One of the courtiers asked me today when I first knew that I loved the Huntress. I shook my head and span a very pretty yarn about how love does not come in a blinding flash accompanied by a thunderclap, but grows gradually over time. It was a good speech, well constructed and well delivered. The young dukeling is probably quoting the more memorable passages to his fellows even now with as much world-weary cynicism as he can muster. But he is propagating a lie.
The truth is that I can name not only the hour and the minute, but that every detail of the moment is indelibly engraved upon my memory, down to the way the sunlight divided her angular face into light and shadow, and the dance of the dust motes around her in the air as she spoke.
Her name was Analliemeuire. She was come as a part of a delegation from her people; one of the ragtag nomadic bands that roam the mountains to the north and east. It was a routine affair where contact is maintained, fealty sworn and due form followed with as little fuss as possible. Generally, the few minor dignitaries who bother to attend do their utmost to end the formalities as early as possible, in favour of dazzling the visitors with a banquet and stupefying themselves with drink. As a rising star of the diplomatic circuit I was not obliged to be present, but the Summer Season was almost over and formal events were becoming scarce.
In short then, I found myself in the fore of the assembled dignitaries as she entered, followed by a small retinue; simply dressed and armed in a workmanlike manner. Even there, so far removed from the world she knew and surrounded by those who expected to be found magnificent, she moved with a quiet confidence and grace that caused one or two eyebrows to raise and one or two mouths to twitch.
Our eyes met as I stepped forward to take care of the formalities (“Remard des Courbiers, Emissary in Residence and Advisor to the Imperial Council at the service of our most welcome and distinguished guests, et cetera”). I remember being surprised by her tawny golden eyes; at the way she held my gaze–like a challenge–but that was not the moment.
I lost my heart to the Huntress some five minutes later, when she sat down cross-legged in the middle of the flagstone floor of the small reception room in which we were gathered, and began to tell a story.
It was traditional amongst her people at such a meeting, she told us, that a Tale of Welcome be told both as a gift and an introduction. I remember hearing the old Viscount mutter under his breath that the kind of tale he welcomed was short and salacious, to a murmur of laughter. Then she started to speak and everything else ceased to exist. That was the moment, and when my memory dims in the night of years and all else fades I believe I will see her still in my mind’s eye as she was that day, sitting with the sunlight streaming down upon her face and her auburn hair burning like a fiery halo around her head.
Now, I have made a small study of ancient tales and published a monograph or two on the older forms that attracted some notice and even a little praise in the field, but I had never read anything like the tale the Huntress told us that day. The craftsmanship was consummate. Every word was measured and placed like lines drawn by a master draughtsman; lean, suggestive, evocative. I despair of reproducing it here. Indeed when I asked her afterwards if I might record it, she laughed at me and asked why I would consign her words to dust.
It seems that her people regard tales as sacred, almost alive. They are always told orally and never recorded for, whilst some amongst her people are literate, they have a superstitious distrust of committing their stories to paper which as an educated man I find hard to understand.
In spite of this and many other differences of opinion, background and culture between us, we spent the entire evening in close conversation. Whilst the remainder of her party sated themselves on a quite passable meal and the few assembled noblemen and their adjuncts gently mocked them, we talked.
So fascinated was I by her speech and manners that it took me most of the evening to realise that she was flirting with me and–to my even greater surprise–to discover that I was matching her look for look, word for word and gesture for gesture.
When we parted, it was on the understanding that we would meet again the next morning and that I would show her the city whilst she told me of her life and her people. As it turned out, her party was to remain in the city for several weeks, renewing old contacts, purchasing supplies and catching up on recent events in the wider world. And each day would end with the promise that we would meet again early on the morrow, until finally one of us–and I truly do not remember which–suggested that perhaps there was no need to part for the night.
From that time on we became inseparable and almost oblivious to the outside world as the days became weeks. I am sure her own people had something to say about her unlikely choice of lover, as did the court gossips who, here as anywhere, relish nothing more than an incongruous match. I do not know how she justified herself, or whether she felt the need to do so. For my part it was easy enough; a droll remark about savages and a wink sufficed, and even made me quite the height of fashion for a while.
