Julia had feared her Destination allowance would be savagely clipped after her supposed migraine. But it seems Ken has waggled a word into Fliss’s ear, for she is again allowed a full three days. A shame she’s not told till the lid slams upon her.
Episode 53 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
I feel the heat of the sun full upon me; the previous black vision changing to red as the blood in my eyelids filters the light.
“You arrive as in bed?”
What? I open my eyes. It’s Dannyn. He stands just a few feet away. Grinning. But . . . “How did you know where to wait?”
He shrugs, and makes no effort to help me onto my feet. “You misunderstand. I wasn’t waiting for you; I just was here—herb-picking. Early morning is best. I tell you, you startled me good—or should that be bad? Is this where your friend has her—what’d you call them? Pods?” Finally he holds out his hands to me.
It occurs to me then that he probably thinks the entire area around me isn’t safe for his walking. He probably thinks it’s somehow charged with some kind of barrier-breaking energy.
“You bring more figs?” he asks, his arms close around me.
I nod—which he feels. He grins—which I feel. But he then disappoints me. “It will not be so early when we return to my ‘roof. I am to take you again to Bisaplan’s Isle.”
I lay my fingers across his lips. “But I’d rather we went to your ‘roof.”
“The broken stories . . .” he presses. “And Arskraken has yet to return my earth-egg to you.”
“Oh, Dannyn, I can’t take that earth-egg home with me. I told you, it has to stay here. As for the stories, broken or whole, I’ve learned a lot from them. But now I have questions that you alone can answer.” I suppose others might answer. Yet not being entirely fluent in Alisime, it’s easier with Dannyn.
“You know what will happen if we return to my ‘roof,” he says, “—you with your figs.”
For answer I squeeze his hand, a troubled thought to no Pill in my bag.
Beneath the trees, now vividly green, a whole nation of birds are chorusing us. I hardly dare break their spell. Yet I want to know about Eblan Soänsha: how the Alsime came by their grain. Was it here, in Southern Britain? Or across the Channel, perhaps alongside the Rhine?
“You did say you’d tell me the story,” I wheedle. “So you might tell me now, while we are walking.” And, bless him, he obliges.
But this time there’s no download of memories. How can there be, when he wasn’t there—when no one now living was there.
“This is as it was told to me by my eblan-guide, Old Boney, Burnisen.”
It happened in the time of the First Ancestors. In those days the Alsime didn’t live in just the one place as now they do. They lived in several places, moving from river to hills and from hills back to river. For the River Alsime that river was South River. For the North Alsime it was the Water of Waters.
Even in those days the North Alsime had their society-lands around the Hills and Plains of His Indwelling. There the hunting was good. In those days the societies were ordered as they are today and only those born to a society could take and use the harvest of that society’s land. Those society-lands were divided amongst the families of each society, and each family held a piece of their society’s land. There, mothers and sisters and aunts had gardens, while their brothers and uncles and cousins would trap the fur-martens, the hares and the polecats. In those days the men of the societies could hunt deer and boar and the fierce wild cattle on any of the family-holds, but only if they banded together to hunt. And after such a big hunt there was always a feast. These were the Ancients’ ways, and still the Alsime keep them.
It was in the days of the First Ancestors that the Kredese came and settled on the lands of the North Alsime. The Krediche families erected their courts above First Water. But it was not only families, for along with the Kredese came a woman bee-keeper and a pig-keeping man.
All this of the Kredese disturbed the North Alsime, and they called a council of eldliks and aldliks of every family of every society. They talked long of the newcomers who had set their courts above First Water. They talked of how the newcomers cut down the trees; of how their women tended gardens ten times the size of an Alisime garden; of how their men kept cattle and sheep. All of this was strange to the Alsime who had neither seen nor known of it before. But because these Krediche families had settled only on the Freelands, and not on the family-lands, they decided to leave the Kredese alone.
“Peace, that always is the Alisime way.”
Yet it was decided that someone should keep a watch on these Kredese—to see what next they would do. The task was given to Eblan Soänsha of the Ulmkem-Eblan Society.
Eblan Soänsha hid in the wildwoods that grew everywhere in those days, thick and dark. She watched as the Krediche women cut deep into the soil of their newly-made gardens. She watched as they placed their seeds into the cuts. She watched as the Krediche women trampled across their new-sown gardens. And having done this, she watched as they returned to their courts.
Eblan Soänsha was curious of what these strange women did. She climbed over their fence and grubbed about in the bare soil to find what it was they had planted there. What she found was a big, hard seed. She thought it akin to the seeds of the common Everywhere-Grass. How strange these Krediche women, all that work to grow a grass that, regardless, grows wherever it will.
Curiosity started, she hid herself in the woods around the gardens and, though at first it was tiresome with nothing much happening, there she kept watch.
The grass began to grow as grass will grow wherever it’s able. Soon the wide Krediche garden more resembled a grassy glade. No Alisime woman would have allowed that: they’d have weeded it out. What a wonderful feast for the deer—except the deer couldn’t reach the sweet tender grass, all ringed around with high-built fences.
