Aldliks Sarnutha jabbed at the fire, everything of her shouting reluctance to remember Hegrissa. There’ll be no tale told here. But then Dannyn applies his Brictish tricks and, again, another’s memories flow through Julia as if they’re her own.
Episode 49 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
Memories. Child-days. When Hegrissa was here. Alive. Living. Not yet believed dead.
Sarnutha wasn’t alone in hounding the half-Krediche sprouts. Everyone did it. But Hegrissa—this same Hegrissa who sits across the hearth from her now, who in the morning again will be dead—she was Sarnutha’s favourite target. Hounded by taunts, spat upon, her Krediche curls yanked. Tangled-topped, shit-coloured, like dirt. Sarnutha nods grimly at the memory. In those far-away child-days she’d do whatever it took to make Hegrissa’s life yet more a misery. Born of the same moon, they shared nothing other. But Jinketis, she remembers lame Jinketis, he wasn’t so cruel to her. Nah, because he knew how it was to be taunted. In shame Sarnutha remembers the taunts they’d thrown at him too.
Sarnutha looks at Hegrissa, shakes her head and pulls a grimace. What had the half-Krediche shit done that she so should hate her? Taunted without knowing. Picked up from the others, from the women, particularly. Sarnutha snorts. A newly-birthed mother, now with fields of her own, she now understands it. The thieving Krediche women, taking grain from the Alisime lands.
She looks again at Hegrissa, the grown Hegrissa. What a shock, what a fright, to see her here, within the gates of the isle. But she’s dead! She died some ten seasons since. Sarnutha remembers well the day.
It was the day of the feast of Winter Ending. The Kredese, too, hold a feast the day. Sarnutha hasn’t an inkling what the Krediche festivities, other than she’d lay good grain against it resembling, in any small way, the Alisime feast. After all, what Alisime mother would take a child, ten winter-seen, to the Alisime feast? Sarnutha shudders just at the thought. Yet Mouess had taken her daughter Hegrissa up and over the Hills of His Indwelling, to their Ancestral Long Boat that they call Kara’s Cave.
That morning the two left the isle, Mouess and Hegrissa. But next morning only Mouess returned. Sarnutha particularly remembers that. And not one of Buknekhea’s Alisime kin thought to ask after the child.
Considering it now, perhaps that’s not true. Perhaps Jinketis asked. But questions Jinketis ask seldom are answered. Looking at Hegrissa now . . . no, it’s true she did wonder, she did. Though she didn’t ask. She wondered what had happened at Kara’s Cave that the girl should be gone.
It wasn’t till a two-day after that she overheard the aldliks saying to her sister that Mouess had given little Hegrissa to the Mother. Sarnutha can still see the vision this engendered: the Krediche granary-keeper with her sharp blood-smeared blade slicing through Hegrissa’s tender young throat as if she were a goat. She sees others holding her, too, neck out-stretched, while her little child’s heart pumps out the last of her life-blood, puddling red the green grass.
Did they bury her?—as the Alsime bury the first-killed goat at their feasts saying: Mother, we return this to you; please give us more. She had never the courage to ask. To ask would show that she’d been listening where she oughtn’t. But buried or not, it was clear as spring-water that Hegrissa was dead.
How then this evening does she walk through the gate? Unless she’s a ghost.
The Ancestors arranged it. Or the Father or Mother. No, ‘twas the Mother; that fits. See, summer-half, Sarnutha ought to be away in the hills, the same as her mother, her aunts and her sisters (then she’d not be here to witness this). But late winter-half she birthed her first child. Jinfrahen, she named him. She hadn’t wanted to stay at the isle but Aldliks Feskenn had insisted. “An infant kept his first summer-half at the winter-hold thrives better than one taken into the hills.”
What use in objecting when the aldliks’ words must be obeyed. She’d not even the support of her mother. “What use you being up in the hills without a man visiting?” And why hadn’t she a man visiting? Because she’d sent him away as soon as she swelled with the child.
