Along the river

There we were on the other side of the river. I’d sort of counted on Ashti knowing where to go but she’d never been here, not even in Relsinay, her mother had handled that! And we didn’t want to go through Relsinay anyway, we wanted to go around it. But she did know how to get to the road that the carts went to Gulynay on: along the river for a while and then turn left into the wood. It was too dark to see much, the moon was almost full but it was behind clouds most of the time, but we found a trail that could have been made by animals or people and turned on to it. We hadn’t been in the wood more than a moment when a dog, or a dog-fox, that was hard to see in the dark, ran up and started to sniff between Mialle’s legs.

“Hey!” I said, and grabbed him by the ruff. There was a lot of ruff to grab. “Stop that!” He let go but still wanted to sniff all of us. We gave him a bit of the hard sausage we’d brought, and he ate it with a lot of noise. “You might as well show us the way through this wood,” I said, “I suppose you know that better than we do.”

And the fox turned and started to walk ahead of us, his tail in the air so we could see the white underside of it. So we followed, there wasn’t much else we could do, there was only this one trail anyway.

First the fox ran past a small house where we could see that people were asleep, two of them, in the Guild of Archan, so we sneaked past as quickly and silently as we could. There were high piles of wood around it, the house must be a woodcutters’ house!

A bit later we came to a small clearing and the moon came out from behind the clouds and Ashti stared at the backs of her hands and said “Oh crap!” Because there were snake-heads on them, of course. And bits of snake around her wrists. “I don’t have any gloves!” she said, and neither did Mialle or I, but I tore two strips off the bottom of my shirt, it was old and thin anyway, and wrapped her hands and wrists with those.

We could still see a bit of white fox-tail in the wood so we went that way. I tried to see people with my mind but it was all as unclear as with my eyes. It was getting colder, too, and finally it was completely dark, no moon peeping through the clouds, no tail or ear or eye of any animal. And silent as if all the mice and squirrels and rabbits and foxes were holding their breath. We stood still, holding on to each other, and then I saw little lights, twinkling a bit like stars, only not in the sky but right around us.

I tried to see people with my mind again but it was as if we were alone in the world. “You can’t see through Mother Naigha’s mantle,” Ashti said, and that made me cold inside too!

“Naigha,” I said, “could you please let us out? We’re still young.”

I heard a voice, “you can die when you’re young,” and I couldn’t tell if it was Ashti’s or Naigha’s voice.

“We have a thing to do,” I said, “let us go, please?”

I could feel something like “not forever, mind you” but then the lights went away, and it was still dark but I didn’t feel so alone any more, and I could see a lot of people with my mind to our left — that must be Relsinay — and a few people ahead of us. “That way,” I said, and I pointed but of course Mialle and Ashti didn’t see that, so I took them each by a hand.

We came out of the forest at the roadside, where two men and a woman were sitting on logs around a fire, eating and drinking. The largest of the men stood up –none of them were smaller than me!– and came in our direction.

“Well, well, if that isn’t young Iron-Fist,” he said. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Who are your friends?”

I shrugged. “People,” I said. I wasn’t going to give either of them away!

“Ah.” He looked Mialle over, and then Ashti in her boy-clothes. “You don’t happen to have seen the priestess and the two apprentices they’re looking for in Nalenay, for questioning about a case concerning them?” The words sounded as if he was reading them from one of those notices posted on walls.

I shook my head, but the man was still looking at Ashti. “I think I knew your mother,” he said, “when she wanted to see the world for a bit before settling down. We can take you to Gulynay, and then it’s a boat south. Unless you’re bound north.”

“No, south,” we said, “to Valdis.”

“Hm, Valdis. Gods, you’re as cold as ice, all of you! Come and sit by the fire and we’ll soon warm you up.” And we got blankets, and hot soup, and even a tiny sip of brandy! We could roll up in the blankets around the fire and sleep for a few hours until it was light and we could be on our way.

