Sapapla meanders in her tale. Yet of the three stories Julia so far has heard, Sapapla’s is the most informative. And Julia knows now, beyond any doubt, that her ‘first’ visit to Destination—the one she’s yet to have—needs to be timed at Destination-Date minus (at least) twenty-five years. But she needs to fine-tune that date before approaching Fliss on the matter. Meanwhile, Dannyn again cuts out the middle-man . . .
episode 21 PRIORY PROJECT a sci-fi fantasy
He’s done it again. Without warning I’m there at the Feast of the Rings’ Completion. I am Sapapla, and as with everyone else, I’m looking around, peering into the crowd, as if the impossible might yet happen. But if Eblan Murdan weren’t here this morning, it’s unlikely he’ll be here now—although, according to Eblann Hegrea and Burnisen, as they wander around, a word to everyone, Eblan Murdan attends in spirit. They say they can sense him here. They might. I can’t.
They—Eblann Hegrea and Burnisen—have been busy since the first glimmer of light, setting charms along the floor of the trench, the Inner Ring. They’d not really the choice. I remember hearing the diggers’ complain as they dug deeper. The trench reaches too deep. It cuts into another world. They didn’t like it, didn’t like being down there. They were afraid, any could see it. And I heard what they whispered, fingers crossed, faces muckied as if to disguise them. And neither will I say it, not aloud. Yet I can’t help the thinking—and even that tingles me through. Digging that deep, who knows what might be released.
Stronger and stronger charms, Eblann Hegrea and Burnisen set, all those dual-seasons of digging. Again and again they were called upon. None would work there elsewise. Yet none dared to question the dimensions set by Eblan Murdan before he left to go into the Wilds. I wasn’t here, not then, I was still away travelling the land with my father and family. But you can’t live at Hegrea’s Isle without you hearing the talk. Eblan Murdan told the dimensions to Eldliks Bukfesen and Eblan Head Man Burnisen. He said the Inner Ring should be so deep, so wide, the Outer Ring so high. And if either man feared what they were doing neither man showed it, and neither baulked at it.
But no denying that trench is deep, and it needs constant charms to keep it safe.
And of course this feast today has awoken the old speculations. What’s the purpose of the Rings? What’s their meaning? Those words dance upon everyone’s lips. Why should Eblan Murdan want his Inner Ring to be so deep? But as Eblann Hegrea and Burnisen repeat as they go around saying to everyone: We must wait upon his return.
I hear my brother Alsvregn claiming he already knows it, though I much doubt it. Yet as he yabs to his personal bevy—which today comprises of any who’ll listen—I lurk within hearing. I only want to know what he’ll say, though perhaps I’ll learn a thing.
He says the inspiration for making the Rings came to Murdan one night in a dream. (I want to harrumph and up-slap his head—How else might inspiration come?) But it weren’t any old night. It was the same night as Aldliks Hegrea first served her Father’s Brew at the Feast of Winter-Ending.
I shake my head at hearing this. That brew isn’t meant for children, and yet they allowed the young eblann to have it. (For Murdan’s cousin Dannyn imbibed it too.) I listen up closer.
According to Alsvregn, young Eblan Murdan had ample draughts of the brew that night—but not his cousin, Eblan Dannyn; Dannyn was always the more cautious one. Moreover, the North Alsime Eblan Head Man, from His Indwelling, was attending the feast—here to see if it were true, that Aldliks Hegrea really did have the secret of making the brew. At least that’s what was said.
I’ve only seen that North Alsime Eblan Head Man the once but I remember the look of him: enough to invite horrors into any child’s bed. I know at my first sight of Eblan Burnisen how I thought him gruesome enough with those swirly snake-things black on his face. But at least Burnisen’s tattoos are biddy-small things, and don’t cover him over. Not so for the North Alsime Eblan Head Man. It’s hard to see his face and his body, so smothered in those black snaky-tattoos, huge and entangling. Though they do have a purpose—and so my brother is telling his listeners. I listen too, for I’ve not heard this tale.
That summer-half the young eblann cousins, Murdan and Dannyn, had visited the northern Eblan Head Man. And the sight of him had terrified Murdan. (He had probably terrified Dannyn too, but he was ever the less excitable one.) So Murdan, never a shy one, asks the northern Eblan Head Man why he’s covered with the snaky-things. And the Eblan Head Man explains: It’s to protect him when he goes travelling, which he often does in the Lower World of Spirits. The spirits there are devious ‘gins, waiting to find suitable form to take and inhabit.