Then, suddenly, forever had elapsed. She told me one moonless night that she was to return to her people the day after next. The arrangements were made and final, and she asked me if I would travel with her.
I do not know which was more dreadful, my own silence, or hers at what she took to be my answer but still, unable to separate, we clung together wordless through the remainder of that long, dark night.
So why did I lie to the young man? I could perpetuate the deception, I suppose. They trained me well and I know a great many ways to subjugate the truth to the present need. But how can I convince others if I lack the clarity to see myself as I am? And I do know why I lied.
I lied because I am afraid, and fear is a terrible thing for one who has spent his life learning to control his emotions, to master the face he shows to the world and to dance with words until their meaning becomes lost in the music and only the movement of the dance remains.
More prosaically, I lied because I am afraid that this joy will not and cannot last.
I lied because tomorrow I am to marry the Huntress and there are not true words enough in all the world to share or tell my happiness.
They call me the Huntress here because they cannot say my name. I remember the first night we spent together–and it was I that asked Remard to my bed–he wanted me to teach him and we lay awake till dawn laughing as he tried to frame the sounds with his lips and wrap his tongue around the accents. Now I smile when he calls me his Huntress; in part at the memory of that night and in part at the absurdity of the idea that I belong to him or anybody else. I do not smile when others call me such; those self-important fops with their garish clothes and empty air between their ears and empty air between their legs. When they say “the Huntress”, it is to make me into something less than they are, and less than I am. A “novelty” is a word I have overheard, mainly from the ladies that flutter like butterflies about their gilded chambers and “savage” is another, more often used by the men and accompanied by a certain look.
Even yesterday at our wedding, I felt their eyes upon me; the women hoping for a misstep or other such scandal to liven the sad monotony of their lives, the men with a mixture of curiosity and desire, as if I were a rare and exotic animal exhibited for their pleasure.
I had asked Remard to spare us this indignity and told him that we could slip quietly away without all of this foolishness. He smiled the smile that I have come to love and laughed that laugh–infectious, charming and false–a laugh that is borrowed from another man; one less able to think his own thoughts and feel with his own heart. Nothing here could be done without ceremony, he told me, and we would not be forgiven if we deprived the court of so choice an entertainment.
I acquiesced. He had agreed to leave this place with me–to come to my home–and that was no small thing. But as I stood before the priest and heard him drone his dead words I thought that perhaps there was another reason why he wanted this; as if by reading our love from a book and writing our love in a book it was made somehow more lasting or more real. The uncomfortable idea came to me that what he wanted by all of this reading and recording and registering was to make the voice of our hearts into something that could be contained and owned, picked up and carried around like a piece of paper.
It is like that also with their laws and their tales. I think they fear the freedom of the air and the power of memory to change words and meanings with time into what they need to become, but I do not understand why.
It is well that we leave this place tomorrow. I have not told him so, but Remard must know that my people would have left weeks ago had it not been for me and for him. We all grow restless. The air here is old and has been breathed by too many mouths. Of course there is much that is wonderful; and the hours I spent beside the man I have married as he proudly showed me its marvels, as if he had crafted them by his own hand for my amazement, are precious.
Naturally, I did not say then that these were small things indeed compared to a winter sunrise across the mountains, or a summer sunset across the plains, but that is another reason I am hasty to depart–so that he may discover this for himself.
They say that it is better travel in hope than it is to arrive in the provinces. During the long and taxing journey up into the high mountain fastness where the Huntress’s people dwell, I came to view this less as an epigram and more as an axiom.
The start of the journey was easy enough, even for one more used to the rigours of formal receptions than forced marches. We made good progress across the plains and within a week or so had reached the foothills of the great Eastern Range. My new companions seemed to be in no particular hurry and were content to amble along the forest trails during the day and to spend the warm summer nights gathered around a fire, talking, singing and telling tales.