Summer-half, early, and there’s only two others beside her left at the isle: Jinketis and Aldliks Feskenn—and little Jinfrahen. There should be an eldliks but the old eldliks died and the new one is yet to be named. Meanwhile, Jinketis must serve. Again she snorts. Jinketis-the-lame protecting the isle. Yet maybe he’s able. He has a good eye for hunting, and strong arms for fighting. But, truth told, they’ve only left him here because nobody wants him.
Again, she looks across the hearth to Hegrissa.
They’d already eaten—a stew of last season’s meat, eked out with last season’s nuts—when she arrived, so late in the day, the sun disappearing behind the hills, the mist creeping up from the Wetlands. Feskenn had left the cook-fire to burn itself out beneath the porch while they sought the warmth of the hearth within. Jinketis had been sent to close the gates—who’d expect anyone to visit this late? He should have then headed off to Dunsephe’s roof to sleep. Instead, next thing, he comes bursting in on them, babbling of strangers at the gate.
“It’s Hegrissa come back,” he keeps saying.
“It’s her ghost come to haunt us!” Sarnutha squeals—which earns her a slapped face off Aldliks Feskenn.
Feskenn then heaves herself to her feet and offs to meet whoever this is at the gate. Sarnutha watches from the porch, afraid to go nearer.
At first sight, in the dim light, this stranger, this woman, looks nothing like she remembers Hegrissa. Such a bedraggled sight! And were it not that she walks and she talks she’d not seem alive. Again, Sarnutha screams. And who wouldn’t?
Feskenn swings round, name-calls her, and sends her inside, out of the way—she says to tend the infant yet Jinfrahen is sleeping, sweet as a bud. It’s then she realises this ghost-riven woman isn’t alone.
Who is he, this man, the ghost’s companion? Oh, how she itches to know. Then, glory, Feskenn invites them in to eat by the hearth because here it is warmer.
She’s never seen a trader before, though she’s heard the men talk. There are traders at the Krediche granaries where the men go to trade their furs for honey. Traders, too, arrive at the trading-camp at South River’s gate. But before this night she’s never seen one. Yet she knows that’s what he is, this man sitting across the hearth from her, tucking into what’s left of the stew. This man is a trader. And hah! when Hegrissa introduces him, see, she is right. Jarmel the Trader.
She glances aside at him, now wrapped in a ball on the floor, softly snoring.
He’s not young; he looks old, and dark, probably because he comes from the East. According to talk, that’s where all traders hail. This one’s been too long in the sun. Yet for all that he’s dark and old, too he is handsome. Has a ready smile, the kind that catches a woman though he hasn’t a thought to keep her. Yet he has honour: he’s brought Hegrissa back to her home. How did that happen? Snippets told, she’s yet to hear Hegrissa’s story.
He’s tall, much taller than any Alisime man. Tall, with shoulders that say either he spends his days chopping wood, else he’s a river-walker, used to poling his craft against the flow. Strong arms, but puny legs—thin and reedy. An Alisime man would be ashamed to show them. Shows he’s no cattle to drive across the hills, across the plains, to drive before him when he visits a woman.
His clothes disappoint her. Nothing special, just deer-leather leggings and a shirt of the same. Though he does wear a skirt instead of the Alisime double-apron. It’s made of some light woven stuff, all tiny pleats and wrapped around him. Not new though; it’s covered in stains of every description—quite colourful against its otherwise dull goosy-grey.
He wears a hat, which pleased Feskenn. Leather-crafted, red, and cut to fit close to his head. His hair pokes out all around it. That hair is black and not smooth like hers but crisp. Then—and this is the marvellous bit—all around his hat, and framing his face and his neck, are tiny bits of glittery stuff. Hegrissa says they’re ‘metal’, but that means nothing to her.
It’s while Jarmel, warm and sated, is snoring beside them that Hegrissa finally tells her story. But though she uses their Alisime speech it snags and snarls on her Krediche tongue so much at times that Sarnutha strains to understand her.
