The day after the Feast we all went back to work again. If I’d really wanted to see the wrestling I could perhaps have got a couple of hours off for it, but Master Mernath had told us that the first week after the Feast of Mizran was when the Ishey sent their twelve-year-olds to learn about iron. “And we teach them as much as they can learn but they never put that knowledge and skill into practice,” he said with a scowl.
“Why not?” I asked.
“They’ve never used iron, it’s not what Ishey do. But they send us their boys to learn that they can master the power of iron, it makes them into men. They’re strange people. But they pay well, and teaching someone who has to learn the very beginnings of the craft is one of the best ways to learn.”
When I arrived at the workshop Jichan was opening up, and I saw with a shock that there was no fire at all! The whole forge had been cleared and swept out.
Just as the master came from upstairs five young people came into the workshop, all dressed as Ishey men in blankets though at least two looked like girls and another might be one too but I couldn’t tell. Perhaps they were boys the way Veh was a man. They were all different shades of light brown, not one as black as Veh or Mazao.
Master Mernath made them all strip to their loincloths, “no matter how well-developed your chest muscles are”. Then he carefully laid the foundations of a new fire, true west, south, east and north, calling on the gods. And because the forge wasn’t exactly pointing north and south it was all askew. Then he made me and Cynla fill in the corners with coals.
Two more people were at the front and back door now, a man and a woman who I recognised as other master smiths. Master Mernath started to sing: it sounded like the invocation for Anshen but it had a lot more verses, all about fire and heat and ore and iron. The other two smiths sang along. So that was what he’d meant by getting two more masters to light a new fire! I thought it would perhaps be too much for my little forge.
Finally the fire was lit — I hadn’t seen if he’d done it with his mind or a tinderbox or whatever — and we settled down to work. The very beginnings! It was hard not to skip any steps when telling someone else how it worked! I was beginning to understand what the master had meant when he said that teaching was one of the best ways to learn.
When the Ishey left it was already dusk. All of us had worked all day without any breaks or even a drink of water.
“First time Ishey class is always an experience,” Cynla said. “I’ve done it three times now, and the boys once.”
We sat around with mugs of ale, mostly too tired to talk. Anyway, I was thinking too much to talk! When Master Mernath saw that, he took me aside and said, “I think I can give you the lesson now that I gave Cynla last year. Finish your ale.” He went away, and Cynla said, “he’s going to teach you the smith superstitions” which didn’t make it much clearer.
When the master came back he made me stand at the fire and taught me — I don’t have the words, there were words that made perfect sense at the time but I don’t remember most of it, about the beginning of iron, how it comes from the world and how we make it blossom into the iron and steel we can forge. It felt like I was the iron at one point, and that the master was forging me! I didn’t think there could be an end to it, but it ended, and I stood in front of the fire feeling sheepish.
“Well done,” the master said. I didn’t feel I had done much. “You might have some gods bothering you tonight.”
I went home in the dark, still feeling strange. Ashti embraced me, “you were gone so long! And you’re so tired!”
“We taught the Ishey,” I said, “and that was only the first day of six!” Well, it had the Day of Anshen in the middle, but perhaps the Ishey would insist on having that day as well.
Ashti gave me something to eat, and I was so tired that I tried to tell her everything, and to make love to her, but couldn’t stay awake to finish either.
Then it was morning and I started awake and went outside to wash.
There was a young man in a loincloth sitting on the overhanging branch of the willow tree. He grinned and nodded to me, and I grinned back, then when I went into the water he came and stood next to me and handed me a piece of soap. “Thank you,” I said, and washed myself, and gave him the soap back, and only then did I realise that he wasn’t one of the neighbours who happened to have soap when I didn’t. He laid a hand on my shoulder — I’d thought he was shorter than me but we were the same height now — and went away. Disappeared, I mean, wasn’t there any more.
But there was another young man — a boy, really, he looked ten or eleven — who came up to me and said, “You’re a bit too grown for me now but I still want to say that you’re all right. Your children are good children. I like the way you’re taking care of them, those who aren’t yours as well, even the one who is still a child inside though her body is of a woman grown.”
That must be Arni. And this could only be Timoine.
“Thank you,” I said to this one too, and went inside where the whole house was waking up.
“Anshen just shared his soap with me,” I said, and to the children, “And Timoine told me that he likes you.”
Ashti’s eyes grew wide. “Master Mernath said that I might have gods meddling with me,” I said.
And when I could get Arni out of the others’ earshot in the kitchen I said to her, “Timoine is concerned with you” and made her blush like a little girl.
It still took me a while to get my head round it that Master Mernath’s lesson had made me a journeyman in the Guild of Anshen too. Or perhaps the gods had done that, or they’d only finished what the master had started.