’ve been coming there from all over the place–” naming place-names I didnt’ know but that Atash was very interested in. “If they weren’t there we could take the herd east and be in Rizenay by Midsummer, too.” That was too big an army of bandits for us to take on, even if we were Ishey! Perhaps the king could send a real army later to round them up.

Further north there were clumps of wood again where the sheep hadn’t been, full of game– good thing because we were running out of meat. No deer, but some of the wood-sheep with big horns and lots of hares and rabbits and birds. Amre and I got a big hare each, Asa missed hers but where her slingstone hit the ground dozens of squeaking small animals came pouring out of a hole in the ground, so many that they were ridiculously easy to hit and even Asa got two. “Thetao!” Mazao said, or at least that was what it sounded like. They were a bit smaller than a rabbit, with a small head, tiny ears and a big rump, short legs front and back and no tail to speak of. Tao cut one open to see if they ate plants –all animals that eat plants are good to eat, animals that eat animals aren’t– and yes, the stomach of the thetao was full of bits of grass and leaves. When we brought them back to the camp where Atash had been keeping watch with Aine and Arvi, the girls shrieked: “Hamsters! We can’t eat hamsters, that’s cruel!” But when they were skinned and roasted they ate them anyway and pronounced them good. I noticed that one of those skins would be exactly the right size to make a little girl’s mitten, so I scraped and prepared them and hung them from the cart to dry. “These aren’t the sort of thetao we’ve got at home,” Mazao said, “but close enough. If you’re travelling fast you can live on these, catch one, drink the blood, eat the meat, make a sling out of the skin for the next day, and you can keep going forever. They’re not like rabbits, you don’t need any other food.” Then we talked about what other animals you could eat– mice? “We tasted a mouse when we were smaller,” Arvi said. “I ate the tail and Aine ate the head. But it was nasty.” And Atash had heard of people eating grasshoppers, and I knew you could eat snakes –I’d even tried a bit of one, it tasted like very bland fish– and my uncle had told me that he’d eaten ants once, smeared a leaf with honey and waited for the ants to walk on and then rolled up the leaf and ate it. “Are you quite sure your uncle wasn’t Ishey?” Tao asked.

“Right,” Veh said, “now it’s time to work on your blanket, Asa.” And he showed her how to make felt of the washed and softened wool, going over it back and forth, and up and down, with a rounded bit of wood, so all the hairs stuck together. We noticed that she was putting some spirit in with every stroke, and I was so interested that I tried to ask her what she was doing. “Nothing,” she said, and tore a hole in it, but Veh showed her very patiently how she could mend it again. “That’s so nice about felt,” he said, “you can never really spoil it.” But we could now see what she was doing: work bits of her own spirit into the fabric, in dribs and drabs, not for protection or attraction or anything, just making it her own. I resolved to remember that so I could do it for my own blanket. When I made Asa a compliment about it, she said “Shouldn’t I do that? Now everybody can see how bad I am.” “No,” I said, “you must do it! It’s all the good bits of yourself you’re putting into the felt, and everybody will be able to see all the good things about you!”

Veh came to sleep in the cart between me and Amre, grumbling. It was mostly Amre he wanted to talk to. “She makes me so tired! She’s so much work! I think it’s worth it, but I do want to be with people who don’t need me all the time right now. Women!” He was gone very early in the morning, leaving the two of us alone together for the first time in ages, and we lay very close together for a while, minds as well as bodies touching, and then we put wool-fat on one another’s bottoms and joined the others.

Aine and Arvi were practicing staff-fighting! They each had a staff their own size and Veh was instructing them. Jeran stood aside looking a bit peevish, “I want someone my size to practice with, too!” Everybody practiced with him in turn, but they were all a lot taller, of course, even Amre was more than a head taller.

The next village we came to much was smaller than Ilenay, and it didn’t have wooden walls, and no priestess of Naigha either, only a smithy –useful because all our horses needed their shoes checked– and a handful of shepherds and hunters. It was called Lestlinay, called after the quick blue birds that lived in the stream banks and caught little fishes in the water. We arrived in the afternoon, convinced the people that we were all real people –we’d have to get used to that in these lands where nobody had ever seen a born Ishey– and told them who we were, and that the king would be in Rizenay for Midsummer and invited whoever wanted and could make it to be there too, and that Amre and I were apprentice doctors and we were willing to help anyone who needed it, if we could. A man came up to us, his shoulder crooked and bandaged, “well, you probably won’t be able to help this, but still, I’d like it if you had a look.” He’d been gored by some animal with big fangs a week or so ago, a really badly infected wound. “Pig,” he said, “it’s still hanging in the shed, almost ready for eating.” We asked the boys and Asa to help us with their strength, but Asa couldn’t take it so we sent her to get clean linen. “Do you want a sip of brandy?” we asked, and the man said “Yes, please.” He needed only a small sip to get woozy, and saying “It’s all right if you faint” was enough to send him into a faint so we could work on him without interruption. We cleaned the wound with water and more brandy, drew the fever out with semsin –praise first Serla, then Vauri and then Roushan for making us practice and practice that– cut out any bad growth, and stitched it up as well as we could, though the pig had taken so much of the flesh that he’d have a stiff shoulder and a stoop for the rest of his life. But at least the rest of his life would be the natural length of it, he wouldn’t die of wound-fever! “Someone put him to bed,” I said, and only then I felt that I was not only tired but also hungry. “I always get so hungry working like this!” I said to nobody in particular. (Amre is the other way round, she can’t eat much after working with semsin. The next day we’re both normal again.) A woman took us into her house and gave us bowls of thick mutton stew with onions and turnips, and me another bowl after I’d finished it.

