Planned in two parts this time, because I’m expecting Part II to be harder to write and I want people to have something too read.

Nesile literally means “Halfway”, but it’s more than twice as close to Glan as it is to Ildis. (There’s a village called Halfweg between Amsterdam and Haarlem which is much closer to halfway, at least between the city centers: 9.6 km from Haarlem and 11.1 km from Amsterdam.)

It was very nice weather as we travelled, just the beginning of summer, almost like a trip for pleasure. The soldiers were getting more cheerful all the time too. We got to know them a bit better: gifted Orin, the brisk Sergeant Valyn, the young man who was actually from Ildis but glad to have been able to leave, someone who came from a place very near Essle where all the houses were on stilts because they would otherwise have been in the river for half the year, and they could have chickens but not goats, and if you wanted to fish you only had to lift a floorboard!

After a couple of days Arvi (or Aine) pulled at Amre’s sleeve and said “There’s the waterfall! We’re almost there!” I looked around but didn’t see any people except our own people. It made my skin crawl, but I didn’t tell the girls. Then, a few hours on, we went over a little hill and saw the village, about a dozen houses, the largest one (it looked like an inn) at the water-side. But they all looked as if nobody had repaired them after the winter, whitewash and wattle flaking from the walls, and doors flapping on their hinges. The houses were all around a sort of square with a stone thing in the middle that looked like a well from this distance. “Where is everybody?” the girls asked. “Old Lochan and old Leshan should be there, on that bench, they sit there every day drinking beer, under the awning when it rains and in the sun when the sun shines!”

There were really no people that we could see. We left the girls in the cart with Jeran to watch it and went into the inn, Amre and I with a couple of soldiers, because that was closest. Inside it was a mess– tin tankards on the floor, and thick green glass bottles, some broken and some whole, and on the far side a man was sitting on a bench who looked as if he’d been there since autumn and been dead since winter. His grey hair and beard were straggly and dirty, the seat of his breeches stuck to the bench with dried-up beer. His left foot was bare; the shoe lay near the door as if he’d taken it off and thrown it. “I wonder what he died of,” Amre said. “Drink and despair, it looks like,” I said.

We went upstairs to look for more people, but we saw only empty rooms, on one side of the landing clearly living-quarters, on the other side guest rooms, a large one in the middle and a tiny one on either side There was no more to see here, and we couldn’t do anything for the dead man –it needed a priestess of Naigha, and though Amre and I knew some of the prayers it would be better to get a real one.

As we came out of the inn we saw the boys standing around the thing that looked like a well, but turned out to be a slab of grey stone lying on four upright slabs of stone, with figures cut in it like the bath-house in Vestinay! The top had the engraving on the underside so the top of the table-like thing was smooth and flat, but the figures on the uprights were clearly visible, birds and leaves and curly decorations and the occasional human figure. Veh was on his knees, rubbing his fingers over some of the curly patterns that were probably writing. “Can you read that?” I asked, but I knew that even if he could he wouldn’t, and indeed he said “Perhaps Sabeh can. If you want to learn the women’s mysteries –and I think you need to learn those– ask her.”

Next we tried the temple of Naigha. Most of the little fence around the yard had fallen down and some of the straw was sticking out of the walls. Inside, it was so dark that Amre asked me to make a light. I’m not good at that yet but I managed, it was just enough to see by. We found the statue of Naigha with her wool cloak in tatters, a couple of books on a table –one was a school-book, one was a large book that the priestess had clearly been writing in– and dried-up jars of medicine. On the other side, there was a bed that looked as if someone had left a bundle of old clothes on it, but it was the priestess, as dead as the man at the inn, lying on her side peacefully as if she’d only gone to sleep. We took the large book outside and laid it on the stone table. Neither I nor Amre could read anything at all of it, but Orin could, with difficulty. “Everybody who is still alive is going to Glan– the water is too high to make it to Ildis– Arin and I are staying.” Arin must be the man in the inn, I thought. Perhaps he’d been too far gone even then to leave. “We must tell the little girls,” I said, “at least now we’re sure they won’t find their parents dead, even if the are dead.” “There’s a list of names here,” Orin said, leafing back through the book. “And when she buried them.”

