Alentir had not yet started school when Elexdreur and her father moved to the village of Hinauïk, a poor and remote collection of houses caught between two ridges, east and west, beyond which lay two large stretches of water.
To the east flowed the Seranid, or Silver River, the major waterway of the kingdom; even though it rose far to the north it did not freeze even in the bitterest winters. The lands through which it flowed at first were high and uninhabited, with nothing growing to any great height due to the harsh winds, yet they were rich with sedges and horizontal willows and alders growing besides the water. In spring the high plains about were strewn with the red and yellow of poppies, mountain avens, and willowherbs. From those heights the river plunged over an overhanging ledge and descended as a glittering curtain towards the central portion of the wide realm of Suhmerfin: the immortal God-King.
To the west lay the lake of Yedal-lin, after which the province in which Hinauïk was situated was named. Long ago it had been on the course of the Silver River, but the river had been diverted and a large loop cut off. Yedal-lin now had no outflow and only unreliable inflows. The waters had become bitter. The villagers obtained whatever they needed – water and fish, usually pike or trout – from the nearby river. Their land did not give a good return, but with what they caught in the river they were able to scratch a living.
All the houses in Hinauïk were similar: they all had only one storey, all were built around a courtyard, and all save the most important one, the mayoral one, were made of wood and mud. They had originally been painted white, with the red of shutters and eaves here and there, yet it was long since any of the lesser houses had tasted paint.
Alentir was a young child playing in the dirt outside the doorway of his parents’ house when he saw a procession come up the village’s only street, heading for the mayoral house. It was not large. There was a cart loaded with official-looking boxes and various pieces of domestic furniture. In front of this rode a fat man on a spherical and tuft-covered horse. He was richly arrayed, at least to Alentir’s eyes, in the purple robes of a Prefect. Behind the cart came a litter with closed curtains, but Alentir could see a small face poking out from between their folds. It was a pretty face, with freckles across the upper cheeks and slightly snubbed nose, and was framed by mousy brown hair formally cut.
When Alentir looked back on that first sighting it was as though the memory had always remained vivid, and that the feelings stirred by the young girl’s face, especially the allure of her eyes, had appeared as fully formed as his youth could understand. Yet maybe he imbued the event with an intensity that, as the years passed, he wished it to have had.
Although Elexdreur was a few years older than Alentir, he started his education before her. The upbringing of boys and girls was very different – as was their perceived path in life – and they were not considered to need to know the same things.
Alentir did not enjoy his schooling. Even in the early years it seemed restrictive and essentially useless. It had nothing to do with the games he wanted to play – and the play he wished to enjoy – but seemed too preoccupied with some distant, fixed and arbitrary goal. Very early in his schooling the arduousness of the tables and formulae he knew he would never need, the verbs that seemed to scream at him in their irregularity, and the mundane, regulation science weighed heavily on him. There was no scope for expression, no comprehension that enjoyment in learning could exist. Even the painting of pictures was a copying exercise, though he found some pleasure there. It seemed to Alentir that childhood was deemed to be a time that one had to get through, rather than take pleasure in. The only thing there was any encouragement to do was to learn the regulation ideas and theories, and the set texts that would help in later examinations. Adult life was the natural state and people were supposed to understand how this was lived without being taught. Told: but not taught. Children were encouraged to watch, but not to speak, interrupt or obstruct parents or other adults in their life. Children were an heir, or a mother of heirs, and a means to social advancement, but no more than that.
Alentir’s father, Agnortik, was a teacher at the local school and an examiner for the Civil Service. He was always very formal and correct, a loyal and unyielding supporter of the established procedures. His wife was correctly subservient, always bowing to her husband’s wishes and commands; Alentir never heard his mother express an individual opinion.
