Of Past and Future Ways


She came from mountains as cold and remote as those of the moon, though to hear her talk of them they were not the alien or barren places one would imagine, but places of wonder and delight. There was a blue tint there, she accepted, but dotted about the slopes and valleys were villages and homesteads with numerous windows through which shone many lights from the lanterns and fires that twinkled through the twilight. More yellow than the stars in the magenta-tinged sky above, they spoke of homely tucked-in delight that complimented the crags and lattices of enchantment that sprouted among the crystal trees and frozen tumbles and cascades of that far place.

She came from there, down veins of ways that spread all throughout the world, reaching across and into all manner of places into which few others manage to penetrate; as one able to she passed through the mists of the Enchanted Mountains to emerge in the rowan fringes on the highest edge of the Vale of Cumdivoc at the dawn of the day when the last frost of winter was relaxing back into the shape of the valley to come.

She was not one who saw that as a purely positive thing, dismissing the cold season, for she perceived all of Mother Nature in its interconnected interchanging as a miracle far beyond such shallow concerns as days cold or short. And she loved the filigree frost that would lie sprinkled over the world; the sharp miniature peaks of lawns; the fabulous intricacy of the last functioning web; the visual crackle of the now-stayed decomposing of fallen leaves that would feed life anew in the following season; the crystal shards of reflecting intrigue hanging from branches; and the slinking-down fingers of the everlasting snows of the mountain peaks as they sought to interlink across the flowing heart of the valley.

She came down from the mists and into the vale, singing softly as her gaze flickered and flashed at all the world about her, new seen, but deeply felt, she having the ability to connect and ken almost instantly on first acquaintance with all outwith her. She walked as the birds trilled their exultation at the world of growth burgeoning all around them till she came to a statue on the slope of the vale, gazing northwards. The first constructed object she saw there.

She walked slowly around the lichen- and moss-covered object, letting her eyes defocus as she sought to perceive its form beneath the weathering of millennia. And she saw through to its creative and shielding core, flexing and nourishing and accepting of others as whole beings. She stood beside the statue of the Creative Mother and gazed across to the shadows to the north, across the Dawlish Stream. Initially there were many shifting areas of shade before her, but as the daystar broke over the mountains they flowed

almost instantly away. Save in one dell. But her eyes could see even into there; she could see through to where the Demon of Cacophony had made its lair. Through to the triple sections of divergent upholdings, shadow caressed and intricate beyond many people’s comprehension – ancient but fundamentally whole, of warm, rounded stone and dust-dry still hale timbers and rust-resistant iron. The harmonious Songs of the Giants creating proving more powerful than the discordancy of the demon.

She shock herself, not at ease that there still lingered such places, but accepting that the world could not be all sweetness and light, and that such places as the Tower of Arden – by existing as a contrast – enhanced the whole. She turned and resumed her wandering, passing further down the vale till she came to Penketh, then but a crude huddle of cottages around a sombre manor.

Although the twelve realms of the indigenous people of Andau Argun had existed from long before Centigern came over the mountains and established the Overlordship, they did not yet have the stricter form they acquired much later, and those dwellings that were afterwards considered to be centres of note were for the most part little more than rough villages or important farmsteads – except for those on the shores of Luhvet, and An Uaimh standing above the northern bank the River Calder. And those roads that were gradually improved under the House of

Kenedh, over a century later, with their constructing and levelling and attempts at centralised control, were but wide rides that passed through still-substantial woodlands. And the House of the Overlord remained isolated on the western bank of the River Darenth and their holdings in Glacanto were only a few manors gained by marriage.

From Penketh she travelled westwards, till she was approaching the next village along; there she came upon an old woman nosing through the undergrowth.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“O hullo,” said the old woman, straightening up, her eyes flitting here and there: “just for anything interesting. It’s rare I can’t find something of interest. But here it’s mostly roots – it’s a bit early for flowers. Wouldn’t you say?”

“It seems so.”

