His mother had been a priestess in the Carpathian Mountains. But Julia would rather know of the woman Hegrea who gave her name to what now is known Durrington Walls. For that she must wait. First, Dannyn insists he’ll tell his own story. And she really ought to switch on the Dictaphone; she has it with her. Yet as it turns out, it wouldn’t record his story.
“My earliest memory is running round and around . . .”
I hear his words but they’re distant. My eyes grow heavy, I’ve no choice but to close them. Wrapped in his mother’s woven-wool blanket, I ease myself down, to lie on his bed. So incredibly comfy. It occurs—as far distant as his voice and his tale has become—that drink he offered a few moments ago, alcoholic, strong; what else was it in? Spiked with something, I’ve no doubt.
As he talks I see him, running round and around a huge Ulishvregan ‘roof. Oh for a camera to capture this. It’s like . . . nothing I’ve seen. A doughnut, the thought comes to me. Or that place near Geneva. CERN? A something particle collider. I’m sure Flish would know. I mean Fliss. It’s a continuous circle. Of course it’s continuous; it wouldn’t be a circle elsewise. At its centre a courtyard, hidden. It’s not like Dannyn’s ‘roof. Dannyn’s is small. This is . . . to a small child, truly enormous. Perhaps it houses 20, 30, 50 families, or more.
D’ouch! Some stern old man snatches hold of my arm [not my arm, his. Yet it is my arm, I can feel it] and drags me off to find my mother. The Ulvregan don’t like her, I know that. Ormalish, I can tell by the way it’s said. Ans that’s bad enough but she’s also a Daughter of Brega, and who is Brega but the Mother of the Grain. “It shall not happen again,” my mother tells him. She swears she’ll keep me by her. My legs sting where she slaps me.
And suddenly I’m grown—though not tall as the people around me; I’ve not yet seven winters-seen. We’re walking—walking, walking, walking, my mother beside me and two men behind me. I suppose they’re Meksuin and Bulapon. Tuädik, they’ve no claim upon the Ulvregan yet the Ulvregan allow them to stay. There are goats around, too, as numerous as the grains in the fields which I’m not supposed to see.
I hear the Ulvregan talk. They’re excited. We’re going now to a new land. I too am excited at that. But not my mother who yanks hard on my arm, she’s glum. The Himen, whose land we’re traversing, say where we’re going is called the White Isle. My Tuädik uncles say it’s Albinnis. Arith says the same though he’s not Tuädik. Saëntoish, my mother says, the same as my father. Jarmel.
The land around me has changed, it’s wide, and open. And the Ulvregan, too, they now are in fear—even those who pretend to be brave. It’s unnatural to cross the waves, they say. Unnatural, maybe, but I want to see. And there’s the boat and I lift my feet to it, and the waves are before me. And there’s the boat and I lift my feet from it, but now the waves are behind me. But this cannot be! Have we crossed the sea? I don’t remember and I want to remember. Such a momentous event. Did I sleep through it? I ask my mother, did she induce me to sleep? She can do that. I don’t thank her. I wanted to see the sea.
Again we are walking. I hear the sea behind us, pounding and shushing like it’s waving goodbye. We’re in a wide place and sandy. No trees grow upon it. I suppose something similar was the far side of the sea. Why don’t I remember? My mother couldn’t induce sleep the entire duration. I hear the talk. An entire winter-half we spent there. It was there that Arith joined us.
Arith. He challenged my mother’s brother Luin. That’s how he became the new Ulishvregan Champion. He took the title from my mother’s brother. And a good result, everyone says—all but her, Brega’s Ormalish Daughter. Why must she bring their hatred upon me? But Arith scruffles my hair and says everything’s fine. I don’t remember if Luin did that. I don’t remember Luin, only his name.
We walk alongside a river. So many rivers I’ve seen as we walk; rivers to wade, rivers to swim, rivers calm and rivers wild, rivers that terrify me. This one starts as an old woman meandering, her broad waters slow. But as we walk so she grows tighter and younger.
The river flows faster, her waters sizzling—sizzling like the hope that’s in the air around us. That’s mostly Arith’s. I walk close beside him, happy to walk without my mother. She walks with her half-brother Meksuin behind us. Inhaling of Arith’s hope I understand it. He hopes that the River Alsime Eblan Head Man—whose name, he’s been told, is Burnisen—will grant us leave to over-winter in their Ancients’ Land. But where is this Ancients’ Land? It’s only now I discover we’ve been walking beside it since leaving the sea. It’s wooded, and unused. The Ulishvregan men have been hunting there—and overnight trapping; the women have gathered wood for their cook-fires there. Our goats have grazed happily there. There would be a good place for the Ulvregan to winter—if the River Alsime Eblan Head Man should allow it.