I’m listening to my brother. He’s telling it like we none of us know it. Doesn’t he know that’s why the diggers were so afraid of the trench? Those ‘waiting’ spirits know no law but their own. Unruly, they are, the most downright dangerous—and the Eblan Head Man’s snaky tattoos are to help to protect him while he’s amongst them. They don’t only disguise him—though they do do that. It’s that they have power of their own to fight and allay the wily spirits.
All this talk of snake-tattoos and waiting spirits so marked young Eblan Murdan that when he came back here he took up the sack and told the story, young that he was.
That night of the feast, what with the eblan and his tattoos and deep-spirits, and Aldliks’ Hegrea’s brew, is it a wonder young Murdan received a special dream, and that he insisted that Inner Ring must be cut deep, right into the Lower World of Spirits. But it wasn’t done, as the diggers repeatedly feared, to release the spirits there. It was to take this world into that world, and thereby to protect what lay within the circle’s guard—which is, of course, his mother’s roof and her granary. He only wanted to protect her.
But all that’s only Alsvregn’s way of seeing it—though, true, Alsvregn was trained by our grandfather, Knowing Man Mandatn.
Myself, I stay far from that Inner Ring. I keep to the middle of that gate when I’m having to cross it. I’m carrying a child in my belly, and everyone knows how the deep spirits yearn for them. But as to the Outer Ring, it’s obvious its purpose: the same as with every Alisime isle—to set it apart. Alsvregn has a word on that too. He says the rings around the Alisime isles are like our skins, keeping our guts and all the secrets in.
I move away from Alsvregn. Let him have his talk. It’s this feast I want to enjoy. And what a thing! Aldliks Hegrea has made the Fathers’ Brew—though never she serves it away from the Feast of Winter Ending. She says she wants the very best for those who have made real her eblan-son’s dream.
Oh, the very best, she excels! The very best of Murdan’s goats; almost all of Bukfesen’s cattle. Pots and pots and pots of honeyed fruits, even though this isn’t the season. I don’t know where she’s had them from. And her Mother’s Bread, too. And, Mother, am I going to enjoy it! We women deserve it, so many days in grinding the grain. Now Eblan Hegrea is to bake it before everyone’s eyes. That’ll be something. But for now my belly is growling (it’s the child making its hunger known.) But there are flat breads; they’re being served, hot, all day. And every woman here has brought baskets— baskets upon baskets upon baskets of small foods, sweet and juicy, fresh and crunchy, colourful, gay. This is becoming such a good day. I’ll always remember it.
There have already been singing and dancing and games, but they’re starting all over again. The laughter. The flirting, the Alsime and Ulvregan freely mixing. The noise! The shouting, the clapping, the calling . . .
But what is this? Why has it all gone quiet?
Is it Murdan returned? Is it Dannyn? Their return would top the day.
But, no, their return wouldn’t cause this tension. The air’s grown tight. It’s barely bearable.
Now everyone’s looking towards the gate. I want to see, but I’m afraid for my child. And where is Staëdan? If there’s danger he should be here, protecting his children. But where are the children? Ah, they’re safe, with Hegfelanha; she’s bringing them to me.
“It’s Kerdolan,” she says, lip curling.
“Here? But it’s not a trading-feast, why are they here?” Not that the Kerdolan ever attend.
“How did they know how to come?” she says.
I can see them now, arrayed just within the gate, and they are Kerdolan, not Kredese as I’d quietly thought.
The men are dressed—excuse me while I giggle here but they’re dressed in dresses like Hegrea’s women, except they’re all in white. And—I don’t believe it—they don’t wear leggings! Whoever goes about without wearing leggings?
“Are they children, to be dressed like that?” Hegfelanha remarks echoing my thoughts.
“They’re men,” I say and clutch the children closer to me. For now I’ve seen the spears they hold—and all are aimed at us.
But it’s a feast, so what have our men-folk brought? Nothing to answer that. Staves, and flint blades tucked into their belts. While these Kerdolak men . . . the sun catches upon their shiny blades. Most here have never seen the like, but me, sister to the granary-trader, I know copper when I see it. I swallow, or I try but my mouth is now dry. So, they’re here to slaughter us?
