Five glorious days in Dannyn’s company—five wicked nights. But alas for Julia they’re passing too quickly. Yet to tear downriver, heading for the Ancients Land, that is exciting. And to see Rivers Meet, as busy as any C21st junction—but without the road-rage.
Episode 50 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
Alisime isles are densely set along the Avon. Yet, oddly, only two between Hegrea’s Isle and Rivers Meet, and those both to the west of the river. “Why no more isles to the east?”
“Ulmkem Common Land,” Dannyn says, unusually curt.
“Common . . . not Freeland? But what’s the difference?”
“Grazing,” he says, not quite a snap though I know he’d rather not talk.
Understandable. We’ve encountered a bridge, and the last person to use was negligent of duty. Now to pass Dannyn must either crouch very low—and likewise myself—or pole into the bank and pull back the planks. He lets loose a stream of words, definitely expletives by the tone of delivery, and definitely not Alisime by my recognition.
“Grazing,” he repeats once he resumes his position behind me and again is poling—or ought I to say ‘steering’. “The Ulmkem have not the pasturelands of the Murkem and Skakem, and we eblann hold the centre of the Highlands.”
“But I thought the land to the east is also the Highlands.”
“It is, but that doesn’t prohibit it as Ulmkem Common Land.”
And now feeling the fool, I hold my tongue for a while.
At Rivers Meet, I abandon my count of Alisime isles. Extensive reed-beds obscure the view. Besides, Dannyn is greeting, and waving and calling exchanges. I hear my name mentioned several times though he doesn’t translate. Then, beyond there—and beyond where the river, engorged and wider, turns to sweep southward—Dannyn finally poles his craft into the bank. But the sun hasn’t yet set; it’s not even dusk. Are we to set camp so early this night? Or have I upset him?
Neither. We walk.
“Mind feet,” he says. “We’re bordering the Ancients Land.”
I look my query. He smiles—I’m glad to see that though it is somewhat sheepish.
“I have told you of the Ulvregan Arrival. That when they asked the Alsime for land where they might over-winter without giving offence the Alsime said no, that there was no land. And it was true: the societies hold it all. But then Eblan Hegrea stormed off to Bear Hill to consult the Ancients.”
“She went to Alsaldhelm Tumun?”
“Where else to commune? So, Hegrea told Alsalda of the Ulvregan, and Alsalda, overjoyed, said of course the Ulvregan must stay. They were the return of her brother Ulmelden’s people. But what land could the Alsime give them?
“The Ancients Land was Old Boney’s idea—Burnisen: he still was her eblan-guide. And maybe he believed her, and maybe he didn’t. But regardless, he said if these Ulvregan were Ulmelden’s children then they were kin to the Ancients. And if kin to the Ancients then they must be allowed the Ancients Land. Old Boney—Burnisen—was Eblan Head Man; who was to gainsay him?”
I nod while thinking on that. I can Burnisen’s logic. I also can see that Eblan Hegrea was a wily one. Wasn’t her friend—Dannyn’s mother—Luänha amongst these Ulvregan? And wasn’t Luänha skilled in the granary craft? And wasn’t Hegrea’s would-be lover, the dragon-slaying Arith, also amongst them? Hmm, I see ulterior motives here, and perhaps a not-entirely faithful report of Alsalda’s sayings.
“So the Alsime kindly gave leave for the Ulvregan to over-winter in the Ancients Land,” Dannyn says, the chuckle in his voice unmistakable. “But the Alsime forgot to tell them why this wide tract of land lacks Alisime isles—for across the river they’d seen many. Was it some society’s Freeland, or perhaps a Common Land? It had trees aplenty. But it also had some ‘other’ aplenty. The adder.”
“So are you saying that the Ancients never did use the land?” Only by preference, the adder shuns the company of people.
Dannyn grunts. “According to Old Boney’s story, they once inhabited but left because of the snakes.”
No, that doesn’t gel. Snakes do not move in once Man has arrived. Besides, what of the long barrow, Fussell’s Lodge, which sits just within this wide empty tract? That dates to the Alisime period, later than the Ancients. Though thinking further on it, Ken trekked across country to visit the barrow but couldn’t find it. Another discordance between our worlds.
“Anyway, I thought you said we’re to sleep on the river bank?” Yet here we are, heading away from it (and from the snakes).
“But did I say which river’s side?” He’s ahead of me, porting the boat, but I know he’s grinning. “We sleep beside Blackwater tonight.”
Blackwater beside us is only a rill. Yet the sun scarcely is risen, and Dannyn’s not long in poling, when (several tributaries later) Blackwater swells into an appreciable river that pulls us along.
