Extract Book 2 (Ülrügh)

MANY LIANS SPENT THE winter months planning best ways to finally purge Si’Empra of Cryptals and Crystalmakers. As soon as snowmelt exposed the lowlands, the adjutants began looking for the signs of changed vegetation that indicated where the Crystalmaker harvesters had worked in previous years. Using dogs, they located three Cryptal tunnel entrances and decided upon a coordinated attack. Different groups rushed simultaneously into the tunnels, taking the Cryptals and Webcleaner harvesters by surprise . Of course, the WhiteŌne was immediately aware of the intrusion but it took time to coordinate Cryptals to repel the invaders’ three-pronged attack, especially when the Cryptals’ previous strategy of collapsing a small portion of a tunnel failed because the adjutants simply blasted away the blockage and surged over the rubble. By the time the Cryptals stop the invaders by caving in large sections of tunnels, the adjutants had destroyed a significant part of the lowlands labyrinth, killed thirteen harvesters and six Cryptals and wounded several more.

The Guild Masters pondered the news of the invasion but decided the Cryptals still provided them with adequate protection. Elthán mourned the loss of more of her people, her anxiety spilling over into worry about the safety of Greçia’s grotto. She sent Thimon to the grotto to ask Richard to increase the reach of the alarm system all the way to Greçia’s clinic in Sinthén via the telephone line. She also encouraged Thimon to set a date to start moving Müther, Pahn, goats and chickens to the Northern Lands.

Richard and Thimon worked quickly and efficiently to install the alarm system. For added security, Richard added warning bells at both ends of the suspension bridge and reworked the ropes fastening the suspension bridge to the sides of the gorge to enable the whole structure to be quickly collapsed. Under Thimon’s directions, all who used the grotto reviewed and rehearsed plans for evacuation.

Richard, Thimon and Chris spent much time discussing the best timing and route for travelling to the Northern Lands. At the end of the previous summer, they had split into two groups: Chris, Müther and Thimon had travelled at night; and Richard and Phan had travelled in the early morning with the goats and chickens. The two parties had only met to cross the Chess River. Thimon believed that they should employ the same strategy now and leave immediately Grecia’s grotto was secure but Richard argued it was too early to attempt the journey because all waterways would be flooded with snowmelt and the Sith Plateau would be slick with ice and snow.

Ellen listened to the discussion, noting that Thimon assumed that she and Rosa would also be travelling to the Northern Lands with the party. In fact, Thimon largely pinned the success of the journey on Rosa’s capacity to carry Müther and, perhaps, help everyone over the more dangerous waterway crossings en route. Müther took no part in the planning, but each time the conversation turned to the journey, she crossed the stumps of her arms tightly over her breast and her face became expressionless.

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, me and Müther can travel at night and Rosa can catch us up at the next part,” Thimon snapped, his broad shoulders twitching with irritation
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 Thimon’s consistent interjection.

“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 and Richard, turned towards her.

“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 travelled that way before. We travel over the shallows at the mouth of the Chess – it’s not much good for goats or people, but Rosa can manage. I think that at best it would take us three days – though longer, of course, if we need to shelter if the weather turns against us.”

Thimon scowled with annoyance. He opened his mouth as if to protest, but Elthán forestalled him with questions for Ellen. Thimon pressed his lips together and glared at Ellen.

Distracted by Thimon’s animosity towards her and wondering: What exactly have I done that makes you annoyed with me? Ellen answered Elthán’s questions: “Yes, I can feed Müther and otherwise care for her”; “Yes, it is possible to take enough food”; Yes, Rosa is strong enough to make the journey”.

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 travelling alone – how can we know if there’s an accident?”

“Of that, I am not worried.” Elthán dismissed. “The Cryptals will tell us soon enough if something goes wrong.” She turned to Müther. “Müther, you must decide.”

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 travelling, not minding the extra weight of Müther and the bulging saddlebags. They travelled due west for some hours over rough, steep ground to the mouth of the Chess River with its many streams and shoals. Ellen carefully covered every exposed skin surface on Müther and herself to guard against midges. Then – with input from Rosa – she began to pick a way through The Shoals.


