Winter

We thought we’d start something else, but the GM wasn’t quite ready so we had a bit of fun on the ice. For some values of fun, anyway.

It was really winter now, though it was only a couple of weeks after the Feast of Mizran. It didn’t get dark early, because Tylenay wasn’t far north like Rizenay (Jeran explained that, and he also said that this was the first time he’d seen anything that looked like real winter since he left home! Except perhaps on the frozen plain when we were travelling, but it’s different when you’re living somewhere) but it was cold and grey and sometimes it snowed and the streets got wet and slippery.

One day a whole bunch of clerks from the craft guilds came to arrange the guild heads’ meeting. “We used to have it in the black house,” they said, “with the town council attending. But–”

“The black house is occupied and there’s no town council any more,” we said. “How many people will there be, do they fit at our kitchen table?” About twenty, they said, and the large table would do perfectly.

“Ahem,” Radan said, “there is a town council!” He pointed to himself. “And I’d like to attend, though I don’t think I need to be at the table, I can just sit here by the fire with a cat on my lap.” (There was indeed a cat on his lap, purring under the papers he was reading.)

“On the day of Mizran,” Aine said, “that’s the only suitable day for it.”

When the clerks had gone, Radan said that we should start fasting to prepare for the meeting, and also to practice drinking wine so we’d be used to it! Quite apart from the fact that it was impossible to fast and practice drinking wine at the same time, we rather thought he was having us on.

When the day of Mizran came, the dreaded meeting it turned out to be a pleasant affair — perhaps because the present town council consisted of only Radan, who was in the corner by the fire with a cup of wine in one hand and making notes with the other. No cat on his lap this time, because he’d put it on the floor when it started trying to catch his writing stylus.

Half of the guild heads approved of the hospital because of the competent and beautiful doctors, and the other half approved because it was doing so much good for the town. And when we presented Serla and Erian’s list, that was approved immediately as well, the guilds only needed to determine which one would provide what and at how much discount, but that was work for the clerks.

When we woke up the next morning Serla crawled into the bedstead between us. She looked really ragged after night shift. “That was harsh! Six new patients. There was a fight. I wrote it all up in the book. There’s a soldier keeping them from fighting on.” She was asleep before she could explain more, and didn’t even notice that I climbed over her to get out of bed.

There was indeed a soldier in the men’s ward, who hastily put his pipe in his pocket when we came in. “Smoking only in the yard,” I said, “it’s bad for the patients!” But it was a good thing that the soldier was there, because the wounded men didn’t stop shouting threats at each other. Five of them, in various states of damage: two from town and three from a village near Silvermine. The three had run into the two when they came into town, and each lot had thought the others were with the Nameless — well, from their respective points of view, they were right — and the two from town had thought that the ones from the village had come to do Ruyin and Doryn’s bidding. Because Doryn and Ruyin were in that village!

Serla had done good emergency work already, so our work was a lot easier, except for one village man whose back was a bloody mess of whip wounds. “Goodness, who did that?” I asked.

“Ruyin.”

“But why?”

“Because I didn’t do what he wanted right away.” His friends had smuggled him out of the village, it turned out, to take him to the hospital, and then they’d run into the town men who started the fight without listening to what they were saying.

“They think they’re our bosses,” one of the others said, “want meat three times a day! In winter! They’ll eat us out of house and home.”

“They will, if nobody stops them,” I said, and sent a nurse to fetch Radan.

The villagers were very shy of him — they saw him as another of the bosses, of course! Especially because right now Radan was the boss. But he was so patient that we eventually heard the whole story of how Ruyin and Doryn had arrived in the village and started to bully everybody. Radan immediately sent a squad of soldiers to the village, snow or no snow.

And only then did we get round to reading the night-book. Apart from the five men, an old woman had been brought in who had slipped on a patch of frozen-over snow in her yard and broken some bones. Serla had stabilised the breaks — it was almost all of her left side — but hadn’t been able to mend anything. That would take a long time, too, because old bones don’t mend nearly as fast as young ones! Serla had given the woman half of one of Orin’s pills, because the pain would otherwise have kept her awake, so she was very groggy and couldn’t really tell us about herself.

We checked that every broken bone was in its right place and noticed that she had some old fractures as well, healed rather badly, so she’d probably walked with a limp already. That would have made it harder not to slip!

“Do you have someone we can call?” I asked. “Family at home?”

“Yes, my girls,” she said.

“Where do you live, then?” I asked, but she couldn’t answer that. Erian knew, though. “That’s Mistress Jerna. I know where she lives, in the New Town. But I can’t go there, it’s an improper house! It costs a rider to go through the front door! And a penny to go through the back door.”

“Surely, if I give you a letter to show, they’ll let you in,” I said, and I wrote him a letter with (he insisted on that) several red wax seals on it.

“Wait,” Amre said, “why does it cost a penny to go through the back door? Do they let you watch what’s going on?”

“No!” Erian was adamant about that. “Honey cakes in the kitchen, the best in town! I’ve never been there, I’ve heard it from friends!”

