A new serial – one I hope everyone will enjoy. I have written quite a lot of what you might call Sci-Fi or Fantasy, although personally I tend not to think in genres. If a story fires the imagination, as I hope this one will, it shouldn’t matter where it is set, or in what period. The pleasure of writing without the inhibitions of space and place is the utter freedom to let the imagination fly. Care to join me?
In the shade of a dark forest where a river passes, around a compound of trodden earth there is a humble cluster of huts; simple, windowless hovels with reed-thatch roofs peaked and open so the smoke of fires can ascend, a village made from reeds and mud. As yet the sun has not climbed above the mountains at the valley’s edge so it is half-light here, though still possible against the gloom to make out some crude essentials of subsistence living scattered among the dwellings; rough wooden tools, a rail of drying fish, a pelt on a wooden frame, bowls for grinding grain.
A small jetty of wood leads out into the deeper water of the river, moorings for a couple of dugout canoes that bob and rub one another gently in the current. Two more such vessels are drawn up upon the riverbank a yard or so downstream.
Where all paths join at the center of the village, raised high on a timber scaffold to gain the best advantage of the sun there is a curious thing; a perfectly symmetrical bowl made and molded from cork-bark of the oak. In depth and width this bowl is large enough perhaps for two grown men to sit inside, but no-one among those who live here would dare to try, for the symbols carved around its rim proclaim it a holy place.
On the compound’s western edge there is a dwelling smaller than the rest and within the dwelling, upon a table at its center, a wooden jar. From here as a new sun rises the old one steps out with his hands cupped around a precious cargo; a gift he has made, fashioned from the invincible power of his belief.
In the time of The Making all that begin are like this; a space to be filled in the order of things, tiny spoors, germane to a wish. Triumph of a month of wishing, a century or more of plans and dreams. And as a wish they come to form in the darkness of the jar, in the darkness of the hut, in the darkness of the night. The old one takes them up with pride, these last of his life’s labor, to bear them carefully the fifty paces to the middle of the village; to the scaffold and the bowl. His legs are slow and weary. Others gather around him as he walks: one steps forward to kindly offer a supporting arm but pride will not allow him to accept. Though it may be long, this journey, and though his manner of travel may be slow he rejoices with each step and those who follow honor his joy with their respect.
They all await him, clinging to the scaffold or perched upon the narrow walkway around the rim of the cork bowl, chattering eagerly. They part to allow him room as he falters up steps little better than a ladder, craning their necks to see what it is that he nurtures in his palms and breathing sounds of awe at the sight of the four tiny germs of life that nestle there.
Before the bowl the old one leans, his sinewy arms resting over its edge so his tired eyes can study the intense, odorous brown mist that swirls and fills the vessel. His experience, his faith tells him where or how the vapor will receive his offering. Meeting the eyes of the others of his community he begins a chant, a ritual verse that all about him know as well as he. They join with him, raising their voices in celebration to their sky and then, at his moment, and in a certain carefully allotted place, the fog reaches up. Gently he delivers his gift into its care. His work is done.
The old one will never look upon those seeds again. Others will perform the fashioning, tending them as they rise through the mist to greet the sun, honing them, re-forming them, sculpting them to match their dream. He knows he has taught them well.
But these things the old one will never see, for this afternoon with those he loves the best he will make the long climb to his seat at the hilltop which has been placed so he can look down upon his greatest work. Here, through as many sunrises as he has left to him he will study the tapestry of the valley, testament to his art. He will not move from there – will never move again. With time he will become part of all he has achieved; a part of the forest he has helped to create.
Just when it seems that it must snow forever it ceases snowing. The wind drops, the clouds pass and there is sun upon the white garden. Southward, the shroud of the storm draws aside to reveal winter-black trees, and across the valley of the Balna River distant hills glisten in the light of morning.
The child watches from his window. “Mummy, may I play outside?”
She watches too. Her eyes have not left him since she entered the room to stir him into wakefulness, for she loves this child more than life itself. “I don’t see why not. You mustn’t get too cold though, darling. Promise you’ll come inside immediately if you feel too cold?” She knows his weakness, loves him for it and because of it. “Come now, let’s get your warm clothes. What would you like to do out there?”
He turns to her, eyes alight with joy. “A snowman! I want to build a snowman!”
She smiles. “Then you shall, my dear.”
His face is lit like a thousand angels. “Then we will have warm honey cakes, Mummy. Lots of warm, warm honey cakes!”
Again she catches herself wondering if there is any way not to love him, for his beauty constantly astounds her. Yet she is puzzled for a moment. “Honey cakes, Hasuga my dear? I don’t recall…”
“Oh Mother, of course you do! You make a batter with flour and ginger and eggs, and then you…”
“Ah yes!” She recollects the recipe. “Very well. You make the snowman while I bake the cakes. Then we shall eat the cakes together, darling, shan’t we?”
