It was evening. One of those beautiful warm evenings in early autumn when the sun seems to have lost its path and slipped back out of habit into its summer ways: burning, lingering, flooding the mountains with a bright pink light that streams off their flanks and reaches everywhere, even - just a flush of it – into the deepest crevices and valleys.
I remember this because I remember afterwards, when the sun set, how grey it was and how cold – despite the furnace. And I remember because of the Raietta and the way it sparkled in the last slanting rays, catching the light on one of its faces and tossing it off again from another in a shaft of rainbow colours, before it too, along with all the other stones, lost its glow.
If I could forgive Tarlui the actual wrongs he did (which I can’t and don’t think I ever shall be able to) I still couldn’t forgive the way he set about breaking the news to us: sitting down like that on the bench outside the forge where the chuffs perch in winter, in the dwindling patch of sunlight, and taking the bundle out of his sleeve, or wherever it was he was keeping it, and unwrapping the folds of material and shaking them free and letting the light from the jewel within suddenly blaze forth with its terrible message. Words, however cruel, would have been kinder. But words were unnecessary. We already knew what was inside the package: Lidsanel’s mother’s wedding present; her ‘trinket’, her dying gift to her baby son.
And when I saw the gift I recognized it under another name: the Raietta. It was the Raietta – the stone that my mother Sommavida had taken with her as bartering tender when she had left the camp. (Which meant… Or did it? Or did it mean nothing? Quick, pass on. Do as you do when the ice is cracking underfoot: jump, do not tarry or you will fall through one of the cracks and be lost for ever.) And when I saw the look on Tarlui’s face - a look of calm, amused and absolute triumph – I recognized him too. The various bit of information had been there all along, lying separate in my mind like so many shards: greed, gold, age, danger; magic stone, black moon, white, all white hair – more unusual in men than in horses. Now, suddenly, they came together to form a whole. I even remembered the name. ‘You’re Mulebones,’ I said in a voice that seemed to come from someone else standing way behind me: hushed, remote, almost dreamlike. ‘You’re not Tarlui at all, you’re my father’s tutor Mulebones. You’re Mulebones the traitor.’ Then, louder, seeing that the words had no effect on the man (if man he was) save to sharpen the curve of his placid, waxen smile, ‘What do you want from us, Mulebones?’
‘Oh, now!’ He said in the gentlest voice imaginable. ‘What a question! Nothing so very terrible, my Lady. Nothing that you will not be able to give. And be willing to give, unless I am much mistaken.’ Here he paused and twirled the stone in his hand so that the single multicoloured ray seemed to split into dozens, each one shedding a light brighter than the core of the sinking sun itself. ‘Yes, willing to give. I’m not sure about his Lordship here,’ and he tilted his head towards where Lidsanel was standing, giving me a wink as if he and I were accomplices and Lidsanel our dupe, ‘but you, Lady Mara, will already have begun to grasp the nature of the pretty little knot into which you have tied yourselves, you and your… What shall we call him? Husband? Yes, let us continue for a while to call him your husband. However, have no fear: your secret is safe with me. And I, in a manner of speaking, am safe with your secret. I think we will find a very comfortable way of putting it to rest on the one side and to fruit on the other. Rest, fruit. How neat that is. Do you follow me, or do I go too fast?’
No, I will never forgive his cruelty, never, never, never. He – Tarlui, Mulebones or whichever his name was – took such relish in my puzzlement; in watching my mind run, like a captured mouse that still figures it is free, from place to place, from thought to thought, only to end in the jaws of the inevitable conclusion that I hesitate, even now, to write down on paper. (And not only for reasons of pickles and discretion.) I know this because I watched him watching, and read the pleasure in his eyes, dazed though I was and milky bland though they were. My grandmother depicts him as cold, unfeeling, uninterested in human beings except as counters to be moved around on the board of his ambition, but I think she was mistaken. I think vapours lay coiled inside him instead: hot, poisonous vapours of hatred, hungry to break forth and destroy everything they touched.
