First Chapter of Lifelode


If you go far enough to the west, they say, you come to the lands where people are like statues, going through the day’s round the same each day out of pure routine. Contrariwise, if you set off east, people become feyer and stranger, more powerful, maybe, but less able to remember who they are from moment to moment, until at last they run together and separate as fast as rainbows on oil and only the gods can keep themselves whole. Between these extremes fall the Marches, where folk have wit and will enough to keep themselves to themselves.

Applekirk lies close to the centre of the Marches, more easterly than some places, but more westerly than others. Yeya they have, enough for everyday  needs, but not enough to be too much of a distraction to normal life. Applekirk is a village of near eight hundred souls, lying in a valley between high hills and wooded hills on both sides of the little river Rassel. It consists of a cluster of wood-and-stone houses; a nemet with a spire, whose stable priest follows Liakan; a mill beside the swift-flowing Rassel; and a sturdy old manor house where live the gentry of the place. The weather falls in season and the crops and animals grow well, and little do the folk of Applekirk lack, either in the way of tangible or intangible blessings.

Not much comes to disturb them. Now and then a caravan will wind through from east or west, pack-horses champing in the road’s dust, bringing news and the occasional traveller, bringing sacks of rice and beans and spices from the west, taking great cones of wintersweet east to the lands of ever-summer. From time to time a growing youth will steal off, east or west as their fancy leads them, and perhaps come back in a handful of days or years, changed by their journeying. Season by season different ambule priests come to Applekirk in the time laid down by the Nemet, bringing the worship of the other gods to the villagers and the nemet. In their proper times, pedlars come through, opening their packs to tempt the people of Applekirk with gauds from far away. Every year in Spring, Ranal, who farms the manor lands for the lord, Ferrand, journeys off west to Margam, where his parents still live, driving with him their sheep, fat and fleecy, and bringing a thinned flock back bare and sheared what seems to Applekirk a day or so later, though a month or so has passed for him. The Rassel flows ever by, singing of rocks and the snow of distant mountains. The winds blow over Applekirk, and sometimes a wind out of the East will bring with it glowing meltemi clouds and odd moods which settle on the folk of Applekirk like a badly fitting cloak. For this reason it is the custom there to keep yeyana hanging in the windows of all rooms, and especially the rooms where anyone sleeps. It is an easy enough thing for those aware to shake off most wind-borne moods, but harder when they come in sleep and filter through dreams.

For the most part all goes on well enough. The people of Applekirk spend their lives concerned with their work; with falling in and out of love; with sickness and recovery; and the birth and bringing up of children. Their stories are all tiny eddies in the great story that is life. Things happen, oh, things happen and are so important that those they happen to feel their hearts will break, yet all is the same in a hundred years. For a while Applekirk remembers, but at last everything that happens becomes the past and is forgotten, as it is everywhere.

It is Hodge, years afterwards, when he is lord of Applekirk in his father’s place, who thinks what happens needs a different kind of remembrance.

“We should set down an account,” he says, remembering Jankin, the scholar. “I was six years old, and now I am a man. Tyds was only a baby. When I die nobody will remember.”

“Is that so bad,” Taveth asks, softly, for time has always parted easily for her and she has never been sure if it is curse or blessing. They are fishing upstream from the manor in a summer dusk, Hodge, and Taveth, and Kevan, three rods along the bank, hoping for trout.

“Jankin would have thought it was important to keep a record,” Hodge insists, setting his back against a willow. He is a sturdy man, and young for his dignity, but he bears it naturally.

Taveth looks into the water and smiles at the memory of Jankin. For someone who was here such a short time he leaves a lot of himself in Applekirk. She often catches sight of him at their first meeting, gallant and uncertain at the kitchen door. “Had I known what to expect, I’d have hastened my feet on the road,” he says, and bows and kisses her hand, which feels so intimate to Taveth, who is entirely unused to gallantry, that she almost takes him to her bed on the spot.

“A record?” she asks vaguely, lost in the heat of memory.

“We found out things nobody knows,” Hodge says. “He would have wanted other people who cared to be able to know.”

“The house remembers,” Taveth says, jerking her rod a little to make the fly dance through the shimmering shadows.

“That’s only for us,” Kevan says, Hodge’s unexpected ally in this. He has five silver fish sitting in leaves in his basket, more than his mother and Hodge have between them. He is forty years old, with a black beard shaped like a spade, a lawyer and a judge, married with a household of his own. “Hodge is right. Things like that don’t happen every day. There should be some kind of record. You should write a book.”