Listening to these tales I was struck once more by their astonishing range, depth and sophistication. Between themselves, the Huntress’s people speak a richly accented tongue which I found impossible to pronounce or understand. Fortunately the members of the delegation had been chosen from those having at least a basic command of contemporary Imperial, although my Huntress had by far the better grasp of it. When her turn came, she would speak in Imperial, often frowning at the difficulty of rendering the complex themes and limpid forms from her native tongue into mine. That she succeeded so well as to leave me captivated on every occasion is a tribute I maintain, not only to my infatuation and her beauty, but also to her verbal dexterity and keen understanding.
When the ground began to rise the journey became more difficult. It seemed to me that the steeper the terrain, the faster the pace was set and it was not long before I began to feel for the first time more like a liability than a travelling companion. My Huntress helped as she could and tried to keep our ascent steady, but even one entirely unschooled in the nuances of human expression and the delicate changes in inflection that betray our thoughts and feelings would have had little difficulty in discerning her frustration as I tripped and stumbled my way up rocky screes and along the narrow goat trails that served as paths. The rest of the party took their cue from her and whilst there was no real malice in it, began to laugh amongst themselves at my mishaps–and I am sure that my frequent falls and near escapes did make a most amusing spectacle to those born and raised on surfaces closer to the perpendicular than the horizontal.
One hunter in particular, a young man named Jornnallion, seemed to take particular delight in my small misfortunes and would always be among the first to laugh as the hard ground scraped another layer of skin from my hands–and the last to help me up. Judging by the looks he threw in my Huntress’s direction, I concluded that he was either an old lover of hers, or wished to become a new one.
The situation became worse as we climbed above the snowline when one evening, rather to my surprise, he offered to take me hunting for game along with a small group of others, as was their custom. I accepted more in the hope of improving relations with the young man than of being of any great use to the hunt, however it soon became apparent that his sole purpose in inviting me was to demonstrate my miserable lack of aptitude and to allow his own very considerable skills to shine all the more by comparison. He brought me back to camp carrying a sack of nuts and berries (of which, I later learned, the former were indigestible and the latter poisonous) whilst he and his fellows deposited a fine looking brown deer and a brace of rabbits by the fire.
From the general mirth that evening and the few words my Huntress could be prevailed upon to blushingly translate, I concluded that the tales told related generally to my prowess as a hunter and specifically to a detailed and humorous account of my failings thereas.
Finally, we crossed a high ridge and saw a wide grass-covered plateau stretched out before us, bounded all around by a steep rocky rise and topped by a sky of the fiercest blue intensity. A plume of smoke arose from beside a small copse of trees signalling our destination. Although bruised and bone weary, I set off with renewed energy, following my Huntress down the steep and rocky path; anxious to put the ordeal of the journey behind me and begin my life amongst my new bride’s people in earnest.
Two months have passed since our return to the village. I remember my pride as I approached along the worn path through the high prairie grass with my husband at my side. Remard had not spoken of it, but I could tell the journey had been hard for him. It had taken more out of him than I would have thought possible and we walked with the slow measured tread of elders, rather than the swift gait of hunters.
The children saw us approaching a good hour before we reached the village and they ran out to greet us. They were full of wonder at the strange man who was come amongst them–and of questions of course–and they swarmed around him like bees around a flower laughing and crying and playing and running, as children will. They were soon joined by the adults and the last steps of our journey were taken in the company of all I have known and held dear.
I lost track of Remard for a while amidst the joy and the bustle of our homecoming and it was some time before I thought to seek him out. When I did, I found him by the banks of the small, swift-running stream that skirts the village, quite alone. He had the air about him of an old beast that seeks a quiet hollow to die in.
He would not or could not tell me what was wrong, but spoke of being weary and in need of solitude to collect his thoughts. Then he smiled and laughed that borrowed laugh I had hoped he would leave as he left his old life.
I went to him and comforted him; but more as a mother comforts her child than as a woman does a man. Is it wrong for me to ask myself how much of the man I loved was left behind when we left the city that shaped him and how much I have been able to carry with me to my home?
