Wall or Hearth
By Melanie Harding-Shaw
In Olwyn’s father’s father’s time, their clan had 257 bricks. A horse and ten bricks for each clan member, seven for the rider of little piebald Manuka. Any more and they would not have been able to travel. Any less and, well, that’s how they ended up where they are now.
Olwyn’s grandfather had always told her tales from before the Losing. He spoke in a bitter whisper huddled together in the cold away from the rest of the Arken clan. On the day he died, she was the only one who stayed by his death bed listening to his strangled words as his breath rattled in his lungs. One last desperate retelling of their history to the only one who would listen.
“In the golden days, the Arken clan followed the same routes as all the clans. The clans never travelled together, but if they found themselves sharing a campsite for the night they would build their hearths at opposing ends. They screened their actions from view, each careful not to give away the secret of their hearth’s construction. Bricks were carefully stacked and staggered just so, each member taking their turn to add the pieces of their inheritance to construct the whole. A choreographed dance that crescendoed in urgency as they raced against the oncoming night.
When the last sliver of sun passed below the horizon, the longhaus grew from the hearths. A sound like a rockfall avalanche ricocheted around the clearing and the scents of long-lost clay-beds filled the air. The gathered clans watched as the hearth bricks unfolded and spread, multiplying until two beautiful and unique longhaus stood complete. Walls, floor and roof were all made of brick. As the grinding noise fell to silence, they would hear the whoosh of flame spring to life in the hearth to drive back the bitter cold.
The doors of the two buildings faced each other across a common space where the clans would cook together. They would sit long into the night, extolling the beauty and function of their longhaus, which was surely the best in all the clans. The pattern of bricks that made up the walls told each clan’s history. Each section a different story that was repeated night after night to carry down the generations. Occasionally, fights would break out at some perceived slight. Young and old alike were protective of their home’s reputation. The Arken clan was always in the thick of those fights. We were proudest of them all.
That was how it was before the nightriders came anyway. No-one knew where they came from, but once they appeared no-one sat under the stars anymore. When the clans came together, the longhaus were built so close they almost touched and the brave would cross between in a single jump, slipping through a door that was slammed shut behind them lest the riders appear. And then came the Losing and the Arkens in our pride lost even that contact with the other clans. We lost our family the day we abandoned the roads of our ancestors.”
Her grandfather lapsed into silence, eyes closing, chest heaving with effort. The puffs of steam from his exhalations into the cold air shrinking smaller and smaller.
“I will remember, Grandfather. I promise,” Olwyn whispered.
The corner of his mouth twitched upwards. It was the last movement of his body. The clan mourned his loss, but their grief was mixed with relief that his stories died with him. Olwyn stood by their bricks that night and pressed her face to their rough surface, trying to imagine them sweeping above her. Trying to imagine what it felt like to be truly warm.
When she was much younger, Olwyn had asked her father if she could go see one of the legendary longhaus. Her father had knocked her to the ground in rage.
“We will never seek them out! What have they ever done for us? They would scorn you!”
The stories the Arken clan told their children now were all of the Losing. Repeated over and over till the words were etched in their collective memory like a weeping scar.
On a dark and stormy day, we travelled up the valley of Iagos heading for higher ground and shelter. Night was sneaking closer under cover of the clouds and we could almost hear the night-riders’ howls approaching. So busy were we listening for that chilling sound, that the crack and rumble up ahead went unnoticed. The waters when they came were fuming; a sweeping torrent of loss. Too late, we turned the horses up the slopes. Too late, we searched for anchors that could hold against the surge.
When our feet finally returned to solid ground, we found 26 were now 20, and 257 were now 200. Even then, we struggled on and built the hearth as best we could with so few. But when night fell, we knew our longhaus was no more. Holes gaped in walls and floor. Missing lives and bricks leaving spaces too large to patch. The screams of the night-riders whistled all around. Strange lights flickered through the gaps, glimpses of green and purple shades drifting on unseen currents beyond our broken walls.
What is a clan without a longhaus heart? We were but homeless objects of ridicule and pity. So, we did the only thing we could. We survived. Bricks that had once soared in columns, sweeping archways, and rooms were placed in a simple circle on the ground. A border wall, high and brutal, to hold the night-riders at bay and warn anyone else to leave us be. We travelled roads we’d never crossed before, traded our pride for canvas tents from the not-clans who smirked to see us brought so low. Who cares what the not-clans think, so long as we never see our shame rejected in our families’ eyes? We are Arken. We survive.
