Misput Fealties: Chapter 2

… Continued from Chapter 1/Cont.

The Next Day

His half-open eyes saw…leaves swaying in the breeze above him, waving to him across the sky, falling to the ground. He lay wrapped in his cloak and listened to the birds while the light hardened into day. The rising sun gave the tops of the trees a golden hue.  Everything was changing; he felt it – feared it – but he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

They set off along the A1067 at a mellow stride, with the early sun warming their backs and birdsong everywhere in the trees. They had gone less than two hundred metres where they stopped by a great patch of brambles and breakfasted on berries. A great thicket, no doubt full of fruit, hid the rubble, but they had no yearning to delve. Locksley Hall had fallen onto hard times after the War, and then it had burned down – a dodgy affair. He could see it as it used to be <Locksley Hall: Images> a cheesy 21st Year-hundred theme park makeover of an earlier manor. After ten minutes or so they stopped eating and walked on. They talked, wiping their mouths and laughing at the mess. Swan tried to pick some seeds out of his teeth with a fingernail.

“Well,” Mavis said. “Are you ready to be a Seer?”

“Yes,” he said. “Kindly.”

“Yes, you are, Swan. ‘You have done well, my young Padowan’!”

They laughed.

“Shouldn’t it be <Done well, my young Padowan, you have. Yes, hmm?>”

“Do not gainsay me.” Mavis giggled. “I’m still your Teacher.” She sighed. “But not for much longer.”

He looked across at her as they walked. Mavis seemed light in mood as if worry had lifted off her shoulders, but she also looked tired and somehow older.

“Your training is over. In truth, I ran out things to teach you months ago, and you’ve already done things that some Seers never do.”

“Thank you, Teacher.”

“Well, I guess it shouldn’t astound,” she went on, looking ahead. “I took more chances with you than I dared with the other two. I let you sleep wearing the Stone from a young age – some folk were shocked – but you’d never known any great fear, and you didn’t have any bad dreams.”

(Or did she say ‘many’? He couldn’t think back which, later, when it seemed important.)

They came to a road junction. Straight ahead, the A1067 began to skirt the borough in a wide sweep to the right; to the left, the Norwich Road went straight into Fakenham through houses with allotments on either side. They kept left, and their stride slowed right down as they were greeted by everyone, dwellers and fellow wayfarers alike. Everyone knew Mavis and her learner; they smiled and waved and greeted them warmly, and they all looked at Swan as if they knew him and what was going on.

Everyone chatted to Mavis and told her some gossip, most of which they knew already. Had they heard? So-and-so sent their best; Missy had had the baby, a boy/girl/stillborn. Granny had died; their eldest was now a learner miller. It had been a good harvest; there was a new fishing boat in the wick; what’s-his-name had run off with next door’s missus. That odd-looking kid down the road was causing woe again; old Pa Scrote was always pissed now, etcetera, etcetera and et-bloody-cetera. Everyone knew everyone else’s business and made comment upon it: a tight fellowship – how kind.   

At last, they turned off the thoroughfare and made it to the Blacksmith’s, an aged, yellow-brick house next to some old trading units. Mavis smiled at Swan’s scowl and squeezed his arm. She knocked on the door and it was opened by the smith, who grinned and pulled Mavis into his arms, whereupon she burst into tears and sobbed into his chest. They had ended up at this house every few weeks for as long as Swan had known, but he wasn’t used to Mavis getting so overwrought when she saw Buck, and, for the first time, he felt that he was in the way.

Sadly, that’s it for now!

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Misput Fealties: Chapter 1/Cont

…Continued from Chapter 1.

…Still around the Campfire

They sat about the fire; Mavis sat on her pack and Mrs Thursford on his, while Swan knelt to cook the hares. When he reckoned them ready, he put them on the leaves and gave Mrs Thursford the first. She politely said no, saying she had already eaten, so Mavis took it and he took the other. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, with a banana leaf to keep the hot fat from dripping on his breeches, he put the blade of his knife in the fire and then used it to cut off bits of meat. The women talked about the weather, the goodness of the harvest, Mrs Thursford’s kin, nearby goings-on and characters, traders and rovers who had gone by, most of whom his Teacher knew, and a host of other things. Swan listened carefully, using the Stone to tally up their words for later, knowing that when they were on the road tomorrow Mavis would ask him about what they had said. The farmer’s flask of cider helped their chat flow; inevitably, the talk turned to the Holiday and his heed sharpened.

