Suddenly it was nearly the Feast of Mizran. We’d been in Rhinla and Jeran’s workshop, and Rhinla had been in our house, several times a week, and the drawings on Ashti’s skin were almost finished! It only needed a bit of shadow here and there. Rhinla had had a new idea about the breasts: on the left there was a hedgehog suckling cubs (if hedgehogs have cubs, anyway baby hedgehogs) and on the right a fox suckling cubs. She’d avoided the nipples and the bit of dark skin around it, because “when your babies are born they should have proper milk, not milk with charcoal in it!”
Master Mernath called us all together at the start of the working day. “Today we clean the workshop. Everything. Tomorrow we get the books in order. The baroness and the prince are in Veray, they’ll be here tomorrow or the day after at the latest, and we’ll present the sword in a small ceremony. The games start the day after the Feast. You’ll have the day before the Feast, the Feast itself and the day of the fencing competition off, except that I want you” –that was me– “to come to the Temple with me so I can get you entered in the Guild book as my journeyman. Then we get back to work for the new season.”
We worked like anything, stripped to our smallclothes, even Master Mernath himself. We carried everything out that could be carried out, swept, scrubbed, mopped, put the tools that needed repair aside to tackle after the Feast. I found a chisel that looked as if someone had tried to hew stone with it. “Probably slipped and hit the edge of the forge,” the master said. “Put it on your work pile, you’re getting halfway decent at sharp edges.”
At the end of the day we were black all over. “I think I’m going to the bath-house right now!” I said when we sat down with our end-of-work ale.
“That’s a good idea,” Cynla said, “I’m with you!”
Master Mernath took a handful of bath tokens from the writing-room. “Let’s all go,” and to me and Cynla, “and invite your girlfriends if they’d like to come.”
Cynla’s girlfriend was as strong and solid as she was, a journeyman butcher. She arrived at the smithy almost at once. “Bath!” she sighed. “My hands in soapy water instead of in a tub of meat!”
Ashti met us at the bath-house because she was coming from that side. All the smiths used the buckets of sand-soap first to get the worst of the grime off, while Ashti and Cynla’s girlfriend went ahead to the tub-room. There’d been a sort general hubbub there, lots of people talking, but it fell silent at once. Of course! I was used to what Ashti looked like now, but she’d never been completely naked where other people could see her yet.
“Would Arni mind if we stayed in town to eat, and went out to dance after?” Ashti asked. “It feels like it’s the holiday already. Let’s see, which of our neighbours is gifted enough that I can tell them?”
“That Ishey woman, Sewe?” Ashti got hold of her and asked her to tell Arni that she could use some of the money from the household kitty to get pasties for herself and the children, and that we’d be back late.
One of Ashti’s friends from the Guild school, Rusla, was already dry so she went ahead to the Apple to get us a table. I’d passed the Apple several times but I’d never been inside! And when we got there it was hard to get inside, it was almost completely full, but Rusla waved to us from somewhere at the back. We squeezed in, Ashti between the table and the wall next to a young man who belonged with Rusla, but it was too narrow for me to fit so I sat at the head of the table. We managed to find someone to bring us drinks.
“Do you have apple wine?” I asked.
“Do we have apple wine! Light or dark, young or old? Pint or half?
“A pint of dark and old, please” I said, but Rusla said to Ashti, “you’re expecting, right? What about apple juice that’s only just started to bubble?” And Ashti got a whole pint of that, and I a pint of something strong and dark that reminded me of Aunt Alyse’s best feasting cider, and Rusla and her young man smaller cups of the same.
We had a pie to share, egg and onion, and then another with green vegetables and cheese, and then Ashti said, “I want to go and dance!” so we paid up and Rusla took us to the Unicorn. That was a large barn with a scrubbed wood floor, a drinks table on the far side and a place for musicians in one corner. There were already lots of people dancing, most looked like apprentices and journeymen and people from the school but some were much older.
Then it turned out that Ashti loved music but she’d never danced before, she’d always been the priestess! She had to pick up the steps from Rusla and me. But nobody was really interested in how other people danced except to learn something new, so I could just do the village dances I’d learned as a kid as long as it fit the music. If we did this more often we’d learn the Turenay dances soon enough.
After a while we were so thirsty that we went to the drinks table, and Rusla was already there and she’d paid for the first round. (I paid for the second round later.) Then a girl touched Ashti on the arm and asked her something, and Ashti went away with her. I want to show her more than I can do here, Ashti said. She came back giggling. “I think I really am starting a fashion!” she said. “I’ve told her where Rhinla lives.”
