The Halfway Inn, to Turenay
The next day we met more people on the road, going to the west as well. There were about twenty of them, with oxen and mules and carthorses! “Have you seen Erian and Lyse?” they asked.
“If they have an ox-cart with mules tied behind, yes, I think we did,” I said. “Yesterday. They tried to reach the next shelter after that one” — I pointed behind us — “because they didn’t think they’d make it back. We did warn them of wolves and bears.”
“Silly of them, wanting to be in Valdis first,” someone else said. There was some talking back and forth. “And how’s the weather back there?” the first person asked. “We’ve heard about lots of snow.”
We told them about the snow, and again about the wolves and bears, but not about the foxes. Those weren’t dangerous, and without speaking we all agreed that it was a secret between us and Mizran.
“Might as well make camp here and see how far we get tomorrow,” they said, and they waved to us as we rode on.
The next few days were very uneventful. The snow became less, and there were brooks and pools again, and the shelters we used were large enough and clean enough. One day the road crossed a field that was all white, not with snow, but with lots of little bell-like flowers. “Snowdrops,” Jerna said, “those are the first flowers of spring.”
“We’ll probably see crocuses when we get near Turenay,” Vurian said, “spring is earlier in Ryshas. At this rate we’ll have a week in Turenay before the feast, two weeks before school starts. We’ll go to my grandparents first, they’ll put us all up the first night.”
“Both your grandfathers live in Turenay, right?” I asked.
“Yes, but this is Grandfather Vurian, he’s got a large house. Grandfather Radan and his wife rent their top floors to people, there’s no room for five of us.”
“I’ll probably want to live in the school as soon as possible,” Jerna said.
“I thought I might go and live in the school too,” Vurian said, “but there’d be no place for Rovin there. Though it’s likely you’ll live with your master. Or at the Ishey house if you go to learn building from the Ishey! Say, we could both live at the Ishey house, the little doctors did that too. I can probably learn from King Mazao while I’m there!”
“The king of the Ishey?”
“Yes, and my father likes him a lot, he’s a very different sort of king but it’s always good to learn things!”
In the following days we did see other flowers (I don’t know if any were crocuses, and I forgot to ask Jerna), and then we came to a place where a side road went south, and in the fork there was a very large inn. “The Halfway Inn,” the boys said. “Though it’s not halfway at all, it’s only about two days from here to Turenay. If it’s clear tomorrow morning you can already see the smoke of the town.”
It was very crowded here with lots of people who didn’t want to travel to the west yet because of the snowstorm. but we managed to get a room for the five of us — it had a bed meant for two ordinary-sized people but most of us were smaller than that and we’d squeeze in. And all the horses fit in the stable, and the mules under a half-roof with other mules and donkeys. There was a warm bath (people in the other tubs were telling us to stay in Turenay for twelve days so we could go to a different bath-house every day, warm water came out of the ground just like that there!), and then we got stew and bread and a big jug of weak beer to take upstairs because there wasn’t any place to sit in the taproom.
“Let’s seal the room, all of us together,” Vurian said. “There’s all sorts here.” I’d seen that, more of Anshen than of Archan — I still don’t know which of them to call the Nameless — but nobody we’d want to barge in on us in the night. The boys had their heads at the foot of the bed, and the girls at the head, and all our legs were sort of tangled up, and we fit! And even slept rather well because it was a good straw mattress, not a hard floor or a loose heap of straw with our blankets on top of it.
“If we leave early,” Vurian said in the morning, “like now, we could even make it in one day. Grandfather Vurian once rode from Valdis to Turenay, or the other way, I forget, in nine days without killing his horse, but I’m not him and my horse isn’t his horse. And I think he had better weather.”
“How long did we take?” I was trying to count on my fingers and losing count.
“Fifteen, sixteen days, I think,” Vurian said. “Good enough for winter.”
We drank tea with honey, and had bread and cheese to eat while riding, and left earlier than most other people after a bit of a muddle because Vurian and Jerna and I all wanted to pay part of the bill (Vurian paid all of it eventually, but he had a purse from his parents that was especially for travel money, I think).
In the middle of the day, when we were having a rest, we saw smoke in the distance which the boys said was the town. “You know, I’ll ride ahead and tell them we’re coming, so they don’t close the gate on us,” Vurian said. So he gave the reins of his pack-horses to Rovin and spurred on his mare, and then we could see that he was a really good rider! Of course he’d been riding almost all his life. Rovin’s horse strained forward and he had to rein it in really tightly, “you want to run too, don’t you, girl? You’ll get your chance but not today.”
