“Why don’t we have a people-cart, Mama?” Trenno was looking up at the horse-drawn wagon passing them, voicing for the first time a five-year-old’s awareness that his family compared unfavourably in this respect to others.
“Horses need more looking after than our Jess,” Sheshni indicated the donkey pulling the small cart containing all the family’s possessions, “And they eat food you have to pay for, too. ‘Sides, what would you want to ride in a wagon for? All day long, sat up there, with nothing to do? You’d lose the use of your legs!”
“I used to ride, Mama.”
“So you did, Trenno. When you were very little and you couldn’t walk all day, we used to put you in the cart for a while, for a rest. But you’re big now, and it wouldn’t be fair, expecting Jess to pull your weight along with the shelter and our things.” Her husband, Jaseth, was walking ahead as usual. She’d asked him to scout out a good place to stop for a bite to eat; somewhere they could perform, too, and earn some coins from the crowd to eke out their savings until they reached the big city. She’d sent Caillie with him to keep him company, so she only had one of the young’uns to jolly along.
And she had Scarn. His long-limbed awkwardness hid the burgeoning strength inside, and his swift changes of mood made her reluctant to trust in his support. On this occasion, however, he had his mother’s back. “Just like you to notice that big wagon, out of all the folk on their way to Levrik!” he exclaimed to his little brother. “How about the others, hey? Have you seen how many people don’t even have a donkey? Look at that family over there – even the little ones have to take a turn pulling the hand-cart, I shouldn’t wonder! And do you see those people we’re about to pass? Not so much as a cart! Each person carrying all they own, tied up in their spare tunic. You’d do better, lad, to see how lucky we are, ‘stead of hankering after what you can’t have.” He softened these words with a smile, and took Trenno’s hand. “Tell you what,” he went on more gently, “We’ll be stopping just as soon as Dad’s found a good place. If you can’t manage ‘til then, I’ll give you a little piggy-back ride. But only one ride today, mind – if you have it before lunch, you won’t get one this afternoon.”
The finality in his voice must have convinced the youngster, for he admitted, “I’ll be all right ‘til lunch. I just wondered, that’s all.”
Sheshni was watching Scarn, so she caught his eye when he looked over at her, and they both smiled, a complicit shared awareness of their mutual affection. She was the first to look away, for her secrets were closer to the surface than his, and she was afraid that he would see the knowledge in her eyes. Jaseth was right; she would have to talk to Scarn soon, or this fear would drive a wedge between them. But how could she bring up a subject that could lose them their first-born for ever?
* * * * *
The road was busier each day, and now that they had reached the outskirts of Levrik, there was little of the privacy that Sheshni valued so highly. At night, there were people sleeping on every bit of open land, at a premium as the huts and other buildings became almost continuous. By day, they were surrounded by people about their daily business, as well as by folk on their way to the city. She was glad she had decided to come to the capital half a cycle earlier this year; although they would be stuck in the city for longer, never an attractive proposition, it meant that they were ahead of most of the other travelling entertainers going to the Harvest Fair, biggest and longest of all the festivals in Levrik. So every town or village that they had passed through had been delighted to welcome them, not yet jaded by a surfeit of entertainment, nor impoverished by having to throw coins into the hat of one singer, juggler or dancer after another. They had therefore done well, had taken almost as much money already as they took over the whole course of the Fair last year – and they hadn’t even reached Levrik yet!
Nevertheless, it was with a heavy heart that she packed away her juggling equipment and tucked blankets around Caillie and Trenno, tired out by long days of walking as well as by their contributions to the lunchtime and evening shows that the family had put on. She found herself dallying, unwilling to go and sit beside the fire with her beloved husband and elder son. As she had told Jaseth, they had to speak to Scarn tonight, for tomorrow afternoon they would pass through the gates into the city, and their continued silence might be taken for acceptance. Besides, Scarn had the right to hear their objections before he met her again.
