Five o’clock Bella’s country: The Day Begins
It was the seventeenth of Litnight in Year Thirty-Two. With the sun about to nudge above the horizon, Slia’s queendom – the night – had given way to Bella’s country – the morning.
Above and beyond the reed beds, dawn’s rosy flush tinted the grey sky. Marsh birds boomed and squawked, those of the forest sang. Chickens clucked loudly, in their sturdily built foredeck coop.
Three or four bights of our taut mooring ropes passed about the stout trunks of riverbank willows. Several of the trees’ long greyish green leaves drifted on the Afon’s rippled surface. Clouds of small flies shimmered downstream. A slight astringency tingled on my tongue: eked out toothpowder. Purple flower heads nodded on their tall waterside stems, evidently originating the hint of perfume greeting my nose. Glistening dew, on the deck planks, dampened my bare feet. Something barked in the woodland.
“Was that a wolf?” Heather asked.
“A fox, I’d say,” I responded. “Wolves don’t bark.”
“Yeah, but a wolf would be more exciting.”
“Would it? We hear them howl every night, but never see them – unless as shifting shadows.”
“True. Maybe they’re not exciting. As a matter of fact, I find their voices restful: lull me into sleep. I wouldn’t have expected that.”
“The wolves’ voices, and the gentle rocking motion of Mother.”
Mother was our boat: designed especially for exploring wilderness rivers, and built in Berenice-on-Afon. Her timbers had been cut from the local forest, the woodland through which we sailed. While the vessel was long and wide enough to hold our equipment, and for us to enjoy some comfort, she drew only about two foot six – varying a little according to the weight and disposition of the load. The rudder could be unshipped, and placed at the bow end to obviate the need for turning. It was unlikely that, when the stream no longer permitted our passage, there would be much room to manoeuvre.
“Yeah,” Heather agreed, “there’s something very restful about a boat’s motion.”
“So, with the wolves’ lullaby, and Mother’s motion, you don’t have any trouble sleeping?”
“Of course not. Why should I? My conscience is clear enough.”
“It’s just that you seem to be up early every morning. I wouldn’t have expected that of our astronomer.”
“One of my jobs is to wind the clock. Without it, my observations wouldn’t mean much.”
Amongst our equipment was a timepiece with a tightly coiled spring. Engraved into its brass face, the name Helen McKenzie, Glasgow, signified that it had been fashioned by a craftswoman in distant Scotia Minor. No more than half a dozen such instruments, surely, were to be found in the whole of Victoria’s Land. Victoria Tigerfang, representing the Task Imperial Directorate, had impressed upon us – as we were about to depart – the clock’s rarity and costliness. Miss Tigerfang is not, of course, to be confused with Princess Victoria, after whom the country was named. Rather, she is the daughter of Tracey Tigerfang, one of Her Majesty’s loyal supporters during the Second Civil War.
“Does that have to be first thing?” I asked. “I mean, couldn’t you wind it in the evening?”
“If I left it till evening, it would have stopped. Then how would I know the time to re-set it?”
“Yes, but if you wound the clock this evening…”
“Mustn’t overwind it. If the spring broke, where would we be?”
“Up the River Afon in the Victoria’s Land wilderness.”
“Afon with an f, rather than a v, I wonder what that’s about.”
“The lower reaches were first charted by Catherine Jones in Year Seventeen. That’s opposed to this part of the stream, first charted by Daisy Diamond in Year Thirty-Two, of course. Catherine is Welsh and, as Sally would tell you, afon with an f is the Welsh word for river.”
“So, the name means River River, that’s a bit daft.”
“So does the River Avon with a v, I suppose.”
“Perhaps. Anyway, what are you doing, while most of us are still in bed?”