For What She’s About To Regret . . .

Act I of Feast Fables 3 (A Glut of Dead Fathers) saw Kerrid take the land and people of Gushan from her sister Barega, despite she didn’t want either. Now, as Act II begins, she has settled into her new role as Lady of Gushan. But that role has required certain . . . sacrifices. And those she’s about to regret. Deeply.

Next episode, The Visitor, now ready.

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Brictans Can See Into Your Head

Eve used an apple to gain knowledge forbidden. Julia used figs. Though she doesn’t yet know it, the result is the same.

Episode 39 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy

I open my eyes and there is an angel. Okay, so it’s only his white-blond hair with the lamplight on it. Yet it looks like a halo. And that beatific look on his face. And his eyes turned now to the vibrant blue of the pre-dawn sky. And let’s not forget his sleek-muscled arms that hold him above me, seeming to hover whilst all parts connecting. He opens his mouth as if to speak. I wait. But instead of speaking he folds me tightly into his arms and he laughs. He laughs and he laughs, and he laughs. Thereafter he sleeps.

Maybe I also slip into a sleep, for the next I know there’s a ghostly light seeping into the ‘roof through its low passage. It turns everything within to uniform grey—except him. I watch him. Can this be real; am I actually here with him? Surely it must be a dream. I trace my fingers lightly over his skin—and find not one imperfection. How can that be, here in the Neolithic, with no medicines, nothing of what we’d deem essential hygiene, no soothing antiseptic creams, no kiss-it-better sticking-plasters, no inoculations. How can his body, especially his skin, be so incredibly perfect?

“I am Brictan,” he says, coming awake and stepping off the bed, still naked. He squats by the hearth to bring the fire back to life.

“Did I wake you?”

He shakes his head. “This did.” He gives a brief look down, and leaves the ‘roof to relieve his bladder.

By the time he returns I’m knelt by the hearth, again modestly covered in cami-top, shorts and wrap (I’m unused to being naked in company). Passing behind me he fondles my hair. I close my mouth on a contented sigh.

“Water,” he says, and slaps down a flaccid (probably goat’s) bladder beside me.

While fetching the water from out of his moat I stop for a quick freshen. Oh, but the day is so glorious! The birds loud in their welcome of light, dew upon everything, sparkling. I take a deep draught. I never want to leave here. But—a less content sigh—I know that I must.

« »

Dannyn has been awaiting the water to heat for our breakfast. I watch. If asked I’d say I’ve learned much of the old skills from watching my parents, my mother particularly. They’re both so hot on self-sufficiency. Yet here I feel useless. He has flints already hot on the fire which he drops into the water. They hiss. And in less time than it takes me to boil a kettle he has scalding hot and steaming water.

“I have only the one eating-bowl,” he says as he ladles the water in and stirs. “We share? But first . . .” He sprinkles in the remains of the apricots, torn now into small pieces. “Now she is ready,” he says with pride.

“What is it? I mean, is it grain, or only seeds?”

He shrugs. “Seeds. Nuts. Eat, while she is warm.”

Seed-porridge, made with water, doesn’t exactly sound inviting. Yet it’s not bad. And except that I don’t know which seeds he used, and I don’t how to heat the water, I could make this in my canalboat galley. It’s not so different from my winter fare: a kind of hot muesli of flaxseeds, pumpkin and sesame seeds, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts—you name it—and made with hot water, not milk. No sugar required: I use fruit as a sweetener—blueberries, raisins, cranberries, whatever.

He’s a tidy chap. Perhaps he needs be, living alone in the Wilds. He swills fresh water around the used bowl and disappears outside to properly clean it in the fresh water, our bone-spoons in hand.

“Now we shall speak. Are we still trading?” He gives me no time to reply. “You have been in my future; you know what’s to happen. I want to know about Murdan. For this I tell you . . .” He pauses, a look up at the roof while he’s thinking “. . . I tell you of Immortals and Brictan. I am Brictan. You have Brictans in your world?”

Before I can answer he’s reached out for my hand and pulls me in closer. With twinkling eyes he suggests we lie on the bed.

“Oh, and then we shall talk?” I jibed.

“You stay with me again this night?”

Yea—though somewhere around dawn the ‘pod will again grab me. I ought to warn him. It could his mind to have me disappear right out from his arms.

He says, “I never have slept as I slept last night; be best, we stay off the bed. But I will have you near me. And you do not answer. You have Brictans in your world?”

“And how can I answer,” I say, “when I’ve yet to discover what they are?”

He grunts. “You say true. So first. There are the Immortals, yea—you say ‘yea’ I hear, though in your head you say ‘yes’. These Immortals, not spirits yet do not die. They live, and they live, and they live, while descendants around them die. No animal harms them, no spirit corrupts. Perfection in form, and powerful beings—though I’m told they’ve not—they’ve not/they haven’t, which is? No mind— they have not the power of spirits. I tell you their powers. Then you shall tell me of Murdan. We deal?”

“Must we spit on it?”

He laughs, and then hugs me. “If you prefer not—I trust to your word. So, the Immortals need not use words. What is in your head, it is also in theirs. To them it is impossible to lie, to cheat or deceive. But there is more to this head-thing than this. The Immortals can be in your head making you do what you rather would not. You become like a . . . like a man upon strings?”

“A puppet?”

“Like that, yes. And you know how I know this? Because we Brictans have the Immortals’ powers—we are their children. Yet with each generation the strength of our power is weakened. Each time just that little bit more.”

Even while he’s talking my thoughts are racing. Finding answers. Arousing suspicions. I shiver. “And which generation are you?”

“The Immortal Amblushe is my grandma.”

That close” I want to whistle but don’t. I’m not at all sure how I feel about this—I’d no idea he was . . . . and I’d thought him an angel. “What’s she like, your grandma Amblushe?”

He shrugs. “I never have met. Yet from my father’s saying—and from Aldliks Hegrea, I say she is hungry for power over people. Too, she hungers for the lusts of men. A bitch—this your Twenty First Century English word, yes? See, I take your English from your head.”

“That’s what you were doing when crossing the Plain? When my head was full of words forming strings?” I’d more or less sussed it, yet it still makes me uneasy. “Are you into my head: is that why I—” I’m about to say ‘want you’ but halt on the word.

He doesn’t answer straight off, which is alarming. Now I’m wondering how truthful he’ll be. Though how will I know if he lies? I don’t want to put distance between us. Not now. Yet his Brictish (?) confession makes me uncertain. After a night when I felt so empowered, I’m now reduced to a vulnerable virgin, not knowing if I can trust him.

“Yes,” he says, “I can make you want me—want me to hold you, want me to be a bull for you.”

“That’s not what I asked. I asked, did you?”

I remember when we first met—that day, for him, twenty-six years on. And it’s true, it did seem he had cast a spell over me. Then Alsvregn’s story, told as a warning: “Luänha, his mother, she captured and held me.” It’s not I’ve been blind, I’ve not been unaware. It’s been there all along, it’s just I’ve preferred to ignore it. Damn and blast him, he muddles my head. How can I think when he’s in there, stirring.

