Sunday, 27 June 2010



In a way – in many ways, indeed in almost all save one – instead of beginning a whole new part of it I wish I could finish my story here. Just adding a little tailpiece to say that the storm in the mountains was the last danger that ever threatened us, and that after we got back home to Mill Brook Odolghes and I settled sown to a quiet, regular, humdrum life: he looking after the Miners and getting good contracts for them and sorting out their squabbles, and me looking after him and doing my lessons and receiving a pair of gold earrings on my next birthday, and another on the next, and so on until my lobes were loaded with them. No more adventures, no more changes, nothing to break the peace except the usual workaday upsets like collapsing tunnels and the odd trapped leg and corroded toe.

Unfortunately, though, our mother the Earth Goddess, or whoever it is decides these things, had different plans, and of changes and upsets we were to see all too many all too soon. Barely a month after our return Odolghes went and married this Friska woman he had been making up to, and she came to live with us and took over the running of the household. Altering all our habits and shifting our possessions and – probably without malice, merely because with my mother still unaccounted for she was unsure of her position – digging a kind of invisible ditch between Odolghes and myself which neither of us was ever really able to fill in again, not completely. We used to make up songs together, for instance, almost every night before I went to bed; Friska stopped that, she said the music made her mopey. We used to laugh together about silly things that happened during the day; Friska stopped that too by asking, every single time, what it was we were laughing about and then staring at us with wide blank sheepy eyes when she was told. If I was given something, she wanted it too: bigger, better. If I had a ring she wanted a bracelet, if I had a new dress she wanted three. At first Odolghes tried to find time for both of us, but days were short and he was busy, and eventually, to my surprise and disappointment, it was the new wife who won most of his attention. If I’d known more about marriage I would have understood and waited for the Dove Days to pass, but I was ignorant and proud and my nose was badly out of joint, so I turned my back on Odolghes, pretending it was me who had no time for him and not the other way round. Then it was he who took offence, and so it went on.

These were private changes that touched the lives of just the three of us. The other changes, which started up a little later, were not only to touch but rock, and in some cases wreck, the lives of everyone. It was round about the time Friska’s first son was born, if I remember rightly. (She had three sons altogether: Handsome, Huge and Strongbones – not names I would have chosen myself). Yes, it was round about then that we started having what Odolghes called Rich People’s problems. First it was just hungry outside workers turning up now and then looking for a day’s hire. Then it was beggars hanging around on the outskirts of the settlement, scavenging among the slops, seeking leftover food and cast-off clothes. Then it was Outcasts creeping out of the woods at night, clanking their bells, terrifying everyone. Then a whole group of hangers-on of various kinds came and camped in the field on the opposite side of the road, practically on our doorstep, refusing to be shooed away.

We put up with them all, bearing them like an oak tree does its mistletoe: Odolghes said it was our duty – the price we had to pay for being so strong and thriving so well. We were not to fill these people’s bellies for them - that would be foolish – but we were not to leave them empty either, because that would be wrong. We must ride a middle course. Like the tree and the creeper, we must learn to live together.

And so we did, on our side, for a while. Only need is a powerful spur, and not very long after the arrival of the campers the thefts started. Food, tools, poultry, odds and ends of jewellery, and finally someone broke into the gold store itself and tampered with the padlock on one of the chests (which luckily held). This caused such outrage that some of the older Miners wanted to go back to Aurona on the spot, regardless of discomfort; but eventually it was decided by vote that we would stay where we were and build a proper wall instead – all around the settlement. Shutting us in and shutting trouble out.

A good idea? Probably not, seeing that trouble, when it came, came over or under or through the wall (we shall never know which) as if it were not there at all. But at the time it seemed we had no choice. Just as we had no choice, once the wall was in place, but to man it. Which meant forming a guard. Which meant training the Miners to become soldiers and to carry arms themselves instead of merely digging up the metal to make them for other people. (Which meant, incidentally, great fun for Odolghes, who I’d never seen so happy as he was then, turning his diggers into warriors insofar as he was able.) But military strength, like the sword which is its emblem, had two edges: it makes you feel safe, but it makes your neighbours feel uncomfortable; it fends off attackers, but at the same time it encourages other forces to attack who otherwise might never have thought it worth their while. I won’t say our new defences led us into war – despite what the songs say, our ‘battles’ were never anything more glorious than a few scuffles over firewood with the Latrones, and a night raid or two from bands of travelling robbers which we beat off easier than a swarm of gnats – but they put us on a different, more prickly footing with our former friends. People still came to do deals with us, but they came in bigger groups now and kept their weapons by them and rode off as soon as the deal was struck. They no longer unsaddled their horses and sat down by our fires to warm themselves, calling for a song, or asking to be shown a pair of Miner feet so that they could marvel over them. The Wanderers too, when they came by with their wares, no longer pinched our children and called them names. We were not just metal-grubbers now, to be hired for a task and then left to our own devices, we were a proper fighting tribe like all the others, to be reckoned with, respected, and by the same token mistrusted and feared.