She shook her head impatiently; delaying further would serve no useful purpose. She went out to the fire, and poured out three cups of hot water, adding a handful of the mint leaves she had picked beside the road to each. “Levrik tomorrow,” she announced tersely as she passed the drinks round. “And we’ll be in time to set up the shelter before we do a show.”
“Maybe a little juggling and singing before we go through the gates?” suggested Jaseth. “The mudstucks just outside the city are usually quite generous – they like to show they’re every bit as good as those inside.”
“We’ll need your help all evening,” Sheshni went on to Scarn, following her own train of thought, “But you’ll probably want next morning off. You’ll want to see her, while we’re here. I want to talk to you about her.”
Scarn’s chin lifted just a little, and she saw the defiance in his eyes. “You’ve met her,” he said. “You even quite liked her, ‘til you saw I was sweet on her. That shouldn’t make you take against her so.”
“She’s one of the mudstucks,” Jaseth interjected.
“They’re not all the same, no more than us travellers are,” the youngster objected. “There are travellers who know they can get away with thieving, ‘cos they’ll have moved on before they can be held accountable, but that don’t mean it’s fair if we all get treated as thieves. And just because some of the mudstucks are petty, narrow-minded idiots who couldn’t cope without their luxuries and their servants, it don’t mean they all are.”
“Still and all,” Jaseth argued, “You’ll not find many city mudstucks as could feed theyselves, if you took away their fine shops. They’d starve, likely; unless they poisoned theyselves.”
“Now who’s being narrow-minded? They have different skills, that’s all.”
“Not very useful ones, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you!”
“I think,” suggested Sheshni slowly, and both her menfolk were at once silent, “I think we need to look at this differently. It’s not so much that some of them are stupid, in all the ways that matter. I’m sure they must have plenty of fine qualities, even if we can’t quite see what they are. But that’s not the point. The point is, they’re not like us. The things that are important to us, they don’t understand. And maybe there’s things that matter to them, that we don’t see. Getting along, day in, day out, wind, rain and shine – it’s not easy, you know, Scarn. Even for two people as close as your Dad and I.” She took Jaseth’s hand. “If we hadn’t both come from travelling families, if we hadn’t had so much in common, I don’t know if we could have made it. No matter how much we loved each other.”
In the matriarchal hierarchy that prevailed amongst travellers, if Sheshni forbade Scarn to see the mudstuck, he would have to obey, or face the scorn of all his kind. She saw this realisation on his face, and deliberately refrained from uttering the words that might have bound him unwilling to her, gesturing her permission for him to speak instead.
But at first he was silent. She could see his desire to blurt out his defiance and his yearning to persuade her to a gentler decision vying on his face, and she saw the moment his longing for the mudstuck won. “Listen, mother,” he said, “Neither of us wants to argue about this. And I tell you frankly, you’re too important to me for me to want to upset you. But if there’s a way, I do want to see her. And I think that seeing her will make me want more. You see, I’m being honest with you. I don’t want to cross you on this. But I don’t think you want me to pass up the chance to spend time with her, if obeying you makes me miserable. We’re too fond of each other, you and I, for this to be about winning.”
She raised her eyebrows, to acknowledge that he spoke truth, to appreciate his maturity in stating it all so plainly, and to signal her awareness that he was softening her up.
“So I wondered,” he continued, and she saw by the way his glance slid sideways that this was the crux of his argument, “How you’d feel about talking it over with Grandma. We could each say what we thought, and she could decide.”
She pursed her lips, to pretend that she was considering this. He was uncertain, she could see that, afraid that she would exercise her authority without allowing him recourse to a higher one. “What do you think, Jaseth?” she asked, more to delay her response than to defer to her husband.
“It’s your decision. But it’s an idea. Might make it easier to take an unwelcome judgement, if it came from someone you don’t have to go on living with. ‘Course, there’d be no point to it, ‘less you both agreed to accept whatever she said.”
“That’s true,” agreed Sheshni. “Well, Scarn, would you abide by what Grandma said? If I accepted to consult her, of course.”
“I would,” said the lad solemnly.