I had to tell his tale for him.
The evening had come and gone with feasting and drinking and the people were gathered at last around the great fireplace in the centre of the village. The children were quiet–either gone to sleep or sitting silent in their parent’s arms–and with the business of our journey related and tale of my marriage told and told again until even deaf old Punnitte who keeps the water-skins was satisfied that she had heard all of the details, the Tales of Introduction began.
Since before the Rain of Fire, it has been our way when welcoming a stranger among us to each tell a tale from our lives, that he might know how to speak to us and how to honour us. And so around the fire, each in their turn the men and women told their tales. Those who could do so spoke in the tongue of my husband; those who could not spoke in our own language, so that Remard would not count himself slighted or ill-welcomed by their silence.
Finally, each had spoken and it remained only for my husband to claim the honour of telling the last tale. Silence fell around the fire. I looked for him to speak and my heart stood still when I saw his closed eyes and heard the soft sounds of sleep in his mouth. The eyes of all were upon us; all could see his disgrace and my own.
There was nothing to be done, in the face of such a slight, but he was my husband and it fell to me to redeem him as best I could. With tears burning in the corners of my eyes, I forced my trembling hands to still themselves and my voice to calm and began to speak.
I had to tell his tale for him and he will never know the humiliation that cost me.
We tried to teach him to hunt with us; not because we needed his skill, but so that he might learn to know who we were and how we lived and so that he might feel pride in having played his part. At first he tried, but only with his body, never with his heart, and you must hunt with all your heart to succeed. So he would return empty handed, and as often as not the rest of the hunt empty handed also.
There was no one moment when he was no longer invited, nor any when his polite reasons for not going began to apply to every invitation, rather than a specific one. It was more like that time at the end of summer when the ice creeps slowly across the stream, freezing a little more each morning and thawing a little less by every evening, until finally it is solid ice and will remain so until the snows melt in the Spring.
He spends much of his time now with the Wise Woman, Gruellamienne. If she were young or beautiful I would be jealous, but she is neither. I do not know why she chooses his company, but I do know that she tells him the old tales, for hour after hour, while he sits beside her like a child who has lost his wits to the moon and writes them down.
Many of us have asked her why she allows this, to which she answers that the tales have survived fire and flood and famine and drought and that she does not think their being copied out onto stretched hide so that another may better understand them will do them any harm. I am not sure I agree, but she is the keeper of tales and it is her right to tell them as she will.
He is clever, my husband, that I can say. With all his listening and writing he is learning our tongue quickly and learning it well. Perhaps for this reason, at least, Gruellamienne has proved herself wise.
Jornnallion has asked me several times to lie with him, as I used to. He says that he does not think of me as a true wife. It is difficult, as we hunt much together, he and I; our skills and our temperaments are well matched and sometimes in the silence of the chase, when I look across and see the flowing strength of his movement, I am reminded that our bodies too are well matched. Thinking of such moments, I admit that I find it difficult to explain to him why I am bound to Remard; or even to myself.
When I first trained as a diplomat, my master had me accompany him on what he described as a challenging emissary. Arriving unlooked for and unwanted, within two days we had made more false steps, more errors of judgement and more enemies than I would have believed possible. At the end of the second day, my master ordered our bags packed, the horses saddled and we left as expeditiously as was possible under the circumstances.
Sometimes, he informed me as we rode ignominiously away, leaving is the lesser evil. A clever man persists through difficulties in the knowledge that nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished without effort. A wise man knows that some situations are simply ill-starred, where all of our words and all of our actions turn against us. When he finds himself in one, he runs.
The problem is that in the three months since I arrived here, late summer has become early winter. The first snows have fallen, blocking the high mountain passes and this village has become my prison.
I am unused to failure and reluctant to recognise its bitter taste, but if ever I knew a sojourn steeped in failure it is this one. From the disastrous day of our arrival, I have been haunted by the growing sensation that I am once more become a child; that nothing I know is of value to these people. The facility of expression and gift for influencing others that served me so well in my home seem worthless here, having no part in the daily struggle to bring food to the table and warmth to the hearth.
