Mideer is to go to the tropical island of Macara, home of the reputedly savage Macaran hunters—and how did her tutor Hean slip that past the king and Assembly? And why there: what is it about Macara that’s essential in this mysterious ‘unwrapping’ of her? And how would that help her to fulfill the prophecy? Read on . . .
Was it a boat or a ship? Of course, I hadn’t then seen the Glyntlander vessels. Yet ours was no cockle, fit only to sail round the bay. There were quarters for sleeping, for the captain, for me and for Hean. The crew and my corps slept on deck. The hold, I was told, was tight-packed with gifts.
“Gifts? Bu-but why? The Macaran have no king to need our gifting. Ah! It’s gifts for their gods. So what are we giving them?”
“No, they have no gods,” Hean said. The crew and my corps, overhearing, gasped. They were already scornful of this Outlander who spoke to their would-be queen without as much as a respectful nod and no ‘My lady this’, ‘My lady that.’
“Godless?” I voiced their fears. “So the talk is true: they do worship demons and devils? I’m surprised my father allows me there.”
“Mideer, your fears are due only to the conditioning of your past lives—so many of those lives. This is the reason your packaging all must go. This is my task, and this I have told you.”
“Then are you saying these Macaran are not godless? Yet just now you said . . .”
He rolled his eyes. “I will not discuss it. I have already stated my refusal, I will not say overmuch of what’s to happen. I want from you honesty, not something pre-formed.”
“So . . .” I shrugged back my shoulders not to be seen by the crew or my corps as chided, “if not for their gods, for whom the gifts?”
“We have brought for the Macaran the gift of fruits.”
“Fruit? They have asked for it? Ah, fool me. So far south, they’ve suffered a drought, and now we must feed them—for which, of course, their gods will be grateful. And being grateful they’ll welcome us and not cause us storms to wash us away.”
Hean again rolled his eyes. But at least now we were leaving the port we’d no audience the crew busy with their crew-duties. I noticed at least half of my corps looked wistfully back to shore. Were they as anxious as me? I guess the crewmen weren’t but . . . I wondered how many had left a young family at home and feared never to see them again. But Hean and I were still talking of gifts.
“No one is starving; we need not feed them.” Hean said. “Neither have they asked for what we carry. It is done from politeness. As the Landed bring gifts when they visit your father, King Gehon.”
I squinted at him, and not only because the sun was against me. Truly, I did not understand. “The Landed bring wine to ply the king hoping to inebriate him, that in his drunken stupor he’ll agree to whatever their wants. Is this the reason we’re to give the Macaran a whole hold of fruit? To oil our deals? Then I must ask, what deals? Have we become Glyntlanders?”
Hean sat me down—for which I admit I was grateful. The ship—boat—whatever you’d call it—had hit open water. O Blessed Sea Mother!—and we weren’t yet into the treacherous parts. I thought it likely I’d spend the journey prone in my quarters.
“We bring them a gift to honour them,” said Hean.
“Honour the Macaran? But . . . I mean, they’re only Macaran. Ah!” Realisation grabbed me. “It’s so they don’t kill us as soon as we step onto their land. So they’ll know we’re not those grabbing Glyntlanders.”
As you know, the Glyntlanders long have dealt with the Macaran. But while they called it ‘deal’ rather, now, would I call it rape, a rape of the land. But as yet I knew little of that, only that the Glyntlanders ‘acquired’ certain ‘commodities’ from Macara (i.e. the chemicals required for their manufacturies). I was yet to become fully informed upon the depth and reality of that.
In truth, I admit, my head was a muddle. I didn’t want to be leaving Madjaria. I feared my mother would die while I was away. And I didn’t trust what might happen behind my back. Moreover, I still didn’t know whether to trust Hean. What if he was in some conspiracy with my uncles, maternal and paternal; what if he had some magical hold over my father? And my thoughts might have been clearer had he taught me nothing at all. But now I was half-in and half-out of my people’s values, half-believing, half newly-seeing the truth about me. Also, I feared I might fail in the prophecy and in some gruesome way meet my death. I tell you, on that day of leaving my head was in a worse troubled state than my belly—and that didn’t feel good.
There was a storm. But you don’t need to know that. I thought I would die, so certain the ship would break beneath the hammering waves and would sink. I expected it at any moment. I clung to my bunk, feeling utterly wretched, with Hean wiping my brow. Oh bless the patient, tolerant man—though I’d have preferred to have my lady Loyse with me. The savagery of that sea seemed to last an eternity, so wretched did I feel. The rain raddled the roof-cum-deck above me. The wind screamed through the sails—like ghosts howling for revenge. We could not survive it; it seemed impossible. Yet I woke the next day with the ship gently rocking—and there was Hean, still holding my hand. He told me the storm had lasted less than a day.