“Then so be it. She’ll not get here for a few more days, if I know my mother. In the meantime, you’ll be needed every lunchtime and evening for the shows, and I’ll expect your help with the little ones and Jess in the afternoons and after dinner. But, starting the day after tomorrow, if you choose to see the mudstuck in the mornings, you have my blessing. As long as you realise that it’s only for now – if your Grandma says you’re not to see her again, you’ll obey, and you’ll obey cheerfully.”
“I can’t promise to be cheerful, but I will be honourable. An’ if Grandma says I can partner her, and if I do, would you be able to welcome her to our hearth?”
“Another woman, to help me look after you lot? I’d be delighted. If that was what your Grandma said, and what you wanted. So – that’s settled, then. I’m glad we’ve found a way forward.”
“Your mother’s been very reasonable,” said Jaseth. “To thank her, perhaps you’d stay here to listen out for your brother and sister, so your mother could come with me to see Jess settled.”
In spite of the surprise on his face, the boy nodded, and looked at the fire. Sheshni guessed her husband had said this so that he and she could have some time alone together, for they all knew that staying by the fire was the favoured role, which was why it was usually hers.
“Is that fair on the lad?” Jaseth asked as soon as they were out of earshot. “Given what that brother of yours did? Your mother, of all people, won’t allow him a mudstuck!”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s unfair,” Sheshni replied comfortably. “You and I both know that I can’t bless such a union, ‘specially not at his age. If he were older, and he’d had his pick of other decent folk, and still hankered after someone like that, I might consider it. If she was a pleasant girl, and biddable, and willing to learn our ways. ‘Course, even then, she’d always be a bit slow, not having been properly trained as she grew. But I’d consider it. Not at fifteen, though. Not when he’s such a handsome, clever lad, with such a good voice on him.”
“So why not just tell him he can’t see her? Why delay ‘til your mother gets here, and why let him see the girl in the meantime? He’ll get caught up in wanting her, and it’ll come harder on him.”
“That’s possible. It’s also possible that he’ll start to see how simple she is, if he spends time with her. He’s not seen her since we came to Levrik for the spring fair, and had to stay ‘til Caillie got over the choking disease, and was strong enough for the road again. He’s not in love with a real person anymore; he’s in love with the girl he’s built her up to be in his head. Anyway, if it’s going to be helpful, that he’s forbidden her by my mother rather than by me, I’ve got to be open-minded. He’s got to feel I was willing to consider her, so he’ll come to me for comfort when his heart’s broke. I don’t just want him travelling on with us alone, after the fair; I want him to feel easy with us, not angry and resentful.”
“Still and all,” Jaseth dared to say, “It seems a little underhand. When you and I know how your mother feels, and the lad doesn’t.”
“What would you know? You never even met my brother!”
“And you won’t talk about him, nor will any of your family, when we meet up at fairs. But I’m no mudstuck, you know. I can see how he tore your family apart, how he’s there, a great big empty hole, whenever there’s tales of the past around the fire. And all for the love of a mudstuck!”
They had reached the animal enclosures; this close to the city, travellers had to pitch their tents and shelters close up against each other, and there was only room for animals in the pens some way back from the road. Jess was pleased to see them, but easy to settle, and Sheshni took her husband’s hand. She offered him more of her vulnerability than he had asked for. “She wasn’t even a very bright mudstuck, at that,” she said.
“Are there such things?”
She was disappointed; she had opened the door to talk about her brother’s betrayal, for the first time ever, and he had not even noticed, caught up in his prejudices as he was. “Oh, yes,” she explained. “That time, when we were stuck in their mud with them – the longest half a year in my life, that was – there were one or two I could have respected. Not that they had our understanding of the world, of course. But there was a girl, for instance, who was trying to overcome the mudstuck attitude. Sure, she was a bit slow – I knew more about plants and remedies than her, and she was a couple of years older than me – but she realised how much she had to learn, and she was doing her best. She listened; she wanted to learn. But my brother’s mudstuck – well, I never saw anyone so close-minded! She was sure she already knew everything, so she didn’t even notice how poor her understanding was. About as stuck as anyone could get. And him so clever, and so talented!” She hesitated, and then confided, “A lot like our Scarn. I think of him, every time Scarn gets up to sing.” She could see a light dawning in her husband’s eyes, and she brushed away any impulse he might have had to question her. “Well, come on, then! We’d best get back; it’s late, and I want us to set out early in the morning!”
