(The family of Steven and Guiwenneth live in a reconstructed Roman villa, in the heart of Ryhope Wood. This chapter is a flashback to Yssobel’s education into her origins. It is the beginning of her fascination with Lavondyss, also known as Avalon and Avilion.)
Part Two: The Villa
At dawn on the day of her fifth birthday, Steven took Yssobel to see the valley through which her mother had rurned, several years ago, after her time in Lavondyss, the land beyond time, the place of healing. Yssobel was a strong and robust child. Steven had hoisted her onto his shoulders for the walk, and she gripped Steven’s hair with small fists of iron. Her legs, clamped around his neck, threatened to suffocate him.
“Easy, girl. Easy. My neck’s not as young as it used to be.”
Yssobel was excited by the dawn treat, although as yet she had no idea of why she was being taken to see the valley known as imarn uklyss. All she knew was that imarn uklyss meant ‘where the girl came back through the fire’.
The air was fresh, the light stark and clear.
“The valley! The valley!” she chorused as her father walked her through the enclosures, towards the tall gate that separated their homestead from the wild. And though she shouted the words in English, she also called them out in other languages.
Aged five, Yssobel could already speak in tongues, and her favourite was the language of her mother Guiwenneth, which had a ring to it, and which could be used effectively in arguments with her older brother Jack, because of its rich content of abusive expression.
The valley opened before them, forested on both sides, wide, with the silver gleam of three rivers that seemed to flow from nowhere, disappearing into the distance to where the valley narrowed. There, it curved away to the right, taking its secrets with it, to begin its dangerous course towards Lavondyss itself.
But here, beside a stream, in the overhang of willows, sitting on the smoothed grey edges of rocks, Steven let his daughter down to survey the passageway through which her mother had returned. There were no creatures to be seen this morning, other than birds, a flock of starlings, the usual crows, and a solitary eagle circling in morose fashion, as if half asleep.
Yssobel stared into the valley. The sharp breeze caught her auburn hair and she brushed at it; but her green eyes searched only for the unknown. Her feet kicked at the rock, her hands clutched the cold stone; curiosity made her pale face glow.
Steven watched her for a while.
How like Guiwenneth. That half of you that is Guiwenneth. The wildwood half.
It was not the same with seven-year-old Jack. The boy, tall and edgy for his age, was human in all respects; or if not, then the wildwood had not yet exerted its force upon him.
This was not Jack’s day. This was Yssobel’s.
The sky brightened, the valley shed its gloom. Slowly.
“That eagle’s seen its prey,” the girl announced suddenly, just as Steven was about to speak.
“How do you know?”
“The gleam in its eye. It flashes with the sun. It’s cocked its head three times, now, in the same circle. Breakfast is on the ground. The eagle is pretending not to know.”
“You can see that from here?”
Yssobel laughed and looked up at her father. “Can’t you?”
When he looked back, the eagle had disappeared, only to reappear a moment later, rising with speed, legs dangling, wings beating, its prey hanging limply in its talons.
“Sometimes,” Steven said, “I believe you know this world better than I do. And I’ve lived here for twenty years.”
“I dream that I’ve lived here for ages,” the girl said quietly, then kicked the stone seat again with her heels and said, in a sing-song voice: “The valley. The valley. Tell me. Tell me.”
“Have you heard of the giant known as Mogoch?” Steven asked. The girl frowned, then said brightly, “Yes. From Jack. He used his tooth to mark a great man’s grave.”
“It is a big tooth,” her father agreed. “And it marks the grave of Peredur. And do you know who Peredur is?”
“He transformed into an eagle, certainly. But he was a great king. And… and…” the two of them exchanged a stare.
“And?” Yssobel prompted.
“He was your grandfather.”
“My grandfather was an eagle?” The girl looked delighted.
“More than that. Much more than that. But about the valley: this is the short and simple story:
“At that time, in the life of this people, Mogoch the giant was set a task by the Fates and walked north for a hundred days without resting. This brought him to the furthest limit of the known world, facing the gate of fire that guarded Lavondyss.
At the top of the valley was a stone, ten times the height of a man. Mogoch rested his left foot on the stone and wondered for what reason the fates had brought him this far from his tribal territory, to the edge of the Unknown Region.
“What’s the Unknown Region?”
“It’s what I call Lavondyss. Now be quiet and listen…”
A voice hailed him. “Take your foot from the stone.”
Mogoch looked about him, looked down, and saw a hunter, standing on a cairn of rocks, staring up.
“I shall not,” said Mogoch.
“Take your foot from the stone,” shouted the hunter. “A brave man is buried there.”
“Yes, Yssi. Peredur. Now be quiet.”
“A brave man is buried there.”
“I know,” said Mogoch, not moving his foot. “I buried him myself. I placed the stone on his body with my own hands. I found the stone in my mouth. Look!” And Mogoch grinned, showing the hunter the great gap in his teeth where he had found the brave man’s marker.
