Julia’s been slow to realise where Dannyn is taking her. Certainly not to the Ancients Land in the far south, best reached by river, for he’s hauled his river-craft onto his back and set off walking—up through the Hills of His Indwelling, towards the Wetlands.
Episode 48 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
The worst of the walk now is over. No more hills for us to climb—merely descend. Even so, in the increasing heat the straps of my backpack, weighted by the additional donated food packets, are beginning to burn into my shoulders. We pass an ancient long barrow, totally grass-grown. A Boat Hump, as the eblann call them. I concede it vaguely resembles an out-sized upturned boat, though I’d say sea-craft rather than river-.
“It is Buknekhea’s farthest marker,” Dannyn says.
So I’m right in my guess, that is where we’re going.
“Do they often trundle a cart along here?” I ask, for the path we’re following is deeply grooved.
“A car?” Dannyn laughs. “No, not ever; you’re mistaking our worlds.”
“No, cart, I said cart. ”
“No, not even a car, we’ve no wheelie-things yet. These are sledge-marks, the runners. Mouess earned the ire of her Alisime family by taking her grain to the Krediche granary.”
That almost stops me in those same tracks. “The Alisime women have their own fields?” But I’d thought since Hegrea had to ask Sappaken for land for her fields that the kin-women tilled their lands in common.
“The Alisime women, they have their fields,” Dannyn says, “but not the Krediche. Is another reason for trouble to haunt the mixed isles—unless the Krediche woman relinquishes her old ways.”
“Which Mouess did not?”
He shakes his head—which effectively wobbles the boat. “Hegkrehe is not Hegrea’s birth-name. It is Hegrissa. And what does that tell you? Gouis, Hegrissa and Drysesit. How she lived so long in that hate-torn isle, I do not know.”
Despite his talk of hate I find myself chuckling, musing on names. I’m told the Kredese share the Kerdolak snake-fear—yet the Krediche names are full of h’esses’.
We’re not far along the track when the fields start again, the first hemmed by an arc of coppiced wood.
“Count them,” says Dannyn. “The number of fields tell how many women belong to an isle.”
Yea, really, with far-scattered fields? I’d be wandering across their land for ever. And now I see the familiar benders snuggled into a woodland edge. Goats proliferate; they’re everywhere.
I stop and fish out the camera.
“No,” Dannyn stops me. “They would not like.”
“It’s okay. It’s the view of the Vale that I want.” The sun’s light is catching the streams and rills as they thread in and out of the marshy fens. The almost-blackness of sedge and alder stands in marked contrast. “And if I don’t take it now the light will be gone, hidden by the hills we’ve been walking.”
He nods and allows it. “You return here in winter; take your ‘piccies’ of whiteness creeping up from the Wetland.”
I’d like to return, summer or winter, but I say nothing. Instead I smile. Dannyn looks at me. I shake my head, explanation not easy. I’ve just seen this scene as if transferred to Africa—the Masai, maybe—minus the water. The same herds tightly gathered together, each a group of diminutive red cattle, each tended by its male herder. Here, goats make women while cattle maketh man.
Beyond the Vale, the northern scarp of the Highlands rise black and forbidding. I think of the monks who, in another four thousand years, will build a priory amongst its folds. But no, they won’t. For this isn’t my world.
“Done?” Dannyn asks me, a little bit sharp.
I hurry along.
At a stand of hazel and ash trees the path divides, a track either side. “Which way?”
“Which would you rather? East for the living, west for the dead.”
We take the left fork, the east. But we must be almost there and I want to prepare.
“Is Aldliks Feskenn still living?” I ask.
Dannyn chuckles. “Aldliks Feskenn was old when Hegrea was young. She was born older than Burnisen. No, today’s aldliks is Sarnutha—a most strange choice.”
“You’ll see. And Hegrea’s parents, too, both are dead.”
Well, that answers that. “What about Gouis?”
He grunts what I take is a no. “It is unwise to speak his name,” he advises. “A mining accident—far away to the north. The Mother claimed him.”
Away to the north? Would that be Grimes Graves in Norfolk? The unique and high quality black flint mined from there was used extensively in building the Late Neolithic monuments of Wiltshire, particularly those of Salisbury Plain. I used to think that a long distance for Neolithic man to port his flint nodules, until I discovered that cattle were driven to Durrington Walls from as far away as the Orkneys.
The ash trees thin, and then are gone. Now it’s all hazel mixed with briar and thorn, and brambles and rose that thickly entwine. I don’t need Dannyn to tell me that this now is the hedge to Buknekhea’s Isle. The path delivers us to the southern gates.
Dannyn deposits his boat beside the small swing-gate before pushing through—the bigger, wider gate, as I was told at Bisaplan’s Isle, is used only for cattle and goats. I follow him in.