It was very hard to tell the little girls what had happened –Amre was better at it than I– and then we asked them what their father and mother were called. “Mummy and Daddy!” Aine said. But Arvi thought hard and told us that Daddy was Coran and Mummy was Vauri. They were in the list– on a day that as many as ten people had died and been buried. That made all of us cry, even some of the soldiers.

There was also a list of the people who had gone to Glan: Alyse, another Alyse, Jerna, Tylse, Doran and yet another Alyse. “That’s our Aunt Alyse,” Aine said, “one of them must be anyway. She’s not really nice.” Then she thought for a moment, “But I’m glad she’s still alive.” They wanted to see their own house, pointing it out, and because it was safe to go there we went in, but there was nothing left that was worth taking along, even the blankets were gone. “You’ve probably grown out of all your old clothes anyway!” we said.

We started for Glan right away, nobody wanted to stay the night in the dead village. The forest was even thicker here. The boys were talking about the stones in the village square. “What’s that stone thing, what did you use it for?” I asked the girls. “That’s the stone table,” they said, “and well, climb it, sit on it when you want to tell a story, that sort of thing.” “Do you know where they come from?” Veh asked. “From the wood! And there’s lots more, but we’re not allowed to go there because you can get lost.” It wasn’t long before we got to the “lots more”, which turned out to be the bottom piece of a ruined round tower, all filled up with earth and overgrown with trees. It was at the bottom of a deep hollow, very hard to climb down, but the boys and Orin and a couple of the other soldiers and Amre and I all did. There was a wide doorway there, the posts of carved stone, and behind that a kind of chamber (or cellar, seeing that it was right at the bottom of a tower) half underground, with light coming through holes in the floor above so I didn’t have to try to make my puny light again. It was clear that the stone table had been made from a couple of the floor tiles, because they were square and carved on one side and some were missing.

“This is really old!” Orin said. “Older than the round tower in Tal-Nus, I think.” The soldiers and the boys discussed it, and it turned out that the tower in Tal-Nus was about six hundred years old, but this tower was perhaps two thousand years old! “This is what it was like at home, a long time ago,” Mazao said. “Before the Khas came. Whole cities of stone like this!” All the boys were so impressed that it was hard to leave, but leave we did. Going up was even harder than going down, until the soldiers who had stayed with the cart lowered a rope for us to climb.

That night we stayed in a wooden hut made for travellers. Tao, Mazao and Veh promptly climbed on the roof to repair it, but when the worst holes were mended they came back down and carved the door-posts with their axes. The soldiers were cooking, Jeran cared for the mule and the horses, and Amre and I sat each with a little girl in our lap because they were crying again. I thought of putting a plate of food to one side for Asa –she’d been very invisible again– and yes, after a while the plate appeared on the step of the cart, empty. We all slept in the hut, even Asa after a while.

The next day we got to the real river. Nesile had been on a smaller stream, but this was definitely the Ilda, wide and deep enough for boats. We saw a raft floating downstream, logs tied together with two men on it, one at the front and one at the back. They waved at us and we waved back, calling “How far to Glan?” “Half a day,” they answered. And yes, after a few hours the forest thinned out and there were fields and the first houses. Then two men came to meet us! One looked like a plainsman, with marks on his face but different from those that Amre’s sister’s people had, and one was clearly Khas. My first thought was “the Khas have conquered Glan!” but it was the other way round, they had stopped fighting and settled here, there were only a few of them left. “Only three of us,” said the plainsman, whose name was Dogru of the Orucir clan. We saw two more Khas working in a field a bit further on. “Ebru and Maza are out hunting,” the Khas man said, and I couldn’t hear by the names whether they were plains people or Khas, men or women. “If we need more someone can tell Ebru.” That probably meant that Ebru wasn’t Khas, or a Khas priest but somehow I didn’t think so.

