Chapter Two: The Arrival
As we climbed down from the wagons we stood speechless and slowly surveyed the scene around us, swiveling the full 360 degrees on the spot to take in every detail of what was to be our new home. It was hard to believe that our long journey was finally over.
We were at the base of a wide, flat valley bordered on all four sides by rolling hills dotted with mature Firs and Pines. A river flowed from east to west, dividing the valley neatly into two distinct sections and promising to be the source of good fishing as well as fresh water and, in the future, a possible trade link with other settlements downstream. As the river meandered through it widened considerably at a point just west of centre and resembled more of a small lake than an actual river. To the north east, a huge forest covered the hills and spilled down onto the valley floor. We had high hopes that as well as providing essential timber it would prove a good area for hunting.
As the sun was already close to slipping below the horizon, we hastily collected firewood and instead of our usual family fires, created a large communal pile and sat around excitedly discussing our hopes and plans for our new life in the Valley. The women saw to it that our bellies were filled while the men discussed the list of jobs to be done and the order in which they needed to be completed.
The journey to our new land had taken many weeks. Spring was over and summer was well under way. The winter, when it came, would be harsh and it was essential that we be well prepared. The first order of business was shelter for ourselves, the horses and our supplies. Next would be food and firewood.
It was decided that the next day a full survey would be done of the valley to locate the best position for our initial buildings, plan future ones and also to gain an idea of what resources were available and so, at first light, the men divided into small groups and set off in different directions to explore. Hezekiel, with his sons Fredden and Garvine headed north west towards the forest with instructions to check out the local game as well as identifying some tall, straight tree trunks which we would need for the proposed cabins.
Thackeray, Esac and Luthor headed westward towards the base of the steepest hills. The sides of these hills were scattered with rocky outcrops and around those, varying sizes of boulders. Even though our first homes would be basic wood cabins we would still need stone and, it was hoped there might also be small amounts of surface iron which could be collected and put to very good use. Thackeray’s group was to find out and report back.
My father and Hermonius went to survey the lake and river. It seemed logical that the settlement would centre around the lake not only because this was the centrepoint of the valley but any future trading, visitors,’etc would most likely arrive by river. Being close to a water source also made sense, especially to those who would be charged with fetching a carrying it and even more so in the winter months.
Whilst the men explored the women also set to work. Neliah and Hyalah were instructed to make an inventory of all the supplies we had remaining and to begin locating them to a central storage point.
My mother and Ellan were to forage for food and firewood. Emmeline was left in the care of Neliah and Hyalah in a makeshift playpen close to their wagon and sat quite happily playing with some empty pots and a wooden spoon. My brothers and I joined the two women and we set off armed with empty wooden bowls and a couple of hessian sacks. We headed to a lightly wooded area between the lakeshore and the hills to the south. Here we found several wild fruit bushes and a small grove of wild fruit trees. The apples and plums were not yet ripe but we made a note of their location to return to later in the year. The pears, however, were ripe and juicy and we were able to collect several pounds of them to add to our collection. We also found Elderberries, wild garlic, chickweed and nettles and these were all eagerly added to our hoard. In the mottled shade of the trees we found an abundance of field mushrooms and gathered these too. We collected as many as we could carry knowing that what we didn’t consume right away could be dried and stored for later.
Our bowls and pockets almost full to overflowing, we started back towards the camp via the lakeshore and added wild watercress to our collection.
While Mother and Ellan returned to the camp with our pickings, my brothers and I scoured the ground for firewood and managed to fill two large sacks before we too started back towards the camp following the river bank.
The sun was high in the sky and we were hot and sweaty from our hard labour. It wasn't long before the lure of cool flowing water beckoned us and, dumping our sacks of firewood, we threw off our stockings and waded knee deep into the water shrieking with glee as icy cold water swirled around our ankles and knees. Kale, being the oldest and by far the tallest strode out several feet from the shore, rolling his breeches up above his knees and beckoning for us to join him. Evan, never one to turn down a challenge, started to follow him even though, being a good foot shorter than his older brother, the water quickly rose above his knees and was almost to the middle of his thigh before he lost his nerve and stopped.
I hitched my skirt and petticoats up around my waist and tried to follow. I hated the feel of the muddy river bed squelching between my toes and tried to find stones to step on instead. Slowly I stepped from stone to stone, out from the shore until I too was standing almost thigh deep. The flow of the river was stronger than I had expected and it was hard to balance with my arms full of petticoat.
As I took another stepforward my brain registered a second too late that the stone I was about to stand on was not sitting firmly and as I transferred my weight it tipped suddenly sideways sending me sprawling into the water with a yelp. I held my breath as I went under and struggled to stand again as my clothes became waterlogged and threatened to weigh me down. Once again I felt a firm hand grip my arm and hoist me out of the water and onto my feet.
"Again? Are you determined to swim fully clothed, Ailiyah. Or do you want to drown youreself?" Kale was scowling at me. "One of these days I won't be here to save you!" Saying this he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder, waded back to the shore and dumped me roughly on the grassy bank.
Half an hour later we arrived back at the camp. I hid behind Kale and Evan as we approached the camp, hoping to slip back to the wagon without being seen but I was not to be so lucky.
"Ailiayh Mae Burns, come here immediately".
I cringed as I heard the anger in my Mother's voice. She didn't often get angry but when she did she was like a bee in a jar. I stepped out from behind my brothers and stared down at the ground. My dress and petticoat hung like limp rags around my knees, ripped and streaked with mud.
"It wasn't my fault. I was only paddling. I was sooo hot and the water was so nice and cool and..." I struggled to make my excuses but Mother was in no mood for them. She stood, with her hands on her hips and shook her head angrily.
"Get back to the wagon and out of those wet clothes. Get into your nightclothes and don't move again until tomorrow morning"
I started to plead my case.
"But I haven't had supper..."
One glance at my Mother's face flushed with anger was enough to silence me and, head hung low, I walked slowly back to the wagon and stripped out of my wet clothes. I rubbed myself dry with a rag and slipped into my nightgown.
The sun had fully set now and the temperature had dropped. I thought of the roaring fire that the others were enjoying and reflected on how unfair life could be. Wrapping myself in a blanket, I lay down beside the wagon looking up at the wide expanse of sky and the fast appearing stars. I must have dozed off because I awoke a short while later to find my mother staring down at me. As I sat up she knelt beside me and handed me a mug of hot soup and a couple of dry biscuits. I waited for her reprimand but instead she stroked my hair and smiled.
"I'm sorry if I shouted at you, Ailiayh, but you must learn to be more careful. This is a dangerous place for people who do not take sufficient care - and I could not bear to lose you. I came so close to it yesterday, when I saw you today and realised what might have happened again I was so scared."
She sighed and shook her head slowly, took a deep breath and then looked right into my eyes and smiled.
"Do you promise me you will try to be more careful in future? I need you to promise me this Ailiyah because come winter I am going to have to rely on you a lot more and will need to be able to trust you"
I nodded eagerly and promised to do my best but I was puzzled.
“What’s happening in Winter, Mama?”
"Come Winter you are going to be a big Sister and will need to set a good example"
She paused, watching my face, as her revelation sunk in.
"A big sister? Me? Really?" I jumped to my feet and did a little dance of joy.