“Well, then,” said the hunter. “I suppose that’s all right.”
“Thank you,” said Mogoch, glad that he would not have to fight the man—
“He would have won – the hunter would have won!”
“Yssi! Quiet! I’m trying to tell you the story.”
She jumped up and down on the rock, her face beaming, hair swirling.
“And what great deed brings you to the borders of Lavondyss?”
“I’m waiting for someone,” the hunter said. “Someone of importance to me.”
“Well,” said Mogoch after a moment, staring down at the hunter. “I hope they’ll be by shortly.”
“I’m sure she will,” the hunter said, and turned from the giant.
Mogoch used an oak tree to scratch his back—
“An oak tree? He should have used a pine!”
–then killed and ate a deer for his supper, wondering why he had been summoned to this place.
Eventually he left, but named the valley ritha muireog, which in his own language meant: “where the hunter waits”.
Later, however, the valley was called imarn uklyss, which means: “where the girl came back through the fire”.
For a short while after he had finished recounting this tale, Steven was silent, his gaze on the steep sided valley, his mind detached from the purpose of this visit to the place where he had finally settled.
It was not a dream that had drawn him in, nor even a memory; it was an uncertainty. He could remember the long journey through the valley, from the place of fire, from the stone, to this quiet place where he had waited. He could remember the horrors and the struggle against the unseen and unknown presences that inhabited this land, sufficiently so to feel an echo of that terrible time.
But he could also remember the joy and delight, the hope and calm that rose in him when, sitting on this very rock, he had seen a shadow become a shade; and a shade become a form; and the form shape itself into the a woman he had known.
The woman had stepped out of the valley and come to him. And her wounds had healed, though she was bedraggled and scratched by a journey that had taken her through her own hell and hardship.
But the blood and bruising on her body had not mattered, only the smile and glow of relief when she had seen him.
“I’ve found you,” she said.
“Yes. I knew you’d come.”
He remembered how she flowed into his embrace, all strength gone, letting his own strength hold her. She seemed so small. So light. Her fingers sought his hands, clutched them hard. Her breathing became calm. Her hair was matted with time and travel, with forest and river. It was a mat of copper, long, unkempt, smelling strongly of toil.
“The return was very difficult,” she whispered. “The return was very difficult. I hope I’m safe now.”
He remembered how he held her, pressing his face against hers, opening her mouth with his, welcoming her with all of his body and clutching her to him, not letting her go, tasting and remembering everything about her.
And when she started to cry he picked her up and carried her home.
And when she slept, he sat by her and listened to the words she spoke in her dreams, the same words, over and over.
“The return was very hard. I hope I’m safe now.”
A small foot gently kicked him on the shoulder. The valley cleared in his mind’s eye and became the steep-sided shadowy pass that he had brought his daughter to see.
Yssobel was standing on the rock, looking down. The breeze was catching the tassels on her fur leggings. Her hair, red like fire in this strange light, was flapping over her face. The look in her eyes was questioning, not alarmed. “Where were you?”
“Dreaming,” Steven replied.
The girl looked down the valley.
“I liked the story. I’d heard some of it from Jack.”
“You told me.” Steven had taken his son through the same ritual two years before.
Yssobel stretched out her arms in front of her, fingers pointing before she turned her palms so that they seemed to embrace what she was seeing. A moment later she let her arms drop.
“The girl who came back through the flames was my mother.”
“But who was the hunter? Who was waiting?”
“Who do you think?”
“Jack didn’t tell me. But it’s obvious. It was you.”
“Me. Of course.”
Yssobel shivered. She was still standing and Steven could see that she seemed uncomfortable. So small a girl, so much expression in her face. He asked, “What is it?”
“I was just thinking. I was thinking about how long you waited.” She looked down, meeting his gaze. “How long did you wait, daddy?”
The innocent question was like a blow to his head and heart.
“If I knew the answer to that, my darling, I’d have been able to move away from this place. I waited a long time. But I don’t know how long. All I know is that I waited too long. By the time Guiwenneth came back, I was too much a part of the valley. I can never go home.”
Yssobel frowned. “But you are home. This is your home.”
Realising that he had made a mistake, Steven stood and gathered the girl into his arms. “Yes, of course. This is very much my home. But we’ve talked about my childhood and you know I had a home a long way from here. At the edge of the wood. That’s all I meant. I can’t go back to the old place. I’m happy here.”
“Do you want to go back?”
“I’m happy here, sweetheart. With you and Jack and Gwin. This is my life. This is my world.”
The girl stared at him long and hard, still frowning. Then she shook her head and took her father’s face in her hands. What she said next shocked him.
“But you’re not. You’re not happy.”
“Why do you say that?”
She looked sad, now. “I don’t know. I think it might be because … because…”
“Because… you wonder what will happen when we’re grown up. Where do we go? When will we go? We can’t stay here for ever.”
No, darling. We can’t. My God, you understand my fear more than I understand it myself.
