In which Nanny Spencer tells me stories, but is also known to spank me.
My name is Tuerqui, formerly Princess Margaret of the Blood Victoria. But, to start at the beginning…
A zephyr rustled in the leaves on overhanging branches – the air filled with the songs of birds, the names of which I didn’t yet know. Having recently tripped over what was probably a tree root, my skinned knees still stung. My mother’s musky perfume mingled with the lavender Nanny Spencer always wore. Where a brook emerged from woodland shade, the clear water teemed with tiny fishes – I poked a stick at them, and instantly they were gone.
To judge from the warmth and the foliage, it must have been summer – Mata’s realm in the cycle of the year. On the basis of the recollected shadows, it was probably also Mata’s afternoon realm in the cycle of the day.
Glancing up, I saw a creature in the shadow of the trees – man-like, but exceptionally hairy and uglier than any person or slave has a right to be. My brother started to scream. The beast thing, to which I couldn’t yet put a name, tumbled – falling face-down on the grass. Steeling myself to approach, I saw that the shaggy thing had an arrow in its side; bright red blood spread over the green surface on which it lay.
That is, I think, my earliest coherent memory. It must have been summer – as I have already surmised – but whether of my first, second or third birthday, I cannot say. The place must have been the forest that covers much of southern Essex – for I was raised there, in the Belle House, my mother’s ancestral home. Possibly I had been born in Lundin, a city my father ruled – claiming the title of Chieftain of the Blood Victoria. But there remain with me no early recollections of the town.
It is through language that we make sense of the world, and through writing that the sense is fixed. Without that, my memories would become lost, as fugitive and ungraspable as wisps of smoke. Learning to read and write marked the transition from a phantom world to a solid one. It fell to my old nanny to give me my first lessons in literacy – Nanny Spencer, a kind woman, or usually so.
The first three letters of the alphabet to come my way were M-o-r. Essex folk would understand that immediately, but others will need some explanation. It is the sign of Mortalia, with the little, ring and middle fingers pointing downwards to form the M – while the index finger is crossed with the thumb to produce the o-r. Nanny Spencer taught me to form the sign one night when I was frightened – my age was almost certainly three.
It must have been Swellbelly or Mistream, certainly Phoebe’s autumnal domain, for there shone the huge bright full moon only to be seen at that time of year. My room was filled with shifting shadows – it seemed the claws of some huge and frightful beast. Nanny Spencer answered my cries bearing a lamp in her hand. With the light, the threatening forms grew pale, ceased to be scary.
“Why Margaret,” she said, “whatever is it?”
“There were claws, Nanny. But now they’ve faded.”
“Claws, my treasure? You must have been dreaming. Or do you mean the shadows from the trees? There’s a wind tonight, and a good bright moon.”
“Just the shadows, Nanny. But I thought…”
“Well, Margaret, if ever you think it might be spooks, you can protect yourself easily enough. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Just point these three fingers downwards like so, to form an M, and curve this over the thumb for her o-r. The goddess will hold the dead from vexing the living, never you fear.”
The day we saw the slave branded, I tried to use my limited knowledge of letters. Nanny Spencer and I had taken a trap into one of the nearby small towns, it may have been the West Cliff, to buy some ribbons for my hair. The shopkeeper showed us at least a dozen colours. As I was unable to decide between turquoise and pink, my nanny had bought me both.
With me skipping in joy, nanny walking more sedately, we debouched on to the narrow street, too confined a space to park the trap. We walked the short distance to the town square, in which our vehicle and driver waited. Sunshine slanted over the buildings, touching the brickwork with gold. The air smelt fresh, a sea breeze; it seemed a perfect morning.
Emerging from the shopping street, I could see the trap only a few yards away – our driver waved to us. Then, hearing a commotion, I turned my head in curiosity. There was a man – naked and bound – on a podium outside what must have been the court house. They placed something in his mouth before applying the hot iron to his thigh – his anguished expression and the smell of burning flesh remain as vivid memories.
“What are they doing to that man, Nanny?” I asked.
“They’re branding him. It marks his passage from personage to slavery.”
This was my first intimation that persons could become slaves. Since all of the male slaves in the Belle House were trimmed, had I possessed any knowledge of reproduction, it would have been obvious that they couldn’t breed. But knowing about such matters lay several years in the future. It had probably not occurred to me that persons might belong to the same species as slaves.
“Can a person really become a slave, Nanny?”
“Yes, my sweet, it can happen… Well sort of… That man was very bad. He took things that didn’t belong to him.”
“But, Nanny, sometimes I’m naughty. Might they make me a slave?” The idea had me in a sudden flood of tears.
“Tush, child, of course not. You’re a princess – you have personage in absolute. No one’s ever going to make you into blesh patties, my darling.”
“Personage in absolute, Nanny?” I asked, snuffling.
“Yes, my darling, a princess has personage in absolute, and could never be enslaved. Common folk, like me, only have personage in ordinary.”
“Does that mean you could be enslaved, Nanny?” This notion had me weeping in earnest.
“I should hope not, my love. Dry your tears, sweetheart. Chemmer divided persons from slaves at the First Time. Except that some sneaky slaves disguised themselves as persons. Nobody knows those seeming-persons are really slaves until they do something very bad, or can’t pay their debts, or some such.”
“Wouldn’t it be blasphemy,” I was proud of knowing this long word, and smiled through my tears as I pronounced it, “to rebel against Chemmer, Nanny?”
“That it would, child. But don’t worry – your personage in absolute puts you beyond suspicion of that. Now, please don’t you cry any more, lamp of all my happiness.”
“Thank you, Nanny… What’s the mark on the new slave’s thigh?” I asked, feeling reassured and rubbing the final tears from my eyes.
“They’re letters, forming his new name, Margaret.”
Knowing the three letters M-o-r, I looked for them in the brand. It seemed to me that the M had been applied upside-down. It wouldn’t be long before I realised that his slave name actually began with W, although its other letters are long since forgotten, at least as far as I’m concerned. Looking through an ABC book, I used to giggle over my mistake.
A is for Adder, its bite is pure Acid
B is for Badling, made out of Blesh
the book began. Later, it included:
M is for Mud, that makes a child Mucky
W is for Worm, a thread that Wiggles
With the ABC book, I formed my desire to explore the world of literature, but remained a long way short of being able to do so in any effective way. When the door was left unlocked, I sneaked into the Belle House library, a place from which children were – strictly speaking – forbidden. Once in there, I’d take a randomly selected book from one of the lower shelves. The upper ones stretched far above my reach.