A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Rural Idyll

The grass in the upper hayfield was already more than tall enough to conceal a slender figure lying prone on the ground. Aneme lay with her bare feet almost under the top hedge - that thorny barrier between the summer grazing on the upper slopes and those more intensely cultivated fields where the winter feeds were grown - and chewed contemplatively on a grass stem. She peered intently through a gap between the taller stems, watching the knot of fieldworkers approach the five-bar gate that separated the high lane from the field.

The image's viewpoint suddenly dissolved into a blur for a brief moment, accompanied by an audible buzzing on the soundtrack, before settling on a new perspective where the girl's face could be clearly seen.

Aneme smiled wryly to herself. The majority of the working men held no vestige of interest to her, but one lad in the party had kept her attention since he appeared around the bend by the coppice. He was a tall young man, broad of shoulder but still slightly gangly, a youngster not yet filled out with the bulk and muscles of full manhood.

On this early summer afternoon, the heat of the sun had already dried off the last vestiges of the dew. It would be time, Aneme knew, for the men to arrive with their scythes and their rakes - and their tobacco-pipes and their earthy banter - to cut the hay and form the stooks to dry in the afternoon sunshine.

The image's viewpoint cut away from the girl in the gingham dress and zoomed in on the gaggle of fieldworkers gathering at the gate.

The image was drawn to a tall youngster who stood slightly apart from the older men, as if shy or reserved, and who gazed with keen intelligence at the flora and fauna around him in preference to indulging in the gossip of his elders.

Aneme knew she should be elsewhere, hard at work at some drudgery assigned by her father or housework by her mother. She could not stay away for long undetected. She lay in the shelter of the high hedge for a few moments longer, pleasantly warm and slightly sweaty from the heat, then rolled over and crawled away. Her mother would no doubt remonstrate with her because of the smuts on her dress and the dirt on her knees.

But she had no care of that now. She was deeply, passionately in love with the tall young man working in the field below. She knew him, slightly; as a tiny child, she could remember her mother visiting the distant neighbour, the one with the sickly boy-child. The boy who had defied the predictions of the old women and had grown strong as he grew older; strong enough that she had sometimes seen him at play with the other children. Now, he was interesting for a different reason. His name was Jeremias, Jeremias Crossmaddows. A beautiful name, a proud name, a name she might consider taking as her own.

Once behind the hedge, she stood and skipped away over the fields and down the dale, to resume the labours she had so shamelessly ignored. She resolved to return at the time when the menfolk would finish their labours, when they would be returning home along the lane, tired and muted after the work in the heat, where perhaps the shy boy would linger and talk awhile.

The viewpoint remained at a level with the top of the hedge, following the retreating back of the dark-haired girl in the grubby gingham dress. The figure disappeared from view below the ridgeline, leaving just a peaceful vista of wind-blown grasses and birdsong.

The image blurred and characters on the screen above and below the image whirled and span, then stopped to indicate another time, another place: a place nearby, scant kilometres from the previous location; a time some months later, a time when autumn was approaching fast.

Aneme stood at the edge of the open space in the centre of the big barn, watching the dancers moving with various degrees of skill but uniformly high enthusiasm and energy to the swirl of music emanating from the pipe and accordion band. She had arrived late, when the dance was already in full swing, delayed by the completion of chores for her parents' neighbours.

The festival of Harvest Home had been a tradition, in this part of the world, for generations unnumbered. It was a celebration of thanks for the provision of food for the forthcoming winter: a poor harvest would mean hardship and hunger, perhaps even starvation for the very poorest; a good harvest guaranteed warmth and plenty and security during the coldest months, when the frost settled on the hedgerows and ponds. Giving alms to those in need, Aneme was well aware, was much easier when one's own belly was full and the storerooms and larders were well-stocked.

