Brought to Hegrea’s Isle, brought through the long narrow passage that is its gate, Julia was keen to see within, something more than those tall protruding posts. But something—or rather someone—stands in the way . . .
I take it this is Eldliks Erlunen, his ‘elder’ status obvious in his grizzled beard—no other hair visible, hidden beneath a quill-trimmed hat. His woven shirt surprises me, so too the pleated and gathered tartan skirt, though he wears it over deerskin chaps, like Dannyn’s. His staff, currently held at an aggressive angle, makes Dannyn’s staff seem like a stick. But of more concern is the flint-headed axe that hangs from his belt, and the long-handled knife wedged beneath it. His eyes travel from Dannyn to me.
Considering I’m garbed in what to him must seem outlandish apparel, he plays it cool. Not an eye batted.
“The summer-half is no time for visiting,” he says.
“Yet summer-half it is and we are visiting,” Dannyn replies.
“Your need must be great, to visit at this season when the herds are away grazing,” the eldliks, Erlunen, says.
“We come to visit Aldliks Bisdata and her family,” Dannyn replies. “We bring a great gift for you.”
Erlunen eyes the three-legged venison Dannyn still wears slung over his shoulder.
“Eblan Head Man Dannyn, he I know from old,” Erlunen says. “But I see a stranger beside him.”
Though Dannyn has told me of the visiting formal, I’ve not realised how formal it is. I’m glad he allows me to take no part in it. But . . . I hold my breath. What will he say of me? It’s not been discussed.
“It is true, my companion is a stranger to this land, and bears a strange name. Julia Cannings. Yet she is my guest, and as you treat me, I ask that you treat her too. She comes here from a far distant land.”
Erlunen’s deadpan face finally shows disturbance. His left eyebrow creeps up, almost to disappear beneath his bonnet. He licks his lips, beard-fringed and brilliant red.
“Distant, humh—the Land of Three-Legged Deer?” He grunts as if disparaging: the eldliks, him, of this mighty isle; while me, I’m nothing to him, I’m a stranger. “And what story brings she to accompany the gift?” He peers closely at me. I pray every scrap of my hair is neatly tucked in. “I keenly await it—distant traders always bring such interesting stories.”
At this I have to set him right. “I’m not a trader.”
“Eh?” He looks sharply at Dannyn, his face bunching with puzzlement. “What does the woman Julia Cannings say?”
I too look at Dannyn. And here I’ve been thinking Dannyn’s English was acquired at our previous meeting (the one that’s still in my future). It hasn’t occurred to me that the eldliks is also using English—how to explain that?—until this claim that he doesn’t understand me.
No one speaks. The mutual silence, coupled with the eldliks’ intense examination, unnerves me. I expect any moment a sweat will break out. Then he sniffs and sucks on his berry-bright lip. He nods—first at Dannyn, then at the low and sprawling building. I am ignored, except by Dannyn. He touches my elbow, enough to say I should follow.
Within the isle’s high walls it’s a microclimate. All the way here the wind has been crackling amongst Dannyn’s feathers. Now there’s not a murmur. And though it’s still only mid-morning, the sun is roasting. No wonder the grass looks so dry. I pity the goats that are trying to graze it. We cross the trench, eighteen feet deep, by a solid causeway.
“They call it a gate,” Dannyn says. It seems they call every entrance ‘a gate’ regardless of any means to bar it.
I peer into the depths of the ditch. Pigs scuttle there, rooting around domestic waste. I laugh. Who’d ever have thought such a use of it. But they’d laugh if I told them at the museum. Then . . . a thought bursts into my head, like a sparkling mega-realisation. Pigs were thought denizens of the Otherworld—that’s why they provided the funeral meat. And here they are, in that deep ditch; that ditch is the Otherworld—at least symbolically.
But my thoughts soon return to the lingo-thing. I tell Dannyn, as he hurries me along, “I’m confused by it.”
“Lingo?” he queries.
“Speech. Language,” I clarify.
“Ah, your twenty-first century English. You wonder why Eldliks Erlunen did not understand you.”
“It’s odd, I understood him just fine. I thought, as a guest and a stranger at his gate I’d spoken out of turn and so he sarcastically claimed to not understand me. But that’s not the answer, is it?”
