Elynir felt she could not trust her memories, as she and Ludyrr were led away from the Sleep chamber for the first time. She remembered Ludyrr as the second woman to enter the Long Hibernation, but the first woman had blonde hair like she did. When had that blonde woman Awakened? What had happened to her in a time where surely all of her relatives had gone? Endieve and Dinieve had come after Elynir, in successive generations, signifying they were both strong in magic, but when exactly had their Sleep begun? Were they recent additions or older?
So many questions filled Elynir’s small head that she thought they would burst out her ears. She quelled her imbalance and instead looked at Ludyrr’s larger, broader back as they traversed a narrow walk at the edge of the Giant Tree. The bark split naturally from top to bottom, to allow rain to flow down its coarse face, but the horizontal walks, they sloped up and around the entire tree, hundreds of times, perhaps thousands, when the tree had existed in its magnificent height. Here, the walkways were narrow, only large enough for one person to move through at a time, but in other places three or four would travel abreast. It was rumored their god had created the winding paths to allow the free movement of his people.
They did not go far. Wrapped in their blankets, with nearly depleted moonstones to keep them warm, they entered a smaller chamber that had once served as a home, for two adults and perhaps one or two children. The small dwelling was filled with old clothing, all of it men’s. The old woman, Afiruk, entered through the low doorway, motioning for them to pass her by. She set the stone bowl with its softly burning wick in bee wax on the dusty wood floor below their feet, and quietly slipped away.
Ludyrr with her eyes followed Afiruk’s leaving. She raised her eyes slightly at Elynir as if she wanted to speak, but she wanted Elynir to speak first. Elynir trusted her god; she would not break her vows so quickly, and to show this she shook her head. Perhaps Ludyrr had tested her.
The taller woman turned, scanning the many piles of clothing that lay on the carved out table and two beds, shelving, on the ground, everywhere it could be piled. It was all in disarray, as if the men who’d left it had simply tossed it into the chamber and left. No, Elynir reconsidered her assumption. Men had not left this clothing willingly. They must have died elsewhere, and their clothing was taken from their empty homes and placed there by the old women, or whomever had been alive then.
Ludyrr appeared to be looking for undergarments, scattering clothing in a mindless fashion. Elynir had more of a mind, apparently, as she grasped the taller woman’s arm and pulled her back out of the way. Then, in a methodical way that was her habit of doing things, she cleared the bed entirely and began sorting the clothing into types. When Ludyrr understood her intent, she too did this.
Elynir felt healthy, but she did not realize how weak her body was until a short time after, when her arms felt the strain of lifting so many shirts and trousers. Even throwing them into a like pile soon proved exhausting. She was not the only one, as Ludyrr showed the same trouble only a short time after this. Ludyrr held up a set of trousers, groaning and making an obvious act over how heavy it was. Ludyrr laughed at her own weakness.
Elynir smiled back at her. She had not known Ludyrr well before, as their village was much larger and the clans tended to stay together. The blondes like she were in the minority, always with their own kind or else their traits would become diluted. Elynir’s black eyes, for instance, had come about when her mother married a man with such eye color. Most of her clan had blue or blue-gray eyes. Ludyrr, in fact, had gray eyes that were more appropriate for Elynir. If she could trade her eyes with that woman, to restore her clan’s hereditary traits, she felt she would. Her future husband, she decided, must have her clan’s traits or her traits might vanish entirely.
At first, as far as the clothing went, it seemed they were making a larger mess than what they’d found. That was only because they had to move everything to one side, to clear enough room on the other for their sorting. Halfway through their arms ached from lifting, and their legs from standing, and their backs from leaning. They ended up creating nests of the clothes to sleep in, with their blankets on top. When they awoke, they finished their sorting and began trying on the cleanest of the undergarments.
It was cold, so cold, to stand there naked! Ludyrr put on underpants, bracing her body upright by setting her hand on the rough bark of the wall. Several times, she raised her knee up to her waist, one and then the other. It took a few moments for Elynir to grasp the idea of seeing the mobility of the clothing. She was set on throwing on the first garments to fit her, but she changed her mind straight away. If she needed to climb, or to run, it would do no good to have her clothing hamper her movements. Ludyrr also wrenched at the fabric, at times ripping clothes apart, showing how old they were.
They settled on undershirts and underpants, all of it worn, some of it ripped, but at least it was a good fit. They kept the blankets over their shoulders while they went through the rest. No brassieres were found, necessitating that fabric would be cut to create them. They chose shirts in soft brown colors, with open collars of the type that would show part of a man’s chest, and strips of leather to keep the collar together. Their trousers were easier to choose, as there were many in good condition. After putting them on, they were merely cold and no longer shaking.
Ludyrr found sturdy leather shoes for them both, guessing rightly at Elynir’s size. The blonde, in turn, chose their head-covers. Function over form, she decided, selecting long worn wool caps with ear-flaps that could be buttoned out of the way when not in use, and scarves that wrapped around the head and covered all but her eyes and nose.