He nuzzles my neck and again pulls me closer. “You would know. The same you knew when I took your speech.”

Fine words, but I’m not so sure. I look at him, and I’m aware my face shows distrust.

“No, I would not do it,” he protests. “Why would I, and then tell you? Julia Cannings, from far distant England—a land set years away from me here—why would I pull your affections to me? Why pull you into my bed? If Murdan knew of it . . . It must be hidden from him for ever. He finds it and—no!” He shakes his head, almost manic.

“What would he do?”

« »

I’ve already figured from the testament of others that the man is a psycho. So I doubt Dannyn exaggerates when he says of the consequences. And now that I know he’s Brictan too, (he and Dannyn are cousins, sharing their Immortal bitch of a grandma) I can better understand the power of him: how he could move an entire people to build his rings at the crazily unlikely age of nine winters-seen.

But Dannyn hasn’t answered me yet. Instead, he holds me possessively close. Perhaps he finds comfort in that.

“It’s okay,” I say. “I don’t doubt you. Though I don’t know the man, and haven’t met him, yet I know enough of him. I understand you’d do nothing to bring his wrath down upon you.”

He turns me around so that I’m facing him. “You know of him, my cousin Murdan. You have been twenty-six years into our future. This is our trade: I say of Immortals and Brictans, and you tell me of him. Now, what does he do?”

I hesitate, unsure how much to tell.

“I trusted your word on it,” he says “—without the soul-spit.”

I look away. Yet it’s true, I did agree to it. But I hadn’t thought it through, the consequences.

“Dannyn, you know it’s not always good to know the future. Knowing it, you might try to change it. And if you changed it then how can I live through it? You change it and maybe we don’t even meet. No, what happens must happen, regardless. But I can tell you this: at least up till that time, twenty-six years on, Murdan hasn’t killed you. Does that satisfy?” Bless him, he looks so distraught. “But when you can take all you want from my head—my language, my memories?—why not take all knowledge? Why must you ask it off me?”

“You change the talk,” he says in a grump. But then he answers, as unruffled as ever “Because I take words, and pictures. I take pieces of what these mean to you. But they remain pieces; I cannot put them together. Now, might we extend the agreed trade? You tell me of Murdan—all you know of him. And I shall tell you all that you ask.”

That’s one hell of an offer, but it needs thinking upon. Despite his complaint of ‘not piecing together’, yet he can take what he wants from my memory. And I’ve enough stored there about Murdan to answer his queries. Perhaps he doesn’t want to go delving. Perhaps he wants to rebuild my trust. And what might I ask him in return? Now I know of the Eblan-numbers, and the Alisime spirits, I’ve no pressing questions. I’ll be returning here many more times—Fliss permitting—so I’ve ample time to learn all I can. But no, it’s about him, about Dannyn, that I want to know more.

« »

Next episode: 26th May

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Knowledge: Carnal? Or Intellectual?

Sequestered, and safe from Murdan. Seduced by rich food, with intriguing company. But which comes first, the intellect or the carnal? For there are questions that Julia wants answered.

Episode 38 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy

We feast on the barbequed bustard—a kind of turkeyish taste—and dip into a bowl of small-foods, produced by Dannyn as if out of nowhere (probably fetched from inside his ‘roof without my notice). They’re not so crisp as before; probably two or three days old. And while I chew and crunch my thoughts are churning. Question: when to fetch out the dried, sticky figs and the apricots. If now, as desert, we can wash our hands after in the glittering water of the moat. Yet if we wait till we’ve retreated into his roof . . . The mosquitoes decide it for us. Subjected to their increasingly determined attacks, even Dannyn surrenders.

“The midges tell us it is time.” He nods to the ‘roof.

The packets won’t open just with the pulling and Dannyn, fascinated with the exotic transparent wrapping that rattles, is slow to realise my need. Doubtless he’s not seen these particular fruits, yet he does know they are fruits. Like a child, he turns expectant eyes upon me. I give in and resort to my penknife (O weakling me).

I offer, first, the figs. He hesitates. Please don’t let him be like a toddler at Christmas who prefers to play with the wrappings. But no, he dips in his fingers and pulls out a fig, glistening in its syrupy juice. He licks it, and makes yummy-appreciative noises. I laugh, he laughs. He leans towards me and kisses me, lips all sticky. Finally, he deems to eat it, his eyes wide in delight. Relief! He likes it. He looks at me, then at the pack. He wants to ask, but politeness forbids it.

“Enjoy yourself,” I say. “Have as many as you like. I brought them for you.”

I’m a little concerned of their ‘morning-after’ effect. Ought I to warn him? Yet they’re that sweet, and he’s unused to them, I doubt he’ll eat many. I’m oddly amused: I see us slipping into ‘mother and child’ (and he’s so young he almost could be my son—if I’d been a child-bride). I leave him with the packet of figs while I open the apricots—a little milder in their after-effects.

After three of the figs he looks instead at these. But he’s undecided. To take or to not. He decides, apparently, not. He holds up his fingers, a quick waggle to show me how sticky. Then gestures towards the door. “Three moments, I’ll be back.”

He takes a tad longer than that—so much longer I start to worry. What if Murdan saw us at Alsaldhelm Tumun? What if he followed us here and has been waiting to catch Dannyn alone? It’s a crazy imagining. I mean, to what effect? So he can kill Dannyn and—I don’t know—take me as his own? Now that truly is crazy. I laugh.

« »

When Dannyn returns he’s absent his shirt and trousers. Not naked, he still wears that wrap-around skirt, reminiscent of the one I had for P.E. at school. Yet suddenly bashful, I try not to look though I’ve seen his body before—when he was a not-such-an-old forty-six year old (he didn’t look it; I was shocked when first I calculated it). His legs aren’t as muscled as later they’ll be. Yet they’re strong legs, and well-formed. His shoulders, too, are those of a lad; his chest not so broad. But I’m not complaining. I bite back a grin: he’s my toy-boy—I’ve worked with several women who’d be envious of me. Though—perhaps it’s because he’s so fair—he seems less hirsute than a woman. I noticed that before.

He sits with me on the floor, beside the fire—which, despite its brief crackle and roar when first we came in, is but a heap of red ashes.

“You show me now your magic black slab?” he asks, just like a kid at Christmas. I guess we can forget about bed till Santa has sated his curiosity. But he won’t get it that easily.

“Trade,” I remind him. “First you tell me which spirits the eblann appease at Alsaldhelm Tumun.”

Though it’s not my area of expertise, I do know, generally, the Neolithic religion has been labelled as ‘animistic’, with shamans that serve as pre-priestly mediators. Thus, here the Ancestors’ spirits are likely deemed as active as the less personal spirits of nature. It’s highly unlikely they have actual deities.

Appease?” Dannyn repeats the word as, apparently, he ponders its meaning.

It’s easy to forget that my C21st English isn’t his first language, he’s so fluent. Technically, I suppose Alisime isn’t his first language either. If we mean ‘that learned at his mother’s knee’ then his first must be Ormalish. He’d even learned Tuädik and Ulishvregan before he encountered the local Alisime. As for what language he uses when muttering away to himself in these Eblan Wilds . . . who knows.

