Well, that escalated quickly.
It was very cold after the Feast of Naigha, getting colder over the weeks, and there was snow as high as my knees where it hadn’t been trampled down into hard and slippery ice, so one Day of Mizran Master Merain came to the smithy and we had our lesson in Alyse’s kitchen. She didn’t like that one bit and complained about it, and Layse didn’t like it either but didn’t say anything.
Not that we did anything else than push against each other with our minds, “training our strength,” the master said. I thought I might try to get around him, but he must have heard me thinking because he said “no tricks!” He was so much stronger than us that he floored us every time, me once literally (on my butt on the stone floor, hard), except once when Mialle stood up to him and made him scowl.
“Useless worms, both of you,” he said. “If you weren’t a decent sort of smith I’ll send you to the workshop starting tomorrow. And as for you…” He didn’t tell Mialle what he’d do with her, but turned and snorted and left the house, saying “I’m disgusted with you. I’m skipping tomorrow. Practice on each other.”
“What did he call you?” Layse asked. “And he’s not skipping tomorrow because he’s so disgusted with you, but because there’s an opening party for Master Valyn’s house tonight, it’s likely to run late.”
“And he’ll have too much of a hangover to teach,” I said. “Or to watch us, even.”
It was a pity that the other half of the gate couldn’t be put in its place yet, if there was to be a grand opening! Because with all the ice we could put it outside and it it would slide right down the hill and through the wall and into the river. But it was finished: my big job was done! It felt very strange. Layse said she’d set us to cleaning and repairing all the tools and equipment tomorrow, but now she gave me a bath-house token and told me I had the afternoon off. And Mialle was in the same state: her copper dish was done too.
It was the middle of the day, so the bath-house was very quiet. When we were done scrubbing in the washing room we found Ashti in the warm-water room with the twins. “Ferin! Jalle!” they called, and we got into the water with them. Too bad the water wasn’t deep enough to swim in (though I thought later it might have been deep enough for Arvin) or we might have started the swimming lessons right then.
Ashti said under her breath, as if she was talking to the kids, “you might want to come to dinner tonight, my grandmother makes the best stockfish soup”. And I dunked my head into the water and said behind my hands while I patted my hair dry, “yes, that’s a good idea”.
It turned out that we all went to the temple together, because Mialle and I were helping the children up the hill, carrying them when the footing was very slippery. Perhaps I could make some ice cleats like Ma did! I had time enough for that now.
In the kitchen of the temple we found Layse and Yssa! I’d been wanting to talk to Layse in a safe place forever, but with all those other people there I didn’t really dare. She got in first, though! “I came here to work with Ashti,” she said, “but it’s good that you two are here, I have some questions about your lessons with Master Merain. What else have you been doing than what I saw this morning? Can you defend yourselves? Talk with your minds? Hide?” And we had to shake our heads every time. We’d only learned about seals a bit, but not enough to do anything useful.
“It’s just the show-of-strength thing now?” Yes, that, and obedience. Well, he was the master. But I’d been thinking, and I couldn’t believe that it was right what he did.
“Well. We can all have a lesson together.” And she took us into the temple itself, while Yssa stayed in the kitchen, sewing on what looked like a shroud.
We all held hands in a circle and Layse told us to feel each other’s feelings — that was embarrassing because Ashti and I were next to each other, and Layse swapped places with Ashti and that was uncomfortable for me because her touch stung me! And mine her, too, but not as much, I think. I put Mialle’s hand in Layse’s so she could feel it too. “Is that because you’re with the Nameless?” I asked.
“Anshen,” she said, and then she wouldn’t explain more because, she said, “I’m not here to make you come to our side.”
“What are you here for, then?” I asked, but she said “That’s none of your business.” And of course it wasn’t. But that didn’t make me any less curious.
We did a lot of things that felt like games! Getting into each other’s mind a little way, and I saw what Mialle thought about the shiny stones she’d picked up when we were on our way to town, she’d tested them and there really was gold in them! And she saw what I thought when I was awake in the night and dreamed of pale round buttocks.
