Finally Julia has accepted the truth, and it’s not only that the time-pods’ Destination is a real place, but also that this Destination belongs to another world. But she can’t tell this to Fliss. Fliss would never allow her another trip. So what’s she to do? Dannyn comes to the rescue . . .
Episode 31 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
The walk is long, directly across the Highlands of the Sun, to Bear Hill. Moreover, Dannyn won’t answer my questions about this place he’s to show me. A sacred stone structure known only to eblann, that’s all he’ll say. So instead I ask him about Hegrea. She fascinates me. A powerful woman, though scheming and devious, she knows how to get what she wants.
“But how,” I ask, “if she was Krediche-born did she ever become Eblan Burnisen’s apprentice?”
“You want to know this?” Dannyn laughs, perhaps pleased at my change of direction. “That I can tell you. See, Burnisen and I were . . . close, closer than Murdan was with him. Though why, when all I was was the son of a Saëntoish trader and a Tuädik smith’s sister. An outlander. Yet Burnisen took me as his apprentice—I’ve already told you of this, though it’s still in your future. But Burnisen, he was more to me than an eblan-guide; more than a father. Anything troubling me, I’d turn to Burnisen. I told him of you, and how you’d unbalanced me. In return, Burnisen told me things he’d not tell to Murdan. He told me how he’d acquired Hegrea to be his apprentice; he told me the truth, not that invention he gave to Bisaplan’s kin.”
As Dannyn tells me the story I can see it unfolding, but more like a movie superimposed on the landscape than the previous re-livings (I need my full senses, we’re walking).
It was early summer, and Burnisen as usual was across at the Old Isle of the Dead. He had a small bender there—tight on space, but he lived alone and it served. Though he’d laugh that he wasn’t really alone, for he shared the Isle with a family of adders.
I turn sharply to Dannyn. “Snakes? And Hegrea was Krediche.”
He grins. “Indeed. And Burnisen’s snakes did play a part. But wait; I shall tell you.”
Burnisen enjoyed his summers alone. Yet he knew soon he must take an apprentice. Though more than that, he desperately needed inspiration. Five winters, Eblan Head Man, and nothing created. He was aware the eblann were looking at him. Aware, too, they’d chosen him as Head Man only because he’d been Eblan Staëldan’s apprentice. Staëldan had been Head Man thirty winters, and lived to seventy winters-seen. His name remained honoured, an inspired creator. But when Burnisen departed this world, what would they say of him? Woeful, with hope and despair forever colliding, watched by his family and eblann, both, he resorted to desperate measures. He gifted and pleaded and obliged the Mistress. And this summer-half, on a day sweetened by flowers and bright with the sun, it seemed maybe she had answered.
He watched as the woman crossed the hollow that divides Bisaplan’s Isle from the Old Isle of the Dead. For a while she was lost to his view, yet still he tracked her: feet rustling the grasses, small disturbed animals scuttling there. He knew who she was. Yet like her family he’d thought her dead. She was Hegkrehe, born to Buknekhea’s Isle. Though north of the Wetlands, the Alisime isles along that ridge are accounted River Alsime; they were in his protection.
“Whoa,” I say, and jump a little ahead. “How could she be born to an Alisime isle and yet be Krediche?”
“I shall explain,” Dannyn says. “It wasn’t common, but occasionally an Alisime man brought home a Krediche woman. Fine if she abandoned her Krediche ways, became fully Alisime. But not so good if she clung to the Krediche granary; then there’d be trouble. And that was Hegrea’s mother, refusing to renege on the granary. Their aldliks was always visiting Burnisen. He knew Feskenn well.”
So as Burnisen watched this woman (without Alisime bonnet) he easily could guess who it was. But he struggled to guess her purpose. And had she come here of her own volition? Or—as he fervently hoped—was his Mistress Inspiration in some way involved? He stood atop the Isle’s white wall, watching, waiting. Closer to, and he nodded: she was of an age to be Hegkrehe. A pretty young thing, despite being all sinew and bone.
It amused him that she couldn’t find him. It was her Krediche fear of the dead. She averted her eyes as she passed the Isle’s gaping gate, afraid to see a forest of posts, platforms atop them with the rotting remains of the corpses. She’d have remembered those from her child-days, the White Hills that top the ridge north of the Wetlands. Yet the Old Isle hadn’t served as a white hill since Eblan Staëldan created the new one.
