Our own house
Fudged the smelting and cooling a bit because of course molten steel takes hours to cool down enough to forge. Research is a wonderful thing but it does mess up a good story.
We had been living and working in Turenay for a couple of days, and suddenly Vurian wasn’t at dinner! Lady Rava knew all about it. “I’ve told him that whoever goes to school should sleep at the school, unless they’re married, then they have to find a place to live together. My house isn’t a hostel for noble students!” And to Mialle she said, “And as for you, you can live at the school too if you like, but in the girls’ dorm, or find a place in town to live on your own. Perhaps your master can put you up.”
I knew what was coming, but Ashti and I had been talking about it already. “We’d much rather be on our own as well,” I said. “We lived above the school in Valdis.”
“Master Fian and his wife live above the school here,” Lady Rava said, “but perhaps they know a place to live.”
“Across the bridge would be cheapest,” Ashti said, “and I know from my pupils that if you don’t have a house you can build a house there.”
“Even a shed would do,” I said, “we’ll make it into a house!”
It was still light, so Ashti and I took the children to the bridge. We passed some stalls where you could get things to eat that smelt very nice, pasties and pies and pieces of fruit on a stick, but we weren’t hungry yet because we’d just eaten a good meal at Lady Rava’s. It was good to know that we could, though, if we went to live on the other side so we’d pass it every day.
“I want to kiss you on the bridge!” I said, “that’s what the bridge is for!” But we didn’t have the chance to do that right away because there was something to see on the near side of the bridge. A girl, younger than me, was standing in front of a wooden thing, kind of like a single trestle with a board fixed to it, and she was drawing on the wood with paint and light. A man was leaning on the bridge railing, not old and not young either, with wild greying hair and a ragged beard, and what the girl was drawing was a picture of the man, I could see that it looked like him! When she ran out of paint she beckoned to a boy, younger than she was, and the boy gave her more paint, it looked like he knew exactly what she needed.
We looked at it for a while (a lot of other people too), but then we wanted to cross to the other side before it became dark. We’d lost our children: they were playing under the bridge with some other children, splashing in the water and catching small fishes. It took some persuasion to get them to come with us. “If we find a house on the other side of the river, we’ll go and live there and you can catch fish every day!” I said. “Fish to eat, too.”
In the middle of the bridge we saw a girl who looked a bit like the drawing girl push a young man away. “No!” she shouted. “No way! I wanted to know if kissing boys was nice and I’ve found out that I don’t like it, so please go!” And she pushed him away again, and he went. Then she saw us, still looking back at the girl who was drawing, and she said, “My sister is good, isn’t she?”
“Oh, you’re her sister?”
“Yes, she’s Master Jeran’s apprentice.”
“And what can you do?” I asked.
She had to think about that for a bit but then she said, “When I finish this year at school I can go to learn in the temple.”
“Of Naigha?” I asked.
“No, of course not! Of Mizran!”
“So you can calculate,” I said, impressed, because I have to do it on my fingers if it gets complicated.
The girl shrugged. “Sort of.”
Then we were in the middle of the bridge, and Ashti leaned back over the railing so I could grab her around the shoulders with one arm, and between the legs with the other, and we kissed! “Rhinla! Master Jeran!” I heard the girl we’d last talked to call. “Your sketchbooks! Quick!”
We didn’t know what she was talking about but when we were done kissing she ran after us with a piece of paper in each hand. “This is Rhinla’s and that’s the master’s!” she said. Rhinla’s drawing was only a few lines, my shoulder and neck and arm, but it was clear that it was us on the bridge kissing; and on the master’s drawing you could see both our faces and the whole shape of our bodies, and I didn’t know which one I liked best. “That’s –” I said, “she draws only that and still everything is in the picture?”
“She sees everything but draws only what’s important,” Rhinla’s sister said.
The part of town across the river was a poor neighbourhood, with mud roads, small houses, mostly of wood, some with a stone chimney. The house nearest the bridge looked like it had been all stone but broken down, the floor was still of stone but the rest of wood, and two young women were doing laundry outside it while an older woman was mending. “Good day,” we said.