* * * * *
They had each had their say, and now they waited for judgement. As was customary when someone other than the immediate head of a family was asked to settle a dispute or rule on an issue, all the other related matriarchs had been invited to hear what was said, although they were not allowed to speak. This was intended to help each learn from the others’ experience. There were therefore some eight women sitting on cushions in front of Sheshni’s mother. Sheshni believed that none but her would have been able to tell just how intimidating her son had found this ordeal. He had kept his voice firm as well as respectful as he put his case, and he had not faltered as women he barely knew watched him answering the intimate questions he had been asked by his grandmother. Sheshni was proud of him, as well as a little resentful; she had not anticipated how much it would put her on the defensive, to have her peers hear her public acknowledgement that she had chosen to appeal to a higher authority, and thus diminish her own. And yet, because it had disquieted her, to hear his gently spoken answers, and to sense his increased commitment to the mudstuck, she was glad that it would be someone else who would pronounce judgement.
She and Scarn were not allowed to sit, so they stood, unmoving, heads bowed, and waited until judgement should be passed. It was a long time coming, but at length the old lady said, “I am ready to give my decision.” Sheshni could feel the anticipation in the air, as if all the matriarchs were holding their breaths.
“This matter,” the old lady went on, “Troubles me. I am sad that it has risen. I am also sad because the case you have laid before me reminds me of another, many years ago – before you were born, grandson. Then, too, there was a promising lad, who showed every sign of being almost ready to assume responsibility for choosing a partner and supporting her on their own journey, away from that of their mothers. Then, too, there was a longer than usual stopover, where the attention of the head of the family was distracted by worry over a sick loved one. And then, too, there was a pretty smallview, ready to ease a young lad’s natural restlessness.” Sheshni noted her mother’s use of a less derogatory name that the more usual mudstuck, and felt for the first time a stirring of unease.
“Of course,” her mother went on, “There were also differences in that case. That family was stuck in a little backwater, surrounded by smallviews, with no other clear-sighted family nearby: not even a merchant who could have appreciated some small part of what it means to stitch a journey! You are both more fortunate: you, my daughter, have your sisters and cousins close by for support, and you, my grandson, have other lads who may understand your predicament, and will certainly sympathise with the attraction of a pretty face. You are also surrounded by your heritage, a reminder of the culture you take for granted, and of which your smallview knows nothing.
“Which brings me to the most troubling aspect of this matter. When one day you marry, Scarn, you will promise to defer to your wife’s judgement in all things that affect you both, and that affect your family. This is how it should be; the capacity for being a mother confers on a woman the ability to weigh up more than just the physical needs of those she loves. But consider for a moment: the mudstucks do not realise even that fundamental truth! So their daughters are not taught to assume such responsibility. You would have to promise to defer to someone whose understanding was imperfect.”
This was better, thought Sheshni; the scorn in her mother’s voice echoed her own feelings for such incompetent women.
“For your own sake, therefore, Sharn,” the old lady went on, “I am obliged to deliver a verdict that you will resent. And that you, Sheshni, will like no better.
“Tomorrow morning, you will go and fetch your mudstuck, and bring her to me. I will explain that the wife of a clear-sighted man takes on great responsibilities, and that her life so far will not have prepared her for them. I will tell her that, if she wishes to become your wife, she will need to learn many things, and that there could be no better person to teach them to her than your mother.
“I will offer, on your behalf, Sheshni, for her to accompany you for one year. If she accepts, she is to be ready by the very next day, and you will then leave with her – yes, I know you’ll miss the fair, but that can’t be helped. What is more, you will leave your eldest here with me.
