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This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Hunnish Princess

Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

I had this notion for a collection of Traveller's Tales told in a medieval caravanserai. This is the first and so far only one.
The idea for this one came from a bit in Bruce Chatwin's 'Songlines' where he briefly relates seeing a grave excavated in Eastern Europe, the grave contained female bones with an eagle's corpse on her breast.

Tales from the Han: number one

The Hunnish Princess

A great many years ago in the wild lands between Istanbul and Novgorod there once lived a beautiful girl. She had no fine jewels, but she had rich furs to keep her warm on horseback. She had no solid house but she had gaudy silks to decorate her tent.
She was a Hun, a girl who had sat her own saddle since she was four years old and whose hunting skills filled the bellies of family and friends.
Her name was Salska and it was her curse to be loved by two men.

The man who first loved her was called Hunye. He stayed always close by her and so he had saved her from a fire that killed her sister. Afterwards he took Salska and her mother under his protection.
Despite his love Hunye never asked Salska to marry him although her mother begged it. He said someone so lovely deserved a young and virile partner not an ageing horse-master with burns that scarred his face. But he always cared for Salska and dreamed of her at night.

The other man in Salska's life was called Uman and he was a handsome youth.
He watched the black hair fall across Salska's face when she skinned rabbits. He sighed when the sun shone in her eyes as she strung her bow. In short he adored her.
Uman was an elder son and likely to inherit the leadership of his clan. This made him a worthy suitor; so when he came to ask for Salska her mother sighed and agreed the dowry. There were no flaws in Uman's nature, other than those of all young men and Salska was not in love with Hunye or anyone else therefore when at last he summoned his courage and told her to marry him she accepted the decision.

But her dead sister didn't.

Maykor, when living, had made all the decisions. She was older than Salska by an entire morning, having been born as Dawn rose while her twin hadn't struggled free of the womb until after Noon. Maykor had never let Salska forget this or do anything without reference to her. Salska being easy in her nature had never objected to this state of affairs and when Maykor died Salska simply waited for someone else to tell her what to do. Sometimes at night Salska had strange dreams. She dreamt of flying far up in the sky to where the blue turned black, but her days were bound up with the tasks of women. When she had free time she played with the dogs and the babies. When her husband demanded her attention she gave it to him.

Maykor was unable to prevent the wedding, her spirit now was constrained in the body of a Golden Eagle, but she began to haunt Salska. At every opportunity Maykor came to Salska and called her name. She flew past low and fast when Salska rode, she sat on the poles of her sister's tent, she hopped after her sister when the girl collected berries. It didn't take long until Salska recognised the voice of her sister in the eagle's cry.

"You must kill Uman. He must die and you will get his gold. Then you can marry Hunye and be happy for my sake." As Salska rode Maykor repeated this message day after day. Her sister stopped her ears. Maykor grew ever more frustrated and ever more angry. Whenever the clan made camp the Eagle would pester Salska and the other women began to mutter that she was bewitched.

To gain peace Salska eventually spoke to the bird. " I do not want to kill Uman. He is a good husband to me. He loves me as he should: men sing of his deeds. He gets much ransom and he brings me silken trophies. Why should I kill a good man?"

"You must kill him in order that you can marry Hunye. Uman is too strong to die of a fever or a fight."

"But why do you want me to marry Hunye? He is kind and always thoughtful, but he is old and spends too much time with horses."

" Because I love him, stupid girl. On the night of the fire I asked Hunye to come to our tent. I wanted to give myself to him. He is wise and gentle and I longed for soft hands on my skin; the likes of Uman are always rough men."

"I still don't understand." said Salska "How could my marriage to Hunye help you, it would surely make you jealous to see me in his arms."

Maykor's voice had laughter in it " Once you are married to Hunye we can exchange places. You have lived three summers since the fire. I want my turn."

Salska paled and could no longer bear the Eagle's fierce gaze.

" You must agree that it is only fair. You have a good man. Life as an Eagle has it's compensations, but I have longed for Hunye every day. I will give you only a short time to think, I have had too much brooding. Meet me tomorrow and I will instruct you how best to take Uman's life."
The Eagle slipped sideways from it's perch and soared into the clouds above.

That night Salska could not find sleep. She lay in Uman's arms while the tears rolled into her hair. Finally understanding came into Salska's mind; she cared for Uman, she wanted to give him sons, she loved her life and it was not her fault that Maykor was dead. She didn't want to do as Maykor ordered, she wanted to fight her sister.

Eventually Salska fell into an uneasy sleep, in which she dreamt of the Eagle's eyes boring into her and stealing her spirit. She cried out and reached for Uman, who covered her face with kisses. Salska rubbed her breasts and moaned. He grunted and pulled her to him.

Before daylight Salska was awake again. In her sleep she had dreamt of going to seek Hunye. As she crept through the tent-flap Uman woke. He said nothing but feigned sleep. He watched his wife steal away and collecting his bow he chose to follow .

"Hunye. Hunye." Salska walked around the ring of horses calling for him. A figure pushed through the steaming flanks.

"Why are you here." He asked soft and smiling.

"My sister wants me to kill Uman. Come with me please and speak with her. I fear her reason has gone. You can talk with horses, perhaps you can talk sense to an Eagle." Salska hurried off towards the rock where she had last seen the Eagle.

Hunye followed, he'd heard the women's talk. He dropped back as he saw the great bird swoop, then settle on the rock. It's voice, the voice of Maykor came clear to him.

" Ah sister, you are prompt. Look at the ground and you'll see a mound of berries, poisonous but kind. Mix these in Uman's beer and he'll not notice. He will sleep deep enough so you can smother him."

"What then, what happens next?" Salska asked loud enough for Hunye to hear.

"Then you raise the alarm. I do not want you blamed for this. Cry bitter tears, rend your clothes and when Uman is cold go to Hunye and declare your love. At that point you and I will change places. I shall have Hunye and you shall soar above my wedding feast ."

Hunye had heard enough, he left his hide at a run and shouted. "No. You cannot do this Maykor. I have never loved you. I love Salska. You shan't harm her."

The Eagle screamed when she saw Hunye.
"Treacherous bitch!" Maykor flew direct at Salska's face with talons spread.
Hunye leapt in and grappled with the bird, stabbing at it with his knife.

The shrill shrieking and shouting ended abruptly as an arrow sang its way into the melee.
All movement was caught in a heart's beat.
Then the bird fell to the ground, Hunye's knife sticking in it's breast. Hunye held Salska on her feet as blood ran from the arrow in her back.

Uman ran to her and sobbed. "My lovely Bride. How could she plot my death with you Horsemaster?"
He pulled Salska into his embrace." I loved you always Salska and pity me I still do."

The girl's eyes focussed and she whispered.
" I never loved you till last night. Forgive me. But I never loved Hunye at all.."

Hunye said "She speaks the truth as we all must at point of death. It's true I loved her, but Salska never looked my way. Maykor did offer herself to me, but she had no value in my eyes. I rejected her and it soured even her new life." He touched the feathers caught in Salska's hair.

The men stood a long while over the grave. Salska was lain in the ground wearing her wedding gown. Her mother placed evergreens all around her. Uman laid gold leaf on her breast, then Hunye spread the Eagle's body over Salska with it's wings stretched protectively.

Hunye cut his beard and the mane from his mare and dropped these offerings onto the corpses. He said " In the next life may they both be always happy. I look forward to our next meeting" and turned his face away.
Uman slashed his arm and let copious blood drip on the ground. "This woman shall be mourned without tears, but with my blood in token of our reunion."

He gave the order for the grave to be filled. Then Hunye fetched the horses and the clan rode away.

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