The carters’ wagon was huge and so heavy that six horses had to pull it. It was full of hams wrapped in linen, and bundles that had to be rolled-up wall hangings, and more stuff, no room for people on the wagon except Jeran (the boss) or Leva or Lochan to drive it in turn. But the horses weren’t going any faster than people, so everybody else walked.

In the middle of the morning we heard hoof-beats behind us! Jeran stopped the wagon and pushed us into the bushes at the side of the road. Then he bent over a foot of one of the horses as if he was worried about a loose shoe.

It was the town watch. Four of them with Coran at the head. “Master Jeran!” he said, “have you seen the fugitives? One priestess, two apprentices, wanted for murder.”

Jeran turned around slowly. “No fugitives on my wagon,” he said. And that was true: we weren’t on his wagon! “Nor on the road.”

“We have to run an inspection,” Coran said, and the watchpeople started to rummage through the hams and the bundles.

“Wait a moment, do you expect to find a priestess in a hollowed-out ham? An apprentice rolled into a wall-hanging? Go and watch your town, man. Or at least get it over with quickly while I say my morning prayers.” And he opened the flap of his breeches, right where we were, and pissed into the grass. Ashti drew back in a hurry because she almost got it in her face. Then Jeran turned round and squatted and did the rest of his business. “Finished yet?” he called to the watch. “I am, so off with you.” And he took the front horse by the lead and clicked at it to get moving.

Coran took a whip from his belt and swung it at Jeran, but Jeran caught it before it could hit him and wrenched it from Coran’s hand and bit it in two. “Off with you, I said. And take your rubbish with you.” He threw the pieces of the whip at Coran’s feet.

The watchpeople mounted their horses and rode ahead of us in the direction of Gulynay. We waited until they were out of sight and crawled out of the bushes. “Thank you,” we said.

“You don’t look like murderers to me,” Jeran said.

“We’re not,” I said, “someone died but it was an accident, we got blamed for it though.”

“Always happens, the little ones get blamed and the big ones go free.” I knew he wasn’t talking about people’s sizes. “Us people must stick together. I’ll see that you get on a boat at Gulynay somehow.”

The next morning Jeran asked me if I could wrestle. “No, never tried,” I said, and then he grabbed me by the arms and started to teach me! I got bruises and grazes and sore muscles, and I didn’t get him to the ground even once (he must have been my size when he was my age, now he was about a head taller and much broader), but I learned a lot: it’s good to be strong, it’s better to be strong and fast, but it’s the best to be strong and fast and to know what you’re doing. And after days on the road with wrestling practice every morning I knew what I was doing, at least some of the time.

After a day or so the town guards came back from Gulynay and Jeran shoved us in the bushes again. “No, nobody passed us,” Jeran said, and Coran scowled but they didn’t want to search the wagon again. Anyway, there was nobody on the wagon, except for Leva on the driving seat.

“I think you’d better all be boys,” Jeran said when Coran and the others were gone. He found breeches and a shirt and a cap for Mialle, all much too large but she could hold the breeches up with a bit of rope and roll up the sleeves. It made her look like a scruffy boy, much younger than she was. “What will you call yourself?”

She thought for a moment. “Reshan.”

When we arrived in Gulynay it was getting dark. Good thing, because there were all sorts of people here who knew us, at least me and Mialle — Rhaye and Mernath and Jeran! Jeran and I had been friends when he was still in town but I wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t tell on us if he saw us now.

“Leva,” the other Jeran said, “you deliver the packages. I’ll be at the loading quay.” And Leva beckoned for us to follow her. I ran to Jeran to thank him. “For the wrestling lessons, too,” I said, so he knew it was mostly for taking us along and hiding us.

Gulynay was a strange place, half of it up on the mountain at the top of the huge waterfall it was called after (and the houses there still had a thick cover of snow), and the other half down where we were, lots of boats at the waterside and wooden houses and shacks. Leva took us past the pool that the waterfall made to something that looked like a tumbledown inn, called The Three Herons by the sign that had those words and a picture on it. At least three hundred other herons stood in and next to the pool.

