It’s Julia’s turn to use Ken’s pod . . . which will deliver her to Destination minus-26, for the second time. But with no mention from Dannyn of a subsequent meeting, and he still a raw youth in the Eblan Wilds, Julia deems it wisest to leave him alone. Instead she plans to explore the Krediche settlement at His Indwelling.
Episode 56 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
How strange it feels to be here without Dannyn. And now I realise his absence presents a problem. How to cross the Wetlands? I don’t need Dave to tell me of the extensive fenlands. I’ve seen the watery morasses, seen them from Dannyn’s river-boat. I glance towards the Avon. It’s early morning; might I be able to purloin a boat and quietly slip away? But I squash that idea. Imagine it, me trying to manoeuvre one of those bob-about boats. No, despite I live on a canalboat, I’m definitely a two-feet-on-the-ground type of walker. So, problem remains of how to cross the Wetlands. I’m guessing there must a causeway, dry underfoot. It figures, for how else did Eldliks Bukfesen bring the Kerdolak stones from His Indwelling. Give it another five years and I’d be able to see clearly where he’d rollered and dragged them. But that’s no good to me now.
Then . . . I up-slap my head. Fool! And where am I standing? Only on the Ridgeway, fenced either side to stop cattle from straying. And whence came those cattle if not from the far side of the Wetlands? And since to drive cattle through fens is a certain recipe for disaster and loss, that track must follow upon dry footing. But, ironic for someone born to this area, and employed in the museum, I’m totally ignorant of its original route (much diverted by the cutting of roads and canals). Yet at one time it must have strode out across the Vale. It is probably via this that Bukfesen will bring Murdan’s Kerdolak stones. And I need no map for it; all I need is to follow the fences.
Happy at that, I set out northward. And that too feels strange: Marlborough Downs instead of Salisbury Plain; His Indwelling instead of the Highlands. Maybe it’s that strangeness that causes my sudden sense of foreboding.
I try to brush it aside, telling myself it’s because of the lingo. To be in a stranger in a strange land, with a strange tongue . . . For while my Alisime now is passable, I can’t say the same for Krediche. Moreover, despite all Balsana has said of their granaries, and the several mentions in the various tales, I have to admit I don’t know much about their culture. They don’t fence their fields, I do know that—which gives the lie to Eblan Soänsha’s story and places her safely over the Channel, for in that telling the Kredese fence around their fields. But, while by the Alisime way of thinking the Krediche fields are left undefended, as I saw when Dannyn took me to Buknekhea’s Isle, they fence their family-lands around. To keep out the Alsime? But whatever the cause, all I need do is to keep to the track. And should I inadvertently trespass? Will the Kredese kill as fast as the Alsime threaten? So is it a wonder I’m fizzed.
I ask myself my intent. And answer, it’s to see the Krediche granary, and the trader’s hold—oh, and the Krediche court of cotts—so scorned by Hegrea that new had to be built before she’d allow Sapapsan and Jitjana to take up residence. And I also want to see West Kennet Long Barrow—Kara’s Cave—as it was before Dannyn sealed it. I sigh. I ought not to encounter problems here. But as yet I’ve no idea of the lie of the land, how it’s divided, and where the tracks.
I tell myself I stop worrying; all will be revealed in time. Besides, I’ve first to cross the Wetlands, then to climb the scarp.
Even as I set out in early morning the day has the promise of being unbearably hot. That’s not been a problem on previous visits, the Highlands’ periphery being dense with trees. But I can’t say the same here. I seem to be traversing endless reaches of treelessness with only an occasional scraggy thorn for shelter. Moreover, as yet, to either side of the track are Alisime lands, their goats out grazing, naked children chasing, harassed mothers flapping as the fire in front of the tiny benders refuse to light. I’d like to call out a greeting but . . . good sense prohibits. There’s no need to spread the word about visiting spirits. As if Ken’s visits this past year haven’t done that.
The day is edging to noon (six hand-spans from horizon to sun) before the track begins its climb. Not yet steep, it becomes inexorable. To the east the land falls away, swallowed by shadowed vales.
The day wears on. I plod along.
At first I was grateful to be dry footed. Now I wish for a cool puddle. I’ve long given up trying to match hills and rills with those I know from my child-days, or even trying to match them to the contours on the map (best left in my pocket—I’ve found using the map is the fastest way to find myself totally lost; while, to my surprise, left alone with the land I have some slight notion of where I might be).
My thoughts not overly exercised, I muse on the name of this land west of the Wetlands. It isn’t the Highlands, nor yet His Indwelling. I see it as a kind of a bridge, connecting the North Alsime to the River Alsime. Though I suppose it’s all part of the western rim. Isn’t that what Eldliks Arskraken called it?
My legs start to object, not liking this constant uphill plod. How long have I been climbing now? I can’t be far from Avebury—I mean the Cloud Stone Isle. Though it wasn’t my intention to visit there, yet it seems that’s where this track is leading. Perhaps it’s safer to be delivered into Alisime hands than to be disgorged direct into the lap of the Kredese, and that before I’ve time to check out the land.