Elexdreur did soon start school, but it was very different. Properly raised ladies were taught how to look after their husbands, fathers and other males, how to serve and obey them in their advancement, and to provide a secure home life from which the males would foray to operate in the greater world and thereby provide for their children and spouses. Ladies did not participate in the world of males, they were the graces and the muses to support and inspire. To Alentir it seemed that childhood, if not life, was easier for them, but he was judging the whole sex from a very limited knowledge, and concentrating on the problems he faced, not the ones they did. And with Elexdreur’s father being in the employ of the central government she had led a relatively privileged life, even though he was often moved around; those who reached the seventh grade after steady service were usually given a post as mayor; in theory their ability dictated the size and importance of the unit they administrated, but as Elexdreur’s father came from an unwealthy family he was unable to become the head of anything more important than a dilapidated village. Yet Rakidahn was held in high esteem by himself, the villagers, and his child.
Alentir found that the little time he had to play grew less as his years passed. When he got home from school he would deposit his papers and try to steal away, but it was rare that he succeeded; and when he did he was later punished. His mother would catch him and drag him back to a quiet room; there he was forced to suffer more of the monotony loaded on him by the school till his homework and much more besides had been completed to the complete satisfaction of his father. And his father was not easy to please. Alentir could not remember any praise from him in all his childhood, though there was plenty of criticism.
On the infrequent occasions he was allowed out – or managed to escape for a while – he would run from his house in the bottom of the gully up the steps to the mayor’s house. Elexdreur was usually available to play: but not always. Sometimes Alentir wondered if she had decided that she did not want to, rather than she could not. From an early age he was aware of the inequalities in their influence over each other; yet it was some time before he realised the somatic and societal differences between them, and it was not till many years later that he began to understand how much power females could have over males who had completely fallen for them. Yet way back then he could not decide how she felt about their different status, about him; or if and when she noticed the physical differences between them. But he knew that he was very fond of her, enjoying her company and missing her when she was not there.
The games they played varied as the years progressed, though one constant was the game Alentir enjoyed most: tag. It was only the two of them. Initially they played it in the courtyard of her house; they would chase each other around and around till they were exhausted. Although younger and smaller, Alentir was the swifter and always caught Elexdreur, but if he wished – especially as they grew – he could remain free.
Petulant as she was, Elexdreur complained: “This isn’t fair! I’m older and this is my house. If anyone isn’t to be caught it must be me!”
And so it was, for a while. Alentir tried, but Elexdreur kept changing her mind as to what constituted his acceptable behaviour. Her behaviour was always acceptable. It grew so that whatever he did was unfair and he had to pay a forfeit.
Whether he caught her or she caught him, he had to kiss her. Just a peck on the cheek. Then a snatched touching of the lips. It did not take him long to realise that he enjoyed his punishment. But she made the rules, she decided whether or not he could kiss her, and where. And he meekly acquiesced.
This became the game they played more and more till they were playing nothing else. The chases became shorter, yet Alentir’s frustrations grew. He was aware that there were other things he wanted to do without knowing exactly what they were. He had never seen a female unclothed and he was more than curious. The prospect excited him in ways he could not understand. Slowly he was exploring more and more of Elexdreur – he had even felt some of the skin on her limbs – yet there was a desire he was feeling that was not being satisfied. He was held in check. For all their contact she stopped him too soon.
As they grew older Elexdreur and Alentir spent less time playing in the courtyard or around the village, taking off more and more for the wormwood and peascrub above the houses, or wandering along by the reeds and poplars that grew near the lake. They went where they were unlikely to be disturbed. The land in the village’s valley was a bit more fertile than the land about, largely due to the work of pyramids of counted generations, and the villagers tended to stay close to their homes and terraces, only usually leaving to go to the river.
The friends spent many hours walking along the lakeshore in the still air, and many hours lying in the shelter of one or other of the many rocks strewn by the water. There they first made love.
Why Elexdreur had chosen as she did Alentir could not fathom. Previously he had been allowed – sometimes – to reach to her knees and above her elbows. She said nothing specific, but this time he felt she had made it plain he could do with her almost what he wanted: though she probably had notions as hazy as he about what this would entail.
The place they found was in the shelter of a large boulder, further obscured by reeds lakewards and trees landwards. Elexdreur seemed nervous throughout the event, but by then Alentir was too preoccupied with reaching a goal he had not previously perceived clearly to take notice. She dared not show much skin, so Alentir had to search with his hands beneath her layers.