This woman, Selevi, turned out to be the only woman in the village. “I can have as many men as I like here,” she said, “all I need to do is cook!” “Yes,” one man said, “we do the cleaning up, that’s not what she’s good at.” Her cooking was all right, though. After we’d eaten the stew she shooed all the men out, including ours, and Jeran too, “now I want to do women’s things! I see far too few girls, especially little ones!” So Asa went and got the sewing basket and we sat and sewed and talked. Selevi wasn’t from around here, but from Gulynay, and she’d come here because she hadn’t wanted so much competition for the men she wanted from other women. “Is it true that kings in your country can have seven wives?” “Two hundred wives!” we told her, “with a palace all their own. Only then you don’t see your husband much, of course.” “I don’t want two hundred, I’m satisfied with seven,” she said. “But… As you’re apprentice doctors… Could you have a look at me– see, I have all those men, and I’ve been here for a couple of years, and I still haven’t become pregnant.” So we looked, and there was something hard and solid in her womb, no wonder a baby couldn’t grow in there. But we didn’t know what to do about it, so we said she should go to Gulynay and wait until the king came back and then talk to the king’s doctor, Roushan. “She taught us,” I said, ” and she knows a lot about women’s bodies, she might be able to help you.” “But the king’s doctor! Will she help someone like me?” So we told her about the girls in Valdis, who weren’t half as sensible and nice as Selevi, and doctor Roushan worked half a day each week helping them. “We should write her a letter,” I said, not very confidently, but Asa could read and write so she wrote down what we said, “dear Roushan, this is Selevi” –and then what we thought was wrong with her which we couldn’t deal with– “please help her if you can, thank you very much, Zendegî and Venla.” (Thinking back, it was a bit strange that Amre used her Iss-Peranian name and I used my Valdyan name, but Roushan would know it was us, anyway.)

While we were mending the man’s shoulder the smith had been working on our horses and the mule, trimming their hooves and shoeing them again if that was necessary. So we could travel again the next day, with a back leg of the fateful pig salted in a sack on the cart. “Teran is still asleep but he won’t mind,” Selevi said, “after what you did! And I shall go to Gulynay and talk to that doctor.” I asked for some onions to go with the meat because I’d seen rather a lot of them growing, and of course we got them, “how can we refuse?” We’d also left Selevi a jar of copper ointment, not because she needed it right now, but as a precaution: she knew that the men had other women when they went to the market, and she wanted to be safe. Sensible woman!

North of Lestlinay it got wetter, with sparsely wooded hilly country to the east and emptyish marshy country to the west. We slept in the tent and the closed-off cart and didn’t get bitten by gnats, at least not yet. After a while we came to a village– well, just a clump of buildings really, a house and a barn and a couple of little huts. There were half a dozen men there, who came to meet us as soon as they saw us: all unkempt and dirty and wild-looking, though most of them rubbed their hands on their clothes when they saw that some of us were women. “Welcome to Tal-Varsine,” they said, “we can’t offer you much, but you’re welcome to share!” We could sleep in the barn, which was full of furs, as splendid as Jichan’s stock had been. They knew Jichan, of course: they were some of the hunters that Jichan bought his furs from. There were also two men living in the huts, one in each, short broad brown-skinned men with round faces and large eyebrows. “They’re from the north,” the leader said, “we can’t understand a word they say, nor they of us, but they’re here to make sure we get a good price for their skins.”

Tal-Varsine– that means “Boasting,” and I think it could be a good name for our Ishey village when we have one in the east!

The hunters talked about the bandits from Hostinay too. “They came here and tried to raid our barn!” “But you chased them away? Do you have a good dog?” Veh asked. “A dog?” The hunter whistled sharply, and a whole herd of dogs came running, huge dogs like the ones we’d seen earlier with some smaller ones –probably the puppies– trailing behind. Two dozen dogs at least! The clear leader was a very old one, with hardly any teeth left, that laid its head in the man’s hand and wagged its tail. The man stroked the greying jaw and ears. “Soup-eater!” he said, which made the dog wag its tail even more.

When we said we were going to Dol Donanei and would then try to find a road to Rizenay to meet the king there at Midsummer, and everybody who wanted to go too was invited, they looked at us (especially us girls) again and asked “You look like princesses– are you the king’s sisters?” “No,” we said, “the king’s messengers, he does have a sister but she lives in Solay!”

We didn’t tell them that we’d met that sister, we were quite exotic enough for this place just being ourselves.