This follows on from In the Service of the Cow-eyed Goddess: Part 1. Thanks to an inadvertent prompt from @NeolithicSheep on Twitter back in June 18, I wound up writing 8,880 words of story. This part contains a font change to indicate something particular in the story, and I have no idea if the font change in my document is going to show up anywhere that the document is posted. Whether or not my attempt at cleverness is visible to you at all, this portion of the story runs to 2,546 words.
I hope you all enjoy it.
The thing that Eliane hadn’t expected was the overhaul of her wardrobe that happened later that afternoon. “I know you’ve had those boots long enough to get them well broken in,” said her grandmother critically, “but are they going to be enough to get you to Prothiarn and back? And where’s your best outfit? You’ll need it for attending services while you’re there.”
Eliane asked, “Does it really matter?”
Her aunt closed the door and leaned back against it, then looked at her mother, Eliane’s grandmother.
Eliane’s grandmother took a deep breath and began with, “You know how we like to marry inside the family and we keep the Blood Books to make sure we don’t marry too closely?” Eliane nodded. “Well, as each of you get old enough, we go through our Book and work out who your possible matches are.” Her grandmother took a deep breadth and went on, “You’re too closely related to everyone for marrying any of the available men to be a good idea. Being married can be a wonderful thing, with the right person, and not being doomed to only have dead babies helps. This trip to Prothiarn is your best chance to meet someone suitable that you like. Clothes help make good impressions.”
Eliane looked at her aunt, who nodded in confirmation. “So, I’m going to Prothiarn to deliver some cows and find a husband?”
“From a certain point of view,” agreed her aunt with a nod of her head and a twinkle of amusement in her eye. “This is just us making sure that you have all the tools you might need for both jobs.”
Later that night, Eliane moved from a dreamless sleep into something that wasn’t really wakefulness. The sky above her was clear and the light had all the qualities of midday in early autumn, even though the sun wasn’t visible in that clear sky. The air temperature held the warmth of early autumn too, and somewhere close there were enough bees that Eliane could hear them buzzing. In front of her, on her left hand, was a planting of an unfamiliar crop; ranks of tall segmented stems as thick as her forearm, each row separated from the others by a space wide enough for a person to walk down, each stem segment joint having both a panicle heavy with purple grain hanging from it and two broad green leaves thrusting up and out. On her right, splendidly rainbow-coloured geese browsed through a short pasture heavy with unfamiliar flowers and seed pods. In the centre of the scene, seated on a stool made of moving things that might have been vines was…the goddess.
Elaine prostrated herself on the mixture of pasture grasses and other plants, narrowly missing a blackthorn thistle with her face. The broad-faced, brown-eyed deity continued talking to the red heifer she was stroking for a few moments more, then said in voice that echoed in Eliane’s mind, “Please get up, my dear. I know you don’t remember our previous conversations, but in the future, please don’t do that every time you come here.”
Eliane stood and asked, “Our previous conversations, ma’am?”
The generous mouth on the wise, beautiful, inhumanely-proportioned face smiled. “Yes, we’ve spoken a number of times. Usually here,” Rhenasanamofa gestured to indicate their surroundings with the hand that wasn’t being used to rub the black-horned heifer behind the ears. “It is the one of my workspaces that you are most comfortable in. But not remembering our conversations? That’s part of what I did to your mind’s perceptions so that you didn’t know that you are carrying my spark.”
“Why did you do that, ma’am?” Eliane had always wondered why the identity of the spark-bearer was a secret.
The goddess sighed. “I’m afraid that several of your predecessors weren’t very nice people. I picked Iorcan to take up the mantle after those righteous mabheads massacred the dwimmerweavers, including the then spark bearers, because he was the only surviving descendent of my previous last spark bearer. Although he was definitely born with magic, he wasn’t detected by the zealots’ magic hunters, and he never exhibited any magical ability afterwards. I don’t know how he did it, but I suspect that he tied it up in something big. His children didn’t have any magic either but,” the goddess glowed with enthusiasm, well Eliane hope it was enthusiasm, “but some of your family do show signs…. I suspect it’s to do with the cousin marrying cousin thing that you’ve got going on, something that did not come from me. Your aunt, for instance, really can talk to developing cheese which is even more remarkable when you consider what she’s doing to achieve that. Blood line breeding is so interesting!”
