Julia is surprised that Dannyn allows her to listen to Arskraken instead of transferring the storyteller’s memories, as he has done before. But as yet Arskraken has only been holding forth on the faults of Murdan. As he begins to tell the story-proper Julia again finds herself transported, perhaps twenty-four years back in time—Dannyn’s time, Arskraken’s time, not our C21st time.
Episode 27 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi-Fantasy
Although I’m also here as Arskraken, I’m aware enough of myself to pass comment upon this band of ramping warriors. For men off to spring a great trap they’re making a tremendous din. Haven’t they heard of moving silently, secretly, about their business? Not even Dannyn, beside me, eblan-shaman that he is, thinks to tread softly. As for Murdan, up ahead of us, leading the way, he’s the loudest. What, no trumpet to blast? But he sings. He leads us, supplying the victory chants. There’s anger in him, sparking around him, hot and sharp.
We’re treading now the North Alsime lands—which, I suppose, is reason enough not to hold quiet. There’s no Kerdolan here, not even Krediche. Not yet. Around us all are our own Alisime people. If we keep to the pathways, if we don’t trespass, what’s the fuss? The ‘fuss’ is one might hear us and pass it along. The North Alsime, especially here around His Indwelling, are known to interwed with the Krediche families. But who cares about that? Not Murdan.
He leads us to where we’ll set camp for the night. As we make the un-steep climb to the un-high hill I’m not alone in the shivers. We’re wary, the lot of us. Naw, I’d say we’re down-right uncomfortable, down to the seats of our seatless breeches. The shit’s only leading us into the Ancestors’ most hallowed ground, its once-white walls more sacred than the Cloud Stone Isle that sits beneath it.
“Where else?” Murdan defends his decision to Dannyn and me. “We’ve taken longer than expected getting here; it’s now almost dark.”
“Agreed,” Dannyn says. “But you know well, these men aren’t happy to be in this place.”
He shrugs and tosses his little white curls. “But it hasn’t been used since . . . whenever.”
“And you think the spirits are gone?” Dannyn’s more angry than I’ve ever seen him. “Can’t you feel it? The Ancestors’ spirits are thick in these walls.”
Murdan smiles. Infuriating in his sweetness. “But the Ancients’ spirits walk alongside us, so why concern ourselves with these lesser?”
Though I’m as uncomfortable as Dannyn with Murdan’s choice of encampment, and spend a mostly-sleepless night for it, yet it’s from these same walls, in early morning light, that we receive what could be a most vital warning.
Dannyn calls me to him. “See that, down there?” The place he’s chosen along the walls overlooks the Krediche granary with its reach of river.
“What’s he doing?” I ask, as if I can’t see. He’s one of the granary-traders, easily seen by his wear. We watch as he poles his craft along First Water, heading right to us. “We oughtn’t to have made so much noise. What if he knows we’re here? What if he’s taking word to the Kerdolak mariners?”
We lose sight of him while the river sweeps round a hill. Then again he’s in sight. He passes almost beneath us.
“If he knows we’re here he’s not betraying it. Not a glance up from him.”
But there’s no mistaking his direction. Lest he goes to the boggy source of the water, he’s heading off to that same western pass that’s our destination.
“But why?” Dannyn asks as if he can hear my own worries. “Does he go to warn the mariners of our intent? What ought we to do? Alter our plans? But what if he’s off to trade of his own concern? He could be . . .”
“Innocent?” I supply.
By now Murdan has joined us. “Leave him be, we’ll risk it. At least now we know to be alert to him.”
We move out—early, we’re thinking, before others are moving, though that trader belies it. We make straight for the two Skakem isles close by the western pass.
Murdan, in spying, has discovered their involvement, loaning the mariners their Alisime river-boats, removing the need to haul their heavier longboats up an awkward ravine. Alsime: we’ve all tutted at that. They ought praise the Mother they’re not all dead. So now they’re keen to make amends. They’ve agreed to help us. Though, fearing they might warn the mariners, Murdan hasn’t yet told them his plans.
We arrive at Buktalha’s Isle first—and ho! The shock on the eldliks’ face! He’s been expecting a handful of men, not these fifty all prickly with spears, and quivers all brimming. He’s terrified.
“No, no,” Murdan calms him. “I want only your hospitality.”
That seems not to relieve him. I hear him mumbling of the harvest new-in, and his cattle summer-fat, yet that doesn’t mean he has food to feed us.
“No, no,” Murdan calms him again. “Only half this number is to lodge here.” That’ll be Dannyn’s command. I wish it were mine. It means I’m to lodge with him, with Murdan.
At Negkrakhea’s Isle it’s a different greeting awaiting us. Their eldliks all-but falls over his feet, nothing begrudged us—except he whines when we tell him he and kin will be kept inside the isle. Murdan instructs me: we’re not to allow them out even to fetch firewood and water. Our men will do that. The same’s to apply at Buktalha’s Isle .
Men lodged, Murdan with we, his commanders, Dannyn and me, set the business of keeping a watch of the marshland stream. We don’t know when the Kerdolan will come, so we’ll each take a turn, meeting each late evening to make a report.