Oblige,” he says at last, and breaks my reverie. “We oblige the spirits, we do not appease. Not at Alsaldhelm Tumun. Now, what I am to tell you, you do not repeat. Not to the Alsime. Not to any who dwells in this world.”

“Sure,” I say, “I’ll swear to that.” Forbidden knowledge. The anticipation . . . I’m excited.

“I know you swear it,” he says, almost flippant, “else I would not answer. But everything of it is not so easy to say. Not without first I say of our eblann-numbers.”

“You hold seven to be sacred,” I quickly say. “I know that from Alsvregn. Though with the Alsime it’s five.”

He laughs. “Your every word shows me: You do not lie when you say you have walked here before. So you have been to Hegrea’s Isle?”

“You took me there—you will take me there.”

He nods and chuckles. “In six-and-twenty seasons?”

He reaches across for my hand. His touch is electric, the same as before, countless streams zinging and arousing every part of my body. Moreover, there’s something about it akin to magnetism. One touch, and I find myself irresistibly drawn to him, to be closer, closer. I don’t want even a centimetre empty between us. Yet he holds me away. It’s agony. I want to wrap myself round him.

“So, my eblan-apprentice . . .” His eyes, I swear, sparkle ten times brighter. “Here is the first eblan-knowledge.” He then doesn’t say but chews on his lip. “Yet you are Ledhe Shakreshulm. Then why should I not tell you.”

“I am a scholar. Scholar, eblan. Two words, two worlds, one meaning.” We’ve already agreed. Though I know it’s untrue.

Both eblan and scholar might crave knowledge, yet an eblan is also a shaman. And the shaman entrances to the spirit worlds, there to effect a cure in this world. That’s not exactly the standard definition of a scholar. Yet I remember reading of the druids (it might have been in Caesar’s report) that they studied the natural sciences, and from their studies they formed what we’d call a thesis. In effect, they were an early equivalent of a Doctor of Philosophy. Moreover—and this is the shamanic element—in understanding the underlying workings of the world, the druid was able to best advise and guide his client—i.e. he pulled knowledge from one world help heal another. And if he had a Ph.D, he was a scholar, the same as me (not that I’ve got the Ph.D.)

Two,” says Dannyn. “Two words, two worlds: this is apt. Two, see, is the second of the eblan-numbers. The first is One, the One of the beginning, the Whole. You understand? But, yes, I can see that you do. One encompasses everything.” He holds up his hands to form a circle. “It is the Alisime isle, yes? While yet it is One, it contains everything. But Two is the Division of Creation.”

He again uses his hands to form a circle. But this time he rotates them so his right hand is above, his left below.

“The two parts of a cracked egg, yes? It is the Father Above, the Mother Below. Because this is the way of coupling—man, woman, above, below—every animal but for the snail and the snake, and both they display the Spiral.”

Snails and snakes, I hadn’t thought of that. I want to mull on it but now that he’s started I’ve a feeling he won’t be easily stopped.

“But this is not all,” he says. “Everything contained in the One has its opposite. Day, night. Light, dark. Hot, cold. Dry, wet. Summer, winter. It is so. And of each pair, one part belongs to the Father, and one to the Mother. Yes? It is so. But then comes Three. The sea.”

Whoa there, I don’t get that. I frown.

“You puzzle on this? But: the Father, the Sky; the Mother, the Earth. So what of the sea?”

“But isn’t it the opposite of the Earth? Wet, dry?” But no, I immediately see that’s wrong. No, it’s the Sky that’s opposite of the Earth. Father, Mother.

This time he holds out just the one hand—the right—flat, with palm-down. He then points to the back of his hand. “Above.” He points to his palm. “Below.”

Yep, there’s no disputing that.

He runs his finger along the down-facing palm. “The Down-Father,” he says. “Though we say ‘Dark’ Father.”

“And opposite the Dark Father would be Judlamhe Upsulm? The Dark Mother of the Underworld.” I’m chuffed that I’ve worked it out.

“There are . . . constellations,” he says. “So, one part of all opposites belong to the Father:—Sky, Day, Light, Hot, Dry, Summer, Men, Cattle, Weapons. And the other part belongs to the Mother:—Earth, Night, Cold, Winter, Women, Goats, Pots—And for how long do I have you?” he suddenly asks.

“Two days. And please don’t ask me that again. The first is already almost gone.”

“It is as I thought. An eblan-apprentice, see, seven winters-seen, must learn all the Opposites before he learns more. But you have not the time with me.”

He glances with obvious meaning at the bed, his hand again seeking mine. He gently squeezes. I’m so tempted to say to forget the lessons, let’s get naked and zetim, but . . .

“So, there is Father’s constellation, and Mother’s constellation,” he says. “But then where belongs those of Underworld, the Underneath?”

“With the Mother?” I’m thinking here of the Celtic Hag of Winter. And how the end-days of summer mark a momentary release of the Underworld spirits. Though, I confess, it’s not really my thing.

“The Underneath is a third constellation. So here is Three: all things ‘Underneath’. But everything in this Underneath-world also have opposites. So, our next number is Four.”

I’m thinking that maybe Carl Jung would have followed this better than me. Still, I dare to anticipate and say of the cardinal points, and the four winds.

Four defines the year,” he says—which isn’t exactly what I’d expected.

“How so? You say Summer-half, winter-half.”

“What is a year?” he asks and leans in closer. Now how can I breathe? How can I think.

I’m about to answer: 365 days. But I know that’s not what he wants. Then, bingo! The cog slips into place. “It’s one sun-cycle.”

How could it be anything else? That’s the one thing we know for certain about the Neolithic: they were obsessed with the sun.

“Is good,” he says. “You are best eblan-apprentice I yet have.”

I laugh. “I’m the first.”

“Yet I doubt any other will be so troublesome. Inviting me with their eyes to become my own bull. But, you don’t yet know of the eblan-bull.”

“Oh but I do. You told me a story.”

“You mean I will tell it to you when you visit again, twenty-six years from this day?”

“Yea.” Precisely.

“So what is this story? I must remember to tell it.”

“The Eldliks Bukfesen’s bull.”

He laughs. “I am to tell you of that? But it is a good story I’ve always enjoyed. So, you know the eblan must have his bull.”

“But you didn’t finish the story. You didn’t say why he must have one—why Eblan Hegrea must have one.”

“So I tell you now. The eblan serves his birth-family—the people all born to his birth-isle. This is right, this is proper, for his birth-family provides for his needs with food, and clothes, and a ‘roof to cover his head—though often the eblan needs none of this. In return for this, the eblan serves his family. He seeks out the spirits that make them sick. He promotes their interests in the holding of feasts. He—oh, so many ways. He protects their bounds. He ensures the increase of his family. Most times this means interceding with spirits. But sometimes this means taking an isle-sister to his bed—never he to hers, that would be wrong. But above all, he ensures the increase of their cattle, and for this he needs a bull. Now you look at me with those eyes and I am the bull.”

“We could postpone the rest of this lesson.” It’s only a suggestion. I’m not begging.

