Hean has brought Mideer to the island of Macara. Something to do with ‘unwrapping’, to fit her for the prophecy she is to fulfill to unite the three lands, but more he won’t tell her. But after the headman’s incomprehensible babble to which, apparently, she had failed to respond, she now is surrounded by Macaran spearmen, her own corps seemingly numbed into inaction. And where is Hean? There is no sign of him . . . Read on.
Ignorance, I object, is not bliss. Rather it is terror and a frantic search for explanation—any explanation. But none was forthcoming. Meanwhile these spearmen proceeded to ‘escort’ me I knew not where, nor yet for what reason. I’d said in jest of providing their meal but now I wasn’t so certain. And, again, where was Hean? And why did my supposedly protective corps do nothing? Why didn’t they rescue me?
I wanted to rail and bewail. But to what effect? That’s hardly the desired image for the future queen of Madjaria. So instead I offered some panicked beseechings to every one of our gods. Yet even as I rattled the words I doubted any would hear me so far from our home. Our gods—your gods, my priests—do not travel so well, being thoroughly attached to the land.
Questions raked through me. Did these Macaran intend to kill me? Would they eat me: I mean seriously eat me? Then I remembered their reputation for raping women. At that my body launched into a sweat. Oh gods of odd hue, where was Hean? Why was he allowing this to happen?
It was then this thing of my uncles, maternal and paternal, hit like a hammer. I realised until then I’d been toying with it: putting it on to see how it feels; pulling it around to see how it responds. Now I suddenly saw it in all its frightening clarity. What more perfect way to be rid of the heir apparent. For without me, Queen Megan’s daughter, they would have no recourse but to name the eldest daughter of my eldest maternal uncle who then would wed Jon, my baby cousin. Even if these Macaran didn’t kill me, all they need do is to keep me here and never release me.
But was Hean a part of this? Could I believe that? Was he in the pay of my uncles, all this talk of ‘unwrapping’ a shabby deceit? And I had fallen for it. Now, even more than ever, I was that game-piece, heedlessly manipulated.
My captors did not mistreat me. That gave me hope that they wouldn’t kill me. If only I could understand their speech—just a little of it. Why hadn’t Hean taught me at least the basics? Yet to what effect? Did I think I could talk myself out of this? No, but perhaps I’d pick up from their talk some clue as to what was happening. Only they said not a word. We walked in silence.
Ahead I could see the land beginning to rise. It wasn’t long before we were climbing. So were they taking me to their village? I supposed they did live in villages, even if on a temporary basis. I mean, they must live somewhere.
Though the climb began slow it soon became steep. The track now was strewn with sharp stones. Despite I wore shoes, I could feel them jabbing my feet; feel the stones and the heat that rose from the ground. How did their feet not burn? For none wore shoes. On, and on, higher and higher. Would they imprison me in a high cave, there to freeze to my death? Yet rather that than to descend to the valleys with their dangerous beasts. And who had told me of this? Oh, none other than Hean, of course. He had now thoroughly slipped from my trust.
Midday: I knew the time for the sun beat directly upon us burning my unprotected head. We crested the narrow pass—at least, that’s what I thought it to be until we were there. Then . . . nothing. No further track leading up. None leading down. Nothing! Just an abrupt declivity. To my horror, we stood at the very edge of a deep abyss. A rock-formed chasm, at the bottom of which (if I dared to look) was a river raging white—though I only knew that by its roar and the steam that patchily veiled the jungle-jammed valley below. So (gulp) . . . whither now?
The answer seemed to be a rope-formed bridge that crossed that chasm.
To say I didn’t want to go there is an understatement worthy of any Glyntlander. The bridge comprised but two ropes: one for the feet, the other for the hands. Moreover, that rope looked terrifyingly fragile to me. I turned, refusing—and there stood Hean! I almost cried at seeing him. All mistrust forgotten. Blessed, blessed Hean, whence he? But far from coming to my rescue, he signed for me to turn about and face the chasm with its terrifying bridge.
There stood a man upon that bridge. Though I swear he’d not stood before. He looked . . . ancient: as if carved from some gnarled part-rotted tree with sun-bleached vines and mosses for hair. He held out his hands to us—No, to me. For now I realised I was alone on that precipice. My armed escort had mysteriously melted into the rock. (Though more likely they’d retreated when I wasn’t looking.) Hean remained. He nodded to me, encouragement—Yes, accept. I might have been more eager had he made some sign of accompanying me.
I did not want to cross that bridge. I did not want to go alone with this most ancient man. Who was he? But there he stood on the bridge, beckoning me. And I found that I dared not refuse him. Was that Hean’s doing, pushing me on? For all my previous doubts and mistrust of him I guessed this crossing could be part of his training of me; that in some way it would aid my ‘unwrapping’ as he had called it. (Though I was also aware I could be clutching at explanations.) I remember wondering, was this part of a Macaran rite.
Despite since our arrival in Macara Hean’s behaviour hadn’t exactly inspired my trust yet, I argued, I had agreed to his training of me, and that training required that I trust him. And I could certainly see how this crossing could be a test of that trust. All those things I’d been thinking of him, in cahoots with my uncles, maternal and paternal . . . was I to allow them to fall away?
Oh, but I did not want to cross. If I could have flown like a bird I’d have done it. But to set foot on that rope, above that abyss, with the river roaring, and every savage beast down there. Hah, but if I fell I’d be dead before they came prowling around me.
