Set up for the night at Bisaplan’s Isle, and after a day of several tales, Julia is about to hear the one story that’ll cast her in fear . . .
Episode 29 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
Frustration. I want to hear about Murdan, how he killed his mother, and yet she lived (I have my theories on that). But instead I get Aldliks Priäplan waffling on about her first meeting with Hegrea. Not that Hegrea was known as that yet. She was Hegkrehe until Burnisen renamed her. Priäplan probably has explained all of this, and that Hegrea isn’t a proper name as used by the kin (it’s a title: the Family-Maker), but I’ve heard none of it. Dannyn again has done his twiddly bit, and I’ve lived through the story as a seven year old girl. An interesting experience, but one I wish not to repeat.
So, now I know how Hegrea came to be thrice-born (first to the Kredese, second to the Kerdolan as a granary-keeper, and third to Bisaplan’s Isle as Sappaken’s daughter). And at this third birthing her son, Murdan, was born, literally on the same day. That, coupled with the birthing-gifts from Sappaken and Burnisen, marked her as special.
It was scary to see her, so powerful she looked standing before that birthing-cave, garbed in a white owl-bonnet, its long wings framing her face (Sappaken’s gift), and an eblan-cloak of grey heron feathers, yoked upon the feathered skins of countless bright kingfisher-birds (Burnisen’s gift). I wanted to fall on the earth, to lower my head, to crawl before her. But, then, being Priäplan, I was only a child.
It’s amusing, and devious, the spin Burnisen gave to this odd acquisition (his new apprentice). Krediche-born and granary-trained, Bisaplan’s kin ought to hate her—which they did when Burnisen returned with her from the Old Isle of the Dead where he and she had spent the summer. We—they—could see she was pregnant. Was he the father? But he made them all wait for the family’s Feast of Home-Coming to hear his story.
With everyone gathered after the summer apart, that feast is traditionally a time for the men of the isle to compete in telling their tales. But this year Burnisen outdid them all.
He sits on the sack beneath the tree. “Mistress Inspiration finally has heard my pleas,” says he. “Finally, she responds to my gifts. Finally she sends me what most I want. An apprentice!”
Heads turn at that—to look at Priäplan (that’s currently me). But I don’t mind. Why would I want to be his apprentice, learning how to spill guts?
Burnisen coughs before he says more. Then he spills it. “This woman beside me is my apprentice, Mistress-sent . You notice she speaks a bit strange. As some of you—Bukfesen—have already noticed, my new apprentice is Krediche.”
He then can’t say more for the uproar. But once it settles he says, “This, my Mistress-sent apprentice . . .”
Mistress-sent, Mistress-sent, so devious. How can his kin complain, though she is Krediche, when the Mistress herself has sent her? I—Priäplan—grin.
“She’s been trained by the Kerdolan of Liënershi to be a granary-keeper,” says he.
Silence. Arching. Aching. Uncomfortable. A granary-keeper!
But what can we say?—I mean what can ‘they’ say. Burnisen has urgent need of an apprentice. Eblan Head Man five winters now and he’s done nothing of note. Nothing created, not since a child. He creates his dramas—Burnisen especially likes creating dramas. But they’re more for the needs of Bisaplan’s kin; no one would call them Mistress-inspired. Eblan Head Man five winters now, no inspired creations, no apprentice to follow. if he leaves this world now, what of our family—I mean their family: Bisaplan’s kin? They would no longer be an eblan-family. They’d be Ulmkem, —no different from those across the river at Hadtama’s Isle. So it’s crucial he has an apprentice, and that’s why all winter-half he’d his eyes on me—I mean, on Priäplan. And that’s why I—she—had to stay the summer-half at the isle with Sappaken, so he’d be close when inspiration happened.
Burnisen is famed across the Highlands for making big out of something small. Of course he is, he’s eblan. But he hasn’t a need to embellish his story. Thunderous Father, what other eblan can boast of a Krediche-born, Kerdolak-trained apprentice who, according to him, was guided to him by the Eblan Mistress herself?
The story is gripping, the cultural details fascinating. But it’s Murdan who concerns me now, not his mother who now has left the Highlands. So I’m glad when Dannyn brings me out of Priäplan’s memories.
Priäplan re-shuffles her bones before she continues. She’s promised me the story of Murdan and the murder. I cross my fingers—hidden beneath the Dictaphone. And just at that moment the tape clunk-clunks. Damn and drat it, it’s full. And I can hardly be seen taking notes.
