Julia knows, now, how many years have passed since Dannyn first met her—though for her that same meeting is still in the future. And it seems their meeting so affected him that, in modern parlance, he needed counselling—which doesn’t surprise her; she thinks she may need the same.
Dannyn has said I’m a scholar, here to learn of their ways. So now Alsvregn, the old granary-trader, is brimming with reminiscences he wants me to hear.
“Though how will she understand me, with her having none of our speeches?”
“But she is learning our speech,” Dannyn says, deviously I think. “Already she understands some. And what she doesn’t know, I can relay to her in her own English.”
“Eńgleïsh, is it?” Staëdan repeats, mangling the word. “Alsvregn, you ever heard of it? Your grandfather Mandatn travelled a far way.”
Lanarba looks up from the hearth where she’s preparing a ‘brew’ (nothing alcoholic, merely herbal). “I have heard it.”
I shoot a sharp glance at her. She and Alsvregn’s sister Sapapla are the only women remaining in the ‘roof’s sheltered courtyard. Aldliks Bisdata, having had her say, then bustled the other women and the girls away. “There’s work to be done. We’re not like those men.”
We’ve made ourselves comfy, sitting on fleecy rugs in the inner arcade. Behind us, I’ve noticed, the wall is punctuated by a dozen gaping black holes—doors to rooms I’m itching to see inside. Though spacious, I suppose each probably houses a family, and that includes children. Some, too, doubtless are storerooms—certainly one serves the trader; Alsvregn is loud about that. Once his domain, it now belongs to Staldan, Aldliks Bisdata’s granary-trader. (That’s something I’ve grasped: each new granary-keeper has her own trader.) But it’s odd that both traders, Alsvregn and Staldan, are Ulishvregan rather than Alisime—and some recent, undisclosed, upset is causing friction between them men—enough that they bristle.
As well, I’ve discovered a secondary use of the inner arcade: It acts as a sun-dial, the sun’s strong rays lighting consecutive sectors. I can imagine at the peak of the day, when the sun is fiercest, its rays are dappled and dampened by the tree that grows at the base of the tower. As yet it’s a small tree, but it’s an oak. So what will become of the ‘roof when the oak has grown to a king? But all that’s a distraction—and not the only one.
While Alsvregn takes his seat upon the story-teller’s sack, I mull what so far I’ve learned. That Hegrea’s Isle isn’t Durrington Walls. That here is a communal granary—I can’t deny it, I’ve met its keeper. And neither is it the only one: Dannyn has confirmed what Ken said of a granary to the north, at His Indwelling, on the banks of the Kennet. And there’s another to the south. I want to know more about them. How did they happen? And, by all things Neolithic, what’s this of traders?
Trade is almost a dirty word in the archaeology of this period. Valued objects change hands, sometimes across vast distances, by ‘gift exchange’ only. I want to know more. Do the granaries’ traders deal locally? Or do they ‘exchange’ their wares across other lands? The way Alsvregn and Dannyn bandied of the several languages suggests the latter.
This isn’t the place I thought it would be. But since I’m stuck here till the ‘pod fetches me back, the least I can do is to discover more of it. I want to know how this isle came to be made. And what inspired the digging of that massive trench. It wasn’t done as closure of a previously active site, as at Durrington Walls. There, so I’m guessing from what Dannyn has said, the ‘white rock’ quarried from the trench was exposed to turn the site of the ‘living’ into one of the dead, the Ancestors. But here, at Hegrea’s Isle . . . what was that Dannyn said of the ‘white rock’ being brought up from the Otherworld? But did he say ‘Otherworld’? Or is that just my twenty-first century head slurring his words? After all, didn’t he say of me that I come from ‘an other world’, and I certainly don’t come from the world of his ancestors, the world of the dead.
So many questions—interrupted by the old trader Alsvregn.
“This tale I tell—of first meeting Luänha—I tell because she’s our Eblan Head Man Dannyn’s mother. And look at the pair of them, together! She needs the warning, much as I needed but never was given. No, Luänha captured me at our first meeting. Called to me, haunted my dreams—she haunts them still. And were she still here at Hegrea’s Isle, still she would hold me. That’s why this scholar Julia Cannings needs my warning.”