Arith hopes, too, to see Hegrea again. Though young, I’m not too young to know of desires. Within him is an affection immense. He would move an entire land just to find her. His isn’t the petty desires of the Ulvregan around me. I hope he does find her; I want to see the air blossom and flower. I imagine seeds cascading around them, enormous slithering piles of fertility.
The river beside us becomes a slender young woman. Much farther and she’ll be but a child. Are we to walk all the way to her birth? How far might that be? We have already passed where the big rivers join. Passing there Arith nodded and muttered of ’Rivers Meet’. He seems to know much of this land, the Alisime isle-land he calls it sometimes, though mostly he calls it Albinnis. He knows when to wade the river.
“We now are entering Bisaplan’s Land,” he says, and I notice how his voice catches.
We climb the bank and there we wait till all have arrived. I want to cry though I don’t know why. Is it that other children here are crying? But why do they cry? I feel fear in the air. Arith must feel it; he squeezes my hand. Then I see.
“They are Alisime men,” Arith tells me. “They will not harm us.”
Yet they’re like so many spine-hogs with their spears held ready. “Because they fear us,” Arith explains.
They fear us enough to herd us like goats into a wide pen, all squeezed together so great our number. Yet this place isn’t a herding-corral, no place for the living. It’s a place for the dead. Broken walls and a gate that refuses to close; it’s an old place. Old dry bones—leg bones and arm bones and skulls—dangle on strings from the gate’s high bar. They’ve herded us here to be within their Ancestors’ guard. But at least there’s no the high platforms here, offering up their dead to the sky, a stinking place passed while driven to here. And around me the women are wailing that all we want is a wintering place. Most now are cursing Luin, for wasn’t it he who said to come here? None mention Arith, though it is Arith who has led us.
We wait at that death-place, beneath the unseen gaze of their ancient ancestors, for what seems to me (a young boy impatient to be moving) to be days. Though no night comes so it can only be less than the one.
Two knowing-ones comes. Arith nudges me not to gawk. He says they are eblann. But how does a boy not gawk when they’re clad in their feathered cloaks, holding their rods? It’s only then I remember my mother; remembered because she, like Arith, nudges at me. But she, unlike Arith, leaks her thoughts to me. She knows one of these knowing-ones—eblann. Arith knows her too. It is Hegrea. But what is she doing here, and in the guise of a bird? She is a heron—and yet her cloak also is made of fisher-bird feathers. A snow-owl sits upon her head, clasping her skull.
I know, now, why Arith desires her. Even so clad, to me she’s the most beautiful woman who ever has lived. But as the one is beautiful, so the other is frightening—in a black feathered-cloak that flaps and snaps about him as if it’s alive. Will it grab me and eat me? His face, too, tattooed over with writhing snakes, it terrifies me.
“That other is Eblan Head Man Burnisen,” Arith whispers to me, for to hold a name is to hold some power. And so it is; I soon grow accustomed to him.
This Eblan Head Man assigns our Ulvregan to the Ancients Land, but not as a wintering-place. It is only until he has the Ancients’ word on it. We have a moon, he says, while our fate is decided.
We’ve been here, at our camp, for five days now. Arith set it for us between river and woods. He won’t venture in, and he advises my mother and uncles against it. He doesn’t say why. ‘Wisdom’ is all that he’ll say. But today is a day to remember throughout all my winters. Today the black-crow Burnisen again came visiting. He came with the other eblan—Eblan Hegrea—when we’d been at our camp just the one day.
She and my mother talked and laughed and talked and hugged. Though I’ve been much with Arith, ignoring my mother, she’s still my mother and this Eblan Hegrea with her talk and her hugging took her away. My uncles shake their heads at me; not even Arith understands. But I am unused to sharing my mother. Even Jarmel, when he stayed with us those few winter-halves, he wasn’t with my mother as this Eblan Hegrea is now. She takes my mother’s thoughts from me.
But today . . . ah, today I laugh and grin and laugh again. I have a cousin! So I am like the Ulishvregan boys after all.
The black-crow Burnisen brought him to visit. He changes everything! Murdan, this boy, of an age with me, my cousin.
Now I have someone to talk with—other than my mother and my uncles, and Arith, and the occasional Jarmel—even if this boy, my cousin, uses the Alisime speech and I do not, and I use the Tuädik—and sometimes the Ormalish—and he does not. But now I’ve reason to learn quickly to speak the Alisime way (which already I do). Perhaps he shall learn to speak Tuädik?
The moon cycles, it dies, it swells. The Alsime feast us this day to welcome us to the Highlands of the Sun. To say I’m excited is like saying the rivers run. All around me, too, are excited. But they have no new cousin to meet! I must be with him now as much as I can, for my mother and my uncles talk of leaving the Ancients’ Land. They want to travel this Alisime isle-land. Meksuin needs metals for his craft and Burnisen has told him here there is none.
