Travelling to Veray
Someone woke me up very early in the morning: a maid with washing water, and when I was washing my face, another maid came in with breakfast. Fresh bread, still warm, sausage, cheese, a small wrinkled apple and a jug of weak beer! I waved a bread roll under Riei’s nose, and she tried to bite it without waking up.
“You won’t get any until you sit upright!” I said, and then we ate and she washed after eating and we got dressed and packed the few things we’d taken out last night and went downstairs.
Someone had already packed and saddled our mules! And everybody was there, not only Lord Vurian and Lady Rava, but also Vurian and Rovin and Jerna. “I thought you’d disappeared into the school!” I said to her, but she said “I wanted to say goodbye properly! Thank you for having me with you for travelling.”
“Thank you for coming with us!” I said. “It was a lot of fun and we learned things from each other!”
Vurian gave Riei a flat package that she tucked away somewhere; if she wants to tell me she probably will, but if it’s a secret I hope I won’t be tempted to pry. And Rovin had brought a bulging bag. “Food,” he said, and fastened it on a pack-mule. Lady Rava gave us a couple of letters, one from Lord Vurian to the baron, and one for the people she was sending us to for the first couple of nights. “They’re the parents of someone we sent out as a runner, weaponsmiths. They often have people from the school to stay.”
“Oh!” I said. “Maile’s parents! We met Maile in Essle.”
“Ah, even better, you already know who they are.” And then there were hugs all round and we were on our way, with the sun just starting to rise. It was cold enough for our Khas coats, but the air smelled nice and it looked like it was going to be good weather.
At the east gate we had to make way for a man herding a couple of very old-looking cows into town. “For the slaughter?” I asked, and he said “Ssh! Don’t let my girls know before their time!” And in my mind I heard him say They don’t give milk any more, they don’t have any calves, it’s better to eat them. I could only agree with that, and said And use their hide for leather!
“Those will need a long time stewing!” Riei said when we were out of the man’s and the cows’ hearing. “Nothing wrong with that, though.”
First we were riding between farms and fields, and later it became a bit more wooded, and then we were in a real wood on a road sunken between high banks. It was darker and colder here, and we were glad of our coats! Just when we thought it was time to find a place to rest and eat, we came to a large clearing where other people were doing the same thing. The mules were very interested in the grass and little shoots of other green things, that was probably why the clearing didn’t overgrow, all passing mules and horses and donkeys and oxen would want to graze and eat the little tree-shoots before they could grow into trees!
When we opened Rovin’s bag it turned out to be full of Síthi pasties. Two small children from a family who were coming from Veray with their ox-cart came to investigate, “are those pasties from the stall on the bridge?”
“Shall we give them some?” I asked Riei, but she was strict, “you’re going to Turenay! You can buy your own pasties when you’re there!”
“Yes, but they’re hungry now,” I said, and Riei relented and gave them one each before we went on.
There was more wood here, but the sun was higher and could reach into the hollow road so it was a lot warmer and we rode with our coats open. Towards the end of the afternoon, just as we were thinking it would be nice if there was an inn with a fire and a stew-pot and a stable, a boy about our age with a small flock of sheep came out of a side road. When we made room for them, the boy whistled between his teeth and said “Hey, pretty girls!” He looked more Ishey than some of the Ishey we’d seen, brown skin and a big grin.
“We were wondering if there’s an inn nearby,” we said, but the boy said “What would you want an inn for?”
“Food, and a bed, and a stable!” we said, but the boy said “Won’t you come along to my mother? You look like you’re from the south, she’d like to hear your travel stories. She’ll put you up and give you something to eat, and the mules can sleep in the barn.”
That sounded like a good idea! We followed the boy and the sheep to the next crossroads, where a signpost pointed to the Halfway Inn but the boy and his flock turned into a smaller path heading north. Soon we came to a large open space with two farmhouses and a lot of other buildings, we heard chickens, and quite a large dog came bounding toward us. Riei grabbed my arm, but I wasn’t scared of the dog and scratched him behind the ears.
“Now you can run!” the boy said to the dog. “This morning you were too lazy to herd the sheep. Well, I can do without you, they do what I tell them anyway.” He put the sheep in a pen, and our mules in the barn, and showed us where the well was and helped us carry water, and only then took us inside where a woman was nursing a baby. The woman was pale with light brown hair, but the baby was as dark as the boy. “You’re late, Thulo,” she said, “and who are your friends?”