Feeling that the goddess may have gotten off the topic she’d been meaning to talk about, Eliane asked respectfully, “Is that why you hid your spark from us, ma’am?”
“Sorry, I’m afraid it is easy for me to drift off into subjects that are related to my bee-alda, my existential essence.” Rhenasanamofa smiled and went on, “Iorcan’s idiosyncrasies were probably due to having most of his close friends and family murdered, but his daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter had no excuses for the way they treated other people. My long-term fix was to breed for better temperament, as well as health, intelligence, and reproductive viability, but I needed a short-term fix too. So, I made it so no-one knew who the spark bearer was, especially not the spark bearer themselves. That took away the alleged root of the problem.” She shook her head. “There may have been a better way, but the substance and function of life are my sphere, not social engineering or outright mental manipulation that’s not aimed at reproductive behaviours.”
“And now ma’am?” Eliane thought she knew what the answer was.
“After things went so badly wrong the first time, most of us got together and petitioned Hlactea, the patron of predictions and oracles, for guidance. She was,” added Rhenasanamofa, “peeved that we asked for something that she couldn’t calculate with measurements and mathematics. I recall that she told us that we deserved whatever it was that we were going to get. What we got was a money lender’s clerk who only spoke and wrote Navreen writing out a hundred and one five-line verses of not very good poetry that gave us events, milestones and an order to it all.” The goddess pouted. “Hlactea and the Silence Under the Hills both seemed amused. Anyway, my spark doesn’t get bred into the, the divine conceptus that we’re making for many human generations yet but there is a verse much earlier than that about my spark and Sluan’s spark doing something in the place where my spark will be living. I’m not sure what it’s all about, but it must be important, or it wouldn’t be in the prophesy.”
“So, you need me to go to Prothiarn so one of my spark-bearing descendants can meet the bearer of the spark of Sluan,” finished Eliane. “About that descendant thing, you know I’ve never been much interested in boys and stuff, don’t you?”
“Given how closely you’re related to all the possible men around your home, I count that as a good thing,” replied the goddess. “I must say, I was impressed by your grandmother and aunt. I thought they were going to tell you not to be swept off your feet by some strange young man, and to make sure you got back home unimpregnated. Instead they practically told you to go looking for a good stud.”
Eliane flushed and protested, “That’s not what they said.”
“They might as well have,” retorted Rhenasanamofa, “and I am. We’re after a good constitution with lots of disease resistance, intelligence, a good disposition, and a family background of nice, broad birth canals.”
“So, no-one with a big head,” snapped Eliane tartly. Then she realised something, “Wait, I’m part of an actual breeding plan? That’s…actually way more appealing than ‘just go out and find a suitable man’ is. Do you have any physical conformation standards? Desirable patterning and colouration?”
The goddess chortled. “That’s my girl!”
Eliane woke in the morning with a clear recollection of the conversation in the night. The trip to Prothiarn wouldn’t begin for a few days yet, so her normal chores were still to be done, but the appeal of finding a suitable husband was beginning to grow on her. She had truly never been interested in any of the boys and young men she knew, all cousins in some degree, in any way that might result in children. With lists of necessary and desirable attributes to check off, the whole concept seemed far more interesting and achievable. She also recalled that parts of her wardrobe were going to be updated before she left…
She was up and getting dressed when her aunt tapped on her door. “Don’t get fully dressed,” she said through the door when Eliane acknowledged her. “We need to measure you up before you start work. That way we can check the fit of your new shirts and chemise before you start shovelling out the cowshed, and we should be ready to start on the kirtle after lunch.”
Eliane opened the door at that and asked, “When was it decided I’m getting a new kirtle? I barely worn the one I’ve got!”
Her aunt smiled. “Oh good, you’re already decent. You can come downstairs with me now. Your grandmother decided in the night that you haven’t been wearing the kirtle you have because it wasn’t a flattering colour on you. Not nearly as flattering as your best vest and jacket.”
“Well, it was picked out so that not all of us were wearing the same thing,” pointed Eliane. “And I was the one who agreed to use the last of that particular bolt. I’ll admit that I didn’t expect to get much chance to wear it at the time.”
