When Saram stirs Kelis, Kelis, like a woman, takes time to calm down. And though today had hardly a breeze to ruffle the reeds, yet yesterday was a storm. So I was glad when my father turned away from the walk-way that led down to the river that gave onto the sea. Beside me, Bregan stopped to look back. Though only a look, it annoyed our father. Yet it wasn’t that he didn’t know why she was looking. She did not want to leave King Kailen. Then, with another backward glance, she tripped over her legs. That did displease Yewlen. She cringed. He’d done something inside her head.
The track took us to a family-holding, not seen till we rounded a hill. Yewlen yoked their cart to the family’s oxen. A man strode over to see what was happening. Then saw it was Yewlen. They greeted like brothers, the man seemingly pleased that Yewlen was taking his cart. “But you will return it?”
Out of sight of King Burdamon’s Hold and her beloved Kailen, Bregan cried. Yewlen scowled at her. If she’d not then been sitting inside the cart I know she’d have stumbled, her eyes all blurred by the tears, and delayed us more. Then there would have been serious trouble. I did as I could to comfort her, telling her where we were going now that I’d guessed it—though, in truth, I wasn’t yet certain that’s where we were going. Yewlen could have other plans.
We passed empty fields and pastures. We passed copses full of tattered trees, and tiny streams that the cart rumbled and splashed through. Was this the way to my woodland fastness? Then, before the fade of day’s light, I saw a wide barrier of trees, from cold-ward to sun-ward. Nearer, and I could see through that lacework of naked branches and the boom-boom-boom of their trunks, to the almost black patches that were the yews and the hollies. This must be the place. I’d been right of where we were going.
“We’ll soon be there,” I told Bregan. She would like it there; my sisters would welcome her. There she’d be safe.
Night-sky replaced day-sky as our cart trundled on through the woodland. We disturbed an owl that flew low overhead. It startled Bregan; she squealed. Yewlen laughed. I had learned, since leaving our fastness, how unpleasant our father could be.
Deeper still into that wildwood there was no longer a clear path for the oxen to follow. Yet Yewlen knew the way. I did not, a weanling when first brought here. That made me wonder who was my mother, and where had she lived. Was she the wife of that man my father had taken the cart from?
Yewlen drew the cart to a stop. He undid the gate at its back and with trembling legs Bregan and I stepped out. He said not a word, not even inside my head. Maybe he spoke with Bregan? He didn’t say when he’d be back. He didn’t say goodbye. He didn’t wish Queen Bregan well. He simply climbed onto the cart, turned it around, and was gone.
“Where are we?” Bregan asked, for to her we seemed lost in the wildwood, abandoned beside a grassy hillock.
“We’re here,” I said. “This is our house.” I nodded towards the grass-grown mound.
“Oh, is it invisible?”
I laughed. “I told you you’d be safe here: no one can find it. Like you, they just don’t want to see it. And yet, all the while, it is there.”
I took her hand and had to pull her for she dug in her heels. Afraid, everything so strange to her.
“We live in there—beneath it,” I said.
I could feel her reluctance, yet she allowed me to lead her.
The door was barred from inside. I had to ask my sisters to let us in. They had barred it when they heard the cart outside.
Woodruff opened the door. “Bryony? We didn’t expect to see you again.” She hugged me so hard I barely could breathe. Then she saw Queen Bregan. “Who’s this?”
“Our sister,” I said.
Woodruff eyed her, her face skewed.
“She is,” I assured her. “If you’ll let us in I’ll tell you our story.”
She let us in but barred the door again behind us. Bregan’s hand clutched mine. She squeezed so tight I thought she must crush it. She was trembling, poor thing. I tried implanting courageous thoughts in her head but I hadn’t the strength of our father. I told her, “Bregan, please, don’t be afraid, be happy.” But still, she wasn’t happy, and she was afraid.
I took her through the long-door into our house. She stood just within that entrance-way and gasped at what she saw. Our house was round; its roof domed. It was built of timbers and of cut wood much like any round house—except our roof came down to the ground and over it the grass had grown and so had hidden it. But our roof wasn’t like the other round-houses that now I’ve seen. It didn’t go up to a narrow point. That would have been too easily seen in the woodland. Instead, our roof curved over, not growing tall at all, and at the centre was left like a glade. That’s where our big fire was set, though other smaller fires were set all around in the winter. Now, in my absence, my sisters had erected the screens we use against the winter-winds and they had made of our round-house something other. More of a ring.
“If you had said of it I wouldn’t have believed it,” Queen Bregan said. “And you all live here? How many?”
“I have twelve sisters here,” I said—and here they all were, crowding around us, curious of this woman I’d said was our sister. They tried to get inside her head but, as with me, she wouldn’t have it.
“This is your sister Bregan,” I told them.
“Bregan: what kind of flower is that?” asked Holly.
“It’s not a flower,” Bregan answered. “It means Life Begotten.”
“Life begotten?” Pansy said. “What sort of name is that?”
“It’s the name of a Queen,” I told them. But what did they know about queens? I had to explain it and I didn’t do well. Bregan had to say it again; she did it better. But then they needed to know about the Alsaldic Lands: where were they? She laughed at this—she laughed! I knew my sisters would make her laugh.
“You are living in the Alsaldic Lands,” she said, though I later discovered that this wasn’t so: we were living in East Isle—this wildwood formed one of its bounds before becoming the Way.
“So you are our Queen?” Sorrel asked her.
