Following Julia’s return from Destination her week has been busy with conflabs and meetings, and also a belly-bug. But now as she cycles over to Priory House—the first weekend in June, the weather mellow, the nights drawn-out—her thoughts return to the Project. Will Ken have squared it with Fliss? Was she still an active ‘tripper with the Project? If so, how long would Fliss allow her this time at Destination?
Episode 34 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
Dave started as soon as I walked into the room, the incongruously named Den. They were seated around the ‘conversation area’, on the deeply padded leather settees. “Hey, Julie-Poos. Oops! Oughtn’t to call you that. How’s the belly-bug now?”
“Passed,” I said, not happy to be reminded.
Fliss looked at Dave, then at me.
Ken opted the task of explaining. “Julia had a stomach infection Tuesday and Wednesday. It kept her off work.”
The look she gave him—the word basilisk comes to mind.
Dave jumped in—though not before an eye-roll at Ken. “Her mum yaps to my Pop.”
Fliss caught that eye-roll and scowled.
“Contaminated water,” I said to deflect the basilisk. “It’s sorted now.”
“Contaminated . . . ?” Fliss screwed up her face, ugly on others but cute on her. “Oh! You mean Neolithic water. But, Jules-Darling, you were not really there.”
“No, Fliss. I mean the water tank aboard the Lady.“ But I might as well have been speaking Swahili.
“Lazy Lady,” Ken supplied. “Julia’s houseboat.”
“Canalboat,” I said.
My turn for the evil stare. “But I thought you lived with your mother.”
“I’m thirty-five years old,” I said. “Okay, I stayed there briefly until the Lady was habitable but . . .”
She glanced at Ken who, perhaps anticipating, had hied off to the drinks’ shelf hidden amongst the neatly packed books on the ladderine shelves. He measured two fingers of Glenmorangie into each of three glasses.
“Julia? I know you don’t. What are you having?”
“Wine. Riesling, if you have it.” I expected Fliss to sneer. Riesling’s not exactly fashionable. But it’s what I like and I don’t care for fashion.
“In the kitchen, Kenneth,” Fliss sniped. Implication: they stocked it only for cooking. While he was fetching my wine she turned back to me. “A houseboat?”
“Canalboat,” I said.
“How very you. How many—bunks, are they called?—how many?”
“It ought to be four,” I said. “But I’ve totally gutted it and so far I’ve only replaced the one.” I hadn’t. I’d replaced two. But I preferred for her not to know that.
“If you’re digging to know if she screws there,” Dave said, as vicious as any bitch, “the answer is no. It’s made like a fucking deckchair.”
I covered my smile. True, the bed was constructed along similar lines. Though I’d a feeling it could be fun to copulate on. But I knew what Dave was doing. Fliss still didn’t trust me with Ken.
“But a houseboat,” she repeated. “How quaint. Ah, drinks.”
We talked for a while, Fliss tormenting me, keeping me anxious to know of my status re the Project. Yet I needn’t have worried.
I couldn’t believe it. She gave me two days, a whole 48 hours, at Destination. I was to check out the internals of Alsalda’s Tumun, and get myself down to Durrington Walls—again. Not that it mattered if I didn’t make it. My report, perforce, would be fictitious, drawn from my head (which anyway was stuffed with relevant facts). However, my report on the tumun would be for real. I was trebly excited.
One: Alsalda’s Tumun—which in all probability had never existed in our version of Wessex yet was sufficiently akin to the Boyne and Breton tombs to act as a model. So in effect I’d be exploring, e.g., the passage tomb of Gavrinis but not as it is now, C21st. No, it would be as it was when in use. The downside, however, was Eblan Murdan. What if I walked slap into him? The clash of exultant anticipation and abject terror set a million worms squiggling inside me. As for the adrenaline buzz . . . wow!