It was an experience that he never forgot, and it seemed to him then that it was an event that forever sealed their relationship, that they should forever spend their time together. They had no need of others.
Over the years, though, his remembrance of that first time mutated, becoming overlaid with memories and feeling about their subsequent times, but certain perceptions remained clear and unyielding; the most powerful of these was the fascination and awe he felt in achieving what he had long yearned for, not withstanding that when he had lain awake the night after their first time Alentir’s thoughts had alternated between I’ve done It and Is that all there is? It was only much later that he realised how mechanical it had all been.
But the next time, the next day, there was an enjoyment there that they had not found in their stilted and unsatisfying first attempt.
They made love many times afterwards, and both learnt to relax more and so increase their enjoyment, Elexdreur gradually feeling less self-conscious with her increasing nudity. But she was more reluctant than Alentir to experiment. Yet, though he felt a degree of restriction and frustration, in truth in that tight society they had more freedom than their peers, mostly due to Rakidahn’s unusual indulgence of his daughter, though neither then comprehended it.
One evening they were standing on the jutting-out rock of a headland a few miles north of Hinauïk. It was one on which they frequently stood, if the weather permitted, to see the sun setting over the distant snow-capped peaks. This headland had a curious shape, ending in a dull, upturned point with a hollow in the top that contained many loose rocks and pebbles. It was while standing on the headland and gazing at the water and sky and pebbles that Elexdreur noticed, as if for the first time, that one of the rocks was markedly different from the others. She picked it up. It was deeply veined with red, and a little too large to be comfortably held in the palm of her small hand. She scratched the surface with her nail – a white mark remained. She showed it to Alentir. He suggested that they carve their interlocking characters on it. After laughing, Elexdreur agreed:
“You do have some funny ideas. Sweet, but funny.”
“I don’t mean to be,” said Alentir. “I say what I feel is right for us. Will you carve first?”
“Of course! Find me something with which to do it. I don’t intend to risk further damaging my nails.”
Alentir cast around on the ground nearby till he found a discarded fish skeleton. He broke off a bone and climbed back to Elexdreur.
“Highly romantic,” she laughed as he handed the improvised stylus to her. “Death to all who come between us!”
After scratching her own character she gave the stone and implement to Alentir. He engraved his, handed the stone back and threw the bone into the lake.
Elexdreur held the stone above her head and called aloud May this remain as unyielding as I and my lover before replacing the stone. The characters faced earthwards.
To Alentir it was all the conformation he required that they would spend their lives together. However, neither had yet reached the age of majority.
It seemed only a short while later that Elexdreur informed him that she was moving away. Her father had been posted to the far north-western province of Ranosh-hil and she was expected to go with him. If she had tried to stay behind with Alentir they would both have been ostracised from the community and found difficulty supporting themselves even as beggars.
“Don’t just sit there with your mouth hanging open like a stranded trout,” said Elexdreur. “I don’t like it either. Ranosh-hil is remote and uncivilised. I would much rather stay here.”
“Then why don’t you,” he said, momentarily unthinking in his confusion.
“Be sensible! Sometimes I wonder why I bother with you at all.” She saw the look of panic that crossed Alentir’s face, and so quickly went on: “But I do love you. There’s no point in arguing or getting too upset. We can’t change it, and it’s some while before I have to leave. We can spend some time together still.”
“So don’t look as though you’re about to die. We must make the best of the remaining days. I have to go now. I’ll see you, I promise, faithfully, tomorrow by the lake.”
The concept of seriously disobeying her father did not really occur to Elexdreur. It was ingrained into children that they should live life according to the strict customs and mores of their society, and central to that was obedience to authority, whether father, Civil Servant or the God-King himself.
In the short moons before Elexdreur left they tried spending as much time together as possible, but it coincided with a period of intense study for the up-coming examination for Alentir and his father rarely let him out of the house. He stole away when he could, but their meetings were brief and infrequent. They never managed properly to say good-bye, but Elexdreur did promise to write.