So, if I’m to be at the Cloud Stone Isle, how then do I get to the Krediche granary—without use of Dannyn’s Processional Way (which he hasn’t yet constructed)? Time to retrieve the map from my pocket.
There is a river—I should have thought of that. In my C21st world, it trickles, a mere dyke, between Silbury Hill and Warden Hill to the north of it, only later to swell into the Kennet-proper when the waters from the Swallowhead Springs are added. Yet, as I remember when Markreën brought me here it was more than a stream. So if I follow the Kennet (oops, First Water) I’ll come at length to the traders’ hold, with Kara’s Cave on the hillside to south of it. Thereafter, a little way on, there’ll be the Krediche granary perched upon the hill. But problem. What of fences? Yet surely the land along there must be free of them, to allow access for those come to trade. But all that is pre-empting. As yet it’s one determined foot in front of the other as I slog up the hill, the sun now burning.
It’s well past midday before, having waded two fords—the first unexpected, the second appearing in quick succession, both running with deliciously cool waters—I finally arrive at Cloud Stone Isle.
Interesting that the track ends there—though on reflection I realise its logic. Despite the North and River Alsime are rivals in many respects, yet their young men aren’t averse to visiting each other’s women come summer.And of course they drive their cattle before them. Hence the fenced corridor I’ve been trudging. And hence this natural break (or start).
With the heat, and I’m tired, it’s tempting beyond measure to settle myself in the shade of a Cloud Stone and demolish at least one of the muesli bars brought with me. But I can’t; it seems disrespectful. Besides, there’s no surer way to get myself noticed. Instead I ramble on, now in search of a means of reaching the Swallowhead Springs—and that, I discover, entails back-tracking, all the way to the fords. Here, to both sides, there’s an absence of fencing. Of course, for the river-walkers need access. I consider the wisdom of walking the riverbed. It’s tempting, it’s cool. But to the Alsime this river is sacred and I’ve sufficient respect for their beliefs (hells, I’m even an initiated shaman of them). So I can’t allow my unholy feet to desecrate it. I keep to the riverbank. I’ll stop at the Springs to have lunch. I’m looking forward to that (an understatement). A more delightful spot I cannot imagine. But will there be a willow offering shade, as there is in my world?
But, ho-hum, hey, the best made plans.
I’m still following the stream beneath Warden Hill when ahead of me I see a palisade. It has to be the traders’ hold. Bang on where expected. And there atop the hill opposite is the gleaming white structure of Kara’s Cave. I’m looking at that—fool that I am—despite I can hear several men talking. And when I bring my eyes down . . .
These aren’t merely Krediche men but, by their clothing, I’d say they’re Kerdolan. In fact, it’s like I’ve walked in to a film set of ancient Rome, in first instant of seeing them. With their black hair and deep-tanned skin, they’d pass for Italian, Greek or Spanish. And those white knee-length tunics shouted of Rome—though not with those wide hip-bands. The bands vary in colour, red, blue, green, with leather belts rested loosely over. On first sight, too, their hair seems short—and all are smooth-shaven. But with looking I see each has a tightly-bound length of hair hanging behind them (like the British ‘tars’ in Nelson’s day). Not so easily missed is the glint of sun on copper and bronze—their daggers shoved into their belts. And they carry sharp-headed spears.
So these are Murdan’s Kerdolak mariners. But what are they doing here? Not collecting the harvest, not this early. Oh that I’d learned the Krediche lingo. Or are they speaking Kerdolak? It’s probably the latter.
But now what to do? As yet I’m not noticed. They’re busy jabbering, excited, arm-waving, faces reddening. I haven’t a clue of what’s happening, and I’m disinclined to stroll amongst them. Retreat is wisest option. I make it smartish back to the track. But now what? I’m desperate for shade, to sit for a while, to rest. But I have to be careful. I don’t want fingers—or spears—pointing at me as they jabber of trespass. Neither do I want to be mistaken for as spirit. Nor any other misunderstanding.
He who hesitates . . . And here I am hesitating while considering options.
My eyes stray westward along First River, towards, if I remember Arskraken’s tale rightly, the Skakem society lands, and Buktalha’s and Negkrakhea’s Isles. An idea creeps in. Those isles are Alisime, and I have the lingo. Though they’ll think me odd in these clothes, and I certainly can’t use my real name (that’s not to be bandied for another 26 years). Yet I can genuinely say I am a visiting eblan.