In a moment of selfishness, Ludyrr kept a thick gambeson to one side, until she’d gone through all of them. The gambeson was colored in a rich nutmeg color, a beautiful garment for a wealthy man, with a diamond pattern to its stitching and fur for its inner lining. In the end, because the garment did not fit her, she relented and handed it to Elynir. Their last pieces of clothing were their cloaks, which were less trouble to choose.
They dressed and looked at one another. The clothing was heavy, all of it coarse wool save for the undergarments, which were of linen. Elynir thought they looked like men, and so did Ludyrr, who made a rough face and strutted about waving her arms like a man would.
Both women were laughing when Afirnas returned. With her came the other four Sleepers, all nude except for the blankets that covered them, all shivering as Elynir and Ludyrr had when they had first arrived there.
In the end, all six were outfitted for travel, dressed in cloaks of dark gray or black, wearing dark caps and gambesons colored in dark brown, or light brown, and also gray or black. Their trousers were mostly in browns, but their was variety: almond, cinnamon, nutmeg and so on. The shoes were the worst, thought Elynir, all in only one or two shades of treated leather, with straps interlaced from the middle to the top.
They tried not to laugh when Afiruk set her cap with its ear-flaps on her head. She looked so much like a boy, a pretty boy, that in the end they all gave in to the levity. Elynir was not the only one who began to see short Afiruk as the vulnerable one, as the baby of the bunch.
The old woman came to collect them later. She walked them further up the sloping edge of the giant tree. To her right side, Elynir could see a raised edge of about two feet, and past that, as far as her eyes could see, was an endless ocean of gray, billowy clouds. The clouds had been much higher, she’d been told, when the tree still stretched up to the high heavens. And now, it was as if the tree had been holding those clouds up, and now that it was gone, the clouds had collapsed and fallen to below the sides of the great plateau that was left.
Afirnas motioned for them to enter another chamber, and this one she did not enter. Elynir soon understood why. In it were stockpiled a great number of armaments, from wooden swords and shields, to bows and spears. Nothing made of metal, or with metal on it as there was no metal to be found on the great tree.
“Choose as you will.” Afirnas said, from the uneven, rounded doorway.
Many things had changed during her Long Sleep, Elynir understood, but this was not one. Battles and wars had been fought since time immemorial on the giant tree. Bands of men would climb up from the villages below, or run down the slope from above, swinging their swords and pushing out with their shields, fighting in the wide cracks of the trees, in the knots where the villages were found, and even on the precarious ledges where one imbalanced step would lead to a very long fall and death. Everyone who could swing a weapon or nock a bow was expected to fight, even women, even the children.
Ludyrr in her manly clothing went directly to the spears. Elynir observed her, seeing the tall woman hold her hand up as high as it could go, as she stood before the long weapons. Yes, that was the proper way to choose a spear; it must be as high as your stretched arm and fingers.
Mother Endieve and daughter Dinieve walked to the bows. Endieve pulled one, then a second, testing the flexibility of the unstringed wood, not liking either and choosing two others. She used her head to motion for her daughter to choose the strings. Elynir saw this as a test, and rightly so. When their travel began, their lives would be in each other’s hands.
Ibagghi and Afiruk only watched the others. Possibly, they were unsure if they wanted any weapon at all. They moved closer to Elynir, as if she too were uncertain, but that was not the case. Elynir had trained with both spear and sword, partly because she’d had a strict father, but also because she had two older brothers. If mother and sister used bows, and the last two were hesitant to choose anything, only Ludyrr would be left to fight the enemy directly. For that reason, Elynir went to the spears first.
Ludyrr huffed at her, as if Elynir had no business holding a spear, as if she had no idea of how to use one. Perhaps she thought Elynir only looked through them to show off in some way. Let her think what she will, Elynir thought, as she took her measure of the weapons, selecting one that reached up to the first crease of her fingers. The spear was sturdy and stiff, but then they all were since they were carved out of the same wood.
When Elynir went to stand before the swords, Ludyrr made her same huffing noise. Elynir turned to look at her. Did she look as weak as all that? Was it because she had blonde hair? No matter, she decided, seeing the items on carved shelves, and the shields on the ground leaned haphazardly against the wall. Elynir examined the shields, finding the two sturdiest examples and giving them to the women who still had not moved. If they weren’t going to choose their own shields, they probably wouldn’t choose their own swords either. This time, she chose three, with the last one shorter than the rest so she could tie its sheath to her thigh. A sword of full size was not preferable because it would hinder her use of the spear, and so would a shield.
The other swords went to Ibagghi and Afiruk, both of whom looked as if they’d never held one before, and never intended to. Elynir gave the women sheaths and straps to tie them with, but she was not about to waste her time in tying it for them. They would have to learn that on their own, if ever.
At first, I had Ludyrr as the 4th sleeper. I made her second so she could more easily become Elynir’s rival. Here’s a pic I used to for a visual of what Ludyrr looks like.