Coshed on her head and taken from her bed, Mideer has been stolen from her guarded retreat. But by whose hand and by whose orders? And to where is she taken, with what intent? . . . (penultimate episode) Read on
I regained my senses—no, let me rephrase that. At some distant time later I became aware of a hard surface beneath me. I was then further aware it was sharp in places with, perhaps, stony debris. So sharp it dug into my hip, my shoulder, my thigh and calf. I guessed I was in a dungeon of sorts: an oubliette, left there to be forgotten. I rolled onto my back. And yelped.
Ouch, my head! I felt around with tentative fingers. A bump, a cut. It had bled but now was scabbed. My memory returned in a rush, of being in bed, of being bundled beneath a heavy cloth. I remembered the blood, warm and sticky around me. I felt my nightshift. The linen was dry, and stiff. How long had passed? And exactly where was I?
I couldn’t see which wasn’t surprising since I was in a dark place. Even so my fingers searched around my eyes. Had my attackers blinded me? Yet my eyes seemed intact. I told myself I had only to wait for them to accustom to the dark . . . Memories of waking in the night as a child and waiting for the features of my chamber to emerge from the blackness. I waited, impatient. I wanted to stand. I wanted to investigate this prison of mine. But I didn’t want to risk moving until I could see. There could be a precipice waiting just inches away.
While waiting I focused attention on other senses. What could I hear? A roar. Distant. Rhythmic. Like someone snoring. A giant from my nursery books. At least I hadn’t lost my sense of humour. Neither had I lost my sense of heat and cold. This was not the warmest place I ever had been. Oh please hurry up eyes and let me see. I needed to be on my feet and moving if only to keep warm.
There was a smell, what was it? Though not so familiar that it was there everyday, yet I had smelled it before. When? Where? If I could answer that then I might be able to figure out where I was.
In an oubliette, I answered myself. There’ll be no getting out. You might as well lay down and die.
So that’s what the smell was. Death. But not death forgotten and left to rot, fly-blown, oozing putrid juices. A memory rose from long ago when I was a child. I don’t know when or what the occasion, just that I’d overheard some servant’s remark as I walked past, her tone derogatory: “The Landed with their pretty fragrance; they even oil their bodies at death.” So that’s what I could smell: the fragranced oil used for the dead.
With that came another memory, of my mother taking me to the Queens’ Sepulchre to see the coffin she was then having carved. And the smell! Despite the masons had left the cave open while they worked, still the air within was heavy with oils.
So that’s where I was, in some Landed-lord’s family sepulchre. That would explain the dark and the debris-scattered cold rock floor. Then I ought to be safe to move around, even though I still couldn’t see. For who has a pit or a precipice in their family sepulchre.
But whose sepulchre? Had Landed Lyndon played me false and this was his? Or did it belong to one of my uncles? As with the Queens House, by tradition only the kings’ line makes use of the Kings Sepulchre. Others—the kings’ brothers—have long made use a separate tomb. Some even prefer to use their own sepulchres sited on their own estates.
Again I asked, whose sepulchre is this? Though I didn’t know what difference such knowledge would make (short of a new coffin being carved, I was here till the next death when the tomb would be opened) yet I decided to investigate. I crawled, being unsure of my footing—and immediately cracked my head on a rock. It was, as my hands soon discovered, a coffin, a sealed sarcophagus. I now discovered my soon-to-be corpse had been dumped at the back of it so my earthly remains would remain out of sight at the next opening. I felt my way round to the front, it being usual there for the masons to add an inscription. Would my fingers be able to read it?
I had no trouble tracing the M. My heart jumped. Could it be? But the next letter was A. Not my mother, then. I continued to feel along the inscription, all the while trying to figure who lay within. The third letter, D. The fourth—and here I turned round and leant on the rock-coffin. Fool! This was how every sepulchral inscription began: Madja—. The next word would be Landed, or King, or Queen. The deceased’s name would come on the following line. But it had taken me so long to read just the one word that I’d now lost interest. What use was there in knowing? But at least I had now made myself visible so the next person in would see my bones.
Oh, Hean. So much work you did, the trouble you took to help me unwrap, to fit me to be the next Madjarian Queen, and for what? For this: To die in this place.
“You shall not die,” said Loyse, my lady-in-waiting.
The sound of her words startled me. I didn’t think for a moment of the illogic of this, that she couldn’t possibly be here in the sepulchre with me. Instead, I jumped to my feet, scanning around me, trying to find here.
And there she was, shrouded in an intensely bright light, just across the tomb from me.
“Come,” she said, holding out her hands to me. “Follow me.”