He said, “Let me put it another way. I’m happy with you. I can’t think of a greater happiness than to have my family with me as I get old and creaky—”
“And can’t hunt like you did!”
“And can’t hunt like I used to hunt—”
“Can’t throw your spear and hit anything other than a rock!”
“I most certainly can.”
“Can’t shoot straight; always putting funny smelly infusions on your shoulder to ease the pain.”
“The pain is called arthritis, and if you keep reminding me of my infirmities I’ll wish a touch of it on your tongue!”
“Can’t even wrestle the calf down to the ground.”
“But Jack can. And do I not make excellent vegetable juice and bread? And do I not tell you great stories? About the people who live all around us, and who sometimes we can see? And a few of whom you’ve even met?”
The girl nodded enthusiastically. “I like your stories. I like Odysseus best of all. He makes me laugh. I wish he wasn’t so lost.”
“Be careful of Odysseus.”
“He’s lonely, though he has a lot of visitors and they talk for hours. He’s learning all the time.”
“Be careful of him. I don’t like you riding off to visit his cave.”
“I know, I know. He’s a trickster. But he makes me laugh.”
“Your mother and I think he’s dangerous. And he’s older than you.”
“Two years? He’s Jack’s age, daddy.”
This was not the time to re-address his concerns about his daughter’s meanderings, her acquaintance with the people who had gathered at this end of the valley, this stopping place for the spirits who had crossed back from Lavondyss. It was time to go back to the villa.
He reached up his hand to help her down from the rock where she was standing, but again she stared into the valley. And looking puzzled.
“What is it?” he asked.
“You weren’t the hunter,” she whispered. “You weren’t the one who was waiting.”
Something about her demeanour, perhaps the way she was trembling, arms limp by her sides, alarmed Steven and he found himself unable to move. “What do you mean? I waited for Guiwenneth and after a long time she came back, and here we are.”
“You can’t have been the hunter,” the girl said softly.
“Because he’s still there. The hunter is still there. Still waiting. I can see him. He’s only a shadow, but I can see him. The hunter is there. He’s sad, he’s confused, and he’s calling to me.”
The girl’s hands were icy cold. Steven reached for her and after a moment she allowed him to take her down from the rock.
“There’s no-one there now. No-one who should concern you. This is just…”
Just what? Dream? Fantasy? Imagination?
Before he could find a way to express his thoughts, Yssobel said, “I’m not imagining things.”
“Sweetheart: in the world in which we live, imagination is everything. Of course you’re not imagining things. What you see is what you’ve made. With this…” he tapped her head. “The hunter in the valley is not me. I’m here. It’s you. Do you understand me? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
She hugged her father. “Yes. Yes, I do. There is no such thing as a dream. A dream becomes life. You’ve told me this.”
“Good girl. Five years old going on twenty. Good girl. Now tell me: the hunter you can see, if indeed he is a hunter. The hunter in the valley. Does he have a name?”
Yssobel was silent, shivering. Suddenly she became strong again, pulling herself away from her father’s embrace. She was small and stout, strong and sturdy, and she walked away from Steven, towards the twin pillars that seemed to mark the entrance to the valley.
“His name is resurrection. He is held together by his scars. And he needs to be healed of his wounds.”
Was this Yssobel speaking?
“There’s no such name as ‘resurrection’.”
The girl was silent. She looked suddenly sad. “It’s not his real name. Anyway, he’s gone, now.”
She came back to her father and took his hand, leading him away from the valley. They walked along the track that led to the villa, and Jack was waiting for them at the gates. The tall, thin boy looked anxious.
“Gwin’s gone,” he said. He always called his mother by her name. “She got upset by something.”
“What do you mean ‘gone’?”
“She took the grey and a packhorse and rode through the east gate. I think she’s gone up to the old stone Dun, her father’s fort. But I’m not sure. She took Hurthig with her.”
Hurthig was a mute young man, a Saxon, strong from working the villa’s forge, with a good protective arm.
Steven was stunned for a moment. The boy had watery eyes. Whatever had happened, it had been upsetting for him.
Behind Jack, Rianna appeared, walking across the courtyard from the villa itself. She was one of several older women who came to the villa occasionally, and who were trusted to look after the children. She had come, with others, from Dun Peredur, the fort of Guiwenneth’s birth, and now a haunted place a half day’s ride away. They lived most of the time in shelters along the edge of the river that flowed into the valley, but over-wintered in the greater company of this old Roman ruin.
“I was at the river, listening to the water,” she said. “Guiwenneth came to find me before she left. Jack is right: she is very disturbed.”
“Did she say anything?”
Yssobel whispered: “Is mummy upset?” She held her father’s hand tightly.
“I think so.”
She hesitated, frowning slightly, but only for a moment. “Is it… is it because of that man in the valley?”
Steven looked down at his daughter. She was strangely bright-eyed and brightly curious. “I don’t know, Yssi. I’ll have to find out.”
Extract from Avilion, 2009