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 learnt what to pack and how to make the shelter bearable now because sometimes it takes a few days for the weather to clear. Actually, the biggest problem when Rosa and I travel is drying clothes. Whenever the sun peeps out, I spread out all my damp clothes over Rosa.” The giggle turned into a laugh. “Sometimes she looks like a walking clothesline.”

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: organising saddle bags, setting out bedding, putting torches and other handy items close to hand. Finally, she appeared to be finished with her preparations for their stay.

“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 and diminuendos in precise places.

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 practise the melody while they travelled over steep, rough ground, and all three were too exhausted in the evening to do more than attend to making a comfortable night.

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 levelled out, but the wind was bitingly cold. “The wind is picking up bits of snow that’s still banked around the place,” Ellen said. “That’s the wet things you can feel every now and then.” She settled the beanie Müther had been wearing throughout their journey more firmly over Müther’s head, pulling the hood of her coat over the top and securing all fastenings. “The wind’s particularly cold because it’s coming straight off the sea. Tell me if you get too cold. I can wrap a cover around us as well if needs be.”

“I sense that we are in a high and exposed area.”

“We’re not high – only about five metres above sea level. But, yes, we are exposed. We’re on the north side of the Sith Range. The sea is just to our left but down a very steep, rocky slope that finishes at a pebbly beach. This plateau we’re travelling on runs for about thirty kilometres. But we’ll only follow it for about twenty, then we’ll head south and back up into more steep lands. By then we’ll be quite close to the Northern Lands.

“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 like.” Müther called up the image. “I was always struck by how blue they are – and the many hues of blue. Can you see any whales? I used to love standing on the open balcony of the Serai watching the whales breaching and flapping their great tails and flippers.”

“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 and petrels – creating colonies in their favoured habitats. The mix of sedges, mosses, lichens and grasses was brightening into spring foliage, with some plants showing tiny flowers. Ellen’s descriptions of their surroundings became increasingly intricate under Müther’s questioning, allowing Müther to create a picture of the landscape as they travelled. Ellen was good – better than Richard – at observing the features that made the flow of sounds of the world around Müther come alive with colour and shape. Ellen described the aerobatics of the birds as they tumbled and swooped, diving for food or trying to avoid the skuas, and the graceful aerial courtship ballets of the pure white snow petrels. She described how the Antarctic prions alighted on rocks, paused and then disappeared into nesting cavities; how penguins launched themselves out of the swell of a wave and lept expertly on to ice floes, on to rocks, or the beach; and how fur seal pups chased each other around the stony beach. Ellen described the antics of one seal pup which seemed to have perfected the trick of using cover to gain an advantage: the pup would hide behind a rock and leap out when another pup happened past, or dive into the water and lunge out, mouth wide open, often straight on to a playmate.

The penguins provided Ellen with equally amusing incidents to relate.

“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. There’s huge confusion – feet and flippers waving about – they’re rolling around trying to sort themselves out.” Müther shouted with laughter.

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 pendle from a thermos she had prepared in the morning. Every few hours she would also offer Müther pieces of berry bread. Once they dismounted to relieve themselves.

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 realised that she had not needed – on this evening – to steel herself to bear the humiliation of having to be helped with her ablutions and food. The whole process had seemed so natural that it had almost passed unnoticed as she and Ellen talked about what they had encountered during the day and traded knowledge about Si’Empra’s environment.

“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 life he would more and more often say things like, ‘Ellen, there are people I have hurt that I should never have hurt; there are decisions I have made that are wrong but now find hard to undo’. I was too young then to understand but, looking back, I think he was making many members of the Lianthem uncomfortable with talk about some of the reforms he wanted to make.”

“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.

“Rosa’s decided to settle. She’s got into the shelter as far as she can. Would you like to sit up against her, or lie down, or something else?”

“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 corrections, and then announced that she would now accompany Ellen in a song.

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 colour
Warmth yellows my skin
Clouds swirl in the wind on my cheek.
Insects buzz, birds’ wings vibrate
Flowers perfume
I listen to look.
But my feet stumble
They are blind
But I weep when
My hands fumble
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 hands fumble
More than my eyes I miss my hands

Müther repeated parts of verses, each time more softly, until there were only the notes of the clarinet as Ellen carried on with the melody one more time.