Olwyn had never seen another clan. She wasn’t sure her father had either. Her not-clan mother pursed her lips when he started talking about family shame. It only got worse without his father there to frown in disapproval. One day, her mother went to the market for eggs and never returned.
“She was not-clan. Another shame to be endured. We don’t need her,” her father said.
Olwyn wondered what that made her. Only half clan and not likely to inherit a single brick. That night was quiet. No howling night-riders and no wind, just Olwyn lying in her tent listening to her own pulse rushing in her ears. She left her bedroll and walked to the wall. She could swear she felt it shift beneath her fingers, pushing outwards.
She reached up and felt it shift again, hand and footholds forming as she pushed her body up the brick. The wall was helping her, or maybe it wanted the half-not-clan girl gone. Either way, she found herself standing on the outside of the wall at night for the first time in her life. Moonlight lit the crossroads before her.
She stood long enough for the stars to shift across the sky above her. They had been traversing the East/West roads as always. She wondered which way her mother had travelled. She wondered why she hadn’t asked her to come with her, but deep down she knew. She wasn’t clan enough for her father and she was too clan for a mother who’d lived a life of scorn. If she was going to live a life alone, she at least wanted to see a real longhaus from her Grandfather’s stories. Olwyn turned to the North and started walking.
It took only three full days of walking before she reached a clan. Three sleepless nights huddled against the trunks of trees feeling the night wind brush against her skin like it never did inside the wall and wondering when the night-riders would find her.
She heard the noise of singing first, carrying through the trees until it was broken by laughter. She stopped in the road, bravery deserting her for reality. Then she edged into the undergrowth and crept forward, crouching low. The shadows were already stretching long; the light turning green as the setting sun leeched the colours from the forest.
The next sound she heard was the familiar avalanche sound of bricks assembling. She crept further forward beneath the cover of the noise, shifting the leaves away to catch a glimpse. She sank to the ground in shock. She could never have imagined such complexity or beauty. Ochre red and burnt orange bricks twisting around each other to form sweeping walls and turrets that almost drifted above the longhaus. There must be 100 clans-people housed there. She’d never heard of a clan so large.
“Are you stopping for the night?” a voice called from behind her.
Olwyn jumped and spun around. A young woman stood on the road, a brace of rabbits in her hand and her head tilted to the side.
“Come join us. Our hearths are always open,” she said with a smile.
Olwyn stared. Hearths? How many clans were here? And why would they invite a stranger in? Arken had always kept the wall between them and all else. Olwyn could hear her father’s voice in her mind. What have they ever done for you? They will scorn you.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I’m Anwyn. You’re not from around here, are you?” she asked as she led Olwyn to the longhaus.
Olwyn shook her head.
“We are the clans. Sometimes we are two or four or five. Today we are three. We welcome all travellers.” She waved greetings to the people they passed as she led her inside the longhaus.
A woman placed a bowl of stew before her and more people came in as the last of the light faded. Three hearths framed the spacious hall. Olwyn’s gaze kept slipping back to the open door. The world outside was black now and the gentle breeze brushing her hair could just as easily carry a night-rider to her. When would they close the doors?
A woman sat down by the hearth behind her and tuned a lyre in her lap. Anwyn whispered that her name was Dyana, an elder of one of the clans gathered here. The lyre’s notes slipped out across the hall, leaving attentive silence in their wake. Dyana’s voice was soft but somehow carried right across the long space to resonate against the warm brick walls.
“This is a story of loss and of beginnings. On a dark and stormy day, we camped early on the Darfall Plains. The wind was howling almost as loudly as the night-riders we knew must surely be approaching. The tornadoes when they came were chaos, a swirling maelstrom of devastation. Too late, we clung to bricks pulled free. Too late, we ran from the cold wind’s grasping power.
When our feet were safely grounded once more, we found that 40 were now 33, and 365 were 280. Even then, we struggled on and built our hearth as best we could with so few. But when night fell, we knew our longhaus was no more. Holes gaped in walls and floor. Missing lives and bricks leaving spaces too large to patch.”
Olwyn’s eyes grew so wide, her breathing fast and shallow. She knew this story. Was it the same day? The woman’s voice carried on, oblivious to her distress.