“You say it’s to happen, it is to happen. Yet . . . it goes against eblan-law. You know this?”

“But it doesn’t,” I say. “Tell me how it prevents you from performing your duties. It was agreed for Eblan Hegrea when she wanted to bed with Arith.”

He laughs. “I wonder why I answer your questions when already you know so much of us.”

“There are whopping holes in my understanding. And I know nothing of the spirits. That’s why I need you to tell me.”

With a glance at his empty bed, he nods, he sighs.

« »

“So we proceed. Four defines and divides the year. There are two Sun-Standings. Opposites. There are two mid-places, when Night and Day are equal. These, the aldliks say, are the best times for making babies.”

“And are they?” I ask with feminist glee. Will an eblan allow the aldliks a greater knowledge?

“Perhaps it is so at the harvest mid-place. Then the infant is born to the warmth of summer. But an infant made at the spring mid-place must survive a cold winter. So, no, not all are the best. Five—”

“The Alsime’s sacred number,” I say.

“Ah, but why is it so?” he asks. “You answer now for interrupting. Old Boney never would have allowed it.”

“The directions,” I say. “Before me, behind me, to my right, to my left. And here, the fifth, is me.”

He snorts derision. “No, you are wrong—though it’s why also the Tuätin hold Five as their number—but, then, the Tuätin are obsessed with ‘place’. No, Five are the societies:—Ulmkem, Drukem, Murkem, Skakem and Eblan. You, who are learning to use Alisime speech, you tell me now the element of each.”

“The element of each society?”

He smirks and nods.

“Um.” It’s not so easy, considering how little vocabulary I’ve learned. Yet I’ll give it a try. “Ulmkem is Earth.”

“Therefore the Mother,” he says.

“Drukem is . . . Trees?” I wouldn’t normally consider ‘trees’ as an element, even though the Chinese, who also have five elements, name both Wood and Metal.

“And Tree is?”

I’m not sure his intent. Does he want me to opt for either the Mother or the Father?

“Father?” That’s an educated guess, part-inspired by the Welsh deity Bilé who was also a tree.

“And Murkem?” he asks.

This is beginning to feel like a catechism. And I have to admit I don’t know. “I haven’t learned that word yet.”

“No, because you learn the word ‘als’. But ‘als’ isn’t water. Water is what runs in the ‘als’.”

“So Murkem is Water? And it’s the Mother, yea? So the next one, Skakem, must be the Father—though I don’t what it means.”

“But why not Eblan next?” he asks without first telling me what the ‘ska’ of Skakem might mean.

“I’d say the Eblan society numbers Three. It’s the Underworld.”

“Despite also it’s the society responsible for keeping the traditional ways?”

I don’t know why I’m so sure, yet I answer ‘yes’ with a certainty.

“So now you can answer your own question,” he says with an aggravating satisfied smile. “What spirits do we eblann oblige at Alsaldhelm Tumun?”

I answer negligently, it now is obvious. “The spirits of the Underworld. But you haven’t answered me yet of the Skakem—what element?”

“The Skakem are hunters,” he says, as if that’s an answer. Yet, how can it be? A Hunter isn’t an element.Perhaps the problem lies with me and my C21st English preconceptions.

« »

The Western system, originating in Classical Greece, accounted only four elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. From these the world and everything in it was supposedly constructed. Yet these Western elements didn’t exist in an either/or state but were taken, all four together, and subtly blended. Yet always one element remained the dominant.

That’s clearly not as it is with the Alisime elements. Though their world is comprised of five elements, every entity has but the one. Here, it’s the entities that exist in opposition, rather than their component elements. So best I forget about the Classical system and stop trying to squeeze one into the other’s mould.

Yet it is ultra bizarre, to say the least, to have the (Upper) world supposedly comprised of Earth, Water, Trees, Hunters and Eblann. Especially when the Eblann-element represents the Under-world, itself in opposition to the Upper, and thus to all four other elements. Yet—I grunt—it has a certain neatness to it. I kinda like it. It’s kinda Yin and Yang.

But I’m still puzzled. “The eblann mediate with the spirits of the Lower World, yea? But what of the spirits of the land, and of the trees, and the animals, the sky, the rain, the hills, the rivers?”

Dannyn laughs. I do like his laugh. It’s soft, and gentle, and seldom mocking (at least not of me). But, hells, it’s distracting—especially when he again takes my hand. I glance at the bed. He seems not to notice.

“Spirits of land? But the Ulmkem aldliks—what’d you say it? mediates?—with the land-spirits. As, too, the spirits of trees—”

“Yea, it’s okay, I’ve got it. The Drukem eldliks mediate, yea?”

“So.” He nods affirmative.

“And the Murkem aldliks mediate with the spirits of water. And the Skakem eldliks with spirits of animals. Which leaves the Eblan eldliks—”

“The Eblan Society eblann,” he corrects me. “Now, the black slab.”

As I reach across for it the silk wrap I’m wearing falls away to leave exposed a good length of leg. It proves tempting beyond his enduring. His hand is surprisingly soft for the life he’s been living as he wraps it around my ankle. He holds for just a moment. Then he runs his hand slowly the length of my calf. I don’t need to hold my position: I have the camera already in hand. Yet I remain at full stretch while he runs his hand over the back of my knee, and along the back of my thigh. Jeez, I hardly can breathe. I want to turn round and to rip off his skirt and . . . I have to remember to breathe. And what will he do when he reaches the top? Yet that requires him to lie nigh atop of me. Alas—though maybe not—he withdraws before then. Camera in hand, I turn around—to see his face glistening, his chest rising high with each breath.

He says, earnest and yet with a smile, “While I serve these seven seasons in the Wilds, I do not serve my birth-family. Neither my birth-society, the River Alsime, nor all Alsime everywhere. I serve only Ledhe Shakreshulm. And we have said, have we not, that you are Ledhe Shakreshulm—though I know also that you are not. But, I break with no law. You agree?”

I agree. What’s good enough for Eblan Hegrea, is good enough for me.

“But first,” he says, “this black slab. You must explain it to me.”

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Blood And Tears

In the previous episode of Feast Fables everything is set for Kerrid to demonstrate her power: she will cause a lunar eclipse. If she’s able then her sister will give her the land and people of Gushan. But if she fails? Neka will be onto her son in flash.

The question is, can she do it? Next episode, Any Gift? ready now.

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Chocolate Cherry Seduction

It’s a confused situation with positions reversed. Julia has already met Dannyn, twenty-six years into his future. But for him, this is their first encounter. At first, on finding her at Alsaldhelm Tumun , he mistakes her for his Mistress Inspiration. But a massive mind-ream tells him otherwise. Julia Cannings is a visitor from another world. But that won’t protect from his cousin Murdan. If he finds her in their Eblan Freeland, he’ll sacrifice her to the Dark Mother of the Underworld.

Episode 37 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy

I have a swarm of questions, each rising and yelling that I must ask it first. But Dannyn allows none. He hurries me on, to hide me safely within his ‘roof. Once there he grabs his bow and a package of arrows, and tells me sharply to stay.

“Er—” but he cuts me short.