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 and groom. But the touch then was fleeting, practical, not meant for comfort. Now she felt a small, cool, slim-fingered hand that was dry and slightly calloused; practical hands that could, nevertheless, run delicately over the strings of a thordilones.

“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 lian sitting cross-legged in front of her, clarinet in her lap, hands clutched together, the features of her face pinched into wariness.

“What do you fear, Lian Ellen? What you are? What you might be? What you should be? Or what you can be? It must be one of these things, because nothing else seems to frighten you.”

Subscribe to news about the Si'Empra series

Thanks for signing up. I will send you updates about the Si'Empra series

My dearest Pedro,

I hope this note finds you well.

I was in your country scarcely eight months and yet nothing in my life has left such a profound impact. The artistry and music of your people, the way you live your lives on your most forbidding island, and the knowledge that it is also inhabited by unique others, fills my mind constantly.

This note comes to you via a close and trusted friend. I would be most humbly grateful if you would write me a little of the history of Si’Empra. My friend will convey your writings to me. I will not pre-empt your words by asking questions now but hope that you will unfold for me a context into which I can place news from your land.

I promise you that your words will never be read by other than myself, nor will they be repeated by me.

I remain your friend.

Augustine (Fr)

July 2011

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Dear Father Augustine

You are right that it is important for me to guard my words. I will tell you briefly something of Si’Empra’s history and how we have come to our unhappy and deteriorating circumstance.

Our history is complex and must start with ancient songlines that tell of the landing of people on this island. They found the island inhabited by Cryptals – those creatures you have heard rumoured of in your time with us. I know only a little about Cryptals (indeed I doubt anyone knows much about them, they are so other than we are!). Cryptals are able to use scent – perhaps we would characterise such scent as pheromones, though this has never been studied – to manipulate the behaviour of creatures on Si’Empra. We call the scent mylin or Cryptal poison. In general, we talk of mylin as if it has only one characteristic, and that it is highly poisonous; but, in fact, in small doses, it can strengthen Si’Emprans, especially Crystal Makers. I suspect that Cryptals can also produce many forms of mylin.

Cryptals inhabit the deep earth of Si’Empra and travel the underworld through an intricate weave of tunnels. One of the creatures, called the White’One, sings almost constantly. The song appears to coordinate the movement of other Cryptals. There is also talk of a Black’One, but information of this creature is hazy indeed. Remarkable as you may find what I have already told you about the Cryptals, know that they can also manipulate the very earth. You are aware that Si’Empra is on a part of a fault line between Earth’s tectonic plates – I believe it is called the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge. The earth is highly volatile along this line and, perhaps in normal circumstances, the island would not exist at all. However, Cryptals know how to release pressure in rock and the belief of many of us is the island owes its very existence to such Cryptal capacity.

When the first people came to the island there were not only Cryptals but also huge birds, which we call glasaurs. These birds seem to have disappeared soon after the coming of people. I am not sure why, though I suspect that Cryptals created the birds (I think they are mutated versions of a bird that lives beyond the forbidding Barrier Cliffs that are on the very far side of our island) and found no more use for them after people arrived. Recently, another such bird has come among us again – you have heard of this.

Cryptals and the first peoples, over the thousands of years that followed, came to an arrangement. I should tell you also that Cryptals have another feature: they have long and thick fur, which the first people learnt how to weave into cloth. At some stage, the people also discovered that, with sufficient heat and other treatments, they could manipulate the fur to make a sort of glass, which we call crystal. As you will have discerned, this crystal is highly prized – though we have little access to it now. There was something else that the people discovered they could do with the crystal: that is, with further work they could cause the crystal to echo certain sounds. This special crystal is called virigin. But the craft of making virigins is lost.

