Now Julia has met ‘Boy Wonder’ Murdan, though only via the memories of Arskraken, is she impressed? Or is she (more likely) wisely wary? And where is he now? What if he finds her where he oughtn’t? She’d be wisest to stay close to Dannyn.
Episode 28 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
The women explode through the gate. Yet . . . only four? I’m expecting more, so loud in their talk. None is young. Though how old, exactly, it’s hard to say, wrinkled and dried by their life in the sun. Their hair is no giveaway either, primly packed beneath their bonnets. It surprises me that they wear bonnets; as if they knew a stranger would be here.
“Dannyn! Eblan Dannyn! So good, so good,” calls one—I’m guessing the youngest—as she races ahead, her arms outstretched and a rapidly opening grin.
Dannyn jumps up—we’re seated, still, on the cushions on the porch—and trips on his feather-made cloak. He recovers, arms out to receive her. She hugs him. He hugs her in return. It’s the first sign of affection I’ve seen shown to him (unless Alsvregn and Staëdan’s slaps are counted).
“How long are you here?” she asks. “Might we have you here for a full ten-night?” She’s that excited, a child greeting her favourite uncle.
Arskraken, the eldliks, leans closer to me. But without Dannyn to translate, whatever he says could as well be gibberish, though apparently he thinks it’s amusing: he chuckles. I smile in return—enforced politeness. He nods, leaving me wondering what he’s just said.
Dannyn, released and recovered from the woman’s embrace, beckons me over. Once there, he pulls me in closer, his arm curled about me. “I want you to meet a real Alisime aldliks,” he says. “This spry . . . spry? Yes, spry . . . lady is Priäplan, successor to Sappaken as aldliks of Bisaplan’s Isle. You’ve heard of Sappaken? Eblan Hegrea’s second mother?”
I nod. I smile—but I’m so frustrated that I don’t know the lingo. Not that I’m given a chance to speak.
“She is everything you said,” Priäplan says, her voice tinged with awe.
I look at him. What has he said of me? And when? Was it just now, when they were hugging?
“Priäplan and I are of an age,” he says, though I would swear that they’re not. “When Murdan was . . . hard upon me, Priäplan always was there to hear my words. She healed my wounds. So when I returned from the Wilds . . . I needed more than Old Boney; I needed a woman to hear me.”
I’m suddenly horribly k’foffled inside. It’s the second time he’s mentioned of our meeting as so disturbing he needed counselling. Why? What happened? Whatever it was—it is/it will be—he wants me to know its effect. But why doesn’t just blurt it? But no, instead he translates everything said as if I’m to take the picture from that.
Priäplan cuts my quibbles and grabs my hand. “You tell him to stay this ten-night with us,” she says. “Tell him he’s not to go walking again—all these seasons alone in the Wilds.”
“Don’t turn to me,” I say. “What can I say to him?” But without the lingo I’m relying on Dannyn for an honest translation.
“So you stay the one-night.” Disappointed, she sighs. “But, what nonsense has our eldliks been stuffing your ears?”
“He’s been telling Julia Cannings of Murdan and his Kerdolan Trap.” Which apparently doesn’t much please her.
“To tell such a thing!” She buries her face in her hands, her head shaking so violently I expect any moment she’ll lose her hat. “A visitor. Strange to our ways. And I suppose he didn’t stint on the grimness. Knowing our eldliks, he told every blood-spilling, skull-smashing bit of it.”
“He told it grim,” Dannyn agrees. “But not as grim as it was. Besides, Julia Cannings is here to learn of our ways.”
“And not to fill your bed? Am I to believe that? Dannyn, I am an aldliks; I know better; I know what I see. But look at me with no manners. And where have my women gone?” She looks around but there’s now no sign of the others. “Humph, slipped away to the stores, no doubt, to find us food. We’ve brought back small-foods—We’ve been visiting our daughters, their herds and their men,” she explains, leaning-in slightly towards me.
I ought, for politeness, ask of her daughters: Where are they? But lacking the lingo . . . I didn’t mind at first, but I’m finding it now increasingly annoying. Would Dannyn teach me, perhaps? At least the basics. I resolve to ask him. Meanwhile, typical English,I smile and I nod.
“Summer is no season for visiting,” she says. Will she now launch into the visiting formula? But no, she means exactly that. “We’ve hardly a man here, but for the eldliks. All away, either visiting or out with the herds.”
So that explains why every isle I’ve seen is mostly deserted.
“There’s Jinfleken,” she says. “Though where . . .?” She twists round to look. “Da! Sleeping, most like. He’s old now—my uncle. But listen to me, call me an aldliks. So, Dannyn, my adorable eblan, and his ‘rowan sapling’, Julia Cannings—she is, isn’t she, just like a sapling. Though why I should think ‘rowan’—Tush, listen to me, doing it again.”
I try not to grimace. What made her liken me to a sapling? I don’t see the resemblance. But whatever it is, it seems to amuse her. Her chuckles, spreading, infect me too and I find myself laughing.