The grass grew pollen-spikes; the spikes bore seeds. By summer-turning the seeds had ripened and dried. Now Eblan Soänsha watched as the Krediche women returned to their grassy gardens. She watched as they grasped the tall plants by their heads and cut. She watched as they tied each handful into a bundle and stood those bundles into conical stacks. Then the men came along and piled the cut bundles onto their sleds. Eblan Soänsha followed the men; she wanted to see what would happen then.
The men took their sleds to their courts where the women first seared the heads then knocked and beat them, shaking the bruised battered heads over a great wooden tub which was rapidly filled to the top with the seeds.
Eblan Soänsha scratched her head. What was it happening that required so much work? And what, she wondered, might happen next? She asked of the grass-spirits several questions. Was the seed a medicine? Was it a food? Perhaps it was both, as many seeds are. She watched as the Kredese took their big wooden tubs to the pig-keeper’s court. There, the bee-keeper took the tubs into her charge.
And now Eblan Soänsha had to edge-in closer to see what the bee-keeper would do. But not to be seen, she sent her spirit ahead to tell the pig-keeper’s dog not to bark. Now, without fear of discovery, she watched what the bee-keeper did.
First the bee-keeper pounded the seeds to make a fine meal of them. Then from this fine meal she made a dough of it. And from the dough she made some flatbreads.
These were processes almost familiar to Eblan Soänsha, for the Alsime made flatbreads from both hazel- and oak-nuts. Yet to make it from grass!
And why all this gouging and sowing and tramping and cutting when the woodland trees bore nuts aplenty? There could be only one answer. There was something magical about the grass seeds. Eblan Soänsha, not easily defeated, waited to see more.
The Krediche bee-keeper made another dough-ball. Yet instead of slapping it into flatbreads, she baked it. As a ball! And that ball swelled. And it swelled. And it swelled. And it grew. And it grew. Eblan Soänsha’s eyes fair popped out of her head. She already knew this bee-keeper was a woman of power. She kept bees beside her, bees that allowed her to take their honey. Moreover, the Krediche women seemed happy to grow this grain for her. Eblan Soänsha wondered what magic this bee-keeper had worked to cause the dough so to swell and to grow. But the bee-keeper did more.
She took yet more of the grass-seed and made from it a potion. At the feast given by the bee-keeper, soon after the grass-cutting, the baked swollen-dough was given to all comers to eat, and the medicine-potion to all to drink. Watching from her hiding place, Eblan Soänsha thought it a very poor feast. Though the dough and the potion clearly were magical yet what of the fruit? And where was the meat?
But Eblan Soänsha soon changed her thoughts.
Drinking deep draughts of the potion, the Kredese next began to chant. Then they sang. Then they clapped hands, and drummed. At the last they danced. Now Eblan Soänsha knew the nature of the Krediche seed. It had the Spirit of Dance within it.
Eblan Soänsha wanted this seed. It would be powerful medicine to give to her people. She pondered on how to obtain it.
Eblan Soänsha was of the Ulmkem Society, with the right to take whatever was found in the Ulmkem Freeland. That Krediche bee-keeper kept her store of the dancing grass-seed on the Ulmkem Freeland—and that without asking Alsime permission. Moreover, they’d grown that dancing grass-seed upon the same Ulmkem Freeland. Eblan Soänsha walked straight into the bee-keeper’s store intending to take what belonged to her and her Ulmkem Society. But she stopped, still empty-handed.
Eyes protruded from all around her, protective eyes made of the grass-stalks, imbued with the spirit of the plant. Eblan Soänsha saw them and realised and backed out of the store. It was then the pig-keeper’s dog started to bark.
Eblan Soänsha wasn’t easily defeated. Unable to take the grass-seed from the bee-keeper’s store she decided to trade for it.
This was the season for harvesting her most powerful herb. She gathered some bundles, and hung them to dry in the wind. Then she took the dried leaf in a generous pouch to the Krediche bee-keeper. But the bee-keeper refused to trade it. Instead, she took Eblan Soänsha along to the pig-keeper.
The North Alsime had dealt with this pig-keeper before, so Eblan Soänsha knew the way of it. She set down the bag of her most powerful medicine and explained its use and its nature. Then she waited to see what the pig-keeper would offer as trade. At first he offered a pot of honey. Though honey made for good medicine, it wasn’t the equal of her offered herbs, and it wasn’t the grass-seed she wanted. Eblan Soänsha picked up her bag of medicine and made to leave.
As expected, the pig-keeper called her back, and this time set before her a whole basket of grass-seed.
Eblan Soänsha scooped up a handful to examine them. They seemed the same as the one seed she’d seen. She accepted the deal.
Meanwhile some of the Alisime men had dealt with the pig-keeper, receiving cattle and pigs in return for their furs. The cattle they drove before them, from the hunting-hills to the fishing-river, and from the fishing-river back to the hills. But the pigs refused to be driven this way. So when the men left the hills to return to the river they left the pigs behind in the woods —though secured in an enclosure. The pigs seemed happy there, grubbing up roots, and whatever was left of the nut-harvest. But, oh, when the Alsime returned! Where were the shoots and the herbs and the roots that always had grown beneath the trees, those that the women gathered for their pots? All that was left was bared earth. What an upset!