And the water is black—or more precisely, the riverbed is. We’ve left the chalk-lands of Wiltshire behind. We’re now into the peat-lands of Hampshire. Which really screws with Fliss’s water-rock theory. I dread the moment of telling her this: that her project is grounded on an erroneous premise.
Blackwater spews us into East River (C21st Test). East River duly discharges us into the aptly-named Mammurun—which translates as ‘Big Water’ (C21st Southampton Water). And suddenly Dannyn’s river-craft, bobbing atop such a vast water, looks dangerously small. This is no longer a river, we’re on the sea—or at least a tidal estuary. We’re heading for Mandatn’s Hold which, I’m surprised to discover, sits at the southernmost tip of this Ancients Land, overlooking across the (C21st) Solent, the (C21st) Isle of Wight.
My other surprise is how few families were involved in Ulvregan Arrival. It wasn’t exactly an enormous folk movement. Only eight families made the journey (though, admittedly large families). Moreover, despite they were given leave to settle this snake-infested Ancients Land some now are moving out. Some, through advantageous intermarriage with the matrifocal Alsime, are gaining a toehold on Alisime land: e.g. Bukplugn’s family recently erected a ‘hold’ to the west of the Highlands by courtesy of a marriage with a Skakem family. But it’s not a formula that always works, as Erbeldn’s grandson Bukvregn discovered. Well might he take up with a daughter of Bisaplan’s Isle. But Aldliks Priäplan forbade his Ulishvregan ‘hold’. Instead she granted the ‘bride’ a new Alisime isle of her own.
Mandatn’s Hold is brimming with people—with children mostly. Okay, so Dannyn has warned me, yet still I’m taken aback by this sudden swarm that crowds around me, and none as reticent as the Alisime children. Two of the boys and two of the girls belong to Lusket (Dannyn’s brother) and his woman Balsana. Apparently there are two older sons, too, but they’re in their teens and away trading. As Balsana tells me (as if Dannyn hasn’t already said) she’s sister to Jitjana’s deceased trader, Dalkude. She seems delighted to see me, dragging me away to her hearth. But once there her mood changes as she lets loose a long string of complaints.
“Dannyn says you’ve been visiting the granary-isles. You poor put-upon thing. For myself, I’m glad to be here,” she says—and I understand her Alisime speech (or is it Ulishvregan?) Is Dannyn translating?—but he’s away with his brother. So is this me translating, am I now fluent? “When Lusket and I first took up together we lodged with his family at Hegrea’s Isle. And you know what? I became nothing but Hegrea’s drudge. And I wasn’t alone in it. Lusket’s mother and sister, too, we all were her drudges, always running whenever Aldliks Hegrea called, always doing the back-breaking chores, never given a rest—and never thanked. Why Luänha put up with it, when she had the craft of her own, I never shall know. And the same happened when Jitjana moved with Sapapsan to His Indwelling—stumbling over her toes to please her. Why? And why should Sapapsan have the new granary when Sapapsan isn’t even Hegrea’s daughter—not even properly adopted like the younger two sisters, like Bisdata and Sapsinhea.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve no dislike of—it’s just—well, why should others be drudges just because they’re not of ‘the line’? Hegrea always was saying of not being the same as the Head of Kared, yet seems to me she followed her in every degree. ‘My granaries are to be different from those of the Kerdolan, Kredese and Eskin,’ she said. Then she made them the same.”
I want to tell Balsana that she’s wrong and had she stayed longer perhaps she’d have seen. Instead, as she says, she pushed Lusket into taking her travelling. At first it was with Balsana’s eldest brother, Mandin. “But we had to travel with him. Poor Lusket, so embarrassing for him, he didn’t know how to be an Ulvregan.”
I’m hardly listening to this complaint, having to mentally sit on my tongue, so wanting to tell her that this thing she complains of—of the back-breaking work—is the one thing that sets the Alisime granaries apart.
A Krediche keeper does none of the work; they’ve no need. The Kredese-kept granaries don’t grow their own grain. Though, true, they still have the grinding and whatever the prep for the feast beers and breads to attend. No, ‘their families’ (as they call them) grow all the grain for the granary—enough for the seed, for the Mother’s Bread and Father’s Brew, enough to provide for their eight feasts of the year. (And, gosh, how much I’ve absorbed just by the listening and sometimes reliving). No wonder the Alsime in the mixed isles complain of the Krediche wives. All that grain to provide, and that on top of whatever their needs. And that’s why the Kredese don’t fence their fields; one continuous acreage of grain. But Hegrea’s keepers must provide all their own grain—for the Mother’s Bread served at the Send-off Feast, and for the Father’s Brew for the Feast of Winter Ending—then for their own uses. So is it a wonder that all hands are needed?