“So, we called on our family and to our sadness found, that the storm had ravaged every clan for fifty miles or more around. And as we cowered down together in our broken longhaus rooms. We watched in terror as the screeching lights of the night-riders drew near. But, terror turned to awe when they slipped inside. Their screams of pain from shredding currents tearing them apart outside grew quiet. Surrounded by cold hearths and grimly silent clans, they bathed our homes in auroral light and showed us there can be beauty in change, discovery amidst disaster, and friendship in the most unlikely places.”
Dyana had been strumming the lyre throughout the story, the melody lulling Olwyn’s mind into a trance. At first, she didn’t notice the coloured lights drifting down from the longhaus’ lofty turrets. Blue, purple and green threads twisting through the lyre’s strings to flow out across the crowd. She held a finger out to touch an ethereal coloured strand. Could this friendly light really be the monster from the other side of the wall?
“When day returned and the broken longhaus folded back to leave us staring at the sky, the riders’ lights were lost to the sun’s glare. But as we took our hearth bricks down one by one, we felt the riders’ power pensive in the air. And when the clans together built their broken hearths that night, their power guided our hands to build anew. One clan’s decimated bricks alone could not hope to build a longhaus, but together we built a home more grand and beautiful than any of our histories could recall. We are family. And together we will thrive.”
Tears flowed down Olwyn’s cheeks as the story ended and the music drifted on. She thought of generations of her family taught their lives were shame. She thought of the wasted potential of bricks spent walling her clan away from the world. She thought of monsters screaming for help in the night that were not monsters at all. It was too much. She stumbled to her feet and ran out into the night, ignoring the voices of her hosts calling after him.
It was Anwyn who found her, huddled in the dark staring up at the vast space of glinting stars above her.
“Who are you really, Olwyn?” she asked
“I am Arken.”
Anwyn gasped and sat in silence for a long moment. “We thought your clan was lost in the storm. If you are Arken, then you are home,” she said at last.
She put an arm around Olwyn’s shoulders and led her back to the longhaus.
When Olwyn told her story to the clans, they winced in pain.
“If we could go back and find your forebears to explain we would. The clans were different then. We’ve grown so much. I will come with you to your people. We will bring them home,” Dyana said.
Olwyn could only nod. She knew Arken had not grown at all. The wall that kept the world’s night at bay had held her people frozen at their lowest point for generations. Their grandparents’ shame passed down as an inheritance to be nurtured and treasured.
The journey back to Arken’s camp took a week. They had moved on away from Olwyn and her not-clan mother’s betrayal. All along the way Dyana marvelled at the road she’d never travelled and the sights she’d never seen. Despite their growth and change, the clans’ migration was always North to South and back again.
As they sat at their campfire on the seventh night and listened to the night-riders scream. Olwyn saw her frown and rub her reddened eyes.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
Dyana sighed and leaned her head back on the tree she was resting against. “I have never heard the nightriders in pain. On our routes, they know to shelter with the clans and they are safe. I wonder if it may be time for our people to venture off our ancestral paths. It is not fair to leave them suffering when we could keep them safe.”
They reached the Arwen camp on the eighth day when the sun had passed its zenith and the afternoon’s heat had settled on the land. Olwyn’s clan had set their tents up early for the shade. Their bricks were still stacked neatly in the centre of the camp. They would be set up right before dusk so no passing traveller could steal one away.
Olwyn’s father came out to greet the two travellers.
“Father, I’m back,” Olwyn said because she did not know what else to say and her father was staring at her with the same old shame in his eyes. Or maybe it was a new shame, she thought.
“I see that,” her father said. He was staring at Dyana.
“This is Dyana Verdena,” Olwyn said.
Her father’s eyes widened in horror as he heard Dyana’s clan name. He grabbed Olwyn’s arm and tried to pull her back into the forest away from the camp. More of the Arken clan emerged from the tents, drawn by the voices.
“Who is with your daughter, Arther?” The question boomed from a tall man with a beard so sparse it bordered on ridiculous. He was Rhean, the Arken clan head.
“I am Dyana Verdena. Greetings from my hearth to yours,” Dyana said, reaching out to shake his hand.
Rhean did not reach back. His words were clipped and terse. “The Arken clan have no hearth.”
