In 2500 BCE Stonehenge was in the midst of a restructuring programme: five trilithons and the outer sarsen-ring. But not so at Destination. Here, Stonehenge consists of two bluestone arcs: Murdan’s Broken Circles. Another might guess at what’s happened here; guess it, accept it. But not Julia. The answer is there—but it’s struggling, still, to surface.
Episode 27 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi-Fantasy
“I’ll say it to you now, Eblan Dannyn,” says Eldliks Arskraken, “and I don’t care who hears it. You can tell your woman of it, too, in her clipped English words. When you and your Ulvregan first arrived here I had no liking for you. None at all.”
Forty years the eldliks has harboured it, and now that he’s said my ‘talking-tape’, hopefully, has captured it. Its use as yet is only an experiment, to see if the Dictaphone has survived the time-pod’s magnetic fields. An oversight when I packed it. But as good old mum likes to say, you don’t know till you try. And I’ve plenty of opportunity here, for it seems Eldliks Arskraken loves the sound of his voice.
He hasn’t stopped talking since his first greeting, the ‘gift’ of the blue lapis egg rolled endlessly round in his hand. He shows no inclination to return it despite what Dannyn said. Perhaps he’s waiting for Aldliks Priäplan to return, to show it to her. He hasn’t said where she is and it now grows late, the light fading, sun sunk low. Yet the heat persists—though this triangular space that’s the aldliks’ porch is refreshingly cool. I seem to have landed on my seat (rather than ‘feet’): upon Aldliks Priäplan’s feather-stuffed cushions, most comfy—and there I’d been expecting, when I stepped into that ‘pod, to spend my nights here on the hard cold earth.
“See,” Eldliks Arskraken rumbles on, “Murdan and me—awh, Eblan Murdan, may I spit on him if ever I do see him again—we’d been hearth-brothers. Even drew milk from the same mother’s breast. My mother. Aplha—may she ever sing sweetly. We’d been born of a time together, though he before me. Aplha said I’d had to wait for her grandmother first to die. Mistrukenn. She said I took Mistrukenn’s soul. That earned me jeers from Murdan—Would I grow to a woman? Pah! I spit on him, on his memory too.”
That’s refreshing. I thought everyone here bowed to his greatness. But now Arskraken’s gone quiet. Is he waiting a comment? That’s one advantage of not speaking Alisime: it’s no good him looking at me. But Dannyn doesn’t speak either. In the silence, the air around Arskraken seems to crackle.
“So what is it your woman wants to know?” he says at last. “About Murdan, is it? Or does she want to know about you? Sure as eggs don’t hatch in winter, she’s no interest in me.”
I want to say, no, he’s wrong, that I want to know everything about everyone. But I haven’t the words.
“Murdan, boy Murdan.” Arskraken sneered and barked out a bitter laugh. “Mischievous, they politely said of him, not to upset his mother. She, see, newly eblan, was across at the Old Island with Burnisen. Couldn’t take the boy there, weren’t one disagreed. Who knows what spirits might infest him. Huh, happens their fears came too late. He was pretty, see, that’s how he got away with it. Another would have been shut in the shed, two days in the dark, but not little Murdan. And I wouldn’t have cared but it deflected on me. He was devious, see. Scheming. He weren’t at all pleasant. But he had those high-standing ruffles, like a crest on his head—a swan-child, they said of him—”
“He took the swan as his eblan-bird,” Dannyn puts in quietly as an aside. “His cloak was swan-feathered.”
Dannyn’s cloak is black, of crows’ feathers. Murdan’s shadow. Murdan, the child who, nine years old, mobilised an entire workforce to build the trench and wall around his mother’s isle. Child prodigy? Or spoilt brat? Yea, I’d like to hear all about him. I guess it’s the same as reading biographies—or press exposés—of famous people. And we particularly like it when someone dishes the dirt.
“The boy was pretty. Eyes as blue as the night-sky. Lips like the rose in yonder hedge. Any other they’d have said was sullen, with his pouting, but not him. ‘Oh isn’t he the Mother’s own gift.’ Awh, and so is the snake and the lizard. But come the Ulvregan and suddenly he’s out from my feet and into Dannyn’s.
“I didn’t like you, Dannyn. Though I welcomed him gone, he was my hearth-brother. Yet come that Kerdolan Trap and, hah, I saw then how it was. You were used by him, the same as me. But then, was there a one he didn’t use? Nasty. Like his father, that Luin—though we sent him running. What Murdan did to the Kerdolan was horror enough, though maybe they deserved it. But what he did to his mother. Killed her. And were it not for Luänha she’d have stayed dead. But, eh, just listen to me; is this the way to tell a story?”
He asks the questions, he allows no answer; while Arskraken is talking no voice but his own may be heard. Perhaps it’s just that his family all are away. No one to talk with. And then I come. But I don’t mind. Dannyn translates, and the machine whirrs on. It’ll be interesting to hear the real Alisime words without Dannyn’s voice in my head obscuring their sounds.