The first people on Si’Empra we call the Crystal Makers. I believe that at the time of their coming, Si’Empra’s climate was relatively benign but gradually changed to become increasingly hostile and cold. Crystal Makers gradually retreated into the underground world of the Cryptals. It was onto this cold, windswept island that another peoples were shipwrecked. These were my ancestors. Of the origin of these people, I know very little. (As an aside, I think that my ancestors also introduced goats to Si’Empra – though, as you and I have already established, our domesticated chickens are native).

The newcomers were welcomed by the Crystal Makers. Over time, Crystal Makers no longer left their underground dwellings but provided Sky Seekers with cloth and crystal in exchange for food and other aboveground necessities. The homes of Sky Seekers were also kept warm by hot geothermal waters that Cryptals channelled through the flooring – you have seen these structures in Si'Em City though the warming is currently carried out by the use of diesel-fuelled generators.

Sky Seekers and Crystal Makers have different social systems as well as language. Crystal Makers divide their people into guilds. Each guild is headed by a Guild Master. The code by which the Crystal Makers operate is called The Order. It is strictly enforced by the Guild Masters. Sky Seekers, as you have learnt, are governed by a council, called the Lianthem, which is traditionally drawn from a group of ruling families. The head of the Lianthem is our Ülrügh, notionally appointed by the Lianthem. However, it has long been accepted that each Ülrügh chooses one of his or her children to be his or her successor.

You have seen how forbidding our shoreline is and it is, perhaps, why Si’Empra has long been isolated. Nevertheless, a group of seal hunters did land on our island some eight decades ago. This event began a process that fundamentally changed a way of life on Si’Empra that had existed for hundreds of years.

You have remarked on our modernisation achievements. I think I implied, in our conversations, that all Si’Emprans initially did well under the rule of Ülrügh Devi. The Crystal Makers were our allies, providing unique Cryptal cloth and crystal that was much sought-after by foreigners (these things still are!). Such alliance, however, did not last. Crystal Makers do not believe in change and when they perceived that Sky Seekers were changing their lives as a result of association with foreigners, Crystal Makers ceased to provide cloth and crystal. The Lianthem discovered that outsiders were also keen to purchase the gemstones found on this island. With the help of a Chinese family (you have met a member of this family, Cheng Yi), Sky Seekers developed a gemstone business. Unfortunately, mining gemstones did not meet with the approval of Cryptals. The Crystal Makers warned against it and, when the Sky Seekers refused to listen, the Cryptals retaliated by denying Sky Seekers access to the geothermal energy the island has in abundance.

Ülrügh Devi, in spite of his many brilliant insights, was not one to be coerced into a course of action when he had set his mind on another. With confidence that Sky Seekers could continue to fend for themselves without the help of Crystal Makers and Cryptals, he decided to remove our belowground dwellers. Among the Crystal Makers who survived the Ülrügh’s purge, this purge is known as ‘The Destruction’. There were those on the Lianthem who disagreed with Ülrügh Devi. When he turned on them also, they fled. The hunt of Crystal Makers and Cryptals continues even today, the current Ülrügh having set up a special group to do it and with otherwise minimal involvement of others on the Lianthem – though a majority approve or are disinterested.

Ülrügh Devi was succeeded by his son, Briani.

We are now into events that occur in my lifetime.

Ülrügh Briani was much manipulated by some on the Lianthem who profited greatly from modernisation. Ülrügh Devi’s leap of faith that Sky Seekers could manage on Si’Empra without the aid of Crystal Makers and Cryptals is not working as well as planned. Si’Empra constantly struggles to buy and produce all that is needed – or perhaps the shortages many Si’Empran’s suffer is because some of the ruling families have grown used to a lavish lifestyles and the sharing that used to be part of Sky Seeker tradition has thinned.

Ülrügh Briani married Lian Thea, a twin sister of our current Chancellor, Lian Chithra. She bore the Ülrügh a son – you have met Ülrügh Redel. Rumour has it that Lian Thea was unkind to her child. She died when he was but a young boy – perhaps four or five. After fourteen or fifteen years, the Ülrügh took a new wife. A very young bride, only a few years older than the Ülrügh’s son. Nevertheless, there seemed to be real love between Constance – the bride’s name – and Ülrügh Briani. Constance gave birth to Ellen, who became much beloved by her father and many Si’Emprans and all indications were that Ülrügh Devi intended her to be his successor. The Ülrügh’s unexpected death, however, saw Redel become Ülrügh.