“Julia Cannings, scholar from far distant land of Twenty First Century, is precious guest. She must be suitably fed.”

I have a moment of déjà vu. Though the prelude has changed from the story told at Hegrea’s Isle, yet I know he’ll return with a bustard, the turkey-sized bird that once was common across Salisbury Plain. He’ll joint it, and spit-roast the fillets on a fire newly-made outside.

He’s gone before I can stop him. But he pops back in. What’s he forgotten?

“If a pot has a lid—”

“I know. Don’t touch it.”

He nods. He grins. He sets everything inside me to flutter.

While he’s away, I give his home a cursory scan. Though I’ve been here before it’s another twenty-six years on. As yet no colourful rugs adorn the walls, gifts from his Alisime women in return for eblan-services. And beside his woven-grass chest is an empty place where in time his black feathered cloak will hang. But until he’s completed his seven eblan-seasons in the ‘Eblan-Wilds’ he’s not an eblan-true. I learned this much on my previous visit.

I inspect his ‘pots’. Most are wood- or leather-crafted. Men’s crafts, he probably made them himself. But two are of clay, and one of grass-work. Gifts, no doubt, from his mother and sisters.

The bed, piled with furs, remains the same. It was only last week; I remember it well. I take deep breath, empowering. Time to change into the clothes I’ve brought with me, tucked into my bag.

My fingers are awkward with hands atremble, yet I manage to peel off the t-shirt and trousers. But when it comes to the undies I’m in a horrid self-conscious state. Ought I to do this? What will he think of me? Yet I’ve had this planned this past week. I change it slightly. I’m not going out there to bathe in the sparkling water of his clay-sealed moat. With what he’s said of Murdan, I daren’t now go. The ‘handy-wipes’ brought with me will have to suffice. But I hurry, feeling excessively vulnerable in this naked state. I’ve brought with me a matching cami and shorts of ivory silk, sold as ‘nightwear’. But even in these I still feel naked. But, lo! I’ve also brought the matching wrap. Despite it’s been tightly rolled, there’s hardly a crease in it (amazing these modern fabrics). Belatedly I attend to my hair. There’s no chance to wash it—and where would I plug in the dryer? So I brush and brush and thoroughly brush it. I can’t see the effect but I’m guessing it’s gleaming.

Okay, so now I’m fit to be seen it’s time to light all the lamps—it was part of his story. But that doesn’t take long (convenient lighter brought with me) and I’m left wondering what to do next. I could moisturise the feet, that wouldn’t go amiss. But really, considering how impromptu our previous bed-session I don’t know why I am worrying. We both must have reeked. Yet, as I remember it, apart from a healthy fresh-wrought sweat, there were no offensive whiffs to Dannyn—which is more than I can say of most of the folk I’ve met here. But I suppose that’s expected. No showers, no soaps, no deodorants, everything as nature intended. Why then doesn’t Dannyn smell as bad? Is it to do with him being Brictan—which he has yet to explain to me. In fact, there’s still a lot I want explained.

When I was here before my thinking wasn’t exactly structured. There was so much new, all coming at me. Not to mention the destruction of my preconceptions. So instead of imposing a framework to contain what I was learning, and thus to suggest relevant questions, I was all over the place, each new discovery taking me off at another tangent. But now, with a week to review my discoveries, I’ve applied the required frame, with relevant headings, and filled it with what I have already learned. But there exists several gaps, not least everything under the heading ‘Religion’. So now I want to learn all I can re Alsaldhelm Tumun and its indwelling Judlamhe Upsulm (Dark Mother of the Underworld). I’m due for this since, full confession, I’m more up on ‘artefacts’ than on the deities served. Though this far back in prehistory, until now it could only be speculation. Yet here I am with a unique opportunity. Okay, so Dannyn’s world isn’t my own. Yet I can’t ignore the many parallels, and what applies to the one might also might apply to the other.

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I hear—or so I think—some kind of noise outside. I listen. Nothing. Perhaps it was more a minuscule movement of earth felt through my naked feet. I grin, sussing it. Somewhere nearby a blackbird is singing, incongruous at this hour of the day.

There’s a slight rustle, as of someone squeezing between the protective bushes (as yet the apple and holly are far from grown). It’s Dannyn, returning, just as he told Aldliks Bisdata and her family, with the bustard. And now I must keep to his story. No rushing out to meet him. I must wait inside so he sees me first in the light of the oil-lamps. I sit by his hearth, glad of the warmth of the residual embers, despite the season. I hope I look every part the Ledhe Shakreshulm, his Eblan Mistress Inspiration.

I hear the thud of the bird as it hits the ground. Then the meagre light through the passage is totally blocked. With a dip of his head he enters. But he holds there, as if stuck in the tight passage. I can see little of him in the darkness; he has yet to enter the full spill of light. His white-blond hair, his brow and nose, seem dark in the absence. But not his eyes, they sparkle bright—the startling blue-purple of periwinkles. I just can make out the wisp of his beard.

I see the curl of his fingers around his bow as he continues his journey in.

Shed . . .” he begins to say, but his mouth refuses to work.

Burdrezhem shep?” I ask (surprised you are?).

“You have our tongue?”

I laugh and start to say un peu, but quickly change it. “Midin. I’ve been here before, but you won’t remember it yet. It was—is—still twenty-six years into the future for you.”

His mouth again falls. All this while his eyes are busy taking in the sight of me. And it isn’t lust that I see on his face, as it might be with C21st fella. It’s awe.

“You are spirit,” he asserts.

“No, I am real. Cut me, I bleed—and you’ve touched me (my past, your future). I’m as real as you are.”

“Why you say ‘real’ in such tone? Spirits are real,” he says. “And you, no, you are not like me. Not at all. You are not Brictan. You shine with something, but it is not Asaric.”

“I’ll explain everything,” I say. “But first, you’ve left the bird outside. It’ll attract thieves. And I’m hungry. Will you not feed me?”

He upslaps his head. “Politeness escapes me—you chase it away. Three days of questions I have to ask you.” But he doesn’t begin the asking yet. He stows his bow and his pack of arrows, his eyes barely leaving me as he edges around me, no longer daring to touch. To his eyes I have changed.

“Stay,” he tells me. “I make fire; I call you.”

That’s fine by me. It gives me time to fish certain supplies from my many pockets and pouches. The ready-to-eat dried figs, which he mentioned on my previous visit—which he’s yet to experience–and some apricots, ditto, which I last-minute thought to bring with me. Then there’s the camera he’s already seen. The Dictaphone so I can demonstrate how I learned his lingo. And a photocopied map of the Plain (of which I have several).

I try to organise in my head the questions I now want to ask. So many, some not easily phrased. It might be easiest to start with the questions around religion, since it was at Alsaldhelm Tumun that this time we met. The tumun will provide a natural ‘in’. Then if I show him the photos I took there that’ll open the way for his questions on the ‘whence and when’ of me.

Yea, as if things will fall so neatly in place.

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I join him outside where he’s already arranged the spitted meat around and over a mound of hot embers. He briefly looks up.

“Will you cover your hair?”