“Travellers from the south!” he said. His mother motioned for us to sit down, and other people started to come in, a couple of farmhands and an older couple who lived in the other house. “There were thirty people here before,” Thulo told us, “but when the pox came everyone died except me and Mum and Aunt and Uncle across the field. My sister and I don’t have the same father, mine is Ishey and hers is Síthi.”
“So that’s why you have all that space for just a few of you,” Riei said.
“If we ever don’t want to live in a town any more we can live here!” I said, but Riei didn’t see anything in that, because we both did work that needed people nearby who didn’t live on farms, they lived in towns.
We had thick soup and bread and a whole bowl full of tiny green and reddish leaves that Thulo said were vegetable sprouts that had to be thinned out so the ones left in the field had room to grow into vegetables. I never realised it worked like that! We’d never had it at home in Albetire, and we did have a vegetable garden, but perhaps the gardeners and the cook kept it all for themselves, because it was delicious!
Then we talked the whole evening! First about our journey from Valdis to Turenay, then about travelling by boat, and about Essle, and then Thulo’s mother wanted to know about Albetire, and I had to tell all that because Riei had of course never been there. We’d already talked about foxes and bears and wolves, and now I could tell them about jackals and antelopes and elephants and monkeys. Nobody knew what a monkey was, so I took the one I’d made out of my pack (“That’s not an animal!” the old man from across the field said) and asked for a broomstick to let it climb. “And I’m going to school in Veray to learn to make much better things like this,” I said.
“Can you sleep on straw mattresses?” Thulo’s mother asked when everybody was going away and to bed.
“Even on a pile of straw on our own blankets,” I said.
“Good, then I won’t have to charge you fourpence for a bed,” she said. I still don’t know if she meant that! But straw mattresses we got, in front of the fire in the kitchen, and we had a very good night’s sleep there.
In the morning we got something for breakfast that was a bit like the egg thing in Three Hills, only there were pieces of salt meat and pieces of vegetable in it, and you ate it with a very nice sharp vinegary yellow sauce. “Do you have so many eggs?” Riei asked, “are your hens still laying?”
“They’ve started laying again,” Thulo’s mother said, “and I’ve got a hundred and twenty hens, we’ve got plenty of eggs.”
“Then can I buy two shillings’ worth of eggs from you? So we have something to start out with when we get a place to live.”
“You’re going to stay with people to start with, right? Then you have something to give them.”
That was an even better idea! And my two shillings bought a dozen eggs, which Thulo carefully packed in straw in a wicker basket.
“Can I see the hens?” I said, and then Thulo took us to a pen where there were really a lot of hens. It looked kind of like a city square on market day, with hens coming together in groups and chattering and breaking up again, sometimes pecking at each other. And in the middle of the pen there was an enormous dog.
“His grandfather was even bigger,” Thulo said, “his shoulder as high as my shoulder. I was smaller then but not much.” This dog also wanted to smell us, and Riei was very frightened but I scratched his ears as I’d done with the other dog and he sniffed our hands and then flopped down at our feet. On our feet, really, with his back against our shins.
“See, he likes you. Wonderful dog. Keeps all the foxes out of the chicken coops,” Thulo said. And as he walked to the barn with us to get our mules, “Thank you for the stories. Mother loves the south, but she can’t travel herself with the farm and the baby.”
“She’ll have to wait until your sister is old enough for the two of you to handle the farm,” I said, “and then travel to the south!”
“She might just do that! Well, have a good time in Veray and see you later!”
In the middle of the afternoon we saw some dark clouds of smoke drifting over us and we thought that must be Veray already, but it wasn’t! That was a couple of hours later, when we came to the top of a hill (it was really hilly here, even more than near Turenay) and saw the town below us, with the river running through it and the castle on the hill opposite across the river. I’d expected the air to be as dirty as in Albetire because the town was full of smiths, but it wasn’t, it was almost as clear as in Turenay!
“We’d better hide,” Riei said, and we did. When we got to the gate we had to write down our names again, just like in Lenay and Valdis. The guard read my name and said “Miallei Leva from Essle– are you here for the school?” and when I said yes, he got another book and crossed my name out where it was written there! “And you?” he asked Riei.
“I’m Leva’s wife,” Riei said unashamedly. I almost couldn’t help laughing.
“Do you need a place to stay?” the guard asked.
“We’ve got a letter for people who can put us up,” I said.
“If you go into that street,” he pointed, “second house on the left, there’s the orphanage, you can get someone there to take you to the house. This town is complicated for people who aren’t used to it.”