Just when it seems that it might rain forever, the rain stops. With first light of dawn it parts like a warm curtain to reveal the rising sun. Insistent sunbeams slip over the sill of Alanee’s bedroom window to nudge at her coverlet, tickle her nose. She resists their invitation, sighs and turns in search of elusive sleep. She would dream much longer if she could.
In her kitchen she stumbles beneath the weight of her night-time head as she brews tsakal, tries to think of food. The hot liquid snaps at her throat, stinging her into wakefulness. There is xuss mix in the chill room: she pours a measure onto her hot-top, flips the instantly-formed pancake quickly before it burns, adds a pat of sil and folds a xuss-bread sandwich.
She opens her door, tossing the heated xuss between skittish hands and pausing for a moment as she always does, to breathe the fresh new air, to allow the sun’s gentle balm to prickle her skin. Before her, beyond her patch of garden, the packhorse road winds like mudded rope between terraces of bronzed pledas peas and banks of magnolia down onto the plain: the endless plain of the Hakaan.
The vast fertile plateau that is food basket to her world stretches into apparent infinity, a rolling ocean of lush green and gold, washing into mists of distance. Somewhere out there the Southern Hills make up a horizon; not visible now, for now, the ancestors have written, begins the Hour of Spirits, when under the first onslaught of morning sun such rain-water as the thirsty earth has not absorbed clings to leaf and branch like a billion jewels, each of which will vaporise and wisp skywards in a wraith no coarser than a hair. Altogether these fine, transient ghosts cover the land for a while, waving like wheat-grass in a faint breeze and raising long white tendrils towards heaven. Alanee watches them with eyes that never cease to wonder. An hour is this, before the fierceness of day, with the power to bring tears.
Her reverie is interrupted by a cry from the village street. The Makar! She has not troubled to dress – why dress? The morning is already warm and her kitchen door is not overlooked: nothing between it and the majesty of the plain; nothing between her and the plain but the shift she wears when she sleeps. Hurriedly, she retreats to her room, slurping tsakal with one hand, rummaging clothes with the other. Shorts and a top of thin linen, a passing thought that in her shift she would show far less of herself, but…ah, such are conventions: conventions of dress, conventions of class, conventions of behavior; conventions, conventions, conventions…
The Makar cry sounds again; much nearer now. She snatches a Mak-Card from her chill-room. No time to review it – she reaches her street door just as the Makar does, still buttoning the front of her top and treating herself to one of the sun-withered little man’s leery stares for her pains.
“Late again, Alanee-mer! Scarce out of bed, eh?”
Alanee affects nonchalance, leans against her door-post. He thinks she does not notice when his eyes slither down to feast upon a glimpse of her long legs. “You are too much for me, Makar-meh. Do you never sleep?”
The Makar grins broadly. “If I begin my day early I have time, Alanee-mer.”
“You do? You do indeed? Ah, such a busy man. Two calls only on the street and it is your tsaka-time already!”
“We could enjoy a cup together, Alanee-mer. What do you think of that?” The Makar knows the most tempting young woman in his village will do no more than flirt with him. And in his heart he would not wish it. His wife and child live close by.
Alanee flashes him a look. “It would not be appropriate. Register my card Makar. You are wanted at Shellan-mer’s door.”
Shellan-mer is indeed standing on her porch. Shellan is Alanee’s neighbor, with whom she has enjoyed many a good joke at the Makar’s expense.
Grinning toothily the little man slots Alanee’s card into the reader strapped onto his hip. It bleeps threateningly. “Aargh! A warning!”
Alanee sighs. “Now what?” Every day there is a warning.
The Makar turns the machine so Alanee may see its display. “You haven’t any honey.”
“I don’t like honey!”
He shrugs. “It is not for me to say. Better order some or they’ll censure you.”
The Makar walks away, leaving Alanee to glare at his retreating back. Honey, now! To keep company with the chocolate bars, the sugary cereals, the fizzy drinks, the processed beans and all those other things she does not like, but which clutter her chill room just so she can escape ‘censure’! Is everybody’s chill room the same as her own? She knows the answer to this of course. Shellan’s chill room is as neat and balanced as the system can make it. But then, today she will be invited to join her neighbor for honey cakes.
Across the village street Malfis, the old bell-ringer, tends his garden. Alanee would return within doors but something about his behavior takes her eye. His spade is turning the rich soil into a large ball. What in Habbach’s name can he be planting this time?
Ellar discovers Cassix the Soothsayer standing alone in the dome of the watch-tower. From here seabirds can be seen wheeling in grey winter silence over white fields: the snow is back, misting the unmoving distance in waves like ripples of soft organdie across a painting of pale hills. But Cassix will not see this, for he is drawn to a thing beyond.