When we reached the town it was getting dark, and Vurian was standing next to his horse in the gate, arguing with the guard. “See? I told you they’d be in time.”
“Hey, Merain,” Rovin said. “Remember me?”
“Of course I remember you, scamp!” he said. “Have you come to beat me at fencing again?”
“I’ve come to live here!” Rovin said. “And these are our friends.”
The guard let us in and closed the gate behind us. “We’re here almost every summer for the fencing tournament,” Vurian said, “and the town guards compete too, but Merain, er, isn’t very good. Rovin and I have both beaten him twice now, and we were only eight the first time!”
Turenay was larger than Tilis, much smaller than Valdis, and probably a bit smaller than Lenay, but it felt so much nicer than Lenay! Some houses were built of stone, some of wood, some half-timbered like many houses at home in Little Valdyas, and I felt at home immediately. Nobody seemed to think it strange that five young people with twelve horses and mules were going through the town.
After a while we got to a house with a large courtyard where everybody knew Vurian and Rovin, so it must be Grandfather Vurian’s house! There were people to take the animals, people to take the baggage, and two old men and two old women who came and hugged Vurian and Rovin. The old men were both his grandfathers, Grandfather Radan had come too! And the old women were Grandmother Rava who is the head of the Guild school, and Grandfather Radan’s wife Halla. (He’s the king’s widowed father, and he’s now the sheriff of Turenay, and he married a widow who is an apothecary and they live next to her shop.)
I think the boys were very daunted by the old women! But I liked them, Grandmother Rava is strong and Grandmother Halla is very friendly. And both the grandfathers are nice, too.
In this house there was a room that was just a bathroom, not a scullery that happened to have tubs in it! We all got hot baths, and one of the women taking care of us gave me oil for my hair, and we could borrow clothes to wear while our own clothes got washed.
Then we sat at the dinner table with the family and all the other people, and Grandfather Vurian wanted to know everything we’d experienced on our journey and he listened to all of us! Then one of us (it might even have been me) said that Riei was good at lockpicking, and that got Grandfather Vurian all interested and he went away with her and we didn’t see either of them for the rest of the evening, even when we went to bed.
In the morning Riei was in the bed with me and Jerna, and when she woke up she was very cheerful. “I knew a lot of things he didn’t know!” she said. “We broke into four or five houses, but we didn’t take anything, we even left stuff there!”
Jerna wanted to go to the school at once, to enroll and get a place in the dormitory, so we planned not to go to the school until later (even though Vurian wanted to enroll as well) so we wouldn’t be in her way. “I know!” Vurian said, “I’ll take you to Master Mernath. You’ll like that!” (And he meant me, very specifically, by ‘you’.) “He used to be in the Guild of the Nameless but he got better.”
“Hey,” I said to Jerna, “you were nice to travel with. Thank you.”
“Better than you expected, right?” she said, and that made me blush and nod a bit awkwardly. She hugged me and Riei, and the boys as well.
So Jerna went one way and we went another, into a neighbourhood with smaller houses and workshops. I wasn’t trying to learn my way yet, and anyway Turenay is so small it’s hard to get really lost. We got to a smithy, where the smith knew Vurian and Rovin, and looked at me and Riei and called us each by the right name, Vurian must have told him about us! “You can watch,” he said, “I’m just going to teach these apprentices about steel. An Iss-Peranian invention, this particular kind, but I think I’ve improved it. Someone from the school in Veray was here a while ago, he’s back there now, but we did a lot of work on it together.”
“I’m going to the school in Veray,” I said, and that made the smith give me an approving look. His face wasn’t smiling but I could see a smile in his mind.
So we spent the whole morning joining in the lesson! I don’t know what the boys and Riei thought of it, though they didn’t complain, because I was completely absorbed.
In the middle of the day the work broke up and the smith’s wife brought bread and cheese and small beer. Then she kissed him and said “I’ve got a late shift, you’ll have to get your own supper” and disappeared.
“Nurse in the hospital,” the smith said. “Pie day today.”