“You’re not the kind of people who do ‘woo’ with your heads, are you?” Leva asked. “They don’t like that kind of stuff here. With the Guilds and such. It’s not good for trade.” Nobody looked gifted in the Three Herons, that was a fact.

When we came in the innkeeper grinned at Leva. “You’re still alive.”

“Yes,” she said, “no thanks to you. Say, I’ve got three packages for you, for Valdis.” She pushed us forward. “Need a boat.”

“Hm, not much going. Eldan will be along in a couple of days, he’s usually got some empty space. Can they pay?”

“How much is it?” Mialle asked.

“Oh, the mouse has a voice. Depends, how much have you got?”

“I’ve got five shillings,” I said. Any price he asked would probably be exactly as much as we said we’d got, so it wasn’t wise to tell him more than half.

“I’ve got five shillings too,” Mialle said, “and a couple of pennies.”

Ashti –Doran– had nothing. The innkeeper grumbled about the money for a while, until I said, “If there’s any carpentry to do I could do that for part of the fare.”

“Carpentry! Well… Can your little buddy help you?”

“Sure, we’ve worked together before.”

“I’ll show you.” He took us to the shed behind the inn where there was a sort of cage, made of what looked like the trunks of sapling trees, badly broken. “We have bear-baitings here occasionally, and last time the bear broke loose so we don’t have a carpenter any more. It’s hard to hold a hammer if you don’t have a head.” I could hear in his voice that he was exaggerating. “Give me your five shillings each, get this into shape before Eldan turns up, and I’ll pay the other ten shillings.”

Bear-baiting! I wondered what Mizran thought of that. But we weren’t in any position to refuse.

“Is that silent friend of yours a carpenter too?” the innkeeper asked.

“Doran? No, but he’s pretty good with herbs. And clerking.” That was safe, at least.

“Hmm, I’ll find some job then.”

We got bad food and worse beer, but at least it filled our stomachs, and a place to sleep in the loft over the stable. Better, much better, than trying to hide outside in the cold.

Fixing the cage was a lot of work, but easy, and between the two of us we got it done. Ashti was doing some doctoring work that she didn’t talk about much. After a couple of days, when we were sitting in the loft in the evening, Mialle said “We never thanked Naigha and Timoine for helping us in the forest!” and we decided to do it that night by moonlight.

“When I was a kid I used to go stand in the brook if I wanted to talk to Timoine,” I said, and the other two thought that was a bit strange but we still went to the shore of the lake, close to the waterfall, so I could stand in the water. We sang the invocations, but talking to Timoine didn’t come as easy as when I was a kid, of course. Ashti talked to Naigha a lot, but so softly that I didn’t understand her. Then we went back, thoroughly chilled, and just as we arrived at the Three Herons a boat moored and the innkeeper greeted the boatman, “Eldan! You’re early! I’ve got a couple of chickens for you.”

“Probably herons again, I know your chickens. Something to drink?”

I stayed behind, I wanted to get the measure of this Eldan, and went to wash at the water-trough, but Ashti came and pulled me backwards.

“Can’t a fellow wash in peace?” I asked.

“Don’t you remember what Layse said?”

“To stay out of sight of the Guild of Archan,” I suddenly remembered. Eldan was in the Guild all right! If the innkeeper and the other people here weren’t gifted themselves of course they couldn’t see if someone else was. “Because everybody can see the scar.”

“And will know that you ran away from your master,” Ashti said.

I hadn’t realised before how much of a problem that would be. I wanted to keep learning! But trying to learn from someone in our own Guild would probably have them send me right back to Merain. “But Layse took it off, didn’t she?”

“The mark, yes, but the scar will never go away.” Well, at least whoever saw it wouldn’t know it was Merain. But perhaps he’d sent messages all over the country for people to look out for us.

“Let’s start walking to Valdis,” Mialle said. “If we wait until he’s drunk enough we can walk in the night, and hide by day. Or find another boat.”

“With people from the Guild of Anshen in it,” Ashti said.

