According to Hean with every encounter, be it with family, friend or enemy, or even a chance encounter along the way, we each of us gather about us another wrapping. According to Hean these wrappings fall away at the end of a life. Thus when we are born again we are each of us naked.
Only that’s not quite what he said. He said ‘ought’, and ‘should’. These wrappings ought to fall away, and we should begin naked again. But, as he says, we now number so many that souls are called back before they’ve had time to unwrap.
Yes, I know, my priests, this is not what you teach. You tell us that those who are favoured by the First Lords are taken into their care in the gods’ holy land. You say nothing of any return, not of the favoured nor of the rest, but leave us in our graves to decay, body and soul. As for us women, our children are formed of our bodies and thus you allow us continued existence.
Were this all, I would not voice complaint and we might—you and mine—reside in good harmony. But, my priests, goaded and pressed by my Landed-lords, you have empowered a dark coterie that you call ‘gods’ and now must stand as a buffer twixt them and us, afraid of your own creation. Now, I say, these must be released. But fear not, for my holy men will guide them back to the light. All will be well, I promise.
Ah, what’s that I hear you say?—and I do hear it though you are not here in my audience. That this requires more trust than you can muster? I acknowledge. I understand. And so I, Mideer, being Queen of Madjaria, write this chronicle, that you might see, and might understand, all that has led me to this proclamation. I hope thus to inculcate that trust.
Hean told me this of the ‘wrappings’ as explanation of why he must train me. Imperative, he said.
“Excuse me. Why?”
“Because of the prophecy.”
“That you, Mideer, are to unite the Three Lands.”
Me? You would understand why I laughed, my priests, had you known me better in those naive days. “And whence this prophecy? For I’ve not heard it before.”
He left the school-room to return impossibly soon with a slender book which he laid on the table before me. It looked new, as if bound just yesterday, its front cover embossed and picked out in gold: Book Of Queens.
“Whence?” I asked. I could not believe he’d had it from my mother. I doubt they had met.
“An Outlander, I’ve travelled,” he said and seemed content to leave it at that. A half-year before I would have accused him of foisting Glyntlander fakery upon me. But I now knew a thing or two about the wider world (courtesy of Hean’s tuition.)
As he opened the book a smell most ancient broke free. New it might look, and yet it was old. He turned to the relevant page. Many centuries of handling had polished that parchment and darkened the script.
I allowed my eyes to track the text but it was written in some form of Madjarian not familiar to me. I looked back at Hean.
“And why do you think this applies to me?”
“Because you are the daughter of the king,” he said.
I tst’d the Outlander’s naivety. “But, Hean, the king has more daughters than this one before you. Three hundred and twenty-nine at the last count. Why should this prophecy apply particularly to me?”
“Then perhaps I ought to have said, You are the queen’s daughter.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Not after the recent eruptions in the Assembly on the matter of my succession. But I am more than Queen Megan’s daughter. I am a daughter such has never been born in Madjaria before: the first ever Madja queen’s daughter. And you, as you’ll remember, my priests, with the Landed of the Assembly, had recently assigned to me Hean, a tutor at our Royal College. But that wasn’t why you had chosen him. No, as I remember, you and they said that as a non-islander he would have much to teach me. I suppose you were thinking of political philosophy. I doubt you suspected he would want to unwrap me.
I looked up at Hean, standing tree-like in front of the table. “You care to expand?” (I didn’t demand of him, I wasn’t yet the queen.)
“According to the prophecy, the king’s daughter—one such has never been born—shall unite the Three Lands. That daughter is you.”
“And how am I to unite the lands? You want me to marry a Macaran instead of my baby cousin Jon? It could be no worse, though I doubt the Assembly would ever agree it. Or have you in mind a Glyntlander? And how much will we pay them? You know as I do, they do nothing except for coin.”
“There are other ways,”
I believe at that I rolled my eyes. That was the beginning. Oh, such an innocent I was. I could never have imagined what awaited me.