Look at the pair of them, together; I’ve not realised how close we’re sitting. I shudder. But why is Dannyn translating these words for me? He wants me to know, whatever this warning? Well that’s jolly decent of him. But why do I need such a warning; what does Alsvregn see in our sitting this close? As if in answer, I feel a disquieting quickening in my chest. I try to swallow, and can’t. The perceptive old trader! But is it so obvious? Then I ought to move, and yet I remain. I like Dannyn’s company; the way he is close.
And now, with story prefaced (and me disturbed), Alsvregn begins. But I hear no words. It is as it was with Dannyn’s tale last night—except the transition is doubly-quick. Within a blink I’m moved to another world. And I’m no longer me, I am River-Walker, a young boy, two winters yet off full-grown.
We’re approaching the wildwoods, the Land of Dreld, my grandfather and me. The grain-growers burn away the trees and slice the land but as yet they leave these wildwoods untouched. We don’t understand their leaving, yet we celebrate it. We wander deep into the Land of Dreld, beyond the reach of paths and tracks; beyond the reach of stumbling strays, beyond the reach of hunters who dare not tread our ways—they fear the anger of the wildwoods, they fear Dreld and his children, and so they should. As we walk the ways we’ve often walked, passing trees we know by name, trees who have given us their wood to build or to burn, their nuts to eat, their leaves to feed our goats, those same goats we drive before us. The goats are our partners. They work for us and with us and beside us; we accord them respect, we honour them.
Returning to the wildwoods after wandering the summer, our goats woefully bleat. They’re not comfortable here, not at home in the wildwoods. They prefer the open hills. And so we stop our tramping, we fuss them, we talk to them, maybe we sing. To make them happy, we feed them. Then, to ease their fear we ease their burden. The loads they have carried and pulled for us we now move to our backs. We return to how we were in the most ancient of days.
Beyond the reach of paths, we crunch the newly-shed leaves beneath our feet. We kick them high in the air. We watch how they fall. Mandatn taught me this: how to hear Dreld’s voice in the falling of leaves. Much can be learned—the feelings of the wildwoods are here to see. This day, in kicking up leaves and watching them fall, I learn that strangers are come to the wildwoods, strangers that Dreld hasn’t expelled. I look to Mandatn. Mandatn shrugs. His shrugging says that if Dreld allows them then so should we. Yet we’re alert to danger.
Knowing-Man Mandatn, my grandfather, took me at seven winters-seen to be his apprentice. For an Ulvregan seven is the most important number. Seven, fourteen, twenty-one, forty-nine: these are our life-numbers of winters-seen. At seven winters-seen the child now is Ulvregan. At fourteen, our full-grown status is granted. Ah, but that doesn’t mean the child is of age. That takes another seven winters-seen. Then, after seven times seven winters-seen the Ulvregan is an elder, called ‘wise among men’.
Ahead of us now is an open place. When the sun shines her rays come streaming down, uninterrupted by leaf or branch. Yet here are some trees, for every winter-roof has two trees guarding. But where are those ‘roofs? All that’s seen are grassy knolls. Closer, and it’s obvious the knolls are each set within a loop of a stream. High banks wind around them. Here is our winter-place, the Seat of Fire.
At other winter-places there may be several inhabited glades, all close enough to see one to the other, to call and to hear without raising voices—never done, since this upsets Dreld. But here at the Seat of Fire the winter-roofs are all together in this one open place. We have but five roofs, and another in-making. Our numbers are small; we need no more. Once the newest is complete the oldest will be cleaned and sealed, never to be used again.
We’re not the first to arrive. We seldom are. Mandatn has never said in so many words, yet it’s by his devising we arrive second, third or fourth. This gives those who arrive before us time to gather the firewood and remove the first sealing from the ‘roofs. However, it is for Mandatn to make First Fire—which doesn’t stop others from making their cook-fires. Wisps of smoke snake into the sky showing where hide-roofs dot the glade. I count them, we name them; we know who is here.
But what is this, squeezed between two hide-roofs? Two benders! But we Ulvregan make no use of them; they’re used by herders, and despite we have goats, we do not herd them: we are traders. No, these are the strangers that Dreld has warned of. Yet . . . if herders, where are their beasts? But for now we ignore them.