“It does, doesn’t it? I don’t think I know you? Do I? I know almost everyone around here.”

“I’ve come from up there,” she replied, pointing back up towards the Vale of Cumdivoc.

“Indeed. And you don’t mean Penketh do you, do you?”

“Where?”

“The village at the end of this ride.”

“No, no I don’t.”

“Intriguing. I wasn’t aware anyone lived much beyond Penketh. And I bet you don’t.” And the gaze she now levelled was as sharp and penetrating as any. “There’s much of interest here, indeed yes.”

The newly arrived interloper said nothing; the old woman relaxed.

“Why don’t you come along with me? You could use a hot drink and something to eat, I warrant.”

There was a nod.

“Come on, I don’t live far away. And my name is Gwaynten.”

*

Gwaynten led her to the village of Mellor, nestling under the shadow of Barbihan Hill at the end of the great north-south ride. It was a pleasant village of scattered cottages, each with their own plot surrounding or nearby, and with four larger houses, all within a thorn-strewn hedge, though why Mellor was thus protected while the more remote Penketh was not was not obvious. Gwaynten’s cottage was indistinguishable from the others, close to the village centre, with lavender bushes bordering the path and jasmine and honeysuckle clambering over its walls and roof. When they entered it was warm and welcoming and Gwaynten’s student, Tressa, quickly presented them with warm infusions and poached eggs on toast, all of which quickly vanished. The incomer had not known how hungry she was.

For quite some while there was little talk, and only between Gwaynten and Tressa, but – when the food was all consumed and the dishes cleared away – the newcomer asked the question that had been fermenting in her mind since coming across Gwaynten on the edge of the east-west ride.

“What do you do here?”

“A seemingly simple question,” said Gwaynten, “but with only complex or incomplete …”

“… or both …”

“… answers – as Tressa remembers. For the moment, let’s just say that I learn what I can and pass on what little I understand sufficiently to present in ways others can comprehend. My latest student being Tressa.”

“Sounds intriguing.”

“It is,” said Tressa. “It always surprises me when people don’t feel that.”

“Yes … yes … I see …”

“So it interests you,” said Gwaynten.

“Yes, certainly.”

“What are your plans?” asked Gwaynten.

“I’ve not formed any.”

“Have you any idea where to go?” asked Tressa.

“Not particularly, I’m just wandering.”

“Sounds too uncertain.”

“It suits me.”

“But perhaps it would help if you had a base?” said Gwaynten. “You could stay here, help out. Be company for Tressa: I’m getting on. Think about it.”

*

The newcomer settled comfortably into Gwaynten’s house and started her path of learning. Yet Gwaynten’s teaching was somewhat haphazard, fluctuating over as many subjects as one can think of, though she maintained she had been more organised when she was younger. At its core was how people could live in harmony with their surroundings, being stewards rather than having dominion, and that there was something, somewhere within the wider world that could help – if not cure – any ailment. Not prolong life, necessarily, but make its living and passing more comfortable. And she had an immense store of stories that she loved to tell of an evening.

But for all the newcomer’s desire to learn, and she was quick, she felt her ignorance beside Tressa’s knowledge, for Tressa was much further along in her training and – it was made clear to the new arrival – would take over Gwaynten’s practice when she was no longer able.

And the newcomer would at times take herself off to explore the places new around her. Always on her own; Tressa seemed more than content to stay put.

*

The students got on well enough, especially when Tressa fully accepted that she would not be usurped. This was one of Tressa’s traits: that it took some while for the more important or complicated ideas to become accepted in her mind – but when they did they were fixed, and she would be a fast friend, always willing to help out in need. And all the important or complicated ideas were eventually accepted by her – with one exception: she had trouble with the concept of their being anything beyond the mountains as real as the valley. Initially she just dismissed the idea that her fellow student could have come from anywhere beyond the surrounding heights, but neither could she accept that anyone could have been raised high up in the Vale of Cumdivoc. And, though she pushed and pushed, her fellow pupil stuck to her story about her previous home.