And then there’s the difference in trade. While the Alisime woman might trade any excess of grain to the granary, the Krediche woman cannot. And it’s not that her fields don’t yield as the Alisime fields yield, but that the Krediche granary takes every grown-bushel, leaving her only with what’s calculated as her family’s needs, and the seed. Moreover, the Krediche granaries don’t store the grain, but sends it off to Liënershi whence it’s traded south by the Kerdolan. It was that which Eblan Murdan saw and was so offended.
Eblan Murdan, the darling of the Alisime granaries—because if it weren’t for his ‘Kerdolak slaughter’ Hegrea would not have the granary at His Indwelling. And without that granary, she’d not have the granary south of Rivers Meet either. That’s the granary the Ulvregan most use, few now making the journey north to Hegrea’s Isle.
But there’s another difference I’ve noticed between the two granaries. The Krediche keeper sets the yields for every one of her families. But what happens when, through drought, or storm, or some other misfortune, that yield fails or is short? For sure, the family can borrow grain from the granary to fill their bellies—as long as it’s done before the mariners take it. But what happens the next season when they can’t pay it back because, without enough seed-grain, their yield again is too small? Answer: they borrow again. And again. And again. Balsana must have seen it while she was travelling with her father and brothers before she took up with Lusket; she shouldn’t have needed Hegrea to tell her.
The trouble with borrowing, unless there’s an upturn in the yields the time soon comes when the Krediche keeper refuses the family more grain. And then the Krediche keeper will turn the Krediche family off the land—because it’s not Krediche land, not in the way that the Highlands is Alisime land. No, wherever the Kerdolan of Liënershi set up their granary-system, there they claim the land—everywhere, whether the local people be Eskin or Kredese or any other number of peoples. (See how much I’ve learned from these tales, each an intrinsic part of the Alisime and Ulishvregan hospitality. I’ve learned that to the north and to the west, the Alsime are nose-on to these Kerdolak lands, though they’ll call them Eskit lands, and Krediche lands. And that’s why to them it’s been essential to keep Krediche feet off the Wetlands.)
It’s because of the borrowing that the mixed isles arise. It’s when the yields fail and the loans begin that the Krediche families begin to look for Alisime men to take up with their daughters (a woman wedded away is one less belly to feed). It’s the same as happened to Hegrea’s Krediche-born mother. And Balsana knows this, she’s seen it. And yet she complains of being a drudge, and that Hegrea’s granaries follow the Kerdolak ways. They do not. Even the thing with the traders is different.
At the Krediche granaries the trader is always Kerdolan-born—not merely Kerdolak-trained like the keepers. Indeed, as I’ve been repeatedly told, the Krediche granary-traders are of the famed Kerdolak traders of Liënershi, and everyone’s heard of them. More astute traders cannot be found, not near, not far. Even the Saëntoish traders, Jarmel and Linl, agreed that was so. And unlike Hegrea’s rule for her Alisime granaries, these Kerdolak traders don’t bed with the keepers. For them there’s no planting of children, at least, not with the granary-keepers for those keepers are forbidden that pleasure—no children ever for them.
When I say this to Balsana she laughs. “There’s a herb they grow; didn’t you know? And why grow the herb if there isn’t the need?”
I wonder if she’s had this little snip from Lusket’s mother. Luänha spent her young years in a granary isle, as a Daughter of Brega, amongst the Ormalin. Yet a count of Dannyn’s years tells me plainly that for her the herb didn’t work.
“Aldliks Hegrea set that ‘Rule’ for her granaries,” Balsana says, still complaining though now with less venom. “And the granary-traders must be Ulishvregan. But of course, for only Ulvregan live by trade—still live by trade despite we’ve now settled the Ancients Land. And trader and keeper must share their lives—their duties, their bed—and make at least the three children.” Balsana shakes her head at that. “That’s severe.”
I’ve had it explained at Sapapsan’s Isle. The keeper, it seems, needs at least two daughters: one to be the next granary-keeper, the other to be her helper. Plus if one dies there’s always the other. But more: there needs be a surfeit of daughters ready and trained for any new granaries made—for what began as one already is three. (And now there’s talk of a fourth, to be amongst the South Coastal Alsime.)
“Two daughters, one son,” Balsana says (as if I don’t know). “And what if the Mother sends her ten daughters first? No matter, there must be the son. And why? So he can be returned to his father’s family, to replace the trader the granary have taken.” Balsana pulls a face. “Oh, I suppose—at least most of the Ulishvregan families say that it’s fair. But . . . if only Aldliks Hegrea had set it sooner. But to wait till she’s leaving the Highlands—it’s fair upset Bisaplan’s Daughters, the present three keepers.”