She regains her thread. “We’ve time and some before night drives us in, but best to say the arrangements, now while we wait to eat. Are you hungry?” she asks me. “Is she hungry?” she asks Dannyn. “It won’t be long. We’ve had it soaking since morn. But, sleeping, now, that’s the thing. Beds. You, Julia Cannings, may use Babtrukenn’s—she’s my daughter, away south for the summer. And Dannyn, as usual, can have Bukketen’s.” She rubs her hands, face beaming smiles. “How pleasing it is, having bodies again beneath my roof and yet it’s summer. Even if it’s only one-night.”
Her hand is suddenly tugging at mine. She intends me to follow. I’m a Santa’s Sack, a kid at Christmas; will I get all I want? Just to see inside an Alisime roof, that’s something. But, moreover, I’m going to be sleeping here? I know l spent last night in Dannyn’s round-Ulishvregan-house but for some reason that doesn’t seem to count—though neither the Alisime longhouse nor the Ulishvregan winter-roofs can be counted as typical of Late Neolithic. Perhaps I’ll eventually get to stay in a Krediche ‘cot’ like those at His Indwelling. Those, at least, aren’t anachronistic.
She tugs. I follow—through a narrow slit that serves as a doorway. Inside is utter darkness, and surprisingly cool. I’ve already noticed, the Alisime longhouses all are aligned to southeast. That’s clever. Sun in the winter, none in the summer. And unless the wind-patterns have drastically changed in the past forty-five centuries, it also means the roofs are back-on to the worst of the winds.
The black interior changes slowly to grey. I guess in the morning sun I’ll see more of the colours—though I’m not so sure, not with only a pencil-width of light streaming through that door. Shadows retreat, highlights appear . . . and resolve into outlines of screens and the first of the beds. The screens are made the same as fence-hurdles, and arranged like the bays in a typical long barrow. I try to banish that thought, it’s disconcerting. Instead, I focus on the degree of privacy. That’s surprises. Gaps between the screens allow me glimpses of beds within. And that’s another surprise: they’re wider than Dannyn’s; they’re more of a small ‘double’. But then, the construction is different, these being inbuilt box-beds, like those found at Scara Brae, and Durrington Walls. Alisime rugs—in the daylight doubtless a riot of colour—hang everywhere: on the roof that serves as walls, on the screens, and free-hanging as doors. My bed, Priäplan shows me, is the second along on the left. Dannyn’s, I know without being told, will be some place along on the right (it’s the usual division). I just hope mine won’t be host to bed-bugs or fleas.
“You haven’t come back to stay with him, then,” Priäplan asks as she leads me back out.
“I would like,” I say (I would like to live here in the Late Neolithic, though I’m not sure about living here with Dannyn.) “But it’s not possible.” I look to Dannyn to translate for me.
Priäplan nods as if understanding the processes involved. “And he cannot go with you? For I tell you, he’s no good here as an eblan.”
I frown. He wants me to know this? For he’s freely translating everything for me. I look away. His eyes are so plaintive.
“I can’t see how it’s possible,” I say. But, then, I still can’t see how it’s possible for me to be here. The mechanics is way beyond me. But I suppose I could speak to Ken about this upon my return. Though how serious I am about wanting to stay, no, I couldn’t say. As for Dannyn in the twenty-first century, wow, that would be way beyond him, he’d never be able to cope. But disregarding all that, I still want to know how the mechanics of this. One thing I do know: it’s nothing to do with any weird combination of water and rock. These aren’t memories recorded, and neither a dream. This is brutally real. I’m all too aware I could die here.
“Ah, food,” Priäplan exclaims, cheery again, our ‘plight’ discussed and now forgotten. “My sister, Jaljana,” she introduces a chubbier version of herself. “And Alsmekha. She’s aldliks of her own roof—as is Piknekhea. And look! Here comes Uncle Jinfleken. I swear he smells the food in his sleep.”
And what food will it be? Flatbreads and small-foods—on platters, in baskets, in ample array upon the porch floor. Oh, and look, we get dishes too! Piknekhea—I think it’s Piknekhea—disappears off to fetch something more, while Alsmekha (if that was Piknekhea then this must be Alsmekha) deposits a large steaming pot on the porch-floor in front of us. It’s Peterborough ware. Anachronistic. Why doesn’t that surprise me. I peer in. Bean and seed stew. Thank heavens it’s not more venison. Piknekhea returns, now with a pot of a bright red sauce which she sets down by the baskets.
Dannyn passes me a dish. Priäplan ladles stew into it. It smells good, though I’ve no idea what herbs and spices they might have used. Indigenous plants, I assume, all locally grown. Yet maybe not, remembering the foreign trade had at Hegrea’s Isle. Jaljana slaps a horn-spoon into my hand. I thank her. Dannyn translates. And again I’ve a feeling of opening Santa’s Sack as I tuck into this Neolithic fare.
Silence holds—till the bean stew has blunted the hunger. Then the chatter begins.