This village was much larger than Glan. At the riverside houses were on stilts, higher up they stood normally on the ground. On the wooded hillside above the village we could see a team of four huge horses dragging a couple of large felled trees down the hill. Jeran was so impressed! Then two women came from among the houses, one old and one not so old, both large and round, and beautiful almost in an Ishey way, except that they were pale-skinned, the younger one with yellow hair and the older one, clearly a priestess of Naigha, with a grey braid. The younger one was Erle, the headwoman of the village, and the priestess, Lyse, was her mother. When they heard that we’d been in Nesile, and who the little girls were, they sent someone to get Aunt Alyse. She was a thin fussy woman who immediately took the girls to her house, a short way up the hill, and was almost affronted when Amre and I insisted on coming along. Eventually everybody went, and the priestess and the headwoman too.

The priestess took Amre aside and said “Don’t you think that friend of yours needs a bath? And to see the midwife?” Amre was surprised that Lyse had seen Asa, but then she saw Asa herself, almost completely visible. “Yes, we all need a bath,” she said, in case Aunt Alyse was listening. (But she didn’t seem to be listening: she was filling a bath for her nieces.) We got food, I think –it was all a bit confusing– and Jeran took the wagon somewhere, and the boys and the soldiers went somewhere else to make quarters.

Later, we got to tell everybody about Nesile, and about the king’s journey to the north. “The king is coming here?” Erle asked, shocked. “What does one call a king? What will he eat, can he eat venison?” “Call him ‘your majesty’,” we said, “or ‘Athal’ if he asks you to, because that’s his name. And venison is perfectly all right, or chicken, he loves roast chicken. And the queen doesn’t care much what she eats, she’s not picky at all.” And Erle told us about the Khas and the plainspeople in the village: a Khas army and a Plains tribe had been fighting each other, and then the lung sickness had come and some people had died, and the others had decided to help each other instead of fight, and so four Khas soldiers and three plainspeople –all who were left– had come to Glan and stayed the winter. And they were still here, and had become so much part of the village that they’d probably stay. “But the king– will we get a real garrison then at last?” “Well, he is bringing soldiers, and I think some of them were supposed to stay in different places, but that’s not what we know about, we’ve only come along to take the children home,” I said. And then, of course, we had to tell everybody about the children and the child-thieves. “Oh!” someone said. “So that’s what happened to Perain! His mother hanged herself when he was gone.” “Did he have red hair, or pale, like the others?” I asked, and yes, he’d been a very pretty boy with curly red hair. “He is probably still alive,” I said, “but chances are that he’s a slave.” I had to use the Iss-Peranian word, of course, and then to explain what a slave was because these people, like the people in Vestinay, had never heard of it.

Then, at last, we got a bath! Amre and Asa had talked about it while I was explaining about slaves, and I went along because otherwise people would notice that there was more than one girl when they could see only one– and anyway I was as dirty as Amre, though not by far as dirty as Asa. We had the bath in the house of Aunt Alyse’s neighbour Hinla, who made her two grown sons lug the tub and fill it with water. In this house there were floor-tiles from the Ishey tower in front of the fireplace, and above it a black slab of stone with a figure of a naked girl on it whose hair looked exactly like Veh’s. (In fact the whole figure looked a bit like Veh without clothes!) The water was warmish, Hinla had just had a kettle of water over the fire to make soup, and we got a tub of soap “from Ildis, real soap, best quality!” It was a bit grey and harsh and smelt very strongly of lavender, but at least it would get us clean. “I can’t go in the bath, I have to wash first!” Asa said, and she was right, she was the dirtiest of the three of us, I think she hadn’t had a chance to wash since the hunting-castle in the wood. (But she was pretty! At least as pretty as Amre, and in fact they could have been sisters.) So I put my shirt back on and went to get water at the well, two buckets full. One of the boys was there –Jilan, I think– and he said “You’re not going to stay here, right?” “No,” I said, “we’re going north with the king first and then to Turenay to learn.” “Pity. There aren’t all that many girls our age here. In fact none at all. Well, there’s one girl the right age, but none of the boys want her, she’s so ugly! Cuts on her cheeks! It’s that Plains girl, Ebru. And of the girls here in the village, some are twenty and already married, and some are twelve and too young to marry! I want a girl of sixteen or so, like you or your friend.” That made me laugh, and he misunderstood it, “Or are you with those boys?” “No,” I said, “the boys are together, but I’m really only fourteen and so is Amre. Girls look older where we come from, I think. And we don’t want to marry just yet, we have to go and be apprenticed first.” He shrugged, “Then I’ll go to Ildis and find a girl there.” And he carried the buckets to the door for me. It wasn’t until I was through the door that I thought I could have given him a peck on his cheek for that.