And then Layse thought of a word and thought it to Ashti, and Ashti to Mialle, and Mialle to me. Mialle was a lot better than me at that. We did it each standing in a corner of the temple, too, so we couldn’t touch, and Mialle was still a lot better than me. “Practice,” Layse said, “weren’t you going to practice on your own tomorrow?” Sure we were, and it was almost certain that Master Merain wouldn’t be watching.
“Now let’s do it with feelings!” Ashti said, and what I got from Mialle (and Mialle from Ashti) made a certain part of me rise up without me being able to do anything about it, and it made the blood rise in my face. “I don’t need to feel that,” Layse said, “I can see it! Enough. Time for soup.”
And yes, it was the best stockfish soup.
Later, when we were walking home, Layse and Yssa said, “You could bring them a sack of peas or something occasionally, it wouldn’t be payment for the soup, that’s what the Temple lives on. They’re really poor. It’s not like they ask money for funerals and things, people give them what they can spare and we can spare some.” And that was clear even in their kitchen: none of the bowls and spoons and pans matched!
The next morning we were in Mialle’s workshop’s kitchen to practice — they did all their own housework now, Valeyn Valyn had gone to live with her mother in the big house. We had to do some of the pushy stuff or Master Merain would notice, but that was much less horrible because we were about equally strong, Mialle a bit quicker and I a bit stronger, just like with our bodies only not so big a difference. But half the practice we did the thinking-to-each-other thing and we really got the hang of it.
The rest of the winter we went to eat at the Temple of Naigha practically every day of Mizran, and we brought sacks of peas and jars of pickled cabbage and mustard. When first Mialle and then I took to snaring rabbits on the hill with some of the other apprentices (Mialle’s snare caught a little roe-deer instead by accident, and they asked our workshop to dinner to eat it, and it was delicious!) I brought them my first two rabbits. The next time Grandmother was making the skin of one rabbit into a stuffed rabbit for little Sidhan! Her doll had fallen into the fire when she wanted to warm it because it was so cold.
And either before or after dinner we got lessons from Layse. It didn’t look as if Master Merain knew what else we were learning, at least he never said anything about it — and of course we didn’t tell him! But it seemed to make the other lessons easier, perhaps because we knew ourselves and our minds better. Not that Master Merain ever showed that he approved, of course. But at least he didn’t call us useless worms any more. Though Layse said he probably still thought of us like that, “all apprentices are useless, they grow into worthless journeymen and those grow into inadequate masters!”
Mialle made some scraps of copper from the workshop into more pins, not enamelled or gilded this time, just with hammered decoration, but still pretty! A dragonfly and a lizard and a cat and more leaves and flowers. She couldn’t sell them before the Feast of Timoine because there was only an apprentices’ and journeymen’s corner in the market on feasts, but she sometimes wore one herself so people could at least see them already.
So it happened that when we came out of the bath-house one Day of Mizran, we met Moryn the woodcarver’s apprentice and he asked us if we’d come for a beer with him. Then he saw the dragonfly. “Ooh, do you have a boyfriend?” he asked Mialle.
“No, I made this!” she said. “Here, have it.” She pinned the dragonfly on his coat. “I can make more.”
“You made it? Oh, I remember, you made the other ones too, with the colours. So the trouble in the watch is your fault!”
We didn’t know about the trouble in the watch, but over a mug of warm spiced beer in a little inn downtown Moryn told us. Eldan was in love with Yssa, and he’d taken her out and given her the butterfly pin, but his mother had other plans for him, and now they were both under house-arrest, each in their own house with a big wall between them! “And now those whole families don’t talk to each other any more, all your fault!”
“Without Mialle he’d have given her something else,” I said, and Mialle said something like it at the same time.
“You’re right,” Moryn said. “Anyway, it’s a good thing someone is making jewelry! There should be half a dozen of you so we can choose when we want something to give to our sweethearts.” Mialle told me that Yssa had said much the same thing!
