Julia has questions she wants to ask Dannyn—lots of questions. And so, apparently, has Aldliks Bisdata; she wants to know where ‘this woman’, Julia Cannings, has been kept these past twenty-five years.’ Julia can’t answer the question. She hasn’t the lingo.
Episode 22 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi-Fantasy
I’ve never rated myself an enthusiastic carnivore, veering, if anything, more towards vegan. So the thought of venison, twice in two days, does nothing to rouse my appetite. Yet the smell of the bake-pit hits me as soon as I emerge from Hegrea’s Roof and my stomach loudly begs me.
The beast no longer lies in its pit. Whatever the logistics of disinterring, the meat is now pleasantly presented as rough-hewn pieces arrayed upon leaves upon wooden plates. I accept my portion. Berghata’s daughter Apladata, a name uncannily remembered, places a basket of small-foods in my hand which, in my eagerness to eat, I promptly plonk on the not-so verdant grass beside me. Hamfala, the Aldliks Bisdata’s own daughter, offers me bread, still steaming. Wholemeal, of course (it’ll be four millennia yet before it’s white and refined). It looks like a tortilla-pitta-cross, and yet is neither.
“Sauce?” asks Bajapa, the elder of Aldliks Bisdata’s two daughters.
To spread on the bread, Dannyn says—not in my ear (though he again sits close), but directly into my head. I realise, he’s the source of the girls’ names (too many and too strange for me to remember from the brief introductions, especially with Sapapla’s story intervening).
We sit in a circle, joined now by the boys—three pre-teens belonging between them to Berghata and the Hiemen woman Lanarba, and two older youths (in the sixteen-to-nineteen bracket); one of these, too, is Lanarba’s, introduced as Eldliks Erlunen’s son; the other belongs to Aldliks Bisdata, (her eldest offspring). The rugs we sit on are similar to those Dannyn has in his ‘roof. They remind me of my grandma’s ‘hooked’ rugs, though the coloured wools that form the pattern have clearly been plucked straight off the fleece (or, more likely, twitched off a convenient thorny bush). Too impolite to examine them closely, but I’m guessing the coloured wools were worked in while weaving the back-cloth and that the back-cloth is made of some hard-wearing coarse fibre, unsuited to clothing. The rug beneath me (I noticed before sitting) has a tree design, heavy with apples, and an indefinable four-legged beast browsing beneath it (though it takes a practiced eye to see it).
For all I prefer seeds and peppers, the venison proves the most succulent, flavoursome meat I ever have tasted. It’s been baked wrapped in herbs—though none of the herbs we use now. They, like our grains and cattle, pigs and sheep, originated in the Fertile Crescent. These are almost certainly local, now deemed unworthy of our dishes since the upsweep of merchant-trading in the Middle Ages. So much lost. Maybe I can nudge Dave into undertaking a special study?
While we munch and slurp and lick sticky fingers, Eldliks Erlunen regales us with Dannyn’s story of the three-legged deer: how it willingly sacrificed its leg to feed the beautiful stranger, Julia Cannings (his story, not mine). Its first telling was less public; now my face is fiercely burning. But the tale is well-received—judging by the hoots and clapping. I hear murmurs of ‘brave deer’; it’s like these people are really there with the deer. But not Aldliks Bisdata.
“I don’t suppose the deer realised that in giving its leg it must give up its life.” (My vegan sensibilities return in a rush.) “And now, Eblan Head Man Dannyn, you were to tell us of this woman—this scholar did you say of her?—this Julia Cannings, and where she has been these past twenty-five winters.”
“Twenty-six,” he corrects her. “It has been twenty-six winters.” He then says to me as an aside, ignoring the others, “If she says twenty-five, then I know it is twenty-six, for it was just the one season before I returned to here.”
That pleases me (I silently thank him). I have now a target date for Fliss to work with—though I’ve still to persuade her.
“But first,” Dannyn says, again to the circle, “I must say how first she arrived.”
I’m hoping he’ll again transfer his memories. But, no, he merely translates direct into my head, as he tells Bisdata’s kin his story . . .
It was early in summer-half—though not so early the trees had yet to shade the woodland floor. Six eblan-seasons, so far, he’d been in the Wilds, and in those seasons he’d learned to survive by his wits, and by what he’d already learned from the Ulvregan in his child-days. He had his winter-roof, warm in winter, dry in the rain. He had water. He had food. But what he lacked was company—though this was part of the eblan-ordeal. It was Murdan he missed. Since both were six winters-seen he and his cousin had been inseparable. And now both were serving the eblan-seasons, they were forbidden to as much as glimpse each other. This loneliness cut deep into Dannyn.
He breaks his narrative to laugh with Alsvregn. “You remember how my mother used to fret over me?”
Alsvregn nods, and quotes his beloved Luänha, complete with wrung hands: “He does not speak to us. Only to Murdan. Such a solitary child.”
“She exaggerated,” Dannyn says. “And she knew it. I was as much in Old Boney’s company as I was with Murdan.”