The women had already complained at the men for having traded the pigs from the Krediche pig-keeper. Now they complained that the men had left the pigs to eat all their food. At this, Eblan Soänsha stepped in.
She had a solution to their problems, she said, and showed them the Krediche grass-seed that she’d had in trade. She told them, too, everything she had seen to be done with it. But she kept quiet of the swollen-dough and the dancing-potion. Before she revealed those she wanted the secret of their making.
“See now, this soil is bared and broken by pigs—just as the Krediche women make it,” she said. “See now, I shall sow these seeds, just as I saw the Krediche women sow them.” But first, she said, the men must cut away the trees to make space for the grasses to grow, and so that later the sun would dry the seed-heavy heads.
That, too, caused a commotion. The men didn’t want to cut trees. Yet the women pointed, so too the eblann: it was the men’s pigs that had eaten the food the women usually gathered. And so, though they moaned, the men did it.
Eblan Soänsha sowed the traded grass-seed.
She waited nearby and watched as the plants grew straight and tall.
When the heads started nodding with a new crop of seeds, she went to inspect them.
Well, up flew her hands. The pig-keeper had cheated! This wasn’t the same seed-bearing grass she’d seen growing in the Krediche women’s gardens, the grass with the Spirit of Dance in its seeds. This, she could see, was different.
But Eblan Soänsha was not easy defeated. Though it wasn’t the grass she had expected, she now had an island of seed-heavy plants. She would wait till the heads were brown-white and sun-dried. Then she would cut the plants as she’d seen it done, and see what she could make with the seeds.
Summer turned. Eblan Soänsha cut the stalks and tied them to bundles. She seared the heads, and beat them to loosen the seeds into her pot. She pounded them, just as she’d pounded the oak- and the hazel-nuts to make a fine meal. From the meal she made a patted dough-ball. From the dough she slapped out a flatbread and baked it. As soon as cooked, she nibbled it. At first she was cautious in case it was poison. But, no, the bread tasted good. She ate the rest of it, and made some more dough.
With this second-making she left the dough as a ball—just as she’d seen the bee-keeper do it—and baked it. But, oh no, something here wasn’t right. The ball didn’t swell and it didn’t grow. Moreover, alas, when it was cooked and she nibbled it . . . pah! it wasn’t good, not at all.
She huffed and she puffed. But Eblan Soänsha wasn’t easily defeated. The flatbread was good—better even than hazelnut-bread. So she cut the rest of her island of grass and gave the grass-seeds to the Alsime women and showed them how to treat it and eat it. “But remember to save a two hand-full to sow again come next winter-turning.”
Eblan Soänsha had made the best of it yet disappointment still lingered. Why hadn’t her dough swelled as the bee-keeper’s had? Was it all because of this different seed? Then it seemed unlikely the seed would yield up the Magic Dance Potion. Yet she made the brew all the same.
Alas. Alas, alas, no. The potion no more held the Spirit of the Dance than the dough-ball had swelled and grown. Yet Eblan Soänsha wasn’t easily defeated.
She waited until the next summer-turning. And when the dance-seed plants in the Krediche gardens were ready for cutting, along she went beside each one of the gardens and from each she cut a handful of the ripened seed-heavy stalks.
Again, she made dough, and from the dough, flatbread. And though it was a different seed it still tasted good.
Again, she baked a dough-ball. But, no, the ball no more swelled and grew than it had before and neither was it good to eat. She made a potion from the grass-seed. But there was no Spirit of Dance in it. But, though disappointed, Eblan Soänsha wasn’t easily defeated.
Now she was certain, without any doubt, there was more to this Dance Potion than the matter of grass-seed. And there was more to the Swollen-Dough than what she had seen. There was a magic applied—a Krediche magic, and she didn’t have it. She could have cried for all the work that she had done and for what. But she wouldn’t throw the grass-seeds away.
“Eblan Soänsha wasn’t easily defeated,” Dannyn repeats, his eyes a’twinkle. “She gave the seeds of this second harvest to the North Alsime women of all societies, telling them they can make good food from it—and so they did. But to our Eblann Society she gave a story—the story which I’ve now given you. And she set us a challenge: to discover the secret of the Dance Potion and the Swollen-Dough.”
“And that’s why Burnisen accepted Hegrea as his apprentice?”
But though Dannyn starts to nod he then holds. “Maybe yes, perhaps no. Indeed, Old Boney—Eblan Head Man Burnisen—did suspect it of her, her with her Krediche family and Kerdolak training. And so she did prove it, making for the Alisime feasts her Mother’s Bread, and Father’s Brew. But there was also the matter of the green-feather herb.”
“The . . . green-feather? But you said it was traded, perhaps from your father.”
Dannyn pulls the face of a guilt-ridden boy. “Have I not told you that story? How Old Boney dealt with Hegrea for her green-feather herb, giving her in return his eblan-craft?”
“No. Ah!” Realisation comes. “You were to tell it, but we came then to Alsaldhelm Tumun. Or did you merely hold it back to ensure I returned?”
“Are you saying this is what I do now?” He grins, for I know full well that it is.