Though the air seems to swirl with the scent of wood smoke—and somewhere someone is cooking perhaps a stew—there are less pleasant smells. The isle serves as stock yard in the winter; their dung has been stacked to dry in the sun. That’s not so bad. It’s that somewhere is the family’s latrine, and someone of late has had the ‘runs’.
I’d not noticed the smells at Bisaplan’s Isle—or not so strongly. Neither had I seen so many longhouses decaying. There was but the one which, as Dannyn explained, was used as a winter-roof for the cattle and goats. Here . . . phew, a big difference. I know the reason. Bisaplan’s Isle is wider and more open and thus is fresher. Here, while the dense high hedge protects from the winds, it also holds in the dampness (as well as the smells).
There’s another difference, too, and it’s highly visible. Here are two clusters of Krediche cotts.
Two clusters of Krediche cotts and only two longhouses (‘roofs) still in use. I see a further three ‘roofs but they’re in varying stages of decay; one perhaps not long abandoned (I wonder its story), and one so decayed that not much is standing. I’m surprised, with what we think of as Neolithic (read subsistence) culture, that the family don’t recycle the wood and thatch. They could use it as firewood if nothing more. But no, it just lays there, slowly rotting. Such a waste, plus it must harbour all manner of pests and vermin. I look at Dannyn, hoping he’ll explain without my asking, but no.
But my eyes soon turn to the Krediche cluster; my first chance to see one at such close quarters. An open space large enough for a tennis court separates the clusters from the Alisime ‘roofs. Though I don’t imagine any games are played there. Its centre is broken by overgrown holes all set in a line. Clearly a palisade once had sat there. And there’s the evidence: a pile of posts stacked against the hedge at the west side of the isle. The west of the isle, where the Krediche cotts are. The woman’s place—or the place of the dead. That says it all.
I can’t help but nose into the first cluster we pass, though I can’t see further than its enclosed communal yard, covered with a tattered hide canopy. It seems no longer in use. No fire burns there, no smoke seeps through the wattle and hide roofs. Again I look at Dannyn for explanation. This time he obliges.
“Spekan’s court,” he says. “He was the first Buknekhea’s kin to bring home a Krediche woman and though the aldliks at the time was his own mother yet she refused the woman a bed in the Alisime roofs. It was unthinkable, it just wasn’t done. And so Spekan built her a Krediche cott.
“Then came the next generation—three sons, no daughters. The eldest, Talaon, kept to the Alisime ways, visiting. And when not away he lodged with his mother in the Alisime way despite she was Krediche. But the youngest, Ardrekis, followed his father. He brought home a Krediche-named woman, Datesse, though she, like him, was born of an Alisime isle. It was he that started this other cluster.”
The other cluster, Ardrekis’s court, has seven cotts, all apparently occupied though none show their faces. Are all away with their goats?
“So which was Hegrea’s cluster?”
Dannyn nods at the nearest, the one that looks derelict and deserted. “Her father, Tilsnaken, was Spekan’s number two son—”
“He wasn’t full Alisime? Yet his name . . . .” Though I suppose his name is no more Krediche than those of his brothers, Talaon and Ardrekis.
“Drysesit’s the only one who remains—Hegrea’s young brother. And he’s away visiting.”
“So though he’s taken to Alisime ways he still lives there in a Krediche court?”
Dannyn smiles (though I think it is sadly). “Where else can he dwell? By the Alisime way, only the women have rights to their mother’s ‘roof. A man is there by invitation—ever the lodger.”
“But . . . if he’s born there?”
“It is their way.” I notice he doesn’t say it’s his own people’s way. Though most of the time he blends with his Alisime hosts, he is still an outsider, the Ormalish son of a Saëntoish trader.
He gives a curt nod, directing my attention to the nearest of the thatched long ‘roofs. “Feskenn’s Roof,” he says.
“But you said she’s long dead.” Is he purposely trying to confuse me?
He laughs. “Dunsephe’s family grew too big, so a new roof was build for her. Now her granddaughter Sarnutha is aldliks here.”
“And she had it raised in front of—who was Dunsephe, her mother?” Was that arrogant or was that arrogant.
“You are right in how the women relate,” he says and again he laughs. At my ignorance, or at my uppity reactions? Probably the latter since he’s not mocked my lack of knowledge before. “But you are wrong in the importance of roof positions. Which roofs are nearest the gate?” He doesn’t wait for me to answer. “The Krediche courts.”
“Ah! So the further back, the greater the kudus? Yet Priäplan’s roof wasn’t set very far back.”
“Only because others have since built behind it. When this was built, Feskenn’s sister Bakesha was named as the next aldliks.”
“Now you’re confusing me. Do I need to know this?”
He shrugs. “You wanted to know of Alisime ways.”
“Okay, so Feskenn was aldliks when Hegrea lived here. And her sister Bakesha was named as the next aldliks. So how come Sarnutha now is the aldliks, and she is granddaughter to Dunsephe?”