“Good day, new in town?”
“Yes, we’re looking for a place to live. We don’t have much money.”
“Well, that goes for all of us here. — Both of you and the children? Come and sit down for a bit, let’s have a drink.” And she sent one of the young women into the house for a jug and a stack of cups. It was wine with a lot of water, weak enough for the children to drink too.
Then a fight broke out between two young men on an open space some way off, and the woman got up –she was quite fat– and walked to the place. She grabbed them each by the hair and banged their heads together. “Next time don’t fight each other but let the girl choose!” she said, and then came back and sat down as if nothing had happened. “Nuisance. Now, tell me. You look like a smith. And I think you might be Fian’s new teacher.”
‘Yes, I am,” Ashti said, and I said, “I’m Master Mernath’s new journeyman.”
The woman nodded. “Are your little ones in school yet?”
“Raisse just started, the other two next year.”
“Then won’t you be better off living with someone, who can look after the children when you’re working, and make sure there’s food when you get back? I understand that you want to set up on your own, but…”
“Well, yes,” we said, and the woman got up and said “I’ll introduce you to the widow Arni.”
First we had to round up the children again. They’d been exploring the house. “There’s a hole in the stone with water in it and fire under it! It’s got–” Arvin counted on his fingers — “this many sides. And some more sides. And you can crawl under the floor to put wood on the fire.”
“How many more sides?” Ashti asked. Raisse scratched at her nose –she does that when she’s thinking– and counted herself and her brother and her sister. “Three.”
“Eight sides,” I said. “I think the fire is to make the water hot for washing.” And if it had eight sides, perhaps it was for Anshen too, I thought later.
The washerwoman took us past some houses and workshops –rope-making, leatherworking– to a house that was a bit bigger than the rest. A woman was just locking the door. “Hey, Arni, good to catch you. These people might want to rent your back rooms.”
The woman looked us over. She didn’t seem to be wearing much under her cloak. “All of you? I think I saw you at Master Fian’s school.”
“Yes, I’m teaching the youngest pupils now.”
“Good. He needed another teacher badly. Well, I’m Arni and this is the house. You can have the whole back for one shilling a week. I’ll keep an eye on your little ones and cook for you for another two shillings. I work nights so I’m here while you’re away.”
That sounded good! Ashti was earning four shillings a week at the school, and I had a rider on each feast. (And there was the queen’s money, but we both felt it was for big things, not for rent and food.)
“If there’s any woodwork or ironwork you need mended I can do that,” I said, “I’m a smith but I can do carpentry too.”
“Hm, a smith. You sure look strong enough. There’s something you could help me with. I work in Cherry Tree Square, and sometimes there are men who — well– think they can get something for free, and they turn up here. If you could–”
“Convince them to go away? I can do that. The last place I lived, they called me Ironfist.”
She laughed. “Then I’ll do for you for one shilling. Here’s the key. All the way through, you’ll find it.” She wrapped herself in her cloak and left. The washerwoman grinned at us, “I’ll see you around,” and went after her.
The house looked as if it had first been a small house, the one at the back, and someone had later built a workshop in front of it. On one side there was a small forge! But it looked as if nobody had used it for years. Of course, Arni was a widow, she must be a smith’s widow! And not only the forge but everything was covered in dust. There was a ladder up to the loft which must be Arni’s bedroom, and a door in the back wall that came out in a scullery, with a door to the back of the house on the other side.
It was a room with a small hearth and two little side rooms, one with a large bed and one with two children’s cribs. Everything was even dirtier than the front room!
“We can clean it,” Raisse said.
“I’ll see if I can find a bucket and a cloth,” I said, and yes, there were some in the scullery. “You go and get water from the river. Oh, and you can wash the cloths there too.” The children ran, Sidhan and Raisse with buckets and Arvin with an armful of dirty cloths. The back door was on the riverside, it was only a short way down a slope. There had once been a fenced-off bit that could have been a pig-pen but the fence was rotten and broken. But perhaps I could build a new fence so we could buy a piglet in spring!