Inevitably, such a celebration was a rare opportunity for all members of the dispersed little community to meet together; only the very old and infirm, or the resolutely sick and bedridden would be absent on a night like this. It was a time and a place where many families met, and much beer and cider was drunk, old friendships and rivalries rekindled, close siblings and distant relatives reunited, old gossip and new rumours circulated, and babes-in-arms inspected by grandmothers and widowed aunts. And, of course, it was the time when new loves and friendships and relationships were formed, when betrothals and marriages were proposed and discussed; in short, it was the event when all the really important business of the village and surroundings was transacted.

The boy Jeremias, now taller still and filling out nicely around shoulder and forearm, stood on the opposite side of the dance floor. He was within a season or two of being a man full-grown, and even now stood head and shoulders above almost everyone else. He was entirely surrounded - mobbed, even - by a gaggle of unmarried girls, every one doing their best to flirt or charm or catch his eye. Every maiden from the village and the nearby hamlets was there, Aneme observed with a sinking heart.

The fluttering maidens were clothed in the finest dresses, painstaking stitched and embroidered during the long evenings. To a woman, they all had their long hair braided and beribboned, decorated with flowers and garlands. As was the custom, they would cut their hair and cover their heads only once they were married and well on their way to motherhood.

Jeremias had grown to be less shy, more sure of himself in the company of both men and women, almost as if the increase in his physical size had been matched by the growth in his confidence and self-assurance. He deflected the flattering assaults from first one and then another of the more forward of the girls with effortless charm and good manners, able to make clear his lack of interest but without offence or causing more than a smidgeon of disappointment.

Smiling and sipping occasionally from the nearly-full glass in his hand - treated as more as a displacement for his attention that a desire to bring on the uninhibiting effects of alcohol - Jeremias turned away from the crowd pressing around him. He spied Aneme on the edge of the dance floor, half-way across the crowded room; their eyes met; his eyes widening at once. She felt her own gaze locked to his, as if there was suddenly nobody else in the entire world. She could not have turned her head away if her life had depended on it.

Aneme would remember that moment with utmost clarity for the rest of her life.

Once again the image cut and blurred, and the figures indicating date and time span and stopped.

It was later that same evening, after the Harvest Home dance had wound down and at least the older folks had started making their way home. Jeremias and Aneme had taken their leave earlier, without attracting much attention - much to the disappointment of the old gossips with sharp eyes and wagging tongues - and were now walking hand-in-hand down the lane to the house of Aneme's parents in the gathering gloom of the autumn evening. At first, she had tugged a woollen shawl over her head and shoulders against the coolness of the air, but she soon pulled it back, the better to display the curves of her neck and the cut of her bodice.

Her hair - long and dark, almost to the point of blackness - was braided, as was the fashion for unmarried girls, but she had eschewed the heavy ribbon tied in complicated knots and bows that the other maidens had sported. Instead, she had bound the end of the braid with a simple length of cotton twine, so as not to detract from its lustrous shine.

They had been walking in silence for a little while now, both perhaps unsure what to say to one another. As they walked, Jeremias' hand stole into hers, his strong fingers entwining around her own slender digits. They stopped, seemingly without any conscious thought on either part, just beyond a curve in the lane which might just be out of eyeshot of any straggling party-goer, and swung about to face each other. His eyes sparkled in the fitful moonlight which illuminated their way.

"Your hair is beautiful," he whispered, bending forward to bring his face an inch from hers. She could feel his breath, warm and sweet, on her cheek.

She was not, she knew, a fine beauty but her hair was definitely one of her better features, she had long considered. Without warning, or even asking for her permission - not that she would have denied him, in any case - he swept her up in his arms and pressed his lips against hers. The kiss went on for an unmeasurable time; when they finally parted, it was with a feeling of contentment underpinned by a sudden more visceral urgency which surprised, even shocked Aneme by its urgency.

"I would love," he said softly, "To see your hair unbound, to feel it loose against my skin."

The image and figures changed again, indicating a date perhaps seven or eight months later.

