It’s a confused situation with positions reversed. Julia has already met Dannyn, twenty-six years into his future. But for him, this is their first encounter. At first, on finding her at Alsaldhelm Tumun , he mistakes her for his Mistress Inspiration. But a massive mind-ream tells him otherwise. Julia Cannings is a visitor from another world. But that won’t protect from his cousin Murdan. If he finds her in their Eblan Freeland, he’ll sacrifice her to the Dark Mother of the Underworld.
Episode 37 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
I have a swarm of questions, each rising and yelling that I must ask it first. But Dannyn allows none. He hurries me on, to hide me safely within his ‘roof. Once there he grabs his bow and a package of arrows, and tells me sharply to stay.
“Er—” but he cuts me short.
“Julia Cannings, scholar from far distant land of Twenty First Century, is precious guest. She must be suitably fed.”
I have a moment of déjà vu. Though the prelude has changed from the story told at Hegrea’s Isle, yet I know he’ll return with a bustard, the turkey-sized bird that once was common across Salisbury Plain. He’ll joint it, and spit-roast the fillets on a fire newly-made outside.
He’s gone before I can stop him. But he pops back in. What’s he forgotten?
“If a pot has a lid—”
“I know. Don’t touch it.”
He nods. He grins. He sets everything inside me to flutter.
While he’s away, I give his home a cursory scan. Though I’ve been here before it’s another twenty-six years on. As yet no colourful rugs adorn the walls, gifts from his Alisime women in return for eblan-services. And beside his woven-grass chest is an empty place where in time his black feathered cloak will hang. But until he’s completed his seven eblan-seasons in the ‘Eblan-Wilds’ he’s not an eblan-true. I learned this much on my previous visit.
I inspect his ‘pots’. Most are wood- or leather-crafted. Men’s crafts, he probably made them himself. But two are of clay, and one of grass-work. Gifts, no doubt, from his mother and sisters.
The bed, piled with furs, remains the same. It was only last week; I remember it well. I take deep breath, empowering. Time to change into the clothes I’ve brought with me, tucked into my bag.
My fingers are awkward with hands atremble, yet I manage to peel off the t-shirt and trousers. But when it comes to the undies I’m in a horrid self-conscious state. Ought I to do this? What will he think of me? Yet I’ve had this planned this past week. I change it slightly. I’m not going out there to bathe in the sparkling water of his clay-sealed moat. With what he’s said of Murdan, I daren’t now go. The ‘handy-wipes’ brought with me will have to suffice. But I hurry, feeling excessively vulnerable in this naked state. I’ve brought with me a matching cami and shorts of ivory silk, sold as ‘nightwear’. But even in these I still feel naked. But, lo! I’ve also brought the matching wrap. Despite it’s been tightly rolled, there’s hardly a crease in it (amazing these modern fabrics). Belatedly I attend to my hair. There’s no chance to wash it—and where would I plug in the dryer? So I brush and brush and thoroughly brush it. I can’t see the effect but I’m guessing it’s gleaming.
Okay, so now I’m fit to be seen it’s time to light all the lamps—it was part of his story. But that doesn’t take long (convenient lighter brought with me) and I’m left wondering what to do next. I could moisturise the feet, that wouldn’t go amiss. But really, considering how impromptu our previous bed-session I don’t know why I am worrying. We both must have reeked. Yet, as I remember it, apart from a healthy fresh-wrought sweat, there were no offensive whiffs to Dannyn—which is more than I can say of most of the folk I’ve met here. But I suppose that’s expected. No showers, no soaps, no deodorants, everything as nature intended. Why then doesn’t Dannyn smell as bad? Is it to do with him being Brictan—which he has yet to explain to me. In fact, there’s still a lot I want explained.
When I was here before my thinking wasn’t exactly structured. There was so much new, all coming at me. Not to mention the destruction of my preconceptions. So instead of imposing a framework to contain what I was learning, and thus to suggest relevant questions, I was all over the place, each new discovery taking me off at another tangent. But now, with a week to review my discoveries, I’ve applied the required frame, with relevant headings, and filled it with what I have already learned. But there exists several gaps, not least everything under the heading ‘Religion’. So now I want to learn all I can re Alsaldhelm Tumun and its indwelling Judlamhe Upsulm (Dark Mother of the Underworld). I’m due for this since, full confession, I’m more up on ‘artefacts’ than on the deities served. Though this far back in prehistory, until now it could only be speculation. Yet here I am with a unique opportunity. Okay, so Dannyn’s world isn’t my own. Yet I can’t ignore the many parallels, and what applies to the one might also might apply to the other.