She circled the Isle alongside the old ditch outside the broken white walls. She turned, she looked—she even looked back the way she’d come. But in her refusal to see, she saw nothing but grasses, thorns and thistles. Meanwhile Burnisen followed her, walking in full open sight atop the wall. He chuckled, believing himself invisible to her in his black-feathered cloak. Then, before she’d yet walked full circle again, he planted himself, square-footed, within the gap of the gate. With the sun now beating directly above him he cast no shadow. That too amused him.
“Poor Hegrea,” Dannyn laughs. “She must have started out of her skin when Burnisen greeted her, and by name. Hegkrehe.”
I’ve seen Burnisen, if only through the eyes of others. He was indeed a frightening sight with his tattooed face, all black squiggly snakes; his beard wispy; his tangled hair matted, held back with a snakeskin band—and that off an adder; his cloak of changing colours, green-blue-brown, black only when seen out of the sun. Crow feathers, and to the Alsime the crow is the ‘corpse-stripper’. I can imagine how terrifying the mere sight of him, for a Krediche woman with a corpse- and snake-fear. And as if that weren’t enough he kept, hung from his belt, the preserved head of his old eblan-guide, Staëldan.
Casting no shadow, appearing crow-like, the skulls and long bones of the not-so-long dead dangling around him from a high wooden bar—yet Hegkrehe stood her ground.
“Eblan Burnisen?” she inquired of him.
“Is it Eblan Burnisen you’re looking for?”
“It’s Eblan Burnisen I’ve been advised to seek.”
“Advised by Aldliks Feskenn,” he said—not a question. “And her reason: your return from the dead. But your mother Mouess, having mourned you, will not be pleased at your return.”
Burnisen had seen her mother soon after the choosing. She had glowed with pride, that her Hegkrehe was to be a granary-keeper. Yet here she was in Alisime-red, when she ought to have returned in the colour of the grain.
“You’ve seen the Alisime granary-keepers?” Dannyn asks, rhetorical. “You’ve seen what they wear? It’s the same pattern as used by the Krediche ‘keepers. Though it was my mother who taught Bisaplan’s Daughters to weave it. Even the colours repeat the same: red and yellow. From a distance they blend to the colour of grain.”
So that’s it! I could kick myself for not having seen it, especially with how important the visual element is in my work. But then, museum displays aren’t usually viewed from a distance.
Having raced impatiently through the visiting formula, Burnisen invited Hegkrehe to his shelter, to partake of a brew. “Not granary-brew,” he told her. The secret of that was known only to the granary-keepers.
Dannyn again stops the vision. “I must tell you the story of Eblan Soänsha—perhaps when you next visit? It was she who first sowed the grain in Alisime land, trying to make the Krediche brew. Eblann long had sought its secret, ever since they’d first seen its affects. Hegrea, Kerdolan-trained to be a Krediche-keeper, had that craft, though she called it the Fathers Brew.”
Though Hegkrehe was reluctant to follow Burnisen into the Isle, yet her need was great and she ventured in—only to find the only ‘dead’ here were the rotting stumps part-hidden amongst the tangles. All else was the same: grasses and thistles.
She took the offered place beside Burnisen’s fire. She accepted his brew. Now was the time, by Alisime tradition, to offer her gifts to the eblan. She told Burnisen she had gifts for him. He noted the plural form used. But Hegkrehe hadn’t good use of Alisime speech, perhaps she’d intended only the one. To be sure he queried it.
She told him she had a gift from Aldliks Feskenn, and some gifts she’d give of herself. He tried not to smile: she’d used the plural again. But of more concern was how dire was her problem that she must offer him more.
Feskenn’s gift he already knew. He’d received plenty from her, always the same. A rug. But Feskenn hadn’t much skill at the craft. Burnisen feigned interest and politely examined it, with an eye on Hegkrehe, who now was fumbling around in her pack.
Again, he wondered what her problem. He didn’t doubt it was Aldliks Feskenn who’d sent her to him, hence the sent-gift. And he couldn’t fault her for wanting Hegkrehe moved quickly along. Hegkrehe was supposed to be dead; it had been known these past five years. Why else had another Krediche woman been assigned to the granary at His Indwelling. So where had she been? And why now her return?
She pulled from her pack a heavy pouch. It bulged with something soft and malleable. His fingers fumbled with the tie-cords, so eager to pry apart the gatherings. He peered inside. He poked in his finger. He looked at its red coating of dust. It wasn’t his habit to pass comment on gifts, yet for this he did.
