Category Archives: Writings

Apprentice in Clanning, Chapter One

We’ll go North and you’ll go South,
They’ll go West and East
All spread throughout the water road
Lifting the land like yeast.

Maybe we’ll meet tomorrow
Maybe not till next year
We know there might be troubles
Before we get back here.

But whatever the trouble we’re ready
Though we might be afraid
Apprentice and mentor together
We will not be dismayed.

Songs of the Silberay

Chapter One

“So you managed to get through a whole Gathering without getting into trouble,” Nemle teased.

Marheh laughed.

“And no more apprentice classes ever,” she said, taking both hands off the tiller for a moment so she could spin around gleefully, her dark plait flying out behind her.

“Careful now,” Nemle warned, laughing too. “There will be plenty of trouble if you so much as touch another boat, or the bridge hole.”

But she had already settled back to her steering, guiding Day Bringer capably through the bridge that arched over the entrance to Silberay Harbour and making the difficult, left hand turn into the water road that would take them north for the next two years.

The Gathering was held every second year in the first three weeks of spring. This year the weather had not been at all springlike and even now, when the three weeks were past, the morning was cold and overcast with a chilly little wind that seemed to be able to find its way beneath the layers of Marheh’s clothes and held out the threat of becoming a biting, big wind before the day was out. She was aware that many of the Silberay would choose to remain snug and warm in the Harbour for a few more days in the hope of a change but three weeks confined to the admittedly pleasant moorings at the Harbour left her feeling restless and caged in.

She looked apologetically at Nemle.

“Would you have liked to stay longer?”

Nemle shook her head. She was sitting on a little stool placed against the bulkhead, wrapped in her big cloak. Marheh thought how small she seemed now, but when she spoke size ceased to matter.

“You know me better than that. On with the job, that’s what I say.”

Marheh nodded.

“And is there a particular job or just more of the same?”

“More plant collecting, more grinding and pulverising, more watering … more…”

Again Nemle teased her, knowing just how uncongenial these tasks were. They were necessary though since Nemle’s herbs, her teas and tisanes and her salves and ointments were the chief portion of their livelihood. Marheh sculpted small pieces from clay and these were fired and sold at markets or stores in the villages they visited, but times were hard and her work was not selling as well as it had two or three years ago.

Marheh groaned theatrically in response to the teasing and Nemle laughed again.

Earning a living was only a small part of their work though. Their real job was more important, or so it seemed to them. Moving on, day after day, a few hours at a time, they brought their disciplines of mind and soul to the land, to listen for its health and sing light against encroaching darkness.

At the Gathering they had just attended routes were determined so that the eighty odd Silberay boats were distributed evenly. Any particular problems that had arisen over the previous two years were discussed and Silberay with appropriate skills sent in the appropriate direction to investigate. Apprentice classes were held for those apprentices in the first ten years of their apprenticeship and Marheh had not always found it easy to play the pupil when a teacher did not live up to the high standard set by Nemle, her mentor. She was exceptionally talented at the discipline of the mind and as a consequence more had been asked of her than was normal for an apprentice at her level.

Nemle was reflecting on this as she watched her, intent on her steering, happy and purposeful. She had not given an entirely honest response to Marheh’s question about their job. She had in fact protested when decisions were being made that she was too old and Marheh too young, that too much would fall on Marheh too soon if they were to try to do what was being asked of them, but even while she objected she knew that they were the best fitted for the task. It was not just their combined talent, but also the focus of the trouble. Their route involved the Clanning Branch and Clanning was her home town. She would have to tell Marheh tonight.

She pulled her cloak tighter around her, needing its comfort as well as its warmth.

“Why don’t you go in Mama Nemle?”

Marheh had noticed her action.

“It seems to be getting colder and I can manage.”

“Not just yet. I know you can manage but I want my share of the landscape, even when it is cold and bleak.”

Marheh nodded. She well understood just how important landscape was for Nemle because she valued it similarly.

“We won’t go too far today. I was thinking to moor by the entrance to the Western Egerington and Gracedale. You know, the lovely wide bit with woods behind it?”

Again Marheh nodded.

“It’s very nice of course, but almost too close to the Harbour.”

”Which is why we so seldom stop there, but I told Sul we’d be there tonight. He and Kel will be taking Storm Cloud up to Egerington.”

“Very sneaky,” Marheh teased. “So it’s only partly ‘on with the job’.”

“It is entirely on with the job,” Nemle said firmly, but she was smiling, looking past Marheh to something only she could see. “But there is no reason why we can’t say goodbye to our good friends away from the crowd at the Harbour.”

“No reason at all,” Marheh agreed, thinking it would be nice to spend time with Kel. He was Sul’s apprentice and six years older than she. That meant Sul was six years older than Nemle, she realised suddenly. The Gathering after next he would retire. Nemle would miss him. No wonder she wanted to take this opportunity to spend time with him. It was a shame the weather was so bad otherwise she and Kel could have gone for a walk and left them to talk.

The weather was bad. Already the wind had strengthened bringing with it spats of cold rain. Steering began to require all her concentration.

“Go below Nemle,” she urged. “You don’t need to get cold.”

Nemle stood up, hugging her cloak around her.

“I’ll put the kettle on and have a hot drink ready for you. Call me if you need anything.”

Marheh nodded and leaned forward to grab the stool and pass it to Nemle to take down with her.

“The way the wind is getting up I might have to fish it out of the water if we leave it up here.”

