Yes, Odolghes was a good keeper of promises. When I woke up, the storm was over and I was lying, snug and dry, in a strange prickly bed that smelt of heather and rustled when I moved. I could hear Odolghes’ voice quite close by, speaking in an easy chatty tone, so I wasn’t scared, but the room was dark, and when I stretched out my hand it met with earth: earthen floor and earthen wall beside me and low earthen ceiling overhead. Under the bedcovers I was naked as a worm. I decided we must have died and returned to the belly of the Earth Goddess. Ah well, it was a good sight better than the rock.
I was so comfortable that I didn’t call out but lay quiet where I was. When I turned my head in the direction of Odolghes’ voice, something brushed against my face and I realized that the darkness was due to a curtain which shielded my bed from the rest of the room: I was lying, so to speak, in a cupboard, a recess carved out of the wall. Gently I lifted the curtain and looked out onto a still darkish but definitely bigger and brighter space – you could hardly call it a room – lit by a fire and by what I suppose served as an oil lamp but was in fact just a bowl of grease with a flame in the middle. On one side of the fire sat Odolghes on a heap of leather cushions, his legs crossed elegantly, his hand twiddling at his hair, the way it did when he was interested in something. Apart from his breeches he too was naked, and I thought this very odd because he was usually careful to cover his armless shoulder in the presence of strangers.
On the other side of the fire, her foot rocking at the greasebowl so that the flame wobbled, now lighting her features, now shading them, sat, not merely a stranger but one of the strangest strangers I had ever seen. A woman, I supposed she was. Quite old, very tall, very straight, with long pale hair the colour of hay, which she appeared to be in the process of combing, or perhaps drying over the flame. The comb, or brush or instrument she was holding, she passed from hand to free foot unconcernedly, using whichever was more convenient. Her toes and fingers were in fact of equal length, midway between what they are on a normal person, and the nails of both were long and curved and looked as if they would take an awful lot of cutting.
The only other truly unusual thing about her was her ears, which stuck out from under the hair like a horse’s from its mane and, like a horse’s, were long and pointed and furry; but the rest, by its very familiarity, was even stranger. Her voice when she spoke was a little higher maybe but otherwise identical to Odolghes’; her laugh when it came was just like his. I didn’t notice the eyes until later of course, which were dark and slanting and quite, quite different, but the brows and forehead were the same shape as his too, and so were the nose and chin and mouth. Except for the oddities I’ve mentioned she could have been his twin.
They seemed to be getting along together very well for two people who have only just met. If she was indeed the Earth Goddess, I reckoned we were in for a good stay. ‘Tell me more about her,’ Odolghes was asking eagerly. They were evidently discussing some friend they had in common. ‘What did she do all day in the wintertime? How did she keep herself amused?’
‘Oh, this and that,’ the woman said. ‘She scribbled a lot, she painted, she gave lessons. She wasn’t alone, you know, there was the Nurse and the five Fanish babies who escaped with her, and there were four other grownup Fanes who turned up later and stayed a while before they got bored and moved on – quite a little band. And then there was me: I used to keep her company often. I don’t sleep that deep in winter, you know, not like the rest of the tribe.’
‘Don’t you?’ Odolghes asked, leaning forward and lifting the curtain of her hair. He sounded very amused by this rather dull piece of information. ‘Neither do I. I always thought that meant…’ And then he laughed and didn’t finish.
‘Doesn’t mean anything,’ the woman said, tossing back her hair and laughing too. ‘We could be full, or we could be only half. What difference does it make? The important thing is, we’ve found each other.’
‘You found me,’ Odolghes corrected, ‘and very grateful I am that you did. You seem to be quite an expert in rescuing Fanes from desperate situations. But…’ And here he paused and his voice turned a little wistful, ‘I sometimes wonder… What about later when things quietened down? Didn’t any of you ever come to look for me? Didn’t she?’