Murdan and I hug and slap shoulders and backs, which amuses my uncles saying we’re acting like we’re grown. Then Murdan, curious, asks to see inside an Ulishvregan hide-roof. He’s never seen such a thing. I show him inside the ‘roof my mother shares with Arith and Meksuin and Bulapon. Murdan inspects, looking intently at the walls to see how they’re made, and at the carved wood-sky that forms the centre-roof-ring. But we’re not allowed to be long in there. My mother calls for us.
She’s all flapping, excited. “Would you ever! That Eblan Head Man has given to Arith a bull-calf.”
I laugh—which is probably fear. I’ve never been close-up to cattle before and I’ve been told that bulls are dangerous beasts. But there is Arith taking the bull-calf to give to Eblan Hegrea. So Murdan and I have to hurry after. (We’re not alone in it.) But he’s already given it by the time we catch him and Murdan is determined we see the bull close. So now, instead, we follow Eblan Hegrea.
Eblan Hegrea is Murdan’s mother. That was a shock when first he said it—though I laughed and said should I call him a chick. It seems that is a bad thing to say, as bad as an insult. His pale face reddened, he clenched his fists. He said he was not a baby-heron. (Though with that crest of white hair on his head . . . but, wisdom, as Arith would say; I did not say it.)
Murdan explains of the bull-gift, though I don’t understand half of it and I don’t want to say. Apparently Arith now is the River Alsime Champion as well as he’s the Ulishvregan. So Eblan Head Man Burnisen must give him a bull-calf. Burnisen has none, so he has ‘borrowed’ one from his kinsman, Bukfesen, at Bisaplan’s Isle. But Arith knows nothing of keeping bulls, and so he, in turn, has given it to Eblan Hegrea.
“But why her?” I ask Murdan, my cousin.
“Because it was my mother who took the Ulishvregan plea to Alsalda the Bear. It was She said your Ulvregan may stay, that the Ulvregan and Alsime are kin. So now Arith must thank my mother. But Burnisen is playing, too. My mother isn’t an eblan-true unless she is given a bull.”
I smile—though I know he knows that I don’t know a thing of the things he’s saying. “So where is your mother, Hegrea, taking the bull-calf?” We’re still chasing after her. Is it she who walks fast, or is it the calf?
“She is taking the bull-calf to Bukfesen—to be her bull-keeper.”
“But . . . did you not say at the first this is his bull-calf?”
Murdan smiles, which annoys me, knowing, and cocky. I want to punch his pouting pink lips but he is my cousin, and I have no other. “But as keeper of the eblan-bull, my mother is naming him as the eldliks of her isle.”
I blink, and I sit, and take in my surroundings. “I’m sorry,” I say to Dannyn. “How rude of me, I must have fallen asleep.”
He shakes his wild blond locks, so similar to those of the boy in my dream. Murdan, his cousin. The name rings through me. Murdan, who would kill me if he found me here.
“It was not a dream. It was my story. Or . . . you would say, the opening chapter?”
“How you arrived here, in Britain—in Albinnis? But what was that place where the Alsime corralled you?” But I know the answer before he says it. He asks for my map. Our fingers touch as he takes it from me. I’ve heard people say of the electricity? It’s the first I’ve experience it. It shatters my breath.
“Here,” he squiggles on the map with his finger. There is Stonehenge.
“But what of the stones? I saw no stones.”
“There were no stones when I came here,” he says, all wide-eyed (they’re so deeply blue). “Hegrea erected the first, the Calendar Stones, to help the Ulvregan attend Eskin feasts. Thereafter, Eblan Murdan erected his Broken Circles in celebration of his defeat of the Kerdolan. The Alsime are neither Eskin nor Krediche to be setting stones.”
“Yet four and half thousand years ago there were stones at Stonehenge.” The first stones were erected around 3,000 BCE, a ring of bluestones that more or less hugged the inner bank. Their sockets now are known as the Aubrey Holes.
An age seems to pass as I stare at the map. It was a dream. If a memory then it’s colossally at odds with what I know as reality.
“How long ago . . . ?” I ask. “You cannot be more than thirty, at most.”
“I have forty-five winters-seen. Maybe a few more.”
But that’s impossible.
He annoyingly smiles. “I told you of this when first we met.”
“Which is still in my future? But, Dannyn, you’re mistaking the years. You can’t be that old. You’re not older than me.”
He smiles, so wide it grades into a grin, and leans forward, his hand fiercely hot as he touches my knee. “I told you, but you have yet to live that memory. Son of my mother, grandson of the Old Man, I am Brictan, part-Immortal.”