Six eblan-seasons in the Wilds with no Murdan—and no Burnisen—Dannyn found other company. He talked to the trees, and to the birds, and the deer. At night he talked to the badgers. The trees didn’t answer, yet the birds had plenty to say. Though they were far from the Land of Dreld, yet they spoke with Dreld’s voice. Dannyn had only to learn the words. He was befriended by one particular bird (his tutor and mentor): a blackbird whose mate had made her nest in a nearby oak-tree.
Again, Dannyn holds back his story, this time for an aside to me. “There is a belief amongst the Alsime that in dying some souls don’t want to leave their families, and so they inhabit whichever bird is willing. That almost always is the blackbird. And this, they say, is why the blackbird sings so sweetly, so happy to be here with all things familiar. But I am not Alisime, not even Ulishvregan, and this belief isn’t mine. Yet . . . yes, I can speak with the birds, and know what they say.”
To me, this supposed ability to understand the language of birds is a particularly Celtic thing. Perhaps they acquired it from the Alsime? I’m not sure if Dannyn expects a response from me but he’ll not get it for I don’t know what to say. But it’s okay, he returns to his tale. I listen. Intently. It’s not just that I want to know, but I need to know more of our first meeting. Though . . . will he tell the truth of it to the aldliks and her family?
Dannyn returns from the hunt, aglow with his spectacular success—he has felled a small bustard. Now, as he nears his ‘roof he hears the sound of the blackbird trilling. But the sun is still high—though, yes, it is slipping, but the air’s not yet cooling. What’s more, the bird is perched on the young apple-tree that guards the gate to his ‘roof. These things tell Dannyn to be alert. He listens to the blackbird’s call.
A stranger is here? Inside his ‘roof!
But that cannot be. His ‘roof is in the Eblan Freeland. None might enter but the eblann; it’s death to others. Yet the blackbird repeats of her. Perhaps she’s a spirit? Perhaps she is, for who else would come here?
He sets down the bustard outside his ‘roof, and cautiously eases open the door. Light streams out. She is a spirit, this is the proof! It doesn’t occur to him that maybe she’s human and has lighted the lamps.
“I thought her the Eblan Mistress Inspiration!” Dannyn declares, beaming even now as if it were fresh. So long he has waited, and now . . .
“Yet later, when I search my memory, I find no stories of her appearing. Not ever. Not even to the most inspired creators. She works while we sleep, to seed our dreams with her inspiration. She stirs her fingers through the eblan’s head until he creates. She does not enter his winter-roof,. She does not light his readied lamps and sit by his hearth looking . . .” Dannyn looks at me a very long time “. . . looking beautiful.”
My face now is roaring-red. He calls me beautiful, and by what criteria? Is it my beautiful healthy shiny hair (as said in the ad)? But something other is in his eyes too as he turns to look at me, something that causes inside me immediate turmoil. I remember what Alsvregn said of Dannyn’s mother Luänha. Caught. Hmm. Is that what this is? Is that why I want to snuggle close to him? Then I think I shall be like a squiggly eel. I’m glad when he returns to his tale.
Dannyn stands at his door, mute with shock. Then, as the ability returns, what to say to this vision, the spirit, this impossible person? It’s late into that night before he thinks to ask what my name. By then he has realised I’m a flesh-and-blood person.
I cut a glance at him. And at that moment I know how he knows.
“Julia Cannings is not of the Alsime,” he says, and allows me again to breathe. “Nor is she of the Ulvregan. Nor . . .not of any of the peoples whose names we know. She is English. And her English kin dwell far—far—away, their land so distant from ours that it takes . . .” he looks at me and grins “. . . it takes thirteen years to travel to there, and another thirteen years more to travel to here.”
In a physical statement of finality he slams his arms, folded, over his chest.
Aldliks Bisdata isn’t happy (I wonder, is she ever). Perhaps she’d hoped to embarrass him? Her kin, too, are not over-delighted. Perhaps they’d expected a longer story and now feel cheated.
It’s Alsvregn who breaks the silence. “But why was this woman under your ‘roof? Why had she come? And why, now, her return?”
The aldliks nods, clearly satisfied at the question. She even smiles. Grimly.
Dannyn grins in answer. “Why, she was waiting for me! She brought me gifts, such wonders to see. She brought me fruit. Ha, their like! You think your honeyed berries juicy and sweet? You should taste her sweet sticky figs!”
I make a note for when I return to Destination-Date-minus-26, that I must remember to bring ‘ready-to-eat’ dried figs. I’m likely to anyway, they’re one of my favourites. But gifts, what gifts? I made a note to ask him, though I’m guessing it’ll be items of C21st technology (he said I had ‘shown him’).
But Aldliks Bisdata still isn’t satisfied. “But why her thirteen years travel, just to see you? And why now the return?”
Staëdan— Sapapla’s bed-man—flicks a dismissive hand at her. “If you washed your ears you’d better hear; our Dannyn already has said. This woman—Julia Cannings—is eblan, a scholar. She comes to learn of our ways.”
