Babeledonia

a short story by Tony Beekman

 

     An it cam tae pass that the Scoti an the Picti said tae ilk ither, ‘Come awa! Let us gae thegither an mak a nem fir oorsels as ane pooerfae people.’ This they agreed an they said tae ilk ither, ‘Come awa! Let us bring ale an uisge-beatha an let us thraw a great ceilidh tae celebrate oor greement.’

     An The Instigation cam doon tae see the ceilidh o this new ane people.

     An the Instigation said, ‘Behaud! The people is ane people an noo naethin will pit the haims on whitever they ettle tae dae. Come awa! Let us gae doon an confoon their freenliness. Let us send them Normans an Angles an aa sorts tae jine them, that they may aa argifee an brak apairt.’

***

     Throu her black veil, Ailios watched the green an gowd vestments o the priest sparkle in the caunle-licht. She breathed incense-filled air as the monks chanted.

‘Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.’

The words the monks chanted comforted Ailios. Her mither had taucht her that they meant: as it wis at the stairt, an noo, an ayeweys, an in the ages o the ages. Here in church, Ailios rested in the security an eternity o the faith. Ootside, her life hid been ane o continual chynge. Ailios langed fir the time she wis a wean an sang in Gaelic wi her mither. Maist people spak Gaelic then but monie spak Inglis as well but then King David grantit land tae Normans fae doon sooth. They spak French but their officers an servants aa spak Inglis, although a new-fanglet kind wi coorse wirds that slinked in fae the speak o their maisters an that o previous invaders. The new Inglis wis spreadin as fast as aa the business the servants an officers got up tae. The circle o people Ailios cuid speak Gaelic wi wis gettin wee-er an wee-er. She wis prood that she hid been baptised wi the Gaelic form o her nem.

Ailios cudnae fathom the French leid. She cuid speak normal Inglis fine as well as Gaelic but she was dumfoonert whan the new Inglis speakers, the thrawn craiturs, cried an everyday thing wi a fancy French wird.

‘Dominus vobiscum,’ said the priest.

Ailios hoped that the Lord wid indeed be wi her an aa the congregation, parteecular the noo whan there wis a rumour that the men wid be ordered soon tae jine anither raid doon sooth.

Ailios walked slawlie oot o the church, pausin tae bliss hersel wi the halie watter. Aince oot, she stairtit tae hurry. She rushed alang the dirt path atween fields taewards the muckle hoose. She passed the neyfs, as they were cried, daein their duty for the maister, toilin awa at the soil. She hid tae wark an dae her duty for the same maister as well. Her duty the day wis tae roast the coo meat fir the great feast the maister wis pittin on fir hissel an his guests. Naebodie said oniethin but Ailios kent the feast wis a laist chance for the men tae mak merry afore battle.

***

‘Merde!’ exclaimed the maister, referrin in his ain leid tae that which is excreted. ‘This wine is aff!’ Baron Jean o Sudrondale continued. ‘It never lasts bein shipped ower. Alfred,’ he ordered, ‘get the ale! This is nae time tae be left wi a drouth.’

Alfred went tae the oothoose tae fetch the ale. Ailios wis there, tendin tae the coo meat roastin on the great hearth. Aa the cookin wis done in the oothoose so as no tae risk roastin the main hoose alang wi the meat.

‘A hope the beef’s comin alang nicely,’ said Alfred in passin as he heided for a cupboard tae get the ale. On his return, he cuid see Aillios shakin her heid an wavin her airms aboot. The maidservants looked at Ailios an ilk ither wi widened een an raised shouders.

‘Beggin yer pardon, sir,’ said Ailios, ‘but A’ve prepared the roast coo meat an the bilet kail but whit on Earth is this boof or whitever it wis ye asked fir? Ye didnae ask me for that at the stairt. A hope the maister’s no gaunae be angrie.’

Alfred hid tae sook his chowks in no tae lauch.

‘Dinnae fash yersel, wumman,’ he said. ‘It wisnae boof, it wis beef. An relax – ye’ve a’ready got it roastin fine there on the hearth.’

‘Ye dinnae cry that beef!’ gasped Ailios. ‘That’s coo meat!’

‘Can ye no speak proper Inglis?’ Alfred replied. ‘Coo meat is noo politely referred tae as beef bi civilised fowk.’

‘A dae speak proper Inglis,’ replied Ailios, ‘an that his been coo meat since A wis a wean an it’s still coo meat tae me noo!’