Lidsanel’s figure had in the meantime become a blur to me. Mercifully, because I didn’t want to watch him blundering through the maze alongside me: my own course was painful enough as it was. ‘I don’t know what secret you mean,’ I finally managed to say, using as firm a voice as I could summon. ‘Lidsanel and I have no secrets. And why, pray, should you not refer to us as husband and wife? That is what we are, aren’t we?’
Only the last two words I added after a pause and in a different tone, and immediately wished I hadn’t. They made me feel even faster in Tarlui’s clutches. ‘I wonder,’ he said in reply, lifting his feet so that they stuck out before him, and tapping them together like a gleeful child. ‘Interesting point. Yes, I wonder. Let me see now: if a mother has a daughter, and then goes off and leaves her and has a son; and if daughter and son grow up separately, unaware of each other’s existence, and meet later on as strangers, or so they think; and if…’
A noise interrupted him, and I realised to my surprise that it was a kind of gurgle coming from my own throat. It was a ghastly noise but I seemed unable to stop it. I looked across at Lidsanel, suddenly desperate for contact, but already it was as if a chasm had opened up between us. His eyes stared straight into mine without seeing me at all. ‘Stop that,’ was all he said in a funny dull voice. Then, when at last I had stopped, he turned to Tarlui and in the same voice said, ‘What’s all this? Say it again, would you – that bit about the daughter and the son.’
‘No, don’t! I screamed. It wasn’t that I thought Lidsanel hadn’t understood: I just didn’t want to hear the words repeated. Because I already knew, you see, even through they came from the mouth of a traitor and a thief and a liar, that the thing they hinted at was true.
And so did Lidsanel. ‘Yes, do,’ he insisted. He sounded even stranger now, almost as if he was laughing. ‘Pay no heed to her, old man, do what I say instead. Go ahead and tell everything you’ve got to tell. I’m all ears. All big, big goblin ears.’ And he put his fingers to his ears and wobbled them up and down. I thought the shock must have sent him mad.
Tarlui too seemed, just for the space of a breath, to be a little taken aback by such odd behaviour but he soon recovered his poise. Addressing himself to Lidsanel now he repeated the words that had fetched the gurgle from my mouth. Only not in ‘if’ form this time but in ‘once upon a time’ form, as if they were part of a story. ‘Many years ago now,’ he said, ‘twenty four to be precise, a small dark lady of sloppy habits but the very highest rank gave birth to a little girl – well, quite a big girl really, she was, considering. Now, for reasons nobody ever told me, but which the Lady Mara here’ (a mocking bow in my direction) ‘might be able to supply, half a dozen or so years after the birth of their daughter this same lady suddenly left her husband and child – or perhaps it was the other way round and they left her – and took to roaming the woods like the poorest of Wanderers. Only,’ and he gave another spin to the Raietta to mark what he was saying, ‘with a little difference: namely that she wasn’t really poor at all but had with her, sewn into the lining of her waistband, one of the biggest and brightest and most valuable jewels that has ever been seen.
‘This lady also,’ he went on after a leisurely pause (he could have paused all night and still kept our attention and he knew it) ‘had something else under her waistband, something in her eyes even more precious that was to cause her a great deal of trouble in months to come. She had a child, another child, a boy this time: a large, heavy-boned baby boy, far too big for her to be delivered of him in the natural way that other babies take. Aie! Aie! Poor lady! What a fix! Her life, or the life of her child!’ And he paused again and smiled at Lidsanel, who to my amazement smiled back.
If turning your mouth into a blade shape and uncovering your teeth can be called a smile. ‘How did it get there, old man?’ he hissed softly at Tarlui through the teeth. ‘How did the child get there? Who put it there and when?’