There was something exhilarating about being part of the wild weather. Once Nemle had gone, closing the door behind her, she felt she was alone in the world, just she and Day Bringer under the racing clouds, pressing onwards. It was a still couple of hours to the turning and she was aware that she would perhaps have had enough of the struggle by the time she reached it, but for now she was happy, so happy that the song that had been pulsing sotto voce in time with the engine now burst forth full voice. This was life, not the crowded comfort of the Harbour.

Nemle moved slowly through to the galley, folding the stool and hanging it in the engine room as she passed. Day Bringer was looking very well loved, she thought, brass polished, paint work gleaming. She paused a moment in the entrance to the bathroom to enjoy the fact of the new cassette toilet that replaced the lidded bucket they had used up till now. Marheh’s parents had helped them pay for it and she sent them a grateful thought.

The fire was well in and she had no need of her cloak now so she took it through to her cabin to hang up. Like Marheh’s cabin at the back deck hers was also a small, neat space. It had been installed in what had been her work area when she took Marheh as apprentice ten years ago. She had been seventy then and Marheh just twenty. Then, although she had wanted an apprentice, the new cabin had been rather unwelcome, signalling as it did the fact of her aging. Now she was grateful for the extra comfort of a bed instead of a bunk and the doors that opened into the well deck so she could appreciate the day and the light even from her bed if she wished.

This was not a day for opening doors however.

She made her way back to the galley and stood for a few moments flexing her hands and fingers, easing the stiffness that was beginning to trouble her in cold weather. The onset of arthritis she thought it might be, and no point in giving in to it. She did not want Marheh knowing either, not if she could avoid it.

A burst of squally rain sounded on the roof and streaked the window. Marheh would be cold and wet when she came in, not even the best water proofs could keep out this sort of weather, very un-springlike. Just as well she had planned a steak and kidney pie for their meal. She’d been thinking of Sul when she bought the meat. It was his favourite but they would all enjoy it on a day like this.

She stooped to take her ingredients from the cold cupboard in the bilge and set to work.

The pie was assembled and in the oven by the time they reached the mooring. She heard the changed note of the engine and the ring of mallet on steel as mooring pins were given an extra good hammering. When Marheh came through, damp, windswept and glowing the kettle was boiling and mugs set out ready with the mixture of spices and dried berries they called sperit. She stood in the doorway and breathed deeply.

“Yum, something smells good.”

“It’s for supper,” Nemle said, pouring hot water into their mugs. “Here this will warm you.”

“I’m not cold, not really, only my hands.” She cupped them around the mug. “It’s wild out there. Isn’t it great!”

Nemle smiled, enjoying her enthusiasm.

“I’m glad you think so.”

“It makes me feel real somehow, and we often have a fine day once it has all blown away.”

“That’s true.”

“What time are you expecting Sul and Kel? I’m surprised they aren’t just behind us.”

“They decided at the last minute that Storm Cloud needed a new centre line. I expect Kel wanted to splice it on before they left.”

“It could be a while then if the chandlery was busy.”

Nemle nodded. She had taken her mug and moved to sit in the armchair by the fire.

“What would you like to do?”

“Do you want me for anything?”

“Not today.”

“Some of my socks need attention. Tippa does knitting and she gave me some wool. If I was to bring them out here would you tell me about the Clanning Branch? We are going there, aren’t we?”

“Of course I will,” Nemle said, careful to hide her surprise at this suggestion.

Marheh ran back to her cabin and returned with a full mending basket and a handful of coloured wools. Nemle laughed.

“Good gracious, you can’t have a whole pair of socks to your name. If you darn them with those colours there will be no disguising the mend.”

Marheh grinned.

“I don’t care. I thought it might be fun to have coloured toes and heels and nobody will get their socks mixed up with mine.”

She sobered for a minute.

“I might have bought new ones only I know money is tight this year and I’d rather eat.”

“That does tend to take priority,” Nemle said. She held out her hand. “You’d better let me help you, after all you’re wearing them out in my service, but you’ll have to thread the needle for me.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.”

When they were settled, each with a pair of olive green socks, Marheh with yellow wool and Nemle with red, Marheh took her place on the footstool at Nemle’s knee and leaned back against the armchair.

“The Clanning Branch,” she said firmly.

“The Clanning Branch,” Nemle repeated obediently. “You know Clanning was my home town?”

“No! Why haven’t we been there before?”

Silberay were encouraged to keep contact with their families and Day Bringer had visited Deerford, Marheh’s home town, several times since she had been apprenticed.

“Not much point,” Nemle said. “I went back with Hafa, my mentor, once or twice, but we were not welcome at home. I think I’ve told you my parents were not pleased when I chose to join the Silberay. I’d an aunt there, my mother’s youngest sister who supported me and I visited her, but it must be fifty years since she died.”

“But we’ve had this route before.”

“Yes,” Nemle said. “And you’ve been to the service area at the entrance but I’m afraid I encouraged you to believe that the branch itself was no longer navigable.”

“Nemle! You lied to me!”

“By implication, yes.”

Marheh turned round to look at her. Nemle didn’t lie, didn’t even prevaricate.

“What happened to you there?” she asked, rather appalled by this confession.

“I don’t think I want to go into that now. It was a family thing and over long ago. I’m sorry I was so cowardly as to lie to you.”

Marheh didn’t know how to answer but she leaned her cheek against Nemle’s knee for a moment.

“But we are going there this time, aren’t we?”