I take it as a question and tell him no. Here I’m showing a full length of naked thigh and he’s concerned of my hair? Yet I know his reasons. Amongst the Alsime, exposed hair is as intimate as our exposed flesh. Though it seems he, as eblan, pays no regard to it when it comes to his own.

He looks again at me, and quick looks away. He’s biting his lower lip, I can see. He sighs. “You know you invite me to—”

“Hmm,” I say. I feel a totally forward hussy—which isn’t at all my usual style. Perhaps there’s a touch of the Shirley Valentines here: away from my usual environment, everything exotic, the inhibitions gone. But, also, I know how the evening’s to end. So I may as well play to it as to pretend to be coy. It isn’t as if it’s to be the first time. At least not for me.

But, truth, I’m not feeling as brazen as I’m acting. So many maybe’s to fill my mind. Maybe if I focus on the sex I’ll forget the emotional? In the three days spent in his company last week—though for him that’s still twenty-six years into the future—I found myself growing more than a little fond of him. I won’t deny that I liked him. Enormously. I won’t deny that I wanted more time him—I didn’t want to return to my C21st home, my life, my job. But I thought it a passing infatuation. I now have to remind myself of it—because what I want just isn’t possible. If I focus solely on sex it’ll help keep a rein on the feelings. Or so I hope.

There’s a cushion on ground in front of him; I kneel upon it, the fire between us. He swallows; I hear it. He stops biting his lip. He sucks it instead.

“Your hair,” he says. “I have not seen—”

“You have sisters—a half-sister. And Bisaplan’s daughters: Sapapsan, Sapsinhea, Bisdata. And Sapapla and Hegfelanha. Mine isn’t the first woman’s hair you have seen.”

He nods. “You spoke true when you said you have been here before. But the last I saw of my sister Jitjana she had no more than six winters-seen. As for Bisaplan’s daughters, I know only Sapapsan, a very young child. These others, they are yet to be born? But Hegfelanha, yes, I know her. But it’s how you wear it. And how it shines. And the colour. Is this what our women keep hidden beneath their bonnets? I want to touch it, to hold it—to smell it, to bury my face in it. To kiss it. No wonder the Alisime aldliks remain so strict on it.”

“Is it really distracting?” I don’t want to replace my hat. And anyway, it’s ridiculous. Here I am half-naked, and it’s my hair that disturbs him. I start back to my feet. “I’ll go fetch the hat.” I can’t help but sound weary.

“No.” He holds out a hand to stay me. “I shall fetch it.”

He returns, Army Surplus bucket hat clutched in his hand. But he keeps looking back at his ‘roof. It puzzles me for a moment until I realise. He has just seen those things I’ve laid out for later. They must have totally mangled his mind.

He walks round behind me and leaning over me slides the hat on me. In doing so his fingers touch several soft places—my hair, my cheek—all warm beneath the slippery silk of the wrap—my neck, my shoulders. His breathing quickens, and I realise how cruel I’m being to him. Here he is eblan, a virgin, and here I am blatantly offering what he probably believes he never can have. I bring my hand up to his, little finger hooked around his.

Bless him, it’s too much for him. He pulls off my hat, grabs two handfuls of hair, and buries his face in it. I think were I standing, or he was beside me instead of behind, and there was no fierce glowing coals to accidentally roll onto, that illicit fumble would rapidly become a frantic coupling.

He pulls away, my hat again replaced on my head. He returns to his place, across the fire from me, and looks down at the coals, pointedly avoiding my eyes. “My eternal apologies. Though I did warn you.”

“I’m to blame,” I say to assuage. “I underestimated. I knew the Alisime proscription. It was wrong of me.” I walk the talk by tucking the last of my hair under the hat.

“Your hair . . .” he says, but calmer now. “It is . . . intense—this is the word? Soft beyond softness. Water, it trickles over my fingers. It smells of every sweet flower. Woodbine and roses, yet not. It shines. Every strand a lamp burning within it. And the colour! Not brown, not red.”

According to the packet it’s Chocolate Cherry. But I can’t tell him that. I’d then have to explain of chocolate, and how a hair-colour can come out of a packet. And how that same packet explains its intensity of everything.

“It is short,” he says. “Yet the ends all line up so. How is this possible?” He sounds full of wonderment.

Drat, I should have brought the scissors. Then I could show him.

“I am eblan,” he says. “I should not even have this thought, nor yet the desire—unless you are Ledhe Shakreshulm? Please be Ledhe Shakreshulm. I want to visit you as a man visits his woman.”

My turn to gulp. Though a brief glance at the sky says it’s far too early yet for retiring. Besides, there’s the meat still cooking. And there’s a whole parcel of questions I want to ask him. But I am awfully tempted to drag him back to his ‘roof by the scruff of his beard.

“It will happen,” I tell him. “You’ve already told me—twenty-six years in your future.”

“I remembered it? After twenty-six years?” He laughs. “Then if it’s to be so memorable, we had best first eat. Then you will answer my questions? You may start by telling me what is this black shiny box that shoots out a light. I wanted to ask when we were in the tumun, but I feared you were Mistress Inspiration and I should not be so—what word? Audacious? I should not be so audacious.”

“I’ll trade you,” I say. And when he starts to object, what has he to offer in return, I tell him. “I’ll make you a trade like the one Eblan Burnisen offered Eblan Hegrea.”

Now you have proven beyond any doubt that you have indeed visited me before. No other living person but for Hegrea and I know of that story. Burnisen told it to no one but me. But you are to offer me knowledge?”

I nod. “Isn’t that what you want? I give you knowledge of my world, and you give me knowledge of yours.”

“I can give you any knowledge you ask of this world,” he says. “But I cannot give you eblan knowledge.” It seems to deeply bother him, as if our trade never can balance because of the lack.

“But you can,” I say. “For I am a scholar. And scholar and eblan are the same.”

I ought to feel totally ashamed at how I modulate my voice with intent to seduce the information out of him. But I’ve met him as an older man, and I don’t—despite he’s yet a twenty year old youth, innocent in a way he’d never be in our C21st world. There he would flounder in the violent deceit of it all. Still, no time for shame; time to learn what I want.

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Dark Mother of the Underworld

With no time wasted Julia has headed straight for Alsaldhelm Tumun, her directive from Fliss, to explore its internals (as if she needs pushing). But just as she’s about to enter . . .

Episode 36 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy

Bershem!” calls a voice behind me. Male. Loud. And far too close.

I stop, and turn, my back now to the tumun with its trilithon-framed entrance and Breton-styled rock-art, all nested arcs and chevrons. And with the shock I forget to switch off the torch.

Truly, were it Fliss standing there I’d be no more surprised. As for the psychotic Eblan Murdan, I’m prepared for that encounter, endlessly rehearsing my Alisime phrase: Eblanheshed-Jallisha Alsimeëlmen Ersvraden (I am Eblan Jallisha—Bright Sky—of the East Alsime.) But, it’s not him standing in front of me, less than two strides away.

“Dannyn?”—oblivious of where the torch is now pointing. Right into his eyes.