Two: Dannyn. Despite I’d been trying to hold him away, that last night before the ‘pod grabbed me we’d kinda got physical. Yea, I know, a part of me understood why Alsvregn had told that particular story, to give me warning. Yet another part preferred to ignore it. So, I was held in his thrall, yet it was exceedingly pleasurable. I was almost floating on air. So, I told myself, why not enjoy this while it lasts. I doubted it would last very long. Result: having had a taste of him, I now wanted more. He’d hardly been out of my thoughts this past week. At every unoccupied moment the memory of him had returned to haunt (or to taunt me?). It wasn’t—gosh, I’m not used to speaking of intimate things—but it wasn’t just rutting (as my mother would say it). It was . . . everything. The vegetables and sauces, the trimmings and accompaniments that make up the full meal. And held in his arms, I was enfolded by the wholeness of him. It was like somehow I was within him; an eerie yet compulsive experience. I hear songs with lyrics of ‘losing’ oneself, but it wasn’t like that. I felt incredibly empowered. So, yea, the thought of that again and more, the adrenaline was high.
Three: A week isn’t long to learn a language, not when the resources are abysmally few. Yet I had at least mastered some basics. Greetings. Titles. Place names. And a couple of phrases that I figured could save my life. I had played that tape over and over, repeating the words after Arskraken. But I still marvelled at Siobhán’s achievement. It had taken her just a couple of days to make a phonetic transcript of that same tape. She had then picked out the proper nouns. Though amply supplied in my typed-up text, to me that still was a major.
I did so want to speak the lingo. I wanted to ask pertinent questions. More, I wanted desperately to understand it. It didn’t matter that Destination was in a parallel universe, the lifestyle still was Neolithic. And who knows what I might discover that could then be used to gain insight re our own Neolithic.
The Ridgeway, 2500 BCE, in early June with the sun still rising: I inhale, deeply. Despite I know what lies ahead, as yet I’m feeling incredibly relaxed. Another part of Dannyn’s spell? I chug up the hill. At the top something suddenly occurs to me. Dannyn’s the same age as Murdan and, as I’ve been told, Murdan was twenty-one when he returned from the Wilds. Now here I am, one year before that. So Dannyn will only be twenty. That almost halts me. Shit! I’m almost double his age. A toy-boy, no less. Gosh, what have I let myself in for?
Well, whatever, it’s too late now; it’s already happened. Besides, some women go for younger chaps. Just, not me; they hold no appeal. But I’ve the whole day before me, before I need think of it. I only hope I can find my way from the Alsaldhelm Tumun to his ‘roof. But, stupid thought, it’s already happened. Twenty-six years on, Dannyn still remembers it. I arrive at his place, the sun still high though slipping—early evening, I’d say.
Although again I’ve brought the map—packed along with other goodies (including the ready-to-eat dried figs)—yet I’ve no need to consult it. The fenced track leads me westward and southward. Unlike before, it seems no cattle have passed here in recent days. The few pats there are, are dry and fibrous, the ruts and ridges hard as granite—which doesn’t make for easy walking. I edge the track, close to the hedge, collecting leaves and twiglets about my person. As well that I’m wearing the regulation Alisime hat else my hair would acquire the cliché’d ‘through a hedge backwards’ look.
The main problem, I quickly realise, is to know where best to leave the track to reach Alsaldhelm Tumun with minimum trespassing. I’m hoping to find a stile in the relevant place—after all, the eblann have been accessing it for nigh one thousand years—or do they always approach from the south and east, from within their Freeland? That does seem likely. I mean, a stile might tempt non-eblan visitors. I can’t imagine a time when kids weren’t curious. It predates humanity, witness our ancestral brethren, the chimps.
I walk. And walk. By now I’m sure I must have passed it despite I’m keenly watching the woodland that side, seeking a glimpse. Brilliant white in the sun, I can’t possibly miss it—except along the fence the woodland is dense. The worst is the holly. Along with the ivy-trimmed trees they cast a darkness. Eventually I have to surrender. I consult the map.
There’s perhaps a stream rise to my right, just down the scarp (though 4000 years on it’s more a dry gulley). However, the ubiquitous hedge blocks my view. All I get, between the wind-lifted briars, are flashes of hillside. Beyond that, I just can see a rolling terrain that merges into flat marshland. Nearer, just out from the hillside, the telltale roofs of an Alisime settlement. An isle.