“I know,” her aunt acknowledged as she began to usher the younger woman to the stairs, “and then we found that flaw in the cloth that we had to work around, and I was never happy with the way it sat on you. It always looks slightly uncomfortable when you wear it.”
“Does it?” Eliane admitted, “I just thought that because I didn’t like the way it felt it meant that I don’t like wearing kirtles.”
“That’s possible,” conceded her aunt, “but let’s make sure that this one does what it’s supposed to do so that you have a proper base for coming to a conclusion.”
The rest of Eliane’s day was normal, except for clothes fittings. Elaine wasn’t a skilled seamstress, so she did what she was told while people who knew what they were doing did things with pieces cut from old sheets to get the fit right before they cut the dress cloth. Cousin Liveen, who wore her hair in a bun and had a small purplish birthmark on her cheekbone under the outer corner of her right eye asked peevishly at one point, “But why didn’t you say that your old kirtle didn’t fit properly?”
“I thought it was because I didn’t like wearing kirtles,” admitted Eliane again, “and you all worked so hard on it, I didn’t want to be ungrateful. Besides, you had so much to do at the time, I didn’t want to make things worse.”
“Goddess preserve us.” Cousin Liveen covered her face with her hands. “None of that means you had to put up with it for two years! If you’d said something, there are things we could have done. No-one in this family has to wear their work clothes all the time.” Then she’d gone back to pinning worn-thin linen into place to get the fit right under Eliane’s arms.
It took three days to get the cows and heifers that were being moved together from all the subherds and for their human escort to assemble. Great Uncle Banning was coming too, riding on the ox-drawn wagon that would carry everyone’s bags and the food supply. The trip to Prothiarn, moving at the cattle’s pace, would take fifteen days, including a rest day. The selection of cows and heifers included both light and dark phase animals, so the herd was a mixture of fawn and caramel coloured bodies all topped by heads carrying arm-long, inward curving black horns. The ox was a light phase bullock, so his pale grey hide stood out from the others, but his horns were just as long and black.
There were more humans in the group than the task ought to need. Learned Brother Ruudmund needed to go back to Prothiarn, of course. Each of the family farms that had raised the animals being moved had sent along two people, so that was eight, plus Second Cousin Herome who was driving the cart because he didn’t trust anyone else with his ox, Smoke. Smoke was coming because Grandfather’s First Cousin Elver had volunteered him and their farm’s cart to make sure they could carry everything they all needed to take with them, particularly as his granddaughter, Third Cousin Helire, seemed to have three times the luggage of everyone else.
Helire was much of an age with Eliane and wore her hair the same length, and within the space of two days everyone realised that Learned Brother Ruudmund couldn’t tell them apart. “But you all have the same face,” he complained when Herome made a joke about it while they were eating dinner. “There’s the male version and the female version, but it’s all the same face. I mean, some of you have moles or birthmarks, and there are different haircuts or beards for the men, but after that, if you’re in similar clothes, I can’t tell you apart.”
Helire indicated Eliane and protested, “But we’ve got different coloured eyes!”
“They’re both dark colours,” pointed Learned Brother Ruudmund, “and there are social issues about me getting close enough to tell the difference.”
Eliane realised, “So that was why you didn’t use names much when you were staying with us – you couldn’t pick who was who.”
“Um, yes,” admitted Ruddmund. “I realise that makes me a bad guest, but I really couldn’t.”
“When I first started travelling with the Learned Skilled Ordained Philyana,” reminisced Great Uncle Banning from his place from the other side of the fire, “I had trouble telling who was who because everyone looked different and the variation was overwhelming.” He paused and then added, “Then I met people from down near the mouth of the river and different skin tones became a thing….”
Helire started wearing a fresh field flower behind her ear every day while Eliane knotted a bandana around her neck, and Ruudmund seemed less confused.
The divine spark was amused. “Perhaps you want one with better pattern recognition that that?” it sniggered in the back of Eliane’s mind one morning when Ruudmund was temporarily confused before breakfast. “Mind you, Learned Brother Ruudmund does seem to come with a slightly better than usual overall standard mental package. Perhaps this whole breeding out thing should have happened a generation or so ago?”
Eliane didn’t know what to say to that so she didn’t say anything.
This is now followed by Part 3.