The bath woke me up, and the cup of hot water flavoured with mint and blackcurrant leaves cleared out the last cobwebs. I drank it with a pale, heavy bread spread with a yellow fat and dipped in something gloriously sweet and purple.
“Oh thank you!” I said, “You are really kind! What is this?”
“Blackcurrant leaf tea, bread from our own oats, and butter from our own cows, dipped in blackcurrant honey. But it’s you that’s been kind, my dear! So much you’ve done for Kahan and – and for all of us – and – I was so afraid…” She turned to a pot on the fire and stirred it, very hard.
“How long have I been asleep?” I asked. “And how’s my patient?”
“Eight hours, and doing gradely, Lady Seer. She’s slept as well, of course, but there ben’t no fever on her at all. But…”
Oh oh. Not a good word, that. “But?”
“We think she may – she seems not to hear so well. Especially on her left side.”
“Is she completely deaf?”
“No, well, well perhaps you could try for yourself?”
“She’s had a very bad fever,” I said, “so it’s not a surprise. She could have been left far worse.”
“Yes, I know, Lady Seer. We know we’ve a lot to be thankful to you for.”
“Give thanks to the Spirits alone,” I answered formally. “I’m just a shaman. It’s one of the things I do – letting the Spirits work through me.”
“Yes, I know, I mean…” She twisted her hands in her dress like a shy five-year-old. “But to us it’s you we have to thank, and… and we know not how we can.”
I smiled and finished my breakfast.
“Right,” I said eventually, “I’d better check on my patient.”
I stood up, and as I did, there was a noise at the door: Stack came in with a furry bundle dangling from his shoulder. I glanced across at him and then up at my hostess –
No I didn’t.
I glanced up at him and down at my hostess.
I was actually taller than the grown woman, and Stack was a palm taller than me.
And I suddenly realised: this was how it was going to be, now. This was as tall as I get. From now on, the boys – men – will always be bigger than me; no longer will we keep overtaking each other. From now on I will always be shorter, always smaller, always weaker.
Always weaker in body. But that isn’t what matters in the end, I told myself. What matters is strength of mind. I will still be in control – I just need to remember to be clever about it.
It’s what I told myself, but I didn’t really believe it, not then. I’d had too much just lately, too much growing up to do too quickly.
“I brought these,” said Stack. “Didn’t want you being a burden on our neighbours.” And not just another chance to ogle the girls. Of course not.
“Hares!” exclaimed Crear, almost snatching them from his hand. “Oh wonderful! But you needed not! It’s too much after all the Lady Seer has done for us!” Though she showed no sign at all of giving them back. “Chawo, my dear, take these out to the larder to hang, and I’ll deal with them later.”
Her eldest daughter came out of the shadows and took the three hares from Stack; she held them at arm’s length, as though they were something nasty.
“Are you sure, mother?” she said. “We know not where these savages got them from. Edlis says they never wash properly, and they just keep meat loose in their packs, not wrapped or anything.”
And who is this Edlis? If Edlis doesn’t like our meat, perhaps Edlis would like to taste some of my mushrooms?
“And look what they’ve done to Graam – near killed him and tied him up and now they’re going to just kill him!”
“Graam? What are you talking about? Your brother’s here – oh, you mean Graam of Ennall! He deserved all he got, and well you know! They can keep him or kill him for all I care!”
So our campguest had a name. Graam of Ennall. Not that I cared, but it’s sometimes convenient to have a name even for a pile of shit.
“Er…” Stack sort of coughed. “I think – er – Hawk is…”
There was a noise of barking dogs and then a strange regular thumping rhythm outside, and Hawk came in. He had a rope in his hand. The rope was jerking up and down in time with the thumping.
“I’ve brought you another present as well,” said Hawk. “Or at least, we thought it better for you to look after him than us.”
The thumping was explained: our recent guest came in through the door after him, jumping instead of walking – with his feet tied together he had little choice. The rope ran from Hawk’s hand to noose our guest’s neck, and then down his back to tie his hands together. Just to stop him being frightened Hawk – always considerate of others – Hawk had blindfolded him as well, so that he couldn’t see the ground before he hit it. Which apparently he had done, several times.
Hawk tossed a bundle to Stack, who passed it to our hostess while Hawk untied our recent friend.
“His clothes,” Stack shrugged
As Hawk pulled off our friend’s blindfold he suddenly jerked his head – perhaps he’d only just realised where he was.
“Crear!” he stuttered. “Oh I am so –”
“Well, you we want not here!” exclaimed Crear, snatching up a broom and shoving it into his side as if he were a pile of dust. “Get out! And take your filthy clothes with you!”
“But Crear!” he yammered. “You know not what they – how they – they said they were going to –” but by then he was outside the door. With a final flourish of her broom Crear scared him out of the yard – he scuttled off like a rabbit.