“Yes, they’ve given us a job there. I’ll tell you about it later. For now, well, the Clanning Branch was the last section of the water road to be made, nearly one hundred years after everywhere else. The Mayor of Clanning at the time wanted the Silberay for the good influence, or so it was claimed, and also for the carrying ability of the boats. There were coal mines near Clanning and the Silberay used to carry the coal all over the country. It’s the only part of the water road to have been built for a single city.”

“And now?” Marheh prompted when she had not spoken for a few moments.

“And now we are going there with a job to do, but we’ll talk about it later, once we’re really on our way.”

Marheh knew she meant what she said. She might have been tempted to argue except they heard the sound of another boat and felt the movement as Storm Cloud drew in behind them. She flung her half mended sock into her mending basket and got up.

“I’ll go and see if Kel’s splicing is as good as mine,” she said, filling the kettle and putting it back on the fire. “And I’ll invite them in for sperit.”

“You do that,” Nemle said rather dryly looking at the neatly darned sock on her lap. Then she laughed. Marheh would never be domesticated in a million years and it was no good expecting it.

Marheh looked at her a little uncertainly then caught something of her meaning. She grinned.

“I know, I’ll come to a bad end if I go around in holey socks, but I bet my splicing is better than Kel’s”

“Oh go on with you,” Nemle said laughing and shaking a sock at her. “I bet it isn’t.”

She was not away long and when she returned she was shepherding Sul and Kel in front of her.

“You win,” she said. “My splicing is good but Kel’s is magnificent. I have to admit it.”

She stayed in the galley to make the sperit while Sul and Kel made themselves comfortable at the table.

“This is nice,” Sul said, looking kindly on each of his hostesses.

Nemle smiled back at him but did not speak. Sul was very deaf and it would be easier for them to communicate mind to mind as he did with Kel. Marheh carried mugs of sperit across to them but she too was silent.

“It’s a wild day,” he went on. “No doubt you did as I did and sent your poor downtrodden apprentice to battle the weather.”

Marheh grinned at him and mimed the poor, downtrodden apprentice so that they all laughed.

After a bit Nemle got up and moved across to the table, offering the armchair to Kel.

“I don’t know what you and Marheh would like to do,” she said. “A light lunch now and pie for supper later, or skip lunch and pie for high tea?”

“Why don’t I take Marheh across and give her lunch on Storm Cloud so you and Sul can have some time together? We might go for a walk if the weather clears.”

“Do I have a say in these plans?” Marheh asked.

Kel inclined his head towards her.

“What would your ladyship care to do?” he asked.

She put her tongue out at him.

“Go and have lunch with you on Storm Cloud,” she said sweetly.

“Take her away and wallop her,” Nemle said. “We’ll see you back for supper around 7.00 o’clock.”

She watched as they made their way through to the back deck, smiling a little as she heard Kel telling Marheh she could be an idiot at times. Marheh’s response to this did not reach her but she could imagine it might have sparked a lively debate. Dear Kel, he was kind and sensible and fond of them both.

She turned to Sul and put both her hands in his.

“How are you my friend?” she said into his mind.

His answering smile and the light pressure of his hands took them deep into the communion of their long friendship.

“Bread and cheese and a tomato,” Kel said, putting them on the bench as he spoke. “Will that be enough for you?”

“Plenty.” Marheh leaned against the bench and looked about her. “It’s ages since I was on Storm Cloud. Has she had a new paint job or am I imagining that she was darker?”

“Paint where there was blistering behind the fire. The rest of it was just hard scrubbing, getting off the lamp black and candle smoke.”

“You’ve got her looking lovely.”

“Sul likes her to be shipshape.”

He handed her a plate and began slicing bread.

“How is Sul?” she asked. “I know he’s deaf, but he seems pretty fit apart from that.”

“He is. It’s hard to believe he is 86. He’s a bit slower in the mornings and he leaves the steering to me now except when there are locks, but his eyesight is still good and his mind.”

“He’s wise isn’t he, like Nemle?”

“Very.”

He handed her half a tomato, a chunk of cheese and a couple of slices of bread.

“He and Nemle have been friends for a long time, haven’t they?”

“Yes, as far as I know.”

She took her plate across to the table and waited for him to join her.

“I don’t suppose…”

“What?”

“Has Sul said anything to you about why you’re going to Egerington?”

“The same reason you’re going to Clanning I suppose.”

“I don’t know why we’re going to Clanning but Nemle doesn’t want to. I just wondered whether Sul might have said what happened to her there. She won’t tell me, just that it was a family thing.”

“I don’t know anything about it but if she doesn’t want to tell you should you be trying to find out?”

“Kel, she’s afraid. I’ve never been to Clanning because she let me think the water was no longer navigable. How can I help her if I don’t know?”

Kel was silent while he assimilated this information.

“It seems so unlike Nemle,” he said at last.

Marheh nodded.

“She apologised for being so cowardly as to lie to me. I can’t quite believe it of her even so.” She cut off some cheese and put it on her bread. “She did say she would tell me what we’ve been sent to do once we are properly underway.”

“No distractions like visits to friends,” he said. “Next Gathering you won’t need to wait to be told, you’ll be there with us, involved in the discussions.”

“And thank goodness for that! Sometimes it feels as if you think I’m still a child.”

“Aren’t you?”

He got ready to dodge but she put on a haughty stare and did not deign to answer him.

The wind had abated a bit and it was no longer raining by the time they had cleaned up after their brief meal. Marheh was keen to stretch her legs and Kel was happy to humour her so they set off up the hill from the water road with no real plan of where they might go.  They were walking beside farmland along a narrow, little used lane, the wind in their faces. Keeping warm meant stepping out briskly so there was no conversation but Marheh found pleasure in the sense of companionship and exhilaration in battling the wind.