But wait, what’s this? Amidst the Kerdolak men there’s a woman, tall, and dark—as dark as Luänha is fair. Who is she?
I hear a name whispered around, dropped from Aldliks Hegrea’s own lips. Anachaël, daughter of the Head of Kared. It seems Aldliks Hegrea knows her well, one of her teachers on Liënershi. But that asks more questions than it answers. Luänha and Arith and, I suppose, Eblan Burnisen, might know of her young years, but we others know nothing, only that she’s birthed twice (whatever that means).
There is talk between them, between Aldliks Hegrea and this Anachaël. But it’s not in any tongue we know; I suppose it’s Kerdolak. I wonder if I sidle up to Arith, if he’ll explain it to me. I sign to Hegfelanha to keep hold of my children. I’m going to find out more.
But by the time I reach through the many to find the one the Kerdolan have gone.
“What’s happened, what’s going on?” I ask any who’ll answer though I’m looking at Arith. But he merely signs to Aldliks Hegrea, to ask her instead.
“It’s Anachaël, she comes to claim my granary, for her mother.” She’s all red-faced and clearly upset. She’s angry. “She says that since Kared gave me the craft that the granary must belong to her.”
Beside her, Luänha scoffs.
“Yes, I know,” Aldliks Hegrea answers her. “I told her that my craft comes from another, not off this ‘Head’,” she returns her attention to me. “So, she can tell that back at Liënershi.”
I find Staëdan and Alsvregn standing beside me. They both echo the same words: “Liënershi? The fabled isle?”
“But what were you doing there?” I ask. I’ve not heard this story before.
Aldliks Hegrea sighs, so agitated. But Eblan Burnisen says she might as well tell it, that the secret’s out now. So she sighs again and explains it all in the shortest-ever story.
Her first birth, she says, was to a Krediche mother.
At that the silence returns, only then to burst into clamour—especially amongst the Alsime who as thoroughly hate the Kredese as we Ulvregan despise the Ormalish Daughters of the Grain.
“I was taken away from my mother,” she says—the next part of her story “—taken to be trained as a granary-keeper.”
“But then how are you here?” I’m not alone in asking this, but she waves it away.
“Later,” Eblan Burnisen says, meaning, I suppose, that she’ll tell us later.
“She—Anachaël,” Aldliks Hegrea says, searching out for Arith’s hand and clasping it tight when she finds it, “she asked of the trader—’Who trades here?’”
Beside me my brother nods. “The Kerdolan, they’re reputed the very best of traders. Likely they’re jealous we take the trade from them.”
I nudge him in teasing. Though he’s our trader now, it was Arith who brought the first trade here. Traders from everywhere came to him—even from over the seas.
“She asked of the copper I wear,” Aldliks Hegrea says, her hand to her throat. “Because the Kerdolan are copper-smiths and copper-finders and they’ll have no other take what they deem to be theirs.”
I think of Luänha’s kinsmen who crossed the sea with us but now haven’t been seen for a while. Her brother, that Luin, and Meksuin too, they both were copper-makers. So mayhap they’ve found the copper-streams, and that’s what’s stirred the Kerdolan.
Aldliks Hegrea flicks her head back. “I told the Ana and her Kerdolak men that they trespass on Alisime land. And that if they don’t leave at once they will be killed.”
“Your woman still here, is she?” Aldliks Bisdata’s sharp tones cuts through the trance and returns me to Hegrea’s Roof, and Dannyn’s side.
I have questions I want to ask him. Lots of questions. But first I must organise what I’ve so far gleaned. For that I need quiet. It seems I’m now to be given the chance.
Aldliks Bisdata, her women and girls like a tail behind her, looks pointedly at Dannyn, pointedly ignoring me. “You going to sit there, when our eldliks has pit-baked her gift of a three-legged deer? It’s ready, outside, to serve as our meal. And if you bring your—am I to call this woman your guest?—this can be a day of stories. For, while we eat, one or the other of you can tell us her story.”
I haven’t the lingo, which excuses me. But I wonder how he’ll explain the twenty-five years of my absence—for it was Aldliks Bisdata who first said of them.