Although the land had shuddered, slowly and subtly, it had gone unnoticed by the majority of the inhabitants of the valley; they had they own preoccupations to deal with. For there had been years of disorder and increasingly extreme weather, especially in the fell winters of the last years of the last Overlord of Orestol’s reign – but that Overlord’s influence had been replaced and, in the dozen or so years since then, things had steadily improved.
Rain fell and sunshine flowed now in more regular and recognisable patterns: still out of kilter at times and not as equitable as history said they had once been, but running now in less destructive cycles. Winters could still be harshly bitter, and not all the monsters had been driven back into the fir woods of the north – beyond Blencarn Luh – or confined to the mists of the Enchanted Mountains, but (people were reassured) only a bit more patience was required.
And the people trusted this, it coming from the long-established High Priestess rather than the distant and discredited Overlords. A return to tradition.
Fial was sitting in the garden before her small cottage, on the southward-facing bench by the porch, a favourite place of hers, reflecting back on what had occurred, including her own personal sorrows (both then and more recently), and gazing at the blossom on the apple trees and the yellow flowers of the primroses beneath. Birds busy with procreation were all around, their voices resplendent in the bright air. But, for her, there still lingered feelings of imbalance; less now than there had been, it was true, but troubling nonetheless. Yet there were also – and not for the first time – signs to remind her that bounty would follow dearth.
She still sometimes felt bereft, without guidance, and struggled to find faith that the Goddess of the Land would hear her call. Those who had brought new life and vitality to her had had to go away, and gradual change had not been, then, enough – for all Fial knew gradual change causes less suffering and has greater permanency than abrupt upheaval. But she intensely missed those who had had to go away, and knew she always would.
Taru had departed, having changed from when she had first met him, seemingly so long ago on the strand by Lake Luhvet, going from nervousness to being settled to becoming aloof. This last one only clearly showing itself after the events he had witnessed in the glade in the south and the sights he had seen below Blencarn in the north. There was trauma initially, but thereafter he began to have hope in the new beginning in which he had – of course – played a significant (if unheralded) part; yet his wanderlust had also returned, and he had grown increasingly distant.
Fial looked up at her westward-facing cottage, its whitewashed walls and thatched roof, and counted her good fortune. The place was called Tregay, due to its enclosed nature, though there was little need for its defences now peace and balance were being restored, but in the latter years under the Overlordship such defences had been useful, even in the heart of the inhabited valley where disturbance had been the least. Yet even now, as a woman living alone, it was probably a wise precaution.
Something she would not have thought about as a child, secure behind walls she never thought of as encaging. She had flown when and where she wished without concern, sometimes far from home.
The cottage had been a leaving present from Taru, when he had left the valley for good, being one of the properties attached to the House he had inherited. For all her love for him she had had no wish to leave with him, to be immersed in the alien, frightening world beyond the surrounding mountains; though he had told her of the gentle peoples and peaceful places he had seen, they were far beyond her ken and she retained a distrust of everything outside even as she delighted in the suggested images Taru’s words and songs invoked.
To the south the sun spun brightly and raptors floated high on the updrafts, suggesting lands that lingered on the edge of the deserts, so very different from the soft, silver sheen of the valley of Andau Argun – also called Orestol. Those lands were doubtless beautiful by certain lights, but they were not for Fial. Here in the valley were sculptures carved by wind and water, frosts and roots, surely with more variety then any that could exist in the arid lands around the Summer Queen’s massif far away. The Perfect Being for one; and Fial knew of two others of great beauty and – she believed – power, offering protection on the margins.
In all probability she felt she would never be ready to leave the only world she had ever known. It was a beautiful valley, with the mountains looming on all sides. Some claimed it tended to cultivate an insular outlook, but Fial felt that it did not need to. There were other ways in which one could move beyond.
One could transmute oneself into a world that merged the actual and the ideal, blended dreams and fantasies with the prosaic, and she saw no reason to worry about this. It was not unusual among those who understood the Goddess – as she hoped she was learning to – to blend perception in this way: so long as one retained a sense of the natural world and of people, individually and collectively. Yet not everyone saw things in this way – for instance, her brother had never perceived this blending, determined that reality and fantasy could only be understood as separate entities. He could hear and enjoy fantastical songs and participate in the rituals of the Goddess as required, but he always drew a sharp distinction between them and his work-a-day life and other pleasures. To Fial, this seemed an arbitrary delineation: something she both hated as dismissive and impersonal, and saw as unnecessary.