He falls to the ground, arms over his head, rapidly muttering indistinguishable words—which provides an excellent opportunity to access the physical attributes of this younger version (he’s now aged around twenty). He hasn’t his later width of shoulder, though he’s equally tall. And, though I’ve only a glimpse of it before he hides it, his face seems no younger (except he hasn’t much of a beard—or maybe with being blond I just didn’t see it). But internal confusions: the conflict of shock—he oughtn’t to be here—and a vivid remembrance of our last encounter. The latter wins out. Though his present ‘prone-at-my-feet’ position isn’t exactly a guaranteed turn-on.

When finally he looks up I receive another shock. I have never, ever, seen such an expression of rapture, especially not one directed at me. It’s the countenance of a saint gazing upon his Lord.

Ledhe Shakreshulm,” he says—or rather, he breathes. I’ve heard him say it so many times I know what it means. Ledhe Shakreshulm, Mistress Inspiration.

Thoughts flash through my head. The bizarre situation of our previous encounter now is reversed. While I’ve already met him, and know much about him, he has yet to learn about me. And I can see the advantage. The Dannyn who knows me hadn’t allowed me to enter the tumun. But what of this Dannyn who believes me to be his Mistress Inspiration? Surely he won’t block me, stand in the entrance and refuse me? I thank the fall of the dice for bringing about this situation. Now how churlish of me if I turn it away. Which isn’t to say I’m not itching to know what the bo-diddly he’s doing here.

Urhizt vrebibzem—ern,” I say—which should parse as ‘Come with me inside’, meaning inside the tumun. But Siobhan’s the linguist, not me. Apparently, instead, I’ve requested he leads me inside. The result is the same, it’s just that he stays stubbornly ahead of me.

I sweep the torchlight across the massive slabs that, interspersed with dry-stone panels, line the low passage. Held at the right angle it brings the pecked and gouged motifs into sharp relief. I must have photos of this, there’s no two ways. I gesture for Dannyn to take the torch and to hold it just so. His gentian blue eyes, already wide with his wonderment, look at me now in puzzlement. I smile and nod and do my best to silently reassure him. I don’t think of it, it’s instinct, but I lay my hand upon his shoulder. And there it stays.

It’s like throwing a switch. He suddenly kisses me, right unexpected. It’s not a fevered eating of faces, no pressing of bodies, no urgency to be naked and zetim (just one of the several words I learned that last night together). Rather, it’s more a schoolboy’s kiss—which doesn’t bode well for the night to come. I have to remember, as yet he’s but twenty, and a virgin. He also thinks me his most adored Eblan Mistress Inspiration, so I don’t suppose he’s rabid to be at me. Still, the kiss marks something. I’m just not sure what.

He holds the torch, directed exactly as I want it. I pat my pockets in search of the camera. I thought it safe to bring it this time, the Dictaphone having survived the ‘pod transition. I’ve loaded it with photos of my C21st home—how better to show Dannyn my world, and easier than hardcopies. The camera is sliver-slim, ultra-portable, with a memory that stretches twice round the world. Besides, I can now take photos; if I want to I can even take movies. Of course, I could do ditto with my phone, expect Fliss won’t allow phones into the ‘pod room. So, I’m now carrying pics of the Lazy Lady, and the town, with cars and everything I could think of as ‘modern’ (though the more extreme stuff I’ve deleted, not wanting to blow his mind with too many novelties).

Camera in hand, I begin snapping. Poor Dannyn, bewildered, not knowing yet what I’m doing. I’ll show him later. Content with the photo-shoot, I allow him to lead me deeper into the tumun.

Just at the point where passage and inner sanctum meet we suddenly have headroom. It’s like the roof has been lifted off! A quick up-flick of the torch shows the ceiling rises by at least three feet. And there, across from me, is Alsalda, deity of the tumun.

She looks decidedly human rather than ursine. A massive dressed and smoothed monolith, complete with eyes, necklace and breasts. Her hands—at approximate hip-level—are five fingered. And resting alongside her undefined leg, carved in low-relief from the rock, is what I swear is a hockey stick.

These ‘shepherds’ crooks’ as they’re usually termed, are a favoured Breton motif, and much speculation has revolved around them. Well, clearly the Ancestors didn’t play hockey. So perhaps they were ardent keepers of sheep? But I doubt the crook-image is associated with anything quite so mundane. I want to ask Dannyn, but Dannyn doesn’t yet have use of my C21st lingo. And neither do I want him to have it. Not yet. He’d then be hurrying me out of this place.

I retrieve the torch from him, and use it to sweep light through this inner sanctum. It’s of the typical cruciform construction (though trefoil better describes it), with side-chambers (or rather alcoves) opening off the three walls (the entrance wall counting a fourth). Each of these alcoves hold a stone basin, deep, wide, easily the size of a Welsh coracle. I need to be further into the shrine to properly confirm it but it looks horribly like the defleshed bones of a newly killed deer are piled into the basin that sits in the alcove to my left.

“Eblan Murdan?” I ask Dannyn. He nods.

The bones aren’t the only offering. The lingering aroma of mould and decay clearly advertises previous deposits. It’s just this one to the left brims the fullest. Left, the southwest, the place of the midwinter sunset. But it’s also, in the Neolithic house, the woman’s place. I’m wondering if there’s relevant here.

Again, Dannyn obliges with the torch while I busily click. I must record this inner sanctum rock-art. It’s more chaotically intense than that on the trilithon-mock-portals outside. Moreover, the motifs are different. At the same time, I’m becoming urgently aware that the psychotic Murdan could put in an appearance at any moment and I’m not sure if Dannyn could protect me. Neither would I trust Murdan to mistake me for an inspiring spirit.

“Lead me out,” I tell Dannyn, a swift exchange of ‘ern’ to ‘orn’.

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It seems we’re both keen to be away , neither of us speaking. I turn to take one last shot of the tumun, white and wide as it squats atop Bear Hill.

The mutual silence holds while we thud downhill, alongside the south-flowing stream. I can’t help it, my hand keeps flapping close to Dannyn’s. I’m missing his warmth, a constant presence on my previous visit. Then, it seemed at every possible chance he held my hand. I want him to do that again. I keep looking up at him. He really is tall for a Neolithic. Hells, he’d even be tall in our 21st century.

We abandon the stream, picking up, instead, a narrow track that heads eastward across the Plain where, ultimately, sits Dannyn’s winter-roof. Is that where he’s taking me? But this isn’t the story he told at Hegrea’s Isle. It’s then that the oddest thing happens. I start thinking of words. Just words, and I can’t stop. Which might not seem odd but . . .

It begins with a Freudian string of associations. Slow at first, with the words full-formed in my mind, as if I’m recalling them. But the pace swiftly increases, each word blurring into the next. Then it stops. Instead I’m seeing pictures, one after the other, fast replacing, and each accompanied by confusing feelings. Memories long ago stored suddenly flare, with smells and colours—fluorescent oranges, spices, deep purples. I don’t know what’s happening but it’s not nice and I’m beginning to frighten. Then the noises.

