Extract Book 2 (Ülrügh)
MANY LIANS SPENT THE winter months planning best ways to finally purge Si’Empra of
The Guild Masters pondered the news of the invasion but decided the
Ellen listened to the discussion, noting that Thimon assumed that she and Rosa would also be
The edges of your lips are white, Ellen thought. You are very frightened.
Elthán arrived at the grotto to find no decision made; a revelation that made her close her eyes in frustration and draw in a deep breath. She had clearly hoped not to be drawn into resolving yet another problem. She made herself listen patiently to the pros and cons of the various plans the group had devised and abandoned. Thimon insisted that Chris and Richard were overthinking the problems. The plan at the end of the previous summer had worked without incident and would again this time, he said, especially with the help of Rosa.
“But spring weather is notoriously uncertain and Rosa can’t travel well at night,” Chris argued.
“True?” Elthán asked Ellen.
“True,” Ellen confirmed.
“I didn’t say we had to do everything at night. We can do the difficult parts during daylight and Chris,
Richard spread a detailed map of the island on the table and began to tell Elthán about the difficulties they might face: there was this gully that might be in flood, and that ridge top that would probably still contain deep snow; they might be able to detour around this and that difficulty, but it would take time. “Rosa can do that,” was
“Perhaps we need to delay the journey,” Elthán said, her shoulders sagging. She was a small, slight woman. She was more than seventy years old but, in Crystalmaker terms, she was only in her late middle age – though just now, she had the air of someone who was more than a century old. Deep lines of worry etched Elthán’s forehead.
The need to delay the journey was a conclusion Chris and Richard had already arrived at. Thimon continued to argue, perching his short, stocky body at the edge of his seat in his agitation. “If there’s a problem we can’t overcome we can either come back or we can wait it out. Flooding in the highlands never lasts long and we know all the shelters around. This is the best time to travel. The Ülrügh and his butchers are nowhere near venturing beyond the lowlands at present. Delay just makes things worse.”
Ellen broke her silence: “Can I make a suggestion?”
Five faces: Chris, Müther, Elthán, Thimon
“If Müther will permit me, I can take her south and then north by an altogether different route than the one you’ve been discussing. Rosa and I have
Ellen was jolted out of her distraction when Elthán asked Greçia: “Is Ellen well enough to travel?”
Ellen was about to indignantly protest the affront when Greçia said: “Yes”. Ellen shot her grandmother a disapproving glance.
Chris said: “But
“Of that, I am not worried.” Elthán dismissed. “The
Müther surprised everyone except Ellen by saying without hesitation, “I will go with Lian Ellen as she suggests.”
And so it was that the two women left a few days after the men and their animals. It was a grey, blustery morning. Rosa stepped high and happy to be
MÜTHER FOUND SHE COULD brace for Rosa’s hops and jumps by being sensitive to Ellen’s pre-emptive sounds and movements. She found herself enjoying the adventure of the ride, intrigued by the intermittent conversations – and even debates – that Ellen and Rosa engaged in. Ellen used a mixture of Skyseeker and Crystalmaker languages to make her point, and Rosa warbled, chirruped and even squawked in response. Sometimes, at some apparently difficult sections of the journey, bird and young woman would seem to become increasingly belligerent with one another until some arrangement was reached – though it was clear that Ellen always had the last word and Rosa never hesitated if Ellen gave her a direct command.
Müther felt a queer sense of pride when Ellen commented, “I’m amazed by how well you hold your seat. Even Rosa keeps glancing back at you in wonder.”
A little while later, Ellen called a stop to allow the riders to stretch their legs and take some refreshments – quickly lifting and dropping the fine mesh nets that covered their faces to put food and drink into their mouths. Ellen asked: “May I sit you at the back of the saddle? You appear confident enough to hold your seat. It will mean I can see a little better what Rosa is doing and we might spend less time arguing.”
Müther laughed. “You really do treat Rosa like a person, don’t you?”
“Well, yes – she often appears to me as such. If you are more comfortable –”
“Not at all,” Müther interrupted. “Place me where you like.”
In fact, sitting at the back was much better for Müther and, it was true, the apparent disagreements between mistress and steed became less frequent, leaving Ellen with enough time to describe the countryside to Müther when she asked her to do so. In the afternoon the wind became more persistent, though it had the advantage of settling the midges that, despite Ellen’s careful dressing, still managed to creep through the tiniest of openings to deliver annoying bites. An hour later the wind turned vicious and stung the riders with fine sleet. “Find us some shelter, Rosa,” Ellen instructed.