When we went home the bridge was full of kissing couples. And of course we stopped to kiss too! “Nobles season,” I said, and someone next to us who overheard that made a bow and said, “Exactly! Arin astin Hayan at your service,” and then went on kissing his girlfriend.
I thought I wouldn’t understand anything about the books, but I looked over Cynla’s shoulder as she did them and learned a lot! That would be useful when I got my own forge going. Ashti was much better with numbers than me, but a smith has to do their own bookkeeping even if they’re married to a teacher. Or to a nurse who used to be a sergeant, for that matter: Master Mernath’s wife Maile did the final check of the books but didn’t find any mistakes.
“If you want to get your winter stores in,” she said to me, “come here tomorrow at dawn, we’ll all go to the market.”
Then we were sent home early, but before I was even in sight of the bridge I got caught up in a stream of people who were all going to the south gate. I spotted Ashti and Arni and the children, too, and managed to push my way to them.
Through the south gate, a lot of people were coming into town. First a wagon with a very old woman on the driving seat next to the driver. In the wagon itself were Doctor Cora and a handsome redheaded young man, and the I could see that the old woman was carefully keeping them apart with a seal. Lady Rava was in the wagon too, with a white-haired man who must be Lord Vurian. Behind the wagon there were more wagons, and people on horses, and a whole lot of soldiers on foot.
The old woman had snakes on her arms, disappearing under her sleeves, but she didn’t look like a priestess of Naigha otherwise. “I think she’s the baroness,” I said to Ashti.
“Yes, and the one with red hair is the captain. We’ll probably have Rhinla and Lesla in the house tonight.”
We all went along to the school where everybody got off the wagon. Raisse the grand master organised everybody gifted to help make a seal around the doctor’s house when the doctor and the captain were inside.
I got talking with one of the soldiers, who said that he had nobody to go back to: his sweetheart had been killed in the war, his mother had died while he was away. “I could go to Cherry Tree Square but what’s the use? I wish I had a family to celebrate the Feast with.”
“Ashti?” I asked. “Can we take him home with us?”
“I’d say we have enough food,” Ashti said, “and one of us can get a jug of wine, and Raisse’s latest brew is actually drinkable.”
“Well, if you don’t mind a family across the bridge you can come with us,” I said, and the man brushed off a friend who wanted to take him to the whores, “I’ve had dozens in Essle, this is where I belong, these people are my family for now.”
He was called Moryn, and what he wanted most was to use all the money he’d earned as a soldier –five thousand riders!– to buy a vineyard and live there the rest of his life with a woman who wanted to be a wine farmer too. “You married?” he asked, and we said that we’d likely marry on the next Feast of Anshen. “Master’s wife said that’s best for people as young as we are,” I said, and that made Moryn grin, who looked thirty-five at least.
It was a long evening. Rhinla and Lesla appeared when we’d just got home, carrying a basket of bread and a jug of weak apple-wine, and there was enough to eat for everybody.
“Do we seal?” Ashti said, and I thought that was a good idea; even if there was a seal around the doctor’s house it felt safer to have one around our house too. Mine looked most like the gates I’d made in Nalenay, and Ashti could easily make that stronger because she saw it as the gate that had kept her out, it should be able to keep anything out.
(I want one of the painted bands around my arms to look like the gate too, but Master Jeran said he won’t do it until I’m done growing, because I’ll probably have bigger arms then and also he wants to see what I’ll grow into. Well, I mean to grow into a really good smith!)
Moryn had a lot of stories about the war and how the king had come to Ashas but a high priestess had already vanquished the emperor. All the king had had to do was “mop up” as Moryn said, but there’d been more than enough mopping up to do, Ashas was a shambles and he was glad to be home!
We made Moryn a bed in the front room and put all the children in the big bed together, Rhinla and Lesla as well. “I hope you don’t mind cats!” I said, “they might lie on you in the night.” But in the morning all our own children had crawled between me and Ashti, and the two girls were at the foot of our bed, and the cats were lying on us.
Moryn was still asleep. We left him there, and wanted to write a note for Arni but then remembered that she couldn’t read so we asked a neighbour to watch the house and to have our kids over to play with her kids.
Maile was already at the door of the smithy with Jichan, who had a wheelbarrow, and her neighbour the tinsmith Ruzyn, and Ruzyn’s apprentice Fian with another wheelbarrow. Ashti had remembered to get money from the Temple, “they’ll want paying up front, I suppose.”
We needed dried peas and beans, onions, flour, grain, two tubs for brewing and a barrel to salt the Ishey boar in, enough salt, and perhaps some earthenware because now we barely had enough to eat from without guests. Ashti had heard that there would be a stall with very thin and fine linen and she wanted some for children’s clothes and crib sheets.