“For one year, you, Scarn, will accompany me. I travel alone with my youngest daughter and her children, so you will undertake the bulk of a man’s work within my clan. It will be good preparation for you, to experience what that means without your father to carry most of that burden. And for that whole year, your mudstuck will learn how to manage a family and stitch a journey. It’s nowhere near long enough, so Sheshni will also teach her to listen to your advice thereafter, even though the decisions will need to be hers. And I will try to show you some of the factors that a woman must weigh, that you might support her better. Because our threads only weave together here, once a year, you will not see each other until you have each learned what we will try to teach you.
“At that time, your mother and I will free you up as much as possible, so that you may see if your future paths lie together. If they do, you will be allowed to marry at once, rather than partnering each other for a year first. If either of you gives up before your training is done, you will forfeit the right to be together.”
It would be unthinkable to question a matriarch’s judgement, but Sheshni was appalled that she should be expected to welcome a mudstuck into her clan, without even Scarn’s presence to bring them together. She was ashamed when her son acknowledged her mother before she could bring herself to.
“It shall be as you say, Grandma.” He inclined his head still lower, and then dared to look up at Sheshni. “It will be hard for you, too. Can you do it?”
“I promised I’d accept the ruling,” she replied gruffly. “I’ll do my best to make her a wife you can be proud of.”
“That’s the way,” agreed the old lady. “Now off you go, Scarn, and help your father. Don’t go and see your smallview until the morning, and see you bring her straight to me – no telling her about any of this in advance. And don’t tell Jaseth my decision. Say I ruled that his wife should have that privilege.”
The old woman waited until he had left, and then turned to Sheshni. “I have the right to pronounce judgements without any explanation. In this case, however, I accept that my verdict has shocked you, and I feel it might be easier for you to do your best to turn this girl into a suitable wife for Scarn if I tell you something of my reasons.
“You will remember the damage your brother caused, although you were perhaps too young to understand all the details.” The old lady turned towards the other matriarchs, who included Sheshni’s younger sister, plus an assortment of kin who would only have heard gossip about that time. Sheshni understood that she was to learn a different perspective on the tragedy that still overshadowed her family.
“My eldest son was in a similar position to young Scarn. My eldest daughter here was three years younger than him, and my other children were younger still. We travelled the roads of Sheruflag, as we do now, although back then the provinces were separate countries. From Borlei on the north-west coast, where my husband and my eldest son were born, to Levrik and beyond, we stitched our annual pattern, interweaving our paths with those of other kinship groups. I had expected my son eventually to marry a girl from one of those clans, but I had not thought him old enough as yet.
“That summer, we had looped down to the port of Rorbik, and were heading back towards Levrik for the harvest fair. As you all doubtless do, we were taking a roundabout route; small villages may provide small audiences, but they’re excited by the arrival of travelling entertainers, and are generous with both food and coin.
“One day, my husband broke his leg,” she stated calmly. “We couldn’t move on ‘til it was healed. Then we found he was weakened by being unable to walk, and he had to build up his strength before we could take to the road again. My eldest was restless – full of energy and vitality, he was ill-suited for being contained in one small village for so long – about half a year it was, all told. He was put to work in the fields, to help pay for our keep, but hard physical work was not enough to tire him. He’d go and practise his juggling and acrobatics out on the green in the evenings, and he began to enjoy the admiring attention of the mudstucks. I thought that was all it was, at first – what entertainer doesn’t enjoy having an audience? But I soon realised that there was a particular girl who would watch him and praise him. I could hardly prevent him seeing her, in such a small place, but I knew he was spending more time than he ought with her. I was worried; she was both ignorant of all that a woman should know, and arrogant and sure of herself, and that’s a dangerous mixture.
“So in the end I told him he wasn’t to see her anymore. But I was too late; I hadn’t realised how far it had gone. I should have acted earlier, should have moved the family on, even if only slowly; my husband could have ridden on the donkey, and we could have pulled the cart by hand. If I’d known how it would end, I’d have been stronger from the start. You see, I’d thought it had just been a bit of fun, a distraction from being stuck in the mud. My boy had been so bright, so alive; I hadn’t foreseen that he would be contaminated so quickly and so thoroughly by someone with such limited horizons.