She tells how she came to leave Buknekhea’s Isle. “Is it only ten years?” Hegrissa seems aghast when Sarnutha interrupts to say it.
“Hush!” Feskenn raps her knuckles. “You might want to gossip but I want to hear. It’s important, this story.”
Sarnutha shrinks away from the aldliks. Yet when Hegrissa starts again with her tale, she’s again leaning in.
The story begins the day her mother Mouess took her to the Krediche feast of Winter Ending. There she’s taken to see the old seer who lodges with the keepers of the First Water granary. She’s not the only girl there. All Krediche girls at ten winters-seen are taken to the granary’s seer.
Sarnutha opens her mouth to ask a question. Aldliks Feskenn scowls at her. But Hegrissa answers without the asking.
“We girls stand in a line front of the seer, all together and anxious. She’s only able to move because of her staff, so gnarled and bent the old woman. But it’s terrifying—especially for me who hasn’t a notion of what this old seer is seeking. Worse is when the seer taps my shoulder and declares I’ve ‘the Light’. Me,” Hegrissa says. “Of all the girls, only I have Kared’s Light.”
Sarnutha sniffs. So what exactly is this ‘Light’? Again, she opens her mouth to ask. Again, at Feskenn’s scowl, she shuts it. But it doesn’t matter because Hegrissa is already explaining—except she stops, a shake of her head, and says that she can’t.
Why not? Is it so difficult to find the words? Can it only be said in the Krediche tongue, like the meaning of the Krediche wren-stones? Then (almost as if she’s heard these thoughts) Hegrissa says she can’t explain it in such a way that their Alisime heads will understand it. She says that unless they can see this ‘light’ that—but she shrugs. Sarnutha supposes the ‘light’ is a Krediche thing.
Whatever this ‘Kared’s Light’, it marks Hegrissa for the granary—or so the old seer says. Yet then the seer marks her further.
Hegrissa pulls aside her uncovered hair—and, oh, does Aldliks Feskenn have something to say about that—after. And there on Hegrissa’s forehead, plain as day, is a criss-cross thing, bitten into her flesh the way the eblann do it, so it stays.
“They kept me the night at the Krediche court.” Just ten winters-seen, with a painful mark on her head? “There with the granary-keepers, the old seer, the granary-traders and two Kerdolak mariners from Liënershi.”
Sarnutha again opens her mouth. And again shuts it. For it seems, again, that Hegrissa has heard her unvoiced question.
“The island of Liënershi—set far out in the western ocean—is home to the Kerdolan, their traders, their metal-smiths and artificers, and to the Head of Kared and her daughters the Anas.”
For all that Sarnutha understands, it could have been said in Kerdolak. But now she’s learned not to open her mouth, even though she brimming with questions. Perhaps in the morning she’ll find Hegrissa alone and be able to ask. (Except in the morning Hegrissa is gone.)
The Kerdolak mariners take Hegrissa west through the Eskit marshes, down West River to a trading-hold that’s close by the river’s sea-gate. Sarnutha itches to ask what’s a trading-hold, but that, too, must wait. There Hegrissa is held for a further seven nights till a Kerdolak sea-craft comes to take her away to Liënershi.
“I tell you, I couldn’t believe my eyes when that boat arrived. Big? It was bigger than big; it was huge. And oddly crafted, with a tall post in its middle from which hung a broad sheet of seamed and joined hides.”
Sarnutha wants to know more but Hegrissa now has warmed to her tale and hurries along, though she does delay long enough to say of this craft that it goes farther and faster than any used by the Himen. That doesn’t mean much to Sarnutha who hasn’t seen a Hiemen craft either.
The Kerdolak boat is brimming with girls, all ten winters-seen, all newly marked with the granary cross, all excited at being chosen, all anxious of what lies ahead. But not a one of them talks to Hegrissa. They are Krediche-proper, she is Alisime. But she’s not! Yet hasn’t she lived in an Alisime hold these ten winters past? She tries to explain of Mouess and of the mixed isle . . . but still, according to them, she’s Alisime and shouldn’t be there.