Mrs Thursford thought it would be good this year. Both the first and second harvests had been full, so folk had plenty put by for the winter and some to spare, and no fireball had landed on the Holm for three years now. The late dry weather meant folk from all over the north of the Holm could smoothly get to Fakenham – many had already gone by the farm. All in all, folk had little to worry about and every need to forget the daily grind. It was time to play. Mrs Thursford had met her late husband at the Holiday years ago, and they had married and had their eldest within a year. She then abruptly fell silent, her face ruddy in the firelight. Mavis changed the thread; Swan glanced at the near-empty cider flask.

They looked into the fire for a few whiles in the hush.

As they talked, it had become fully dark, and the mild, dry night swaddled them in friendly blackness.  Mavis put another branch on the fire and asked Mrs Thursford if she would like anything from the Stone. The younger woman replied she would like some of her late husband’s best-liked things if that was all right. He had liked Kipling – you know, the well-known one – and ‘The Boxer’ by Paul Simon; but, unsurprisingly, she wanted to hear ‘Locksley Hall’ first.

Swan sat up straight and tied the Stone onto his forehead, where it warped to fit him. It was thin and black and the shape of the mainland of Africa; in the light of other fires, he’d heard folk say it looked like a glossy tattoo on his skin. He unwound and shut his eyes, before speaking:

<Comrades, leave me here a little, while as yet ‘t is early morn:
Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle-horn.

‘T is the place, and all around it, as of old, the curlews call,
Dreary gleams about the moorland flying over Locksley Hall;

Locksley Hall, that in the distance overlooks the sandy tracts,
And the hollow ocean-ridges roaring into cataracts.>

A bit of artistic licence there. Swan could smell the sea, even though they were <20 kilometres> from the old Norfolk seashore.

The Wensum firth now stretched even to the outskirts of Fakenham, the salt making the lower fields bitter, and the brackish smell reached them on the easterly wind.

< Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

Here about the beach I wander’d, nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time;>

There followed a long block about cousin Amy, his young love, whom the soldier had lost to another. Then there was a long rue where Amy, her husband, their children and society as a whole were berated. He let the Stone do that bit, while he thought of the Forebear relics he would most like to see beyond the Holm: the nearest Sky Tower was in Africa so that was out; a Polywell didn’t look like much; it would be great to see a working Fabber (were there were any left?); and a crashed star-ship was beyond his wildest dreams. Well, he would settle for sight of a Superhighway – it was said they still glowed at night.

< Make me feel the wild pulsation that I felt before the strife,
When I heard my days before me, and the tumult of my life;

Yearning for the large excitement that the coming years would yield,
Eager-hearted as a boy when first he leaves his father’s field,

And at night along the dusky highway near and nearer drawn,
Sees in heaven the light of [Orbital] flaring like a dreary dawn;>

All right, he’d shunned saying the forbidden word, now he could unwind.

< For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;>

Not a bad foretelling for 1835. Or had the writer heard about George Cayley’s early work? He asked the Stone: <No data>. Tennyson shifted into full foresight now.

< Yet I doubt not thro’ the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widen’d with the process of the suns.

What is that to him that reaps not harvest of his youthful joys,
Tho’ the deep heart of existence beat for ever like a boy’s?

Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the shore,
And the individual withers, and the world is more and more.>

Then came twenty stanzas of sexism, racism, sex and foul play, which had brought Western Post-Newfanglists such angst – the Persian War had ended such luxuries.

<Thro’ the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.>

Swan thought Alfred had got that a bit wrong.  After all, the Chinese Year-hundred had seen thinking machines pilot ships to the stars, followed by earthlings. Then he was on the last lap.

< Howsoever these things be, a long farewell to Locksley Hall!
Now for me the woods may wither, now for me the roof-tree fall.  

Comes a vapour from the margin, blackening over heath and holt,
Cramming all the blast before it, in its breast a thunderbolt.

Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow;
For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.>

Much later, Swan would wonder how Alfred Lord Tennyson had foreseen so many things so clearly from Lincolnshire, over the Inland Sea and some five-hundred years before, when he himself had not even guessed what might happen, swept up in happenings there and then. 

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Misput Fealties: Chapter 1

Continued from Prologue 3.

Once Upon a Future Time

They had stopped for the night near the burned-out shell of Locksley Hall. Hedges and trees lined both sides of the crumbling road as it stretched away through the rich, settled farmland. They had chosen to leaguer by a junction on the 1067 A-road, in the shelter of an unkempt hedge in fall hues; by Yule, the leaves would be gone, carried away by the winds. He had set their hearth of stones on a parched grassy patch, facing a farmhouse with black weather-boarding and a red slate roof. Next to it, a crop-dusting plane sat in long grass and played host to a tree growing out of the cockpit.