The orphanage was a house that looked almost Iss-Peranian, or like a temple of Naigha, so large was the courtyard. It was full of children, some playing, some talking in groups, some doing woodwork or sewing or basket-making or other kinds of work, some sitting alone reading or writing or drawing. There were a couple of grown-ups as well, but we didn’t talk to them, because when we entered the courtyard a girl came up to us and asked “Have you lost your parents?”
“Mine have both died, yes,” I said.
“Then you’re in the right place!”
“Oh, but we haven’t come to live here, we need someone to take us to a house in town.” And I showed the letter.
She called, “Faran! Your turn.” And a boy of about eleven came from where he’d been doing something.
“These people need a guide,” the girl said. All the while she was stroking the nearest mule. “Those are wonderful mules!” she said. “I’m going to be apprenticed with Erian the carter soon, but he’s got oxen, I like mules much better.”
“I’m going to be apprenticed with the weaponsmiths,” the boy Faran said. “Merain and Arni.”
“Oh!” I said. “This letter is for them. That’s where we need to go.”
“Easy!” Faran said, and took the foremost mule and led us through a lot of small steep streets that I can’t remember now. “Veray is confusing if you don’t know it,” he said, “but if you’re going to live here you’ll learn soon enough!”
He left us at a door in one of the small streets. It looked like he was wavering between knocking on the door himself or leaving that to us, but then he bowed and made to leave. “Do I give you a tip?” I asked and started to get my purse from under my shirt.
“We’ll send a bill,” he said, “everything’s done on paper, much safer.”
We knocked on the door, and after a while a woman opened it. “Come in,” she said, “I’ll get someone to put your mules in the stable. Jeran!” And a big young man came and took the mules from us. The woman took us through a smith’s workshop into a large kitchen. “I often get people from the school here.”
“We’re not strictly from the school,” Riei said. “Leva, perhaps we need to unhide.”
“Oh,” the woman –who must be Arni– said when she saw us as we were. “I understand why you were camouflaged. Do you” –that was Riei– “object? I’m the head of the Guild of Anshen here.”
“I’m used to it,” Riei said with a shrug.
We got soup and bread and hot tea, and then we helped peel and chop onions, lots of onions! Also some carrots and a cabbage, and beef and mutton that looked so tough that we chopped it very small. But the knives we got to do that with were the sharpest I’d ever seen. A girl –i think Maile’s youngest sister– who was working with us said, “that’s our specialty, not like those blue knives from Albetire that start out sharp but they get blunt at once and you can’t sharpen it!” And she took my knife that I’d laid on the table in its sheath when I rolled up my sleeves to chop all those onions, and went to sharpen it at the grindstone. It had never been so sharp before!
People started coming in, the smith and his sons (one was the young man who had taken care of our mules, the other older and even larger) and the elder son’s wife, all still in their leather aprons which they hung on hooks on the wall, several women and a few men who could only be whores, and a woman who reminded me so much of Erne, and who was tired in the same way that Erne was after a day’s work, that I found a jug of beer and poured her a cup at once, and Riei had the same idea and gave her a piece of bread and cheese.
“Thank you,” the woman said, and looked at us. “You are … Leva, and then you must be Riei.” Goodness, had everybody heard of us? But the woman grinned and said, “I’m good at hearing things.”
It became another evening of telling our stories. Then a young man we hadn’t seen before –he was good at keeping out of sight– asked me and Riei, “let’s go and get some more beer from the cellar, okay?” so we grabbed a jug each and went downstairs with him. He sealed the cellar hatch at once. “I’m Jichan,” he said, “I got sent here from the school at the same time that Maile got sent to Essle. I understand you’re looking for a place to live.”
“Yes,” I said, “like an attic or or a room or a couple of rooms, with our own fireplace at least so we can cook for ourselves. Not in a posh neighbourhood and not in the worst neighbourhood either.”
“Would you mind having someone as your downstairs neighbour who rents out her bed? With her in it, I mean. But the upper floor is all free. It is in the worst neighbourhood, I admit that, but I promise it will be safer than a better part of town. Everybody knows each other. You’ll run much less risk that you’ll be nabbed by any grand masters of the Nameless. Or of Anshen either, for that matter. Not that we have any in this town.”
“I call them both the Nameless now,” I said, “much less hassle!”
“You’ve got the right idea. But does that sound good to you? I’m not promising anything, but I’ll ask and get back to you.”
Riei and I looked at each other and nodded. Then we had to draw a jug of beer in a hurry and get back upstairs, because people were knocking on the cellar hatch. “Is there any beer?”
This was another evening of telling stories and showing off my clockwork, and then we got a bed in a spare room and slept until morning. I hadn’t even given my eggs to Arni yet, but if I woke up early enough they’d be there for breakfast!