Reaching a tee intersection they paused to consider their direction. Neither of them was familiar with the possibilities so Marheh’s suggestion that they continue uphill so that it would be downhill on the way home seemed as useful as any. They had not gone far when they saw they were approaching a small, rather ramshackle farm cottage.

A heavy wagon stood outside. A man was heaving something large and square onto it. As they drew nearer a second man emerged carrying a couple of chairs which he tossed carelessly into the back.

“He wouldn’t be treating them like that if they were his,” Kel said. “What’s happening do you think?”

They were walking a little warily now, though still at a steady pace. The first man went back into the cottage and came out again with an armful of what looked like folded linen, sheets and towels, and after him came a woman dragging at him and crying. The second man, having rid himself of the chairs, pulled the woman away and held her while the first man tossed his bundle after the chairs. Marheh and Kel looked at each other and began to run towards the cottage.

The two men turned belligerently in their direction as they came closer and the woman looked at them with dawning hope.

Marheh went to stand beside her.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Did they hurt you?”

Kel stood looking at the two men.

“There’s no reason to treat a woman that way,” he said mildly.

There was a confusion of noise, explanations and expletives building until one of the men went to push past Kel and go back into the cottage. The woman cried out as Kel stood his ground and the second man seemed about to charge.

“We got a right to the stuff,” the first man said. “She owes us money.”

“It’s not true.” The woman sounded shrill and angry. “They’re thieves, common thieves.”

Marheh looked from one to the other. Her first instinct would have had her challenging the men but surely they would not have stayed to argue if they were actually engaged in something criminal. She could see Kel was wondering too.

“What business is it of yours anyway?” one of the men said angrily as Kel still stood blocking the doorway.

“It’s everyone’s business to make sense of injustice,” Marheh said sharply.

As far as the two men were concerned she might as well not have been there.

“Come on then,” the second man said to Kel. “We got a job to do.”

“What sort of job?” Kel asked. “You didn’t look to be treating this woman or her possessions very carefully.”

“What’s it to you?”

Kel did not answer just continued to stand in the doorway.

“Nothing to be careful of. It’s all rubbish, her too. Husband’s scarpered and the boss wants her out of the cottage.”

“He has not scarpered. He’s gone south for a few weeks to try and earn some money.”

“His Worship says he’s scarpered, he’s scarpered. His Worship wants you out, you’re out.”

“I am not out,” the woman shouted. “This is my cottage. You give me back my things or this gentleman will make you.”

“Oh yeah!”

“Oh for goodness sake!” Marheh said impatiently. “You don’t care about the things, that’s obvious by the way you treated them. Give them back and go and tell his Worship that he made a mistake.”

The man looked her up and down.

“Well, well,” he said, mocking her. “His Worship’s made a mistake has he?” He took a step towards her and she glared at him. “Mistake was in letting you out of the kitchen. You were mine you’d be on your knees scrubbing the scullery with a good belting to be going on with.”

Marheh gasped and opened her mouth to respond when she caught Kel’s eye. Shut up, Marheh, it said as clearly as if he had spoken, and she knew he was right. She turned to the woman who was looking from one to the other, a rather stunned expression on her face.

“Do you owe money?” she asked quietly.

“Some,” the woman said. “Kids gotta eat don’t they?”

“Children? Where are they?

“Two littlest at school and Jack’s looking for … a bit of firewood.”

Marheh had a feeling this had not been what she was going to say originally, but she didn’t pursue it. Instead she turned back to the two men.

“You can’t put a woman with three children out of her home,” she said and set off toward the wagon. “Come on, I’ll help you take the things back inside.”

For a moment the two men were taken by surprise then one of them lunged for her. It was what she had been waiting for. She was only permitted to use the discipline of the mind in self-defence and he had just given her permission. She sent her command into his mind and he froze just as his fingers reached for her arm.

“Come on,” she said to the woman again. “I’ll help you get your things back.”

She knew Kel would deal with the other man. She hadn’t given him a choice really and she thought he might be a bit cross with her later but she put that aside and climbed into the back of the wagon.

Gathering up the linen and towels she handed them out to the waiting woman who was looking at her with a curious expression of fear and satisfaction mixed.

“Go on, take them inside. You can fold them up again later.”

She lifted out the two chairs and lowered them carefully to the ground then looked at Kel. He was standing beside the other man who was looking at him rather fearfully.

“I can’t lift the other thing by myself,” she said. “It’s a little chest of drawers.”

Kel spoke quietly to the man beside him and went to join her. Together they lifted it down and Kel carried it into the house. Marheh followed with the chairs. Kel did not look pleased. No, that was not it, his looks revealed nothing, but that meant he was not pleased. She shrugged inwardly. Pleased or not she’d got things moving hadn’t she?

After the woman had shown them where to put the things they went outside to the two men again. The one Marheh had controlled still stood as she had left him, the other was walking cautiously around him.

“What’s she done to him then?” he said angrily to Kel. “They used to burn witches around here.”

“I haven’t done anything to him and I’m not a witch.”

She removed her control and the man continued his lunge toward where she would have been standing.

“I think you had better go,” Kel said. “You really have no right to put the woman and her children out of their home.”

“I don’t know where you’ve come from sunshine, but around here if you can do it, it’s right. Seems like you’ve got the upper hand at the moment so we’ll be out of here. Doesn’t mean we won’t come back though.”