“So now to the killing,” Priäplan says. (Gratification overcomes the frustration: at least the crossed fingers have worked.) “It happens the summer-half after Eblan Murdan chased off the Kredese from the Krediche granary at His Indwelling. But it happens early, the Feast of Winter Ending not long gone. That’s a busy time for us, busy for everyone, but particularly for Bukfesen who, beyond his own tasks, now has the task of moving the Kerdolak stones from His Indwelling.”
That man, he doesn’t need Murdan chipping away at him. Last season he fetched five of the stones, but then the snow stopped him—they’re resting now in the long grass just outside the Old Isle of the Dead. But now, with the weather clear, he’s organised another three teams of the strongest men to fetch over the rest. Only Murdan won’t let him be. He grabs Bukfesen’s arm and bids him follow—he wants to discuss their setting, says he.
They go to the Old Isle of the Dead. There are things I need from around there. Small foods and eggs. So I follow. I have every right, every reason. The men want to eat?
It’s hard to say exactly what happens; it’s mostly inside him, inside his head. Yet he must know of his mother’s Feast Stones even though she had them erected while he and Dannyn were away in the Wilds. But both the young eblann now have back awhile. There’s been the Trap and the Chase since then, and the planning for them. (These things don’t happen overnight.) So he must know that they’re there. And yet he rears up, like he’s suddenly seen them.
“What stones are these?” he asks Bukfesen. “Who has planted them here?”
Bukfesen tells him, as everyone knows, that these are Hegrea’s Feast Stones, put there by his mother so she can more easily tell the Ulishvregan traders when to appear at the Eskin and the Kredese feasts. Those traders long have relied upon her for her knowledge of feasts. But, as she often mumbled before the stones’ erection, over the years her own-kept calendar was drifting off from that kept by the Kerdolan. Those stones, so she says, are to keep the feast-calendar fixed. Though none but her and that Luänha know how the stones do it.
So, Bukfesen tells Murdan this. But even from where I am, gathering eggs, I can see that the swan-headed Murdan isn’t listening, not beyond the mention of the Kerdolan. I can see the anger in his pale face rising—redder than blood. And it’s like his anger is stirring the wind—and that absent before his anger. Without a word, he spins on his heel and though he doesn’t quite run he fast-covers the ground, back to Hegrea’s Isle, and his mother.
Bukfesen calls me over.
“You see that?”
I see it: A hollow new-made by his heel in the spinning. (It’s there to this day at the Old Isle.)
Much as I want to know what’s happening now at Hegrea’s Isle, I can’t move as fast as him. Besides, I’ve no excuse for heading there. It’s as well that Dannyn is there. He’ll tell me.
The transition is smooth. A magician, that man. I’m no longer crouching around the Old Isle, searching for eggs and succulent foods. I’m at Hegrea’s Isle. I am Dannyn. (Yes, it is confusing. It’s frightening too.)
We’ve no warning of his coming, the high walls and that long tunnel-gate effectively sealing the isle from the land around it. The first we know is his explosion—that’s how it seems—as he clears the tunnel and is into the isle. Red as a fiery beacon, he is. I half-expect to see smoke seeping from him. As it is, if it hadn’t just rained his feet would have been raising a cloud.
“Where is she?” he shouts. But which ‘she’ does he mean? What’s happening, why’s he is angry?
“Hey, wait!” I try to calm him but he won’t have it. He tears out of my grasp, and heads straight for the granary.
But no. No! There are children in there! (The granary-women begin their craft young.)
I ease off. Hegrea has heard him and is already out. It would be a wonder if she’d have him in there: none but granary-trained are allowed. I see my mother, Luänha, is following behind her.
What happens ‘tween Murdan and his mother, that’s them. But not when my mother is standing that close. I dive, trying to deflect him. Useless. With the strength of a bear, he’s straight at Hegrea. I haul him off her. Twice. Thrice. Twice he shrugs me, the third time he sends me flying.
By now the various men at the isle have heard and seen. They come running now from every direction, all trying to do the same. We’d be better to hide Hegrea from him, but none of us think it. Hidden a while, she could get away from him. But, excuses, who amongst us know what he’s to do. Not even me, with Brictish powers.
“Murdan!” Hegrea yells at him. “Murdan, let me be.” She’s no more a notion of what’s upset him. We none of us have.
“Those stones,” he snarls, a savage dog, his hands in her flesh as if they are teeth. “To set a Kerdolak calendar? What need have we of a Kerdolak calendar?”
She pulls at his hands. “Let me breathe. Let me explain it. It’s for the feasts.”