Then we paid the bill, and saw that Moryn had been carving spoons and knife-handles all the time while we were talking. Beautiful, and I thought I’d buy one if he was in the apprentices’ corner at the Feast because the spoon I’d brought from home was getting old and worn.
Over the next couple of weeks the snow went away little by little, and Mialle came to the smithy to gild the leaves and flowers on the other half of the gate. I don’t know who thought of it first, but while she was doing that I made a cat to catch the mouse and mounted it on studs so it stood out from the gate itself a bit. “Can you gild its eye?” I asked Mialle, and she did.
We’d only just finished when the masters came into the workshop. At last! Master Valyn took Mialle away at once, she didn’t even look at the gilding. But then she’d be able to look at it every day once it was in its place.
“Good work!” Master Rhanion said to me.
“Thank you, Master,” I said.
“That deserves a bonus, I think.” And he gave me a whole rider!
“Thank you, Master,” I said again.
“I’ll put it before the masters’ meeting to make you a journeyman on the Feast of Archan.” Then I could only blush and not say anything.
When the master had gone I found Halla and gave her two shillings. “Your share of the bonus,” I said. I caught Layse’s eye and she winked at me.
Master Valyn and Master Rhanion were across the street now, talking to the two men who we’d seen coming out of the workshop at times to smoke a pipe. We couldn’t overhear anything, but the men looked agitated. I went out in the street and found Mialle there. She was also going to be made a journeyman, but she hadn’t had a bonus! Even though Master Valyn was probably richer than her brother. “Never mind,” Mialle said, “I’ve got the money from the pins anyway!”
I wrote a long letter to Ma with drawings of my gates. I did it in the temple of Naigha for some reason, and Ashti kept distracting me by pointing out spelling mistakes — a real schoolteacher! But I got it written and rolled it up and bound it up with a bit of string before Layse arrived to give us another lesson.
The Feast of Timoine was almost there. Most of the snow was gone, and three people with a hand-cart came to collect the second part of the gate, cat and all. Ayneth went along to adjust the hinges if they needed it. I’d been waiting for this, but now the rest of the afternoon was my own because work was a bit slow at the moment. Just as I thought I’d ask Layse if I could go into town Mialle turned up with nothing to do either. We hung around a bit, Halla as well, and I don’t know how the talk came to hedgehogs but Halla grabbed a handful of nails and fixed them to an old round grater and hammered it into shape a bit and it was a hedgehog! “It’s a boy hedgehog,” Mialle said, “all spikes and sharpness!” And Halla got another nail and put it in a strategic place so it really was a boy hedgehog. “You can gild the pecker,” Halla said to Mialle, “or is gold too expensive?”
“Much too expensive,” she said, “and I have to pay for the gold myself!”
“Let’s hang it on the wall with the other showpieces,” I said, and we did that, and then I went to ask Layse if we could go out after all. She nodded absently, she was doing the accounts.
“Where shall we go?” Mialle asked.
“To the place we went with Moryn? I don’t want to go to the Underground because I don’t feel like meeting Jichan. He brags about the Guild so.”
Not only that, but I didn’t want to talk about the Guild, I was getting confused! I’d tried to ask Layse about the other Guild again, and all she’d said was “when you choose at your trial it’s not about the Guilds, but about the gods,” and given me and Mialle a piece of paper with the other Second Invocation on it to read aloud, so we’d know it if we needed it. Apart from the name that was hard to say it wasn’t even all that different! Though the Nameless’ version was more about protecting and Archan’s version about fighting. (And I lay awake for a while that night thinking it over.)
We didn’t make it to the inn, because when we passed Master Valyn’s house we found Ashti there, arguing with a man who looked like a high-up servant through the gate. “It’s not my responsibility,” the man said, and Ashti said, “the Feast is for all children and I won’t let myself be turned away again like at Master Rhanion’s house! If it’s your mistress’ responsibility, go and get her!” The man stuck out a hand, right past the butterfly –I should have made that bigger after all!– and pushed her so she fell into the mud.
