The morning after the night before, and another deal is struck. Julia will tell all she knows about Eblan Murdan. And Dannyn will tell her how he became an Alisime eblan, unlikely though it was for the son of a Saëntoish trader and an Ormalish sister of a Tuädik smith.
Episode 40 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
Without let-up, for three days, the snow has fallen—until it traps the workers inside the part-built ‘roof. Yet they have warmth and shelter there, their hide-roofs moved within as soon as they had part-thatched the roof. They have good comradery too, despite it’s a mixed team, part Alsime from Bisaplan’s Isle, part Ulvregan. None really complains at the enforced break—except for the boys.
It doesn’t take long for Dannyn and Murdan, seven winters-seen, to grow painfully bored with such a restriction, and an Ulishvregan hide-roof shared with their mothers and Arith and Bukfesen, and Burnisen, too, who was visiting here when the snow fell. The boys want to run and to play; they want to have fun. They grab the chance when it comes. The snow having let up, Arith tells them to go clear the snow from the door, to make a path to the midden and the latrines. Bukfesen provides them with shoulder-bone shovels.
They do start on the work. But their interest dulls when they see the men, led by Arith and Bukfesen, head off for a hunt. No sooner has the rustle and rumble faded into the distance than Dannyn and Murdan down shovels, instead to make snowballs to score hits off each other. Brictans, oblivious to the cold, they flounder waist-deep in the snow. They’re hysterically laughing: such wonderful fun.
“Stop,” Murdan says. “I have a better idea. Let’s make a snow-ring.”
Whether he wants to or no, Dannyn agrees—as always happens with Murdan. But then Murdan doesn’t know how to mark out a circle, and it has to be perfect.
“I want it a ring like the Old Isle of the Dead—you know, where my mother and Burnisen go every summer.” He doesn’t say, ‘without me’, yet Dannyn knows the words are there in his head.
“I know how to do it,” Dannyn says. He doesn’t say that it’s easy though it is. “Give me your hands.”
Murdan shakes his white-crested head. “No, they’re attached to me; you can’t have them.”
“I just need to hold them,” Dannyn says, refusing to laugh at a joke so small.
For a moment Murdan looks away, and Dannyn fears retribution. But the moment passes. Murdan holds out his hands.
“Is this where you want the ring to be?” he asks.
Dannyn grasps Murdan’s hands by the wrists and starts to turn a tight circle, stepping on the same spot. Murdan squeals, not happy with this, he can’t keep pace. He stumbles, he falls, he slides—which is exactly what Dannyn wants. He increases his spinning, lifting his hands with Murdan attached. Round and round and round and round, with Murdan’s toes dragging behind. It’s those toes that score the perfect circle.
“There!” Dannyn says, pleased at his work, and drops his cousin on the now-flattened, ice-coated snow. Whack, on his swan-pale face. Yet when Murdan sees what his feet have done, he doesn’t complain.
It takes the rest of the day to dig out two ditches and pile-and-pat the large-flaked snow to form the high bank. And, truly, except that it’s smaller, and snow-made, it is exactly a replica of the Old Isle of the Dead. They even tamp down the snow to make the gateways.
Dannyn thinks himself clever. He doesn’t yet know the trouble that snow-ring will bring.
“Come see what Dannyn’s made!” Murdan calls to Hegrea, Luänha and Burnisen as the boys bull into the part-made ‘roof.
Dannyn opens his mouth to object and correct him—they both made the snow-ring. Together. But his mouth won’t work. It won’t even open.
Everyone—both mothers, and Eblan Burnisen—pile outside to see what’s been made.
“A ring?” Burnisen looks at Dannyn, his old brow wrinkling.
“What is it for?” Luänha asks. She’s neither Alisime nor eblan.
“It’s an island,” Dannyn says. Isn’t it obvious?
“Is it any particular island?” asks Burnisen.
“It’s Dannyn’s Isle,” Dannyn says, the words jumping into his mouth. “My isle—because I created it.”
But that’s a lie, and Dannyn doesn’t like it. Moreover, he knows whence the words. He scowls at Murdan. Yet . . . why doesn’t Murdan want them to know what he’s done? Dannyn looks around him, full of suspicion. He’s been in this land for less than a year; he’s still ignorant of much of their ways. Is he about to be dropped deeper than the deepest latrine?
Burnisen seems equally puzzled, scratching his head. It’s because I’m an outlander, Dannyn thinks.
“Young Murdan, are you sure you didn’t help, just a whit of a bit, to build Dannyn’s isle?” asks Burnisen; though he may as well said, How can a Tuädik child know how to erect an Alisime ring? Yet a ring is a ring is a ring.
Murdan, grown grave in denial, stands back from the ring. “I did as he asked, is all. I only piled the snow where he said.”