“Or no Guild at all.”

We couldn’t leave yet, and I was suddenly so tired that I thought I might fall asleep on the spot. “I’ll keep you awake,” Ashti said, “you get our things together, Mialle.”

And keep me awake she did. Not as thoroughly as we’d done in the guest room at the Feast, all with her hands. “I don’t want to get pregnant now! Not until I’m settled somewhere. It would be too hard to travel with a big belly.”

“Then I’m glad I didn’t cause you trouble last time around,” I said.

“Oh, I would like another baby! Just not right now. Being pregnant is exhausting but it’s so nice to have one at your breast.”

That led to a lot of talk about nipples, and I wondered why I had nipples on my chest if I’d never have milk come from them!

“That’s preparation for your beer boobs,” Mialle said.

“Does beer come out of those?” I asked.

“Perhaps it’s the One going ‘oops!’ because he’d made women first and men second, and forgotten to leave them off!”

“Or the Mother saying to the One ‘why didn’t you put the nice decoration on this new kind of people, too?’ and he did it anyway!”

We were laughing ourselves silly, and almost missed Eldan’s voice raised in the yard, “turning in now, don’t bother waking me up, do you have a bed-warmer for me?”

“It’s a hot-water bottle you need,” we heard the innkeeper say.

We waited for what felt like another hour, and then crept out and found the road south.

It was still dark, hours before dawn, so we could get some distance away from Gulynay before boats would overtake us. The road was a raised strip between the river on our right and a swampy forest on our left, mostly mud, much trampled by horses and people. At least we wouldn’t get lost here, as long as we kept close to the river.

When it got light we couldn’t see Gulynay behind us any more. What we did see was a strange kind of hut, three walls and a thatched roof, with the open side facing downstream. We could see that there had been people using the hut before, who had left their rubbish on the floor and made a fire in front of it. There was a raised part in the hut that we thought we could sleep on, and now I discovered that the sack Mialle had been carrying all the time was full of straw and that she’d also brought an empty brandy jug that we could use for water.

“I’ll keep guard,” Ashti said, “you two sleep!” And sleep we did, not very quietly, but the platform was halfway comfortable and we had some straw to lie on.

When Ashti woke us up she showed us a dozen eggs. “I made a mother duck very unhappy,” she said, “but she’ll lay more, I’m sure.” We made a bit of a fire with deadfall from the forest, not dry enough by far so it smoked a lot, but at least we could put the eggs in the ashes so we didn’t have to eat them completely raw.

“Have you seen Eldan?” I asked Ashti, but he hadn’t passed and she hadn’t left the river at any time because the ducks’ nests were in the reeds, not in the swamp.

The next day we had another shelter and it was my turn to watch, but I got so distracted watching for Eldan at the river that I didn’t think of getting any food, not even the watercress that was starting to sprout at the riverside. We had to eat from our store instead, but that wasn’t a bad thing because the bread was only just edible and we had to scrape mold off the cheese. I promised to catch a couple of ducks next time, though.

Still no Eldan. No boats with anybody in the Guild of Anshen either, but Ashti thought they might be hiding themselves because there were youngsters on the river-bank who looked as if they were in the Guild of Archan — Mialle and me!

The next night we got to a shelter where people were already sleeping, and there was a boat moored next to it with a woman keeping watch. When she saw us, she apologised that we couldn’t use the shelter, but she did give us bread filled with some fish stew she had in a kettle on her fire-pot. Ashti and Mialle got half a loaf each, and I both halves of the other loaf, “you’re a big guy and you look hungry!” She didn’t have any room in her boat for us, but she did tell us that her name was Arni, and we told her that our names were Faran, Reshan and Doran.

I don’t remember how many other days we slept and how many other nights we travelled. The forest on our left became less swampy, and Mialle put out snares for rabbits but what she caught was a hare, an old one, big and tough. “You could make gloves from that skin!” I said to Ashti, but none of us knew how to cure hareskin except that I remembered my aunt Alyse talking about pissing on it. So we just cut the hare in half and roasted one half over the fire — it still came out too tough to eat. But Mialle had a brandy jug! So we cut up the meat very small and put the pieces into the jug with wild garlic and other herbs and water, and the jug in the fire.