It’s taken no great thought to realise Eldliks Erlunen doesn’t know the lingo. Fine for Dannyn to speak it since he’s already met me. But when has this Eldliks Erlunen, headman at Hegrea’s Isle, had a chance to learn the lingo from him? And to what advantage? Though I suppose I could’ve told him I’ll be returning some time in the future and he’s wisely thought to prepare at least this one other person. But that doesn’t seem likely. Besides, Dannyn claims he’s not often here at this isle—at least not since whatever the mysterious cause of hiatus. So when has he and Dannyn been heads-together and learning?
“I explained it to you at our first meeting,” Dannyn says, not at all rattled at what to him must be repetition. “It is to do with the Brictans, and the Immortals.”
“Fine,” I say a tad waspish “—except for me this is our first meeting. I know nothing yet of these Brictans. As for Immortals, to me ‘Immortals’ are gods.”
For once I find his immediate grin infuriating. “Your ‘gods’ exist in another world—though I, an eblan, know they can reach into this one.” He glances back at the trench. “—Why else the deep cut? But Immortals exist in this world only. They lack the born-ability to reach into the others. Though they do have powers denied to most humans, which we Brictans inherit in very small part. I have inherited—that is the word?—this ability to take your ‘lingo’. So too, I might take what another says—Eldliks Erlunen, just now—and give it to you so you understand it.” He grins. “This saves you from having to tell many stories. You leave it to me, I shall explain of you. You understand now?”
Though it answers my immediate question, it raises others. But for now my attention is fully caught by the building that’s looming in front of us.
Impressions: It’s wide, perhaps a quarter-size the Coliseum, though of only one storey despite, because of its steep-pitched roof, it looks a lot taller. The wall, plastered yellow (a clay-like chalk that’s found in the local chalkland valleys), is almost lost in the eaves’ deep shadows and additionally hidden by a wide arcade of intricately carved timber posts. If this truly were Durrington Walls then those posts would be the timber equivalent of the lintelled sarsen stone circle at Stonehenge.
But then if this truly were Durrington Walls this structure wouldn’t be roofed. Neither would it be centrally sited. It would, instead, stand immediately inside that southern entrance (the 100’ gate). But, no, Fliss hasn’t made an error in dating the water. If this central building were a new construction dating to, say, circa 2300 instead of the stated 2500 BCE, then why did the Riverside dig not find evidence of it? It’s massive. The posts, a good metre diameter, would need deep pits to carry them. Pits that deep would remain for the archaeologists to find.
And as yet I haven’t seen what’s within. There’s a central watchtower, that I do know (the posts I saw protruding above the high outer walls). But first, there are two door-guardians. At least, I take it that’s what they are. Decorated with wide cattle horns, the posts taper skywards. If it weren’t for the posts I wouldn’t know where’s the entrance. But we’re not yet to enter.
“Eblan Dannyn?” a surprised voice calls from the shadowed arcade.
The caller is slow to emerge, brushing bits from his clothes. I take in the sight of him though, except for his hat, he’s dressed much the same as Eldliks Erlunen. But that hat, in alternating bands of dark colour, is, if I’m not mistaken, crocheted! I’m delighted. It answers a long-standing question of mine; a hooked stick, so easy to use, it must have been an early invention.
Dannyn nods (a weary acceptance rather than greeting). “Granary-trader Staldan. Well met.”
“But what brings you?” this Staldan asks. “We have not seen you since before the snows.” Then he notices me. “Ah!” And again, with less surprise. “Ah.”
“She is Julia Cannings,” Dannyn says without a glance back at me. “A traveller, a scholar, not a trader. And she has not yet our Alisime speech.”
“Ulishvregan?” Staldan asks—I’ve yet to discover the role of a granary-trader. And what’s this of me being a scholar; where’d he get that?
Dannyn shakes his head. “Neither Ulishvregan, nor Hiemen, Ormalish, Tuädik or Saentoish.”
Staldan frowns. “Then whence hails this Julia Cannings?”
I wait with interest: what will Dannyn say? The truth, that I come from the future?
“She hails from a very far land. Their ways are . . . “ with a glance back at me he shakes his head, now decidedly weary “. . . they are not ours. I tell you, Julia Cannings is scholar—like eblan, like me. She comes here to learn of our ways.”
Staldan pulls on his lip to this, but nods understanding. He rubs his hands, his face splits with a grin. “I see this day ahead is of eating and drinking and the telling of tales.”