Dannyn fears his teeth will crack, so hard he grinds them. Why is Murdan telling such lies? What now is his game?
“Did you perhaps suggest the form?” Burnisen asks Murdan, still not satisfied.
“No. I told you,” Murdan lies blatantly again. “Dannyn did it all on his own.”
Dannyn hangs his head, but only to cover that he’s chewing his lip. Why won’t Murdan admit to his doing? What have they done that’s very wrong? Something forbidden to boys? There’s no other answer that Dannyn can find. Yet that answer isn’t in Burnisen’s head. There is only his puzzlement.
“Luänha,” Burnisen turns his attention, “has Dannyn ever shown signs of being eblan-inspired?”
At that, a shiver racks through Dannyn. So that’s the game. Yet it still makes no sense since, for the Alsime, to be eblan is the very best thing.
Hegrea answers for her. “Until this, Dannyn has been just like another.”
“No,” his mother objects. “No, he has not been like others.”
He has not? He stares wide-eyed at his mother. She doesn’t see; she ignores him.
“No, Dannyn was a very quiet child—very quiet–till he met with Hegrea and Murdan,” she says.
Dannyn can’t deny that. Yet what is he now, noisy?
“He hardly would speak to us,” she says. “I often wondered if he ever would.”
“Probably the boy had little to say,” says Burnisen somewhat dismissively. “But ‘quiet’ is no sign of eblan-inspiration.”
Eblan-inspiration, it’s said again. So that’s it, and it provides Dannyn one half of the puzzle. Murdan doesn’t want to be eblan. Yet he is Alisime; why doesn’t he want to be eblan?
“He’ll have to take you as apprentice now,” Murdan whispers close to his ear—which adds another question for him to puzzle: Why does Murdan want Dannyn to be apprenticed, yet not him?
His mother still is talking of him. “No, Dannyn always had plenty to say—just not to me, and not to his uncles. Yet we’d hear him in endless talk to someone.”
Dannyn wonders at that; he doesn’t remember it. And Burnisen seems not to react. Instead he looks around him.
“Night falls, cold grows,” Burnisen says. “The hunters soon will be returning. You women ought to build them a fire as welcome. Take Murdan in with you.”
Dannyn starts to follow. Burnisen grabs hold of him.
“Not you. You, Dannyn, are going to tell me about your island. I really would like to know how you made it so neatly a circle. That’s a craft hard-learned.”
Dannyn is terrified; What now to say? If Murdan’s gambit is to not be eblan-apprenticed then . . . He fears to bring his cousin’s wrath on him—he’s already seen him vicious with others. Yet to lie doesn’t come easy, and to lie to Burnisen’s snake-patterned face . . . ! But Burnisen won’t relent. That tattooed face is shoved close to Dannyn’s as he reels the questions. How can Dannyn say other than truth.
He steps away as soon as able, his little hands held as a bar between them. “All right. I’ll say it.”
And so he explains it all: that it was Murdan’s idea; all Dannyn did was to find a way to mark the circle, then to help pile the snow.
Hearing the story, Burnisen laughs, and tousles Dannyn’s Tuädik blond hair. “Blessed Mistress Inspiration, she has been busy—inspiring not one but the two of you. Both eblan-inspired!”
Another Alisime family would be proud to have sons eblan-inspired. They would be loud in their celebration. Instead, Hegrea is unusually quiet. As for Dannyn’s mother Luänha, she’s looking bewildered.
“But only Alsime are eblan-inspired,” she says. “While my boy is—”
“No,” Hegrea cuts in, “you have it wrong. Anyone can be eblan-inspired. Arith here. The Head of Kared on Liënershi ”
“My son?” Luänha asks.
Dannyn covers his grin. In just a few words everything changes. He is eblan-inspired—the equal, now, to the Kerdolak Kared on Liënershi. Dannyn has heard the name mentioned by his trader father Jarmel.
“But making the ring doesn’t make them eblan-inspired,” Hegrea says as if she’s trying to talk it down. “Is it a wonder the boys build a snow-ring? These past moons the talk has been of nothing other. As for Dannyn talking to spirits, lots of young children do that. As Burnisen says, that alone doesn’t make Dannyn eblan-inspired.”
“Hush,” says Burnisen. “This isn’t for you to discuss. I’ll take them both as eblan-apprentice—if they should ask it.”
“But why must they ask it?” Luänha asks. Dannyn wishes she’d keep quiet. “That’s not how it was with my brother Luin. Chadtamen’s smiths had no voice in it.”
“We are eblann, not smiths,” Burnisen snaps at her. “Eblann share their eblan-lore with none but their own eblan-apprentice. So no two eblann hold eblan-craft and eblan-knowledge the same. So it’s for the boy-inspired to seek out the eblan-guide who he deems best suits him. Your son, and Murdan, are free to travel to His Indwelling—or to the East Alsime, if they so desire it. I cannot stop them, and neither can you. But they have no surety that these other eblann will take them. While here they are hearing that I already agree.”