This thing of ‘unwrapping’ seemed to occupy an inordinate dose of time though it was not the full of the Hean-set curriculum. No, you and the Assembly had chosen well. As expected, he taught me political philosophy—and every other philosophy: cultural, societal, cosmological, religious. How I marvelled at that: How could an Outlander understand so well our particular gods?—Your gods. His answer: But all gods are the same, they vary only in the matter of light allowed them. And, my priests, you allow your gods no light.
I told him he was sounding more like a Glyntlander. “Will you burn us, next, for our beliefs?”
“I meant it not like that. I promise by . . . oh, by next year,” he said, a vacant hand waved in the air (such is his way), “that you will understand. But I hope you shall understand long before then—when I take you to Macara.”
Hah! I laughed. I didn’t think he meant it. As if my father, or the Landed of the Assembly, or you my priests, would allow such a voyage.
Never mind that the seas between here and there are known to be treacherous, that was deterrent enough. But add to that, in the eyes of we Madja, the Macaran were deemed little better than demons . . . Oh how I maligned them; I cannot claim myself free of it. But then who did not in those days? Even the Outlanders (few though they number here; more plentiful amidst the glittering machines of Glyntland) even they disparaged them, holding them to little worth. Animals, that’s what was said of the Macaran. I know many a Madja, even now, would happily take a rod to them. ‘They are not to trusted; they’re lazy and lustful. Our women aren’t safe to be near them.’ (None of which is true.) And here was Hean saying he’d take me to Macara? I paid it little mind believing it would never be passed by the Landed of the Assembly; you my priests would never approve it; my father, King Gehon, would forbid it. But I was wrong in my thoughts.
It took Hean a full moon round to persuade the Assembly etc, etc, to allow me the voyage.
What did he tell them? What arguments used? I doubt I ever shall know for I was barred from their discussions and deliberations and . . . oh dear, to confess it, the Assembly Hall was set afire in the rebellions that followed my return. As for Hean, he will not say. An irrelevance, he says. And how naive I was not to wonder at the motives here. I should have at least questioned those of my uncles, maternal and paternal, they being the prime advisers to my father, King Gehon; they having the most to gain should I not return.
But I must stop telling it before it has happened. It is a gift of the ‘unwrapping’. Once unwrapped and naked, one sees backwards and forwards as if they are the same.
It took Hean yet another month to arrange the details of this fabulous but dangerous journey. First, who was to go with us? For we could not to go alone—perish the thought. What he and me, together, without chaperon? No, no, no, no, no. But exactly who was to be chaperon caused such a ka-muddling.
I, of course, wanted my lady Loyse along with me. Who else was to dress me? Comb out my hair? Attend to my toilet? All those womanly things. But Loyse said rather the axe than those nights on the sea and the Macaran after. Heels dug in, she refused to accompany me.
“Please, my lady Mideer,” cried the youngest of my companions, no more than twelve birthdays passed. “I’ll happily make the journey.”
And so she might but Landed Jorner, her father, refused his permission, and my father refused to intervene in it.
“Must you have a woman attend you?” he asked—and before I could answer Hean had told him no. No, I hadn’t the need.
So could not my honour and safety be handled as one? After all, I would need a guard: we were going to Macara and the Macaran were known to abduct any sailor who dared to stray close to their land. Moreover, our stories had it that the Macaran did (upon a time) raid our south coasts and steal our women. According to those stories they raped both women and land. But that, you note, was a long ago. Lo! Before our books ever were written. And so I was assigned a corps of ten guards. The Assembly thought that sufficient. Ten, plus the sailors that manned our boat.
Now let me tell you this for, though you ought, you may not know it. Never did a Madja set his seat on that water without a great need; we are not by choice or innate desire seafarers. The Glyntlanders, however, are different; I could tell you—but that’s yet to come.