“Indeed, it is as I said,” Dannyn agrees. “Julia Cannings returns now to learn of our ways; ways that mostly are different from those of her English.”
“Every peoples’ ways are different,” Aldliks Bisdata says with an almost audible sniff. “But do they travel thirteen years across a land to crowd upon another, just to learn those ways? So tell me, I ask again: why does she?”
If her tone hasn’t told me, that word ‘crowd’ certainly does. She finds me intrusive. I wonder, does she fear I’m here to spy on her granary? I’m itching to see it, and to ply her with questions, but I think I shall get no answers there. And she’s still waiting for Dannyn to answer.
Indeed, I am still waiting for Dannyn to answer. Is there some way, perhaps, that I might help him? Maybe supply him with some suitable reason for why I so badly want to learn of their ways—other, of course, than the truth. But even the truth isn’t easily said. Why do we prod and poke into the past, trying to understand how our ancestors lived? With my work in museums, of all people I should be able to answer that. But all I can manage is a rehash of an old brochure I found in my out-tray when I was fresh into post: Through the study of the past we are better equipped to solve the problems of the present. Yea? But how does that apply here? How could my understanding of the development of the Alisime granary system in any way facilitate solving any, even minor, problems of our C21st?
Yet, actually, I suppose it is feasible. After all, the Alisime granary is a system, and at its inception it must have affected many people. What was it Dannyn said of Hegrea when she created the first granary here? That it went against the Alisime ways. So how did she solve that little problem? Suddenly a hundred questions race through my head. Yes, my coming here does have purpose beyond my curiosity.
Dannyn stands. That’s unexpected. “Bisdata, aldliks of this isle that you are, you have forgotten entirely who I might be.” He doesn’t raise his voice yet by his tone he lets it be known he’ll not be crossed. “I am Eblan Head Man here. And you, an aldliks, question me? But I know what’s in your crabby thoughts. ‘Is he bedding her?’ Huh? Don’t deny it; even now I hear you thinking it. And what if I am? Huh? What business of yours? That is between me and my Mistress Inspiration.”
He pauses long enough for the aldliks to splutter, insufficient for her to gather her thoughts and retort.
“I know what you remember of that day I returned from the Wilds. You remember how Old Boney took me up to the top of his tower. And you wondered, even then, though young, what we talked of there. Ah, surely the old eblan chided me there. Or berated me. Hammered his words deep into me—child of the hated Luänha. And that has festered inside you, festered all these years unsaid. So let me tell you what my eblan-guide said.”
He looks more at me than he does at her as he continues. And though his eyes begin as ice, they soon warm to embers.
“I told him everything of Julia Cannings. I told him of her promised return. I unfolded my concerns to him, laid them before him, bare. Was I going against the eblan-ways to want the scholar Julia in my bed? So there, it never was hidden.”
He flashes a smile, shared between me and the red faced aldliks.
“And here,” he says, “is what Burnisen said, that day at the top of his tower. He reminded me of Hegrea and Arith, how they so wanted to be together, but did it go against the eblann-ways. But that you wouldn’t know, because that was before you were born. Yet Alsvregn, here, remembers it—and Staëdan. Burnisen, Head Man of the River Alsime eblann, called an assembly. Oh, thick were the feathers that day. Every eblan from far around—for many were ready to criticise her. And the youngest of them was asked to step forward. And he was asked to recite the eblan-code. He knew it, he told it. But you, Bisdata, aldliks of a granary-isle, you wouldn’t know it. So let me recite it for you.
“An eblan’s first duty is to the Mistress Inspiration. The second duty is to his family of birth. The third is to his society. The fourth duty is to the Alsime of his birth, be it River, North, South or East. The fifth duty is to all of the Alisime people—no matter if they call themselves Ulvregan.
“Eblan Head Man Burnisen asked of that assembly which of these codes Eblan Hegrea would neglect by taking a man to her bed. Would her head thus be closed to our Mistress; would she no more be inspired? Would she turn from her family of birth, and no longer care for them? Would she close her ears to her society and no longer give judgement when asked? Would she turn away envoys from the Alsime, those of her birth, or any others throughout the land—from the Ulvregan? No, of course she would not. And so, though there still were those who said bad against her—”
“That old Eblan Head Man from north of the Wetlands,” Staëdan cuts in, to which Dannyn nods and continues.
“—none could say Eblan Hegrea did wrong to bed with Arith. Now, you, Bisdata, dare to suggest that I am less eblan—yes, I hear the words in your head—because, twenty-six seasons past, I invited this woman into my bed. And for twenty-five of those seasons you have judged me—dared to judge me, and you then but a child.”
The heat of his fury still is on him as, like a furnace, he slams down beside me. Without looking down he finds my hand. The way he clutches it clearly says I am his woman, end of discussion.
“Well,” says Sapapla into the ensuing stunned silence. “That wasn’t expected.”
There’s a strident cough from Aldliks Bisdata, though when she speaks her voice is small. “But that still doesn’t answer. Why does she come here, to Hegrea’s Isle, to learn our ways?”