He lit a fire. It had been oddly dry, hence the early hue in the leaves, and the tinder caught readily. He whistled on the small blaze to grow it and eked plastic flasks gathered from the endless yield the hedgerows plucked from the wind – the fire caught well in the sun-bleached Forebear stuff. Satisfied the fire would not go out, he stood up and broke some branches over his knee while he looked about. His Teacher had gone to call on the farmer over the road, showing fitting etiquette, as a Seer should. He was sure they were having a brew while he set up their leaguer, but that was a learner’s work. He applied himself and wondered what business the evening would bring.

Two snared hares hung from a branch and he set about readying them.

He slid his sharp knife through the fur into the hare’s belly and slit down. Shoving his fingers in to pull the guts out, he threw them onto the fire before turning the animal upside down to ring the shanks and cut between them to the arsehole. He wiped the blade clean on the fur, sheathed it, and carefully skinned the hide off the small body, teasing it off the head and ears. Laying the first hare on some banana leaves, he quickly skinned the second. There was both mint and hedge garlic to stuff them, and the smell made his mouth water. He tied the coneys by the feet to a long stick, which he propped over the fire. While they began to cook, he scraped the hides carefully; these little paws had not been so lucky. Unasked, the memory of his childish tears at killing his first hare came back and his face reddened.

“We only kill what we eat,” he said to himself.

“That’s right, Swan.”

“Oh, you’re – yes, Teacher.” Swan stood, seeing the farmer with her.

Mavis smiled. “You know Mrs Thursford, Swan? She’s kindly let us keep here.”

He carefully wiped and inspected his hand before shaking Mrs Thursford’s.

“Good to meet you, ma’am, won’t you eat with us?”

Mavis looked satisfied.

“Yes, thank you, Mr Abbot,” replied the farmer.

“Kindly call me Swan, Mrs Thursford, I’m still a learner.”

Mrs Thursford smiled and swapped a meaningful look with his Teacher.

My time is coming; it’s almost here.

For months, they had circled Fakenham, and the Holiday started there tomorrow. He would take his oaths and end his learner-ship in his nineteenth year; Mavis would break her Stone in two and give half to him. In only a few months, his half would grow whole and he would be a fully-fledged Seer. Then he could follow Mavis’ other learners, he had heard so much about them, been likened to them often enough, into the wider world and delve about Albion. He thought about it when he woke, at meals, as they walked, as he worked and as he went to sleep. How he longed to see with his own eyes what he had only seen through the Stone, the world outside the Holm, beyond the thrice-yearly circuit that they trudged, oh-so-slowly, about the wicks and small boroughs.

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Misput Fealties: Prologue 3

…Continued from Prologue 2

Corporal Lytchett Miriam Matravers looked at herself in the mirror for the last time.  She checked her spotless dress uniform, put her slouch hat on and squared it. Picking up her gloves, Chet walked out of the room without bothering to shut the door. She was greeted with wolf whistles from the men and women of her squad, who had gathered to see her off.

“Cheers, corp.”

“Bye, corp.”

“Good luck.”

“I’m not gone yet.”

“Yeah, but you’ll be so pissed tonight you won’t know who we are!” This was Blandford, who hoped he was going to succeed her – the others laughed a lot.

“Yeah, well, I won’t be going far.”

She would shift over to the facing block, and her old friend Melbury Bubb would take over as Sergeant in this block. He would be good for them, although she didn’t think he would grant Blandford his wish; Mel could see through him as well as she could. She waved to her soldiers and left the wing, her hard, shiny shoes click-clacking down the stairs and over the linoleum floors to the foreside way in.

She stepped outside to find Lieutenant Loxbeare, her platoon leader, waiting under a cloudy sky. She liked her officer, but they had argued in recent months – Leigh had wanted her to go for officer training rather than waiting for her third stripe. Chet thought it wise but somehow unfair that only women could be officers. She felt she could not look her manly comrades in the eye if she took the smooth way out, as it seemed to her.

She saluted, and the Lieutenant saluted back, smiling. They marched together towards their Regimental HQ. From other barrack blocks, other Corporals and Officers did the same, but each two kept to themselves.

“Congratulations, Chet, you will be the youngest woman Sergeant in the Regiment’s yore.”