“Ferin,” Ashti said, “could you break the fence and get the wood in here? I want to make a fire.” And when the fire was burning, she cut off a lock of her hair and threw it on the fire and said prayers to Naigha for “Arni’s husband, whose name You know”. Because of course we didn’t know the name, but Naigha did!
Then the children came back and Sidhan wrinkled her nose. “I smell burning hair!”
“And I smell burning hair too,” Arvin said.
“I didn’t know how that smelled but now I do!” Raisse said. “Why are you burning hair?”
“To pray for Arni’s husband who died,” I said.
“Then she’s all alone! That’s sad.” She whispered with her brother and sister. “We’ll clean her room for her! Just the three of us! You do this house and we do Auntie Arni’s room.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said, and got a broom from the scullery and started to sweep the dirt out to the yard while Ashti started on the kitchen. Then a woman came along, “you’re cleaning Arni’s house!”
“Yes, we rented the back rooms from her,” I said.
“Moving in with Arni! That’s the best news I’ve heard in ages.” She grabbed me round the middle and hugged me, and when she saw Ashti she hugged her too. “Halla! Jeran!” Another woman, and a man, and some other people all came to look. “We’ve got new neighbours.” And before long at least ten people were helping us clean the house! I could hear Raisse’s voice from the loft, “no, we are doing this, we don’t need any help!”
“Where did you come from?” the first woman asked. And when I said Nalenay. that wasn’t what she meant, but how we’d known about the house. “We wanted a house in this part of town because we can afford that, and we talked to the washerwoman at the bridge and she brought us here.”
“Oh, Alyse,” she said. “She’s everybody’s mother here, more or less.”
“Is there someone who can build a new fence?” I asked. “We’d like to have a pig here again.”
“You need wood, and the wood belongs to the Ishey,” a man said. “I could go and talk to them for you.”
“Ishey? Are those the black people?”
“Yes, but over here they come in all colours, black, brown, even as pale as you. They’ve got a house up the hill. Past Midsummer isn’t the season for pigs anyway, they’re too big and expensive now, but if you talk to the Ishey in the autumn they might get you a boar. Get the meat salted and you’re set for winter. Boars are all right but from a regular pig the bacon is better.”
I had to laugh. “I know! Where I come from we had boars too.”
Now we heard more about Arni. She’d been happily married, and then five years ago there’d been a fire in Mill Street and her man –or wife, that wasn’t clear, some of the people who were telling us said ‘he’ and others ‘she’– had gone to help, and a heavy beam had fallen on them and killed them. And then Arni had gone to work in Cherry Tree Square, as a whore, because that’s what the business of Cherry Tree Square is (I hadn’t known that before).
Someone had brought in new straw for the bed, and someone else was burning the old straw in the yard. People were coming in with food and jugs, and a young man brought a pot that had just a little bit of bright blue paint in it and painted the door frames. “Master lets me have the leftovers sometimes,” he said.
Then we shared the food and drink –it was more of the weak wine like the washerwoman’s– and talked about food and drink, like you do when you’re eating and drinking. Turenay was in wine country, someone said, but there was a good brewery now so it wasn’t hard to get ale if you couldn’t brew yourself.
“But brewing is easy!” Raisse said, “you take grains, and boil them but not so they become porridge, and then break them and put them in a tub and it gets bubbly. And you stir it a lot. First it smells nasty but then it smells nice, and when it does you put it through the sieve and it’s ale. And you can put things in like seeds and green leaves and honey. If you want ale that makes you really drunk, you put honey in.” So she’d grown up with brewers! I hadn’t seen that when we got her from the house where her mother and sister died.
When all the people had gone — leaving the rest of the food behind — we were suddenly tired. “There are two beds in this room,” we said to the children, “who is going to share?”
“We’d like to sleep in the big bed with you,” they said, “can we?” And of course they could; the small beds were too small for them anyway. “You know,” I said, “I’ll make a big bed for the three of you here, and we’ll keep the little beds for when the babies are born! Is that a good idea?”