It was again spring in this part of the world. Full buds and even a few early flowers decorated the hedgerows either side of the lanes and pathways. The view on the screen panned over couples and families in their best clothes making their way to the little stone-built church which marked the centre of the largest of the scattered settlements.

The chatter and gossip could be faintly heard between the pealing of the bells rung enthusiastically from the tower that stood on the mound alongside the church itself. The voices came from the procession of residents, moving to attend an event long awaited but judged unsurprising by most observers: the marriage of Jeremias Crossmaddows to Aneme Thresherson. It was a union almost everybody considered all but inevitable, especially after the scandalous way the two young people had behaved at the Harvest Home Festival the previous autumn.

The village folk filed into the church accompanied by the strains of the wheezy organ and, under the beady eye of the old priest, the congregation gathered in their familiar pews. The older folks chattered in what they probably thought was a discreet fashion, frequently glancing at Jeremias' mother in her widow's black, her two sticks held in her frail hands, her skin practically translucent with age and infirmity, but nevertheless looking radiantly happy. In the opposite pew, the blunt-featured and sun-worn faces of Aneme's mother and father, also looking happy, perhaps, to see their youngest - and only slightly troublesome - daughter off their hands at an early age.

Jeremias waited nervously by the pile of crudely-carved stonework that did duty as an altar hereabouts, in the company of another young man from the village who looked only marginally less nervous. Both were wearing their best suits and shirts, and boots which, while not new, had at least been polished with enthusiasm. There was a nod from the priest, a pause in the droning music, then a robust march known to everybody present struck up. All heads turned to the entrance behind them; the doors swung open to reveal Aneme wearing the same white dress and veil that her mother and all of her sisters had themselves worn on the day of their marriage.

At a gesture, a variety of digital readouts, graphs and representational views appeared around the image. Their intention and import could perhaps have seemed unclear to the casual observer, although this particular observer was intense, focussed and encountered no difficultly in interpreting their meaning.

At a second gesture, the symbolic displays disappeared and the image and digits span again.

The snow was deep on the ground, piled in windblown drifts against the heavy stones of the old cottage and along the banked hedges which surrounded the plot, the earth long since frozen by the chills of winter. Today, the sky was clear and bright, the air still, the low sun edging its way above the horizon towards a winter noon.

At first glance, there seemed to be no movement, nothing to attract the eye. Still, the paths to the woodshed and the privy were cleared, the snow piled neatly alongside, and smoke poured from the chimney, making it clear to any observer that those within were doing their best to make themselves comfortable against the bitter cold.

The image faded, to be replaced immediately by a view from inside the cottage. The digits flickered, changing minutely.

Aneme sat in the chair closest to the fire, her belly swollen under her grey dress and white apron. She looked tired, a little worn, her face tautened by the stress of the pregnancy. The long braid of her maidenhood was now cut short in the practical style befitting a goodwife and mother-to-be.

She had been preparing the larger bed for her confinement as best she could, with clean sheets and towels, and was now boiling up the big kettle on its hook over the fire. Her time was very close, she was certain, the baby kicking strongly inside her even now.

Her mother-in-law, now bed-bound, lay in the warmest bed under the eaves, where the warmth from the chimney kept the chill at bay. She could be no help, now, not able to walk more than a few steps even with her sticks.

As she watched the fire, her back aching and her belly tightening, she uttered a quietly-spoken wish - not a prayer, exactly, but just a little litany of hope - that Jeremias would soon return with the midwife.

Another change of image, another date and time indicated in the figures alongside the screen.

Again Aneme was inside the church, dressed in the black of mourning, not in the white of her wedding, celebrated in this very building just a year or so earlier. This time there was no joy, no happiness visible in the faces of those gathering in the pews. Despite her long illness, Jeremias' mother had been a popular figure in the straggling little community, at least amongst those old enough to remember her as anything other than a wizened and near-silent little figure barely able to walk with sticks.

The death of her husband's mother was not something unforeseen; she had been increasingly unwell for as long as Aneme could remember. But it had still come as a shock; the old woman had been so unexpectedly kind to her and always so grateful to be given the help that she obviously needed. She had become increasingly fond of the old dear and she would miss her now.