I was beginning, slowly, to realize who this ‘she’ they were talking about was: it was Alexa, my grandmother, Odolghes’ mother. So she hadn’t been killed in the fall of Fànes after all, she had been rescued by this curious creature and had come to live with her in this curious place, well out of sight and reach of her enemies. Not such a bad idea.
‘Of course she did,’ the woman said firmly. ‘She never stopped. But it wasn’t easy: there were Cajute spies all over the place. Messengers to the Miners were sent out dozens of times but each time they had to turn back. And each time, while they were gone, the rest of us had to change our hiding place, just in case the messenger was caught and made to talk. No, it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t very popular either. Then, to complicate matters, when at last one of our best scouts did get through to the Miners’ camp he found it empty and came back with the message undelivered and the news that the Miners had left for good and taken to the road like Wanderers. So? What could our mother do, poor woman? Just sit tight and go on hoping.’
Our mother? Our mother? Yes, of course, how could I have been so silly: this weird underground creature was not the Earth Goddess but my aunt. My Aunt Lujanta, the one who had been stolen from the cradle by an eagle when she was a baby. No wonder she looked so wild. And no wonder my grandmother settled down here and lived with her all those years: they weren’t just rescuer and rescued, they were mother and daughter.
‘It was rather touching really,’ the woman was now saying. ‘Every year, when the spring started, she used to herd us all out into the open and hold a special ceremony in memory of Fànes. She used to light a fire – very risky, but no one dared tell her so – and then circle round it throwing dried mistletoe and stuff onto the flames and chanting, ‘Spirit of Fànes, keep burning, keep burning in our hearts’. I was meant to play the part of an eagle and swoop out of one of the tunnels with my mouth filled with Schniappa, beating my arms like wings, and then spit the Schniappa onto the fire to make the flames flare up, but I felt such a fool I usually managed to persuade one of the children to do it instead.’
‘That was for me,’ Odolghes said rather proudly after a short silence. ‘The eagle stood for me, the Eagle Prince.’
‘Yes, well,’ the woman agreed. ‘Probably it did. But I still felt a fool. The last years luckily she didn’t feel up to it, so I rowed her over the lake instead in a boat, and she threw her mistletoe and whatnot into the water and did her chantings from there. I don’t think she believed in the magic, it was just a way of keeping in touch with the past.
‘When did she die?’ Odolghes asked after another silence.
The woman – Aunt Lujanta, that is – was braiding her hair now, going at it full speed, all twenty toes and fingers flying. She slowed down out of respect. ‘Only three winters ago,’ she said quietly. ‘You’d have had plenty of time to see her if only you’d known. What a shame – for both of you. She talked about you endlessly; I think she missed you more than she did Dolasilla.’
‘Did she?’ Odolghes sounded rather pleased at this news. I could understand the way he felt: my case was different, but I too liked to imagine that my mother, wherever she might be, was missing me and trying to get in touch.
Aunt Lujanta nodded, not briskly but like one who has given proper thought to the matter, and then went on, ‘Of course your marriage would have horrified her. She was always saying, ‘Let’s hope the Miners don’t play false and bind him to that hideous little…’
‘Sssh! Careful,’ Odolghes interrupted, and pointed to the bed where I was lying. ‘The child speaks Fanish, I taught her.’
My aunt must have noticed the raised curtain because she got to her feet and came over to the recess. I pretended I had just that moment woken up, but she wasn’t convinced. ‘Anyway,’ she said, winking at me so that I could see she was trying to undo the damage, ‘it worked out all right because this one’s a poppet. What’s your name, Eaglet’s daughter?’
I told her. Despite the bad beginning I decided I liked her already.
‘Well, Mara,’ she said, bending down over me and enveloping me in a smell that reminded me of dogs’ paws: warm, musty, friendly, not especially clean. ‘You had a narrow escape. Welcome to Morin de Salvans.’
(Chapter 10 coming up next Sunday, June 20th 2010 (If and only if my server works in the sticks where I'm off to)