It was, but now there was only one bed large enough for all of us so we all got in and slept.
I woke up because Ashti was prodding me. It was dark! And I heard some sound in the front part of the house.
“Arni is home,” Ashti said, “and it sounds like she’s drunk! Could you go and see if you can do anything?”
I put on a shirt and went through to Arni’s room. Yes, she was drunk all right, and surprised too, picking up one thing after another and putting it back.
“It’s all clean!”
“Yes, we cleaned it, and the neighbours came to help. I think they’re glad that we’re living here now.”
She was already weepy but it became worse. At least there wasn’t a nasty man with her who I had to convince to go away, I could just sit down with her and listen. She hadn’t become a whore because she liked to sleep with men for money — she preferred women! (That made me more sure that her husband had been a wife, but I didn’t ask.) But it was work, a living. She had a lot more to cry about that I didn’t understand half of.
“You should go to bed,” I said, “the kids have cleaned your room.” I helped her up the ladder and she took off her clothes and washed in the bowl the children had filled with water, and lay down on the bed and fell asleep at once. I covered her with the blanket and went back to Ashti.
In the morning Arni was sprawled across the foot of our bed. The children weren’t in the bed any more; I could hear them giggling in the other room. I got up, Master Mernath would expect me early, and Ashti came and made batter from some sour milk and an egg and flour and a heel of bread that she crumbled, for a thick pancake for the five of us and some left over so Arni could make a pancake when she woke up. “Raisse,” Ashti said, “you run to the school and tell Master Fian that something domestic has come up and I’ll be in a bit later. Sidhan, Arvin, go with her, and when you’re there, try to find out where the best library in town is and don’t come back until you know.”
The best library in town? I didn’t know why Ashti should want to know that, unless it was to keep the twins out of the way while she took care of Arni.
Cynla was opening up when I arrived. “Master’s off to a guild meeting at the Temple of Mizran,” she said, “we’re to burn all this coal into coke because we’ll be needing the hottest fire we can get. And set up the furnace outside.” I knew that Master Mernath mostly did his own smelting, because he didn’t trust any iron or steel he hadn’t got out of the ore himself, or at least his journeymen and apprentices had.
Setting up the furnace with ore and pig iron was the first thing we did. All the while it was burning Cynla went outside every now and again to see if it was hot enough yet. When it was, she called me over, “you should see this!” and threw a handful of charcoal powder into the roaring flames. And another, and then she waited a bit, and another. “We’re making steel, it’s for a special project of the master’s, it should be absolutely right!” she said, and threw another handful of charcoal. “That should do it.” She waited a while more and opened the hatch at the bottom of the furnace so the molten steel could flow out.
The rest of the work took us until mid-day, then the smith next door’s wife came to bring us mugs of ale and hunks of bread and cheese. We were still eating when we heard a voice behind us, “so I find my journeymen and apprentices idle!”
Master Mernath was standing in the doorway, wearing a short embroidered cloak. Jeran took it and put it away, and Cynla showed the master the cooling steel. He spat on it and it sizzled a bit. “The trough, Ferin,” he said, and I dragged the heavy earthenware water trough over and filled it the rest of the way up so the master and Cynla could manoeuvre the slab of steel into it. It was still so hot that the water boiled and the trough cracked. “I’ll send one of you to the potter presently,” Master Mernath said, “but first things first. This is for Senthi — a good friend of Lord Vurian and Lady Rava, and I owe her one, so I’m making her a sword in the Iss-Peranian style for when she comes over from Sarabal for the fencing at the Feast of Mizran. She’s over eighty years old, so it should be light to spare her bones, and as good as we can make it, she deserves that.”
“I’ve heard about Senthi,” I said, “Ashti would like to meet her, I think.” Master Mernath lifted an eyebrow but he didn’t say anything.
