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