While we were doing that, a fox came along and made off with the other half of the hare. “All right, Mizran can have it,” I said, and that made Ashti sing the invocation for Mizran.

Now we had hare broth every day, because we kept filling up the jug with water and putting it in the fire every time we had one, just like a stockpot at home. And the watercress was sprouting more and more. Here, a lot farther south than any of us had ever been, it really looked like spring, the trees were sprouting leaves and there were lots of flowers. No ducklings yet, but we caught ducks a couple of times. Fishing was harder: I can catch a trout with my hands in a shallow brook, but in the river they have room to get away! And when I saw a bigger fish lying as still as a trout and tried to grab it, it swung around and bit me with a lot of evil sharp teeth. Ashti washed the wound and spat on it and chewed some green leaves and bound those on with a bit of linen (I think from her own shirt), so it wouldn’t fester, but it did hurt.

The road split in two, a narrow path along the river for horses (and there were teams of horses pulling boats upstream, they would get in the way) and a footpath higher up, so we took the higher one. As long as we could see the river, we still couldn’t get lost! We’d sort of stopped looking for Eldan, and frankly also for boats with people in the Guild of Anshen, because we’d got used to walking. If we just kept walking we’d be bound to get to Valdis, after all this river was the Valda and the town was called after it.

It was very early in the morning, and there was no good place to stop for the day. There were other people on the high road too: two boys in very rich clothes. One was about my age, the other a couple of years younger. Their hair was dark and their eyes brown, but their skin about the same colour as ours. I got so envious of the elder boy’s red velvet jacket! It was even redder than the cloth I’d wanted to buy the first time I went to the market in Nalenay. They had weapons, too: the elder boy a sort of short bow on a stick, and the younger an ordinary hunting bow. And both had knives with decorated handles. I could see that the elder boy was very much in the Guild of the Nameless, and the other was probably too young to see if he was.

I think we must have hidden ourselves without thinking, because we startled them. “Hey! You’re not a boar,” the younger boy said, and then the elder pushed him and said “No, they’re people, silly. Let’s be civil.” And he took off his cap (with long white feathers on it) and bowed.

“Rythei Vurian astin Brun, at your service,” he said. I was sure he must be a prince so I asked “Are you the king’s son?”

“No,” he said, “I’m the king’s …” (and he counted on his fingers) “… third cousin once removed. I’m going to be a grand master in the Guild of Anshen. Morin is the king’s second cousin twice removed. The king’s son has the same name as I have but he’s only about six years old. My grandfather is the queen’s father’s uncle. I was thirteen yesterday, and I got this crossbow as a birthday present so I’m hunting wild boar.”

It’s amazing that rich people know the exact day they were born. Us ordinary people, we know about what time of year we were born so we pick the nearest feast to celebrate it on. For all I knew this Vurian astin Brun and I were the same age to the day, I’d never asked Ma if I’d been born before or after the Feast of Timoine, let alone how long before or after!

Can you hunt wild boar with that thing?” I asked. “And why?”

“It’s wrecking all our fields,” Vurian said, “it’s a disgrace!”

“When we had a boar wrecking our fields it took my aunt and uncle and sixteen other people with spears and pitchforks,” I said. I didn’t say that the boar had killed my Da before his sister, Aunt Alyse, decided to put an end to it.

The younger boy, Morin, sniffed and screwed up his nose. “You need a bath,” he said to us in general, and I think to Mialle in particular. “We’ll give you one.” Somehow I thought he meant he was threatening to throw Mialle in the river, but he really meant that the boys were going to take us home with them so we could have an actual bath, with hot water and soap and towels and all!