Even the Huntress, with whom I was used to talk as freely as with my own shadow has become progressively silent, as if a growing deficiency of meaning had crept around our words like frost. I had hoped she would understand on that first evening, as I stood by the stream feeling more alone than I think I have ever been (and I have found that I fear solitude and silence more than anything). After the weariness of the journey, the clamour of the children, the greetings of the adults, the endless strange words spoken in a strange tongue I felt such a need for peace, for familiarity. When she came to me there, her eyes bright and face flushed with the joy of homecoming I cannot say whether it was compassion or contempt I thought I saw in her regard; although by the next day it had become clearer.
She spends much of her time now with the hunters, and with others of her people. I do not know if she has yet taken a lover or lovers amongst them. My reason tells me that it is merely a matter of time until she does so, whilst my heart protests the thought with a dull pain which convinces me that more than the snow holds me prisoner here.
Much of the upland plateau remains accessible, as well as the more sheltered slopes above and often the hunting parties are gone for a days at a time. Once it became clear that I was at best useless and more often a hindrance, I gave up my early attempts to accompany them.
Unlike many at the court, I have never been afraid of exertion. Since coming here I have put myself to work in as many ways as I have been able to find about the village: building walls and carrying water, gathering wood and helping tend to the few goats they keep. It is not noble work, neither by the standards of the world I have left behind, nor by those of the people amongst whom I now find myself. Still, it is useful and I find I can take some little pride in my aching arms and tired legs at the end of the day.
What spare time I have, I spend with Gruellamienne, who they call the Wise Woman and Keeper of Tales. She is one of the few who speaks the Imperial tongue fluently (and eventually confirmed my early suspicion that it was she who had tutored the Huntress). She is old; white-haired with nut-brown skin, worn and wrinkled by the passage of the seasons. Her voice however is that of a young woman and she speaks with a power and range that would not shame a singer, an actor or perhaps a statesman.
In spite of spending much time speaking with both her and others, I am not sure I fully or clearly understand either her title, or how she acquired it.
Her capacity as Wise Woman seems to involve little more than sitting in sun when the weather is fine and by the smoky fire in her skin-roofed hut when it is not. She receives visits from the men and women of the village and sometimes gifts from the children, at which she laughs happily and thanks them with her young woman’s voice. Then she asks them how they are, or tells them how she is, or how someone else is and sometimes makes a joke or tells a tale and sends them on their way.
Her role as Keeper of Tales was easier to fathom. Whilst the tales of the people belong to all equally, there is one among them–generally one too old and useless for other work, she told me with a crooked grin–who is charged with their remembrance and their telling at need. Since her body was frail, but her memory keen, Gruellamienne had been chosen for that task.
I soon discovered that keen was something of an understatement. I think I have mentioned that I have studied some of the old stories and in the course of my studies have read and heard a great many. These few paltry words pall into insignificance beside the vast treasure-trove that this woman carries in her head.
As I had a great deal of free time and very little to do with it, I often found myself sitting with her while she recited tale after tale. Most of these were instructional–the so-called Teaching Tales–and were meant for the children of the village; however they were ideally suited to introduce a stranger to the ways and language of the people.
Remembering the Huntress’s reaction to the idea of my writing down her words, at first I was reticent to ask. Finally I became convinced that this would not only be helpful to me in a very immediate way, but also a valuable resource for future study and broached the subject. To my great surprise she made no objection.
I do not think I would consider Gruellamienne a friend, any more than I would a flock of birds or a force of nature. Still, it was with her that I had spoken more than any other and I was persuaded that, if not actively sympathetic, at least she did not look upon me entirely unkindly. It is for this reason that when I came to consider the heart of the Huntress lost beyond my reach and the pain of leaving as being ever so slightly less than the pain of remaining, making my departure inevitable, it was to her that I turned.