“We’ll be there,” he said, “before this night. You might care to wash? To change your clothes? Something more suited?”
At his prompting I looked at myself. My gown—a deep crimson-red wool, heavy and warm—was befouled with the acidic slime of my guts. It stank. And it was wet. And in being wet it was heavier yet. And in being heavier it scarce held its shape. It was not a good advertisement of me, of Madjaria and our Royal House. I shooed Hean away. But what to wear?
“A shift will do fine,” he called through the boards of the door.
“It would not be decent!”
“Mideer, I have seen your shifts—”
“On the bushes to dry in the kitchen garden. You will be as decently clothed in a shift as you are in a gown and a wrap.”
I shrugged, for I supposed it was so. And who but these Macaran were to see me . . . and my corps . . . and the crewmen. And Hean. But I was not so ‘unwrapped’ as to be happy naked. However, rummaging into my trunk—a trunk I neither packed for myself nor supervised—I found I’d no choice but to wear a shift. While whoever had packed for me had included several of the simple white linen garments, they had included no other gowns. I was surprised to see the culprit had at least packed a spare cloak for me.
Oh, Loyse, Loyse, why did you not accompany me? But she did not, so pointless bewailing. And this past day or so I had managed without her. It’s not so hard to comb out one’s hair, to wash one’s hands and one’s feet. And that other matter was nigh a month away; I hoped to be home by then. Even so, I did wonder at my father, that he allowed me this voyage with no woman attendant. What had Hean said to him, that he so agreed it? I glanced across to the door, again feeling uneasy about Hean. Kind man though he seemed, exactly what interest had he in me? Was it only because of this prophecy? Or was he in league with my uncles, maternal, paternal or both?
Macara. Have you been there since my voyage? I know few had been there before but now we hear the sea-captains barking that ‘Queen Mideer has opened it up’, hoping to earn some extra coin on a journey.
It is a mountainous land; a land of valleys and heights. Snow lies late upon those heights despite in the valleys there are sweltering swamps. Ah, those swamps. “I prefer not to say much of Macara and its people,” Hean had said more than the once. Yet he told me of what lived in those swamps. Snakes. And leeches. And fish that will strip the flesh off your bones. And others that jolt you clean out of the water as if you’ve been struck by lightning. And then there are beasts. Unimaginable. Some equipped with teeth that will crunch through a bone as easy as look at you. Of all the things Hean kept to himself, why had he told me of the swamps?
It is perhaps because of the uninhabitable valleys and the forbidding cold of the peaks that despite Macara is thirty-times the size of Madjaria, only seven bands live there. Seven separate bands that each speak a different tongue. Seven only, and they not populous. Seven, when we have 150 Landed-lords with all their households in a land a thirtieth of its size.
Between the valleys and the heights are the plains—plateaus I should say: some quite extensive. It’s there that the Macaran live. Though I know you’ve now seen at least a few Macaran walking the lanes of Madjaria yet I will describe them for prosterity (at least, the bands that I saw) so none need fear them or misrepresent them again.
The first thing noticed is—well, two things really, simultaneously. The men are bald. At first I thought that a natural state but then I discovered they shave their heads. Those living in East Macara shave only the front. I think their different styles serve as a badge of sorts, like the devices painted upon our Landed-lords’ shields. More universal amongst them is their complexion. The Macaran are darker than any here though, it’s true, not all Madja are corn-field fair. Our farmers who labour each day in the sun, our fishermen inhabiting the Madjarian coast, are roasted dark as toffee. But beside the darkest the Macaran are darker.
It was on seeing their complexion that a strange thing struck me. Though in all the time Hean had been my tutor never once had I noticed it, yet beside the Macaran Hean now seemed equally dark. He could have easily been taken for a Macaran. Indeed, by his behaviour and everything around him too. But there I go jumping ahead again.
In all the time I stayed in Macara I never saw a native with hair as fair as one finds amongst us, not even amongst their young. I remark on that for though my hair is now burnished brown, yet as a child my head was golden-crowned. But one doesn’t find such colouring there.
Though I took in the whole of their appearance lightning-fast, to describe them needs some kind of order. So, their next striking feature is their bodies (and who can avoid noticing them when they wear so little). Everyone, old and young, looked as lithe and as firm as our best-bred horses. I saw no crocked backs, no humped shoulders, no flabby bellies; none of the postural defects found across our lord-lands after long years of farming. I saw no blackened teeth either, though I did see some missing. Hean tells me that’s part of a religious rite, same as the markings upon their bodies, pricked in with soot.