Books are strange to Applekirk. There are records, of course, the heavy brass-bound ledgers where Ferrand sets down the rents paid by his tenants on quarter-days, where he writes the stock born and crops gathered as Ranal tells it to him, where he inscribes the judgements he makes in his courts. There are books too on law, which are dusty when Ferrand finds them as a boy and becomes fascinated. It is Hanethe’s father who is a lawyer and brings the books to Applekirk. After he dies nobody opens his books until Ferrand, and then Kevan Jankin sees them once when Ferrand takes him into his study and he, who is interested in everything, reads their titles and thinks they look dull beyond words. Jankin brings books of a different kind, several in his pack and the one he carries always and makes notes in.

“I need my books,” Jankin says, when Taveth uses a word he doesn’t know.

“Just raensome,” she says, smiling fondly. They are all gathered around the kitchen table, they have been discussing who will help with the harvest.

Jankin looks up from his plate. “Ransom?” he asks. “What someone pays for their release?”

“Not that kind of raensome,” six-year-old Hodge jumps in before the adults can speak. “The other kind. The one that means someone being very characteristically themselves.”

“However did the word come to mean that?” Jankin asks. “That’s fascinating. I’ve never heard that before.”

“Maybe from someone making an offering of who they are, for you to like?” Chayra suggests. She is making eyes at Jankin. Taveth notices and sighs a little, inwardly. Chayra thinks she is subtle, but to Taveth, seeing her younger selves within her, trying too hard. Chayra is young and pretty, but Jankin doesn’t pay any attention, he’s too fascinated by the new word. “Or maybe the thing that redeems them in your eyes?”

“Raensome,” he murmurs. “I need my books.”

“We say ‘rendsome’ in the East to mean someone remaining themselves, holding on to who they are,” Hanethe says. “That’s undoubtedly where it comes from, someone being their essential selves. Taveth is using it loosely to mean someone doing something she likes, but–”

“I meant just what Hodge said,” Taveth interrupts, stung, as Hanethe stings so often. “Raensome means someone being characteristically themselves, here or in the East.”

“I must write all this down,” Jankin says, reaching into a drawstring pocket hanging from his belt.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the Marisians,” Hodge observes. He is a solid child, strong for six, eager to watch the world and set everything in its place.

“It doesn’t need to,” Jankin says, pulling out a little inkstone, a pen, and a tiny leather-bound book, no bigger than the palm of his hand. “A scholar is a lamp to illuminate the world. While I may be working on illuminating one particular corner of it right now, concerning the Marisians, that doesn’t mean I should neglect something else fascinating that gets caught in my beam. Some people might say I should leave it for someone else, but I say they might never find it, or not until much later, and if I can bring this back to my friend Aldusa, whose lifelode is words, then I will have helped to spread the light of learning. Or for my friend Gerhad, this might be information that makes all the difference, because he is writing about the East.”

“In Marakanda?” sneers Hanethe.

Marakanda is so far to the West that to the people of Applekirk it seems impossible it should exist, but it is part of the Marches still, and Jankin has come from there to study the relics of the long ago Marisians, or so he tells them. In fact, as they have learned already, Jankin is quicksilver and will study anything that comes to his dragon-fly attention. He looks at Hanethe’s sneer and smiles.

“In Marakanda, yes, in the Academie there,” he says. “It might seem strange to you, who have lived in the East, but he knows a great deal about it because other people who have been there have written it down. Besides…” he hesitates. “If the word is no use to either of them, if it stays in my book for a generation and then someone finds it who needs it, that is still better than neglecting learning when it comes to me.” He wets the inkstone with his tisane, dipped his pen, and looks up at Hodge again. “When I start working on the Marisians, when the harvest is in, you have offered to help, although that isn’t your lifelode.”

He truly seems to catch light as he speaks, all his shadows are drawn in to his essential self until Taveth would not be surprised to see him glow. She has hardly thought about the work of scholars twice in her life before, now it seems marvellous to her that the world should contain them. Or, at least, she thinks, passing behind him as he writes rapidly, marvellous that it should contain Jankin. She is new in love, but the house agrees, remembers Jankin sitting there glowing.

“A book,” Kevan says, as his fishing line goes taut again.

“But who of us could write a book? I could never set everything down in order.” For Taveth, the order of events is always hard to set straight. “And where would it begin?”

“It began with Jankin coming,” Kevan says. “Or with Hanethe coming. She came first.”

Hodge casts a line into the water. Grown into his man’s height, his shoulders broadened, Hodge still has the surety for setting straight he had as a child. He turns to look at Taveth. “It begins with you. You are the one who sees the ghosts,” he says.

“Not ghosts,” she objects.

“What are they, then?” Hodge asks.

“Memories?” she says, questioningly, for they are of the past and the future, and how can the future be remembered in the present? “No, shadows,” she corrects herself. “Except that shadows are supposed to be dark.” Some of them are dark. There is a little boy she always sees weeping in the corner of the tower stairs. She does not know who he is, and she can offer him no comfort. He is none of their generation. Is he Ferrand’s father, grandfather, some more remote ancestor? Or is he Hodge’s son, grandson? Taveth cannot know, though his tears touch her heart when she passes him daily.