“You look famished, too,” Vurian said, and then without warning he made Mialle open her mouth and looked inside. “But I see you’ve been eating a lot of watercress and wild garlic. Good. When you are travelling and there’s not enough to eat, it’s important to eat vegetables so you don’t get deficiency diseases.” (And lots of other big words I didn’t understand and can’t remember.)

“Are you learning to be a doctor?” I asked.

“Not yet, but I intend to go to Turenay this autumn and study with Doctor Cora there. She’s the best doctor in the country, and the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Then he saw Ashti’s hands and asked, “Have you hurt yourself?”

“It’s nothing,” she said, “just a couple of pinpricks.”

I wanted him to stop paying attention to Ashti, so I showed him my own bandaged hand, “I got bitten by a fish. With lots of sharp teeth.”

“That would be a pike,” Vurian said. “How did you get it to bite you, did you try to catch it with your bare hands? Unwise of you.”

“I didn’t have anything else to catch it with, and it was lying as still as any trout!” I said.

“Still unwise. I shall teach you to fish for pike properly. But first we go home to Valdie Liorys where there are hot baths. You’re from the north, aren’t you? Why did you travel this far, on foot, on your own?”

“We have a message for the queen,” I said. I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

“Ah, Aunt Raisse, but she’s not at home, she’s gone to Three Hills to clear up some malfeasance there. But Grandfather will want to speak to you, he’s always eager to have news from elsewhere.”

By now we’d climbed a slight slope and gone down on the other side, and we could see something that looked almost like a little town. “Is that a stone house?” I asked.

“Several stone houses, it’s Valdie Liorys. The eight-sided tower is the temple of Anshen — I won’t ask you to enter that and I suppose you won’t dare. The Great House is Grandfather’s, but most other people live there too. Except the servants and retainers, they have their own houses mostly.”

We were going through a gate that was larger than anything I’d ever seen, made of white stone at the bottom, and bricks higher up but still with white stone on the sides, carved with things that looked like animals but weathered so much that it was hard to see. The one in the middle could be a bear, but not with a crown like the one on the ring I was carrying.

Mialle grabbed me by the arm. “Do you trust these people?”

“Almost,” I said.

“I think we should speak nothing but the truth to them,” she said, and I agreed.

Now we went under another arch, past the eight-sided tower which had a small door down a couple of steps and some tiny windows high up, into a big yard where dogs were barking and chickens got underfoot. There were a couple of fat satisfied pigs in a large pigsty. I could hear the sound of a smithy. People were coaxing donkeys to pull carts, other people carried things, little kids ran everywhere. It was like a town small enough to put in your pocket, or like Aunt Alyse’s farm had been built of stone instead of wood and wattle-and-daub.

Vurian and Morin took us into the house. The first room was a storeroom full of barrels and sacks, and it made me thirsty because some of the barrels looked very much like beer barrels (also it smelt like beer), then there was a scullery where two maids were washing dishes, and in the next room there were two big tubs each with a hand’s breadth of water in the bottom, but some people were pouring in more water. First we got buckets of warm water to wash ourselves, and soap that smelt of flowers.

“Can someone lend me a shirt that’s cleaner than my shirt?” I asked, and immediately knew how stupid that must sound because every other shirt in the world was probably cleaner than my shirt right now.

“We’ll get you clean clothes,” Vurian said. “Just make a pile of your dirty stuff here, someone will wash it. You can put your valuable things on this shelf. I’ll go and get Aunt Alys.”

The only valuable things I had were my knife, tinderbox and purse, and the tiny leather bag with the queen’s ring, but Ashti and Mialle both had leather-bound notebooks and writing styluses, and Ashti her herbs and medicines, and Mialle a little cloth bag that rattled so there were probably tools in it, and the copper pins she’d made.

I stripped and put my clothes on the pile and scrubbed all the dirt of the journey off my skin. While I was doing that a woman came in who must be Vurian’s Aunt Alys, and she looked like an Aunt Alyse, in a starched linen apron and a starched linen cap. She took one look at us and began to order her nephews and the servants around, and us too, really auntish. “Do you two want women’s clothes or are you staying boys for now?” But they were going to be girls again, both of them.