He grabbed his mate, who was looking rather puzzled still, turned him round and gave him a push in the direction of the wagon. Then he went around it and climbed up himself. Almost before his mate was on board he began to drive away.

Marheh and Kel stayed with the woman, helping her fold the linen, asking about her absent husband and trying to discover why it was that His Worship, whoever he was, thought he could claim the cottage. The woman was evasive but admitted as she already had to Marheh that she did owe a little money at the general store in the nearby small town of Collier. The proprietor understood that her husband was away and was letting her extend her credit for the sake of the children. It was nothing to do with His Worship, whoever he was.

Jack came home then with a couple of rabbits. He was a scrawny, uncommunicative youngster of perhaps fourteen and thus old enough to be out of school. Marheh and Kel decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. His mother gave him an abbreviated account of the afternoon’s events but it was clear that she wanted her remaining visitors to leave. She resisted their questions in such a way as to make them feel they were intruding just by asking and tried to suggest they had best be continuing their walk before the rain came again.

It was all very puzzling they decided as they turned back towards the boats.

“I’m pretty sure Collier is on our route,” Marheh said thoughtfully. “If it’s the place I’m thinking of I don’t remember anything special about it.”

She had been doing most of the talking while they walked but now Kel spoke.

“Will you tell Nemle what happened?” he asked.

“Of course,” Marheh said, wondering why he had needed to ask.

“And that you used mind control?”

“Only after he went for me.”

“Which only happened because you provoked him.”

Marheh stopped to stare at him.

“Are you accusing me of breaking the law?”

He stopped too. He could see she was angry. He opened his mouth to reassure her but she didn’t give him time.

“Just because you have more muscle than brain doesn’t mean that I do,” she snapped. Then she turned and strode quickly away.

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Apprentice Still, Chapter One

“Rules and regulations! If we were really pursuing the aims we believe in would we need them? It seems the answer is yes.”

Sila’s Journal: the early years

Chapter One

“Marheh Carron, we find you guilty of using your mental ability for the purpose of exploitation.”

There was a small gasp from somewhere in the room and Marheh’s face drained of colour.

“Stand while sentence is pronounced.”

Obediently she stood, straight and still. Only Nemle, her mentor, knew her well enough to recognise the tension in her clenched hands.

“The proscribed penalty is that you be grounded and Day Bringer lifted out of the water for ten years.”

Marheh stared down the emptiness of ten years imprisoned on land.

“However, in view of your youth, I am authorised to offer you the choice of a beating and a two year extension of your apprenticeship.”

Silence.

She stood motionless, determined to reveal nothing, but she dared not meet Nemle’s anxious gaze. Those nearest saw her close her eyes for a moment, saw her swallow with difficulty. Everyone in the room heard her clear soft voice when she said “I choose to be beaten.”

There was an exhalation, as if the room had been holding its breath.

“Very well.”

The voice paused. A page was turned in a large book.

“Sentence will be carried out in this room on Tuesday next at 10.00 am.”

The owner of the voice left the room and a babble of sound rose from the spectators, but Marheh still stood motionless as if any action would break her fragile control. At last Nemle went to her, took her by the hand and led her away to Day Bringer.

The Harbour was looking particularly beautiful in the spring sunshine. Light played on the water and the shining brass of the Silberay boats gathered there. The trees that bordered the moorings were veiled in new green. A gentle breeze touched the water, the trees and Marheh herself, but she was isolated from it all, encased in a hard shell that prevented feeling.

It was not until they reached the haven of Day Bringer’s cosy saloon that her control broke and she began to shake so much that it seemed easier to drop to the floor than force her legs to carry her further. Nemle crouched beside her holding her in her arms while she sobbed.

At last, when her trembling had ceased she looked at Nemle.

“I won’t let them force me from the water road, no matter what it costs.”

Nemle’s arms tightened around her.

“But you don’t have to do it this way. Accept the grounding. That will give us time to find the truth. Tuesday is only three days away.”

“And if we don’t find out, if the sentence is not overturned? Ten years could be the rest of your life and if we are off the water we will never learn who hates me so much.”

Nemle closed her eyes, opened them again. There was nothing to say. Marheh sighed and snuggled into her arms.

“Hold me a bit longer Mama Nemle,” she whispered. “Then I’ll be brave.”

Nemle held her and kissed her and helped her to wash her tear-stained face so that when a businesslike rap on the roof demanded entrance she was in control of herself again. Their visitor was the man who would carry out her sentence. He was matter-of-fact, even cheerful, like a doctor with a pleasant bedside manner. He carried folded garments of white cotton and a small piece of blue rubber, half moon shaped. He put the things on the table and waited for Nemle and Marheh to sit.

“You will present yourself at 9.45 wearing these clothes only. They fasten at the back,” he said. “You may have this to bite on.”

Marheh looked at the blue rubber in horrified fascination.

“Nemle will prepare you by fastening your wrists and ankles to the frame that will be constructed. She will then uncover you. You will receive fifty strokes of the cane in the space of an hour.”

Marheh shivered and Nemle heard a tiny whimper from deep in her throat.

“Now you need to come outside so I can measure you for the frame.”

Obediently Marheh followed him out to the back deck. She stood on tiptoe with her arms stretched above her head when instructed. She waited while he made this measurement and that. Nemle stood on the back step watching with anxious eyes. When he was done he rolled up his tape measure and nodded to her.