“Whatever you call them you can see them,” Hodge says. “You’re where it starts, Taveth. You can see the shadows and tell them to me to write down.”

Melly too, thinks Taveth matters. “Taveth is central,” she says, eight years old but very sure.

“Every child thinks their mother is important,” Hanethe sneers. Come back from the East, her age is an impossibility. To Hanethe returned, Taveth is hardly more than a servant who has got above herself. Ferrand is lord of Applekirk, Chayra is his wife. By Hanethe’s reckoning, nobody else matters, not the children, except Melly, not Ranal, who runs the farming side of the estate, and certainly not Taveth, who is no more than Ferrand’s sweetmate and housekeeper.

“Taveth is important,” Melly repeats, making a gesture with her hands.

Hanethe shrugs. After her return, she is in some ways more powerful than anyone in Applekirk and in others entirely powerless. She cannot contradict Melly again. She needs her too much. She looks away, frowning. In the East her thoughts were faster than lightning, here they crawl so that finding words to speak a sentence is like wading through mud, and then the sentence only comes near to what she wants to say and does not spear through it. She has been away sixty years, by the turning seasons of Applekirk, and perhaps fifteen by her own body’s count, she is Ferrand’s great-grandmother, and still has more black hair than white. Nobody likes Hanethe, not even herself, for she is not likeable, but everyone has to recognise that she is important.

Taveth, by contrast, though most people like her, seems almost invisible. Impossible to imagine Applekirk without her, but where is she? Never anywhere important. When the great events happen, Taveth is in the kitchen, in a waft of the rich yeasty new-bread or in the garden, shelling peas. When the news comes of the invasion, she is bent over the washtub, soaked to the waist, and her first thought is whether the harvest smocks will be ruined if she leaves them too long in the harsh lye soap she makes every autumn. Seek for her doing yeya and you find her brushing back her cloud of black hair as she makes a yeyana to trap the dust in the great hall, or blowing on her hands to take a hot dish from the oven. As for love, perhaps you might find her with Ranal, or Ferrand, or Jankin, who are all her loves, but just as  likely catch her waking from sleep in the hour before dawn to run from a warm bed to comfort a crying baby.

In the nursery, on the second floor of the west tower, Taveth sits singing a baby to sleep. It is not her baby, but Chayra’s. Yet Taveth has naturally woken to the crying and risen from bed to come to the side of the cradle. The baby’s name is Tydelen, called Tydsey or Tyds, and by certain signs apparent to her family, it seems that her father is not Ferrand but Ranal, who is Chayra’s sweetmate as Taveth is Ferrand’s. Nobody minds Tydsey’s parentage, least of all Ferrand. Tydsey is not the heir to Applekirk, and the heir, Hodge, is indubitably the child of both his highborn and fully married parents. Hodge is lying asleep in his bed, as are all in the manor but Tydsey and Taveth. Tydsey is not wet, not hungry, and quiets for a moment in Taveth’s arms but starts howling again the moment she is set down.

Taveth, who always sees easily through time, rocks the cradle and sings old lullabies and sees other folk sitting in this same room singing them to other children. They look to her like shadows if she looks at them straight on, but she has learned long ago to see them plain and sideways. She sees Ferrand’s mother, Damasy, singing to the baby that was Ferrand, and others, stretching back and forward through the years. She sings love into the words, and Tydsey, who is cutting a tooth, stops crying and sucks hard on her thumb. Taveth sees a dark-eyed man pacing to and fro rocking a tiny infant, and beside or through him a young woman singing at a cradle whose every movement says she hates what she is doing. That’s no way to sing a child to sleep, Taveth thinks, and wonders who she could be. She has never seen her before. Some wet-nurse or foster-mother, she imagines. When she sings to her own babies she feels the community of mothers, linked to their children by the strong bonds of blood and milk. When she sings to Chayra’s she feels the community of all those who have sung to babies not their own. Aunts, grandfathers, sweetmates, nurses, lots of  people, Taveth thinks. There are as many men as women in the room with her singing, but she does not see Ferrand or Ranal, both of whom are good sleepers, though Ranal likes babies and often carries Tydsey around with him while he does his farm chores.

The song unreels from her mouth like a skein of thread, and Tydsey follows it out and down into sleep. Her eyes close heavily. Taveth keeps singing and thinks that it must be some of the most powerful yeya she knows, to sing to a screaming child and by that alone to lull them into safe sleep. Tydsey’s eyelashes are still wet on her cheeks, but she is undoubtedly now a sleeping baby. Taveth finishs her song, to be sure, and tiptoes away in a great crowd of
presences of the past and future.