“Is it stronger this morning?” Ellar asks. “Sometimes I believe that even I can see it.”
Cassix turns to her so she may read the apprehension in his eyes. Those eyes; those deep, deep inclosures of wisdom! If she could see but a hundredth of what those eyes could see!
“Cassix, is it stronger?”
She will not address him by the ‘Sire’ that is his title; they have been familiar friends too many years. Beside him at the glass she seeks his hand as she squints into the distance, above the black ragged fissure of the ice-bound Balna, far, far into the horizon. In a moment Cassix will join his senses with hers and then, if she has practised well, she might gain a scattered ounce of his greater vision. She feels the surge, sees that slate of far-off sky become distinct, picks out the ribs of racing cloud – and there! A place above the Pearl Mountains (or is it east of that?) where the sky-scape might seem to lift and the direction of rolling procession turn inwards upon itself, a grey vortex in the greyer grey. Just for a moment. Then the pain comes and she must close her eyes to let it pass. When she opens them once more the clarity is gone.
“Your mind is pure, Ellar.” Cassix speaks in clear, bell-like syllables. “That is good.” He sighs. “And yes the Continuum is bigger this winter, without doubt.”
The snow is its fiercest now. Below them in the garden Hasuga’s snowman is hunched to windward, figurehead upon the prow of a white ship foundering in a whiter sea.
“He wants a war-game again.” Ellar says. Cassix says nothing.
“Go on, say it!” She spits the words. “Say he may not have one!”
“That is blasphemy. You know it.”
“Cassix! Oh, Cassix, it must be said! A war game! Thousands of lives! Was that the intention of The Dream?”
“This was foretold in the time of Karkus. It is Lore.” The Soothsayer shakes his head. “He comes to his manhood. These emotions must be expected. They will pass.”
Ellar restrains the angry outburst she feels rising inside. “The Treatise of Karkus was a criticism. Karkus recognised the folly of electing a male child. It’s a pity we cannot acknowledge the same.”
Cassix treats her to a bemused smile. “What would you have us do?”
“Don’t patronise me. Whose decision was it to move him on?”
“Again you remind me? Mine.” Wearied by his efforts, Cassix slumps into one of the heart-shaped blue chairs that are scattered about the timbered deck of the watchtower. He is growing old now, and though his perception has burgeoned with the years he has no energy to sustain it. His body is ravaged by time, his craggy face blasted as a rock before an easterly gale. “I know you doubted, Ellar. I understand why: but there were physical issues; very substantial ones. When you keep a child at the same biological age for two thousand years it must deteriorate unless….unless it is permitted to grow.”
Ellar has remained by the window. “And now?”
“He had to be allowed to go through puberty. It had to be done.”
“And now we have a monster!”
“We have a teenage boy with all the fallibilities and angst and aggression any boy his mental age confronts.”
“For another two thousand years! Two millennia of frustration, rebellion and war. What price The Dream, Cassix?” Ellar stands over him, forcing him to meet her stare. “I don’t care if what I say is a blasphemy, I really don’t; because I know that when the Old Ones decreed that we should be governed by the pure mind of a child this was not what they planned. They would have, they should have, foreseen this.”
“You under-estimate Hasuga.” Cassix is unflinching. “That brilliant mind is capable of so much more than you will acknowledge. However, I hear what you say to me Ellar. There will have to be changes. The Domo and I have been getting our heads together on this. In the meanwhile, you must find some way to divert our young master from his chosen task.”
The Lord Domo; the leader of Council. In his hands so much of the administration of the land, so much of the trouble of the land. The Lord Domo; unlikely as a master of anyone’s universe; short in stature, fleshily substantial in most other ways, yet with a mind that would hold all minds, other than that of Hasuga, in thrall. A tower of intellect, a pillar of virtue: what changes he could wreak if only he were inclined!
“I will try.” Ellar hesitates. “Is the Lord Domo amenable to change?”
“Is he ever? We have agreed certain…shall we say subtle…alterations?”
“And may I know them?”
“They must first be sanctioned by the Council.”
Ellar seems to accept this.
The descent from the watchtower is long; one hundred and forty stairs, eight landing levels. Ellar takes them with a practised ease, though her mind is deeply troubled. And Cassix, behind her, does not intrude upon her thoughts; he knows how hard is the road she travels. He admires much in Ellar: she is the mouthpiece of Hasuga, the link between Mother and the members of the Council. And Hasuga’s demands are never easy to satisfy, in either their complexity or their immediacy. When Ellar emerges into the private courtyard of the inner palace he assumes Hasuga will be waiting for her, and if she fails him it will almost certainly be at cost of her life.
Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson
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No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.
Picture Credit: Tom Morel on Unsplash