So, rituals must be performed. The sea must be fed, the Sea-Mother satisfied else she’ll rear up a hand and pluck at the traveller. The winds must be baited lest they leave us, unblown and stranded twixt neither here nor there. The Night Lord must be consulted. What sign will he give us to lead us there? Two days and two nights in the sailing. So far away. Yet nothing compared to the journey to Glyntland . . . But I must not yet go there.
The gods were satisfied, the contracts made; the gifts were presented and spoiled. I made a last journey to my mother—she had already returned to her natal house, the Queens’ House, a house empty of sisters with daughters. Only brothers and nieces dwelt there.
My mother, Queen Megan, was dying. I’d have been a head-in-the-sand fool to think it otherwise. Why else all the disputing about the Succession. And when she died I then would sit beside my father. But he would as yet be long in dying—or so it was thought. Long enough that his younger brother’s son, my baby cousin Jon, had time to be growing.
But again I digress.
If you believe all this time I was happy to go on this fearful excursion to Macara you are wrong. Not for the first time I had the sense of being a game-piece, moved here and there by players out to conquer (or at least to outplay) each other. I had no say, my wishes didn’t count, I did as told. ‘Don’t wail, child, you’ll lose your smile.’ Those I’d thought my friends, who I could trust, now were dropping away from my side. My father. My woman Loyse. Certain favourites of the Landed. And though I liked Hean well enough, of him I now wasn’t so sure. But if any would fight for me, it would be my mother. This was my last chance not to go.
“Say again where you go?” Her pale sunken eyes seemed to plead. Had no one consulted with her?
And when I told her, Macara, her cold fleshless hand clutched at my wrist. “Why there?”
“The prophecy. I’m to unite the Three Lands.”
I don’t know what I expected of her but it wasn’t this: “But, Mideer, if you fail . . .?”
“If I . . .?” I’d not thought of that. I’d not asked Hean of it. He hadn’t said. To fail in the prophecy, so soon after the Succession Disruptions . . . would that prove against me, that I wasn’t the rightful queen?
When I didn’t answer she gave a faint nod. She seemed now to gaze distantly. Yet I noticed her eyes were fixed on the painting that would become mine, an heirloom of the Queens House. You have not seen it; it hangs now in my personal chamber. A tree, but such a weird tree none ever existed. A mishmash of blooms, the colours all wrong, the branches twisted and thin where they ought to be thick and vice-versa. Her gaze was a prelude to her closing her eyes.
No! don’t sleep, I wanted to shout. There was so much I wanted to say, so much I wanted to ask her. I wanted to know why particularly there, Macara. Hean had never answered me that despite he deemed it the only place where I could receive my ‘unwrapping’. And it seemed to me that my mother had known. Why else her exclamation, ‘why there’?
I know the answer to that now: why Macara, and how she knew of it. But then . . . how woefully ignorant I was of what lay ahead; no more knowing than my mother with her imminent fate. Oh yes, she knew she would die. But what then, after she’d been carefully placed in her coffin—the coffin the masons had chipped from the living stone by the coast while she and I watched (how many years ago now?) —after the final rites, the court in attendance (the only time they’re allowed into that labyrinth known as the Queens Sepulchre), after they’d left and the stones were replaced behind them, what then?
Is there a priest alive throughout our land who can answer me that? (I speak not of my holy men.) Perhaps, my priests, once you have read this you will no more embroider your stories, pad out the whispers you’ve heard from the past. But then, no more than you did know the answer so it would be wrong of me to blame you and your forebears.
It tugged my heart to leave my mother that day. Would she yet live to see my return? Or was this to be our last conversation? Left with so much wanting.
Two days later I walked up the gangplank and boarded our boat . . . to sail to what would become a new life and a new world.
Macara. The southern island. Hotter, more tropical that Mideer’s native Madjaria. Inhabited by the Macaran, bands of what we would call hunter-gatherers. What exactly has Hean devised for her there that has passed the approval of king and Assembly? And what is it about Macara that’s essential in this mysterious ‘unwrapping’?
Next episode, Godless, Tuesday 21st June.