“I’ll see you on Tuesday,” he said. Then, as he was stepping off the deck he turned back to add. “Best if you don’t have breakfast and be sure to empty your bowels and bladder.”

Nemle thought Marheh would faint she became so white. She sprang up the steps and supported her into the back cabin, held her through spasms of uncontrollable shaking. She was still trembling when they felt Day Bringer move as someone heavy came on board. Nemle looked up angrily, afraid of some new refinement of mental torment, but relaxed when she realised it was Marheh’s Uncle Jik. He came down the steps and took in the scene in the cabin.

“Wrap her in a blanket and I’ll carry her through to the saloon,” he said. “I saw that pantomime on the back deck.”

Hastily Nemle pulled a blanket from Marheh’s bunk and wrapped it around her. Jik gathered her in his arms and carried her into the saloon as if she was a baby. He put her onto Nemle’s lap in the big chair. Nemle cuddled her until she was calm while Jik perched beside them on the footstool.

“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I didn’t know … how it would be.”

Nemle still held her, but now she tried to get up.

“I’m too heavy for you Nemle,” she said.

“You stay here daughter, just let me hold you.”

Jik reached out to take one of her hands in his. Marheh held it tightly.

“I didn’t do what they said, Jik, truly.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“You won’t tell them at home, will you?”

He shook his head. “Not that they would doubt you, but it would hurt them.”

Marheh nodded. “That’s what I thought.”

“Marheh,” Jik said. “You know there will be people watching don’t you?”

“I guessed there might,” she said, cuddling in to Nemle again.

“Will it make it better or worse if your Uncle Jik who loves you is there?”

Marheh clutched his hands.

“Oh, better. I can be brave for you and Nemle.”

Water Road Apprentice, Chapter Two

“Maintain firm discipline, instruct the apprentice in obedience and service and expect both at all times.”

Guidelines for mentoring the young apprentice

Chapter Two

Six weeks later Nemle stood at the tiller of Day Bringer. Part of her mind was on her steering, the other part, the major part, was attempting, not for the first time, to address the problem of her new apprentice. Marheh was at present sitting on the boat’s roof, half heartedly dabbing at the brass ventilator caps with a polishing cloth, a sulky expression spoiling her lovely face.

Things had begun quite well. Marheh had seemed eager, too eager perhaps. Even on their first day of boating she had wanted to talk and been surprisingly forthright in her opinions. Nemle had not expected that. Neither had she expected how wearing a constant presence could be. She had snapped at times, sending the child and her chatter away to her cabin.

Her cabin. Nemle caught the thought and forced herself to examine it. The cabin that was now Marheh’s had been her own for fifty years. No matter that she now had a new cabin, the old one had fitted her like a glove. She knew where everything was. There was a place for everything and never a wasted moment hunting for some ordinary necessity.

She mourned her workspace too, gone to make room for her new cabin. None of that was the child’s fault.

Then there was the problem of the clay, something her father had given her to practice with, though practice what she did not know.

The landscape slowly eased past as Day Bringer moved steadily onward. The countryside had a pleasant, homely feel about it. The silver ribbon of the water road uncoiled in easy curves between low hills. Nemle saw Marheh pause in her polishing, saw her face soften as she took in a farm cottage nestled amongst trees. A trickle of smoke drifted from one of its several chimneys and almost like a reflection, a drift of greyish white sheep fed in the field below.

She is beautiful. It must make a difference.

Nemle had no illusions about her own looks. She had always been short and stout even when she was the age of this girl. Now, at seventy, she was stocky and strong with a face that hid her thoughts behind the weathered look of old wood.

She pushed the tiller a little way from her so Day Bringer moved easily into the curve ahead.

“Bridge!”

She called a warning to Marheh and received a venomous look in return.

“I saw it.”

She stayed where she was a dangerously extended moment before swinging nimbly down to the gunnel.

Nemle bit back her instinctive anger, understanding that Marheh was being deliberately provoking. She supposed she must bear some responsibility for that too, remembering how she had lost her temper in the first week of their journey.

She had been woken while it was still dark by the movement of the boat. At first she had simply waited expecting the movement to cease when Marheh returned to bed, but then there had been stealthy sounds from the galley and she had got up to investigate.

She had found Marheh crouched on the floor feeding the fire with little pieces of coal. Keeping it alight was one of her jobs. The fire door was open but the damper was still partly closed so there was smoke in the saloon and the galley. She did not like to remember the scene that followed.

Marheh had looked up at her from the floor. She had not bothered to put on her dressing gown or slippers and her white nightdress was streaked with coal dust, not only her nightdress, but her hands and face also.

“The fire was going out. I thought I might be able to rescue it.”

At that point Nemle had still been in control of herself. She had put her candle on the bench next to Marheh’s and tightened the belt on her dressing gown. Marheh had returned to her fire, carefully positioned another couple of pieces of coal and shut the door.

“I think it’s caught now,” she said, beginning to stand up and stepping on the hem of her nightdress.

She put out a hand to save herself and caught the rack of dishes she had left to drain the night before. They crashed to the floor. A couple of plates, a mug and a bowl shattered on the hearth, cutlery skittered into corners and a saucepan tumbled into the sink then rocked itself gently into stillness.

Nemle remembered a moment of shocked silence before she exploded, hurling her anger at Marheh in a stream of ugly words that cut across her attempts at apologising. She had grabbed Marheh’s wrist and held her, berating her, then hauled her off to the bathroom.

There was barely enough room for them both in the tiny space, but she crammed them in and began to pump water into the basin with her free hand. Marheh tried to wrench her wrist free.