She unconsciously held closer her own daughter, swaddled and mercifully silent and resting comfortably - and comfortingly - on her hip.

Again the image and digits changed, indicating a date a scant year after the previous funeral.

The coffin was so small, tiny against the stone slab wreathed in flowers upon which it lay. Next to it, Anene stood motionless, quiet, still; all tears long ago shed in mourning, in despair and sorrow. The dour-faced pall bearers - more than were really needed for so small a load - waited respectfully to one side, politely waiting some sign that they could carry out their allotted duty.

There would not, she knew, be any more children. The midwife had made it clear, in measured and circumspect tones after the difficult, excruciating birth of her daughter, that the passage of her only child had damaged her, inside, in ways which no doctor or surgeon would be able to repair.

After the punishing birth, the child had never been really healthy: always fretful, never nursing properly, always pale and sickly. Perhaps it was a blessing that she had died so young, rather than become a invalid child, one never able to fully partake of whatever life could offer. Perhaps not. She could only mourn her now.

Aneme turned, nodded once in the direction of the group of bearers. Silently, they gently lifted the tiny coffin from the slab and carried it off in the direction of the graveyard.

Another change in the image, another later date. The images on the screen now showed a young Widow in black, standing in a windswept autumn graveyard.

Aneme stood silently, surveying this part of the overflowing graveyard. Almost everybody she had ever known was now interred beneath the green grass and rough stones that marked the passage of years - sometimes a very few years - of those whose bodies now lay underground.

Tall stones marked the last resting places of her only daughter; her husband, whom she had loved with a deep and life-changing passion; her husband's mother, who had welcomed her as a daughter in her own home. Elsewhere in the graveyard lay her own parents, her older brothers and sisters, all themselves victims of the creeping plague which had taken her husband's life and so very nearly her own.

She was all alone in the world. Alone, but not entirely without resources. She had a place to live, a simple cottage which was more than she needed, warm and cosy in winter - even if it was haunted by the memories of those she had lost. She would not starve; there was a little money put by, even after all this time, and she was entirely capable of tending a kitchen garden.

What she did lack was a direction in her life. As she stood, deep in thought, she wondered if there was yet some purpose, some task left for her to achieve.

The digits span again, indicating the passage of many years. The woman appearing on the screen was still dressed in widow's black, but visibly older; lines of age and care showed in her face. Her body showed the signs of much heavy labour and many miles walked, but was still unbent and strong.

Aneme straightened her back, having been tending some plants in what she liked to think of as one of her secret gardens. This particular plot was one of her favourites. It was set in a sheltered clearing on the sunny side of a low hill, warm in summer, sheltered in winter and watered by a tiny spring which emerged from a rocky outcrop on the upper slope. Here she managed to grow plants which, according to the books she had read, would not normally survive in this climate. They were useful plants, with important medicinal properties and applications, although some could be dangerous - even deadly - in the hands of those less experienced than her.

For a time, she had been - quite literally - insane with grief after the deaths of all those around her. But she had survived, somehow. Emerging from her illness, she had immersed herself in learning everything she could about the world and, perhaps, her own small place in it. Some of her learning she gleaned from books and manuscripts, when she could access to such things; occasionally managing to acquire a battered volume from a market stall or itinerant trader; more often begging access to libraries and collections owned by churches and nunneries, town halls and the more wealthy of the local landowners.

But the larger part of her emerging understanding she had acquired from other people. Although she had not travelled far - no further than the second-nearest market town - she had fallen into the habit of striking up conversations with any traveller or itinerant stranger who would give her the time of day, learning what she could of the places they had been and the things they had experienced.

Over the years, she had acquired the skill of directing a conversation to deeper topics, away from gossip and small talk, and towards whatever wisdom and insight an individual might be able to convey. She found she had the knack of persuading complete strangers to recall mysterious encounters and wondrous sights, strange experiences and life-changing insights, and to convey smatterings of their knowledge of lands and countries far away, and peoples and cultures very different from her own.