“Rags are over there,” Aunt Alys said to Mialle, “if you don’t need them now you will soon. Don’t hesitate to ask for more.” And when Ashti hurriedly hid the backs of her hands, “I don’t suppose it’s a clean robe you want? No? And I won’t tell Mother Maile either.”

“Mother Maile probably knows already,” Vurian said, who was leaning in the doorway. “She knows everything.”

Now we were clean enough and the tubs were full enough that we could get in. Ashti climbed in with me and let me wash her hair. Vurian, meanwhile, was washing Mialle’s hair, and she didn’t look as if she minded.

“I have the shortest hair here and I still want it cut!” I said.

“We have a barber here,” Aunt Alys said.

“I don’t think I can afford that, though,” I said. I still had the other five shillings, but I didn’t know how much I’d need in Valdis to live on!

“You’re guests!” Vurian said, sounding offended. “Don’t talk about paying for anything!”

When we got out of the tubs there were towels — the whitest, thickest, softest I’d ever seen. And clothes. They’d had to guess at our size, and everything had been worn before, but they were splendid! I had breeches that were a bit too short but fit around the middle, I thought they’d been made for a fat man rather than a big man, and a shirt with so much linen in it that I could have made two shirts from the same amount of cloth — well, perhaps not two for me, but one for me and one for Mialle, easily — but Vurian’s and Morin’s shirts were the same cut so it was probably as it should be. And a sleeveless leather jacket that was a bit tight in the chest but it was beautifully made. Boots, rather too large but there were knitted socks that took up some of the extra room. There was a velvet cap with long brown feathers, too. I wondered if I looked like a nobleman!

Mialle did look like a noblewoman: she was wearing a linen underdress with a sky-blue woollen overdress, embroidered with cats that had their tails on both sides of the front and met at the back to claw and fight each other. “If only you could see your back!” I said, and then thought that I might be able to look at it and show it to her, and I did, and it worked, and she liked it as much as I did. She had soft shoes, made of some kind of shiny fabric in the same shade of blue, and she asked “are those shoes for indoors?” because they didn’t look as if you could traipse through a muddy yard in them, and yes, they were. And the fabric was silk, from Iss-Peran.

Ashti got the same kind of linen underdress but her overdress was dark blue, embroidered with flowers and strange birds with long curved beaks. Her dress had sleeves so wide that they went all the way to the seam, and so long that they covered the snakes on her hands! “That’s the latest fashion,” Aunt Alys said, “well, of a couple of years ago. It never caught on properly because those sleeves make it so hard to eat!”

“Now Grandfather would like to see you!” Vurian said. “Don’t worry, he’ll feed you, too.” He took us through more rooms were people were busy, then a hallway, up a flight of stairs, another hallway with hangings on both sides that might even come from one of our villages. Then we got to a room that was completely round, probably in the round tower that I’d seen from the yard. There was a table there set with food and plates and goblets and jugs, and a very old man was sitting in a carved chair on one side of the table.

“Grandfather, here are the guests,” Vurian said.

“Master,” I said, but the old man smiled and said “I’m not your master. Come, sit down.” We sat down at the table with him, and Vurian sat down on a bench to the side.

There was so much food! And I was so hungry! The old man could see that, because he said “Eat first, and then we shall talk. I’m Ayran astin Brun.”

We said our names, and Lord Ayran asked how old we were –he thought I was fifteen or sixteen– and then said that my mother must be a smith (yes, and my father a carpenter, but he was dead). Then it was silent for a long time because we were eating. There was a goose, and smaller birds, and still smaller birds, and tiny birds, and turnips and cress and tiny wrinkled apples and very white bread. And there were glass goblets, with wine! Lord Ayran poured water into our wine, but not in his own, and raised his goblet to us.

“I’ve only tasted wine once before,” I said, and Ashti hadn’t had much more, but it was Mialle’s first glass ever. It tasted tart and sweet at the same time, a bit like berries. “It’s nice!” Mialle said. “But I think it can make you drunk.”