As soon as I set foot to the bridge it violently swayed, the two strands separating. I took a deep breath, hoping the meagre structure soon would steady. I chanted a charm I’d learned in my childhood. I called upon whatever gods present though they’d not be my own. But, NO! Hean had said these Macaran were godless. No gods, then. No gods to call on.
I took another deep breath. Somehow, despite the incipient panic, I had managed to reunite the two strands of the bridge. I figured then to do this quickly. Don’t look down. Don’t think what I’m doing. Just get across there quickly. Soonest done . . .
The old man was gone. That’s what I thought now I was across the bridge. I looked around but couldn’t see him. All I could see was a track leading down—down to that ghastly dread-filled valley.
What to do? I looked at the bridge. But I wanted never to set foot upon that two-stranded structure again. Maybe if I waited Hean would join me? At least I was pretty sure now this ‘adventure’ was all part of his training of me. I mean, he could have been rid of me without bringing me here to this bridge. He could have just pushed me over the edge.
So I waited. And I waited. And I waited.
Instead the old man returned. From his gestures I gathered he’d been waiting for me a way down the track. He beckoned me on. Well at least this track was easily walked . . . though, how far would he take me? I refused the thought that he intended to make a sacrifice of me, to feed me to flesh-eating fish. Indeed, I convinced myself to be . . . confident. Yes. And trusting. After all, nothing bad had happened. Yet. But there still was the question of where he would take me. And once there . . . ?
To answer my first question: he wasn’t taking me into the valley to feed me to fish nor beast. There appeared a cleft in the cliff and, though a tight squeeze, this led onto a plain. I smiled—perhaps the relief to be away from that chasm and the jungle beneath it. But more likely because here was pleasant. Here was a balmy breeze perfumed sweet from the scattering of trees. Though I was surprised to see no village here. No buildings at all, no matter how basic. There was a herd of . . . something. Perhaps they were deer. They weren’t sheep or cows, that I do know. But then, to my surprise, he didn’t lead me across the grasses but held close to the rock-formed cliff, here as steep as it was beyond.
I didn’t see the cave until we were upon it. In truth, I didn’t see it until my guide disappeared and I had to look for him. Where could he have gone? Answer: that dark-shadowed hole had swallowed him. Whither my guide, there goest me. Rather that than to stay on this plain. Alone. Though Hean had said nothing of any nasty beasts here. But, then, he didn’t need to.
You remember Samlin, priest to my father when I was a child? Well, I remember him telling me about the Landed-lords’ hunting birds, their birds of prey. He said, where there is a vulnerable creature, there too will be a predator. But the predator is not to blame and must not be reviled, for the predator needs food as much as the prey.
Now here on this otherwise most pleasant plain were vulnerable deer. And though they had the protection of being a herd, they hadn’t the protection of a human herder—at least none that I could see near. Therefore, somewhere on this plain there would be at least one predator. And I had not a herd around me.
Like or not, I followed the old man into the cave.
He hadn’t had time to build a fire and to light it. Yet there he sat cross-legged upon the floor, a fire merrily burning before him. He indicated that I should sit. I sat.
I am not used to sitting on hard rock floors. I soon felt the discomfort. Yet looking about I could see nothing that might soften my ‘seat’. That’s where a cloak and my old woollen gown would have served. I jiffled, trying for a more comfy position. The old man looked at me. Despite he said nothing, and I could see no facial expression to tell me, yet I knew I had to sit still, which I did. After one last squiggle.
The old man had been wearing only a loin-cloth. And I had followed behind him all the way here. And though I’d remained at a distance I swear had he been carrying the paraphernalia that now sat beside him I would have seen it. Therefore, I reasoned, he had prepared this in advance. I allowed my thoughts to range over that. Perhaps it was always kept here . . . in readiness, on the off-chance? Or perhaps he had hurried ahead while Hean was jabbering away to the headman? Then again, maybe he had been pre-warned? Some arrangement, perhaps, between Hean and him? Though I couldn’t see how. Even if I wanted to believe in telepathy (and I had had cause to wonder at times with Hean) a two day-and-night journey lay between them. So no, this last I couldn’t accept as explanation.
Further mulling was denied me. The old man handed to me what appeared to be a heavy pot. In that I was right: it was heavy; heavy with liquid. And that liquid was thick. It had the consistency of a creamy sauce you might put on a pudding except it was more oily than creamy. And it didn’t smell sweet. It smelled . . . pungent, pungent and foul. Yet not foul as in spoilt. Not rotten. Not even fermenting. Just . . . unpleasant, as if it advertised how bitter. And it was bitter.
He signed to me that I should drink it. I lifted the pot, reluctant to sip. No problem there. I wasn’t to sip it, he signed. No, I was to take it straight down.
Maybe two-thirds slithered down my gullet. The rest was ejected by my throat’s outraged spasm. Memories of my recent seasickness didn’t help. I dearly wanted to upchuck the rest. Lords! What was it doing to my guts? Corroding them? Setting up a colony of fungi? Turning my guts and me inside out? By the Lords, but I wanted to heave, heave till my inwards were thoroughly outwards. I had a vaguely slippery notion that Hean’s ‘unwrapping’ was about to begin. Quite literally. And being unwrapped I then would be naked and raw.
There was no sympathy from the old man. He seemed to find it amusing. He signed that this . . . this . . . foulness wouldn’t last long. Oh good. But what would come next?
Foul potions tend to a limit range of effects. To kill. To render unconscious. To cause an upswelling of everything eaten—though Mideer has already vomited. To cause a disruption in veils of reality. Find out in the next episode (Tuesday 5th July 28), A Confusion of Daughters .