Without much real travel, over the years, she had explored the world, in conversation and contemplation, evolving a deeper understanding that she could not, perhaps, entirely articulate. She had evolved a kind of wisdom, the kind which comes from immense stress annealed into a harsh kindness, tempered with an unbending desire to do the right thing. She never doubted her own ability to tell what was right, to separate the truth from lies and deception and dissembling, and to determine - to at least her own satisfaction - how things were truly supposed to be. It was a wisdom, which she would eventually realise, had always been a part of her makeup, an intrinsic ability which she might never have fully appreciated without the vicissitudes and hardships of her early life.

The sun was dipping towards the horizon, casting much of the glade into a deep shadow. It was time, she realised, to make her own secret way home.

The digits swam again, and the viewpoint presented on the screen shifted to one entirely different from any previously presented. The image displayed showed what was immediately recognisable as a city, at least for a wide spectrum of humanoid species at some point in their development. Walls formed from large blocks of stone topped with crenelated parapets, and pierced with gates made from heavy wood and roughly-wrought iron, surrounded an area densely packed with narrow cobbled streets between wooden-framed buildings roofed with thatch.

The woman in widow's black, now looking rather more careworn, was being escorted - politely, but there was a sense of caution noticeable in the guards, despite their breastplates and chain mail - through one of the wider streets, heading directly for the imposing bulk of the keep.

The summons to the city had not been entirely unexpected. Although she had taken pains not to acknowledge what she had heard, she had listened to the whispers, rumours and gossip - indeed it was difficult to avoid hearing all about it - that the eldest, and only, son of the Duke had returned from the border wars grievously injured. The cut was initially thought to be a mere scratch, received in some minor skirmish between the Duke's army and raiders from the southern lands and ignored as trivial by the young lord himself, ignored for too long until the wound itself began to fester and ache, until his strength began to drain away and he collapsed into a state of fever and delirium.

Close to death, the son had been brought back to the castle as quickly as had been possible; but perhaps not quickly enough. He now lay in his chambers, his body cold and catatonic, barely alive and even more barely conscious; nevertheless he managed to cling to life, much to the veiled amazement of the court doctors. For all their efforts, they had not able to bring about any improvement in his condition, despite the earnest imprecations, naked bribes and unconcealed threats from the Duke himself. Now, all the Duke's lands were being scoured for anybody who might be able to help: healers, physicians, doctors, shamans and priests, even quacks and sawbones who had acquired even the slightest reputation for miracle cures and marvellous recoveries.

After the untimely - and agonising - death of her beloved husband Jeremias, Aneme had spent much of her lonely life learning what she could about illnesses and health, medicines and poisons, treatments and tonics. It was a knowledge which, thinking back, she had somehow managed to assimilate from the innumerable conversations with travellers and itinerants she had encountered, without really having been conscious of the gain. Now, it seemed she had, despite her attempts otherwise, acquired a reputation as one who tended to the lame and cured the sick, all across the little neighbourhood of hamlets where she had lived all her life, a reputation which seemed to have extended to the market towns which she irregularly visited. It was enough, it appeared, to have attracted the attentions of the guard captain and the small contingent of soldiers who had arrived a seven-day ago.

The digits barely flickered, although the scene changed abruptly to show the inside of an imposing throne room, a space framed in carved masonry and hanging tapestries, and lit by innumerable flickering torches. Whatever was acting as a camera faced a raised dais where a frowning older man in rich robes looked down on an old woman in widow's black.

Now, Aneme was in the audience chamber, in the castle, in the city, facing the old Duke. She had certainly heard about the place; it had been described to her on numerous occasions, during her interviews with travellers. Now, she had travelled further than she had ever done before - at least, in her physical body - to this distant city. It did occur to her, with uncharacteristic irony, that real physical transport was rather more boring and long-winded than the travelling-of-the-mind she had indulged in hitherto.