When we were talking about exploring the town, one of the journeymen, Ferin — a huge young man, not much older than Riei, but he’d been working like he was nearly a master — said “It’s my half-day today, would you like to come with me and meet my family?”
“He’s got seven children and his wife is a schoolmistress,” another journeyman said.
“Seven? You don’t look older than sixteen to me, how did you do that?”
“Ashti already had two when I met her –she used to be a priestess of Naigha– and I made two, and we adopted one, and then I made two more. That’s three pairs of twins, Doctor Cora doesn’t really want Ashti to have any more, at least not for a while.” Then he took us to a bridge over a stream that didn’t look as if it needed one, at least not such a large one, but perhaps it was deeper and wider in wetter seasons.
On the bridge there was a young woman with a whole lot of children, it looked more than seven, some of the bigger ones carrying babies. She had very white hair, and white skin but it was painted with all kinds of animals and plants in ink, and that was easy to see because she wore a short skirt and short sleeves, in this cold weather! This was Ferin’s wife Ashti. “She’s from the north,” Ferin said, “she’s never cold!”
“Those kids aren’t all yours, surely?” Riei asked, and no, some were neighbours’ children, and some from the school that had broken up for the feast but their parents were working and they were too small to work along with them or to be left alone.
Across the bridge the houses were much smaller, it was clear that this was where poor people lived. Ferin and Ashti took us to a large house, clean and painted, and it felt good, as if the people who lived there loved it and loved each other. The eldest girl promptly gave us small cups of beer — good thing the cups were small because it was stronger than the smith’s wife’s brew — with a proud look on her face, she was an apprentice brewer and she’d made this. “I’m just back from Gralen,” she said, “and they want me back at the end of the summer so I can learn to make cider, too!” (Wasn’t Gralen where Vurian and Rovin spent their summers?)
And this house also had a forge, but Ferin wasn’t allowed to work there because he wasn’t a master yet. Another smith was using it, though, a woman almost as large as Ferin. She lived in the upstairs room with her wife who worked in the hospital. I wondered why Ferin couldn’t work for this master, but she wasn’t his master and he wanted to learn as much as possible from Master Mernath. And that made sense! If I hadn’t wanted to go to Veray, and if I was strong enough to be a smith, I’d want to learn from Master Mernath too.
“Now let’s go and ask the Ishey about living there!” Vurian said, and we said goodbye to Ferin and Ashti and all the children and the smith, and climbed the hill on the north side of the neighbourhood, and then a long flight of wooden steps. At the end of the steps there was a large wooden house and a woman was waiting for us. She looked Iss-Peranian rather than Ishey, and she had a baby on each arm who didn’t look either, they had yellowish brown skin and flat noses. The woman handed a baby to Rovin and one to Vurian, and tugged her shirt into place, and said “That’s enough nursing for now! Welcome. I’m Asa.”
“Queen Asa,” Vurian said, and that confused me a bit because I knew King Mazao was married to a prince, not a queen.
“She’s married to Veh, and he’s the best builder in the world,” Rovin said. “Or at least in the part of the world I know!”
“So have you come to be his apprentice at last?” Asa asked. “He’ll like that.”
“We were thinking — could we perhaps have a room here, the two of us?” Vurian asked. “I’m going to school, but–”
“You’ve never been apart all your lives,” Asa said.
“Except when Father took me to Ashas,” Vurian said, “but we both hated that. Well, not Ashas, but not being together.”
And only then I realised that we were speaking trade Iss-Peranian and had been all the time, even Rovin.
“Emeh!” Asa called, and a girl appeared who did look Ishey. “Could you clear out the little room in the back corridor, fourth on the left, for these two young men?” (And that she said in Ilaini, I’d never have understood it if it had been Ishey.)
“You’re staying the night, of course,” she said, “you two girls as well. The boys can fetch their things tomorrow. I’ll tell Rava you’re here.”
Then she took us further into the house, which was full of people, and more than half of the people were paler than I was. And there was an actual waterfall inside the house! Asa told us that it was really the other way round, the house had been built around the waterfall.
We met Asa’s husband Veh: a man with tits, and nobody thought that was strange. I could see that he really was a man inside, even though his body looked like a woman’s. And King Mazao, who talked with Vurian for quite a long time.
After an evening full of food and drink and singing and telling stories, we all crawled into bed, Vurian and Rovin in their new little room and Riei and I in a large room full of small and bigger girls of the house.