We spent the afternoon hammering out and folding the steel, taking turns, with Master Mernath giving advice and correcting as if it was just an ordinary piece of work. But we all knew it was more than that. We were still at it by the time we’d otherwise have stopped working. “If anyone has people at home they’d like to warn,” Master Mernath said, “warn them now. It’s another couple of hours until we can lay it aside.”
I called Ashti — I could find her easily now! — and told her I’d be working late. I can take care of everything. I love you.
I love you too.
So we started work again. I think there was a pie at some point, and watered wine, but I didn’t pay much attention to it except that I must have eaten because I wasn’t fainting from hunger. The steel was beginning to look like a sword-blade now, but when my turn came at drawing it out I misjudged at first and made a dent in the edge. “You can do better,” the master said, and when I tried again I did do better and got it back into shape.
Outside, birds were starting to sing. “It’s not a sword yet,” Master Mernath said, “but it will be one. Let’s clean up.” He put the blade carefully on the rack, with linen cloths to support it, and actually helped with the cleaning up! Then he got a flask and five tiny cups from the writing-room and poured us all a bit of brandy. He said a lot of things about metal and iron and steel. The kind of thing you talk about when you’ve been working all night and it seems very important when you say it but you can’t remember even an hour later.
When I was outside, blinking in the morning light, and tried to find Ashti, she was already on the bridge with the children. It was the day of Anshen and we’d all go to the temple together! Now I wished I’d taken the time to wash more thoroughly than just throwing a bucket of water over my head.
Near the bridge I saw someone sitting on a stone, her skirt hitched up almost to her waist, not very dressed above that: Arni! She was asleep or blind drunk. I reached her at the same time that Ashti and the children did. “Auntie Arni is sick,” Sidhan said.
“Let’s take her to the temple,” I said. “I think she needs Anshen.” And I took her in my arms and carried her as if she was six years old. “Daddy’s got another baby!” Arvin said and skipped around us.
Halfway to the temple Arni woke up and could walk on her own feet, but she was still holding on to my arm.
I hadn’t been in the temple yet, or even in the courtyard of the school where the temple was, I’d only seen the building from the outside. There was a large tree in the courtyard, and some stables, and it was now full of people because the entrance of the temple was there. We came into a large room with tables folded against the walls. On the far side it looked like five sides of an eight-sided tower, built into the wall, with a fire burning in the middle. Raisse — the old woman with the bright mind, not our own Raisse — was there, and Lady Rava, and Vurian and Mialle, and Doctor Cora, and some other people we knew, but we hardly had time to greet them before Raisse started with invocations, and then there was singing and praying just like in Liorys. I’d learn those songs yet! My voice had almost settled, and more people were singing along.
After the service I said “Now I need a bath!”
“And something to eat?” Ashti asked. “Which first?”
“Wash, I think,” I said. Someone told us that the best bath-house if you wanted something to eat as well was the Síthi bath-house, and pointed us in that direction. We took Arni along, she looked as if she needed a bath and something to eat too.
Then a cart caught up with us. Doctor Cora and all her children were on it! “Going to the Síthi bath-house? So are we! Kids, climb up here.” Then she looked at Arni. “And you too.”
“I don’t need to ride!” Arni said, but Doctor Cora insisted.
The bath-house was near the town wall, and the first thing we saw was the outside bath full of people, but Doctor Cora took us all inside and talked to the woman sitting at a table in the hall who wrote something down in a book. “It’s all right,” the doctor said, “I have an account here for my family and anyone else who comes in with me.”
I could believe that this was the best bath-house! There were tubs to wash and a pool to swim in or sit on the underwater benches at the side, and a shallow pool for children to play in (some of Doctor Cora’s children took ours there), and trays of small delicious things to eat that some of the bath attendants handed round. And other people washed our hair and braided Ashti’s. “Such beautiful hair,” the girl who did the braiding said, “we have to rub ours with ash and vinegar and spread it out in the sun to make it light, and yours is light just like that!”
“Everyone has hair sort of this colour where we come from,” I said. “We think yours is special!”
