Daughter of Albion: New Excerpt

Daughter of Albion by Ilke Tampke
Daughter of Albion by Ilke Tampke
Daughter of Albion by Ilke Tampke is a historical mystery set in Ancient Britain on the cusp of Roman invasion (Available April 19, 2016).

A baby girl is abandoned on the doorstep of the Tribequeen’s kitchen. Cookmother takes her in and names her Ailia.Without family, Ailia is an outsider in her village, forbidden from marriage and excluded from learning. Despite this, she grows up an intelligent and brave young woman, serving the Tribequeen of her township until the day when an encounter with an enigmatic man named Taliesin leads Ailia to the Mothers, the tribal ancestors, who have chosen her for another path.

Ailia’s growing awareness of her future role as the tribal protector and her relationships with the two very different men she loves will be utterly tested by the imminent threat of Emperor Claudius preparing to take the island.

With an incredibly compelling heroine, Daughter of Albion is a suspenseful and richly rewarding novel about women, about power, about love, and about the clash of cultures and the tenacity of belief.

1

The Great Deluge

The world was born of a great flood. These waters were Truth and washed over everything. Some saw the river as it came and were well minded enough to transform themselves into salmon. By this means they survived. They were the wise ones.

SOUTHWEST BRITAIN, AD 28

I WAS NOT yet one day old when Cookmother found me on the
doorstep of the Tribequeen’s kitchen. She was on her way to our herb garden after tasting her stewed pork and finding it wanting in rosemary. I very nearly felt her leather sandal upon me before she noticed my tiny, swaddled shape.

I knew the story well.

‘Mothers of earth!’ She carried me inside, laid me on the table and peeled open my wraps, powdery with frost.

I was a girl. Misshapen, no doubt, for why else would I have been left for the Tribequeen’s servants to care for? Cookmother ran her callused fingers across my wrinkled back, my flailing limbs and swollen belly. My cord had been torn, its stump still raw and crusted, and my eyes were sunken with thirst. But she found nothing else wrong. I was perfect. A poor mother then, or a mother in shame? But Cookmother could not recall any women from the fringes who’d been due with child.

I squalled at the smell of her. I had not yet known a mother’s touch nor the taste of her milk.

Cookmother sat down on a stool and let her leine fall open so I could suckle greedily from her well-veined breasts, still full to bursting for the second warrior’s new child.

And when she had to tear my mouth away to tend to the spitting cookpot, she laid me down on a goatskin in front of the fire, where Badger, the old black-and-white bitch, was resting from the mouths of her own hungry pups outside. And when I howled—two hours on a stone step at midwinter had given me a coldness that needed touch and I had not yet drunk my fill—Cookmother placed me beside Badger’s flaccid abdomen and my little mouth easily found a nipple. Badger lifted her head and smelled me curiously, too exhausted from seven successive litters to snout me away.

Over the months that followed I fed often in this way. Cookmother said I was half reared on dog’s milk. She wondered if this had some part in what became of me.

Perhaps because I was well formed, or because the season’s harvest had put all in good temper, I was kept in the kitchen as Cookmother’s own. She had treated many lost babes, then given them to the warrior families or, if they were too weak, to the builders, for a child-soul in the foundations would bring great protection to a new house.

But I lay in a tinderbox lined with lambskin while Cookmother ground the grain, dried the meat and ran the Tribequeen’s kitchen. She was busied all the sun’s hours and my cries were often silenced with a sharp word and a finger dipped in pig fat or salted butter. But at the end of each day I was nuzzled to sleep in her own bedskins and the murmurs of her dreams were my nightsong.

Her temper was hotter than a peppercorn and my cheek often felt the sting of her palm, but when I was two summers old and burned my wrists at the rim of the cookpot, it was she who applied a fresh poultice while I writhed and screamed, and she who held me through the night when the smarting was unbearable. And when the Tribequeen called for girls of able wit to be sent for service to one of the eastern tribekings, it was she who shut me into a wooden chest with a command to be silent, and told the messenger I had taken to wandering the fringes and who knows what infections I was picking up there.

Cookmother was plump and warm, like a fresh-filled sausage, although to look at she was as ugly as a toad, with a toothless laugh and skin as pocked as porridge. Her legs (when I burrowed beneath her skirts, hiding from a loud-voiced farmer or loosed bull) were so gnarled that I wondered, in my earliest innocence, if she was half kin to a tree. This was before I knew the workings of the body and learned these dark, knotted roots to be pathways of blood.

