This morning as I sat scribbling I could hear someone singing the song that was written about Odolghes after his death. I suppose it is a good cheering song for an occasion like this, being all about building and achieving and winning through, but on me it didn’t have that effect, it just made me sad.
Because I miss him. And because, even though the song is one of those long ones with a list of deeds and virtues and achievements that seems to go on for ever, his actual period of leadership was all too short. Saba de Fek, the song calls him: Sword of Fire, his battle name. ‘Saba de Fek, the one-armed, the fox-brained, the bull-hearted, led us Miner people back to Aurona. Aurona of the glittering halls, home of our forbearers, palace of our dreams…’ And so on and so forth.
Well he did of course, it is perfectly true. After all the shouting that went on that night of the gold parting, he could hardly have one otherwise. But what the song fails to mention, perhaps because such a crestfallen thing does not fit very well to music, is how long we actually stayed there. Which was, if I remember rightly, one month and six days, and even that seemed far too long.
The home our elders had dreamed of, moped over, drooled over all these years and described to us younger ones as a kind of wonder-palace, encrusted with jewels and more splendid that the sun itself, turned out when we reached it to be nothing but a huge great empty cave, riddled with draughts and packed full of bats, situated on the top of one of the bleakest mountains of the entire range. There was no handy water source, no nearby wood for fuel gathering, precious little grazing either, and every single thing we needed, except for air of which there was far too much, had to be dragged up through the underground mountain pathways in the same way metal ore has to be dragged out of the earth: that is, with a great deal of bother and boneache and blisters all round. It was mining all over again: a double dose.
We stuck it for a while – chiefly, I think, because the place was so sacred in our lore that nobody dared say outright how dreadful it was – but when Odolghes called us together and announced that he was thinking of re-opening the smelt pits of Mill Brook and needed a few volunteers to accompany him to have a look around, there were so many takers and so much jostling and squabbling and shouting of ‘Bags I!’ and ‘Take me!’ and ‘Wait, I’m coming too!’ that our move was practically decided on the spot.
Mill Brook was not poetic like Aurona, it was not beautiful, not the subject of songs or dreams or yearnings, but it too was our home, or had been once. Our working home as opposed to our party home (just as there are working clothes and party clothes). And like working clothes always are, it was much more practical and comfortable. Especially after the rigours of Aurona. I have a great fondness for tents, from having been born in one, but of all the various places I have lived, I don’t think I have ever been so happy anywhere as I was in the wooden huts of Mill Brook in that first busy year of our settling in.
The smelt pits, when they started up again, made for a lot of grime and noise, and in the summer the heat was ferocious, but the rest of the time it was cosy, and the noise was company, and I kept a very clean house for Odolghes, and covered the food in the larder with muslin so that the grime couldn’t taint it, and put wool in my ears when I slept and made Odolghes do the same, and all in all we had a very good, very easy life.
Our parents being rich now, we younger ones had to do lessons, which I know some children consider terribly hard work, but after ore-crushing nothing seems tiring, and we sat through them happily – the longer the better – doing whatever we were told. Our teacher was called Bruno. Where Odolghes found him and how he came to hire him, we were never told and it seemed rude to ask, but Jet said she had heard her mother saying that he came straight from the market and had been bought, not hired. Which, if true, meant that he was ours for ever. Not such a bad bargain really because as long as no one bothered him with questions, which he hated, he was kind and patient and never chided us and was quite content to pass lesson times the same way we did: with a minimum of fuss.
On my eighth birthday Odolghes said I could have a holiday from lessons and choose whatever in the world I wanted as a birthday present, so I chose that we spend the day together, just the two of us, looking for my mother. It was not a tactful choice: Odolghes had recently begun paying court to a certain Friska, one of my mother’s cousins twice removed, and there was already talk of his remarriage - a search for her predecessor was not likely to go down well with his new fiancée. Nevertheless, Odolghes granted my request immediately, making no bones: the offer, after all, had been his, and he was a good keeper of promises.