She did not try to comfort me, as I had feared, nor did she try to persuade me to stay once leaving became possible once more in the springtime, as I had perhaps secretly hoped she would. Instead she sat, nodding to herself as was her way when deep in thought and tilted her head to one side. Then she straightened her head, poked a stick at the fire and looked up at me with her impassive brown eyes. She said that I might try speaking to the Huntress in her own language and that I might tell her a certain tale.
Last night he shamed me in front of the whole village.
We were gathered there around the fire, wrapped in furs and skins against the chill wind that blows down from the peaks. Jornnallion sat beside me and I was more attentive to the heat of his skin where it touched mine than to the few tales that were told. At last, the time for the closing tale came and we looked to Gruellamienne to speak, but instead she stood to the side and gave the place to my husband, Remard.
There was a murmur of surprise. I know I wondered at such an honour being given to him and blushed for fear that he might fail to find the wit to speak and by his silence disgrace himself more than by whatever words he might say. Instead, when he did begin to speak, it was in the tongue of the people; strangely accented and simply worded, but clear and without hesitation. He told the tale of the Thorn Tree Lover and these were his words:
Long ago, before the Rain of Fire, there lived a young man called Juddaeon, who was wed to a Huntress of the people, whose name was Aillieurres. The young man was strong and healthy. His wife was a skilled huntress and fair to look at. They wanted nothing and lived together in great joy in a fine hut by the forest’s edge. The young couple were kind and generous in their good fortune and loved by their neighbours, so when in the summertime Aillieurres announced that she bore a child to her husband, the whole village joined them in their rejoicing.
Now the winter that followed was a harsh one. Hardship came and was followed by hunger, and hunger by disease. Aillieurres was taken sick. The young man spent his days treading hard the snow of the forest trails searching for game and his nights tending to his young wife, but the work of his days and the care of his nights were not enough. Her body weakened by the child she carried, she died, taking the unborn babe with her into the dark beyond.
She was buried with the first moon of spring and white flowers bloomed between the trees where she lay. Upon that plot, her grief-stricken husband planted a sapling thorn tree, who’s white blossom fell amongst the flowers so it seemed that winter still covered the ground there, when all else was turned to green.
Time passed. Spring softened into summer and upon the ground where Aillieurres lay buried the thorn tree grew and flourished with uncommon speed, so that soon it was no more a sapling, but was become a small tree with feathered leaves and long, sharp thorns. It was at this time that the people of the village began to notice a change in the young man: his skin became pale, almost the colour of moonlight. More alarmingly, deep red cuts and weals began to appear on his pale arms and legs and scarlet scratches to cover his face and neck.
When asked about these, the young man would not speak and sighed and turned away. As they grew worse, he withdrew more and more into himself until he was seldom seen by the light of day.
Finally, a young hunter spotted Juddaeon leaving his hut, late one evening. Concerned, or curious, he followed him through the trees to the place where his dead wife lay. He found him in the clearing, his arms wrapped around the thorn tree and his head resting against its trunk, where he remained immobile as the sharp spines dug into his flesh; thinking who knows what thoughts and lost in who knows what dreams or memories.
Each night, the young man returned to the tree over his young bride’s grave and the blood from his wounds flowed deep into the ground, nourishing its roots. And so the tree grew, its thorns becoming ever brighter and sharper. Every morning, the young man returned to his hut, paler and more deeply hurt than the day before until it became clear that many more nights in the embrace of his thorn tree lover must surely lead to his death. Yet still he clung to it, holding tightly to his pain and perhaps he clings there still, as the seasons change and white flowers turn once more to snow and white flesh gives way to bleached bone; although his ending, like all endings, is for us to choose.
It is an old tale and there is no ending to it. That is a part of its meaning. When Remard had finished, I noticed that I was sitting alone and that his eyes were upon me, as were Gruellamienne’s.
Ah! I cannot bear it and I do not know how to tell him why. But I do know that I have a burden to bear. I will seek out in silence and solitude the courage to end this tale and to begin another; and from this burden I will not shrink.