“I don’t muck around in this weather,” she explained. “Rosa’s very good at finding a place to stop. Sometimes it’s not very comfortable and a bit cramped, but at least we’ll be out of the wet and this wind.”
Rosa left the shoals and climbed the nearest slope. The bird, Müther discovered, achieved her proficiency at finding shelter by using her considerable bulk, blocking what was simply an overhang of rock to form a cave. Ellen spread a self-inflating mat on the floor of the shelter, seated Müther on the mat with her back against Rosa’s body, then set about preparing a warming cup of soup on a camp cooker.
“You are quite practiced at making yourself comfortable in these conditions,” Müther said.
“Now I am. It took Rosa and me a while to work out how to do it.” Ellen giggled. “I think I nearly froze to death a few times at the beginning and I got into some pretty miserable situations. I didn’t dare tell anyone about some of our adventures. I think people just thought Rosa and I visited friends all the time. Anyway, I’ve
Müther felt Ellen’s hands guide her stumps into the ears of her special mug. “Here is your soup. I might as well start warming up the proper meal of the day for us. I have a feeling we’re going to be here for quite a while.”
After their meal, and after Ellen had helped Müther with her ablutions, into comfortable, clean clothes and settled her against Rosa’s warm body again, Ellen said: “I keep thinking that those words that you said after we danced together on the plateau would make a good song. Remember? You said something like, ‘More than my eyes, I miss my hands’.”
Müther was silent. This was the first time either of them had spoken about their conversation at the edge of the Chess River ravine. Ellen had been more than a little discomfited by Müther’s pledge of fealty, so Müther had let it be.
We have come a long way, you and I, Müther thought. Not so long ago I would not have let you say that to me – nor would you have given me your thoughts.
She listened as Ellen moved around in their cramped space. Every now and then Ellen explained what she was doing:
“Would you like me to read to you, or can I do something else to help us pass the time?”
“Did you bring a musical instrument with you?”
“Yes. A clarinet. It is the easiest to carry. I’m not very proficient, but I can wring a melody from it.”
“I will teach you a new melody.”
For some hours into the night, while the weather swung noisily around them, Müther taught Ellen a melody that was confronting, beautiful, sad and strangely hopeful. She was insistent about the way it should be played, with long pauses, crescendos
In the morning, still trapped by the weather, they practiced again.
By the second morning, the weather had improved enough to allow them to continue their journey. There was no opportunity to further
The sun revealed itself the next day. Ellen described it to Müther: “The sun is shining in an azure blue sky, intermittently covered by swirling white clouds.”
After an initial scramble, Rosa’s gait indicated that the terrain had
“I sense that we are in a high and exposed area.”
“We’re not high – only about five
“You can probably smell the salt in the air. Hear the birds? Some skuas have arrived and are beginning to stake out their nesting areas. Rosa and I tried coming here one time in the beginning of summer and they drove us out, now they’re ignoring us – that’s what I thought might happen. Below us, there’s a colony of penguins. There are more penguins coming in from the sea and some are going out. Many of the penguins are gathering stones and building nests. Others – I guess they are the immature ones – are just standing around in a group. There’s a lot of brash ice on the sea. Some of the little bays are so packed with ice floes that penguins look like they’re finding it hard to get through to the open water. Many of the large floes have seals on them. There’s an iceberg too. It’s sparkling in the sun and the aquamarine blue in the ice shows through in long strips. They look like cold, see-through, bright shadows – if you get what I mean.”
“I remember what icebergs look
“No. There are no whales – but we might see them later. Maybe orcas too. They’ll be hunting – with all these seals and penguins about.”
“Tell me what the seals and penguins are doing.”
There was much activity on the plateau, with thousands of birds – prions, terns, cormorants, gulls
“There’s a whole lot of penguins all huddled together in a tight group facing the sea. They’re looking at birds flying overhead. They have their beaks up in the air and they’re all looking at the same bird so that when it flies over them they all turn together – all these heads and beaks move in unison. Now they’re all looking at a bird flying the other way and – yes, all the beaks are turning at the same time.” There was laughter in Ellen’s voice as she described the scene.
“Oh! There’s a fulmar out to sea. It made a really loud noise – that is so unusual – I’ve never heard one make a noise before. All the penguins are surprised too. They’re looking at it. It’s flying towards them. It’s flying over their heads – their beaks are going up – up – up – Oh! I don’t believe it! Their heads are tipped back and – and they’ve all fallen backward on top of one another.