“What are you doing?”

“Scrubbing some sense into a stupid, spoilt child.”

She had dropped Marheh’s wrist and seized her plait at the nape of the neck instead. Then she had grabbed the nailbrush, stabbed at the soap with it and begun to scrub at the black smear across Marheh’s cheek.

“You’re hurting me!”

“I’m punishing you. Keep still.”

She had scrubbed until the black smear was gone and Marheh’s cheek was bright red then she had handed her the nailbrush and stood over her while she scrubbed away every last speck from her hands.

Marheh had been monosyllabic ever since.

Nemle watched her, still standing on the gunnel, looking ahead, one foot kicking restlessly at the paint work.

She had apologised of course, later when Marheh had dressed and cleaned up the mess. She knew her apology had been stiff and unpractised but she had not dared to reveal how appalled she was at her own outburst.

Marheh had shown clearly in the weeks that followed that her apology had not been accepted.

“I’ll be mooring in a few minutes Marheh. Take the front line please.”

A boating task such as this was the only time Marheh showed any enthusiasm for her new life and now she moved obediently into the well deck and picked up the coiled rope.

Time and patience, Nemle thought, hoping she had enough of the latter.

She eased back the throttle and guided Day Bringer carefully towards the bank. The bow touched lightly and Marheh stepped off with her rope, a mallet tucked into her belt and a mooring pin in her other hand.

She can learn when she wants to. Nemle pushed the tiller over and allowed the stern to ease in. A short burst of reverse halted the forward motion and a moment later she too had stepped off. She held Day Bringer steady with the centre line while Marheh worked with mallet and mooring pins at bow and stern. She did not in fact need Marheh’s help, having managed alone for the past thirty years, but since this was help Marheh actually wanted to give she was glad to take it.

“This is Fairdale Wood.” Nemle was coiling her line as she spoke. “We’ll stay here tomorrow.”

Marheh shrugged, returned her mallet neatly to its home and disappeared below.

Later as they ate their evening meal together, Nemle offered a cautious word of praise for her quick understanding of the process of mooring, but Marheh had not forgiven her yet and only tossed her head and scowled. Nemle held onto her temper and tried to continue calmly.

“I’m going plant hunting in the woods tomorrow. Would you like to come with me?”

“I’d rather go by myself.”

“I thought you might like to learn about some of the plants.”

“No.” Marheh stood up to take their bowls to the sink. They had not yet been able to replace the broken plates. “I’d rather go by myself.”

Nemle watched her fill the sink and begin on the washing up.

“If you wish. Perhaps you could collect some wood for the fire on your way home.”

Marheh said nothing only scrambled through the dishes and disappeared into her cabin. Nemle sighed and went to clean up the sink. Her one burst of temper had had catastrophic results and she was determined not to lose it again but sometimes she found it very hard.

She spent the evening making quiet preparation for her plant hunting and sorrowing over a relationship broken almost before it had begun.

Water Road Apprentice, Chapter One

DayBringer Web size

“BIRTHS – to Margaret and Stephen Carron a daughter”

Deerford Gazette, March 1910

Chapter One

March 1930

Nemle chose a seat in the front row. She was not normally a front row person, but today she had a job to do. Today she would become a mentor. Today she would take an apprentice who would be her charge for the next twenty years.

She had met her yesterday, a slim, dark-haired child with enormous brown eyes.

“Not a child,” she rebuked herself inwardly. “A young woman.”

But she seemed a child. She had only just scraped into this year’s intake. Yesterday had been her twentieth birthday. If it had been tomorrow she would have had to wait until the next Gathering two years hence.

“And she wouldn’t have been mine,” Nemle thought with a little flutter of… what… apprehension, excitement, anxiety? She didn’t know. Perhaps a mixture of all three.

The last night of the Gathering was always a grand celebration. For three weeks the ninety Silberay had been together to discuss problems, to share joys, to obtain their next assigned route and for apprentices to attend formal classes. In the morning they would take to their boats and spread out around the water road perhaps not to meet again for two years. Even more important than the celebration though was the ceremony and now the tables of food were moved to the side, the music and the talk were dying down and others were assembling behind and around her..

The Harbour Master and the Apprentice Master mounted the low dais and the gathered Silberay grew silent. In the ceremony to come the progress of the apprentices would be acknowledged. Until they reached their tenth year they were required to attend formal classes during the three weeks of the Gathering and satisfactory results were rewarded by the presentation of a new tunic in the colour of their new level.

Apprentices were the future of the Silberay so it was important to mark their progress at every level but for Nemle, as for many of the others, the two most important parts of the ceremony were the graduation of the final year apprentices and the induction of the first years.

This year five apprentices would graduate, five new Silberay take possession of the boats they had lived on with their mentors, five mentors retire to live their last years at the Harbour. That was a sobering thought. Today she would become a mentor. Would she be ready, twenty years hence, to leave the water road for ever? When she was twenty, seventy had seemed old but it did not seem so now she had reached it. Twenty years a mentor … again the flutter of apprehension, or was it anticipation?

The apprentices were gathering beside the dais. Nemle could see them moving into position all alike in their white shirts and loose brown trousers. There were three first years.

Nemle watched with interest as the first two, a young woman and a young man, were welcomed, spoke the words of commitment and received their tunics, gold-coloured for first year. Then came the third. This one was hers. The girl moved forward, back straight, chin up, ardent, glowing like a candle flame. She turned a little towards the Harbour Master and revealed a thick plait of long dark hair hanging neatly down her back.

