Snow in Three Hills
When we got to the baron’s house there were people around us at once, some to take care of the animals and our baggage, some to greet us. The baron himself was a large friendly man who didn’t look at all noble (but I know that barons aren’t as a rule, they’re just good at caring for their piece of land, that’s why the king and queen appoint them) and his daughter was a wispy pale girl of sixteen or seventeen who immediately greeted Vurian as a long-lost friend and only then introduced herself to us as Jerna. She offered us a bath, and yes, we wanted that! Riei had been clever enough to make sure our clean clothes were in reach. There were two large tubs in a room off the kitchen, already half full of warm water and servants were pouring more in. One for me and Riei, one for the boys! Jerna took all the clothes we took off and promised to get them washed at once and dried before the fire. Then she gave us soap and oil and sponges and sat down on a stool, until Riei and I persuaded her to get into the bath with us.
“I must tell you something you might not like,” Riei said to Jerna, “Vurian has a girlfriend!”
“That’s not true!” Vurian said, “I just told her that after I’ve been to school and we’ve both grown up a bit I’ll think about it.”
“Are you all going to school?” Jerna asked. Then she noticed that Rovin wasn’t gifted and got a bit confused.
“I’m going to the Guild school and Rovin is going to be apprenticed,” Vurian said.
“And I’m going to the inventors’ school in Veray,” I said, and Riei, “And I’ll see if I can work at the Temple of Mizran there as a clerk.”
“In Veray?” Jerna asked. “But you’re so gifted!”
I shrugged. “I’m better with my hands.”
“You’re very good with your hands, yes,” Vurian said, “but don’t sell yourself short!”
“Well, the inventor’s school is what I want!” I said.
After the bath there was a meal for us in a side room — all the others had already eaten, of course — and some of it was food I’d never had before, a kind of pudding made of eggs and salt pork and not much else (Jerna explained that you made it by whisking the eggs with bits of pork and then hanging it up in a cloth over a boiling kettle), small pies with honey and raisins but also salted fish, nice but strange. “Every region has its own foods,” Jerna said, “and these are some of ours!” We got wine with a lot of water in it, too.
Then she took us to another room where the baron and Hylti and Arni and another woman who looked familiar –one of Hylti and Arni’s neighbours, Cynla, the baron had an arm around her!– were sitting around the fire, with the children playing on a rug on the floor. We talked for a long time, at least the baron and the princes talked, because he asked for news from Valdis and of course they knew more than we did.
“It’s possible that you’ll have to stay a couple of days,” the baron said, “my farmer’s bones say that there’s more snow coming. You’re very welcome! And of course you” –that was Hylti and Arni– “are welcome to stay the night too, even though you can get home easily even if it does snow.”
Then Hylti told us that there was a secret passage between the big house and her own cellar! But it was wet and slippery too — Cynla had come through it and she’d still come in with muddy shoes.
Riei put her head in my lap and fell asleep, and after a while Jerna sat down between the children and sang them to sleep with the invocation to Anshen to a lullaby tune, and that must have put me to sleep too because I woke up the next morning in a bedstead.
Riei and Jerna were in it too, as well as a couple of children who’d crawled on top of Riei. “Snow makes some people awake and other people sleep half the day!” Jerna said, but I could tell her that Riei was never very awake in the morning, and I usually was.
“Me too,” she said, and only then did I notice that I was wearing a nightshirt that came to my ankles and the bottom four inches of it were lace! “I gave you some of mine,” she said, “they’re about the right size.”
She was a bit taller and I a bit broader, so it fit me well enough, and Riei was taller still but that would probably only mean it didn’t quite reach her ankles. I picked up the hem to have a better look at the lace. “Wonderful,” I said. “I know how it’s made, I’ve seen a couple of old women do it in Valdis.”
Now I looked around in the room and saw that it wasn’t large, but very beautiful: wood panelling to shoulder-height and a whitewashed wall painted with leaves and fruit and flowers above that. “Is this your room?” I asked.
“Yes, I thought we could all share my bed,” she said.
“It’s beautiful! I like the wall paintings.” There was a small loom in one corner, and in another corner a basket of raw wool and yarn and some tools I didn’t recognise but must have to do with spinning. “Ooh, you can spin and weave!” I said. “I can sew and embroider and knit a little, but I never learned spinning and weaving. If we have to stay for another couple of days, can you teach me a bit?”