I hear my name mentioned, several times. I look at Dannyn, but he doesn’t translate. Are they bitching about me? But isn’t that the preserve of younger women, motivated by sexual jealousy. Again, I look at Dannyn—who rolls his eyes, and leans-in closer. “They want to know your winters-seen. But they want no answer yet. First they’ll make wagers.”
Oh, and now I’ve heard everything. They’re going to bet on my age! And how flattering might their guesses be? When, after much wrangling, they say, I have to laugh.
“Twenty winters-seen,” says Piknekhea. “That fresh skin, she must be younger than Priäplan’s Bajaplan.”
But Alsmekha shakes her head. “No. Older—though not as old as Priäplan’s Babtrukenn. I say she’s of an age with my Hanaplan. Four-and-twenty winters-seen.”
“You both are wrong,” Jaljana says with an up-tilt chin. “Deceived by the oils she smears on her face. That’s linen-oil. It keeps a face fresh and smooth. And, as Priäplan says, her home is far to the East where the oil-plant grows most plentiful—or so I’ve heard. I’ll warrant she bathes in it like the Kerdolak women. I say she’s thirty winters-seen.”
Dannyn looks at me, and with a flick of his eyes, prompts for an answer. I feel nervous of it. C21st, Culture of Youth, and though I don’t feel old, I’m certainly not young.
“She teases,” Priäplan remarks of my delay.
“It’s Jaljana wins the wager,” I say. “She’s the nearest.”
“See!” Jaljana crows, chin even higher. “I told you. She bathes in linen-oil.”
“So she might,” says Piknekhea. “But her face will dry now, staying the summer on the Highlands. We’ve none of that oil here.”
“So how many winters have you?” Priäplan asks, beyond the betting, her interest now serious. I can see she’s puzzled: how dare I be older than her eldest daughter.
I look at Dannyn. But, hells, I don’t want him always answering for me. So instead I hold up my hands and flash the number. I’m in my mid-thirties. Except for Jaljana, who’s convinced of the oil, there’s a chorus of gasps.
The next question isn’t so easy.
“How many children living have you?” Again, it’s Priäplan.
I don’t know how they’ll take my answer. Will they think I’m cursed because I’ve no children? They certainly won’t understand my life-style, and that the Pill, for years, has been a must. And to wield such control . . . will they think me eblan? But I must tell them something. They’re all looking at me, even the men.
“I have none living,” I compromise.
“Death taken them all?” Jaljana asks. “She took all my daughters. I’ve more winters-seen that my sister, yet Death makes her the aldliks, when it should have been me.”
“Should not,” Priäplan snaps. I’m glad of the distraction. “You know full-well, Aldliks Sappaken—may she sing sweetly forever–wanted Flamekha to follow her—”
“My sister,” Piknekhea says. “May she sing . . .”
“—and when Flamekha left us before Aldliks Sappaken yet was singing she favoured Piknekhea instead. And after Piknekhea, me. But when Piknekhea’s only daughter took up with that Ulvregan, she, like you, was left with no daughters. As you say, no daughters, no aldliks. But it makes no difference, you’d not have been she. Besides, I was favoured by Old Boney to be his apprentice, had Eblan Hegrea not come.”
“Is that why you never did like her?” Arskraken, quiet while the women were talking, jumps in.
“I didn’t not like her,” Priäplan denies. “Besides, I didn’t want to be his eblan-apprentice.”
“Is that so? I’d say your memory isn’t so good,” Jaljana bitches. (Seems women are the same wherever they’re found.) “I remember, as if it were yesterday, how you twisted around Burnisen until he insisted you stayed that summer-half at the isle—in case you had an eblan-dream—instead of off to the south with our mother and brothers.”
“I don’t deny,” Priäplan bristles. “But you mistake my motives. Being an eblan did not inspire me. No, I wanted to stay so I could learn all there is of the aldliks-craft. And it was a rich season for learning, that summer that Hegkrehe arrived.” Priäplan chuckles, “Now there’s a story suited to an evening’s telling.”
“Hegkrehe?” I turn to Dannyn. “I’m guessing that is Hegrea’s Krediche name; am I right?” Just because I haven’t their Alisime tongue, doesn’t mean I can’t hear the words.
“If you want to know of Eblan Hegrea,” he says, “none’s better than Aldliks Priäplan to tell it.”
“Does she know of the killing—Murdan, his mother?” I most particularly want to know of that.
“She was there,” Dannyn says. “And she knows what happened after. I told her.” He almost smirks.
“Is it a long story?” I’ve noticed this of both the Alsime and the Ulvregan, they can’t just say, e.g., ‘the Trojan War was ended by the deceit of the Trojan Horse.’ They have to be Homer and recount the full tale.
Still, I’m in no hurry for my bed, and it’s pleasant just sitting on the porch with these people. There’s none of the tensions found at Hegrea’s Isle. Besides, I might learn more about the granaries. And also I do want to know about Murdan. Forewarned is forearmed—should he discover me while I am trespassing. That worries me.