Aneme bowed deeply, as she had been taught long ago, to a level which befitted his rank in society, and hers.

"You are a widow?"

"Yes, your Grace."

"And how did your husband die?"

"It was many years ago, your Grace," she replied, her eyes downcast, suddenly saddened by the recollection, "It was the Zombie Plague that took him."

"Ah," the Duke said, not unkindly, "And you are without children, I understand. Yet you claim to be a healer of some merit, according to my captain here."

"I claim nothing, your Grace," Aneme replied, with finely-judged emphasis, "I have merely chosen to spend my remaining time in this world doing whatever I could for my neighbours. I sincerely hope they have suffered less and lived longer with my ministrations than without them."

The Duke sat back, his face suddenly a shrewd mask.

"You will have heard of my son's ill-fortune?" - Aneme nodded silently - "And do you know what ails him?"

Aneme had thought about this inevitable question, on the long journey here, recalling as best she could any descriptions of signs and symptoms, as well as the circumstances of the young man's wound, and compared it with everything she had ever heard of sicknesses and poisons. There were several possibilities, of course, but that unfathomable sense of rightness, of inner certainty, which had been her burden for as long as she could remember, pointed directly at this particular diagnosis.

"It was a poisoned blade, your Grace," she began, "And the Southlanders have much skill in the extraction and distilling of such venoms from the many deadly plants and animals which share their lands. But this is a rare one, a poison which kills slowly, by design, to enact a terrible revenge against an enemy. But I know a formulation, a potion, which may yet save him."

The expression on the Duke's face spoke volumes, hope and distrust in equal measure, mixed with pride in some quantity and a modicum of fear. Aneme did not wait for him to speak again.

"I will make twice the required dose, your Grace," she said calmly, "I will drink whatever portion you direct, and you will administer the other part to your son."

The relief visible on the old man's face was immediate and palpable.

"This will make him well again?"

"It will not cure him, no, but it will relieve his symptoms temporarily, your Grace," Aneme replied, "Perhaps, if he is still strong enough, to the point where he will regain consciousness."

The Duke's face reddened and his expression turned as frosty as midwinter.

"But there is a cure," she went on, "From what I know of this poison, there is an antidote, fully capable of restoring a body to health, if administered quickly enough."

The Duke's indrawn breath was clearly audible across the audience chamber.

"But it is only available from the leaves of a rare plant which grows in distant parts of the swampy jungles in the far south."

Aneme paused, looking up earnestly into the old man's eyes for the first time.

"Your Grace, if you are to save your son's life, then you must treat with those on your southern border; forge a treaty peace of some kind. Surely there is something they want that you could consider giving them, And in return, you could gain access to that region, or even negotiate for some of the antidote."

She paused, standing stock-still in the sudden silence.

"Your Grace, only this will save your son."


Mso turned from the screen with a sigh, which quietly turned itself off behind her.

"I can see why this particular person has attracted your attention," she said, "And she does seem to have some remarkable talents. But why here, and why now?"

The voice of the GSV Imagine a Swift Exit emerged from no particular source, filling the room around her.

"We have had the planet under close surveillance for a long time," it said, "It's quite a marvel, in its own quiet way. It seems to have none of the mad rush for development - technical and industrial - that so many other societies experience, and has so far avoided the consequential political, military, environmental and social disasters. For complex reasons, they have evolved slowly, very slowly, almost to a point of stasis, effectively stuck in a state of feudalism for nearly a hundred generations, with no more than a minimum of oppressive controls imposed on the population at large. Few humanoid species seemed to manage that."

"So, no contact by Contact, then?"

"Correct," the ship said, "But not just as a control sample - we've plenty of others of that kind - but as a, well, a source of wisdom and insight, on some few occasions."

"Like this one?"

"Just like this one," the ship agreed.

Mso sat back, a broad smile creeping over her features.

"So when do we go and get her then?"

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