Tarlui pretended to look nonplussed, but you could see it was just another way of spinning out the fun. ‘Who?’ he said. ‘When? How? What questions you do ask, my son. Anyone would think your parents had never told you…’ Then, still feigning, but this time with a different emphasis, he clapped a hand to his brow, the way players do but nobody else to my knowledge, and added hurriedly, ‘Ah, I see what it is. I’ve as good as said it. My son, eh? Your parents, eh? You want to know about your father – who he… whether he… Yes, naturally you do, naturally. How inconsiderate of me. Well, my son,’ and he repeated the term deliberately, it obviously tickled him so, ‘I can oblige you there in any manner of ways. You have only to say which one you would prefer. We can have the poor lonely straying Princess Sommavida taking up with almost anyone we like: a hunter, a shepherd, a pedlar, a hulking great Trusani soldier who only stayed long enough to pass the time of day. Or a medical man, yes, a medical man like myself, why not? What an enviable position to be in, I do declare: it’s not everyone who can choose their own father.’
Tarlui’s tinted eyelashes beat rapidly as he looked at Lidsanel and then away again. For a second time I had the feeling that something in Lidsanel’s bearing or behaviour had thrown his listener – slightly, very slightly - off balance. ‘What was that?’ he asked. ‘Ah, I see, you don’t like the thought of your mother flitting fancy-free through the valleys, forgetful of her Lord and husband? No, I suppose you wouldn’t. Well, then, there’s always the other option. But think hard, my son, before you pick it. A prince for a father is all very fine, but what would that make you and Lady Mara? Full brother and sister, that’s what. And what would that make of the child that is to be born? I will tell you, it would make it an outrage against nature, a monster, an abomination. Did you know that such infants, as a mark of their shame, are generally born with the head of an animal in place of a human one? Often a lizard’s, I don’t know why. Or else a pig’s, or a sheep’s, it depends. Did you know that they are sometimes born without a head at all? Oh, yes, they are. And did you know that in all cases they are sickly and diseased and suffer the most terrible pains all their short lives long on account of…’
How long this game would have continued it is hard to say, but I imagine Tarlui, like all practised tormentors, would have gone on racking his victims for as long as he dared without one of them actually tearing under the strain. (And here he may have miscalculated because Lidsanel did tear, perhaps had already torn.) If this was Tarlui’s plan, however, I spoiled things for him by reaching straight away the very worst conclusion. It took no reasoning or guesswork on my part: my memory did it for me. One moment I was there in the fading sunlight, all my attention on Tarlui’s chalky lips to catch what they were saying over the purr of the smithy ovens, and the next I was back in the camp with Odolghes on the evening we set off on our quest, watching my mother sink to her knees in the firelight and make over her belly that clutching gesture that had struck me as peculiar even then. Not the stomach ache, no, of course not, but the knowledge that she was carrying a second child. Odolghes’ child, my brother Lidsanel.
For some reason, when I cut short Tarlui’s filthy blatherings and told Lidsanel the truth, I felt as if I was bringing him good news, not bad. And as such he seemed to receive it. I reckon anything was preferable to him at that moment to being Tarlui’s son, and I reckon he was right. He gave a great sigh and then bent his neck from one side to the other and flexed his shoulders, as if a real weight like an ore sack or a load of wood had been lifted from them. (Or as if he had removed a metal arm. How could I have failed to recognize him all this time: at that instant he was so like Odolghes it could actually have been him, come back for his revenge.) I waited for him to speak – I longed for him to speak – but he said nothing. Plans of any kind always filled his head completely, leaving room for nothing else, and I realize now that that was what he was doing: planning, trying to create a little foothold of future for us – for me and the baby.
It’s sad that no more tenderness was ever to pass between the two of us again, but there it is. And it’s agonizing sometimes that so many blanks in the story were left unfilled, so that although I can piece together many parts without difficulty, other parts remain loose and jagged and always will. Tarlui was called in for the birth of Lidsanel, for example; he got that far with his account, and that far I believe he was telling the truth. But who called him? Who did my mother live with in the last months of her time? Where did she find shelter? What company did she keep? I tell myself that if only I knew, I could go and seek out whoever it was and put my questions to them instead. But it’s a vain hope: the answers lie buried in the depths of Tarlui’s carbon heart. Was the birth really as difficult as he made out? Was it really a matter of saving my mother’s life or the child’s? And if so, was it really and truly my mother who made the choice, or did Tarlui step in, the way he did on other occasions, and steer things in the direction he wanted. (By which I mean – though it hurts to say it to myself so starkly - did he kill her? Knowing how precious they were, did he kill her in order to steal from her the child and the Raietta? Or is his version true, and did she entrust him with both her treasures to take care of, of her own free will?)