“Thanks, Ma’am.” Leigh always wore her feminism on her sleeve.  Chet wondered if her ambition was any better than the old Patriarchy.

“Chet,” she began awkwardly, “I have some bad news about your friend Corporal Bubb.”

The Lieutenant had never liked Mel. “Oh?”

“I’m aghast he’s not getting his third to-”

“Why the hell – ” She fought down her wrath, “ah, why not ma’am?”

“Being as,” said the Lieutenant, “he started a fight in the Capital last month that led to a riot.”

Chet kept her eyes forward. She had heard about Mel’s caper, but thought, as everyone else had, that he’d got away with it.

“He was identified last week and found guilty yesterday. He’s been busted back to Private and sent to the lockup. He won’t be joining you in the Sergeants’ Mess anytime soon.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh’.” They strode on for a few strides. “I’m sorry for you Chet, you were always a good sway over him. You saw the best in him – somehow.”

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Misput Fealties: Prologue 2

…Continued from Prologue 1

… the Story goes on, in Another Time and Place

The young man looked plain enough.  He wore the same clothes as all the other folk and shifted unseen among them as they walked towards the Burg. Their feet boomed as they crossed the metal bridge over the dry ditch, and they slapped on the flat stones under the Westgate.  Two bored soldiers waved them through, but they paid him no heed.  The crowd pressed on towards the marquees set up on the lawn inside the walls, but the youth split off to the right and went to stand behind some bushes at the footing of the wall.  He truly did need to pee; his hand shook as he directed his stream.

When done, he buttoned up his breeches and looked about:  I am alone.  No one had seen him go, let alone hung about waiting for him.  Walking along the inside of the burg wall, he dragged a stick against the stones – he would act like a halfwit if challenged.  He nipped over the gap and slid down the grassy bank to get underneath the great windows, then he crept back towards the meaner openings, windows with bars.

“Teacher,” he hissed.  No answer.

He walked on and tried two more windows, and then the last one.  In answer to his call, bent fingers grasped the black metal bars at the opening; part of a known face came into sight.

“Carl, is that you, boy?”

“Yes, T-Teacher,” he replied, the words catching in his throat. “How are you? Have they treated you well?”

“Well, for now, that’s enough I guess.”

“Is there anything I can get you?”

He waited for an answer and was about to ask again when the old man started talking. His speech wasn’t frightened, only tired.

“Carl, listen to me.  There is no hope for me here and you must go – you must get away from Lincolnshire. The jarl wants me to be his thrall and will stop at nothing to get me, and if he can’t have me he’ll want you.”  The fingers pushed a black shape through the bars.  “Take my Stone boy, I know you haven’t graduated yet, but you can do everything that I can.  I hope you’re old enough to deal with it wisely.  Get out of here and find yourself a new spot to live.  My first learner, Burton Pedwardine, went to Norfolk – you could go to him. Or tell folk that you’ve graduated and set yourself up somewhere. Don’t come back here, whatever you do.”

“But what will they do to you, Teacher?”

“I no longer care,” said the old man. “But I won’t help the Jarl anymore, he’s gone too far.  It’s time for you to go, my son.  Say goodbye and don’t look back: that is my last word to you.”

Carl heard the sadness but also the wisdom of the words. If he stayed, the Jarl could make him help by threatening the old man. He could not let his Teacher down. 

“Goodbye, Teacher.”

The precious Stone went into his bag and he plodded back to the pathway, re-joining some others – punters, traders or pilgrims, he couldn’t tell through eyes filled with tears.  He pressed into the throng and furtively dried his eyes: he must not draw heed.  Carrying on through the crowd, he made it look as if he looked at the stalls and smelt the food, as he passed through. By the time he was outside the walls he knew what to do, even though it was the last thing in the world he wanted: get as far away as he could.

Through the Burg’s main gate, and into the cobbled square.  Down Steep Hill, the quickest way to the busy wharf and the fishing boats.  There, a coin got him on the floating bridge to the other side.  He trudged up the hill, and when he got to the top, turned about and looked back. From the top of the hill, he could see the Burg and the cathedral, all of Lincoln, with the Inland Seas to the east and west, and, below, the gap in the Lincolnshire ridge, where they met.  The city’s narrow finger of land stretched away north. It was all so fair and so unfair.

There was no way back for him now.  

The road headed south on the widening ridge towards Grantham.  He skirted his namesake spot, to keep away folk who knew him and would ask where his Teacher was, because they might soon be asked where he was by the jarl’s men. When he got to the borough, he had to gamble some Seeing – he was out of silver – to give for a bed and supper.  At dawn he was off, aiming to be long gone before any word of him got back to Lincoln.  They had come this way many times together, and he couldn’t believe that it would never happen again. 