Forgive me. What followed after Ülrügh Briani’s death is extremely painful to me. While I have entrusted to you the above version of Si’Empra’s history (not one that is safe to discuss nowadays), I find myself unable to continue. Suffice to say that our new Ülrügh abused his sister but denied the abuse – and Ellen has never confirmed or denied. In an effort to safeguard her daughter, Constance, agreed to become his wife. She bore him a daughter, who is called Chrystal – you have met the child. Constance died soon after childbirth.

Perhaps you understand Si’Empra better now. We have access to the most wonderful things that the outer world can provide – we have Internet access, mobile phones, electric lighting, lifts to save our legs from stairs, access to word class education etc etc. Even cars we have on Si’Empra, (though there are few roads on which to drive them – one to Sinthen and one to the mines, and a minor one up to the Serai). The cars are all but useless but the helicopters potentially more useful – though at present they are put to deadly use. Our access to the ‘wonderful things’ is, however, limited. Indeed, beyond Si’Em City and Baltha, people live in poverty.

I hope you stay well and I look forward to many more years of correspondence with you on philosophical exercises of the mind that need not be burdened by the raw emotion of day-to-day melancholy.

With kind regards,


PS: If I were to tell you a fuller story of how Si’Empra is today, I would begin with an event about two years ago that caused Lian Ellen to flee Si’Em City and not return.


You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Glossary of names


Acolyte SythelAcolyte of the Guild of Weaving who helped Sami and Tharnie
adjutantRedel's special guard
AnnePartner of Lian Dane
AuchustGuild Master of Construction: short hair in spikes on his head
BacharWeb Cleaner child with good voice
BrianiGrandfather of Ellen
ChrisWeb Cleaner/harvester/looks after Muther over summer
Cillapregnant Crystal Maker
ConstanceEllen's mother
Cryptalscreatures of the deep
DeviRedel's father
DevoutsRedel's priest aids
Dr Thomas DohertySurgeon that Lian Shivay communicates with to help Ellen
Dr ThrakeOrthopaedic surgeon
EllenDaughter of Briani and Constance
ElthanEllen's grandmother
Ethanson of Sathun
FrancisA huge muscled black man from South Africa
GreciaDoctor at Sinthen and Pedro's old home
GrettaLives beyond the Barrier Cliffs
Heiniepartner of Thyrol
Ian SewellOne of Norm Tucker's crew
Jessorphan girl Sathun found and now wife of José
JoeOne of Norm Tucker's crew: a tall thin man
JonAdministrative aid to Chithra
JoosthinCrystal Guild Master
Joseeldest son of Sathun
JosieWeb Cleaner child with the burnt face
KatherinaEllen's devoted carer
LaraAcolyte in Guild of weaving
Lian AchtonMusic teacher
Lian CecilTax Collector
Lian DaneOwner of most of the hothouses, clear blue eyes, balding pate, and trim fram
Lian DiánnéIn charge of the stores
Lian IsoldeAchton's wife
Lian JulianHas much real estate, arthritis, nephew to Devi, cheerful
Lian PethriePhysician
Lian ShivayDoctor at Baltha hospital
Lian SienneOne of the coup leaders
Lian TheonOne of the coup leaders and father of Thull
Lian ThessaTakes over Marthin's role
Lian ThobiasChief Engineer
LumanA favourite grandson of Lian Julian and good at Chatham
MarthinHusband of Mary
Marypartner of Marthin
MutherSi'Empra Mayal -living with Grecia
PedroElthan's partner, Ellen's grandfather
Phanlives with Grecia
Phietnurse helping Greçia
Rangera section of the adjutants who are involved with the hunt
Redelbrother of Ellen and Ulrugh
Richardson of Muther
Rosaa glasaur - a very large bird, one of a kind, that Ellen rides
SamiAcolyte of Tharnie - who is on crutches
SaraGuild Master of Weaving: small woman, chews her nails, youngest member
SaraGuild Master of Weaving
SathunThe son of Sienne the rebel
SiraAccompanied Thanin to meet Ellen
ThaliaThe child in Fadil Village that Redel murdered
ThamNurse helping Greçia
ThaninGuild Master of Design
TharylWeb Cleaner in charge of one of the food storage areas
The Black OneLarge, dark brown eyes
The Othersthose living beyond the Barrier Cliffs
The OvercomeThose addicted beyond reason to mylin
TheresaSathun's oldest daughter
ThilAcolyte of the Guild of Memory and Gate Master of Illiath
ThimonWeb Cleaner/harvester/Elthan's harvester deputy
ThomaliasDaughter of Thom - the girl in Fadil Village
ThrenFriend of Joosthin now become part of the Overcome
ThrevorGuild Master of Memory: one of the guilds of the Crystal Makers; old, stooped and the most powerful
ThrevorGuild Master of Memory slim male of middle age with pale yellow braided hair
ThullSathun's father, recently deceased
Thyrolpartner of Heinie
White'OneSinging Cryptal
WhypoonMaster who taught Elthan how to clean webs
ZaraAcolyte of Joosthin

