Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter Sixty Five

The breakfast dishes were done, the animals were fed and watered. The snow was melting in large wet glops off the roof and trees, leaving squishy holes in what remained on the ground. Gilly finished drying the last of the pots before snagging a bowl to begin mixing her special cookies for the Winter Festival.

The children had gone over to their grandparents -- the whole lot of them, and the house was quiet. Even Nan had been bundled off and carefully escorted along the still-slippery walk.

Paul sat at the table, carving on a beautiful piece of striped wood. The stripes ran vertically along the piece, alternating purple and cream. He ran his hand over it every so often, checking for splinters or cracks and adjusting his knife angle. Slowly, a serving spoon was emerging.

"That will look so nice on Nancy's table," murmured Gilly, testing the dough with her fingers and adding a bit more flour.

Paul grunted non-committally. He set the spoon down for a moment and sipped some tea before stoking the fire again.

He watched Gilly working, the apron swinging from side to side as she stirred, her curls bobbing a bit where they had escaped (yet again) from the ribbon that pulled the hair back from her face. The lines in her face spoke of great trials and much work, and as much of joy and laughter.

"I was going to tell you more about Aema's valley and Ketevan..." he picked up the spoon and began working again.
The interior of the roadhouse was as dark as the valley was light, as cool and fresh as the road was hot and dry.

There were few other travelers, so our party was able to sit in a corner in relative privacy. We were served a simple meal: soup in hard bread, a sort of pudding and a thick mead that was less sweet than we are used to here.

The men tucked in to their food readily, leaving Aema, Ketevan and me to converse quietly as we ate.

Ketevan, it seemed, came from the mountains far to the dawn side of the valley, and had been fostered with Aema's family long years before when a terrible illness swept through her people. I had the impression that the years were longer than we might expect from appearances -- though neither woman looked much older than me, they spoke as if they had lived longer than Adam and Ava.

Aema had grown up in the city on the plateau in the center -- originally a place of refuge for the valley inhabitants during times of conflict or floods, it now held the seat of power. Again, I had the impression that conflict and floods were more legend than a possibility... Certainly, Aema had the air of one accustomed to command, though she retained an openness to those around her that was refreshing.

Ketevan moved her head slightly and I realized she was looking at me. I felt uncomfortable, as if I were being watched by a crow in the field. So I turned and looked at her full on.

She laughed and her thin lips curved into a smile. "Paulo, you are a clever one, aren't you? Though I don't think you know much about my people, still you know when you are being watched. Have you always been so much aware?"

Aema put down her spoon quietly and sat with her hands in her lap while she listened. I hadn't expected to be so interesting to such powerful and intelligent women, and I took a moment to compose my thoughts before I answered.

"Lady Ketevan," I began, watching her for clues. She did not correct me as Aema had, so I continued. "My homeland -- where I grew up at least -- is far from here. Much is strange to me, and I am more alert to signs of change than I would normally be."

She inclined her head and waited for me to go on.

"I am known, by my adoptive family, as the one who hears the wagons on the road first, who knows when the first frost will be, or the whether the rains will interrupt the harvest. The people in my village used to ask me to attend their animals because, even better than our doctor, I was able to figure out ailments and treatments. Yet, there are many times when I have been taken by surprise or have missed information that others caught.

"Does this answer your question, Lady?"

Aema picked up her spoon again. Ketevan cocked her head at her and said one word very softly, but I didn't catch it. Or didn't know the language. Aema chuckled and nodded her head in agreement.

The rest of the meal went quickly, and we were soon out on the road, which widened considerably and leveled out as we approached the valley floor.

The men rode on ahead now, and Aema stayed alongside the cart, chatting with Ketevan and me. I learned that the road would soon intersect itself, for it ringed the valley as well as bisected it on the way to the plateau.

I marveled at the well-laid stones paving the road, at the ornate carvings on the low stone wall on the valley side of the road, and at the beautiful plants that grew alongside. Ketevan and Aema took turns telling me names of the plants in their languages, and whether they were edible, medicinal or poisonous. I was soon saturated with new words and uses, and they switched to telling me the story of the valley.
Long ago, past memory, past legend, past myth, this great valley had been a great mountain. On the mountain had dwelled all manner of creature, and in that day, there was no distinction between them -- all spoke, all knew, all cooperated.

But in time, the groups of creatures drew apart, and the two-legged creatures lived in one place and the four-legged creatures in another. The creatures of the air and of the water no longer came upon the land, and all things were separate.

In time again, the creatures forgot entirely how they had once lived together, and became prey, one for another, and mistrust and anger and hatred grew until no individual was safe outside the limits of the group.

With each passing year, the air and water and land grew heavier with the ill-will of the creatures, and stopped giving forth the blessings they once had showered upon the creatures.

And then, in one dark and tumultous day and night, the mountain was no more. It had rumbled for a month, and shook for a week, and the hillsides had given way for a day, frightening some of the creatures into running. But many creatures had looked around and ignored the warnings. So when the top of the mountain disappeared in a flash of lightning and a hail of liquid fire; when the sides of the mountain tumbled down into a dark and churning pit; when a wall of mud and trees and boulders swept out across the remnants of the mountain...

Little remained of the communities that had thrived. Those who did, broken and sorrowing, scattered as far as they might. The weight of the mountain gone, the land around it lifted up, encircling it like a wall as if to keep out the memories of what had been. The land settled into silence. Motionless for years, uninhabited, desolate.

Many long generations later, Aema's people had returned, following their flocks through a crack that had opened into the valley. Remembering that once this land had been vast and fertile, Ketevan's people, who had fled to the mountains toward the dawn, had also been exploring the valley, seeking knowledge and food.

Neither group trusted the other. Neither wanted the other to settle in the valley. Neither group had the strength to forbid the other.

And so began long years of conflict -- Aema's people would try to move their flocks and fields further across the valley, Ketevan's people would bar their way.

Ketevan's people would try to explore and settle around the rim of the valley, seeking new plants to cure and feed their people, and Aema's people would harass them until they left.

Still, each group prospered, and some small amount of trade began between them.

When the valley would flood, Ketevan's people would offer supplies and aid while Aema's people rebuilt. When illness swept through Ketevan's people, Aema's people would nurse them to health.

Slowly, they grew closer, and they people began to live side by side. A few of Aema's people moved into the mountains, a few of Ketevan's down to the plain of the valley. Most settled around the rim between the sheltering wall of mountains and the fertile plain.

And yet, this was the beginning of a time of terror and sorrow, when families would be torn apart and flung to the far edges of the land.

Paul paused and looked at Gilly, who had put the last sheet of cookies into the hot oven and sat down. "I didn't understand at first, just what had happened. It wasn't until later that I learned how urgent it was, how it affected both groups."

A stomping on the back porch startled them from their seats. The children had returned. Paul smiled wanly at Gilly, "More later, my dear." He stood and held the door for Doris, who was struggling to push it open with her foot, a large package in her arms.

And the kitchen filled with laughter and commotion once again.