They torment her—all the way to Liënershi—just as her Alisime kin at Buknekhea’s Isle. She stinks of shit and fish they say, and call her a bad word meaning ‘fish-eater’. “I only know the word through hearing the Kredese say of the Alsime (because when food is scarce, they say, the Alsime aren’t fussy about eating the Ancestors’ fish). But what’s torment to me? I’d long grown used to it.”
Hegrissa keeps her eyes averted but that doesn’t stop Sarnutha from feeling bad, for the first time in all these years. Yet she’d done no more than the others had done. Oh but to now see Hegrissa, her silent tears glistening her cheeks . . . What was her life, not proper-Krediche, not proper-Alisime. And wherever she went the torments followed.
“I tell you,” Hegrissa says, “our legs were atremble when, at Liënershi, we clambered out of that boat. It seemed to me the land was rocking. But I wasn’t to stay there. We none of us were. An Ana garbed in a sparkling cloud directed us along to a flotilla of boats. Small boats they might be, yet each larger by far than the Alisime river-craft, and crafted to slice through sea-waves. Where the others went I do not know; I was ferried to Banva Go.”
Where’s that? Sarnutha asks without quite saying.
“That’s an island, much bigger than Liënershi, off to the north of it, yet still in the west,” Hegrissa says—as if she has heard her. “And there I lived at a granary for seven more years until one day the Kerdolak mariners came to fetch me and take me back to Liënershi. Ah, but this time I knew what to expect. The keepers at the granary had told me of it. For one year the Anas of Liënershi would be my teachers. I then would be tested. Thereafter I’d be given a trader, and returned to here, to His Indwelling, to be the Krediche granary-keeper. But that didn’t happen.”
Sarnutha bites her tongue lest she blurts, well obviously not. Had it happened as it ought Hegrissa now would be at the granary above First Water not here at Buknekhea’s Isle. Something as yet untold had gone terribly wrong.
“I’d been on the island for only three moons when Anachaël came to fetch me to take me to the Head of Kared. I tell you, I was both excited and terrified. Had I been such a fast-learner I was to be tested so early? Yet there was something about Anachaël that said perhaps it was the opposite—that I’d done something wrong.
“I knew where Kared would be, though as yet I’d only seen it from a distance. It was, yes, like a bee’s home. Yet vast and made of stone. A hundred small cells gathered around it belonged to the Anas. But Kared, I knew, would be at the centre. Just as instructed, as soon as before I fell to my face, prone upon the cold stone floor. Yet she bid me rise. She said she was sending me south. I asked why. She said, ‘To observe the sun.’
“I did not understand. And though I asked and asked no one would tell me. So, bewildered, not unknowing, I was bundled into another Kerdolak craft, which shortly set off across the waves, heading south. But at least I wasn’t alone with the mariners. A trader, Krisi, was assigned as my guide. And yet this Krisi would tell me nothing—nothing—of where we were going, nor why. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
“Their Kerdolak craft delivered me to a southern land. With no cooling breeze. And no cooling cloud. And the land as bare as if it’s never seen rain. And no sooner had we disembarked than the boat pulled away and left us stranded. And still Krisi gave no word of explanation. But even that wasn’t the worst of it. Krisi then caught a fever and died. I was troubled. Here in a strange land, what ought I to do?
“Yet I swear the Mother was smiling upon me. For the very next day this small child, a boy, stumbles upon me, sadly sitting on a rock overlooking the bay, the fly-bothered corpse of Krisi beside me.
“I told him I’m cursed, he must go away. But he—in perfect Kerdolak speech—asks if this corpse, newly dead, is my man. I tell him no, I scarcely know him. I explain to the boy, this man was to take me to see the sun. But even as I say it I knew how senseless that sounds. For where is the sun if the sun isn’t here? Here, with no shelter from it.