The Huntress has been gone for six months now. She left on the morning after the night I told the tale of the Thorn Tree Lover. When I had finished speaking, she stood slowly and came to me; approaching cautiously, as she might a trapped beast that could take flight or attack at a sudden movement or an abrupt gesture. Our eyes met and then our hands, and then we were locked in a fierce embrace, as if the cold and silent months that had passed could be melted away by the heat of our bodies or crushed away by our closeness.
Dream-like we left the warm circle of the fire and dream-like we lay together in the warm circle of each other’s arms. The last thing I recall before sleep took me was the feel of the gentle curve of her stomach beneath my hand and the fierce brightness of her eyes upon me; reflected starlight in the dark.
I do not believe we spoke a single word in the time between the silence that met the end of my tale and the silence that greeted me when I awoke the next day to find myself alone.
At first I tried to think her merely gone to bathe or to seek food, or vanished on some longer errand from which she would soon return. I think I knew in my heart from the moment that my eyes opened to the empty bed beside me that she had left the village, but this did not stop me from circling the huts and structures until the snow between them was turned to packed ice and bare earth. Nor did it stop me visiting and revisiting all the places where I knew her to go, and speaking to all of those with whom I knew her to speak; even Jornnallion who would not meet my eyes, but spoke sadly and with truth in his voice when he said he did not know where she was gone.
All I asked answered the same, in more words, or fewer words, with sympathy or indifference according to their character; all except for Gruellamienne, who regarded me with her impassive brown eyes and unsmiling mouth and told me that some quarry must be hunted alone. She counselled patience and while I silently cursed her as a mystic and fraud and worse besides, I was forced to admit that whether she were right or wrong or whether her words were entirely meaningless, I had little choice but to wait.
So I bide my time as best I can and wait for this endless winter to pass and the snows to melt and clear the way back into the world below. I cannot say that I have been idle through these long, snowbound months. While I cannot hunt and do not think I ever will be able to–not well enough to be of help to others or any credit to myself–I have proved at least to my own satisfaction that I can be of use here.
If ever I had delusions of bringing the benefits and comforts of civilisation to these people, that time is now passed. They are quite civilised enough, and the art behind the creation of most of the comforts I might wish to bring here is as mysterious to me as it is to them.
Knowing little of the arts and sciences, I have been obliged to limit my few suggestions to such simple and practical matters as I do understand. But if these suggestions have not been met with amazement, neither have they been ill-received and I find myself increasingly asked to advise on everyday tasks such as the construction of new dwellings and such small amenities as might be needed, as well as to aid in their execution.
In truth, I find I take as much pleasure in the work as from the planning of it. A few days ago we completed the construction of a storage room for meat and other perishable foodstuffs. The idea of using ice to preserve the freshness of food has long been known, but when I explained how in the palace kitchens, great underground cellars were dug and filled with ice during the winter, that would keep cool even through the spring and summer with the aid of additional ice carried down in blocks from the mountains, the interest was immediate.
After a few hours discussion, myself and several of the villagers set to dig a deep pit, which over the course of the following days was lined with wood and blocks of ice and roofed with wood and dirt and more ice.
The work done, we rested and talked and joked. Those who had not been involved in the building came and praised the construction. The children ran up and down the sloping access tunnel and hid within, chattering their teeth at the cold and laughing. Listening to their laughter, I felt contentment such as I have rarely known.
When it is too cold or I am too weary for work outside, I spend my time with the children of the village, playing and telling tales and teaching them what I can of the wider world outside these mountains.
At first I was intimidated by their chatter and constant questions, but this soon gave way to surprise at their quickness and delight in their openness to thoughts and ideas that go far beyond the limits of their everyday experience. Often Gruellamienne joins us and adds her laughter to theirs and her questions to theirs, and tells the Teaching Tales or listens to the children recite tales of their own.
I find that I understand their speech better and better and sometimes time will pass–an hour, an evening, or even a day–where I do not feel like a stranger among these people.