We picked her up. She was too angry to speak, and almost to walk, but we got her to the temple. Her grandmother gave her twopence from a battered old purse, “go and have a beer,” and when I said I was treating anyway to celebrate my bonus she said she didn’t approve of Ashti being treated by just any young man. I wasn’t just any young man! But I didn’t say that.
The place where we’d been with Moryn had good enough beer but it was hardly a place to take a priestess, so we ended up in a posher place. Ashti had pulled herself together a bit, though it was clear she was still boiling inside. She took cautious sips of her beer, not used to it at all! I ordered a plate of bread and cheese –Ashti had said she couldn’t eat anything but it wasn’t good to drink and not eat, especially if you’re not used to it. And later we got a large pie, brought by a boy who said “Hi, teacher! Are you allowed to drink beer today, is it for the Feast?” And then I realised that the Feast was tomorrow and we still hadn’t got a plan for the workshop. Well, that would have to wait until we were home, or at least not in a busy inn.
The girls were talking about women’s things now, so I talked to the boy, “are you going to be an innkeeper or do you want to learn something else?” He wanted to go to sea, “but Mother won’t allow me, she says it’s too far away and too many people don’t come back.”
Then we found that Ashti was fast asleep, even though Halla had cleverly poured beer from her mug into ours every time she wasn’t looking. I paid the bill — twelve mugs of beer at twopence each, two shillings for the bread and cheese and six for the pie, that made ten shillings, half my bonus or all of an apprentice’s feast money! But it was for a good cause. And I took the part of the pie that we hadn’t eaten with me, because after all I’d paid for it.
We got Ashti to the temple and in bed. “Mummy is sleeping!” Sidhan said. “Yes,” I said, “someone made her angry, and being angry makes you tired, and being tired makes you want to sleep!” She nodded, and then got interested in the pie. “It’s peppery,” I said, but she didn’t mind and neither did her brother. When they were eating and not listening, we made our plan.
“I could lift the door out of the hinges,” I said, but that would probably get me such a beating that I wouldn’t be able to sit on my butt until the Feast of Archan, if I had a butt left to sit on! So we’d have to be more clever.
“Didn’t you want to bring the children cider on the Feast of Naigha?” Mialle asked me. Yes, but I hadn’t done it because the overseers would have drunk it anyway! “Exactly, what if we give them cider with a lot of apple brandy, and they drink it and pass out so we can open the door?”
That seemed to be the best plan; and Mialle got two jugs of spiked cider, “that was expensive, but it’s almost half-and-half”, which smelt exactly like any other cider, a bit like autumn and a bit like a stable. We put it at the workshop door at dusk with a note “For the feast” and sure enough the two men came out with their pipes, saw the jugs, opened them and started to drink!
Mialle and I were up before dawn to see what would happen. The two men were lying in front of the workshop, snoring. Ashti came and tried to open the door, but it was locked, and she banged it so hard that the men woke up and came at her, one with a knife. I was already halfway across the street when Ashti called “Ferin, help me!” and ran to stand behind me.
There were two of them and only one of me, but I tried to trip the one with the knife because he looked most dangerous, while striking out with my fist at the other one. I got him in the stomach, and he promptly fell on his knees to vomit, so I could fight the man with the knife.
I missed him, I’m not used to fighting two at once, but he slipped on a bit of mud or old snow and fell on his front. On top of his knife.
The other one was crawling up, so I took him by the arms, and found out that he was about as big and strong as me so I could only just hold him off. From the corner of my eye I saw Ashti turn the other man over, go pale, and start to say prayers.
Now there were plenty of other apprentices and journeymen, attracted by the noise. My man tried to get away, and after a while he managed to break loose and ran in the direction of the bridge, Mialle and some others after him.
I turned back to Ashti and the man with the knife. “He’s dead,” she said, “can’t do anything about it. You must get away, they’ll hang you for it!”
“I only wanted to get his knife,” I said, and then Layse and Yssa were there and carried the dead man into the coppersmith’s workshop, and pushed me in as well, “nobody must see you now”.
“Why would they hang me?” I asked, “I didn’t kill him, it was an accident! He practically killed himself.” But the town bosses would want to hang someone, and I’d been closest, even fighting the man!