Though the ‘guardian’ posts mark the entrance, there is no door that I can see. The wood of it is plastered along with the wall. There’s a latch. I smile. It’s shaped exactly the same as the one on my parents’ shed door. I can hear my father saying, a good design needs never change. The door opens outward. We enter into a long narrow dark passage. Dannyn says something. I assume it’s in Alisime and not one of the other languages listed. It has the feel of an intonation. A magical charm? Despite his crow-feathered cloak, it’s easy to forget he’s a shaman.
To either side the walls are plastered and painted with repeating figures, though it’s too dark to clearly discern them. Another might claim them random abstract designs but, while not that up on Neolithic art, I do see that they’re symbols. They’re painted in red and black.
In a way this building echoes the isle: a long constricted passage that gives onto a wide inner space. I find myself thinking of wombs and fertility. I wonder if that’s the intent?
The inner courtyard I’d discerned from the hillside turns out to be paved. And there at its centre are planted the watchtower’s four hefty posts. My eyes track up it.
“Old Boney’s Tower,” Dannyn says.
I want to ask who is ‘Old Boney’ but Staldan lets out a harsh chortle.
“Dumshm, Alsalda ‘as Ulmeldn! What was that terrible rumble?” he asks. “Were you speaking in this Julia Cannings’ speech?”
His not-very-quiet voice alerts the inhabitants though I’ve already seen them. Yet they seem not to have seen us, so absorbed in their chores, sitting beneath an inner arcade. A hurdle-wall above that arcade suggests a second floor to the building—or rather, to the ‘roof’. This I now have grasped: Be they simple benders or something as magnificent as this, to the Alsime all houses are ‘roofs’. The word probably comes from those longhouses I’ve seen with their roofs all the way down to the ground, no walls.
A man, flaxen beard trailing, hobbles his way across the courtyard to unceremoniously slap Dannyn’s arm. “Well met, Young Dannyn, well met. About time you paid us old ones a visit.” He glances back to where he’s been sitting amid a pile of wood-shavings. “Here! Staëdan! Look who visits. And a young woman brought with him.” He looks with a twinkling eye at me.
So, am I now to speak? No, what’s the point when he won’t understand me. My ‘twenty-first century English’ sounds to these Alisime like some thunderous rumble.
“This is Alsvregn,” Dannyn introduces Mr Flaxen-beard. “He’s Aldliks Hegrea’s old granary-trader. And this is Julia Cannings, a traveller and scholar from a far distant land. You must forgive her for remaining silent; she has not yet our speech, and you have not hers.”
I frown, realising now what he’s doing. If I haven’t their speech I can’t accidentally blurt of the future. Nor can they ask me awkward questions about my ‘far distant’ land. Everything said must come through him. And if he edits it who’s to know?
Staëdan joins us. I’d guess he and Alsvregn are much of an age, though what that age might be is beyond me. Their beards are so pale they could be young-blond or old-white. As for their faces—I’m reminded of the tannin-stained skin of ‘Tollund Man’, a mummified corpse pulled from a peat bog in Jutland, Denmark. And to say they’re lined around the eyes (Staëdan has light brown, Alsvregn has dark) is an understatement. Yet that in itself needn’t point to any great age, merely a life lived outside—absent the sunglasses, and sunscreen. And I notice they both have perfect white teeth. Staëdan flashes his in a wide smile.
“Dannyn! Rascal. And what is this you have brought along with you? Edible, is it?”
“This is Julia Cannings,” Alsvregn cut in. “But we can expect no stories from her. She has no Alisime speech.”
“No, nor Ulishvregan, Hiemen, Ormalish, Tuädik or Saentoish,” Dannyn quickly puts in.
“What about Krediche?” Alsvregn asks. “Does she have that, have you asked—or Kerdolak?”
“Crazy old man,” says Staëdan. “Krediche and Kerdolak are the same speech, you ought to know that. Like Alisime and Ulishvregan.”
“Then has she the Eskit; have you asked her?”
I want to laugh. The old granary-trader, Alsvregn, is determined to find some speech that we share. But I’m supposed not to understand, so I have to clamp down on the smile.
“Julia Cannings comes from a far distant land; she has none of them,” Dannyn repeats. Then to me, he explains of Staëdan. “He’s my uncle, though not of the blood. His brother Bukfesen took up with my mother Luänha, almost as soon as we came here.”