“He wouldn’t stop seeing her. And when I said we’d leave, he said he wouldn’t move on with us. I thought at first that it was her, that I could offer to take her, and he would come. Oh, I’d have lost face, having to make a concession like that, but I tell you all frankly, I would have done it. But he was trapped; he’d been brought up to accept the ruling of his woman, and yet he was crazy for a girl who didn’t know how to lead. And she had been very clear; she would not leave her home and her position in the village. So I hesitated, hoping to persuade him. But soon, he began talking about the softness of her bed, and how good it was to be warm at night, and being able to have a cupboard full of clothes, instead of just what you could carry with you. He spoke about how the mudstucks crowded round to watch him, and to learn his tricks, and how appreciated he was. He said that he was getting to know people, and that he didn’t want to be confined to just the family for company. She had turned him into a mudstuck!
“So we moved on, and he stayed. I told him I’d stick to the same routes, for the rest of my life if need be, so he’d always know where to find me. More than that, I put the word out, so the other clans would let me know, if he got his wider vision back and started travelling again. But there’s been nothing. He’s still stuck in their mud, as far as I know.”
The old lady was silent, lost in her thoughts, and Sheshni dared to ask, “Did you never go back, to that village?”
“Think, daughter! How could I have done that? Gone back to see my once-proud and competent son, living in a smallview hut, having forgotten his heritage?”
“No, Mother; of course you couldn’t.” She lowered her face again.
“Now, you were too young to see all the consequences of something like that. So let me explain.” She turned to the other women. “And may you all learn from my mistake! My standing in our community fell; how could I so badly have brought my son up, that he could go so wrong? The other men despised my husband, for he shared my loss of face – except those who pitied him, for having such an incompetent mate! They said it was the fever that killed him, but he’d have shaken it off, if the shame hadn’t burdened him so. Sheshni here was lucky: she made a love-match, and she couldn’t have wanted better than Jaseth, even if our status hadn’t been impaired. But not so my other children. They were tainted, and their lives have been stained with his disobedience. Well, you’ll all have heard the sneers when my clan is mentioned.”
She turned back towards Sheshni. “And now you come to me, and tell me your son loves a mudstuck. You love him; you want him to be happy. But you know how useless such women are. So you daren’t make him miserable, and yet you can’t bring yourself to welcome this girl to your path.” Her voice softened, and she went on, “Come, my daughter, sit with your peers. It’s a fine thing that you have done today. Let all know that there is no shame in Sheshni asking me to judge this issue. She comes to me, not as a higher authority, but as someone who has experienced the dilemma she is facing. Is that not an entirely appropriate thing to do?
“Do we women not have to be careful that our commands are reasonable? Who amongst us would expect a small child to get down from the cart and walk, before his legs were strong enough? Who would tell a daughter to stitch her own journey, before she had developed the skills she would need? And yet, that was the mistake I made so many years ago. I forbade a relationship that could not, at that moment, be denied. Today, I choose not to repeat that mistake. Scarn is entirely capable of complete obedience to my judgement, for he sees that it will lead him towards the future he desires. You, Sheshni, have the harder part. But you will manage it, for although you will lose your son’s company for a year, you will not lose him from your life. It is entirely possible that he will no longer feel the same way about the girl by the end of the year, and that he will resume his place in your clan for a while. But it may be that he is still determined to join his future with hers. I trust to your integrity, therefore, to do your very best to ensure that she becomes a suitable wife for him.”
Sheshni could not see how she could possibly achieve this in such a short time. And yet, she knew that she would try. She closed her eyes, feeling the strength of her fellow clan leaders around her, and then took a deep breath. At last she was able to offer the traditional acceptance, and to mean it. “It shall be as you have said.” She rose to her feet, bowed to her mother, and then inclined her head to the other women. By the time she left the shelter, she was walking tall, no longer the supplicant, but a proud and competent woman, who would somehow find a way to weave a good future for her family.