If like myself you’re a time traveller, or timewalker as we tend to call ourselves, then you’ll know already the most important pieces of wisdom on the subject: wear comfortable shoes and socks, and clutch a roll of loopaper hard when you feel the pull. You’ve no idea how many times don’t contain these three important things.
Of course that’s when you’re pulled by magic, invocation or something of that nature, and get to wear the clothes you had on and take the objects you are holding. If technology brings you, then the chances are you’ll stumble into the Arrival Time naked and covered in some sciency kind of goo. You know the sort of thing. This can be embarassing when they’re expecting a muscular hero; but unfortunately, people usually get what they’ve specified, regardless of looks, and from time to time that’s me--forty, fat and female, and quite cheerful about it.
Sadly, the people doing the calling had no problems calling me strongly enough. If only! No, they had no problems, and it wasn’t so much a timewalk as a few seconds of mad sprinting into what turned out to be, um, somethingth century Russia. I never found out the exact date--well if it’s the pre-newspaper era then how does one tell? – but it was in the time of the Tsars, as I found out later, and it was Spring. Melting snow, birds hopefully tweeting, little flowers, all that. Very pretty, and so were the people. Bright long skirts, headscarves, all hand made of course, as was the ‘peasant’ furniture of beautifully carved wood, probably priceless in my hometime. We were at an inn in a small village square.
I began as I usually do, ‘Hi there, I’m the Timewalker. What year is it please, where am I, and what do you want me to do?’
At which point they all began speaking in what sounded like Russian, and I understood nothing. Then a teenage girl stepped forward.
I say teenage; somehow the concept of the teenager doesn’t fit various types of young person. To me, she was a sharp young woman. To her father, she was probably his lovely clever little girl. She had dark hair and black, bird-quick eyes; she looked strong rather than shapely and had a decided look about the mouth, which I liked. She gazed at me without fear or awe but with great curiosity, which I also liked.
"Good day," she said in gorgeously accented English, "I am the only one to speak English in this village. You are in Russia. I am known as the Clever Little Girl."
"Pleased to meet you," I said cheerfully, and sat down on one of the wooden chairs.
The villagers showed great sense by providing the pair of us with food (dark, flavoursome bread, pickles, fresh vegetables; a divine salad; and some meat which I refused. I'm trying to cut down my red meat consumption) and drink – sweet tea or beer. I had both.
"This is nice," I remarked. "So, what do you want of me?"
"We would like you to solve a riddle," answered the Clever Little Girl.
"Um, I’m not great at riddles," I said uncertainly, never having been asked to do this before and having little experience of riddles outside the pages of Tolkien.
"That doesn’t matter," said the CLG with a dismissive wave of her hand and a pout. "The riddle is easy, and you have plenty of time to solve it."
"If it’s easy, why don’t you solve it yourself?" I asked, reasonably enough, I thought.
The CLG explained.
"The Tsar has set the riddle. He was told by a magician that he must marry the one who can solve the riddle. I have no wish to marry him, or anyone for that matter. I wish to be educated, and to travel, before choosing a husband, if I do so at all. And he certainly won’t be a great lout who plays god and rules with a rod of iron! To which end, if no one solves the riddle, our charming Tsar will start burning villages and making war and so on, as this fool magician has told him that his happiness and reign are dependent on getting it solved. So someone must solve it – but no one has. Except me--and I won’t do it!"
"I see," I said, and thought for a bit.
"I don’t want to marry the Tsar either," I said firmly.
"I’ve thought of that," said the CLG. ‘You can just go through with the ceremony, and then we can send you back to your time and place."
"As long as you do..."
"I give my word."
Famous last words. I sighed, and decided to trust her.
"OK, as long as you promise no honeymoon on the sly. And if you don't come through, I can always tell the Tsar the secret--that you solved the riddle first, not me. What is the riddle?"
"You have to turn up at the palace neither mounted nor on foot, neither eating nor fasting, neither clothed nor naked, neither alone nor attended, and neither speaking not silent."
"Oh for gooodness’ sake. How childish."
"Magicians are like that," sighed the girl.
"So I have to express a load of contradictions. Oh I HATE this."
"But you will do it?"
"If I can," I said rather feebly.
"I have thought of that too," smiled the horribly efficient CLG. "You are from the future, are you not? So you must have many books, many documents, and the accumulated knowledge of centuries."
"And the accumulated stupidity, but yes, go on," I said. "I don’t suppose you’ll just tell me the answer?"
"I can’t do that or the Tsar might hear of it and demand to marry me. No, you must do it. We’ll send you back to your time, you can find the answer, and then we’ll pull you back."
"That’s not been done before that I know of," I said thoughtfully. "You can really send me back and forth like that?"
"We are a very strong people," said that determined mouth, "Especially me."
"I’m beginning to see that," I muttered.
"So we’ll send you home now. You’ll have about a day to find the answer, and another to prepare it. Then we’ll pull you back, just outside the Palace."
"Terrific," I sulked. "I’m so glad. May I take one of these chairs with me?"
Only a few seconds. Well, hundreds of years, but it felt like a few seconds as I stumbled rather than walked through time, clutching my soon-to-be-antique chair tightly. They were good at this.