It’s no longer my project—or not the prime—but I record it anyway, complete with roof-count. Though I’m a little confused. Does Ken want us to continue the comparative study? Now we know we’re not dealing with Wessex, that this isn’t merely a time-travel venture (Merely? How blasé I’ve become, and how soon) the parameters have changed. We need time together to discuss our plans. Perhaps if he takes me home on Sunday? Or maybe we can meet one evening next week? That thought can be shelved until my return.
The isle sits by a stream—I see flashes of silvery water. I check again with the map and—bingo! I’m exactly where I had marked Bear Hill—which means I’m perfectly placed to access the tumun.
With that realisation my heart fills my mouth. Or maybe it’s my stomach? Probably it’s the latter—which explains the queasy feeling. I pray. But I never pray. Hell, I’m not even religious. I pray that Eblan Murdan has already ensconced himself along the western edge of His Indwelling, lying in wait for the Kerdolak trespassers.
I climb the fence—which isn’t as easy as I’d expected. It’s not a post-and-bar affair, and neither a woven wattle. It’s close-set paling threaded (entangled) with unbreakable twine. Moreover, these aren’t modern palings, neatly finished. No planes here in the Neolithic. The tops have been left in their original hacked-off state, i.e.they’re cracked, ripped and very sharp. It’s a Neolithic barbed wire, with hundreds of spikes to catch me in places I’d rather they not as I straddle. How glad I am that I’m wearing trousers.
But, help! For the moment I’m stranded.
Beyond the fence the ground falls away. It’s not shown on the map, not a part of the geology. It’s a ditch, man-made (and probably eblann-made). I assume the arrangement—of ditch and fence—serves similar function to those constructed around the medieval hunting forests, i.e. to prevent the deer from escaping. By having the ditch before the fence, the fence need not be so high. That’s my theory. But I soon have to revise it.
Beyond the ditch the ground rises slightly and the trees begin to thin. Then, whoops! Another deep trench. I follow it until, about 15 feet on, it stops abruptly. Yet, a scan ahead, I can see it resumes. It doesn’t run straight. In fact, by its curve I’d say it’s an arc of a rough circle. I continue inward, towards the tumun, which now shines bright in the sun—and almost at once I start to slither.
Panicked, my instincts kick-in. I grab at the nearest thing, a spindly branch of hazel. Actually, it’s better described as a twig. But it’s young, and pliant, and firmly attached to its mum. Using some deft-handed shuffling, I use twig and parental branch to pull myself out of what’s probably the deepest of the ditches. Yippee, and I nearly fell in.
Strange, I didn’t notice the ditches when Dannyn brought me. But why would I. We approached from southeast, where the tumun crouches above the steep gulley. In the thousand or so years since their construction there’s been sufficient erosion to obscure that section of ditches. Even here to the north the silt-fill have softened their profile. Shivers play like fairgrounds along my spine. There’s no mistaking, Alsaldhelm Tumun sits at the centre of a causewayed enclosure—and that is wrong.
This time it’s not a matter of anachronisms. Cut into clearings in a landscape still heavily wooded, these causewayed enclosures are the earliest known earthworks of the Early Neolithic. As with most of the prehistoric monuments we Brits tend to think them unique to our Isles, but they’re not. They have a roughly triangular spread in Europe, apex shared between Britain and Scandinavia, base-line anchored west in Iberia, east in Slovakia. With one to four ditches enclosing the hilltop, the arenas within were vast. It’s mostly agreed they were tribal centres, where the families gathered to celebrate whatever their feasts, to arrange marriages, commemorate their dead, and consult with the shamans.
I’m reminded of what Dannyn has said of the Feast of Winter-Ending, attended only by adults. It’s possible that feast was once celebrated here, on Bear Hill though it’s since degenerated into a marriage market. He also said of the Send-Off Feast of the Dead, by 2500 BCE celebrated at the Ancestral Long Boat. I’ve no doubt that, too, was once celebrated here on Bear Hill.