“That’s why there’s water in yours,” Lord Ayran said. “This particular wine is from our family estates in Ryshas.”

“That’s where Turenay is, right?” I asked, and Lord Ayran said that it was.

I think I ate one of each kind of bird (except only a leg of the goose) and lots of the bread and vegetables. We did talk while we were eating, but only about things like where we came from (“it’s where our hams and wall-hangings come from, I think”) and how we’d travelled along the river. Lord Ayran thought that the hare broth was a very clever idea. “You see, Vurian, people who grow up in the country aren’t less intelligent or resourceful than we are.”

Now we got down to business. Lord Ayran made Vurian take notes on a slate. Mialle told most of the story first, starting with the workshop and our letter to the queen, but she hadn’t been there when I fought the overseers, only later, so I had to tell that part. I tried to be as exact as possible: “I missed him, then he missed me and slipped and fell on his knife. And then Ashti and Yssa got me into the coppersmith’s workshop because they said I’d be hanged for it.”

Lord Ayran frowned. “It wasn’t even that you killed him in self-defence. If I understand rightly you didn’t even hit him in self-defence, though you intended to. You shouldn’t be hanged for that. Not even for killing someone in self-defence, if it had come to that.”

“But Yssa said they’d want to hang someone, and the other fellow had got away and they could easily get me.”

“Hm. There’s a lot of misuse of power there.” And then we told him about Master Merain and what he had and hadn’t taught us, but we didn’t know enough to say what all the things he hadn’t taught us were called!

“I don’t know about the Guild of Archan, obviously. We Brun are firmly of Anshen. But a master should at least give a good grounding, and it seems that your master was sorely lacking in that.”

“Can I say something?” Vurian asked, and when Lord Ayran nodded, “When I was washing Mialle’s hair I saw that she has a kind of mark on her shoulder, I couldn’t see what it was but it was of the Nameless! And Ferin has one, too.”

“Your master marked you? A tracking mark? As far as I know, in their written laws, the Guild of Archan permits that only when an apprentice has already run away twice and is likely to run away a third time.”

“He put it on us even before the first lesson,” I said. “But Layse took it off. Though she did say we’d have the scar all our lives.”

“Layse?” Lord Ayran asked. “We had one of the queen’s young runners by that name here a couple of years ago. A smith from Turenay. Oh — she was from around Gulynay originally, she only went to school in Turenay, I think. She seems to have found her place.”

“I hope they don’t hang Layse!” I said. “Even though she’s of the Nameless. Oh!” And I clapped my hands over my mouth, because of course everybody here was of the Nameless, and they called him by his name. But Lord Ayran had said ‘Archan’ as if it didn’t bother him to do that.

When we got to the part of the story where we found the ring on the dead man’s body, I took it out of the leather bag and gave it to Lord Ayran. “The blood is still on it!” I said. “We left it on to show that someone cut off a finger to get it.”

“That’s an envoy ring,” Lord Ayran said. “You’re likely to be right when you say that your letter must have arrived, because it would have been enough cause for investigation. They usually send three on such a mission, the envoy, one of the Sworn, and someone from the guards. We can assume that the envoy was killed. Possibly all three were, or one or both of the others would probably have come back before you could arrive here.”

“Vurian says the queen went away to the hills,” I said, “because there was– what’s the word? Mal-something.”

“Trouble, anyway,” Lord Ayran said, “in Three Hills, that’s a small town in a region south of Valdis where a lord had seized more power than rightly came to him. Much like where you come from. I think you have to get the ring to the Order as soon as possible.”

“The temple of the Nameless?”

Lord Ayran smiled. “The Order of the Sworn of Anshen investigate and combat misuse of semsin power of any kind,” he said. “Can you ride a horse?” None of us could, and I was the only one who could even drive a cart. “Never mind, we’ll find a way to get you to Valdis fast. But first we have guest rooms for you for tonight. No, Vurian, you stay here, we need to talk about a little matter of a wild boar and a crossbow.”