“The boy was perfect—though never he gave me his name. He helped me pile rocks to cover the corpse. He waited while I cleansed the pollution in the sea’s salty waters. Then with everything done—as close as near it to how it should be—this boy then took me to the lord of this land. The Eld, the boy said. He said it was his duty, that anyone found wandering should there be taken. I never questioned. I accepted. What choice had I if death now was my fate?
“The Eld lived in a cave—though around it were hundreds and hundreds of stone-built roofs, nothing like anything I ever had seen. Inside, the cave was refreshingly cool, but dark. Though the Eld was easily seen—he shone. I tell you, he shone bright as the sun.
“He grunted and laughed when he saw me, and asked who was her mother. ‘Mouess’, I answered—at which he scratched the tangle of white ropes that was his hair. I suppose he was thinking. Or maybe remembering. Then, ‘Mouess! Ha! I remember her. So I got you upon her, did I?’ I tell you, I was agog. What? This Eld was my father, and not Tilsnaken?”
“So you’re not a true daughter of this Isle,” Feskenn remarks with a significant grunt.
Sarnutha looks from Hegrissa to Feskenn, not understanding—though she will in the morning.
“The Eld—my father—asked me whence I came to be there, and I told him of the Head of Kared on Liënershi. ‘Ah, Kerrid, of course,’ he says and nods, his hair-ropes writhing like white adders about him. ‘She sent you to here? Yes, I imagine you are like a canker to her.’ He asked me had I received the ‘craft’, and I said no. ‘A shame,’ he said. ‘For that I’d have kept you. So, Hegrissa, the world now is yours, where will you go?’ And fool, me, not understanding, I said I had to return to Liënershi.”
The boy returned her to the coast, where she found a boat. It belonged to Shindig, another trader. When she asked if he’d take her home he said yes. Yet as the boat pulled away from shore it too headed south—south, then eastward. It was a long sea-journey, and never she was allowed to touch land, though the sailors all did. Yet while on the boat this trader Shindig always was good to her.
“But of course,” Hegrissa explains. “He wanted me whole and healthy, so he could use me to trade for gold from a king. The king’s men then kept me captive in a foul crowded place. I tell you, thousands of people all crammed together inside one big wall, all gasping for breath of their own, and the air so fetid and putrid with everyone’s wastes.”
Sarnutha yawns. From the start it’s been a strange tale, but it now is spiralling into fantastic—as if there’s ever been such a place! Yet it was here that, according to Hegrissa, she finally realised just what the Head of Kared had done to her.
“But now you are here,” Feskenn says and Sarnutha’s too tired to understand her.
“I escaped,” says Hegrissa. “Though it wasn’t easily done. Yet . . . there was an uprising—like screaming demons, all flashing colours, descending in a crowd upon the town. I ran—straight into Arith. You’ve heard of Arith, the dragon-slayer?”
Sarnutha remembers no more. Hegrissa’s tale has grown too fancy; like Jarmel the trader, and Jinketis, she drifts into a deep though troubled sleep, Hegrissa’s story still sounding around her.
Next morning Sarnutha looks high and low, in and out, for Hegrissa but she is not there. Her companion, Jarmel the trader, too, is gone.
“Has she gone to her mother’s court,” she asks, despite she knows that Mouess is away in the hills with her goats.
“Best you forget that she ever was here,” Feskenn tells her. Sternly.
But she won’t be so easily brushed aside. “Where is she?”
“Jinketis has taken her to the Highlands of the Sun, to seek out the Eblan Head Man there. That’s all you need know. Now forget that she came here.”
“No, you’re telling lies. I know what you’ve done, you’ve killed her!” —which earns Sarnutha a blow that tumbles her over.
“Now, for your own good,” Feskenn tells her, “forget her!”
“And I thought that I had, till you came calling.”
I can’t but shiver. Aldliks Sarnutha’s glare seems none too friendly.