None come to greet us. Knowing-Men never are greeted, not till the last of the ‘roofs are opened. But the presence of these strangers makes us wary and Mandatn wonders whether to proceed with the rites.
And then I see her.
She comes from beneath the trees into the open and stands there, unmoving, while the breeze plays around her. She is the fairest I ever have seen, and she captures my heart and never releases. But she is everything evil. She is the Spirit of the Fields. She bears the mark.
A man—a stranger—emerges from out of one bender. Perhaps someone has warned him; he makes no move to greet us. He stands beside the ‘roof and simply looks. Looking from she to he, it’s easy to see they belong together. Yet . . . they seem to be spirits, not as us, corruptible flesh-and-blood. But Dreld has allowed them to remain. And there’s much to do before we can inquire of them. There are five winter-roofs that need unsealing.
The opening of ‘roofs will take at least two days, during which Mandatn will not sleep. So first, though the sun still is far from leaving the day-sky, we set up our hide-roof. There Mandatn takes to his bed. There he sleeps.
I wish I could do the same but, restless upon my sleeping-rugs, I toss and turn. Sleep will not come. She seems to haunt me. Every time I close my eyes there is her face. I have to open up my eyes to send her away. I am not old, I do not tire as Mandatn tires. Mandatn can sleep all day, I can’t. And it’s made worse by wanting to know who she is. Why is she here? What meaning, her presence? Mayhap the answers will be given in my dreams. But first I must sleep, and I am not tired.
I look over to where Mandatn deep-slumbers beside the door. I could creep past him. I could leave this hide-roof. I could go greet Burnise whose roof, so I’d seen, is set beside the strangers’ benders, and who seems to have befriended them. Burnise would greet me; he would introduce me; he would explain just who are these strangers—I travelled with Burnise and his brother Dalnam before I left my father to join with Mandatn. They, Burnise and Dalnam, are the older sons of my father’s second bed-woman (his first woman, my mother, is dead). But none of this can I do. I am apprenticed to the Knowing-Man, and even to my closest family I am part of him. If they must wait till the winter-roofs are open before speaking with him, then so they must wait to speak with me.
The frustration and impatience keeps me awake even once the day’s light has gone, even once the night-sky comes, even after we’ve heard the wolves that bay, and the foxes that bark, and the owls that hoot. They, too, know there are strangers here this night.
Deep in the night, sleep finally finds me. I dream. Of Eskit women.
We have spent the summer-half travelling and trading across Eskin-land, west of the Himen. The where doesn’t matter; the Eskin now are everywhere, all held in thrall to their grass and its grain.
This dream is Dreld-given. In it the Eskit women plait long ropes of straw. They make them into bridles, and into yokes; they make them as we make the harness for our goats. And they try to catch me with them, to tie me down. I ought to run from them, but I don’t. They sing to me, enchanting. They whisper to me. They stroke me where no woman yet has touched me. I am saved from their predations and future bindings by a water-woman. She comes up from the river, her clothes dripping, her hair bedraggled. She comes with singing and clapping. She comes with a light step and with laughing. And as she approaches, the Eskit women disappear.
I have only twelve winters-seen. I have yet to be given full-grown status. I am far from being a man. I don’t understand much of this dream. Yet I know for certain that Dreld gives it as warning.
In the morning Mandatn makes First Fire, from which all other fires will be taken. The fire takes. Mandatn feeds it sticks. But the fire wants more. It wants a kid. Mandatn must give it.
Great honour goes to he whose kid feds First Fire. Mandatn takes his time tending that fire. He is waiting to see who will offer the goat. It is the stranger, the pale-haired man. Yet, as all can see, he and his kin have no goats with them. No, we all can see that goat comes first from Burnise.
Moreover, Burnise has rehearsed the stranger. He knows not to speak. He knows to carry the kid in his arms and to wait by the fire for Mandatn to take it. He knows to hold the kid’s head high, exposing its tender young throat while Mandatn slices. The kid’s blood pumps. I catch it in the required wooden bowl.