Someone brought Ashti’s mother, with a shroud, and the two priestesses set to work doing priestess stuff, cleaning the body and saying more prayers over it. And they found something: a heavy gold ring on a leather thong around the man’s neck. There was a bear with a crown carved in the stone, and none of us knew whose device that was, but we could all see that there was dried-up blood inside the ring as if someone had cut it off a finger.
Then Layse came back — she’d opened the workshop door with a hammer so Halla could take the children out; Mialle had wanted to do it but she’d started her courses a week ago, for the first time, so she couldn’t any more — and recognised the stone: it was the queen’s device! “Did someone cut off the queen’s finger?” I asked, and tried to figure out if it was a man’s or a woman’s ring, but it was too small for me and too big for Ashti so it could be either. “Not the queen, I think, but her envoy,” Layse said. “Bad enough.”
“So she must have got the letter!”
“Which letter?” And then, of course, I had to tell that Halla and I had written the queen a letter about the children who didn’t go to school and tried to send it to Valdis by Halla’s cousin in Relsinay.
“You have to leave town,” Layse said, “the whole region in fact, even if we can make them believe that the other man killed him, they can’t get him and they can easily get you. Hm, where would you go, Valdis seems safest.”
“Then I might as well go to the queen myself and take the ring!” I said.
“That’s a good idea,” Layse said.
“Shall I wash the blood off?”
“No, don’t do that, it’s better to have the blood on to show what happened. Wrap it in a scrap of linen or something.” But Yssa had something better: a tiny soft leather pouch.
“If I get to the queen, can I tell her you’ve helped me?” I asked Layse.
“Sure,” she said. “I have no secrets from Her Majesty!”
It was a while before I realised that Ashti was coming with me. Not because of me, but because she wasn’t safe either.
“You can’t hang priestesses of Naigha!” I blurted out.
“You can,” Ashti’s mother said, “when they’re responsible for someone’s untimely death.”
“Even if it’s not true? And even if they’re bad people?”
“Naigha doesn’t care,” the priestess said, “good or bad, everyone is equally welcome.”
“But I’m taking my children!” Ashti said, and that caused an argument between her and her mother, and her mother won. “They’re staying with me,” she said, “they’ll be safer than on the road with you. You can come back for them when it’s quieted down a bit here.”
I’d been completely prepared to say that Ashti was my sister and that Sidhan and Arvin were my niece and nephew! But of course I could still say she was my sister.
“Better to say she’s your brother,” Ashti’s mother said, and there Ashti was in breeches and a shirt and a quilted jacket that must have come from one of the chests of spare clothes in the temple, and her hair was brushed out from the braid and hanging loose over her shoulders, and somehow that made her look very boyish. “My brother Doran,” I said, “that’s my Da’s name, I won’t forget it. And if your hair hangs in the soup, you can tie it back like my cousin Jilan does, he’s got hair almost that long! Well, he did when I left home.”
There were clothes for me too, because I couldn’t wear anything I’d made myself here, there might be someone who recognised it. Definitely not my green leather jacket! I was growing out of that anyway. Halla or Faran could have it as far as I was concerned. Except the rider in the seam, that belonged to Mialle!
It looked as if Mialle was trying to decide what to do. Go with us, or stay? She hadn’t been involved. But Layse said she must go too, because people would think (and probably be right) that they could use her to find me.
“What about Master Merain’s sign?” I asked. “Can’t he find us by that?”
“Good call,” Layse said, “we’ll have to do something with it before you leave.” She did something that made the kitchen even more quiet than it had already been. I wanted to learn that!
“I can do one of two things,” Layse said, “hide it, or remove it. Hiding it is more dangerous for you, because when you’re out of my reach you’ll still be in Merain’s, even though you’ll probably be too far away for him to catch up with you in a day.”
“Mernath probably has even more reach,” I said.