“I am,” Queen Bregan said, “but what is a Queen without a King?”
This brought more questions, and before she knew it Bregan had told them everything. About King Kottir and King Kailen, of how she loved the one and was wedded to the other, of how one was a Brictan like us and the other was not, of how Uissid Tizarn, who had once known our father as a man knows his brother, had said she couldn’t be with Kailen because he would die and his death would hurt her. But we didn’t understand much of what she told us—not even me who now had lived with the people beyond the wildwood. It took all night and the morning, too, to satisfy everyone’s curiosity. By then Queen Bregan had grown more used to us. She allowed her sisters into her head. That helped us to understand this life she had had that was so different from our own; it saved her much talking. After that we slept—until Bregan woke screaming..
Why did she make such a noise? Ah, the Sprigs!
I told her, “They’ll not harm you. They’re your sisters’ sons. Yewlen’s sons.”
Her screaming had upset the Sprigs. They vanished. It took several more days before they’d appear again. When they did she looked at them and she cried.
“But they’re Yewlen’s sons,” I told her. “King Kottir’s son won’t be like them.” I don’t know how I knew this, yet I did.
It was almost a moon before she could look on the Sprigs and not cry. It took almost as long for the Sprigs to stay visible when she was around.
By now she was used to us, her sisters, and to our strange round-house. She told us all manner of stories. My sisters said her stories were odd yet they grew to enjoy them. Just . . . what was their purpose? They weren’t like those told by the story-tellers at King Burdamon’s Hold for these weren’t told to amuse us, though some did make us laugh. When finally I asked her, she said her stories would help us better understand her life and how she’d been living.
She told us of the Alsaldic Lands: where they were, how big, and the people who lived there. She told us how some were Eskit, some Alsimuk; others Kredese and Ulishvregan; how some were Clan Querkan though some called them Uestuädik. But they all were just names to us.
Then Sorrel asked her, “So by what name do they know us, Yewlen’s daughters?” We’d known no other name but Brictan.
“But they don’t know of you,” she said. And how can you name what you do not know?
She told us things of the Brictans, as if we didn’t already know. She said of the degrees and how long each degree lives, of their abilities and what use they can make of them. She said of the Folds, and this we didn’t know: that not all Brictans are Silver, as she called us. That some as Flame, others Gold, and some Crystal.
She told us of the places she had seen. Cloud Stone Isle at His Indwelling. The House of Saram on the Highlands of the Sun. The copper mines in Meksuin’s Land. The Long North River that flows and flows and flows through many of the provinces, though not all.
We learned much from her. But, as Holly said, what need had we of her knowledge? What was her Cloud Stone Isle to us? We’d never go there. What was her House of Saram; what gifts had we to bring—if ever we went there? Bregan told us of the Alsaldic calendar and of the feasts. But again, what was this to us? She told us of the ticks and crosses that she and the law-men used to record names and words and numbers. “And?” we asked her. “What use are they to us?”
There was little about our sister’s life that we could share. As Sorrel said, “We won’t ever go to where she is from. It is she who’s come here.”
Then Bregan told us about our father—as much as she knew. Of his wicked ways: how he took delight in setting one man against another; how he gloried in the blood shed, as hungry for the smell of fresh-spilled blood as were the swords his sword-master made; how he planned to conquer all the Alsaldic Lands, and rule them from north to south, east to west.
“But,” piped up Sorrel, “if he were able to do as you say, would there not then be peace?”
Bregan nodded and sighed. “And how then to satisfy his blood-lust? But he has already found such a way. He makes gifts of people, giving them to the Tuädik Divinities, especially to Uät who accepts only the dead. Oh, and the ways Yewlen has found to prepare Uät’s gifts in the bloodiest ways . . .” Her face turned pale.
To counter her gloom my sisters taught Bregan their woodland ways. They told her stories of the Horned One and how without him none in the wildwood would live. They told her of the deer, and how they will give themselves to us if we knew how to call them. They showed her those calls and then had to scold her when, later, they found her surrounded by a great herd of deer all trying to nuzzle her: “They have their lives. They’re not here just to please you. Let them go.”
They told her, too, of their sons, the Sprigs, and how the Sprigs went off to hunt the boar. They told her how to avoid the boar which, if he saw her, would rake her with his tusks and eat her. They told her of the wild cattle, that there was no more dangerous beast than they in the wildwood, not even the wolves. They told her how to call the wolves. And, more important, how to send them away.
They showed her how to make a sharp blade from a stone; how to clean and treat skins so they don’t smell and attract spoiling spirits. They showed her what to do with acorns so they could be ground and shaped, cooked and eaten. In return, Bregan showed us how to make a potent brew from those same acorns, adding apples and honey. She said this wasn’t her usual recipe, yet it would do. She said it ought to be grain, but where was the grain in these woods. We drank the brew; it was potent. I had drank a similar brew at King Burdamon’s Hold; that, too, had made my head and my stomach feel worse than being at sea. I named her brew the Sea Brew, and refused to drink any more.
In such busy ways Bregan, myself, and my sisters endured the cold days of winter. By the time the woodland floor was speckling with flowers, delicate in their pink and white finery, Bregan had forgotten to be sad. She had forgotten how to fret. She remembered again how to laugh and be happy.
That’s when our father came again..
Spring. And along comes Yewlen again. What does he want, this father of his daughters’ children? It’s not to beget a child upon Bregan, for she still carries King Kottir’s child. Next episode, The Messenger