Day one: Nothing.
Day two: Nothing.
Day three: Nothing.
Day four: Nothing.
Day five: Nothing.
Day six: Nothing.
Six days, and still not a sign of the Kerdolak mariners—nor the trader’s return.
Six days, and Murdan with his Kerdolan Trap is causing havoc in these two Skakem isles. It’s hard for them, they say—which it is, hampered from their daily chores. This isn’t an Alisime way. And though they pester, we can give them no reasons. I don’t like it; Dannyn neither. This isn’t what we Alsime do to each other.
“It’s no Alisime way either to aid the Kerdolan, yet that’s what they’ve done. Their slightest wink or a word,” Murdan says, “and our plans are undone.”
Seventh day comes. Murdan takes the morning watch. Around midday he’s back at Negkrakhea’s Isle. I expect him to say that they’re here, the Kerdolan, but naw. “Quick, take my watch,” he says, though there’s not much left of it.
I look. I ask. He says nothing—Nothing! He tears off, I assume to speak with Dannyn (it’s the direction he’s heading.)
Obediently, I head off westward to take up my post, cramped within a clump of brambles. But I see what he’s not told me. The gate to the shelter where, as he described it, the Kerdolak mariners left their boats last summer—now is shut. That’s how I know the Kerdolan have come. Not by any word of his. The shit! Doesn’t he trust me? Think I’ll blurt it to the families? Yea? How, when he sent me immediately off to watch?
So I watch. I watch back up the track as much as I watch to the front. Him and his not telling; so now I don’t know if it’s the mariners alone, or if the trader was with them. Meanwhile, I know what he’s doing. At least he’s told us his role. He’ll have alerted Dannyn, so soon Dannyn will bring his men in. That’ll relieve me to go fetch in mine.
But the day passes and still no Dannyn. The sun lowers, its bloody orb full in my eyes. I shiver. Is this an ominous premonition—or am I suddenly cold? And finally Dannyn arrives—with Murdan.
“What’s happened to the plan?” I ask, I pounce. I’m not very happy.
Murdan jerks his chin in an east-direction. “They’re still at the granary. This late, they’re staying the night.”
“Shit! And the granary-trader, is he with them?” I want to accuse him of not telling me this but . . . this is Murdan.
Murdan shakes his fluffy white curls.
“Shit!” I repeat. “If he’s alerted the mariners then they’ll know there’s a trap. They might even attempt to counter-trap us. So what do we do—if he now appears?”
“Kill him,” Murdan says as if he’s talking of killing a thieving rat.
“No! You can’t do that,” Dannyn says. I’m glad it’s him who says it, means Murdan will take it better. “What has he done to warrant his death?”
“And if he returns and knows and springs it? Are you sure you’re a man?” Murdan sneers. “You’re as soft as a woman.”
I want to say I agree with Dannyn but I admit I’m afraid. Maybe it’s me, as soft as a woman.
“But if he doesn’t return till after?” Dannyn says. “Or if he returns and we can see he can clear it before we begin?”
Murdan grudgingly nods. “If . . . Elsewise he’s dead.”
With that agreed, and a little more talk to tighten the plan, I return with Murdan to Negkrakhea’s Isle, leaving Dannyn in the prickly hollow to watch through the night—all for that troublesome granary-trader. I’m glad now I’ve taken my watch.
Early morning, we move into position, a handful of men left at the isles. We’ve told the families they’re there to protect them, but in truth it’s to keep them from marring the trap. I close Negkrakhea’s gates. I post the guard. I leave a few further men in the Freeland, hidden amongst the trees—to be birds. As each takes position I hammer it into him: he’s not to loose an arrow, not lest it seems the mariners know of the trap and try to flee—in which case they’re to shoot without stint. At the ridge, Murdan directs the rest of my men to manoeuvre a boulder, conveniently found, to block the boat-shelter’s gate. Thereafter, with a warning this could be a long wait, they burrow their butts amongst the bushes and thorns that cover the west-facing ridge. Dannyn and his men arrive soon after. Together we settle into our hollow.
“He still doesn’t trust us,” I whisper to Dannyn as Murdan finally leaves us once assured that all is set right. I doubt he’d leave us now if it weren’t for the part he’s to play. He’s the thrush, his the first call. He intends to hide out near First Water’s main feeder, where Negkrakhea’s boats are usually stowed. But with trees and bushes scant for cover he’s using what he calls the ‘Kerdolak Stones’—a nearby stack of stones. Though nothing as big as the Cloud Stones, being overgrown and long-forgotten they’ll make good cover. I don’t know their story but Dannyn does. With time to wait, he explains it to me.
It seems the Kerdolan brought the stones to the Plains of His Indwelling long years ago, intending to raise them to some holy place. They were probably hoping to rival the Cloud Stone Isle which then was recently-built.
“But why not use the stones that lie all around at His Indwelling. They’re holy stones, aren’t they, those Cloud Stones?”