Doctor Cora came to sit between us on the bench. Now that I saw her without clothes it was even harder to keep my eyes off her, and Ashti reached around her and pinched me in the side. (But I saw that Ashti was looking at her too.)
“Tell me about the woman you brought to the temple,” the doctor said. We told her that we’d rented Arni’s back rooms across the river, that we knew she worked in Cherry Tree Square, and that she’d been a widow since the fire in Mill Street, but not much more. “She’s sick with grief, I think” I said.
“Yes, that can make people sick. Also that she’s been working too hard, and drinking too much, and not eating enough. Hm. I’ll see what I can do. Leave her to me, I’ll see that she gets home.”
When the doctor was gone, Ashti and I edged closer together. “I wish there was a bath for just the two of us!” Ashti said. “I’m sorry if I was being jealous just now. I get that way when you look at someone else, but it’s hard not to look at Doctor Cora.”
I put a hand on her thigh under the water. The hair-braiding girl came back with oil and towels and said, “There’s a good eating-house across the street, it’s all safe and good food and not expensive! And if you want to see Timoine for grown-ups, just walk round the back of the bath-house and you can’t miss it.”
More food than the little dainty things, that sounded good. And Timoine for grown-ups was something I’d like to see too. The eating-house had tables outside and we sat at one that other people were just getting up from. In no time we had bowls of thick soup with vegetables and meat and mushrooms in front of us, and bread, and watered wine. We talked about Arni, we couldn’t get her off our minds.
Then a man asked, “May I sit with you?” and there was a place at our table so we said yes. “I overheard you just now. You were taking care of the woman from Cherry Tree Square, weren’t you?”
“Yes, she’s our landlady,” Ashti said. “But she’s not at all healthy.”
“She’s sick with grief,” I said.
“That’s perceptive of you,” the man said. “Most people don’t acknowledge that grief can make you ill. I’m a doctor myself, and — Oh! I’ll introduce myself. Airath. I live very near here, that’s my house over there. As I said, I’m a doctor and I specialise in helping people who are ill in their mind, not in their body.” I could see that he wasn’t even gifted, and most doctors I’d seen were!
“Perhaps you can help her,” I said. And Ashti said, “I think we have enough money.”
“Doctors do have to eat, yes,” Doctor Airath said. And Raisse, from under the table, “Vurian has lots of money, we can ask him!”
“We can’t let him pay everything for us,” Ashti said, but Doctor Airath smiled and said, “If it’s the Vurian I’ve met it may be good for him not to spend his money on clothes and fripperies but on something that helps people. Is he a friend of yours?”
“Yes,” I said, “and he does like to help people, or he wouldn’t want to be a doctor!”
“You may well be right,” Doctor Airath said. “Well, you know where I live, if you need me you can find me.”
We paid for our food — the girl had been right, we couldn’t do this every Day of Anshen but it wasn’t expensive — and walked round the bath-house until we came to a little square at the end of an alley. There was a sort of six-sided house there, with all the walls open and the shutters leaning against a wall of the square. In the house there was a statue of — well, it had both breasts and a pecker, but I remembered that face from when I was a lot younger, it could only be Timoine, but Timoine grown up. Made of silver. With a baby on his arm.
“Do you like it?” someone asked next to us. It was a girl of about twelve with very dark skin. “It’s Dayati.”
“That’s Síthi for Timoine, right?” Ashti asked, and the girl nodded. “I’m Dayapati. That means ‘daughter of Dayati’.”
“Doctor Cora has a daughter called Dayati too,” I said. One of the brown girls who had taken our children to the shallow pool.
“Doctor Cora put that statue there! We had a small statue first but it was of wood and it got all rotten. So she gave us the silver statue. You look tired, won’t you sit down?”
There were benches all around the square and I sat down on one. Now I really felt that I’d been working all night! Dayapati brought us bowls of herb tea, and I drank some but it was so hard to stay awake…
I woke up late in the afternoon, or at least it looked like that with the sun. Ashti was still next to me, and the children were playing marbles with a couple of Síthi children at the statue’s feet.