First Fire wants only flesh; it never wants more. So Mandatn signs for me to remove its entrails. He removes the skin. Entrails, hide, hoofs and horns will be returned to he who gave—to this nameless stranger. Mandatn cuts off its head and lays it aside. Then together, Mandatn and I strip it of flesh. Of the bones we keep but the two shoulder-blades.
While First Fire enjoys the kid’s flesh, Mandatn cleans the left shoulder-blade. He cleans it so thoroughly you’d think it buried a year. He waits till the fire has consumed the flesh then places the cleaned bone in the embers. He waits then to see what will appear. Of the other, the right shoulder-blade, this is set aside for when, at winter-ending, we leave the Seat of Fire. Then, from it Mandatn will take his direction.
What the left shoulder-blade says, I do not know; I am still an apprentice. Whatever it is, it doesn’t change what Mandatn will do. We proceed to the opening of ‘roofs.
As usual, the first seals have already been removed by those who arrived before us. They’ll do as much but they’ll do no more. And neither should they: it is dangerous work. So, the gates between the guardian trees are clear of the tangled sticks we wove through their branches before leaving the Seat of Fire last winter-ending. Now we smear the guardian gate-trees (always a man- and a woman-tree) with the caught blood. This is to say thank you for the watching.
Next we remove the cut-planks that seal the hole in the door.
Though this hole is cut small, and high off the ground, to deter unwanted visitors—the bears, the wolves and their like—yet smaller woodland creatures might scramble in. So before leaving, we seal it with cut wood-planks driven into the ground. So these we now pull out and we stand aside, not knowing what angry spirits might be trapped there.
Spirits of cats are the worst; their bearers come for the mice and the lizards and the birds. Birds and their like easily enter in: they fly through Dreld’s space at the centre. Martens, weasels, squirrels, all little beasts, they do no harm. Yet once inside they can’t get out. They die and their spirits are trapped. A trapped spirit grows angry, and being angry it then becomes harmful. So we stand aside, and we wait. Mandatn drums and I, at his direction, stamp my feet and knock with my rod against the wood-wall. Once Mandatn considers it safe he enters. I pass a lighted brand to him and he inspects all around the inside.
Once I have fourteen winters-seen, and I’m given full-grown status, then Mandatn will allow me to enter along with him. But this summer-ending I still am a child and have to wait outside for him. While I wait I can feel her eyes on me. I dare not to look at her though she puzzles me. What interest can she have in me? I’m a child.
The oldest roof is always the first to be opened. Once that is opened the families quickly make it their own, while the Knowing-Man proceeds to the next, and the next. The work is tiring. By the time we have opened three of the five my eyes are heavy. I want only to sleep. I look longingly about me. Perhaps another Knowing-Man has now arrived and he can serve instead of me. But no, none yet have come. My head fogs. I forget the strangers. I remember only what’s needed for these opening rites—and for the kid’s head to be buried in the entrance-way of the first ‘roof, and for last year’s head to be removed and piled against the end-wall, and the new charms made and hung from the rafters. Those charms, hung year by year, tell us the years of the ‘roof’s standing.
The opening rites are eventually done. I sigh. Now I can sleep. What bliss, what joy. And again, a dream.
No Eskit women people this dream. Instead, here are swans. The swans fly high, with me on the back of one. We’re flying westward, into the dazzling dying sun. My face grows hotter and hotter, as if I sleep too close to the fire.
A Knowing-Man doesn’t tell his dreams, he has no need. But as yet I’m no man, I’m but an apprentice, still learning. I tell my dream to Mandatn, though I’ve said nothing to him of the Eskit women.
“Swans?” he repeats. “To the west?” he asks.
“Into the Land of the Dead Suns,” I tell him.
“There is a story,” Mandatn says, “of an Ulishvregan Champion who will lead the Ulvregan to the land of the Ancestors, a land in the west.”
“Men! This Julia Cannings comes here to learn of the Alisime granary ways, not of that . . . that other world!”
Sapapla’s explosion snaps me out of the trance. Yet still I see Luänha caught in the sun’s rays at the edge of the glade, see the sign of the grain and fertility marked on her face, see her pregnant belly heavy with Dannyn. And I feel an invisible hand around my heart. But now it’s not her hand. I look at Dannyn with his periwinkle-blue eyes, and he smiles. I tell myself to remember the warning, Yet already it’s fading.