Also, everyone there seemed happy. Though that I discovered was only a first impression.
We were greeted . . . no, let me be accurate in that. Hean was greeted. He was greeted like a returning brother. The children danced around him. The women variously grinned and cried. The men patted him. At first I thought it for the sake of our fruit. Yet how could they know what we’d brought? Moreover, when we Madja disembarked they suddenly stood back a distance.
I ought here to explain that they have a harbour some little distance along a river, complete with wharfs and wood-built quays and . . . you know, as we have. That surprised me for they, like we, are not reputed sailors. Indeed, I’d say we’re more sailors than they. But then I remembered the Glyntlanders interest in this southernmost land. And now I’ve seen the Glyntlanders’ vessels—how huge—I can well understand how they’d need such proper facilities. Whereas we, on this visit, might have easily used a simple cockle to reach the shore.
As I said, the Macaran stood away as we disembarked. Did they fear us? Did they think us Glyntlanders? Yet the Glyntlanders are fairer even than we. Did they think we’d come to plunder? Perhaps. For it took Hean some rapid speech to persuade their headman to come and greet us—or ought I to say, to greet me.
It was an awkward moment despite Hean had tried to rehearse me. I was a visitor, I was a supplicant, he’d said. The Macaran cared not that I was the future queen of Madjaria. I must remember at all times, it was I who sought them. I who asked of them a favour. I did?
Then to confuse me Hean had changed how he said it. “Nay! You ask more than a favour. You ask for an honour.”
Fine talk for him, an Outlander, possibly (as now I could see) a Macaran. But for me to be anything other than a commanding queen-in-the-making was far outside my usual realm.
“Imagine the headman is your father,” he said. I suppose he thought he was being helpful. It would have been more helpful to tell me what the heck was happening. But I played along.
“You want me prostrate upon the ground?”
“When have you ever done that with your father?”
“When our audience is public—as this meeting will be.” He ought to have known that. “But, Hean, I cannot lay myself down on the ground. I just . . . cannot. Supplicant I might be but . . . no, please, leave me some dignity.”
My outrage seemed to amuse him in his typical Hean-ish way. I swear he has an innate sense of irreverence which amuses him mightily. He said, “There is no need to graze your knees upon the ground. Just hold in mind that you want something from him. And the only way to acquire it is to be humble. Grabbing it as if you’re a Glyntlander won’t work. Neither will demanding it as if you are a Madja-lord. Could you possibly adjust your manner to that?”
It was during these ‘rehearsals’ that it most forcibly struck me that I didn’t yet know what I was asking. Hean hadn’t said. He wanted me to know as little as possible so I could be honest in my reactions. All I knew was that this was part my ‘education’, as he put it, an acceleration of my ‘unwrapping’, the better to fit me to my supposed destiny, i.e. to fulfil the prophecy. But he had been appointed by the Landed of the Assembly, agreed by you priests and my father too, thus I must trust him. Yet he was also appointed by my uncles, maternal and paternal. That ought to have alerted me. I ought at least to have questioned.
I held a humble image in mind as I responded to the headman’s greeting. I had not a notion of what he was saying, and Hean didn’t think to translate. Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to know. He could have been asking me to dinner—with me as the main course. Toe, or a finger, for hors d’oeuvre? We have brains for desert—or would you rather minced tongue on biscuits?
The headman gabbled at me. I smiled and tried to be small. That wasn’t easy. The Macaran are not a tall people. Also, I tried not to look at his sleek muscled limbs. I was not used to this, this excessive ‘undress’. So much flesh. And all in such remarkable condition. I’d wager few Madja could stand beside a Macaran and seem his physical equal.
What did he say? Did I make a wrong response? Should I have done or said something different? Whatever, I failed—and I blamed Hean for that, for not properly preparing me. Unfortunately it was me paid the price. That price was to be immediately surrounded by Macaran, all half-naked men, all hefting sharp-looking spears.
What . . .? I looked around me. Where was Hean? No, really, where was he? All I could see beyond these naked limbs and fierce-looking spears was my own corps. And to a man they seemed as stunned as me. Yet not one raised a weapon. So much for my safety.
I regretted now my jest of having me for dinner. What was to happen to me?
Indeed, what is to happen to Mideer? And the question remains of why Hean has brought her to here? What is here that might facilitate her ‘unwrapping’, that shedding of layers of past-life conditioning? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next episode.
Next episode, Blindly Into A Cave, Tuesday 28th June.