The black clouds unleashed their rain, pelting Adlais’s face. The drops melted into her tears. Now, in the centre of the circle, the priests gripping her, she understood what happened to her friend Branwen.
Once again the crops had failed. The gods were angry. Someone in the tribe must be angering them and the tribe would have to be cleansed. Adlais had been called to the priests, who had asked if she would sing at the cleansing. She had never liked cleansings, but it was important it was done right, so she had willingly agreed and drank from the horn to signify her submission to the gods. Now, barely an hour later, her head felt like it was splitting, her ears rang with sound of her own heartbeat and her limbs jerked of their own volition as the priest listed her crimes.
Witnesses came into the circle to testify to seeing events that had never happened, to spying acts that had never been committed. They briefly recited their words, as they had for Branwen last year. Then they scurried back beyond the safety of the ditch that separated the world from this cursed space. As always, the accused was challenged to deny her crimes, but Adlais’s blood felt thick and poisonous. The words would not come to her tongue. She had been on the other side too many times to hope that people would see her distress. Her silence would condemn her. Her spasms would be visible evidence of the guilt torturing her.
The judgement came. Adlais filled with fear. Not for herself, her future was as obvious as the grave in front of her, but for her family and her friends watching from beyond the ditch. They were desperate, hoping this cleansing would finally rid the land of the blight. But what gods would be appeased by falsehoods?
It was almost a relief when the last act came. The blow to the back of her skull surprised her, as she discovered the pain in her head could indeed get worse. She stumbled, then fell into the pit dug for her, to the cheers and relief of the watchers. Still awake, she lay in her final bed as the priests began to cover her. Adlais cried. Not for herself but for the friend she had abandoned a year ago.
Adlais slept, or at least she dreamed.
She dreamed of the passing of time and the turning of the seasons. She dreamed of the circle being abandoned by a diminishing tribe. She dreamed of others coming much later clad as though they wore chippings from the sun in their clothes. Still the seasons turned in her world, limited by the bank and ditch that marked the curse that held her inside.
Time eased her isolation. No one would want to spend time with an angry ancestor, but as people abandoned the place, so new visitors came. Each year new lambs and calves would arrive to feed upon the grass. Maybe the circle was blessed, not cursed, as over the passage of time Adlais could see sheep become woollier and cows become fatter.
Sunlight came as a shock.
She’d been aware of sunlight, but she hadn’t felt it for so long. She felt awake, alert for the first time should could remember since… had she really been alert when she had visited the priests on her final day? Could it be the longest dream? She stretched, or at least tried to, but she had the wrong body. Concentrating, she realised she was feeling the sun on one of her bones, a thigh. A woman in the strangest colours used the tiniest brush Adlais had seen to move soil from her bones. The sensation was strange, intense, but not painful.
She heard the bleat of an annoyed sheep in the distance. She must have heard bleating in the circle, she must have seen its colours, but both felt entirely new.
She was keenly aware of the others in the circle. A woman was tending to her. A young man with some kind of spoon was digging away elsewhere. Were they desecrating the site? Elsewhere she saw artists sketching, it was hard to tell. They were looking closely at the bank and marking, maybe painting, a canvas of a type she had never seen. However, the biggest revelation was yet to come.
In the afternoon they lifted her from her grave. For once, she felt fear for herself. Her bones were boxed separately, like the priests would do to castrate those who they thought could be problematic ancestors after death. Had they a worse torment planned for her? They lifted the boxes and loaded them into a chariot by the edge of the circle. Adlais looked for the horse, but there was none. The chariot was a beast itself and, with growl, it shook itself before moving forward—beyond the circle.
Adlais’s world exploded.
Until now, Adlais’s world had been limited by the ditch sanctified by the priests. Even the bank surrounding it was beyond her reach, so she could never see beyond it. She wasn’t certain the world outside was the same place.
The trees were gone. Her home hadn’t been thickly forested, they’d needed to grow crops, but the trees were a valuable source of fuel and building material. It was like a blight to end the world had hit the land.
How impoverished could these people be without trees?
At the same time, the land looked chained. While truly tall trees were few and far between, the people here had gone mad with hedges. As if the whole land had been parcelled and boxed. It stretched to the horizon. Migrating to fresh land when the soil turned sour would be a long and arduous trek here.
The chariot followed a path, beaten black by the wheels pounding it, presumably. More than once they almost collided with a titan that passed by mere feet away to one side at enormous speed. Even being dead could not free her of the terror that filled her when another beast roared past.
The sun was low in the sky when they arrived at a gathering of houses, that almost defied description. The houses, if that was what they were, were all much more massive than the grandest halls of home. And there were so many of them. Not simply a dozen. Not even the scores she had seen once as a small child at a once-in-a-generation gathering. They uncountable and they reached higher than even the largest burial mounds.
The chariot arrived at a building that dwarfed even most other places she had seen. The interior was like a cave, cut by someone obsessed with straight lines. Inside was brightly lit, so that Adlais could see a mass of art. Some looked like renderings of places in such detail that she almost wondered if she were looking on to the real place. Everywhere were small, detailed curves, arcs and crosses, all regimented into straight lines. Presumably they had some meaning, but why so many, and why in such rigid lines was a puzzle.
Her bones were eventually placed into a cabinet and somehow one of her visitors extinguished the light here. She was both scared and thrilled. That night discretion defeated valour. She did not explore this new place, instead she remained by her bones.