But when she turned and walked through the wall . . . I sighed. It had been but an illusion. And yet . . . I glimpsed her again, now part-hidden by a wall. Lo! She hadn’t walked through it but around it. She had simply disappeared around a corner. I made haste to follow her.
She would not let me catch up, hurrying along. She didn’t even wait when the passageway grew so tight I had to stretch up and breath in to pass the rocks. Nor did she wait when I had to crouch low and crawl and squiggle through the smallest holes.
“I hope you know where you’re going,” I called to her.
The passageway was leading down. The rhythmic roar I’d thought was a giant’s snore was growing louder, resolving at last into the tidal wash of the sea. I smiled, I grinned, I giggled, for now I knew whose sepulchre. The Queens.
In case you never have seen it, let me explain of the Queens Sepulchre. As you know, the Queens House estate lies upon a particularly rugged stretch of coast that is amply supplied with caves all of which would make admirable tombs. But my fore-mothers scorned them as too mean, too tight, too . . . . Another family might have enlarged these inadequate caves but not so the Queens. A gully was found high in the cliffs where the caves were many. It was simple enough to have the entire gully roofed over, corbelled with rock. And in so doing, the first queens sealed in a secret. When I discovered this ‘secret’ as a child it made no sense to me. Yet now . . . For deep in that gully was this very same passageway that now I threaded, that led down to the sea. To the Source. To the Sea-Mother-Abyss.
Fine, yes, it led down to the sea. But that sea was enclosed in a cave that seemed no bigger than twice a bedchamber—though, dimly lit, I couldn’t see its far reaches. Within it the sea was gently lapping against the rock wall—some six feet below the ledge where I stood. Moreover, that sea seemed to sigh and in its sighing it expelled a high wave that violently crashed upon the cave-ceiling. Its broken spray drenched me. So close, I couldn’t believe it, yet I could see no exit, no further passage that might allow me escape.
Neither could I believe that Loyse, my guide to here, now was hovering above that rhythmically lapping water. Levitating? But how? Then I remembered the blood, sticky and wet when I was taken from my bed.
“Released,” she said. And before I could speak she said, “The entrance to the cave is beneath the water, there beneath me. You must fill your lungs deep before you plunge under. And there, that wood-branch—see how it bobs on the water? It will serve you as float. Now I must go. I wish you well.”
“No!” I shouted as I was plunged again into darkness.
Who in utter darkness would dive into water, erratically one moment calm the next violent, held within a rock-formed crucible of unknown depth? And except for that time with Hensable, I never had swum. But Loyse knew that, that’s why she had shown me the branch. She meant me to use it as a float. But the last I’d seen of that branch it was bobbing away some place on the far side of the pool.
I sat on the edge of the ledge. I was NOT going to dive. That would be madness. I would slowly lower myself down. It was only my height plus some. Then, hand on the rock-wall to guide me, I would circle the pool to where I judged the branch to be.
All every well, except with a roar the water exploded beneath me, hurling me across the cave and losing my every sense of direction. As I recovered my breath, spat and snorted to be rid of the water, it seemed my plight could not have been worse. At least if I’d stayed in the Queens Sepulchre there was some little chance I might be discovered, even if only as a corpse.
“Next time,” I told the water, thinking of after my death, of my reincarnation, “I’d like to be born in Macara.” I’d rather risk the predators that prowled the plains and the full array of savage beasts that inhabited the valley jungles than the men that were my uncles.
As if in answer, a wave swelling high buffeted me and knocked me roughly against the rock-wall. My flesh (shoulder and thigh) abraded, stung in the salt water. But at least I again had some sense of direction. Something hard bashed into my cheek. I flailed, trying to ward it. My hand hit upon it. The branch Loyse had said to use as a float! I laughed. “And I thank you my Source, my Mother.” Now all I needed was to find the entrance/exit, that is the passage that would free me from what would otherwise be this watery grave.
I didn’t know where it was, except beneath the water. How deep beneath? Could I use the rock-wall to make a circuit, tapping the while with my feet? Would I then find it? But what if the passage lay deeper than I could reach? Yet to stay where I was would find me nothing. One hand to the wall, the other grasping the branch, I began the circuit. I didn’t go far.
The gush of water toppled me over. How that branch remained in my grasp I never shall know. Another violent explosion of water, another cascade of broken spray. But I had found the passage.
Now a new fear found me. What if I was part-way through that passage when yet another high wave forced its way through? Yet I had to chance it. And it must be now. To wait till another high wave was to risk being swept away with consequent loss of direction.
I filled my lungs. And I prayed to the Mother. My body, my life, I place into your care.
Will Mideer find the way out of her otherwise watery grave? And even if she does, what then? To emerge on a rough rocky coast is not the ideal. Find out next week in the final episode. An Act of Union