“This red-earth doesn’t grow around here.”
She told him she’d acquired it in a land far to the east, across the sea. She told him a story, that there the sun was born from a mountain so high the storm clouds enfolded it. It was the place of First Creation, and this red-earth was what remained of the birthing. But the North Alsime eblann claimed His Indwelling as the place of First Creation, and have the stones to prove it. So Burnisen asked had she been there, and she said she had. Moreover, she knew the Cloud Stones at His Indwelling, yet claimed the eastern land to be the true place. Burnisen looked at her anew. She was somewhat more than the Krediche girl from Buknekhea’s Isle. He began gently to warm to her.
She pulled another pouch from her pack, larger than the first, and more-or-less flat. Burnisen, bursting with curiosity, all but ripped open the neck of its bag. With excited fingers he freed a shallow circular plate. But what was its making?
“Copper,” she told him, and showed him the nuggets she’d gathered, as she said, from the Old Man’s Mountain. Those she’d found in a stream. But the copper for the plate came from a place deep within the Mother.
Burnisen declared the nuggets ‘the seeds of the Father’, and dared not to touch them. While the plate, he said, was the Mother’s Child. Eblan-talk, yet it seemed Hegkrehe had understood it. She nodded agreement.
He held the copper plate a long count, just looking at it in deep contemplation. He sensed the presence of something extraordinary and magical, both in the gift and in its giver. He knew then without doubt that his Eblan-Mistress had sent her to him. She had answered his pleas! Yet . . . a Krediche granary-keeper? He didn’t know how this visit would turn, only that she with her gifts would somehow inspire him.
Eventually Burnisen spoke. “Powerful, these gifts you bear. Now you can tell me why have you come.”
She answered simply that she had taken seed and her belly now swelled, and in that she’d broken with granary-law. But worse, she had created a death.
It seemed now she’d said as much, she couldn’t stop talking. She wanted to explain everything to him, all in one gush. But it came too fast at him. She said something of returning to Liënershi, even though to go there meant she’d be laid upon the Flames of Kared. But she’d not gone there; the Hiemen seaman had refused them. So Jarmel had brought her back to His Indwelling, to Buknekhea’s Isle, instead. It seemed that’s what the Mother intended for her. But no. Aldliks Feskenn refused her too, saying she’d bring trouble, and packed her off to consult with Burnisen.
Burnisen held up his hands. He told her, please, one piece at a time. His first concern was this death she said she’d created. He asked her who was it and how. She had shown how powerful she was with her magical gifts; ought he to fear her? But there are many ways to bring about death, and she’d not said she’d killed with an axe or a spear.
Her answer, like everything of her, wasn’t straight forward. For Burnisen to understand what part she had played he must first understand of the copper-smiths’ laws. Only the Alsime have no word for copper-smith, and so Hegkrehe used Ulmdriën, a miner and crafter of the sacred black-flint. As happens, the Ulmdriënn are governed by the same laws as the copper-smiths, so now Burnisen understood.
He asked her to say what had happened, but then had to hold his patience for her words at first wouldn’t come. Yet at the end he’d discovered she’d not caused the copper-smith’s death at all. Neither had she truly broken her vows. It was him, this copper-smith, Luin, who had forced her to it. Burnisen told her, he approved the master-smith in having the young smith killed. But, as she said, it didn’t change that a child now grew in her belly, and to return to Liënershi was to face death in the Flames of Kared.
“No,” Burnisen said with a stern shake of his head. “You carry a child. The Mother intends no Liënershulm ‘Flames’ for you. Did the Himen not refuse you passage? It wasn’t you broke the vow, but the smith, and he only at the Mother’s bidding.” Burnisen was convinced of it. “So now you return to your family, with a child to be born come winter-half.”
But winter-half’s no time for birthing infants, they seldom thrive. He had an herb he could give her. But that would thwart the Mother’s plans, and he’d not give it. Yet he could see Hegkrehe’s plight. Were she Alsime-true none would say against her that her belly swelled and no father in sight. But she was born of a Krediche mother, and the Krediche are different. Mouess would be shamed by it, returned from the dead with a fatherless child.
“But tell me, why return to Buknekhea’s Isle instead of going direct to the granary at His Indwelling? Did you already know this other keeper was installed in your stead?”