The tribelands in which I grew were those of Durotriga in Southern Britain. Of the many regions within it, ours was called Summer, a wetland country, named for its abundant yield of barley, oats and wheat, where grass grew as lush as a deer pelt, and teemed with rivers.

My township, perched on the plateaued crest of Cad Hill, was Caer Cad, one of the largest hilltowns of Durotriga. The walled banks and deep ditches that encircled it were beginning to crumble, for peace had sat upon this tribe for many seasons. The only strangers breaching our gateways now were traders from the Eastlands, who chuckled at our round earthen houses built all alike, their doorways aligned to the midwinter sunrise. They called them anthills and thought us simple. But our journeymen and -women did not seek to display their knowledge through mighty buildings. Their greatness lived elsewhere.

I was an inquisitive child with a watchful eye. What pleased me most was seeing life at its arrowhead: Badger and the endless stream of pups that spewed from her swinging belly, the ice crystals in the river at wintertime, the spill of young fish that filled it in spring.

What frightened me was being alone.

There were five in our house. Of my three kitchen sisters, Bebin was my favourite, steady and never shooing me away when I followed her to market or to the Tribequeen’s sleephouse. I was less fond of Cah, sharp and changeable as the west wind. Ianna was our spinner, without wits for much else.

In the kitchen we slept abreast, close to the crackle of the hearth. Sometimes one of the girls would sleep in the stable if the night was hot or the human smells were too wretched. But I would never sleep alone. I needed the comfort of fire and a body against me.

Despite my affliction, Cookmother’s rugged care never wavered. She told me always that fear could be fought with a curious mind. Hold questions like a torch before you.

After evening porridge was eaten, my favourite stories were those of the skin totems.

‘Speak of the deer!’ I would bid her, curling in her broad lap.

‘Graceful. Gentle. They are kin to the woodlands and survive best by quietness.’

‘And the salmon?’ I urged.

‘Ah, the queen of all skins,’ she proclaimed, for she was salmon-skinned. ‘Keepers of wisdom. We hold the past, and the seeking of homelands.’

‘And what of mine?’ I wound my small arms around her neck.

She would tell me each time that I belonged to no totem. That I belonged to nothing but her.

Though she nursed almost every one of the warriors’ children, there was no blood youngling who had ever called her Mam. I was the one, she whispered to me each nightfall, who was truly her own.

She called me Ailia, meaning light.

I was seven summers old when my life was spared for the second time.

It was midwinter. The Gathering. The people of Durotriga had come together, as they did every seven years, to remake the union of our tribe. For six nights we had woven together our tribelands in song, called forth our animal kin, and eaten and drunk together. Now it was the seventh day, when we would offer the gift that spoke most deeply of our gratitude to this country and to the Mothers who formed it, the gift that would hold our ties strong until we next met.

I hoped to the Mothers it would not be me.

The near-dawn was bitter as we gathered in our hundreds around a large, raised mound, surrounded by fires. Cad Hill was to the south of us. We were on Mothers’ land now, the most sacred ground of Summer, deep-sodden by our northern river, the Nain, which kept the Mothers close. Many had journeyed days to come here; we had only to pass through our northern gateway to reach this place. The land had been felled and cleared, but it was not permitted for beast to graze it, or tribesman to walk upon it outside of ritual time.

This was the turning of the winter. The journeymen worked quickly to be ready for the breaking of light over the far grey hills. They called for girl children born in the year of the last Gathering to come forward. Braced by our closest kin, or whoever loved us most, we approached the space before the crowd.

Tethered horses steamed at the nostrils and gave off a strong blood heat from the slabs of muscle on their flanks and necks. I flinched as they stamped and twitched in the cold. They’d been whipped and taunted. They were ready to run.

I stood at the end of the row, gripping Cookmother’s hand. When I glanced sideways I saw a line of only ten or twelve wide-eyed faces, fewer than one would expect among so many tribespeople. No doubt some tribeswomen had kept their daughters hidden, had not heeded the Mothers’ call, each knowing that their daughters would now never be truly of the tribe because they were not willing to give them to the tribe.