But his mother won’t have it. “My Dannyn’s too young. He’s only a boy.”
“No,” says Hegrea, almost apologetic in tone. “He’s exactly the age to be apprenticed. And it’s the same age as the Ulishvregan Knowing-Men take them. But, whatever we mothers may want—or any other—it’s for Dannyn and Murdan now to decide.”
Dannyn’s head still is swelling with thoughts of Kared, the Head of the Kerdolan on Liënershi. Though he hears the words fall from his lips, it’s as if he’s not said them. “I want to be Burnisen’s eblan-apprentice. I want Burnisen as my eblan-guide.” What made him say that? He looks at Murdan. He doesn’t even believe himself eblan-inspired.
His mother turns away, tears in her eyes—and Dannyn understands that even less: She who opens her arms and her bed to all things Alisime?
“An Alisime woman is proud to have her son as eblan,” Burnisen tells her—to no effect. She nods but will not look at him.
Hegrea tries to reason with her. She has to accept it. What else can she do: take the boy away? And where will she take him: to live with the Ulvregan? But the Ulvregan now are joined with the Alsime. And what other life can she give him? Would Luänha have Dannyn be a trader, apprenticed to his father?
“I want to be your apprentice, too,” Murdan says to Burnisen, attracting the attention back to him.
Dannyn stares, reason numbed beyond confusion. Why does he asks for it, when before he so clearly didn’t want it? What game does he play?
The answer soon is to come. But it brings more confusion.
The snow is deep outside the part-roofed walls. The wind gusts and plucks at the exposed roof timbers. The sounds of the hunters returning thus are covered—till the men, led by Arith, burst through the door with all the noise of a hunt successful. Dannyn is glad. It takes his mother’s attention from him.
Arith, with suitable flourish, presents the stag, tied to a quick-cut pole. And now there’s work to be done: the beast to be butchered, its skin hastily treated; the fuss over the snow-ring and the eblann-apprentices seems immediately forgotten. Yet Dannyn still is confused of Murdan’s game. Denying, not wanting, but then reversing and asking. The answer soon is to come.
Arith beckons the boy to where he heel-sits beside Hegrea beside the fire. Dannyn, excluded, hones his ears to hear the better. Hegrea tells Murdan that Arith wants to see the snow-ring. She must have already said something of it.
“It’s too dark now,” Arith says. “In the morning?”
And Murdan, unexpected, contrary, now decides to tell the truth. The initial idea has been his, but it was Dannyn who knew how to do it, and it was Dannyn who directed.
“Burnisen says we’re both inspired,” he tells Arith.
Dannyn scowls, confusion deepening.
“He says he’ll take Murdan as his eblan-apprentice,” says Hegrea “—If he asks for it.”
“I have asked,” says Murdan.
Arith looks at Murdan. He looks at Luänha beside her hearth. He looks again at Hegrea, who now draws away. Between them the air crackles.
Dannyn tries to make sense of it. Arith hasn’t a say in anything concerning the boy. He’s not even Murdan’s father. In Alisime eyes he is nothing. Yet by the Ulishvregan ways if Arith and Hegrea are living together—which more-or-less they are—then Arith does have a right. He’s fully able to insist that the boy follows his ways. So what will he do? Dannyn can feel the fear seeping from Hegrea. Yet it’s nothing compared to his mother’s, Luänha’s.
Arith nods. He smiles. He grins and hugs Murdan. Dannyn relaxes, more relief than is sweeping Hegrea, and she’s like a bladder collapsing.
“Eblan Murdan,” Arith says with evident pride.
But it isn’t yet over.
“I’m not yet eblan,” Murdan tells him. “We won’t be eblann till Burnisen takes us to Bear Hill, and we cut our eblan-hazel-rods there.”
“We?” Arith catches the word and repeats it. “We?” Such a small word to cause such an eruption—though as yet that eruption hangs in the air.
Murdan begins to stutter. “B-but yes. Dannyn’s to be an eblan too.” So innocently said, yet after he scarcely can hide his malicious grin.
Though the focus has changed from Murdan to him, still Dannyn does not understand.
Arith rubs his brow while he apparently considers this unexpected turn. He shakes his head as if denying. He stands, a hard look cast upon Dannyn. Dannyn feels his heart shrivelling. Perhaps he’d be wiser to run?
And now it seems his mother has turned on him too. She grabs his hand and takes him to Arith who now is pacing. Whatever’s to come, Dannyn doesn’t want to be there.
“Hegrea has told you?” Luänha asks in Tuädik speech.