“See, Eblan Murdan returns from the Wilds with the fire of the Ancients burning his belly. They’d shown him Kerdolak mariners in the act of taking our grain—Krediche sown, but rooted into Alisime soil. Taking it by trespass on Alisime land, to their faraway island of Liënershi. Furs, too, trapped and got on Alisime land. Stolen. For who of the Alsime said they could take them? Awh, Murdan’s Kerdolan Trap was warranted. But he took it beyond the need.
“Doesn’t matter when in the season he returned, he’s fettered, certain, till the following summer. First he’s to wait for Dannyn’s return—though sure as my belly’s a navel he’d have gone straight to it were it not for Burnisen. But Burnisen won’t as much as listen till his other apprentice returns from the Wilds. And then to delay him further, Old Boney dies. That’s when your Eblan Dannyn goes and changes our ways, not allowing us to treat Old Boney as we’ve always treated our dead. Another reason I didn’t like you, Dannyn. But being alongside you in the Kerdolan Trap, that showed me different. But there I go, wandering again.
“Old Boney was the eblann’s Head Man. So now a new Eblan Head Man needs be found. It ought to be Eblan Hegrea, she’s the eldest eblan apprenticed to him. But, naw, the other eblann aren’t having that. Dannyn there can tell it better, I wasn’t there. Yet even the families heard the grumbles—it weren’t new. Hegrea’s a woman, and there aren’t women eblann. Though, as she said, there was Eblan Soänsha who gave the first grain to the Alsime—”
“To the North Alsime, at His Indwelling,” Dannyn quietly inserts, perhaps on seeing my eyes light up. “An amusing tale; I must tell it sometime.”
“Please,” I all-but beg. Does it matter that Durrington Walls and Stonehenge aren’t as they ought to be, this tale could be key to understanding the spread of the Western Neolithic. And here it sits in Dannyn’s head.
“Then there’s the complaints of her birth,” Arskraken rumbles on. “Oh, she was born again here, to Bisaplan’s Isle, to Aldliks Sappaken, and that made her fully Ulmkem-Alsime. But it doesn’t change that she was Krediche-born first. Then they say of her bedding with Arith, an old complaint that surfaces up. Naw, they aren’t having her as their Eblan Head Man. But who else is there?”
Arskraken briefly splutters a laugh. “Ought to be Dannyn, there, telling you this. I’m no eblan to talk of such things.” But there’s no way he’s allowing Dannyn the tale.
“See, no eblan is Head Man lest he’s inspired—and there’s no denying Eblan Hegrea is that. She created her Snake Dance. And her Mother’s Bread and Father’s Brew. She created her Isle, and her Reed-Roof (like nothing we’d ever seen). She created the Alisime Granaries—and the stories. Her stories will take us a season to tell. Who’s better than she? Yet they’ll not have her. And that leaves only Eblan Murdan to be their Head Man.
“Though as yet there are only his Rings, still they say of his creations. And those Rings you can’t deny are inspired. While Dannyn . . .” Arskraken grins “. . . Dannyn’s sole inspiration till then is to become besotted with an English woman named Julia Cannings.”
He’s mocking, but not unkindly. I can see, beside me, Dannyn’s deep blush. “Did everyone know?” He sounds horrified.
“Awh, Dannyn, of course we all knew—those who knew you. And don’t you blame Priäplan, she spread no talk. We thought then there’ll be no more Eblan Dannyn. We thought you’ll lay your cloak aside. We didn’t know she left you. It’s good to see that she’s returned, though—late though, very late, though it is. Though now I meet her I do see why the captivation. And I’ve not seen her hair! But look what she gives me.”
He holds out the lapis egg. I’m hoping now he’ll return it. But again he seals it tightly to him. I doubt I’ll see it again.
He chuckles quietly. “Me and my tellings, they never run straight. So now we have pretty Murdan made Eblan Head Man—and here’s the first of his devious ploys. See, he needs men for his Kerdolan Trap. Hearth-brother, isle-brother, I’ve no choice but to offer my bow and my spear. But he needs a greater count than me.”
I’ve been expecting any moment to slip into the story, to be there, to live it, experience it, to be Arskraken. I’m surprised Dannyn has allowed me (so far) to listen instead of the usual ‘download’ direct to my head. Is it because I’ve the Dictaphone running; he doesn’t want me ‘away’ in case it malfunctions? Or is there something in Arskraken’s words he wants me to hear, something I’d otherwise miss? It’s not that I prefer the experience to the tale, at least not in this case.
“When an eblan’s newly-made Head Man he needs make gifts to all his eblann,” Arskraken rumbles on. “Da! So easy for him, adopted son of the trader Arith—though Arith’s no longer trading. But be it Arith or Alsvregn, he’s now supplied with the gifts. First, colourful weavings—”
“My mother’s. You call them plaids?” says Dannyn, quietly, aside.