With these activities, I am too busy to think much of what has been lost. Only at sundown, in the stillness that marks the end of the day, when I look out across the snow and upwards to the Western peaks I sometimes fancy that I see the silhouette of my Huntress, black against the blinding red of the sky and the blinding white of the snow. Then my vision clears, resolving her approaching form into a tree stump, or irregularly shaped rock and I sigh and stamp the snow from my feet and turn and walk inside.
I have never felt such sweet pain; nor known such bitter joy!
My Huntress returned on the eve of the first moon of spring.
I was in my hut–our hut–revising a draft translation of one of the older tales that Gruellamienne had told the night before, when I hear a commotion outside. I stepped out into the late evening sunshine and saw that a group had gathered around the place where the path crosses the shallow stream bed and heard chattering and laughter, the sound of excited questions and the sound of tears.
At that moment, I think I knew my Huntress had returned, but it was not until I had come closer and seen her gaunt but healthy form with my own eyes that I could believe it to be so. Her eyes shone like the first stars of evening and when she greeted me her voice was quieter than I remembered it; her tones softer and richer.
She smiled at me and her smile was like the promise of summer as she held a small sleeping bundle up to me with the words, “My husband, I bring you your son”.
I will say no more of our reunion here, except that there are some joys that can be shared and others that are best carried within us to be treasured. The days and weeks that followed; the rediscovery of my Huntress and those first precious hours with my infant son, I count amongst the most treasured and the most blessed of my existence.
It has been six months since my return to the village; six months and the spring is turned to summer and summer to autumn. The bright ring around the moon shows that the first snows are not too far away and the wolves are beginning to come down from the heights above.
In many ways, it feels as if I too have come full circle. When I find myself sitting with my people by the evening fire, my husband at my side, I sometimes feel as if I were once more newly returned from the city; the intervening cycle of seasons no more than a dream-tale. Then I look down and see my son at my breast; his gold-flecked eyes closed in sleep, his downy blond hair already beginning to tangle and darken. I hear Remard speak softly in his strange lowland accent and it comes to me that much indeed has changed.
Remard laughs less now, and smiles more. He cares for our son and has started telling him new tales of his own, along with the Teaching Tales and stories from his home.
My husband will never be a hunter, but he is become a teacher and a builder and many other things besides and after all, I find that perhaps one hunter in the family is enough.
I remain myself, of course. There are times when I look out across the wide expanse of frosted ground leading up to the ice-locked peaks and feel a growing restlessness. There are times when the air in my home becomes stifling and I would exchange all the warmth of my hearth and all of the words and the tales and the chatter for a bow in my hand and my quarry before me.
I would be a fool and a liar to say that I am always happy, or that my husband is always happy, but then who is? And who has any right to be so? The seasons change whether we will it or no. Life continues and each season is to be lived according to its exigencies. Each season also brings its own joys, and who knows what new life may spring from this winter’s bed of snow?
My name is Gruellamienne, Wise Woman of the people, keeper of their tales and memory. I offer no Tale of Introduction. If that which has gone before will not suffice, then it is by these few words alone that you must know me.
Two years have passed since Remard came to live amongst us. When I first saw him at Analliemeuire’s side, I admit that I did not believe he would last a season here. In some ways that was true. There is a part of him that died during that first winter, but if he has lost something of cynicism and sophistication, he has found depth and humility enough to fill the deficit and neither he, nor we are any the poorer for the exchange.
Two years have passed since Analliemeuire returned to us on the morning of the first moon after the spring thaw, her infant son clutched to her breast. I do not believe she knows it, but I think that she has changed as much as he in that time and is grown, if not softer, then more thoughtful; if not less impulsive, then more measured in her impulses.
Two years and they circle each other still like moths around a fire, but though they call me wise I cannot speak to which is the moth and which the flame. Perhaps the child is the flame that binds them both, although my heart tells me that one day the child will be grown and gone and that they will be circling each other still.
There may be some who can see into the future and know what it will bring. I cannot, but the present I see clearly and the present is good.