Then we got clean at last! I braided Asa’s hair, and Asa braided Amre’s, and I bound mine with a strip of linen because it’s too much of a hassle to braid when I don’t have oil –I will cut it one of these days, and have a great mane of curls like Veh, only brown– and Amre got her spare dress from the cart to lend to Asa because the clothes she’d washed were still wet. Then we called to Hinla that we were finished, and Asa disappeared again before Jilan and his brother came to carry the tub out to empty it. Those boys were really strong and broad! Later I discovered that they worked in the wood, cutting down trees and lugging them to the river with the huge horses.

The next morning Jeran came up to us and said “We have a problem! We have to mend the cart really, or we’ll never make it to Rizenay with it. It needs new axles, and new iron things.” I’d been thinking already, and said “Can’t we stay and send a message to the king and wait until they come here? They were coming anyway, why should we go back and forth?” And we talked that over with the boys, and Erle and Lyse, and everybody agreed. Valyn and another soldier went south on a raft that was going to Ildis anyway to take the message, and all the rest of us found things to do. Amre and I learned to sew! We’d asked Hinla if she could make some more clothes for us in exchange for work, because –only we couldn’t tell her that– Amre and Asa were sharing, but she said “Can’t you do that for yourselves? Shame on you!” and she taught us how to sew a skirt, and a simple shirt, and breeches, and put the scraps together for loincloths. It was easier than sailcloth, but harder than skin: the linen was rough, and the wool was squishy and went any which way, but we were at it for several hours each day and looked quite respectable after a while.

While the smith and the boys repaired the cart, Amre and I emptied it completely, sorted everything, cleaned it, and checked what we were running out of that we’d need on the journey north. The priestess of Naigha gave us the run of her herb garden, and other people gave us straw and feathers for our bedding and wool and goose-grease. It was amazing that so close to Ildis, where it more or less rained all the time –or at least if we could believe Orin– the weather was nice enough for days on end to leave everything outside the cart. (People told us that it did rain sometimes, only not often at this time of summer.)

Jeran had to go to school! He didn’t like it one bit, he’d much rather have worked with the big horses. Every day he ran up the hill as soon as the priestess let him go and asked if he could help. The horses were a little surprised at first, but when they got used to him they did exactly as he wanted. “That’s your gift,” I said to him, and he beamed. Aine and Arvi wanted to go to school too if Jeran was going, but Lyse said that they were too small, “I won’t have them before they’re seven or so.” They came to us, complaining about Aunt Alyse who just didn’t understand them, “we could have only two pancakes! She said more was too much!”

We were just eating at the soldiers’ house. It was very neat and military, like the Order house at Albetire. The four Khas (Temar, Ruang, Maza and Ram) and the plainsman Dogru and the plainswomen Kisin and Ebru had been living there since they arrived, and now our own soldiers had their camp right next to it and the boys slept there too. Maza baked pancakes as small as the palm of my hand, Aine and Arvi said they wanted ten each, but after two they were full because the pancakes were very thick. Even Jeran wanted only five. “I’ve been cooking for the regiment for ten years,” Maza said when I complimented him. “Soldiers have to eat! I may not be all that much of a fighter, but cooking I’m good at.” “I’ll tell that to Hinla!” one of the others said. “Yes, I know you’ve been looking at her, and I’m practically sure she’s been looking at you!” And they teased him that he wanted to draw the attention of a widow with two big sons, who was sure to appreciate his cooking because you could tell by her shape that she liked to eat, but it was all friendly and joking. “She’s young enough to have another baby,” Maza said, “and I’d like to settle down and have a family of my own and a farm and everything!” It was strange to think of Khas having farms, but they had them at home as well, Temar told us, only the women tended them while the men went off to fight.