It’s this of the tribal centres that’s set me on edge. By definition there ought to be only one centre to each tribal region. The ancestral centre of North Alsime of His Indwelling (Marlborough Downs) was at Windmill Hill—where Arskraken & co waited the night. It’s the biggest of its kind in Britain (though thanks to erosion and mechanical ploughing not much of it now remains). It’s dated quite late, ca 3300 BCE, yet finds of Hembury pottery suggest the site was in use at least 500 years before that.
It seems those North Alsime were highly competitive in their communal works. Not only did they construct the largest causewayed enclosure but, at Avebury, they excavated the deepest trench of its type and enclosed the most massive of stones. And if that’s not enough, West Kennet long barrow is also one of the longest known.
As for the River Alsime, their ancestral centre was Robin Hood Ball (a few miles north of Stonehenge). It’s short on dates, remaining poorly excavated, though it’s thought to be contemporary with the adjacent long barrow (ca 4000 BCE). As with other causewayed enclosures, it probably ceased to be used around 3000 BCE—coinciding with the first bank and ditches at Stonehenge.
But, question: If the River Alsime met at Robin Hood Ball, why this second, more northerly, tribal centre atop Bear Hill?
Perhaps because there was a third tribe here? If so—I take another look at the map—its hunting-gathering range must have extended west, beyond today’s Potterne. But, that being so, why place their tribal centre right at the edge? That doesn’t make sense.
Unless . . . was it possible that the River Alsime had outed the ‘Bear Hill’ tribe, i.e. in a tribal clash for the same grounds they had driven the others away?
If so, that raises another question: Which tribe built Alsaldhelm tumun? The ‘Bear Hill’ tribe, or the River Alsime?
It’s generally believed that where stones are erected inside a henge it marks the lithification of an ancestral site (i.e. changes ‘living’ to ‘dead’). This enclosure isn’t a henge, but that’s probably just by our definition. It’s possible the tumun is an early example of lithification.
What did Dannyn say of the tumun? That it’s Alsalda’s Temple—Alsalda, Mother Bear’s daughter. According to Dannyn, although the ‘Ancients’ claimed the Bear as their Ancestral Mother, the River Alsime claimed only to be Alsalda’s Children. (Likewise, the Ulvregan are supposedly the Children of Alsalda’s brother, Ulmelden.) If the Ancients were those Alsime who pre-existed the use of grain (before Soänsha stole it from the Kredese), then this enclosure on Bear Hill was probably their handiwork—the Ancients. Then the more southerly enclosure at Robin Hood Ball would be a later construction, made after the River Alsime separated from their parental stock—perhaps following disputes over whether to use the despised Krediche grains.
I’m happy with that, it seems to make sense. Though it still doesn’t answer who built the tumun. The Ancients before they departed, in disgust of their recalcitrant children? Or the River Alsime, in commemoration of their ‘Ancestral Mother’?
The answer might lie in its name: Alsaldhelm Tumun. Alsalda’s Temple. Well might Eblan Murdan claim inspiration from the Ancients while camped at this place. But if I’m right, then he had it wrong. If inspiration was had, it would have been from this Ancestral Mother—Alsalda—not as he claimed it from the Ancients.
And that doubly satisfies. The Ancients had already scorned Alsalda’s societies for resorting to Krediche-style agriculture. So they’d hardly worry their socks about the Kerdolan taking grain from His Indwelling, land of the North Alsime—their tribal competitors. Yea, see, it fits neat as a glove—for though the causewayed enclosures continued in use well into the Neolithic, their first appearances mark sites already in use by the hunter-gathering tribes.
One thing bothers me though: the tumun’s close affinity to the Breton models. Yet hadn’t Siobhán intimated that their Alisime language might be allied to a widespread substrate that in the Bronze Age influenced the various dialects of the incoming Western Indo-European?