I shall never know. Just as I shall never know either about the Fever, and whether Tarlui simply sat himself down outside our gates and waited – patiently, day after day, month after month – for the disease to break out of its own accord, or whether by some secret method only he was capable of using (brewing it out of those disgusting powders of his maybe, or uncorking it from one of his bottles) he actually caused it. That he tried to bring about my death that way, is one of the few things of which I am absolutely certain, but as news it’s of no interest to me any more, let alone help. All it tells me is, one, that Tarlui did indeed consider me about as important as a pot fowl, to be done away with as need arose; and two, that before the fatal day by my bedside when the other (far better, far surer) plan first began to form itself in his mind, he must have had the intention of setting Lidsanel on the throne in my place and using him as a puppet.
Which just shows what a strange thing cleverness is, and how someone can know all sorts of difficult things – like, exactly, mixing poisons and brewing up diseases and so forth – and yet not know the first thing about a person they have lived with for years and watched turning from a little, biddable child into a full-grown man with a mind and a will of his own. Tarlui evidently feared nothing – from either of us. If he had done so, not only would he have chosen a different place for our meeting but he would have taken some further precaution, constructed some trap, left a sealed packet with a third person, containing our dreadful secret: ‘To be Opened in the Event that an Accident Should Befall the Writer’. Something like that. It is what I would have done myself in his position, and I am not a vastly old magician of vast experience and cunning like he was.
Although, wait. Perhaps he did leave a message. Perhaps that was what he was trying to tell us with such urgency as Lidsanel bore down on him and swept him towards the entrance of the forge. I don’t know; it’s difficult to say now, it all happened so fast. And Lidsanel was so quick to muffle the voice, almost as if he didn’t trust himself, should he hear it, not to obey its commands or believe its lies. All I remember hearing, and that not very distinctly, was something to do with Fate and Punishment and our sins ‘Coming to Light’ unless Lidsanel freed Tarlui that instant. Which is the sort of thing a man in that position would have said anyway.
And then I myself was making such a racket, screaming with my mouth wide open one long, uninterrupted, Noooooooh!!!! Like my mother’s cry when Odolghes and I left her, only deeper, worse. I wasn’t certain yet what Lidsanel planned to do, but I knew it was something terrible, life-rending, from which there would be no turning away, no recovering, no going back. I could tell by the way he acted: deft but at the same time uncontrolled, if you know what I mean, as if his body was an empty carriage careering down a hillside: no brakes and no one driving. He leapt on Tarlui like a wildcat, fell on him like a fiend – laughing, shouting, roaring, you couldn’t really say which. He leapt on him and – just like Odolghes had done with Tusky over the business of the tree, although with more effort because Tarlui was bigger – hoisted his opponent into the air and twisted him sideways and placed him under his arm, pinning him so tight that Tarlui’s hands and feet could do nothing but claw and kick the empty air.
His free arm he then clamped over Tarlui’s face, covering the mouth entirely and pressing the neck back so that it looked as if it must snap. (Blocking on the instant, as I said, the flow of words, and with it any last chance Tarlui might have had of talking himself free.) Then with his burden he ran, light-footed, almost skipping, straight into the forge. There was only one furnace going at this time of day: the big one, stoked to bursting point to keep it burning through the night.
He screamed something at me in passing – probably that I was to help him open the oven door, or pass him some instrument that the Smelter used for this purpose – but I was screaming so hard myself I didn’t catch his meaning. Nor would it have made much difference if I had: it takes four men, wrapped up in wadding from head to foot, to shift aside the door of the main furnace.