“One might be named,” he says, “but not have enough children—not children who live.”
“Ah! Priäplan said something of that.” Or at least one of the women at Bisaplan’s Isle had said of it.
“Next after Sarnutha will be Truütha. Her grandmother, Sinash, is granddaughter to Bakesha. She has lots and lots of children, all living.”
I’m not sure what qualifies as ‘lots of children’. I’ve visions of the colossal Victorian families.
“Three,” Dannyn says and holds up three fingers. “Three children who survive to be women.”
I sigh, anticipating a repeat of the questions. Have I a man visiting? How many children? Then Sarnutha will imply some kind of shame at my lack. I shiver—not entirely because the sudden wind blowing, the sun having now disappeared behind the ridge. Despite the sky still is blue I’ve the sense of night wrapping around us.
I’m pleased to see the warm glow of a fire—though it’s set so deep beneath the long overhang of roof that I can’t see its attendant. I squint, I peer. But no one is there. Indeed, were it not for the smoke, and now an infant crying, I’d think we’ve come to an deserted isle.
Then—I blink. Where’d he come from? Standing there in front of the hearth, a man who’s appeared as if from nowhere. But surely he merely emerged from the shadows behind him? Dannyn whispers his name: Eldliks Alsublen. I’ve no idea his age—maybe forty, maybe fifty: his beard is heavily speckled grey, his eyes web-woven. Yet he flashes a full set of teeth—all white.
Dannyn signs for me to hold still as this Eldliks Alsublen advances upon us. I notice he leans on his staff. He has a noticeable limp. He stops at least three yards in front of us.
“The Summer Half is no time for visiting,” he tells us, his feather-topped staff held slantwise in defiance.
“Yet it’s Summer Half,” Dannyn answers, “and we are visiting.”
I hold back my grin. No translation this time from Dannyn yet I’ve understood every word. Maybe it helps that I now know what form this formula takes.
“We’ve come to see Aldliks Sarnutha,” Dannyn tells the eldliks. “We have gifts.” He turns back to me and swiftly unties the nearest parcel. He holds it out to Eldliks Alsublen.
“It’s late in the day to disturb the aldliks,” Alsublen replies, eyes fixed on the leather-wrapped packet.
“Yet her fire still burns,” Dannyn says, a glance at the hearth behind Eldliks Alsublen.
Alsublen glances round. Is he trying to divine the aldliks’ instructions? Is he to allow these visitors in, or ought he to shoo them away? I’m surprised he gave no hint of knowing Dannyn. Yet Dannyn is Eblan Head Man here and has been for these past many years. He looks worried. Perhaps he’s concerned of who is this woman brought by the eblan. I’ve met so many people now I’ve forgotten how oddly dressed I am—or so it must seem to them. At least I’ve remembered to wear the hat.
He looks more closely at me, his head slowly shaking. Then, “This the woman we’re hearing of? From that distant place we’ve none of us heard before? Twenty . . . Twenty . . . Engleïsh?”
“The woman Julia Cannings from Twenty-first Century English,” says Dannyn.
Alsublen sniffs, his head jerking back. “And she hasn’t our Alisime speech?”
“No,” Dannyn says most emphatically, a swift look at me.
Okay, Julia, time to keep the mouth shut—which is a shame now I’m learning the lingo.
Alsublen nods. “Eye-pleasing, that. She yours, you say? Dah! Eblann: a life, to us, unknown. Though you could clothe her better. She looks like a man, but for the bumps.”
“So you’ll tell Aldliks Sarnutha we’re here?” Dannyn pushes. I hear the amusement in his voice. And his hand flaps around beside him until it finds mine—which he squeezes in his possessively reassuring way.
Alsublen turns enough to shout over his shoulder to the ‘roof behind him. “Sarnutha! Guests for you. Gifts for you.”
The aldliks doesn’t need any calling. I’ve no idea how long she’s been standing beside her hearth beneath the porch roof, but that’s where she is now, part-painted in shadow. She’s older than I’d expected. Though with her hair covered by the usual soft leather bonnet there’s only her weathered skin to go by. She could be fifty, she could be seventy.
“Well met,” she tells her eldliks.
She looks like she’s enjoyed a good life: her Alisime shirt strains across her big belly. And about her neck she bears a necklace of shaped polished bones. I can’t be certain, and I don’t want to stare, but I’ve a feeling those bones are from a young child’s spine. I shouldn’t be so surprised, yet my C21st mind finds it macabre. Had the child been her own?
“Eblan Dannyn.” She nods a greeting. “So you have brought Julia Cannings to meet me. Am I to be honoured? Ought I to be flattered? Or should I be curious of why she comes; what interest she has in me? No, don’t answer. She comes asking after Hegrissa.” She sighs, so wearily. I’ve a feeling Hegrissa is someone she’d rather forget.