I remember these years as being long and empty, and (although it is silly to think of years as having colours) in my memory they form a large sort of brownish grey path like the stripe on the back of a donkey. Silent, awkward, resentful of my little brothers and yet deeply fond of them, I was no longer looked on as the heir to anything, except possibly Odolghes’ role of singer when his voice went. Sommavida’s name was mentioned less and less often and then pretty well forgotten; mine went back to being Mara the Mongrel or, occasionally, Mara the Moody or Mara the Mute. Friska, who love to poke fun at me, put about word that I was in love and shy on that account, but this was untrue, I felt no attraction to my male companions at all. Partly, I suppose, due to the fact that I had grown so tall I could only see their scalps most of the time, and partly (mostly?) because they felt no attraction towards me.

I don’t know what my life would have been if the disaster hadn’t happened when it did. There was a woman among us called Sarry who’d never married and belonged to no particular family and did no particular job and whom everybody used as a kind of spare aunt, dumping their babies on her when they were busy and getting her to do their mending and stuff: I suppose I would have ended up like her. Minding my brothers for Friska, helping Odolghes with his reckonings, counting things for Tusky, doling things out, cleaning things up, storing things away. Knitting mining mittens perhaps in my spare time if I was granted any – clickety, clickety, click.

Instead, at the age of sixteen and a bit, I suddenly found myself, in the space of a few horrendous days, seated on the newly gilded throne left empty by Odolghes, ruling in his place. Oh, the nightmare of it all. The speed, the shock. The sufferings of those that went. And the dreadful, aching loneliness of those others, like myself, who remained. For almost a year afterwards I would wake up in the morning unawares and then recoil, like someone lobbed by a swinging sack of sawdust, as the terrible weight of reality hit me. I don’t know why I couldn’t have kept the memory in my head while I slept, it would have been better. But no, for some reason I had to wake up happy and then go through bereavement afresh each time.

The disaster began harmlessly enough, almost comically, with just a chorus of sneezes. Everyone was sneezing that morning. Choo! went the cook into the junket. Choo! went Odolghes as he helped himself and the others and passed around the bowls. Snissh! went Friska as she blew on the children’s portions. Whh… whh… whharrgh! went the other breakfasters, one after the other. I had a cold already and had had it for days and I was past the sneezing stage. I mopped Handsome’s none too handsome nose for him and told him not to laugh and to get on with his meal. Outside in what was now the courtyard, the second mining shift was preparing to relieve the first, and you could hear ‘Watchoo!’s issuing like trumpet blasts from dozens of noses.

‘It’s like the nits,’ Friska remarked. ‘It’s catching.’

And so it was, but it was not like the nits. By mid-morning several of the mineworkers had come back, pleading headaches. There was a bit of grumbling from their replacements, some of whom were also feeling off colour, but no real objections; the sick workers were sent off to the kitchens where the work was lighter and the air warmer, and that for the time being was that.

Odolghes too had a headache. I remember because I was with him that morning, helping with the bookwork, and halfway through he pulled off his Chief’s headdress saying it was too heavy. It was made of feathers, as I think I’ve already said: it weighed hardly anything at all. By noon he, my three brothers, and a score of others had given up resisting and taken to their beds. It was snuffling now, instead of sneezing, to be heard on every side. Snuffling and one or two moans.

Friska was still bustling around – she didn’t give up till the morning of the next day when the second batch was struck – and we did the rounds of the sickrooms together. None of the snufflers had an appetite, and none of them was so bad that they couldn’t reach the squat-pail, so there wasn’t really much for us to do in the way of nursing. Their heads hurt, that was all, and their noses ran and their eyes tickled and they complained of being too hot; so Friska and I went round with strips of linen soaked in flower-water and spread them on the burning foreheads, and fanned the flushed faces, and pulled to the shutters to keep the light out of smarting eyes, and generally tried to make everyone comfortable and unafraid.