“Ooh, not so disrespectful! Grand Master Mernath.” But she was grinning. “He’ll probably be able to find you anyway, hidden or not. I doubt if even he can reach to Valdis, though. And there are plenty of people who can keep you safe. — Removing it is more dangerous for me, because if it goes only such a little bit wrong Merain will recognise me and my life will be forfeit. But the queen’s mother sent me here and I accepted with the understanding that I’d be in danger of my life.”
“I want to get rid of it,” I said, and Mialle was in two minds at first but then she said the same thing.
“You’ll have a scar,” Layse warned, “and if you go to the temple of Archan in Valdis people will be able to see that. It’ll show that you once had this mark, all your life.”
“What about the temple of the Nameless?” I asked.
“For a smith, you think a lot round the corner,” Layse said. “The Order of the Sworn of Anshen won’t care one bit what scars you have, what you’ve been through, or even who is after you, they’ll just protect you if you need protection.”
She took a knife and held it in the fire until it was red-hot. “Shirts off,” she said, and when she came towards me with the knife I could see that it was burning with power as well as with heat. I expected it to burn me — it couldn’t be worse than the time that a bar of iron I was hammering into shape seemed to get a mind of its own and laid itself along the length of my forearm — but it was only a little nick, and Layse pulled out something that looked like a handful of spider-web and threw it in the fire. Then she did the same to Mialle.
“That went right,” Layse said. and we all let out the breath we’d been holding. “Yssa and I will divert the masters as long as we can.”
“They mustn’t hang you!”
“No, we’ll talk ourselves out of it, don’t worry. If we’re lucky Rhanion and Valyn will be the ones hanged.” But I couldn’t help worrying. Now Mialle got new clothes, too, and a knife that I recognised as one that Ayneth had made –I had my own– and we packed as much food as we could scrounge from both kitchens, bread and apples and half a hard cheese, and a small pack of our personal things that weren’t clothes, and all the money we could call ours, including what Mialle was saving to buy materials.
Then everybody was discussing how to get to Valdis. First we’d have to get to Gulynay, and probably take a boat there. I didn’t want to go through Relsinay, “they know me there, I knocked out someone who turned out to be big there,” and Yssa said that would get me respect, but it would also make people remember me and I didn’t want to be remembered! There aren’t many very young men my size with smith’s scars on their arms.
We could go to Gulynay through the wood, but that would be hard in winter, it was quicker on the road and much quicker if we could get on a wagon.
“There’s the tannery ferry,” Ashti said, “they know me there, and I trust them. We can go around, and catch a wagon after it’s left Relsinay. But it’ll have to be after dark.”
So we waited. And Mialle told us that she’d heard the town guard talk to the bridge guards, who had let the fleeing man through because he’d pushed through, no use running after him if he was so eager to get to the girls on the Feast! But it had been strange that he’d been alone and so early in the morning, there had always been the two of them, out at sunset and back at midnight, except the time about four or five weeks ago when they’d stayed out the whole night. As if the girls in Relsinay were that special!
That must have been when they caught and killed the queen’s envoy. Any letter from the queen was probably at the bottom of the river along with the envoy’s body.
When night fell Ashti took us up the hill behind the workshops and down the other side, to where the tanneries lay along the water. She knocked on a door and a youngish man opened. “It’s you!” he said, “you look a sight!” But she got it into his head that we needed to cross, safely and secretly, he was to tell nobody at all about it. (And she gave him a small purse as well to buy his silence, I think.)
The man took us through a long corridor to a courtyard full of barking dogs. “Shut up!” he shouted, and they did shut up! The stink was incredible and it made me cough. “You’re probably used to it,” I said.
“What? Oh, the smell. Good strong manly scent.” And then we got on a flat boat that was moored among piles of hides, or rather, there was a rope tied to the front and the back that went round a post on each side of the river, so when the tanner pulled the free side of the rope it pulled the boat away from him. The boat was so flat and shallow that our breeches got wet, and we couldn’t put our packs down, but we got to the other side of the river, between more piles of hides. Ready for whatever was coming next.
(Oh, and Ashti told me she wasn’t pregnant. I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved. Relieved, I think, we don’t know what it’s going to be like to run away to Valdis and it would be an extra complication.)