Yet though Tressa never did fully accept the truth of the outsider’s past, they were able to move towards an accommodation. It took time, especially as the outsider struggled to understand Tressa’s incomprehension. Tressa tried to explain her perception:

”I understand the land here, how the people – how I – fit in with everything else here. I love this valley, and see it as a wonderful place of great substance. But the other lands you have described … they seem to lack something.”

“What something?”

“I don’t know how to put it into words, not easily, but the way you describe the mountains of the moon, for instance, make them seem insubstantial. Maybe just to me; maybe they’re just too strange and otherworldly. Strange. I think I’m quite empathetic to others here …”

“… but only with the familiar. I’d say that: that you have a limited comprehension. I’ve seen you with those who come seeking help, and you seem very good, much better than I am; but when it is about the different, you struggle.

“You could be more complimentary.”

“I’ve been what I think is fair. You are very good here, but do not have the leap of imagination to comprehend what is other.”

“Well all the lands outwith here are just … we know so little about them, even if they’re lying just below the force, and certainly if they’re as remote as the mountains of the moon – that is what makes them seem insubstantial. They become places just fantastical and mythical. They can’t be real if they are so far into the otherworlds.”

“Doesn’t your mind have the scope to use its own imagination to lend them that solidity you seem to need?”

“Apparently not.”

Yet, despite Tressa’s failure of understanding on this one issue, they rubbed along well enough together, and things stabilised. Other than in the matter of Gwaynten’s declining strength.

*

As Gwaynten became less able to go visiting or collecting as she had been, even as recently as when she took on her last student, Tressa was out and about most days now, though her practice did not extend beyond Glacanto. So the majority of caring for Gwaynten was perforce undertaken by the newcomer. It was one evening as she was sitting by the old wise-woman’s side, both close to the fire and waiting for Tressa’s return, that she was asked:

“Do you think Tressa’s good enough, with her limited kenning? Good enough to serve the people hereabouts?”

“You do me great honour by asking me – you’ve known her much longer than I.”

“But I’ve only lived in this limited valley.”

“Don’t underestimate your comprehension of what you see in her; I think – very clearly – that she is good. She knows and comprehends what she needs to. She’ll be good here.”

“Fine. I do think so as well. But it’s good for an old woman to get that bit of reassurance.”

“You do still have a special talent.”

“I think so.” There was a twinkle in her eye. “And I think you do as well.”

“I’ve considered it.”

“Just don’t let it overwhelm you, take control of you.”

“I won’t – I promise. I promise.”

*

Gwaynten’s strength continued to decline. Both of her students did their best, but it was no illness that beset her, just old age and the time of her being fading to its natural end.

She died before another spring came.

And she was mourned not only by her students, many old ones rallying round, but by most of the inhabitants in and around Mellor. Yet there was celebration as well: of a life well lived, of many and good deeds, and of joy in life that did not diminish at the end, but simply metamorphosed into a calm acceptance of quiet and dignified dying.

Afterwards Tressa said plainly that Gwaynten’s last student could stay in what was now Tressa’s house till she found somewhere else, but both knew that the sooner this happened, the better; they were different characters and would rub each other up the wrong way before too long, and Gwaynten was no longer around to mediate.

So the outsider was uneasy and kept an eye out for somewhere else to settle. In the meantime she spent as much time away from Mellor as possible that spring and early summer.

*

It was on returning from a time when she had travelled beyond the northernmost pinewoods of Andau Argun, and even up beyond Blencarn Luh. She had stood at the head of the valley’s primary waterway’s lesser force and looked up to a world where only stone existed. Or so it seemed at first, without the magnificent variety of hues that permeated the rocks she had seen before – wherever she had travelled. But now, up north there, it seemed as though grey patinated everywhere. Even the sky with its low louring clouds of flat ambience was a dull grey. Yet there must be more there, must be life, be it lichen or houseleeks – or trolls, as rumoured in Andau Argun. She could have gone further, could have looked harder, but had a limited inclination to. There were much more interesting calls on her time.