“That’s the Carron youngster.” Nemle heard a man behind her. “She’ll be a handful.”

Nemle frowned.

“I, Marheh Carron, promise myself to the Silberay.” The young woman’s voice rang out. “I choose for my life the active pursuit of goodness and beauty.”

“All that passion and melodrama. I don’t envy her mentor.”

“They say she’s very talented.” This new voice sounded a little doubtful.

“All the more reason to come down hard then. Don’t want her to get above herself.”

Nemle went forward then to sign the indentures and welcome her apprentice but the man’s words hung in the back of her mind. “Come down hard” was that how she must treat this shining child?

Marheh stirred and stretched as the morning light crept into the little cubicle where she had slept during the Gathering. Then she remembered what day it was and flung back the covers. Today she would move onto a boat and her life as Silberay would really begin. The three weeks of classes had been, not boring exactly but not exciting either. After all she’d already been on lots of Silberay boats because of her Uncle Jik. He had even let her steer Autumn Wind once or twice on short straight stretches. The other two first years had been older, Tippa was months past her twenty first birthday but they had not really known very much at all.

Jik had told her lots about the history of the Silberay and what they believed so she had found it hard to sit and listen to someone else telling her the same thing when what she really wanted to do was to meet her mentor and start boating. Sometimes she had wanted to argue with the Apprentice Master who seemed to think she was a child who knew nothing but mostly she had remembered to hold her tongue. Jik and both her parents had warned her against showing off.

Last night had been glorious. She had been too excited to eat much of the party food. She couldn’t keep still long enough. She had spotted the woman who was to be her mentor. Jik had told her she was very lucky but watching as she moved quietly among the older Silberay Marheh could not see why. She was just a little old woman in Silberay uniform.

She had said her promise with all her heart, loudly, so they would know how much she meant it.

She scrambled into her clothes and re-did her plait. Now she had her tunic she looked like Silberay. The soft bag which held all her belongings was almost packed. She tucked her nightdress into the top then stripped the linen from the bed. That had to be taken to the laundry. She gathered it all into her arms and whisked off with it.

She was going to be the best apprentice that ever was. Nemle was pretty lucky really.

Nemle was up early too, dressed and breakfasted and ready to take Day Bringer around to the loading dock by the time the sun was fully above the horizon. She would need to get diesel and water before they set off but that could wait until Marheh was on board and become part of her first practical lesson.

Usually the tasks associated with setting out, the engine checks, the careful untying of mooring lines were second nature but today everything was done as if for the first time, knowing she would be teaching these skills. Manoeuvring out of her mooring she noticed how she used the throttle as well as the tiller to help her reverse and felt Day Bringer respond as she moved slowly and easily through the quiet Harbour waters.

She was just tying up at the loading dock when Marheh appeared from the building which housed the accommodation, extra bathrooms and the laundry. She was carrying a large soft bag and trying to run but the bag kept banging into her legs turning the run into a hop and a skip. Nemle watched her for a moment then bent to finish her mooring.

When she straightened again Marheh was in front of her, eyes shining, a little breathless, the bag clasped in both arms. Nemle smiled a greeting and hoped it would hide the sudden surge of panic that swept over her. What did she know about being a mentor? The advent of this eager young woman would change her life and now, suddenly, she didn’t want her life to change. Then she realised that Marheh was looking not at her but at Day Bringer.

The girl stood transfixed for a few moments then she put her bag down very carefully and stepped across it to touch the dark green hull and trace around the decorative letter D.

“Day Bringer,” she said softly, turning to Nemle. “She’s beautiful.”

“She is a pretty boat,” Nemle said, keeping her voice matter-of-fact. “You’ll be able to help care for her.” She stepped onto the back deck and turned to Marheh. “Come on board and get settled. There’s a bit to do before we can set out.”

Turning, she led the way through the open door and down the four steep steps into the back cabin.

“This will be your cabin,” she said. “Put your bag down here and I’ll take you through the rest of the boat.”

A sudden flash of resentment surprised her into the realisation that she did not want to relinquish her cabin to this new comer, did not want to have to occupy the new cabin that had been created for her in the bow, the work space it replaced gone forever.

She led Marheh through the cabin to the engine room, the big engine shining with her care, just waiting to be awakened. Then they passed the tiny cubicle that housed the toilet bucket and reached the galley with the saloon beyond it. She heard Marheh’s little gasp of delight as she took in the neat, compact space. The morning sun bounced off the water and filled the boat with light. The kettle gently steamed at the back of the stove. Everything that could possibly sparkle did so. The sink and the stove defined the small corner that was the galley. The chimney for stove and fire reached to the roof, black and shining. There were green curtains at the windows with a pattern of wildflowers. The lower sides were panelled in light golden timber, the lining of the roof and topsides was painted a very pale grey-green.  There was a big green armchair and a matching footstool by the fire and a small table and two little benches built against the opposite wall. Beyond that was the door to Nemle’s cabin, firmly closed.

After a few moments Nemle turned to look at Marheh.

“Your new home,” she said.

Marheh’s face shone.

“She’s beautiful,” she said again.

Nemle smiled then.

“She is, isn’t she?”

A moment of silence while Nemle hunted for some more words.

“Would you like to unpack now, or shall we get under way?”

“Get underway,” Marheh said, in no doubt. “But I just have to get my box of clay.”

Nemle stared after her as she turned and hurried away, watched through the window as she bolted towards the accommodation building and disappeared inside then shrugged, went to get the hose and started filling the water tank.