So Mistress Jerna kept an improper house in the New Town where we’d never been, and the cooks sold honey cakes to children for a penny. Well, if Erian knew where to go we could send him, and if he wanted a honey cake he had enough pocket money to afford it. “Just call at the front door and present the letter,” I said. And indeed, that afternoon a young woman appeared, all in royal-blue velvet, who seemed very sincere but was very insincere, wishing Mistress Jerna a quick recovery.

“She’s an improper woman,” Erian said scathingly. He was definitely right! But it was a good thing he didn’t say it in her hearing, or Jerna’s for that matter.

The next morning when it was time for lessons I thought of something. Orian had promised to teach us some runner skills! He warmed to the idea at once and collected everybody who was the least bit gifted, even Lord Radan, and put us all in separate rooms in the attic with a seal on them. “Now get out by yourself,” he said.

That wasn’t as easy as I thought! I’m usually fairly good with seals, but this wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. I expected it to be mostly illusion — like what I’d seen in Orian’s mind — but what I could see was all illusion. The little room suddenly had half a dozen doors, and when I tried to open them each door turned into two so there was a full dozen, some in the floor under me. I completely lost sight of where I was, and that I couldn’t see or feel Amre anywhere didn’t make it any better. I started to panic, closed my eyes, still felt only doors and no walls or floor. I couldn’t find anywhere that felt like the ground, and it made me first dizzy and then nauseous.

I know you’re all illusion! I kept telling the doors but they didn’t listen.

I don’t remember how I got out, but I did, eventually, exhausted and confused. The attic was full of people, all in a bunch, and it turned out they were mostly around Amre who was curled up into a ball, body and mind, retreated completely into herself. She must have panicked as badly as me! Serla and Jeran were trying to persuade her to come out, but it needed my hands and my mind touching hers.

Orian was furious. “I thought you two at least had experience! You were working together so beautifully. You come from Turenay. Don’t they teach anything at that school?” But the fact was that Cora had got hold of us immediately after we’d learned the most basic things, because she needed us as her own apprentices. We didn’t know what others had learned, what we could have learned if we’d gone to school more and worked in the hospital less.

I wanted to sit in the temple and drink herb tea and collect myself, but Orian didn’t agree with that either. “This is not about the gods! It’s about what you ought to have learned!” But I really needed some time alone, or at least alone with Amre and Anshen, and tea, not the wine that Orian was pressing on us.

He got over his anger a little; he understood that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, only the result of circumstances, that we hadn’t learned the things he thought we knew. And we’d asked to learn from him, so he knew we needed teaching. “I’ll have to start right at the beginning,” he said, and then realised that Amre and I had in fact learned quite a lot of things — after all, we were teaching the others — and he wouldn’t have to start right at the beginning with us. That would have been frustrating, to have to sit through all the beginners’ lessons again! “Come spring I’ll come to Turenay with you and see if I can do a stint of teaching,” he said to Radan.

We had to keep Jerna for another week or so while her bones knit, but then she could walk with crutches and we let her go home with her attendant. “I’ve got a shilling here that says that she’ll end up hanging from the curtain-rod within a day,” Jeran said to Serla — and indeed, the next day we heard that Mistress Jerna had met with an accident, got strangled by a rope in the cellar when she fell down the hatch.

I was tempted to say “good riddance”: some of the things she’d said while still under the influence of Orin’s pills were — well, questionable. Ruyin was the joint owner of the house, and Jerna had taken pride in not having any sick workers there — mostly because, in Ruyin’s spirit, she’d fired anyone who got sick and hired someone else! That house needed a doctor, but neither Amre nor I really wanted to go there.

We didn’t have time to go anywhere anyway, because the weather cleared up and immediately several people came in with broken bones and other injuries. They were all wearing strange things strapped to their feet: bones of cows and goats, some plain and some elaborately carved, and one woman had something that looked like the jaws of a huge fish. “Those are slide-shoes!” someone said, “to glide on the ice with!”

When we’d finished setting all the broken ankles and wrists we definitely needed to have a look at how it had happened. The frozen-over lake was full of people on slide-shoes! Most of them didn’t fall, though: Master Fian was there with the school, even our own children, all upright and even moving elegantly, like they were dancing. And then someone slid right in front of me and took off his hat and scarf and it was Coran, wearing bones on his feet like everybody else.

“Did you come all the way from High Penedin?” I asked, flabbergasted.

“Yes, the whole river is frozen!” he said. “Come on, you must try, it’s easy!” He found me someone I could borrow a pair of slide-shoes from, and I tried them on and slid away, to Amre’s horror. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, and the first thing I did was lose my footing and slide quite a long way on my bottom, but I got the hang of it after a while.

Eventually we got so cold that we went home, where Amre already was, disapproving. (Whether of me or of slide-shoes in general I couldn’t tell. She said later that she could never try because one had to be Valdyan for it, and I was half-Valdyan so that counted. But what about Nisha, then?) And the children came home too, bringing the whole school, Master Fian and all! “Can our friends stay for supper?” they asked, and Aine laughed and made them all pancakes, with more water than milk and hardly any eggs at all, but there was still enough honey and nobody cared.