“That Dannyn’s to be an eblan? I cannot believe it of you, Luänha; that you’d agree it.”
“Agree it?” Luänha all but screeches. “No, it’s not by my choice, and not by my doing.”
She’s shaking; Dannyn feels it the length of his arm and beyond. Is she afraid, or is it anger? Both, Dannyn guesses; he’s feeling the same.
“But think upon this, Arith,” she says. “There is no copper for Meksuin. And he hasn’t taken the boy as he said. And what other craft has he but this?”
Arith stops pacing. He nods—that’s some relief. Yet this is the first Dannyn’s heard of Meksuin taking him, though he knows Meksuin and Bulapon have gone off in search of metals. But how is that any of Arith’s concern?
“No copper yet,” Arith says. “But what when he finds it?” His voice no longer is steady. It has grown loud with tones that nobody likes.
“If the boy wants to be a coppersmith,” says Luänha, “then surely he’ll ask—same as he now has asked for this.”
“But it’s not the same,” says Arith, his teeth hard-clenched. “Dannyn is promised to Meksuin as his apprentice. I promised him that. And you know why—to keep him away from your deranged brother.” His anger rising, his face takes a clotted-blood colour.
Dannyn’s never seen Arith this angry. He’s terrified. And beside him, his mother is trembling, too, as if she’s boiled brains. Yet though she can she doesn’t walk away.
“If he should want it!” she yells back at Arith, attacking before he has a chance to release his fury on her. The Ulishvregan men turn to watch, while the Alisime men turn away. “And there is no copper,” she repeats. “The boy should wait till he’s old before he can go to Meksuin and have him a craft? He wants to be an eblan.” Defiant, her voice becomes shrill again.
Dannyn watches as Arith struts out of the roof, glad he is gone. He turns to his mother, wide-eyed. Amongst all the unknowns that have arisen this day, there’s one thing he knows for certain, and it shivers his spine. His mother has dared to cross Arith, the dragon-slayer of far-fame. Arith isn’t a bad man, all agree. Yet few have crossed the man, and those haven’t lived.
Luänha, however, having had her say, now is crying. Though he wants explanations, more he wants to comfort his mother. He hugs her and cries along with her—till Burnisen taps his shoulder and says to come hither. He takes the two boys to Arith’s hide-roof while Hegrea leaves them, to offer Luänha what comfort she can. Bukfesen, understanding less than Dannyn, holds back.
And soon there comes the explanation.
“Which is?” I ask, recovering now from the downloaded memory.
“It is usual for a Tuädik smith to take a nephew as his apprentice, and by preference he takes a fatherless boy. I’d not thought that one was me. I wasn’t fatherless—though I suppose Jarmel, as an absent trader, could scarcely be accounted that. And there I was with two smith-uncles: my mother’s full-brother Luin, and Meksuin, her half-brother. I ought to have known, but she never told me.
“Luin, apparently claimed me the day I was born. But then when Arith chased Luin away from the Ulvregan—before the crossing, before we came here—Meksuin stepped in. By then my mother had seen the truth of Luin—deranged, as Arith said it—and she readily agreed it. And so Arith made his promise to Meksuin: to protect me from Luin until Meksuin could take him—should Meksuin ever find the copper . . . So much pledged behind my back.”
He resented it—I can hear in his voice he resents it still. And all I can do is to sit and nod. Strange world, strange ways—not our ways.
I try to fit Murdan’s odd behaviour into this frame. Had Murdan known of Arith’s promise to Meksuin? Yet how? And was that why he’d purposely created the snow-ring: to set up the discord that followed? But again, why? Was it to be rid of Luänha, so unpopular with the Ulvregan?
Dannyn catches my thought. “He was always trailing after Bukfesen, from his first tottering steps. But Bukfesen now was trailing after my mother.”
“The vicious bastard. Yet how did he know of the pledge? Without that foreknowledge his act seems senseless.”
Dannyn makes no answer. A shrug. A dismissive wave, a shake of the head. “I never have known. Yet . . . I ought to thank him. I would rather be this than to have followed Meksuin. But his scheming didn’t affect only me. In breaking his promise, Arith lost honour—and Meksuin still wanted a nephew for his apprentice.”
“Ah!” I hold up my hand, jumping to say, to give him the news. “No, but I know about that. You have a young brother, Luktosn, born after you left for the Wilds. And now I understand what was said.” It seemed so unimportant I hardly had noted it. “Luktosn’s to go to Meksuin when he’s seven-winters seen. He’ll be the apprentice.”
“You mean if Meksuin and Bulapon has yet found the copper. So, I have a young brother?” That seemed to please him. “And now I’ve kept to my side of the deal, it’s your turn. You’re to tell me all about Murdan. Who does he kill, if he doesn’t kill me?”