He was his own man now, so he gave himself a stiff talking to and swore he would leave Lincolnshire forever – until he could get even with the Jarl for locking up his Teacher.  How the hell am I going to do that? he wondered.  Don’t try, said a voice.  He started.  It must have been the Stone, even though it was in the bag and not about his neck.  Did that mean don’t seek vengeance at all? Let the world unfold and take its way? 

Time would tell. 

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Misput Fealties: Prologue 1

The Story Begins…

Her brother had sung songs — work songs, so proper and not decadent – as they decorated the hall with bunting: black, white, red and green.  Normally she would have sung too, but you never knew who was listening, what they might say about her to undermine the cause.  The meeting was in an old theatre, so when they finished they went backstage, where she changed into traditional dress for the meeting, but she also got to see some of the costumes; the local players had been busy since strict Sharia relaxed.  Seeing the beautiful clothes, touching them, calmed her.  

Father had been out door-knocking with party volunteers, trying to rustle up a good-sized crowd for their leader.  Reporters were covering the whole political circus as it toured the frontier, and they wanted — well, Father insisted — that they all create a good impression.  ‘Momentum’ was his favourite word lately.  She couldn’t remember ever spending much time in their house in Birmingham, but they had been on the road for weeks now.  The Progressive Party was doing well, thanks to his words and its leader’s good looks.  The campaign buzzed along, and Father hoped that, at last, things might change, and Zoners might drag themselves out of the endless confrontation with the nations that surrounded them. 

They would hold part of the meeting in Anglish, as not everyone spoke the official language on the frontier. “The Progressive Party Welcomes Everyone” said the banner over the front entrance, in both Anglish and Arabic.  Father let her speak Anglish at home, so she could help if the speeches got too poetic and the official man could not cope. Playtime over, they watched the stalls and boxes filling up.  Her father looked over the sea of faces — Muslims and Kafirs sat together — and smiled.

“You see, it is possible,” he had said; as if it was as easy as that.

He let go of the curtain and they went backstage.  She had read the Theatre’s opening plaque to practice her Anglish: the Nuneaton Hippodrome had been rebuilt in mid C22 based on the old design, but instead of the original five dressing rooms there was a flexible space with partitions. The open-plan room was full of local notables, and she slipped to the back of the room.  There was a ‘thud’ and she looked down to see a glass paperweight rolling on the floor.  No one else paid it any attention so she knelt to retrieve it before someone trod on it and slipped.   The ring of flowers inside the glass was so beautiful, protected from the ugliness of the outside –

Heavy boots thumped into the room. From inside the theatre itself, screams were silenced by a bang.  She froze.

“Soldiers,” said her father to no one in particular, “and not ours.”  His voice was steady, but she could sense his fear; he had got where he was by being the one who held things together, the still point in any crisis.  She had to do something.  Realising she was by an open doorway she wriggled through and found herself back in the costume store.  Several racks of clothes filled the room, plenty of places to hide; she wriggled under the costumes to the back of the room. Then she crawled forwards again because she could not hear anything back there.

“Everybody keep slack,” a strange voice said in Anglish, “and no one gets harmed, me ducks.”  Did he really say ‘ducks’, she wondered; it sounded like a bad pirate film. Something moved near her and she strangled a cry. The hanging clothes parted, and her brother’s face peered into hers.  They crawled to the back of the room, so they could talk in whispers.

“What’s going on in there?”

“Soldiers from the east — Lincolnshire, I think,” he said.

“They must be after our leader and Father.”  She saw the whole thing: with the Progressives leaderless, the Neocons would win the election.  Then her people would remain isolated, and the conflict would go on and on; they’d heard those words – Father’s words – often enough.  “We’ve got to do something.”

“What?” he wanted to know, “clever words won’t work against muskets and swords.”

“No, I…suppose not.”

Her brother looked satisfied.  The moron thought that girls weren’t supposed to take the lead in their society.  Has he learned nothing? Has he not listened to father at all?  Her eyes narrowed as she realised that her big brother only looked like a man. He would rather stay a victim, see his people lose again than see his sister get above herself.  She looked at him and smiled; she had an idea, and it might even work.

“What are you up to?” he hissed.

“Praise Allah,” she said, “you’re not the only stupid male in the world.”

She kissed her scowling brother, perhaps for the last time.

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