“—one for every eblan. Then pots of Mother’s Blood—”
“Powdered red ochre,” says Dannyn.
“And here’s the devious bit. A pouch of green-feather herb.”
“Green-feather is our most valued herb,” says Dannyn. “But it doesn’t grow here. It comes from the same place as that lapis.”
“Traded from your father?” I ask.
“Perhaps. But there are many traders, not only him.”
“When my listeners return me their ears . . .” Arskraken says with good humour. “Murdan, see, gave the green-feather as a hook. It’s his trick—though he acts like he doesn’t know the law to it. Dannyn, since you’ve so much to say, you may like to tell your woman of this?”
Dannyn grins in return. “It’s a law set by the people who harvest the herb. It’s not to be freely given but only had in exchange—by trade.”
An odd law that insists an herb is not to be given. I want to know more, but Arskraken’s itching to again take the floor (or rather, the tale-teller’s sack).
“Eblan Hegrea, Murdan’s mother,” he says, “jumps to her feet. She says, naw, they can’t have it, that it’s only for trading. She says that her son doesn’t know. And that despite his years with the traders? Yet they believe her. Well, now there’s an amount of gnashing and grinding. See, though the eblann always have it in trade, yet they don’t know the law of it. What now if they’re to return it to Murdan? See, this is the most valuable gift. I tell you, there’s much clutching to chests. Then, one asks what Murdan will take in exchange of it. I tell you, that Eblan Murdan was a devious shit.
“Murdan holds up his hands and admits his error. He says he didn’t know, but there’s a way around it. He says he’ll not deny them their herb. He says they can give him, in trade, the best of their families’ hunters. Not fighters, mind. He wants hunters. Himself never was one.”
“I’ll say! Those years in the Wilds,” Dannyn says, “often I left a half deer where he’ll find it, hung high from a tree. But he could trap; he was a good trapper.”
I have a moment’s confusion. I thought he’d said it only to me, in English. Yet Arskraken snorts, “Oh, he was a trapper. Devious, see; that’s what makes a good trapper. And that Kerdolan Trap, that’s the biggest trap ever. But we don’t know it yet. Him, he calls it a campaign, which isn’t an Alisime word—”
“Tuädik,” says Dannyn.
“Whatever,” Arskraken’s dismissive. “So the eblann send him the best of their families’ hunters. He’s already said he wants me and, hearth-brother, I can’t refuse. Fifty he wants. Then, on the day he’s set, one hundred arrive. So now he has to cull them, to leave only the best. But it isn’t Murdan does that. It’s we two, Dannyn and me. And the best aren’t only those who always hit target. The best are those who does as bid without kicking or question. I tell you, that’s something. We Alsime, see, answer only to our eldliks, and Murdan weren’t that. Yet he expects Dannyn and me to cull them, and then to train them. Myself, I’m flattered by his trust in me. At first. But of Dannyn, I don’t know.”
“I’d been his shadow since six winters-seen,” Dannyn says.
“Awh, well, I didn’t know that then—nor how deeply it cut.”
“But Murdan was the Eblan Head Man,” I say. “Surely that gave him some authority?”
But apparently not. Dannyn shakes his head with quiet a little laugh. “That’s not quite how it is. The Head Man says when this or that meeting, when this or that feast. He does no more. He has no command over other eblann, and none over the Alsime. Yet here was Eblan Murdan saying these men must obey him. It had never been known.”
“But his Rings,” I object. “The trench, the bank . . .”
“All work freely given,” he says. “It’s always so, no matter the work.”
“So we cull the men,” Arskraken says, no matter we might have more to discuss. “We find him the best—those who’ll obey young Eblan Murdan. I tell you, weren’t no easy task, though I thought for Dannyn, with his Ulishvregan ways, it should be easier. For our troubles, Murdan give us both a command, a division each. Twenty-five men. By then I’ve seen how Murdan is with Dannyn. I forget my grudge of him. When we set off, we walk together as one.”
“We sang—” says Dannyn.
“We’re Alsime, we sing,” Arskraken says, “But we don’t yet know what’s ahead. We’ve none of us killed a man before. Hunters, not murderers. Awh, so we threaten a trespasser but, I tell you, all my life I’ve never known one killed. We’ve never the need. So there we are, climbing the ridge above the Wetlands, heading for the western pass, singing of our victory before we’ve yet nocked an arrow. And as well we do, for we won’t be singing of anything after.”
Something in his voice sends a sharp shiver through my entire being. Ominous. Is this why Dannyn allowed me to listen, because those who lived it weren’t aware of it until it happened? So what did Murdan do to the Kerdolan, this ‘horror’ as Arskraken has said it? And what’s this of Murdan killing his mother? The prodigy—a ‘Boy Wonder’, yea. But a prodigy, from the Latin, prodigium, ‘an unnatural happening’, is also a monstrous thing.