“Good that we’re early,” Maile said. She and the tinsmith knew exactly where to go, but sometimes it was useful that I was with them because I could just walk in front and everybody would move away.
“A pig,” Maile said, “buy a half-grown pig now cheap, better than waiting until winter. The farmers will want to get rid of them. One for us, one for Ruzyn, one for you.” And she waded into a fenced-off bit of the market with a lot of pigs in it.
“Better get two,” Ashti said, “there are six of us, and we seem to have people over all the time, and I remember how hungry I was when I was nursing last time!”
“Two for us,” I called to Maile and she nodded.
The pigs were put into another pen so we could pick them up at the end of the day, then we bought barrels and peas and beans and onions and a hard cheese and the gods know what else. “Tallow for lamps?” I asked, but Ruzyn said that oil was cheaper here. “Sunflower or rapeseed or grapeseed oil,” she said, “you can cook with it too if you like, but pancakes go better in lard or butter.” So we got two large jugs of different kinds of oil, and then we got to a row of salt stalls.
Here Maile got very picky, she had a stick that she used to poke in the barrels the sellers had open. “Wet,” she said to the first, “we’ll try another!” And finally she was satisfied and we got a barrel of salt. I didn’t know how much salt went into a pig, but Maile said it would be enough for three pigs if we got someone who really knew how to make brine.
When we wanted to buy plates and bowls and a larger frying pan and a stew pan, the woman selling them asked “do you want them now or in two weeks? Later gets you a discount.” We didn’t mind having them in two weeks, as long as we got them, and a discount was nice! The purse was almost empty anyway. Ashti still had money for some linen, and then we went along to the smithy to unload and sort everything out and borrow the wheelbarrow.
When we were there, Master Mernath called me with his mind — he’d never done that before! Put on something decent and come to the sheriff’s house. Both of you.
I put on the shirt with the lace and noticed that the sleeves were too short again though Ashti had put another strip of fabric in not so long ago. Nothing I could do about that now, and it was still my best shirt.
We’d never been in the sheriff’s house! Master Mernath and the rest of the workshop were already there, the master carrying a parcel that must be the sword. Someone who looked like a town guard took us inside. Lady Rava and Lord Vurian were there, and a man who I thought must be the sheriff, and Doctor Cora and the captain, and Raisse, and the baroness, and an old man next to her who I recognised as the wagon-driver but it was clear now that he was a nobleman.
Master Mernath gave a little speech, and then gave the baroness the parcel. She unwrapped the sword and stood with it in her hand. “Mernath,” she said, “surely you don’t expect me to compete?”
“I and my journeymen and apprentices made it for you to use,” he said.
I couldn’t read the expression on the baroness’ face. It was almost a smile, but there was more in it, sadness and something very hard and fierce. “I will,” she said. “Vurian, I want to talk to you later.”
Then she saw Ashti and beckoned her to come closer, embraced her and said, “We’re alike, you and I — the same choice, but done very differently.” She took her aside and they talked for a while, too softly for anyone else to hear.
When we got home Moryn was still there, talking to Arni, but Rhinla and Lesla were gone. “Who are those wild girls?” Moryn asked, so we explained as best we could. He’d seen painted people in foreign lands but he’d never seen anyone with paintings under their skin in Valdyas except priestesses of Naigha, and the Sworn. I didn’t know the Sworn had paintings under their skin! But that was because I’d never seen any without their shirt on, and Moryn had. They got one on their left arm (or their right if they were left-handed) when they got sworn in, and if they’d been in a fight with semsin they got another one on the other arm.
The next day it was really the Feast of Mizran, and I went to the temple with Master Mernath to be written into the Guild book. He was wearing his embroidered cloak. Strange that every guildmaster is sort of a priest of Mizran! But we needed another priest to write in the book, a thin young man sitting at a table. “This is the journeyman Ravei Ferin, formerly of Nalenay, now of Turenay. I want it noted that he’s the heir of the forge of Arin at the downtown riverside.”
That made me blush! I asked about it later. “Well,” he said, “that means that when you become a master you’ll have your forge ready for you, you don’t need to serve under another master first as Cynla will do for me when she’s ready. Oh, and when you want to light that fire, whether sooner or later, be sure to tell me and I’ll get another two masters so we can witness it for you. It won’t do to light an inherited forge for the first time without the proper observances.”
That meant he approved. It also meant that I wouldn’t do it until I was really sure of myself. “Thank you,” I said.