“They’re also Alisime stones,” Dannyn says.
So off went the Kerdolan and brought in their own.
But they got only as far as the head of First Water—progress stopped by the North Alsime eblann. The Kerdolan were trespassing.
Arrows flew. The Kerdolan were killed. And their stones were left there for ever more, alongside the stream in Negkrakhea’s kin-land. Apt, that that’s where Murdan’s to hide.
He’s warned us this could be a long wait, and it is. Nothing happens until the next morning. And then a crow caws. No doubt there’s first been a pretty thrush call but we’re too far away to know.
Next we hear a woodpecker. Tat-tat-tap.
Dannyn looks at me. It’s time. We both look across to our men. After a cold night of waiting, they’re ready. Keen to be busy and done. As to Murdan, if he’s acting according to plan, as soon as the mariners are safely away he’ll set to work. He’ll hide the borrowed river-craft; he’ll hide the furs and anything other left behind for a return collection. It’s more as precaution than anything. If they twig the trap and try to escape there’ll be no boats waiting for them. Murdan then should return to the ridge—but not to join Dannyn and me in our hollow. That could alert the mariners. Naw, he’ll watch from the ridge-top.
And finally we see the mariners, above us at the gulley’s top. They’re flagging beneath the weight of the grain. We grin. It’s perfect. For we know that gulley is slippery from recent rains. Their attention will be full on the track, not an eye turned to the trees and bushes to see where we’re hiding.
Down the gulley they come, not a one of them knowing the arrows trained on them. At the gulley-bottom they’re almost rejoicing, blindly happy to set down their sacks. They stretch, they waggle their shoulders. Then one of them sees the boulder in front of the boat-shelter. I can’t say of the others, but by now my fingers are itching to loose my arrows, just to be done. And hidden as I am, I hardly durst breath.
We can hear them, though we don’t know their words. “Who’s set this stone here? How are we to fetch our boats out?”
So now they’re growing a little more wary, looking about them, feeling uneasy. Yet—fools!—still they bend their backs to heave out the stone. And with no guard set?
A cuckoo calls.
But a cuckoo, now, is out of season. The mariners look up from their work.
Twenty arrows zing into their marks. Yet few bring a swift death.
Another twenty. And another, and another. It seems to me the air is breeding them, like flies from cow-dung. The mariners, too; they resemble hedgehogs, curled into death.
The arrows gone, the Kerdolan felled, we let up and stand up. I can see their faces. There’s not a one of us who isn’t sickened. We’ve none of us killed, except meat, before. “They’re wolves,” Murdan says. “Vermin. Do you hesitate to kill a rat?” But they look mighty like men in their death throes to me, calling, and crying, hurting, not a quick squeal and be done.
Perhaps it’s a kindness Murdan shows them, walking amongst them, hauling heads up and slicing their throats. Better the quick death than to linger. Yet to me it looks like a feast with a sacrifice. We watch—without understanding. There’s no victory call raised, no shout of success, no cheer, no clap, not a laugh.
And still there’s no sign of that granary-trader we saw that dawn. Though it’s almost night, yet he could yet come poling along.
“We have to block his way,” Murdan says, “lest he takes word of the slaughter to the granary.”
Dannyn and I, we can’t disagree, though sooner or later the granary-keepers are going to know.
“I have the perfect way to it, told by my mother,” Murdan grins. There’s a quality to it; it turns my stomach. “The Kerdolan have two fears. The snake and the corpse—but the corpse is the greater. It’s the pollution. They won’t go near it.” He looks around him and what we have done. “She tells me, so great is their fear often the dying are consigned to their pyre while breath and life still is in them.”
And he tells us to hang up the corpses upon the trees that no Kerdolan will ever again dare to trespass here.
“That’s . . . cruel,” Dannyn says, even while our men are tying and hauling. “Hung from a tree? That breaks their contact with the earth; they’ll not be reborn.”
That seems to delight our Eblan Murdan. He laughs, and dances, and rubs his hands. The only one of the fifty that’s happy.
Then, “I’ve something better. Hang them upside down,” he tells the men, “so their spirits can’t escape till their corpses are rotted.” He chuckles, a sound deep inside him. “It will serve them well, being trapped in the very one thing they most fear—and that corpse to be their own!”
How to refuse Murdan? It’s not something we’re ever done, neither Dannyn nor I nor any of the men. Obedient, sickened, reluctant, yet we do his bidding. We hang the corpses from the branches. By their ankles, upside down. Isn’t it enough that we’ve caused their deaths, that we then do this?
Dannyn reaches for my hand. He feels it as keenly as I, the same revulsion.
But his touch brings me back. I remember I’m not Arskraken, I’m not really there at the western rim of His Indwelling. I’m Julia Cannings, trapped in this place that’s not as it should be, until the time-pod once again grabs me.
But something other is taunting my mind. This psychopathic Eblan Murdan was wandering the Eblan Freeland—the Wilds—when I made that first visit, the one that I’ve yet to have. I shudder. What if I meet him? And there I am trespassing.