The next few days followed a routine. The people would come in and work well after sunrise and leave well before sunset. Every few days they’d spend two away for some reason. Familiarity, and frankly boredom, led Adlais to explore her world farther. She was cautious at first, but found she had a sense of where she physically was, even as her spirit wandered. Returning to her bones was simply a matter of will. Finding her way around the building was more work, but she soon recognised familiar places and if she was utterly lost she could return.
Communicating with her new companions was more testing. They could neither see nor hear her. This was no surprise. She’d always known the ancestors were with her, but Adlais had never actually seen or heard one. More frustrating was that she couldn’t understand their strange language.
The lack of understanding at home caused her to roam farther. While she could move anywhere by thought, she had no idea of where she could go. Instead she followed the traffic as an invisible hitchhiker roaming the land. She had never realised it was so large. Sometimes she reached ports with ships crossing the sea. She had heard of other lands, but so far she had shied from crossing the water.
After a couple of months she was spending days at a time away from her bones, travelling further. On a whim she chased the sunset. She didn’t find the house of the sun, but what she found held a greater treasure: words she understood.
She didn’t understand all of them. It wasn’t exactly as she spoke. The closest comparison she could think of was of when her father and uncles would return home drunk. These speakers weren’t drunk, but they hovered on the edge of intelligibility.
With practice she could retrace the route quickly from her bones, travelling in less than an hour. Eventually she found she could follow children who would gather for teaching most days. The lessons she sat in on, unobserved opened the language to her, including the alien concept of reading. The fascination of organising scribbles into lines finally made sense.
Once or twice she tried to communicate with the pupils who seemed more receptive, but her clumsy attempts only scared the children. After a few attempts she decided to leave the living in peace. Instead she would sit unseen in their classes and share in the wonders they would discover. She found the bored faces of the schoolchildren comical. For her each day was filled with astonishment.
Even as understanding made her more familiar with her environment, it also made it more alien. What shocked her most was the sense of scale. She’d never thought much about deep time, but she’d never heard much beyond four or five generations past. Even the wisest priests rarely recited more than fifty generations. She was astonished to learn that she had been born at least two hundred generations into the past.
She came to realise that the people who had released her from the dark in some ways knew more about her than she did. They were never going to know her name, her friends or the details of her life, but in some ways she found they had found things about the way her world worked that she, as young girl, had never realised. Her name and her family might have been lost in time, but by bringing her to the light her rescuers had at least ensured she was not completely forgotten.
She was finally having a conversation, of a curious sort. Her bones would reveal details of her life to her visitors and they in turn would report what they had found about her place in time. The language of the east remained difficult to interpret. It was no help that they would bury their findings with probables and possibles. Despite examining her in ways she still didn’t fully understand in extraordinary detail, her rescuers seemed reluctant to speak for her.
Then someone eventually did.
She stopped attempting to communicate with the living after seeing how frightened they could be. So she had asked no one to claim her bones, but watching a television programme she learned someone had. She didn’t recognise the man who spoke for her. He railed against science, in a way that puzzled Adlais. She had lived in a time with no science to oppose, but her people had always had a reverence for wisdom, which explained the power of the elders.
While the man did not speak her language, nor shared her beliefs, there was something she did recognise, the tone of his voice. It was the speech of a man who knew beyond certainty he was right. Nothing else was possible. In his own words, he claimed a piety for nature, though he never explained how piety differed from intolerance.
The more she learned the more she felt dread in her soul. How could he know that her burial, in cursed ground, was a sacred act? Yes, she was restless on the earth but, compared to the stupor of the circle, this was bliss. With so much to learn how could someone not be restless? In the years since her release she had chased the sun around the globe. She had felt sunrise as she had gazed in awe at reefs in the Coral Sea. She had seen the reflections of aurorae glimmer on lakes in Finland and she had watched fiery lava burst from Kilauea.
Despite years to learn language and customs, Adlais remained an unseen observer. She could only watch the public inquiry into her fate. The people who had brought her bones to light spoke about how much they had learned. They even offered a painting. Born into a world without mirrors, Adlais had rarely seen her own face, but she could see a likeness to her sister in the brushstrokes. For a brief moment she willed the painting to be her own presence in the room, to plead for her freedom.
The other side offered no such joy. Simply the certainty that they were right. While they had been unaware of her existence before excavation, they were emphatic that her removal had left them in pain. They spoke of the beliefs of people in other lands at other times, and claimed them as hers. They demanded respect, but offered none to their opponents, labelling them crude grave-robbers.
After winning the argument the priests pushed on for rapid reburial. Each day Adlais remained outside the circle was a day of anguish, they claimed. In a way they were right. Once again Adlais could see a grave opening up in front of her. Once again she was powerless to speak in her defence.
The final day she tried with all her will to remain outside the circle, but as soon as her bones crossed the boundary she was imprisoned. She was laid in the place she had temporarily escaped. Again the men chose to speak for her. They assigned her beliefs that she had never held and would never choose. Ultimately she counted for nothing but the power of the priests. As sunset came, the priests scattered soil over her bones. She could feel her senses failing. The dying embers of the sun caught the features of head priest who was watching her silently. Maybe it was despair, maybe it was simply an echo carried in the genes across uncounted centuries, but briefly she looked into the eyes of the priest who had condemned her so long ago.