“Ah,” says Staëdan, aside to Alsvregn, “he tells his woman of your Luänha.”
“Am I deaf?” Alsvregn growls. “I too hear her name hid in the rumble.”
“We might persuade Alsvregn to speak of my mother Luänha,” Dannyn says, devilment clearly lurking in his suggestion (I wonder why). Moreover, he seems now to be speaking so all can hear, not exclusively they nor exclusively me. “But first, where is Bisdata?”
“Here,” sounds a voice from behind us.
I turn to see a gaggle of women fronted by, I assume, Aldliks Bisdata. She’s probably no older than me but a life in the sun has noticeably aged her. She’s backed by two women older than her by a good twenty-odd years, plus two more of an age with her. Then, lurking shyly behind them, is a slip of a teenage girl. Yet she wears a hat which makes her a woman. This has to be Aplaälda; Dannyn said she’d been named a woman this past feast of Winter-Ending. Behind her, and giggling, are three prepubescent girls (marked by their uncovered hair). I notice all these females wear shifts of some woven fabric (not linen) that reach almost their ankles. There’s a difference in colour: Aldliks Bisdata and two of the girls wear yellow-and-red checks, like gingham; the others wear plain dyed muted colours. There’s also a difference in how the shifts are belted: the gingham with wide swathing bands low on their hips; the plain dyes with waist-cinching belts.
I wonder the significance of likeness and difference. Do they indicate two separate families? Yet there’s such a family likeness here, shared by all. Then something other? Perhaps something related to Hegrea’s granary? Ken said of seeing three ages of women at what he thought was a granary at Marlborough Downs (or His Indwelling, in their Alisime-speak). While there are certainly three ages of women here, if the key-wear is set by Aldliks Bisdata, then it doesn’t work, for the other two are both girls. But I’m given no time to ponder further: Dannyn introduces the women. I try to follow.
“Aldliks Bisdata, keeper of the granary here at Hegrea’s Isle. Hegfelanha, who is sister to Staëdan and bed-woman to trader Alsvregn, there.”
Hegfelanha is one of the older women. And behind her the girls are whispering. Though not entirely hushed, their Alisime is lost on me. However, I’ve a good guess it concerns the woman next to Hegfelanha for they burst into giggles as soon as Dannyn introduces her.
“Sapapla, sister to Alsvregn, and bed-woman to Staëdan.”
I do a quick recap: Hegfelanha is sister to Staëdan, and married to Alsvregn; Sapapla is sister to Alsvregn, and married to Staëdan. So, two families, cross-tied,. No wonder they all look alike. But why is that funny? Though who says there has to be logic in a young girl’s giggles. Still, there is one woman here who looks fully unlike the others. Lanarba.
“Eldliks Erlunen’s woman,” Dannyn tells me. “She is Hiemen, from over the sea.”
And the introductions continue. I’m not sure I can remember all these. Sapapla’s daughter is Berghata. Berghata’s daughter is Aplaälda—the hatted teenager. I’m relieved that the others remain without names for now for apparently I take precedence.
“And this woman, this guest I bring to you, is Julia Cannings—”
“—Who comes from a far distant land and has not our speech,” Alsvregn chips in.
“Pooh-pa!” exclaims Aldliks Bisdata. “I remember clearly, Eblan Head Man Dannyn, how you kept us awake those first nights back from your eblan-seasons. While Eblan Murdan could talk of nothing other than his Kerdolak campaign, you muttered and groaned of this Julia Cannings. I might have had but nine winters-seen, but I shall never forget it. How Old Boney took you up the top of his tower—despite he was dying—to talk of it out of our hearing. Have you been keeping her there, in the Wilds, these twenty-five winters? And now you think to bring her here? Brictan, same as you, is she?”
Gosh, she’s one angry woman, and I don’t know why. And I’m reeling at the implications. Bisdata was a child, nine years old, when Dannyn returned from the Eblan Wilds— having already met me? But she’s now of an age with me. So how long ago was our first meeting? Twenty-five winters, she said, since his return from the Wilds.
And that’s not my only question. I wish the time-pod would snatch me back. I need a quiet place where I can think. And I need to talk all this over with Ken. But, I’m here for the duration, and this is only the second day.