On her way home she had followed the rough path down the eastern side of the River Darenth, but had not crossed over to the oakwood on the western side at Deu Carroc, continuing down the less obvious ways through the beechwood towards Glacanto. She had intended to cross the Dawlish Stream and continue on that way to Mellor, but on an impulse she turned abruptly upstream before the crossing. She had not gone far before another stream joined from the north, and she turned to follow this. This – the Gwardher Stream – did not have a large or long flow, only rising in the northern slope of the valley that lay between Barbihan Hill to the south and Dorminac Hill to the north.

As she made her way up the stream’s valley the hollies that were the understorey to much of the beechwood in those parts faltered and the trees became more scattered with elms becoming interspersed here and there. It was a green enchanted space that seemed never to have been trodden before her by giants or humans. She turned aside from the stream to where she saw a jumble of dawn-rose-veined and moon-argent splashed boulders before a shallow scoop in Dorminac Hill. She climbed up the boulders before turning to sit and look at all the small valley arrayed before her.

She could not see any distance; there was the bare height – not great in the grand scheme of things, but lofty from her eye-level – of Barbihan Hill, another height at her back, and the upswell of trees to left and right that marked passages in from east and west. Between was a well of flowing sound, fluctuating chords of rustling magnificence, echoes of long-old or long-far songs from beings only half-guessed-at, but worthy nonetheless. Songs soaring with the birds, swooping with the wind, and as yearning as the lost.

It was indeed beautiful, though not obviously more so than most of Andau Argun, but it seemed to speak to her in ways she did not attempt to give words to. It was her place, she was sure: her place among the massing and swirling flow of the worlds, a place where time would not way its weight of years on her, where she could retreat to find stillness while remaining available to those who needed her. The spirit of the place was in tune with her spirit. She would build her home there.

This did not happen overnight, but she had done many favours, though without thought of payment in return, and was now able to call on plenty of people to help. More than if she had expected anything, even proportionately. Which was the secret of course: one could receive much more than one gave, but only if one did not expect it.

The home that was built was a thatched roundhouse, of an incomplete circle, seductively placed before the scoop in Dorminac Hill, with the dawn-rose and silver boulders pushed out and artfully placed in the surrounding garden. This seemingly random vision of curling paths and scrolling beds flowed among the mature trees left standing and then swirled onwards and out into the surrounding woods; she never felt the need for physical protection, and disliked strict boundaries, though accepting that sometimes they were unavoidable. Although before she came there the land had been untrodden, the numbers who came to help her construct her dwelling and afterwards to seek help soon made a permanent way through the woods, a path that circled around the eastern slopes of Barbihan to the east-west ride between the House of the Overlord and Penketh. But there were still plenty of wild places thereabouts in which to revel.

Within the roundhouse there were three rooms, all radiating out from a dense pillar of three mouths that helped to regulate the temperature; each room had a door and each two windows, and each quickly became cluttered with her implements and creations.

And so she settled there, in her cottage behind Barbihan Hill, in what was afterwards called Nans-an-Wra, content that there she could do as she wished and needed to. It was not that she spent all her time there – she still wandered throughout the valley of Andau Argun to heal, to teach, to enjoy all the wonder she kept uncovering; she would also absent herself at times and wander in the lands Tressa had dismissed as insubstantial beyond the encircling mountains to do what she felt needed to be done there. For the scoop in Dorminac Hill slowly penetrated further into the rock till it touched the rambling passages rarely glimpsed that honeycombed who-knows-where: to the immense cavern below the Dwarf-King’s insecure palace? to lands beyond the kirtle of the Enchanted Mountains, to places sundered and unknown in Andau Argun? or to worlds of different hues – orange-tinged, predominantly black, red flaming daystars, grey under monotheistic beliefs – that have their own heavens, their own connections with creation, their own people?