‘Never … mind,’ said Alfred, strugglin no tae lauch an tae get the wirds oot straucht. ‘A didnae mean tae confuse ye. Whitever ye cry it, juist get it served up.’

***

Ailios wis a braw cook an the Baron an his men hid tore intae the beef. Efter a respectable period o time, the maidservants cam tae the muckle hoose an redd up the table, clearin awa the plates an the trencher o coo meat but leavin the men their ale. The men hid fair gien the coo meat a fricht but it hid been a wappin roast an there wis still plenty left. As wis the custom, noo that the men hid saitisfeed their hunger, Ailios an the maidservants sat doon thegither in the oothoose an ate their share.

The Baron an his men drank ale, told stories, lauched, banged their tankards and drank mair ale. They aa kent that wird wid soon come that they were aff tae battle an that this wis the reason fir the feast. The men hid aa talked aboot it the ither day in twas or threes but noo, athegither, it wisnae the done thing tae mention it. The Baron telt the funniest stories an gied the loodest lauchs but, as he poored hissel mair ale, he thoucht tae hissel that he hid nae mair chice in life than the men, Alfred, Ailios an the maidservants or the neyfs. He obeyed orders juist the same, even if his orders cam a bit mair direck. He wis a second son so he wis tae inherit nae land. A gift o land up here fae the king cudnae be refused. An if the king said ‘tae battle’ then battle it wis. E’en whan he wis tae battle the fowk he cam fae.

Alfred approached the maister an whuspered in his lug. Twa messengers were at the door. The Baron went tae the door tae receive them.

The Baron cam back an returned tae his place at the table but stayed staunin. The men fell silent.

‘Best men o Sudrondale!’ the Baron announced. ‘The wird is gien. The morra, we heid sooth tae battle. May oor victory be glorious!’ At this, he lifted his tankard, raised it tae the men, drained the ale in it in ane steady swallae an thudded it back ontae the table. The men cheered an follaed suit. Ahint the cheers, the men felt a jolt in their minds that they cudnae and didnae want tae pit intae wirds. The jolt o recognition o reality an possibility. The men cheered again and banged their tankards repeatedly.

‘Wait!’ shouted the Baron, raisin his airms. The men fell silent again. The Baron pinted tae a spot on the flair several paces awa fae the table. A rat wis chowin on a bit o fatty beef that hid drapped aff the trencher.

‘Captain!’ said the Baron in a laich vice.

The Baron’s best sodger drew his dagger. There wis a swish as the dagger flew through the air follaed bi a thud an a squaik; the rat wis impailed. Tankards banged an cheers resounded aince mair.

‘Wait!’ shouted the Baron a saicant time. The men scanned the flair fir anither rat tae they saw the Baron tiltin a lug in the wey o the oothoose, his face a picter o calm concentration. The Baron stood up again an shouted, ‘Tae the oothoose!’

The Baron apened the door o the oothoose an there wis Ailios sittin on a stuil in the mids o the flair, pleyin the clarsach that hid been passed doon tae her fae her mither. The maidservants were gaithered roon her listenin. Her hauns fluttered backarts an furrit alang the strings as if she an the clarsach were possessed bi the music.

The Baron stood quate, mesmereesed. Alfred wisnae sure whit tae dae but then thocht he better no appear saft.

‘Ailios!’ Alfred yowled. ‘Stoap that blatter richt noo an pit that thing awa!’ The music stoaped abruptly.

‘Haud it the noo, Alfred,’ interjected the Baron. The Baron taen a breath an the men wondered whit wid happen next. ‘The morra, we heid sooth tae battle,’ he continued. ‘The nicht, we listen tae bonnie music. Alfred, fetch the ale. Ailios – pley on!’

***

     The Instigation cam doon again tae see the result o their meddlin.

     An the Instigation said, ‘Behaud! The people is yet ane people. They hae taken aa the unco influences we plagued them wi in their stride an made eese o them tae mak thirsels stranger. They hae e’en adapted Inglis efter their ain fashion an cried it Scots! An noo naethin yet will pit the haims on whitever they ettle tae dae. Come awa! Let us gae back up an ignore these Scots fir noo. Aiblins in time, withoot oor help, they will aa argifee an brak apairt at last …’

 

This story originally appeared in Lallans, the bi-annual journal of the Scots Language Society.