I hear—or so I think—some kind of noise outside. I listen. Nothing. Perhaps it was more a minuscule movement of earth felt through my naked feet. I grin, sussing it. Somewhere nearby a blackbird is singing, incongruous at this hour of the day.
There’s a slight rustle, as of someone squeezing between the protective bushes (as yet the apple and holly are far from grown). It’s Dannyn, returning, just as he told Aldliks Bisdata and her family, with the bustard. And now I must keep to his story. No rushing out to meet him. I must wait inside so he sees me first in the light of the oil-lamps. I sit by his hearth, glad of the warmth of the residual embers, despite the season. I hope I look every part the Ledhe Shakreshulm, his Eblan Mistress Inspiration.
I hear the thud of the bird as it hits the ground. Then the meagre light through the passage is totally blocked. With a dip of his head he enters. But he holds there, as if stuck in the tight passage. I can see little of him in the darkness; he has yet to enter the full spill of light. His white-blond hair, his brow and nose, seem dark in the absence. But not his eyes, they sparkle bright—the startling blue-purple of periwinkles. I just can make out the wisp of his beard.
I see the curl of his fingers around his bow as he continues his journey in.
“Shed . . .” he begins to say, but his mouth refuses to work.
“Burdrezhem shep?” I ask (surprised you are?).
“You have our tongue?”
I laugh and start to say un peu, but quickly change it. “Midin. I’ve been here before, but you won’t remember it yet. It was—is—still twenty-six years into the future for you.”
His mouth again falls. All this while his eyes are busy taking in the sight of me. And it isn’t lust that I see on his face, as it might be with C21st fella. It’s awe.
“You are spirit,” he asserts.
“No, I am real. Cut me, I bleed—and you’ve touched me (my past, your future). I’m as real as you are.”
“Why you say ‘real’ in such tone? Spirits are real,” he says. “And you, no, you are not like me. Not at all. You are not Brictan. You shine with something, but it is not Asaric.”
“I’ll explain everything,” I say. “But first, you’ve left the bird outside. It’ll attract thieves. And I’m hungry. Will you not feed me?”
He upslaps his head. “Politeness escapes me—you chase it away. Three days of questions I have to ask you.” But he doesn’t begin the asking yet. He stows his bow and his pack of arrows, his eyes barely leaving me as he edges around me, no longer daring to touch. To his eyes I have changed.
“Stay,” he tells me. “I make fire; I call you.”
That’s fine by me. It gives me time to fish certain supplies from my many pockets and pouches. The ready-to-eat dried figs, which he mentioned on my previous visit—which he’s yet to experience–and some apricots, ditto, which I last-minute thought to bring with me. Then there’s the camera he’s already seen. The Dictaphone so I can demonstrate how I learned his lingo. And a photocopied map of the Plain (of which I have several).
I try to organise in my head the questions I now want to ask. So many, some not easily phrased. It might be easiest to start with the questions around religion, since it was at Alsaldhelm Tumun that this time we met. The tumun will provide a natural ‘in’. Then if I show him the photos I took there that’ll open the way for his questions on the ‘whence and when’ of me.
Yea, as if things will fall so neatly in place.
I join him outside where he’s already arranged the spitted meat around and over a mound of hot embers. He briefly looks up.
“Will you cover your hair?”
I take it as a question and tell him no. Here I’m showing a full length of naked thigh and he’s concerned of my hair? Yet I know his reasons. Amongst the Alsime, exposed hair is as intimate as our exposed flesh. Though it seems he, as eblan, pays no regard to it when it comes to his own.
He looks again at me, and quick looks away. He’s biting his lower lip, I can see. He sighs. “You know you invite me to—”
“Hmm,” I say. I feel a totally forward hussy—which isn’t at all my usual style. Perhaps there’s a touch of the Shirley Valentines here: away from my usual environment, everything exotic, the inhibitions gone. But, also, I know how the evening’s to end. So I may as well play to it as to pretend to be coy. It isn’t as if it’s to be the first time. At least not for me.
But, truth, I’m not feeling as brazen as I’m acting. So many maybe’s to fill my mind. Maybe if I focus on the sex I’ll forget the emotional? In the three days spent in his company last week—though for him that’s still twenty-six years into the future—I found myself growing more than a little fond of him. I won’t deny that I liked him. Enormously. I won’t deny that I wanted more time him—I didn’t want to return to my C21st home, my life, my job. But I thought it a passing infatuation. I now have to remind myself of it—because what I want just isn’t possible. If I focus solely on sex it’ll help keep a rein on the feelings. Or so I hope.
There’s a cushion on ground in front of him; I kneel upon it, the fire between us. He swallows; I hear it. He stops biting his lip. He sucks it instead.