I ran close on his heels but his fury seemed to give him wings, and by the time I entered the forge and discovered his whereabouts he had already accomplished what he had set out to do. Half accomplished, that is, for he was still clinging to the scorching surface of the furnace door with all his strength, and Tarlui – or that part of Tarlui I could still see and recognise – was still writhing.
I stood there, numb, helpless, watching it happen. I have a feeling I went on screaming, because my throat was sore for days afterwards, but I could be wrong: I could just have watched in silence and the soreness could have come from tears. Slowly, so slowly it seemed to take forever, Tarlui’s writhing turned to twitching and then stopped altogether. After the last twitch, so feeble it was just a tremor really, Lidsanel’s frame seemed to relax and his hold on the door to slacken, although by now I think he must have been past feeling. I hope so anyway. With a last scrap of willpower - that may not even have been that, merely his body adjusting itself to death – he shifted himself closer to the lethal surface and spread his arms across it in what looked like an embrace. And when I saw his head also, which so far had remained upright and defiant, roll against the door and stay there in apparent comfort, I too relaxed, knowing that it was over.
Not until the sharp smell of burning hair reached my nostrils did I stir myself, and then it was only to wander out into the open, calling vaguely – not for help, there was no question of that, but for assistance in recovering what was left of the bodies. Luckily, before anyone answered my call, I must have noticed the Raietta lying where it had fallen from Tarlui’s grasp in the struggle, and must have picked it up and put it away in my pouch together with the other stone – the iron-finding stone that I kept there always - because it was there that I found it, days later, when I finally shed my clothes. Its presence would have complicated the sad simple story of an accident, which was how I explained things to the rest of the tribe when they gathered round. Poor frail old Tarlui stumbling against the furnace by mistake, and brave young Lidsanel giving up his life in a vain attempt to save his father… It made a very moving tale.
So moving that no one thought to consider the details, like the severity of the burns and the curious lack of Tarlui’s footprints in the sandy floor. Nor to wonder at the depth of my despair. Sometimes I wish I had been called Zita, it would have made this type of tag more difficult to invent, but M’s are plentiful in Miner language and I now began to be known as Mara the Miserable. People praised my courage, but I don’t know that I could have gone on for long in that fashion: my monster child inside me, growing and growing, and my heart shrinking and shrinking for the want of Lidsanel and the horror of what had happened to our love. There was no one I could talk to, you see, no one at all.
Indeed had it not been for Aunt Lujanta I might not have managed. But, with her trick of appearing at exactly the right moment, she turned up one day, just like that, with a crowd of followers in tow and announced that she had come to live with us, true to the promise she had made to Odolghes at the time of their parting. She brought a plan with her too, which I think, even more than the novelty and the company, was what kept me going through the bleak and lonely months ahead. We were to return to Fànes. Miners, Salvans, Fanes, half-breeds and quarter-breeds all blended together like the ingredients of a pudding – we were to return to Fànes and start the rebuilding of our future homestead. Metal work would continue but new hands brought new skills and we would do other things as well for a living: carpentry, wood carving, dairy farming and the rearing and training of sled dogs, just to name the most important. Heedful of our mistakes in the past we would make gold and work gold, but we would sell the product afterwards, not hoard it in a chest, and the same went for jewels. We would make no war unless forced to do so at spear point, we would build no walls, we would carry no weapons. Settlers, travellers, strangers – all would be welcome provided they were clean and busy and healthy and (my condition: you can’t play too safe with wizards) did not dye their hair. Instead of Rock or Stronghold or Castle we would call it the Refuge, the Refuge of Fànes.
And it is from here, from the Refuge of Fànes, that I write these words. We moved in nearly a month ago now, on the third day of spring. Then I could see my toes still – just. This morning all I could see was the outline of a pair of little heels straining against the skin of my stomach as the child moves around inside. The moment is close; it is very, very close. In fact it is so close, and the child has gone so still of a sudden, and I am so scared and tired and heavy that I’m not sure I won’t put away my writing things for today and…
Oh, Spirit of Fànes that my grandmother called on in her exile, help me. I have no fire, no mistletoe, no Schniappa, no eagle’s wings, I don’t even know what words to use to invoke you, but help me, please. Help my lizard-headed baby. Help us all.