“We didn’t actually do him much harm,” I said. Stack looked sulky. “But he did have a broken collarbone.”
“I’m sure you’d not,” answered Crear, “and I said and meant it if you had it would have been no more than he deserved. He was always a bully and a weasel. I never liked him. Edlis and he got on well, though, now I think on it.” She hung her broom back on its peg. “Now, Chawo, see to these rabbits like I told you!”
“But they could be weeks old! Edlis says that they sometimes keep food till it’s mouldy!”
Excuse me? Does this girl know about cheese? How does she think her mother makes it? What precisely does she think the blue stuff on it is?
“I can tell mouldy food for myself, thank you, dear!” Crear shook the hares under her daughter’s nose – almost cracking them like a whip. “These, on the other hand, are fresh killed, and need to be hung for at least a week at this time of year before they are edible! Now, do as I say, young lady, hang these up in the larder, and be not so rude to our guests!”
Chawo lifted the hares out of her mother’s hand and carried them, conspicuously at arm’s length, out of the door.
“I’m so sorry!” Crear exclaimed, turning to Stack and then to me, “She really was nothing like this before she paired off with Edlis. And it seemed such a good match at the time…” her voice trailed off. “Anyway, she’ll be going back to him soon. It’s just for his labour, so it’s only this moon.”
“His labour?” I asked. “What’s that exactly?”
“My dear? Oh, of course, you’d know not, perhaps. Edlis holds lands over by the river, in Bulken territory, so he has to work one month a year for Governor Coy – not man with man, of course, but helping with a project of the Governor’s. This time it’s repairing the flood defences around the Langeen farms. It’s always something like that – something that helps everybody, as you would expect of so noble a governor.”
I may have been wrong, but I somehow felt that the last bit did not come from the heart, if you see what I mean. I made a note not to have anything to do with the Governor at Bulken if it could possibly be avoided.
“So your daughter is just with you for a moon?”
“Yes, that’s right, Lady Seer. She felt nervous living by herself with a baby in her – and her first, too – so she has stayed here while Edlis is away. Haven’t you, dear!”
“Yes mam.” Chawo had come back in, wiping her hands on her dress. So much cleaner than us dirty savages, she is. “But I’ll be back with him in ten days. Edlis says it’s important for the man and the woman to be together as much as possible for their first child.”
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say this Edlis was wrong, but how should he know?
“So you can take that sulk off your face, young lady, and help me lay the table!”
“But you’re laying not for us all to eat together, mam, are you? Us and them at the same table?”
Crear spun round, hands on hips. “Yes daughter, I am laying for us all to eat together. This lady saved your sister’s life with her skill, and you want us to treat them like priders?”
“We know not she cured Kahan! It could have just been coincidence! Edlis says that it’s all just trickery and chance – one or two of their patients get better anyway, and they pass them off as cures to trick others. Edlis says that if you talk someone into believing they are getting better, they will often get better without physick. Edlis says we should treat them like beggars because that is all they really are, just savages and beggars!”
I filed the word ‘physick’ for future use (what a great word!) and wondered who ‘priders’ were – definitely a status to avoid, I gathered. Otherwise I managed to just grit my teeth and say nothing. From the corner of my eye I could see Stack’s lips getting narrower and narrower, and Hawk’s face darkening.
Fortunately the three of us managed to keep our tempers and our mouths shut. Unfortunately the fourth of us didn’t.
“That ben’t fair!” shouted Whisper. “She cured Kahan, you know she did! And she cured my fa – my who‑was‑my‑father and he was believing not anything, and my who-was-my-brother Paedr he was believing not anything, and who do you know who has got no better with her salves and stuff! It ben’t fair!”
Short of clamping a hand over his mouth, all we could do was let him run out of steam. The damage was done, of course, either way.
“Exactly,” stated Crear. “Exactly. The boy has said it. You are shaming me before our guests, Chawo, shaming me!” She almost spat out the words, one by one. “You I understand not, ever since you took Edlis, it has been the same with you, I have understood nothing of you or of him or of his folk. And now you shame me and all of us!”
“We need not eat together!” Dae must have walked in the door while Whisper was expounding his point of view. For a solid man he was very careful in his movements. “Daughter, since you wish not to share a table with our honoured guests you have my permission to leave. Now.” He glanced round. “Daeba, Creva, get your sister’s things packed into the cart. Now!”
“Yes Da!” “Yes Da!” and two figures scurried away.
“Oh Da!” exclaimed Chawo, “I meant not it like that. Come on, Da, please don’t be horrid! Please, Da!” but she was being sweetly coaxing to his back. It was Hawk that had the farmer’s full attention – but I couldn’t hear a word over that stupid woman’s wheedling.
“No, friend,” Dae took hold of Hawk’s elbow and shook his hand. “I understand you, and honour you for it, but I work not that way. It’s but a mile to her man’s aunt at Caadaisa, so we’ll sit down together not an hour later than we would.”