That, too, I know. Aldliks Sapapsan’s son by her trader Ardeld had ten winters-seen when they sent him back to Jitnebn’s Hold, to be with Ardeld’s father. Ardeld didn’t want the boy to go; he kicked up a stink. Yet Ardeld’s father, now being old, was happy to have the boy there.
But ‘ten winters-seen’ isn’t Hegrea’s Rule; it’s that the sons be returned to their father’s Hold as soon as they’re weaned. But, as Balsana says, she set it too late and the first batch were already grown. Bukeld, trader Staldan’s son at Hegrea’s Isle, was another of ten winters-seen when dispatched to Bukplugn’s Hold. But he’s happy there with his two uncles and two cousins, all of them traders.
“But what of the pain to his mother? His father? Even Sapsinhea’s young son was way past weaning when Mataken took him to Erleldn’s Hold,” Balsana says, as upset as if the child were her own. “Such a young boy, and Erleldn is ancient—he’s trader-Alsvregn father. Yet, I suppose, Erlelgn and his woman Vledata are there to see to him. I suppose he’ll be fine. He’ll the learn the trade-craft from Erlelgn.”
Then there was a query of Jitjana’s two sons, Tillankn and Judeln. Was Hegrea’s Rule to apply to them? Only Dalkude wasn’t the granary-trader; he just happened to lodge there because of Jitjana.
“But events answered that,” Balsana says. “Jitjana announced she was leaving with Luänha and Murdan, what with Dalkude then being dead. So she said it was best for her sons to return to their grandfather. Tillankn’s a grown man, off and trading. But Judeln’s still here.”
Now I understand why her concern. It’s because of Dalkude’s two boys, because she lives with them here at Mandatn’s Hold.
“But it’s Aplan I pity,” she says. “Sapapsan’s drudge. I tried to encourage her to leave but she won’t. Sad creature, she says she’s happy to work in the fields and bend her neck to the granary-keeper. But at least she‘s allowed her own choice of men. She’s not the keepers’ daughter to be forced to choose an Ulishvregan trader. If she stays at the granary, and she has a son, then likeliest he’ll be their eldliks. I suppose that’s no small thing.”
And from what I’ve seen of Aplan, that day won’t be long.
“You know, there’s a Tuädik word—or is it Saëntoish? Though Arith was Saëntoish and his word was different. Brictan; you’ve heard it?” Though Balsana asks she waits for no answer. “Hegrea was Brictan—daughter of an Immortal. Luänha, too. I don’t understand it, except that it’s something to do with the blood. You know Dannyn is Brictan? So too his brothers. And it goes into their children—my children. You know, if Dannyn plants a child in you, it’ll go into your child too.”
I smile. She needn’t worry: we’ve more than herbs to ensure it doesn’t happen.
“Luänha and Hegrea have left the Highlands, Jitjana and Murdan, too,” she says. “Yet there still are Brictan here. Luänha’s children, and her grandchildren. You know they say the Brictan don’t age, they don’t die? Well that’s a lie. Arith aged, Arith died, and he was Brictan. He’d never say how many his days, yet I heard Luänha whisper that he’d six thousand winters-seen. Six thousand! Can you imagine it? I can’t. My head won’t grasp such impossible years. Then when age finally took him, it came all at once, sweeping over him, crippling him, laying him out upon his bed. In his last days he couldn’t move, couldn’t talk. They say he looked no older than Dannyn till those last winters crippled him. A sad thing to see.
“And you know, I’ve travelled this land—with Mandin and Dalkude, with Lusket—and often they’d trade at the Krediche and Eskit granaries. And those Krediche granary-keepers, they’re either young or excessively old. I never did see one who seemed naturally aged. According to Aldliks Hegrea, the Head of Kared has lived at Liënershi for at least one thousand winters. She came with one Ana, who then birthed more Anas, and from those Anas all granary-keepers have come. All are of the same Brictan breed, keepers and traders, for the Head of Kared is also Immortal. You know that?
“They say the Brictan make the best traders—because they can get into a person’s head and impose their will. Wicked, that, for a trader, don’t you agree? That’s why the Kerdolak traders are deemed the very best in the world. It was Linl told me that. He said he refused to trade with them—he traded only with the Ulishvregan traders. Linl even refused to trade with Arith, though Jarmel would trade with him before he died.”
This thing of the Brictans troubles Balsana, and I do understand why. Just think how it’ll be in years yet to come. She might think only in hundreds, but I think in thousands. Jitjana’s children, Balsana’s own, all are Brictish.
“And sooner or later they’ll bear their own children, every one of them Brictan, and mostly Ulishvregan. Then how long before the granary daughters haven’t a choice but to take up with a Brictan trader? You think on that, and tell me how long before the Alisime granaries are the equal in trade to the Kerdolan of Liënershi. And you think the Kerdolan won’t mind? No, they’ll attack us.”