She shook her sorrisome head. “So long away, how could it be else?”
She then told of her life, her story since, at ten winters-seen, she’d been taken from His Indwelling. For the first seven years she had lived in Banva Go, serving a granary in Ul Dlida, and learning her craft. The names meant nothing to Burnisen, but he said nothing, allowing her talk. Almost at the seventh year’s end mariners came for her. They took her then to Liënershi, there to receive what she called ‘the last part of her craft’.
Burnisen realised her need to talk; he allowed her story to circle and wind. She told him of the Brictan, and of the Immortals. She told him, too, of the Kerdolan: how they’d come to Liënershi, how, in those first years, they’d survived; how they’d become traders. But it all was confusing to Burnisen. She said of their trading, that the Kerdolan traded their copperwares for wares they desired from their distant homeland.
“Whoa!” I say and again Dannyn stops the vision-led story. “This distant homeland, it was across the sea, yea? To the east?” It will satisfy me enormously if he says yes. It’ll confirm my speculation, that their place of origin was the Near or Middle East. How else the linen, the trading and the communal granaries?
But apparently Burnisen didn’t tell him this answer. Or maybe Hegrea didn’t say. Dannyn shrugs and returns to the tale.
When Burnisen thought her tale told, he repeated back the pertinent parts and asked if he’d understood it right—that as the Krediche granary-keeper of the Kerdolak granary at His Indwelling she would also have been their bee-keeper, the brewer of their Kerdolak Brew, and the maker of their Kared’s Bread.
Hegkrehe agreed, these were the crafts the keepers have off the Kerdolan. But for her, she never received the last part of her craft. Without it she was useless, she could do none it.
“And yet . . .” She looked to Burnisen as if she would smile. But then she said nothing.
Again I interrupt Dannyn. “She wanted to tell him she still had the craft. That’s what the talk was at the Feast of Completion, between her and that Anachaël. No, Hegrea had had her craft off another. Your mother.” There! I feel so chuffed that I’ve said it.
But apparently I’m wrong.
“I can see why you think it,” he says lightly not to upset me. “But Hegrea already had that part of her craft before she and my mother met. She had it off Naussia, though she too was a Servant of Brega.”
My face falls. I’d been so sure.
“Burnisen now made another brew—time for his old eblan-head to consider all this.”
But I’m not ready for more. Dannyn’s moving too fast. I have questions. “Did Hegrea say nothing of what happened on Liënershi that fetched her up in the Carpathians with your mother and Luin?”
“Oh that. Yea, she did. You want to know of it? I can tell you—though I’d thought to craft this story to fill the time it takes to climb to Bear Hill.”
“But,” I say, “I’d like to know it.”
He shrugs compliance (he’s the eblan, I’m the client). “Well, since we’re almost there . . . She was tested, by the Anas. She should then have been given the craft, and her granary-trader. But, for reasons she didn’t yet know, the Head of Kared sent her south with instructions to seek out an Immortal. The Eld. The Eld, she discovered, was her father. But, as she told it, it was not a good meeting. She fled and, by now furious with the Head of Kared, sought passage back to Liënershi. But that didn’t happen. She was tricked by an eastern trader who intended to sell her to, as she said, a wealthy potentate. You can imagine, Burnisen understood none of this, no more than he’d understood of Immortals. Even I was k’foffled—?—when he told it to me. But, whatever. Hegkrehe escaped the trader, and blundered straight’way into Arith. You’ve heard that part of her story? Arith gave her into the care of my father and his partner Linl.”
“Okay,” I say. “You now may continue.”
“Why, I thank you,” Dannyn says, and that cheek of a smile on his face flips everything in me (after I’ve tried so hard to deny the attraction). “But,” he says, “the rest of the story must hold. We’re here. At Tumun Alsaldhelm.”
I’ve hardly noticed the terrain, lost in Hegrea’s story—though this last little stretch has been noticeably steep, climbing alongside a stream that C21st isn’t there.
And now I look at what he’s to show me. Sitting, toad-like, above the spring that feeds the stream. Tumun Alsaldhelm
I look. I cannot speak. I just keep saying in my head that it shouldn’t be here. It should not be here. It belongs in Ireland. In Anglesey. In Brittany. Or maybe in Spain. But it doesn’t belong here, in Wiltshire, in Wessex. Then I hear him again, his voice in my head: But I told you, this isn’t your world.
Next episode: 28th April