It was easy to be reassuring at that stage. We were unafraid ourselves: what was there to fear in just rheum, a distemper, a collection of runny noses? Not so many of us down together maybe, but we had outbreaks like this every winter. By evening, however, the screaming of the worst affected victims had started, and Oldoghes, in whom the disease seemed to run fastest of all, had begun holding his head the way he’d done on the day his memory came back, and rolling about on the floor of his room. Not screaming – he didn’t scream until he’d lost the knowledge of who he was and what his duty was as Chieftain – but groaning quietly, moaning, begging for something to be done to ease the pain.

It was the prologue to panic. The sick screamed; those on their way to sickness screamed too, knowing what they were in for; and the healthy screamed for the poor screamers – children, sisters, mothers, brothers – watching their agony grow and grow, unable to understand what was happening, powerless to help.

Tusky, drained of all his colour so that his knobbly face under his hat looked like a dusty old cauliflower, said he’d heard his grandfather speak of the disease, or one very like it. It was called Brain Fever because the brain was where it lodged, and it was the worst and deadliest illness in the world – worse than the Cheese Sickness that makes holes all over your skin, worse than Rabies, worse than the Bone-rot that tormented the poor Outcasts. There was no remedy for it and no safeguard against it and precious few recoveries either: once you’d got it you were as good as gone. We were lost, he said between sobs, taking my hand and squeezing it (and then, forgetting he was still holding it, raising it to his mouth and chewing on it instead of his own). Lost. Condemned. Done for, all of us. It was the end of the Miner people, the worst end our cruel Goddess could devise for us; u fin du Ratt was nothing in comparison. Farewell, Mistress Mara, and forgive him: while his head was still whole he was going to go and put slag cakes in his pockets and jump in the river. Quicker that way. Quieter. Cooler.

I had always disliked Tusky since the business of the tree. Now I felt I loved him like a dear irreplaceable friend. ‘You can’t do that, Tusky,’ I said. ‘You can’t leave us. There must be something we can do, someone we can turn to? What about the Chief Smelter? He knows all sorts of things about heat and burns and dressings. Why don’t we ask him?’

The tears were coursing down Tusky’s face now and he wiped them away fiercely, still using my hand. ‘Smelter’s low,’ he sniffed. ‘One of the first to go down.’

This was bad news indeed. ‘How about his second in charge, then? What’s his name.. Rudy?’

Tusky shook his head. ‘Rudy’s a rough nugget. Knows nothing beyond his own job.’

‘And Jasper - the one who looks after the horses when they’re poorly?

‘Nagra!’ Tusky dropped my hand at last and waved his own dismissively. ‘Jasper doesn’t know that first thing about horses, he’s scared stiff of them. Anything that crops up, he has to call in Tarlui.’

He pronounced this second name with even more scorn as if saying, Has to call in a rat, or, Has to call in a beetle, but all the same it had a sound to it that made me curious. Perhaps, without registering it, I had heard it already. ‘And who’s Tarlui?’ I asked. ‘And why can’t we call him in too?’

Tusky said, ‘Nagra,’ again and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Tarlui’s just one of the beggar people,’ he explained. ‘Well… their leader, sort of. Their wise man. He knows a thing or two, it’s true, but we can’t ask him in or we’d never get rid of him. Probably gone by now anyway. They all will be, poor blighters, if they’ve got any sense.’

Yes, but what if they weren’t, what if he wasn’t? The position was so dire that, like a pit-worker stranded down a shaft, I was ready to grab at anything that came my way, even a root, even a grass blade, even a spider’s thread. ‘Go and look for him, Tusky,’ I pleaded. ‘Before you jump in the river go and look for this Tarlui or whatever his name is. And if you find him, talk to him, tell him what is happening and see if he can’t come up with some suggestion.’

Tusky looked at me blankly. For a moment I thought he hadn’t followed what I was saying, perhaps hadn’t even heard. Then he shook himself and a few more tears squeezed out of his eyes and began to tumble down his face along the wide wet tracks already drawn. ‘Very well, Mistress Mara,’ he agreed in a tired voice, ‘but it won’t do any good.’

I felt suddenly different, I don’t know why. Hopeful, almost confident. ‘Don’t be such a raven, Tusky,’ I said, but not crossly, merely impatiently, to get him to make haste. ‘That’s something we can’t know until we’ve tried.’

(Chapter 2 will be posted Sunday 4th July 2010)