He is born. He is beautiful, healthy, whole. There is nothing wrong with him at all. No lizard’s face, no cleft tongue, no blemish whatsoever - although he is covered in wrinkles. But Aunt Lulu says all babies are and he will smooth out later. I’ve been shaking like a leaf ever since out of relief and happiness.
I don’t know what I shall call him yet: there is time; there is plenty of time.
This morning I make this last entry in my book before wrapping it up in rushes and burying it. Aunt Lujanta has already prepared the place. She went down before daybreak into one of the cellars and came up again, her fingernails rough and grubby, a smile on her face as wide as a fishpan. ‘Look what I’ve found,’ she said. ‘They must have been hidden there on purpose when the Fanes left. My mother must have done it. I thought the spot looked soft, that’s why I chose it. Now this, I should imagine,’ (shaking out a horrid matted object that rattled and gave off a cloud of sandy dust) ‘is her famous chamois-horn headdress. And this must be Dolasilla’s crown with the ruby the Miners sent as a gift.’ She examined it critically. ‘Hmm. It is, I must say, rather mingy for a royal present.’
She was about to add something else but I beat her to it. It was so very obvious. The Raietta. We must replace the ruby with the Raietta; put back the Raietta in the crown where it belonged. An old/new emblem for an old/new kingdom. Under its lucky beam Fànes would indeed live again. I fished out the famous stone from the bag where I had been keeping it all this while and passed it to Aunt Lujanta who said, Whew! and ‘Ciara mo!’ and held it up against my forehead.
‘Perfect,’ she said, meaning of course the stone. Then she looked closer. ‘But wait,’ she added. ‘What are those little dirty bits? Those scratchy lines that make that shadow on the wall? A jewel like this shouldn’t have flaws in it, surely?’ And she twisted the Raietta this way and that until it caught the full light from behind, and there, reflected on the wall, appeared the legend:
Odolghes ¬+ Sommavida
Lidsanel + Mara
The Child of Shame
Lidsanel’s and my brief and branchless family tree. Our sins ‘Coming to Light’ exactly as Tarlui had foretold. Only, fortunately, with only Aunt Lulu and myself to see the stain.
Aunt Lulu whistled and said, ‘Ciara mo’ again, this time more softly. ‘There’s malice for you,’ she said. ‘Stinking old bonebag, I hope he’s watching.’ Then she turned to me and took my hand and led me across the one-time courtyard, still strewn with odds and ends of baggage, and down a flight of rocky stairs into the cellars from which she had come. The candle she had used earlier for her exploring work was still there burning beside the pit she had dug. ‘Look, Mulebones!’ she cried. ‘Wherever you are, watch me, watch what I am doing!’ And with a quick flick of her wrist she threw the Raietta into the hole, spat after it contemptuously, and started filling in the hole with sand.
This gave me an idea. I reached into the bag at my waist and drew from it the other stone - more valuable still and the cause of far more trouble: even Odolghes had admitted that – and held it over the pit, waiting for Aunt Lulu’s approval before throwing it inside. I even made a little speech for her benefit, filled with the noble notions her plan had inspired in me: all races together, no more greed, no more strife, no more walls, just a village with an inn at its centre, open to all comers.
But she stopped me before I had finished, took the magic iron-finding stone from my hand and put it back in its place at my waist. ‘Nice idea,’ she said, smiling Odolghes’ smile, ‘if we were living in a story. In real life it would just be daft. We can’t go backwards, Mara, remember that. Difficult though it may be we must always go ahead.’
So that is where I hope we are directed – all of us, the new Fanes of the new Fànes, and our children and our children’s children, years without number. I hope. I sperun, i sperun tagn.
(And that's it for now! New story coming shortly - end of August or thereabouts. Have a good summer meanwhile, signed amanda)