“Your hair,” he says. “I have not seen—”
“You have sisters—a half-sister. And Bisaplan’s daughters: Sapapsan, Sapsinhea, Bisdata. And Sapapla and Hegfelanha. Mine isn’t the first woman’s hair you have seen.”
He nods. “You spoke true when you said you have been here before. But the last I saw of my sister Jitjana she had no more than six winters-seen. As for Bisaplan’s daughters, I know only Sapapsan, a very young child. These others, they are yet to be born? But Hegfelanha, yes, I know her. But it’s how you wear it. And how it shines. And the colour. Is this what our women keep hidden beneath their bonnets? I want to touch it, to hold it—to smell it, to bury my face in it. To kiss it. No wonder the Alisime aldliks remain so strict on it.”
“Is it really distracting?” I don’t want to replace my hat. And anyway, it’s ridiculous. Here I am half-naked, and it’s my hair that disturbs him. I start back to my feet. “I’ll go fetch the hat.” I can’t help but sound weary.
“No.” He holds out a hand to stay me. “I shall fetch it.”
He returns, Army Surplus bucket hat clutched in his hand. But he keeps looking back at his ‘roof. It puzzles me for a moment until I realise. He has just seen those things I’ve laid out for later. They must have totally mangled his mind.
He walks round behind me and leaning over me slides the hat on me. In doing so his fingers touch several soft places—my hair, my cheek—all warm beneath the slippery silk of the wrap—my neck, my shoulders. His breathing quickens, and I realise how cruel I’m being to him. Here he is eblan, a virgin, and here I am blatantly offering what he probably believes he never can have. I bring my hand up to his, little finger hooked around his.
Bless him, it’s too much for him. He pulls off my hat, grabs two handfuls of hair, and buries his face in it. I think were I standing, or he was beside me instead of behind, and there was no fierce glowing coals to accidentally roll onto, that illicit fumble would rapidly become a frantic coupling.
He pulls away, my hat again replaced on my head. He returns to his place, across the fire from me, and looks down at the coals, pointedly avoiding my eyes. “My eternal apologies. Though I did warn you.”
“I’m to blame,” I say to assuage. “I underestimated. I knew the Alisime proscription. It was wrong of me.” I walk the talk by tucking the last of my hair under the hat.
“Your hair . . .” he says, but calmer now. “It is . . . intense—this is the word? Soft beyond softness. Water, it trickles over my fingers. It smells of every sweet flower. Woodbine and roses, yet not. It shines. Every strand a lamp burning within it. And the colour! Not brown, not red.”
According to the packet it’s Chocolate Cherry. But I can’t tell him that. I’d then have to explain of chocolate, and how a hair-colour can come out of a packet. And how that same packet explains its intensity of everything.
“It is short,” he says. “Yet the ends all line up so. How is this possible?” He sounds full of wonderment.
Drat, I should have brought the scissors. Then I could show him.
“I am eblan,” he says. “I should not even have this thought, nor yet the desire—unless you are Ledhe Shakreshulm? Please be Ledhe Shakreshulm. I want to visit you as a man visits his woman.”
My turn to gulp. Though a brief glance at the sky says it’s far too early yet for retiring. Besides, there’s the meat still cooking. And there’s a whole parcel of questions I want to ask him. But I am awfully tempted to drag him back to his ‘roof by the scruff of his beard.
“It will happen,” I tell him. “You’ve already told me—twenty-six years in your future.”
“I remembered it? After twenty-six years?” He laughs. “Then if it’s to be so memorable, we had best first eat. Then you will answer my questions? You may start by telling me what is this black shiny box that shoots out a light. I wanted to ask when we were in the tumun, but I feared you were Mistress Inspiration and I should not be so—what word? Audacious? I should not be so audacious.”
“I’ll trade you,” I say. And when he starts to object, what has he to offer in return, I tell him. “I’ll make you a trade like the one Eblan Burnisen offered Eblan Hegrea.”
“Now you have proven beyond any doubt that you have indeed visited me before. No other living person but for Hegrea and I know of that story. Burnisen told it to no one but me. But you are to offer me knowledge?”
I nod. “Isn’t that what you want? I give you knowledge of my world, and you give me knowledge of yours.”
“I can give you any knowledge you ask of this world,” he says. “But I cannot give you eblan knowledge.” It seems to deeply bother him, as if our trade never can balance because of the lack.
“But you can,” I say. “For I am a scholar. And scholar and eblan are the same.”
I ought to feel totally ashamed at how I modulate my voice with intent to seduce the information out of him. But I’ve met him as an older man, and I don’t—despite he’s yet a twenty year old youth, innocent in a way he’d never be in our C21st world. There he would flounder in the violent deceit of it all. Still, no time for shame; time to learn what I want.