All the while, as the world lived through sound and smell and description for Müther, Rosa stalked along at a steady pace, occasionally jerking when – as Ellen explained – she ripped an apparently tasty morsel out of the ground. Sometimes a squelching sound accompanied Rosa’s step, at other times it was the sound of talons scraping on rock or ice. From time to time Ellen would pass Müther her special mug filled with warm
The cold took on a damper chill towards the end of the afternoon and Ellen directed Rosa off the plateau and inland.
Rosa found them a shelter that was larger and warmer than their two previous camps, even without Rosa blocking the opening. Müther sat on her mat, feeling a rare contentment and peace as Ellen combed and plaited her tresses into order. Müther pursed her lips when she
“You have beautiful hair.” Ellen tied off one long brown-gold braid and started on the other.
“So your father thought.”
“He had an eye for attractive women.” Müther heard the smile in Ellen’s voice.
“Oh, don’t I know it. I think he slept with every lady who happened by – and women were drawn to him like midges to any unfortunate near a river, myself included, though now I don’t understand why.”
“You know, Müther, whenever he spoke about you it was with much regret. I suspect he never believed Redel’s story.”
“I warned him often about Redel. Told him that Redel was a cruel and treacherous boy. Your father would put his finger on my lips and tell me my tongue was the one that was cruel and treacherous. Chithra also defended Redel. She spoilt that boy; I have no idea why. She certainly wouldn’t tolerate anyone else who was as self-indulgent and spiteful as he is.”
Ellen’s hand, in the act of replacing the beanie on Müther’s head, stilled; the jerk was so slight that Müther wondered if she had imagined it because Ellen’s voice betrayed no disquiet as she brought the conversation back to her father. “In the last years of his
“If you are right, I wish he had lived. When I first heard of his death I only regretted your mother’s loss, because I think she really did love him. I always thought he was a weak leader of the Lianthem – though, under our current Ülrügh the Lianthem have degenerated further.”
“Mmm,” Ellen finished fiddling with the beanie. “It’s started to rain hard out there.”
Perhaps you are actually telling me you don’t want to continue the line of conversation, Müther thought.
“I’ll sit here for now; it’s comfortable. Could you find your clarinet and play the melody I taught you?”
Ellen played the melody from beginning to end. Müther made a few
Listen to my story of sight and touch
Of sight and touch
Of touch and memory
The fall of a leaf whispers the air in transparent
Warmth yellows my skin
Clouds swirl in the wind on my cheek.
Insects buzz, birds’ wings vibrate
I listen to look.
But my feet stumble
They are blind
But I weep when
Aching for finger delicacy
To trace the contour of my son’s face
Or the shape of a lover’s lips
My hands feel nothing
Listen to me
More than my eyes I miss my hands
Ah. More than my eyes I miss my hands
My feet may stumble for lack of eyes
But I ache when my
More than my eyes I miss my hands
Müther repeated parts of verses, each time more
After a long silence, Müther felt the palm of Ellen’s hand on her cheek. “Thank you.”
Müther smiled. That song, locked for so long in her mind, had been a foray into the space of regret she did not like to visit. Tears gathered in her throat, staying there uncomfortably with no eyes for their release. She brought her arm up and pressed Ellen’s hand more firmly against her cheek. Over the past few days, she had often felt that hand as Ellen helped her to eat, drink, wash, dress, undress
“It is a song in my mind,” Müther said. “It is not for an audience. Just like some of your stories.”
“I often believe myself to be the most privileged person in Si’Empra. Now I know I am,” Ellen said.
Drawing on her usual truculence to control her emotions, Müther thought, If I had eyes I would now look at you quizzically, young lady! “You are as deluded as I am,” she said and felt the hand against her cheek stiffen.
When Ellen did not respond, she asked, “Do you know what I mean?”
Had Müther not kept the pressure on the hand, it would have dropped away.
“The song was from your heart, Müther,” Ellen murmured. “I feel humbled to be allowed to hear it. It was all I meant to say.”
“We are macabre creatures, you and me. We hide our hearts – even from ourselves – while we search to make whole those of others. Is Rosa the only one who will ever know yours?”
The palm against her cheek became damp. Müther turned her face so that she could put her lips into the palm. She kissed it and let the hand withdraw.
“I feel privileged to have been given your hand to feel.”
There was no sound from Ellen. In her mind’s eye Müther imagined the young
“What do you fear, Lian Ellen? What