We set off early, on two of our smart new horses, taking with us food for the entire day. The sun rose and then shone on us, warmer and warmer; the snow on the mountaintops went from pink to gold to white; the air was so clean it seemed to have been washed in ashes. I turned to Odolghes and smiled and he smiled back, and I knew he was thinking, like I was, of the other journey we had made together, and of how much our lives changed since then.
‘Well, birthday girl, and where shall we look?’ he asked, trying to seem serious but not really succeeding. I fear the new lady had pretty well cured him of Sommavida: I must admit, she was a good deal younger and better looking.
I shook my head, defeated before we had even begun. I wanted to say, Everywhere, but that was a tall order for a day, so I said, The place she’s most likely to be, leaving the choice with him.
This did sadden him a little, I think, because although we had made enquiries with all our customers and alerted the Wanderers and offered huge rewards, no news of my mother had ever come to us, not even of a sighting. ‘No, Mara,’ he said in a different voice, much older sounding. ‘Not the place she’s most likely to be, that’s not a good idea at all. No, I think we’ll try the one place we haven’t yet searched where she just possibly might me if she’s still alive.’
‘And where’s that?’
He gestured vaguely with a tilt of his head. ‘Up. Up, up on the high ground where the Salvans used to live. There are caves there, and wild goats, and berries and roots and things to live on. You never know, if the Salvans managed it…’
The Salvans were half animals according to Bruno. He made us draw one once and told us to put thick fur all over its body and a tail, like a marmot. My mother didn’t have that sort of covering; how could she survive two winters at that altitude, in a cave, eating berries? And why on earth should she want to when she had a perfectly good home to return to? All the same I could see Odolghes’ point: there was nowhere else above ground left to search. And the mountains did look enticing on a day like this.
So that was where we went: higher and higher into the mountains, past the lakes and the poppy fields and the summer grazing grounds, up and up until we reached the frost line beyond which the snow no longer melts, and could see the crest of Aurona below us, looking quite niggling and unimportant. Searching in such a vast and rugged area was impossible really, you’d have to be an eagle with an eagle’s eyes, but the further we rode the less this seemed to bother us, and in the end we stopped bothering altogether. We rode purely for the pleasure. When the sun reached its highest we got off and rested the horses and ate some of our food and drank some wine, which was another luxury we had started buying now, and I went looking under the snow for fallen stars, and Odolghes, who had drunk five time more wine than I had (I knew because I’d counted), lay down on his cloak on a dry patch under an overhanging rock and went to sleep.
I must have done much the same thing myself when I got tired of star hunting, for the next thing I remember is waking up to a clap of thunder and seeing Odolghes loping along the track just below where I was lying, waving his cloak and shouting like a herdsman. All sorts of rude Miner words, which at first I thought were meant for me for having strayed, but soon realized were aimed at the rumps of our two horses, galloping in the homeward direction in a cloud of powdered snow and fast disappearing over the ridge. ‘Too late!’ he called out when he saw me. ‘They’ve gone now, the nervy brutes. Should have tethered them. Forgot. Blast and Roast and Counterblast! Took my arm with them too: it was tied to the saddle.’
‘Don’t worry, Father, I called back. Even at this distance I could see he was in quite a state. ‘They’ll find their own way home, horses always do.’ But when I reached him on the track and looked back at where I’d come from I could see the real cause of his worry. The thunder clap was the signal of no ordinary light summer storm that come and shakes itself over you like a wet dog and the goes again: looming behind the mountaintop was a huge barrier of clouds the colour of slag. Even as we watched I could see it coming closer and feel the wind on which it rode.
‘It’s a bad one, isn’t it?’ I whispered. Next to u Fin du Ratt it was the thing we had been taught to fear most: not bears, not wolves, not forest fires or wraiths or even landslides, any of which you can dodge if you’re lucky and keep your wits about you, but being caught out on the mountaintops in a really heavy storm. It’s the cold, you see: unless you’re properly prepared there’s nothing you can do to fight it off. We’d lost several of our kinsfolk like that over the years: picked off by blizzards on their way to work or back again; and when we found them they had been crouched up in ball and frozen so solid we couldn’t unwind them, not even for their funerals.