Dyana stared at the man, taking his measure. “May I tell you a story?”
“We have no need of your stories and even less need of your pity,” Rhean said.
“But Rhean, you should see their longhaus. It is beautiful. The clans all work together now. They all lost bricks in the storm, not just us. We could have a home again!” Olwyn cried.
“Like I said, we don’t need their pity.”
“If you don’t want to re-join the clans, I could at least show you how we rebuilt our longhaus,” Dyana offered.
Rhean let out a grim laugh and turned to Olwyn’s father.
“What do you think Arther? Shall we let the clan-woman teach us to build?”
“She would probably steal our bricks and turn the not-clan folk against us,” Olwyn’s father said. His nose had wrinkled like he smelled something bad.
“You can’t trust outsiders!” someone else called from the audience gathered around them.
“Father! I’m telling you – the clans are our family, they just want to help. We could build a home instead of a wall. The night-riders are the key to everything,” Olwyn pleaded.
“The night-riders? This is what you get for breeding with a not-clan woman, Arther,” Rhean scoffed.
Olwyn’s father’s face burned red with shame.
“Get out and don’t come back,” he said through gritted teeth. Then he strode away to help place the bricks around the camp without another word.
Rhean bared his teeth and cracked his knuckles, glaring at the woman who had dared to visit him.
“We will be here to help when you are ready,” Dyana said.
“We would die before that day,” Rhean growled.
Dyana turned and led Olwyn away. When the camp was almost out of sight they heard the distant rumble of the bricks activating in the dying light. They looked back and watched the wall stretch upwards, hiding the tents from view.
“Don’t they realise they aren’t keeping the world out, they’re just caging themselves in an echo chamber of the past? Why don’t they care? Why don’t they want more?” Olwyn said.
“Fear is powerful. They’re so scared of losing what they have that they can’t see how much they could gain. All you can do is plant seeds of kindness and hope they grow,” Dyana said.
She reached into her pack and took out three bricks, each a different colour. Olwyn’s mouth dropped open in surprise.
“Whose are they?” she asked.
“Each of the clans at the camp gifted a brick for our lost family. We can still build our longhaus without them. I think they will be enough to give your clan a roof. They are more powerful when mixed together.”
“They are not my clan anymore,” Olwyn said through tears.
Dyana hugged her shoulders. “You are still family though.”
The woman walked back towards the wall in the fading light and Olwyn followed. She placed the three bricks near the Western-most edge where the last of the sun’s rays still reached and Olwyn watched in awe as the bricks from the wall reached out to drink them in as if they were water and the wall were parched. They could hear the grinding sound of shifting bricks on the other side and then cries of fear.
The two women sat leaning back against the warmth of the wall and looked up at the first of the stars forming in the night sky. The sounds of agitation slowly disappeared and then Olwyn heard a child’s voice say – “Mama, I’m warm! The hearth is making me warm!”
Olwyn and Dyana smiled at each other in the darkness.
The next morning the women woke to the sound of the wall collapsing back down. The three different coloured bricks lay on the ground nearby. As they stood stretching their muscles, Rhean approached them. The rest of the clan stood well away.
“Are you rubbing our noses in our loss? Showing us a hearth so you can steal it away again?” he spat.
Dyana watched him calmly. “No. We are gifting you the bricks you need to build anew. If you listen to the nightriders they will guide your hands to make a longhaus that will shelter you all. Or you are welcome to come find your sister clans and we can rebuild together.”
“We don’t need your charity! Get out!” he cried.
Dyana sighed. “If you change your mind. Our hearths are always open.” She said it loud enough to carry to the furthest listening ear.
Dyana wrapped a hand around Olwyn’s shoulder and led her away again. This time they didn’t stop when they lost sight of the Arken camp.
“Can I come back to your home with you? Even though I’m only half clan?” Olwyn’s voice cracked on the last word.
“Of course. We are family. Together we thrive. The seeds are planted. One day, your clan will come back to us.”
About the Author:
Melanie Harding-Shaw is a speculative fiction writer from Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her work has been widely published, including in Strange Horizons, Analog, Year’s Best British Fantasy, and Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy. She won Best Short Story in the 2022 Sir Julius Vogel Awards.
Her debut urban fantasy novel City of Souls won agent’s choice in the RWNZ Great Beginnings Contest and is available for pre-order now.