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Glossary of words


Brimaldplants on the Chess River ravine
Hawkberry plantplants on the walk: A minty smell with a touch of rose
Jalineplants on the Chess River ravine
Lalloonsleek beast, the size of a small dog. It was a lalloon; a pretty creature with rounded, furry ears, a narrow snout tipped by a black nose and long, soft, reddish-brown fur that was prized by Sky Seekers for lining the hoods of winter coats. The creature was a hunter and scavenger, sneaky, adept at hiding and solitary.
LayamleSi'Em City's vast, communal chamber,
Lianequivalent to 'Lady'
Lianthemequivalent to the ruling council
Lithilian berriesspecial berries for making a kind of wine
Pendleweedplants on the Chess River ravine
samiraa musical instrument
schathemSi'Empran traditional climbing game
Seraiequivalent to 'palace'
Si'Empra MayalSongbird of Si'Empra
Si'Empra TheolelThe Jewel of Si'Empra
solnishunting animal
Sweensbeeplants on the Chess River ravine
Thordilonesa musical instrument

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Glossary of places


Balthaon the other side of the bridge
Barthgunman accompanying Lian Cecil in Fadil Villae
Charn RiverTo the east of the Sith River
Fadil Villagescene of tax collector incident
GhuyHeadman of Fadil Village
IlliathBelowground Crystmaker city
Northern LandsWhere the summer dwelling is for Richard and Muther
Overshot Gorgeseparates the Si'Em bluff from the rest of the island
River OrbEast of Thuls Refuge which has become easier to cross as a result of the earthquake and the route Ellen advised Richard et al to take
Si'Em Bluffinto which Si'Em City is built
Si'Em Citymain city on the island
Si'Empraname of island
Sinthenlinked to Baltha by a road
Sith ChamberA huge cave used by the harvesters
Sith CliffsThe first barrier above the Sith River on the way to the Northern Lands
Sith RiverTo the west of the Charn River
The Barrier Cliffsseparate the place The Others live from the rest of Si'Empra
The Lost Cityon top of the Barrier Cliffs
The Seraipalace - administration centre
The ShoalsRubbish dump and where Sky Seeker dead are left
TrebiathBelowground Crystmaker city

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Bookfunnel is an e-book delivery platform designed to make downloading to any e-reader platform easy. You’ll buy the book from Payhip which will ask for your email address to send the ebook. You’ll be sent an email to download from Payhip but if you wait a few moments, Bookfunnel will also send you and email and will make the download process easier.

Of course, if you would prefer to download the book through the standard options, I’ve provided the links to those platforms on this webpage.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Bookfunnel is an e-book delivery platform designed to make downloading to any e-reader platform easy. You’ll buy the book from Payhip which will ask for your email address to send the ebook. You’ll be sent an email to download from Payhip but if you wait a few moments, Bookfunnel will also send you an email and will make the download process easier.

Of course, if you would prefer to download the book through the standard options, I’ve provided the links to those platforms on this webpage.

You have Successfully Subscribed!