Odolghes nodded and took my hand. ‘It’s a very bad one, picera,’ he said. ‘But there’s no running away from it without the horses. We’d better go back to the rock and take shelter before it breaks.’
His voice was calm but his movements weren’t. When we reached the rock he wrapped me up in his cloak and bundled me under the shelf of rock, together with the leftover food and wine flask. Then, clumsily, with his solitary hand, he began scooping up snow and packing it into lumps, working so fast he looked as if he had the Tanners’ Twitch, or whatever the disease is called.
Protection, an icehouse to hide in. We had been taught in the nursery how to build one of these, as a sort of game, but I’d never seen one built in earnest. I made to help him, but Odolghes pushed me back under the ledge again saying at all costs I must keep dry. After finishing a dozen or so lumps – just enough to build a low wall in front of our niche, nothing more – he had to stop and come and join me inside, because the wind was lashing so hard it threatened to drag him away. In his company I wasn’t frightened, or at least not yet. If you’ve got somewhere to shelter where the sleet can’t freeze you or the lightning frazzle you, and if you don’t lose patience and venture out too soon and get lost, the danger with storms is of the slow, creeping kind: it depends on how long they last and whether, to put it bluntly, they last longer than you do. We had some food left, we had wine, we had each other to cling to and Odolghes’ thick warm cloak to cover us: I reckoned – we both did – that we were good for quite a nice long while.
Our reckonings, however, were made without consulting the innkeeper, or whatever the saying is. And the innkeeper – or the skykeeper in this case – was the storm. It howled over us and round us, and inside our ears and mouths and nostrils, and under and through the cloak, for so long and with such force that it beat us almost senseless. Dark came and still there was no letting up. Light returned – a livid, soupy light only a few shades paler than the dark – and then faded again as a second night fell. I was so cold and wet and cramped I begged Odolghes to let us leave our niche and run – anywhere, just to feel my feet belonging to me again - but he said no, we were still better off where we were. He made me do pretend running, though, by waving my legs in the air and then clapping my hands until my fingers burned and I thought they would drop off, but this made me so tired that afterwards I fell asleep and woke up even colder.
Worst of all, the constant screeching and battering of the wind played on our nerves, so that instead of being affectionate and saying kind things to one another as we clung together, we grew rattier and rattier, me in particular. I blamed Odolghes for drinking so much wine, for nodding off, for not spotting the change in the weather when he should have done, for flapping at the horses instead of trying to calm them – for everything I could think of. He in return told me I was spoilt and difficult: I hadn’t really wanted to look for my mother at all, I had just wanted to get him away from Friska for a day because I was jealous. Well, I’d succeeded all right: if the storm didn’t stop soon it was goodbye Friska for ever, and goodbye everyone.
The storm did not stop, either soon or late: it went on and on and on until we lost count of the days. Our food ran out; we finished the wine and had to slake our thirst with snow. Eventually I stopped feeling thirsty and was pleased about this because it meant I wouldn’t have to pee any more: there was no worse moment of either day or night than when you had to take down your breeches and pee.
I still wasn’t frightened, I still trusted Odolghes to pull us through, even though he seemed a lot colder now and a lot lazier and spent most of the time asleep – like I did. But when I woke up from one of my dreams to find him in a really loving mood for a change, cradling me tight in his arms and planting kisses on my forehead, I knew things were getting very serious, and would have trembled if I hadn’t been trembling already from the cold.
‘Sssh, picera,’ he said when I tried to speak, and closed my lips with his own so that I could taste the ice on his whiskers. ‘Sleep now, sleep.’
‘But you said to fight against the drowsiness…’
He turned his head so that his cheek lay against my mouth, stopping it entirely. ‘I know, sweetheart, only now it’s different, now you needn’t fight any more. Let yourself sink into a nice deep sleep and when you wake up the storm will be over, I promise.’ And then (and this is the very last thing I remember of that particular day or night or whichever it was) he began singing one of his Fanish songs. The saddest one of all, the one about the little warrior princess whose luck runs out on her: ‘I sun na era der sfortunada…’
(Chapter 9 coming up next Sunday June 13th 2010)