Assorted. Random. They fill my head. Rasps, scuffs, thumps and bangs, crunches, glugs, cackles and swishes, all wrapped in rapidly changing kaleidoscope of colours. A motorbike roars. A steam train hisses and clangs. It’s too bizarre. I no longer can walk, dizzy, confused.

Then, without warning, the noises and colours and smells are gone. Instead is a memory. A rainy day when I was a child. A warm day, with the smell of flowers sweet in the air. I sit in a chair by the window, tapping my foot to Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cake-walk.

“Hello, Julia Cannings,” Dannyn says.

My mouth drops. Then I realise what he’s done. He told me last time of his ESP, that he’d taken my English language direct from my head.

He smiles. Dannyn-the-man  already has captured me. Now Dannyn-the-young virgin becharms me again.

He says, “You come from a place I do not know.”

“From the twenty-first century,” say I.

He says, “This Twenty First Century is a far distant land.”

If he’d said that on my previous visit, I’d have answered that the twenty-first century isn’t a place but a time. I’d have told him I came from here, from Salisbury Plain that he knows as the Highlands of the Sun. But I know now time isn’t the only difference. I’ve realised it; I’ve accepted it. I come to him from another world. Hell, I come from an entirely different universe—though that doesn’t parse logically: if it’s a Multiverse it can’t also be a Universe.

“There is a formula we use to greet a visitor—even when that visitor isn’t a stranger,” he says, and oh, his face does look worried. “But I don’t know if I can fit it to you.”

I quote it for him. “The summer-half is not a good time to visit. You should be away in the hills with your children, your herd and your man. Yet here you are: your need must be great.”

“Have you a man?” he asks and I can hear he holds his breath on the answer.

I watch his tongue sweep over his lip. I try not to remember where else it has swept—but fail. Now it’s me breathless. And this won’t do. I’m supposedly here as part of a serious research project, not a Club 18-30’s Ibiza holiday,

“No,” I say, “I have no man. Except the man I’m looking at now.”

He nods, though he doesn’t grin as he ought to have done. But at least now he takes my hand. He hurries me along.

“I am eblan,” he says.

“Yes, I know.”

My, but he’s breathing heavy, and it’s not from the strain of the climb—though there is a steep hill ahead of us. I doubt it has sexual cause, either. He’s suffering shock that’s all; trying to accommodate what he’s just learned. His world has just been turned upside down. I imagine the situation reversed. Someone from an entirely different world comes strutting along the High Street. And then to cap it, claims me as his mate.

But it’s worse for him on several counts. He’s eblan, and this is Eblan Freeland, and I’ve not revealed myself as eblan. Thus, here I am trespassing, and he ought to kill me. But then again, the attraction between us isn’t one way and I’ve more or less said that I’m here and available. But, again, he is eblan, and eblann generally keep to celibate lives. Okay, so Eblan Hegrea got away with shacking up with Arith, though no children were born to them. But Eblan Hegrea was more inspired than even her psychotic son Murdan, while Dannyn isn’t—or at least not at this point in his life. So I’ve no doubt Dannyn’s head is currently a scene of conflicting emotions. Should he kill me: should he not? Should he take me home, get naked and zetim? He is, after all, a twenty year old youth.

I know how he answers the conflicts. He doesn’t kill me, that’s for certain, since I live to return here twenty-six years later. More, I know he won’t lend me his bed this time, as he did that first night of my previous visit, while he, like a gentleman, slept on the floor. I know, because that last night together he told me everything (which wasn’t needed since he’d alluded to it several times the past days). But what stories must he now tell to himself, silently in the secret coves of his head, to square these conflicts? Those he hasn’t shared with me.

He says, “I am not alone in the Freeland.”

“There is Eblan Murdan,” I say. “And possibly other eblann, too.”

“So I cannot be seen to . . .” He stops. Then, “Julia Cannings, visitor from the far distant land of Twenty First Century, you are a most extraordinary woman. I wish to learn every thing of you. It is the duty of eblann—Yes, that will answer.”

“If it helps, then you can say I’m eblan too.”

He stops. Smiles. Looks long at me. “Are you eblan?—in your far distant world.”

I can’t exactly say yes—he could pull the truth from my head. “Not eblan,” I say. “Scholar. I am here to learn every thing of your world.”

“Scholar,” he says and wobbles his head. “Scholar, eblan. Eblan, scholar. But you do not entrance to other worlds?”

“I’m here.”

He grins. Then nods again. “Scholar. I shall say scholar if he finds you and asks me. He shall not have you. Not have your bones for his . . . No, he shall not give them to her.

“Give me to whom?” I ask. “To Alsalda?”

He shakes his head. “Not you, your bones. To Judlamhe Upsulm, to the Dark Mother of the Underworld.”

Hmm. I don’t like the sound of that. That sounds nasty.

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Alsalda and Ulmelden

A PRIORY PROJECT Supplement

In the time before the Ancients, twins were born to the Spirit Bear. Their names were Alsalda and Ulmelden.

Every summer the two bears played, chasing each other through the woodlands of the Highlands, splashing through the rivers of the Wetlands. But at every summer’s end they returned to Bear Hill, to their mother’s den where they would sleep the winter through.

But Alsalda and Ulmelden didn’t remain young for long. And mature now, they no longer wanted to play together, but each wanted to spend the summer alone. Off they went their separate ways. Ulmelden went to the Highlands where he hunted the fawn, and picked at the berries that there grew sweet and plentiful. Alsalda went to the Wetlands to feast on eggs and fish that were found in plenty in those fens. Yet come the summer’s end Alsalda and Ulmelden returned to Bear Hill, there to sleep together the winter through.

Seasons came, and seasons went, and the two bears continued the same. Until one summer’s end.

Alsalda returned to Bear Hill, there to wait for her brother Ulmelden to join with her. But the days passed and Ulmelden didn’t come.

The days grew shorter and the nights grew longer, but still Ulmelden didn’t return.

The cold of the winter crisped the leaves that now lay thick on the woodland floor, but still Ulmelden did not return.

Alsalda grew tired and sleepy. Desperately she wanted to sleep for the winter. But how could she without first her brother joined her? And Ulmelden had not yet returned.

She waited the winter through atop Bear Hill, pacing back and forth, back and forth, trying to warm her chilled feet, trying to keep her eyes from closing, waiting, watching, hoping for her brother’s return. But Ulmelden did not return.

As winter ended Alsalda finally admitted: Something untoward had happened to Ulmelden. She must go in search of him.

She went to the Highlands where he always had hunted the fawn, and had feasted on the honey gathered there. But despite she looked in every leaf-filled hollow, still she couldn’t find Ulmelden.

She went to the Wetlands, where they had chased each other when still young cubs. She searched the streams and rills, the swamps and the fens. But still there was no sign of Ulmelden.

Come that summer’s end, having searched the season through, Alsalda returned again to Bear Hill—where once Ulmelden had joined with her to sleep out the winter. But Ulmelden returned to her no more. Where had happened to him? Where had he gone?

It was with sadness and in sorrow that Alsalda lay down to sleep—alone.

She did not wake that next winter’s end, and no winter’s end after. She sleeps there still. Alsalda, the Alisime Mother Bear, sleeps while she waits for her brother.

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