“Sure,” Jerna said, and then looked at Riei and the little kids again and said, “When you get married, you’ll have to find a way to have children or she’ll be so unhappy!”
“Hylti and Arni managed, didn’t they? The world is full of men. Anyway — well, I don’t think I’m old enough to be in love yet, but if I do, I promised Riei it would be with her.”
“I’d skip the ‘if’,” Jerna said. And I had to admit she was right.
We had big bowls of porridge in the kitchen. When we said that Riei was still asleep with the children on top of her, Hylti and Arni had to go and look, and came back giggling, “So cute!”
Vurian came into the kitchen with his hand full of snow. “Don’t throw it!” Jerna said, “not inside!” And then I saw it was a firm ball made of snow that he was holding. I went outside with him, and he first showed me how to catch snowflakes on my tongue (that was fun) and then how to make a snowball and throw it, but when I threw one at him he caught it out of the air. And the second one as well, even though someone was distracting him. “I’m Raissei Vurian astin Velain!” he said, as if that explained everything.
“Let’s not throw stuff at each other,” Rovin said, “let’s build a house of snow!”
“How?” I asked. I saw lots of snowballs stacked into walls in my mind’s eye.
“We’ll make bricks of snow. And if we get the snow from the yard instead of this field, we’ll help the servants, too! We’ll need a wheelbarrow and a couple of shovels, and something to make them straight with.”
We went into the yard, where an old manservant was standing next to a wheelbarrow with a shovel in his hand, looking kind of hopeless. “Can we borrow that?” I asked.
“To cart the snow out of here,” I said.
“You are going to clear the snow out? Good girls!” And then he saw the boys, “And good boys!”
Then we worked (“like beavers”, Jerna said, and I didn’t know what that was but it’s a kind of great big rat that makes its house from twigs and branches it bites off trees, that must be a lot of work!) until we were all sweaty and hot, even though what we were working with was cold snow!
It stopped snowing at some point but we had a huge mound carted into the field, and Rovin had a wooden thing like one corner of a building that we could push the snow into to make the bricks straight.
“When did you learn that?” Vurian asked.
“I didn’t have all those law and statecraft lessons from your mother!” Rovin said and stuck his tongue out.
“But it hasn’t– Oh! Last year.”
There was a round wall that came to our waists now, with a door in it, and Rovin knew how to make angled bricks to close the opening with an arch. He really was going to be a builder! Riei appeared about then, but she was so cold that she went back in at once.
After some more work we had a whole round dome that we all squeezed in. Some little kids who had been watching squeezed in with us. It wasn’t even really cold inside! “How isn’t it cold?” I asked, “it’s made all of snow!”
“We are warm,” Rovin said. “Not so warm that it melts and falls down, though.”
“We need some things!” Jerna said and ran out.
“I think she’s going to get a blanket, and some food and drink, and a lamp,” Vurian said.
“And perhaps some sheaves of straw to sit on,” I said.
“You’re underestimating her,” Rovin said, “she’ll bring a book to read to the children, as well.”
When she came back she had all of those things, even the book! And we laid the blanket on the straw and sat on it, and ate and drank, and Jerna read to the children in a really nice and sweet voice.
“Goodness, the door’s snowed in,” Rovin said after a while. It was becoming harder to breathe, too, we were probably using up all the air. We had to dig ourselves out, but the new snow wasn’t hard yet so it was easy. “Like a mole!” Vurian said, and dug with both hands in front of his face as if he was swimming.
“Next time I’ll make a chimney,” Rovin said.
When we were in the house again, warming up, Jerna said, “I wish I could go to school in Turenay too! But I’m too old now.”
“Why would you be too old?” I said. “Riei’s mother is going to school in Valdis and she’s thirty at least!” And Vurian said, “It’s the Guild school, some people don’t go there until they’re forty! Not everybody finds out they’re gifted when they’re ten or twelve or so.”
I didn’t know if I’d be happy to have Jerna with us when we went to Turenay, I’d been looking forward so much to travelling with the four of us! And Riei thought the same thing, and told me so in her mind. But she was going to try to persuade her father, so perhaps she would after all.