I retrace my steps, back to the Ridgeway, then again further back. There I’d seen a fenced track running approximately westwards. Meanwhile there’s the question of names. Such choices! And I laugh. I’ve the perfect name for me. Fanteshi, she who asks; it’s what Dannyn once called me, and it does seem apt. When—if—I am asked, I shall say I’m Eblan Fanteshi, visiting from the East Alsime.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Though there are gates off to my left, as yet I keep to the fenced run. Ahead I see a shady copse and, oh, how my feet ache to sit there a while. Bliss! To be out of the sun. It’s so hot now even the birds aren’t calling. And what care I that I sit direct on the track where, earlier in the month, cattle were making deposits. Okay, so I’ve a waterproof sheet to spread (part of my makeshift tent should ever I need it). With belly now screaming for sustenance, I munch my supplies—though with this heat I don’t want much. But I drink my fill of the water. I’ll have to fetch more though I don’t see from where, the track and the stream having long parted. I suppose sooner rather than later I’ll have to trespass.
Refreshed, I set off again.
The shady copse has been hiding an abrupt turn in the track. It now heads northward. But that’s not the direction I want, not if I’m to follow Arskraken’s directions to the two Skakem isles. Instead, I need to keep westward—the same direction as the now-disappeared stream.
I realise (maybe, I confess, belatedly) that beyond Negkrakhea’s and Buktalha’s Isles is the gulley that the psychopathic Eblan Murdan will later trim up like a Christmas tree with arrow-slain Kerdolak corpses. By Arskraken’s telling I imagined the gulley to cut into the hill above Cherhill, or maybe by Compton Bassett—until later I checked with a map. It could be neither. And now I’m curious to see it: the gulley, the marshes, the network of streams that bring the mariners who then take away the Krediche-grown grain. And since I’m so close . . .
I’ve no idea where I’ll end up if I stay on the track. Not where I want to be, that’s for certain. So I keep my eyes sharp for the next gate—not always easy to spot with them being a simple construction of slidable poles laid horizontal. As it happens, I come to a stile first. So now I’ve set my trespassing foot upon Skakem land.
Shortly after I find myself fully confused. That stream I saw flowing to west ought to be alongside my left. So how come it now flows on my right side? It’s pointless checking the map. Even at Destination -26, this far from the Springs these ‘streams’ are little more than runnels. How much less will they be in my C21st world. Given modern drainage methods, they’d likely disappeared long before I was born.
When I put my head to it I realise there is no mystery. This to my right isn’t the same straggly stream that I’d seen to the other side of me. Instead it’s the headwaters of the First Water. It must be so, else it wouldn’t fit Arskraken’s tale, for he said that First Water flowed to the granary all the way from Negkrakhea’s land. Q.E.D.
So now I know where I am. And Negkrakhea’s Isle can’t be too far away. But is it best to go there first—to get waylaid by stories, with food and introductions? Rather, I’ll carry on walking, check out the gulley of the Kerdolak slaughter, then return there. Though on further consideration, it might be better to call at Buktalha’s Isle instead. I remember Arskraken saying of the eldliks there. Eldliks Bukaken. Equipped with his name, and the fact I’m eblan, I ought to get away with the trespass. And so, convinced and assured, I continue out to the gulley.
No, actually I’m not that assured. My heart has taken residence high in my chest, and is beating loud in my head. Despite I’ve worked out a story, I still fear discovery. Still, head up, hey.
I follow the stream and—Ah!—there are the Kerdolak stones, though not so much strewn as stacked. And now I’m blocked by a fence. Yet there’s a stile over. I guess this now is Buktalha’s land. I continue to walk, determined now to reach the gulley before turning round and seeking shelter in the guise of the visiting East Alsime Eblan Fanteshi.
Trees close around me. There’s another stile. But of course, it’s the Skakem Freeland that edges the scarp, not any family-held land. Despite my story I’m keenly aware that even though I’m legally eblan I’m not of the Skakem Society, and shouldn’t be here. But if I don’t touch and don’t take . . . I hurry my steps, eyes sweeping the terrain to either side of me.
The path I’m following swerves sharply to avoid a tall gorse-bush . . . and I almost fall down the gulley!
I stare, looking downwards. The land falls away, rain-eroded to a tumble of stones. If I’m to descend I need dig in my heels to stop myself slipping. A loosened stone rattles before me. I ouch at the noise—but too late: that noise has alerted another.
At first I don’t see him, easily taken for a beast of the wilds. But I then see his hair. And his eyes that suddenly turn to me. Blond curls. Startling blue eyes. If it isn’t Dannyn, then it must be . . .
Staring straight at me, of course he’s seen me, and recognised me as someone who shouldn’t be there. And how could he not in the clothes I’m wearing, more out of kilter than if I stood naked.
And now he’s walking towards me. Only a matter of yards between us. I’m guessing if I don’t think quick, I’ll be dead.
My first reaction is to run. No idea where, just to get out of there. But he’s Brictan, he can be in my head. And there are things in my head—memories, knowledge, names—that he mustn’t find. It isn’t only me in danger here, it’s . . . but I dare not even think of the name.
All this in a blink of a second before I reconsider my actions. First I have to screen my thoughts. But how? I’m not Brictan to use Brictish devices. I’m a C21st woman . . . who just happens to be used to using mirrors. Genius!