Llwyd, the Journeyman Elder, highest trained of our wisepeople, paced our number and one by one sent girls back into the crowd. They scurried and tripped, collapsing into their families’ joyful sobs. One by one we were rejected if our health, our strength, our radiance of spirit were not sufficient for the Mothers.

At last there were two of us. We could hardly have been more different to look at. I was tall and well grown with a vine of light-brown curls escaping my braids, whereas she was small and slight, her dark hair smooth as water.

Llwyd came to me first.

‘She is half-born,’ said Cookmother. ‘A foundling. She has no skin.’ Her voice was steady but I could feel her legs trembling through her skirts.

‘Unskinned?’ said Llwyd. He looked up and down the length of me. ‘She is otherwise perfect—perhaps the Mothers want her anyway. After all, they know her skin.’

‘Please—’ Cookmother’s voice cracked. ‘I’m training her for plantcraft. Let her serve us in another way.’

Llwyd crouched before me and squeezed my arms and legs. Although I had been told countless times of the honour this gift would bring to my soul, I started to rock with terror.

Llwyd took my hand. ‘Will you be our gift?’

My legs weakened but I did not fall. ‘Yes,’ I whispered.

Llwyd stood.

All watched, awaiting his word.

He walked to the other girl. She must have been far-born as I had never seen her at markets or festivals. ‘Is there any reason, why I should not choose this girl?’ he asked.

The girl’s companion was no older than fourteen summers. Too young to be the child’s mother. ‘This is my sister,’ she said, ‘and last of my kin.’

‘She, also, is perfect,’ said Llwyd. He looked out to the gathering. ‘We will give the child with skin.’

‘No!’ The sister grabbed the girl, who had begun to wail.

Now my legs buckled and Cookmother lifted me into her arms.

‘You will be honoured for your gift,’ said Llwyd, reaching for the girl.

It took two journeymen and the Tribequeen’s first warrior to wrench the child from her sister. The air was jagged with the older girl’s screams.

Cookmother hurried me back to the safety of the crowd and kept me clasped to her chest. Nightshade was thrown onto the fires and my nostrils flooded with its dizzying smoke.

The journeymen and -women started to sing down the songs of our tribe in powerful harmony. I could sense the expectation in the gathering, the pulsing of hearts and the coursing of blood. This ritual was part of our story, part of our truth, but the terribleness of it was never forgotten.

The chosen girl’s sister still screamed. The warrior held her, his arms spasming with the force of her struggle.

The girl was led between the fires to the top of the mound. The ovates poured henbane down her throat. Soon she would feel no pain. The singing became louder. Cookmother squeezed me closer. I wanted to hide my face in her tunic, but I knew all must bear witness to this giving. Especially me.

The ovates took off the girl’s under-robe. Unclothed, she was as fragile and veil-skinned as a baby mouse. Water, dark with plant steepings, was poured over her blue-cold skin, the trickle of shit wiped from her thighs, and she was called to be ready.

I was lost in the wondering of how this would be the greatness of her body’s growth. That the fresh folds and twig bones of her would never know the height nor flesh nor wisdom of a woman. As I stared, she met my gaze. Though she had nothing of my high forehead or my pointed nose, her wild green eyes were a mirror of mine.

The ovates began to circle her as the first lip of light emerged on the horizon.

Llwyd stood on a platform before us and called the dedication: ‘Mothers, receive this lifegift as tribute and request. Let the spread of this new blood soak into your earth, flow into your rivers. Let it nourish your body and ease your hunger. Let what we give you now, torn apart, be returned to us as whole.’

As he spoke, the lesser journeymen were tying the ropes around the child’s ankles, wrists and neck. These in turn were fastened to the ropes that trailed behind the horses. There were nine horses for the task. Two for each arm, two for each leg, the largest and strongest for her head.

The journeymen positioned her; she was already halfway to the Otherworld with the herbs. They kissed her and stepped away.

She stood with limbs outstretched and tears on her face. The singing reached a wailing peak. It was time. She was, for a moment, creation, the rising sun itself, before the riders mounted, the journey-man shouted, and the horses surged with unstoppable force, to the north, south, east and west of her.

 

Copyright © 2016 Ilke Tampke.

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ILKA TAMPKE's short stories and articles have been published in several anthologies, and in 2012 she was awarded a Glenfern Fellowship. She lives near Melbourne with her family and is at work on a sequel to DAUGHTER OF ALBION.

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