“Now go away and find your young woman and celebrate!” he said.
The next morning we were in the market very early again. All the stalls were gone, and instead there were spaces fenced off and spread with sand. From what I heard around me, there would be wrestling and archery and running tomorrow but today was all sword-fighting. Nothing wrong with sword-fighting, but it was a pity I’d be back at work tomorrow because I wanted to see the wrestling too!
The children could get through the crowd to stand at the fence, I was tall enough to see everything, and I took Ashti on my shoulders so she could see everything too!
“That looks like Vurian,” I said, and when we got closer we saw that I’d been right, he was fighting someone about his own age but taller. We saw Mialle on the other side and waved to her, and that distracted the other fighter and Vurian could disarm him. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have waved,” Ashti said, but someone next to us thought that if someone couldn’t ignore a wave it was only fair that they lost!
We saw Vurian win another bout — I could see that he was holding back, even — and then he went and embraced Mialle and they both came over to us. “I’m in the next round too,” he said, “but I’ll treat you to an ale first. And something to eat. Gods, I’m hungry!”
We got ale and bread filled with meat at a stall and sat down in the shade of a house. “We never see you any more!” I said, “we’ve missed both of you! Come and eat with us tonight?”
Mialle looked at Vurian, and Vurian at Mialle, and they both nodded. “My family won’t miss me, they’re much too busy with the baroness. Can’t get away with it every night but I think we can do it once.”
Then it was time for Vurian to do more fighting. He won his first bout against a woman three times his age, and this time he didn’t hold back at all, she was too good for that! And then he came up against a man who was so quiet and calm that it was like he wasn’t doing anything at all, and Vurian’s fierceness just broke against him like the spring thaw against the rocks. The other man just pointed with his sword and nicked the tip of a finger on Vurian’s left hand.
“Who is that?” I asked nobody in particular, but the woman who stood next to us knew. “That’s Ervan from Veray. He’s a warehouse porter. He gets up at dawn and works all morning, earns just enough to stay alive, eats a bowl of bean soup, trains all afternoon with the Order, eats at the Order house and goes to bed. Every day. Six days a week. On the Day of Anshen he goes to the temple instead of working but the same thing otherwise. He’s been at it for thirty years.”
The final of that round was between this Ervan and Master Jeran from the House with the Otters! I hadn’t seen him fight before, perhaps he’d been on the other side when we were watching Vurian. They stood there with their swords, neither attacking the other, until I thought I’d burst. I think everybody else also thought they’d burst because there was a deathly silence.
Then Master Jeran threw his sword to the ground, nodded to Ervan, and said, “All right, you win.”
Then everybody started to shout, and we grabbed the children and got hold of Vurian and Mialle and got away.
I didn’t really know what had happened. Surely they could have fought and one or the other would have won? And when I asked Vurian he explained it but I didn’t really understand what he was saying.
“We should stay for the last round,” Vurian said. “My uncle Vurian and the baroness of Sarabal. It’s the special show-piece.”
“Master Mernath made the baroness’ sword,” I said, “and we all helped. Everybody’s work is in it.” I suddenly felt bad for bragging but it Vurian was honestly impressed.
Then it started! Perhaps it was because we’d got away from the shouting but we found ourselves in a place where we could actually see something. Lord Vurian and the baroness were in place already, she wearing only a loincloth –not even a breast-band– and he only a pair of linen shorts. They didn’t even have spirit protection like Master Jeran had taught me!
At first it looked like they were only playing, trying out strokes, but then they were really attacking and defending. Neither of them looked stronger than the other. I could hardly believe that the baroness was over ninety years old, she wasn’t any slower than Lord Vurian! (But then Lord Vurian was about sixty.) There was so much power in the fight that I had to keep myself from crushing Ashti’s hand in mine.
Then suddenly Lord Vurian struck the sword out of the baroness’ hand. But at the same time the baroness did the same to him. They caught each other’s swords easily, gave them each back to the other, and left the field with an arm around each other’s shoulders.
Now we took Vurian and Mialle home with us before any of his family could claim him. There we found Arni cooking chicken soup! “Halla gave me a chicken,” she said, “for the feast, they had plenty. Moryn split some wood for them.”
“You have a splendid house here,” Vurian said. “So neat and tidy, and lots of room!” (And, in a whisper to me, “and a nice landlady too!”)
We found enough bowls and plates, and toasted the bread because it was three days old but that didn’t matter, and some of us sat on the upturned brewing tubs that Raisse wasn’t using yet and all the children sat on the ground, but that didn’t matter. There was enough, and we had our friends back.