But that doesn’t please him. “Feasts? Feasts? We don’t need calendars to set our feasts. You of all people know of the moon. You of them all, know of the Mother.”
“Not Alisime feasts,” Hegrea struggles to speak. She’s desperately trying to free her arm from his grip.
“If not Alisime, then which feasts? Not Ulishvregan, they’re the same.” With every word he tightens his grip. Her face now is brighter even than his. And I know what he’s doing. He wants her to say the word ‘Kerdolan’ with her own breath, though she’s scarce none of it left.
By now Arith has heard the commotion—and who has not. He comes to see what Murdan is up to, with his shouting and the scuffling. To Arith, Murdan is like his own planted son; he has pride and affection for the young eblan. But when he sees what he’s doing . . .
All eblann wear a black-flint blade at the waist. Murdan’s no different. But it’s for use at the feasts, for the sacrifices. It’s not intended for other use. Yet there is Murdan, by now his rage apparently spent, his one hand closed around his mother’s throat, the other around the blade’s short hilt. Seeing it, Arith halts. He’ll do nothing to force his foster-son’s moves.
Slowly, so slowly—or so it seems to us, all wanting to help, to prevent, yet none are able—he draws the sacred blade from its holder. He brings it between them where we can’t see it. Yet we see, oh we see, and it’s chilling to see, her judder. And we know then what he’s done. He’s plunged that blade deep into his own mother’s chest.
“Even now,” he says, his bite returned, “you are too much the Kredese, too much the Kerdolan. So like them you shall die!”
Murdan knew well where his mother’s heart; he can’t be excused. It’s the eblan’s duty to slit the corpses, to let out the guts. He knew full well what would happen if he plunged that blade in. Yet he plunged it.
He steps aside and allows her to fall. He doesn’t even gentle her down.
Utter silence spreads over the isle. Everyone stunned that a son can do this to his mother.
But Luänha, my mother, the one everyone hates—still hates—she’s there; she wastes no time. What she does, nobody knows—I don’t. But while Arith hauls away the boy (how can we call that monster a man?), somehow she staunches the flow of blood from Hegrea’s heart. Luänha the Hated saves Hegrea from Death. Brictish, Hegrea, the same as me, yet Brictans aren’t immortal.
Meanwhile there’s Arith knocking the spirit from out of Murdan.
He does what we all want to do. He punches and punches and punches, until finally Murdan’s knees crumple and he’s down. Then, while his spirit is absent, we watchers bind him and take him and plant him into that deep-deep trench of his own creating. Plant him there, yes—for Arith has found a forked post, and having rammed it securely into the chalk he hangs his foster-son from it—upside down, hung from his feet, just as Murdan did to those Kerdolak mariners.
Another man would die hung like that. And soon. But not Murdan. And not because he’s Brictan, either. It’s Arith: Arith won’t allow him to die. The hanging is punishment for what he has done; it’s not to be rid of him.
He tells Murdan, “Here you will hang for as long as it takes for your mother to recover enough to come to you. And still you will hang here until you know to apologise to her. You understand what I’m saying?”
There’s silence. Aldliks Priäplan sits back, her arms folded like it’s a punctuation mark. Full stop.
I’m sweating, yet cold. I feel sick. I look at Dannyn. What can I say? I wanted to know.
“Ten days and ten nights my cousin hung there, from that post,” Dannyn says. “Ten days and ten nights hung from his feet in that deep trench of his own making. Ten days and ten nights his head but a finger-width from the world of low-spirits—that same world as he so-dreaded. And did those spirits torment him? I’m not alone in hoping they did. For he did deserve it.
“And not once did Arith leave his side, such was his father’s devotion, though Murdan wasn’t his get. He moistened his lips when they began to dry, though he allowed him not a sip of drink. He cleaned Murdan when during the first days of hanging he fouled himself. He massaged his belly, and chest, so his organs wouldn’t descend and choke him. Yes, Arith did that. He sat beside his son—Luin’s son—and whenever Murdan was sufficiently awake, Arith would tell him tales of the Immortals, and of we Brictans. It was the first I’d heard of our breed and their doings. Arith knew more than we ever could guess.”
“And that’s the story,” says Priäplan, not to be so soon forgotten.
“And this Murdan was there in the Eblan Freeland when I came to you?” I ask of Dannyn. “That first time?”
He hesitates before answering, “Yes.”
That does nothing to settle the jitters that rack me. I’ve an appointment with Dannyn, twenty-six years previously. How am I to keep it without entering the Eblan Freeland—and trespass where Murdan prowls?