See. I really must stop my insular thinking. The builders of the causewayed enclosures belonged to a culture that extended far across Europe. The same culture erected the chambered tombs—of which Alsaldhelm Tumun is just one example. Those tombs are found wherever there is rock, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Orkneys—and that same culture would be kin to the Alsime. So there’s nothing odd about finding a tumun here. And it’s only the motifs that link it specifically to Brittany.
Now content with my assessment, I make my way to the magnificent structure.
I come at it from behind. Its entrance, southeast, overlooks the spring that feeds the stream, both nonexistent in our C21st world (and now I know why). I’m aware I’m not being overly cautious—fool woman, when I know the potential for Murdan’s presence. But I’m impatient; I’ve seen the outside, now I’m keen to see within. Yet I stop, foot in midair, at the southwest trilithon-framed mock-portal.
Till now the wind has taken it away. But now, wow, the stench! It comes without warning. I don’t want to be nearer. And yet I am curious.
It’s red. And raw. And gross. Perhaps three-, maybe four-days old, it’s decomposing and beginning to slime. But what grosses me out is where are the bones? It seems unnatural: filleted meat. (It should only be seen on supermarket shelves.)
I scan around. I’ve a feeling of someone watching. Behind me there’s a clatter of leaves. The wind? Otherwise, everything’s quiet.
It’s probably a deer, though it lacks a label. Whoever stripped the flesh off its bones and piled it here, against the portal, is probably three days gone. Murdan? But what was his purpose? And I’m surprised it’s attracted nothing more savage than flies—they’re thick around it. Not even a weasel has come to disturb it—the stack is regimental-neat. It was obviously ritually given. But why here, outside the tumun? The southwest portal, that’s the place of the midwinter solstice sunset. The place of Death? Or of Renewal?
I cut a wide path around it, and continue round to the southeast entrance. But I’m no longer relaxed. More like a clockwork toy, fully-wound. The slightest noise, I start out of my wits. I scarcely can breathe. (That’s as well since I’m now downwind of the meat—which I try to ignore.)
A sharp crack! Behind me. I freeze. Is it Murdan? No great shakes as a hunter, chances are he’s not overly stealthy. Great, so he can’t creep up behind me, unheard, a knife in my ribs before I’m alerted. No, but he might stand on a stick so it cracks.
I listen, ears painfully keened. And now there’s not even the birds. Where are they? Their territorial songs performed, are they now busy fetching food for their young? So why aren’t the young cheeping?
Before me, falling in gullies and folds, stretching far into the distance, is the Highlands of the Sun. Its random dotting of bushes and brambles and new stands of bracken could hide a whole army, never mind only Murdan. The Eblan Freeland, all and any eblann can come here. And here’s me, silhouetted against the white rock of the tumun. But—I try to calm myself—I’ve cobbled together an Alisime phrase, just in case I’m caught here. I practice it now, in my head. I just hope I’ll be given a chance to say it before, assumed a trespasser, I’m slain.
Another step, and another, I cautiously tread. So far, so good, all seems to be well. I’m almost at the entrance now. Just a few steps more. I pray Murdan’s not waiting inside. My hand’s already on the torch still packed in my pocket. I’m not going in there in the dark, not after seeing that meat. If not Murdan within there’s still the chance of something yet grimmer. Fine for Fliss to say to investigate, she’s safe in her ‘pod room, monitoring dials.
I take a sip of water, and fish in my pockets for a dried apricot. But my mouth is so dry I scarcely can swallow. And what’s wrong with my lungs? They barely inflate. Maybe I ought to head back to the trees. Sit there for a while. Relax. Yea, but I’m here now. With torch in hand I turn to enter the tomb.
“Bershem!” calls a voice behind me. Male. Loud. Far too close.
I’m not sure what the word means, yet the tone says stop. I stop.
“Redakleëzn, jimshep? ”
That I can translate: ‘Flightless Woman, who are you?’
I turn, intending to answer as practiced: Eblanheshed-Jallisha Alsimeëlmen Ersvraden.’I am Eblan Jallisha (Bright Sky) of the East Alsime.’ I hope the syntax is right.
Yet the words stay in my throat, unable to speak them.