Her cottage was not large; it had just two main rooms below the two bedrooms with their dormer windows, with a privy and scullery out the back and a workshop tucked on the north side. It stood alone, though the village of Penquit was just over the low hill, with a high hedge, ditch and bank surrounding it. Yet within this was a small orchard of apple trees with enough room for chickens to run about beneath, a plot to grow all the vegetables she needed, and much else besides. Mature birches and rowans ran in a band on the eastern side of the enclosure, surrounding an old ash. It was, almost, all she wanted or needed; and she was close to her old nanny.
She was content with her life – or as contented as she could be considering what she had given up. It had become enough. She knew she could not go back, nor regain the lost on the same terms; they could not return, and she had no wish to return to the Priestesshood. It had fulfilled a function, and more, in giving her life new meaning and direction after her trauma – when she had been unable to give voice to deep veins within that had become unstable in their flow. She had learnt a lot, not least how to pursue relaxation. And she had begun to learn about the herbs she now grew for Melior and Tegen to use in their concoctions; and she had her circle of friends about.
The herb beds were mostly on the gentle slope to the south of the cottage, though those that required more moist soil and preferred a bit of shade were under the trees in the eastern part of the enclosure.
In addition to the cottage and memories, Taru had bequeathed Fial two priceless gifts before he had left to journey away beyond the valley’s southern fence. There was the silver sigil she had initially kept locked away in the little box that contained the sapphire-set ring her old nanny had given her before her formal presentation at court on her thirteenth birthday, and the chain her mother had passed on to her on her fifth birthday. 1 Taru warned her that the images engraved on the sigil would not appear constant, but whenever she looked at it, it always showed the same ones: that of the Goddess of the Land and of a baby curled in on itself.
For the second priceless gift had been a child: a son. Finbar – gentle and imaginative. Whom she loved beyond anything she could have comprehended before his birth, even now – especially now – he had gone away to complete his education. She looked around at the sky. Although the sun was bright and pleasantly warm, there seemed to be the threat of storms still. There were often bruised clouds clustered around the stark peaks of the mountains, it was true, especially Mounts Aborâ and Ararat, but these cloudbanks were more to the north, and much lower. They had often been there since the return of the emblem of the Golden Serpent by Taru to the Dwarf-King all those years ago, the clouds seemingly not yet ready to depart for good.
Yet with the cloudbanks looming where they were, it meant the sunlight played across their high-piled surfaces, creating pictures and illusions and fascinating shapes that could entertain Fial for hours, even the looming faces. They were not really a threat now, she had been reassured, yet she still felt she could see monsters stirring there just below the clouds’ surfaces. But she must be imagining them; they had all had the High Priestess’s reassurances for many years now and, anyway, no one lived in the clouds.
Fial lowered her gaze. There was still a little snow on the ground, where the sun did not reach. The winter had not been as harsh as those around the change, yet neither had it been as mild as those of her early childhood. Spring had come early, though with some late snow, but not enough to worry about, and the High Priestess was predicting a fruitful year and that the land would soon have direct guidance again.
And she had a stake in it: a direct one. All the people of the valley had a stake in the proper ordinance of the world, of course, but she also had the additional, personal connection that made all else worth it.
She thought of Taru and where he might be: back in the dry lands to the south, the old civilisation to the west, or the lands along the seashore. It did not really matter, however, for he was beyond her now. Although he had not said so for certain, she was sure he would never return; yet sometimes she still heard his voice, just on the edge of hearing, calling to her – but she knew it was just her imagination wishing for what might-have-been. A futile endeavour, one she had rarely bothered with since discovering the world was a much harsher place than her childhood had led her to believe.
Which drew her back to the fragments Taru had told of his own childhood – happy enough, full of music but little movement, and something else too dark for him to share with her, which had led to him deciding to leave his home on the Isle of Thursey and move on and explore what lay beyond the land of the five lakes, ostensibly to uncover wider musical traditions. And, indeed, he had said: Music is more real to me than outer reality.
She closed her eyes and put her hands on her stomach, and felt, for a moment, as though it was distended again and that she could feel the kicking inside.