Usually when I get home after a timewalk I’m happy and relaxed. I breathe a sigh of relief that I’m home and that the event, whatever it was, is closed. Naturally it was different this time. I checked the clock, thought about the riddle, and began to panic. Then I ate the contents of my fridge and went to bed. Well, you can’t solve riddles tired, anxious and on an empty stomach.
The next morning I began my research. Do you remember research? One sometimes sees it in old films. Information is needed, so one invites a professor to tea. After three hours of buns and banalities, one is given the facts one had hoped for. Or one has to search for hours or days, accompanied by creepy music in a dusty, dirty library of rare and ancient volumes. My research was rather different. That sounds quite impressive; what I actually mean, of course, is that I turned my computer on, and typed ‘riddles’ into a search engine.
What am I? I am the size of a castle but lighter than air, and a thousand men and their horses can't move me.
I decided to try to solve this, as it might help my mind get into the right groove to solve my riddle. Hmm. So it’s something big, but light. A cloud? Why a thousand men? Is the number significant? What have the horses got to do with it? What can’t horses move? An opinion?
Ten furious minutes later, I checked the answer.
I am the shadow of the castle.
Now come on. If the thousand men and their horses destroyed the castle, then the shadow would be destroyed too. In fact a cloud passing over the sun can destroy it, as can the coming of night. And light? How is a shadow light or heavy? Can shadows be weighed?
I simmered down and tried another.
How many letters are there in the alphabet?
Depends which alphabet, doesn’t it? What a ridiculous question to ask unless a context is given.
There are 11 letters in ‘the alphabet’!
Well if you had punctuated it correctly the first time, I could have answered the question correctly. Punctuating poorly to cause ambiguity isn’t riddling, it’s just annoying. Or is that allowed in Riddledom?
And so on through various circles of riddle hell. I found the answer in the end by checking a mixture of Russian history and some fairytales. I remembered the CLG’s words: "You have to turn up at the palace neither mounted nor on foot, neither eating nor fasting, neither clothed nor naked, neither alone nor attended, and neither speaking not silent."
--and I looked up various bits of that until I found it.
Originally it was a Norse fairy tale, apparently, which found its way across Europe in various forms before reaching Russia. The heroine rode on a goat with one foot trailing on the ground, she sang, nibbling an onion, wearing a fishing net, with a bird on her shoulder. The magician had obviously heard the story and decided it was a good one to tease his patron with--when the villages failed, the ‘magician’ could explain the solution and look really clever.
Which was all fine and dandy, but I had hardly any time yet in which to procure these things. Fishing nets in a landlocked city? And who does same-day-delivery of goats? Not even online shops could oblige.
A few hours later I was ready and waiting for the pull. As I felt it I braced myself and clutched all the necessary items to me; and then came the fast steps through time, and there I was, outside what looked like a new palace near some marshland. A richly-dressed bloke stood there with sundry attendants. He saw me, and began to cross himself while uttering what looked and sounded like desperate prayers. The attendants’ mouths dropped open and they too began to pray. A little extreme, I thought, but then I suppose that they hadn’t seen a spectacle quite like the one I presented, before. Imagine it:
I was wearing a PVC peephole bra and matching crotchless knickers (which had been very hard to find in a large enough size), pushing myself along on a little scooter, with a robot dog beside me, while I sipped a diet shake and gargled noisily with it.
I thought that was pretty good. The assembled villagers did too after the initial shock, and applauded me loudly, the CLG laughing to herself.
"Come on," I said to the Tsar. "Let’s get married then."
It is to his eternal credit that he did not faint.
The CLG came with us and did all the translation, thankfully. It was all taken care of. The Tsar, who had gibbered somewhat and expressed some distaste for the union, got a stiff talking-to from the CLG.
"Now listen," she said. "You started all this nonsense by listening to that idiot magician. And if you don’t marry her, then every time something bad happens you’ll blame it on not fulfilling your side of the bargain. But don’t worry, she’s as reluctant as you are. Just go through with the ceremony, then pretend that she’s gone to a nunnery or something, and we’ll send her back to her, er, village. You’ll have fulfilled the terms of the riddle, and I suggest that after this you send away that magician. You’ll have enough problems as Tsar without this sort of nonsense."
After that it was all utterly gorgeous. I got to wear a fabulous dress (all hand-done embroidery with little brilliants and lots of floaty skirt), and jewellery that was probably real (I had hoped to take some back to my hometime, but sadly I had to give it all back after the ceremony) and walk up the aisle of a posh church and say things in Russian that the CLG, my bridesmaid, whispered to me. It was great, like being in a movie. She and I smiled at each other. I kept her secret about solving the riddle, and she kept mine about being from the future. It seemed fair.
After the ceremony and an enormous meal, some maids came and took all the finery away and dressed me in a petticoat thingy, all giggling away like nutters. I think they were preparing me to lose my virginity, in which case they were in one sense hundreds of years too early, and in another sense very, very late. Just as I was starting to curse the CLG and her promise to return me, I timewalked and fell straight into my own time.
Ah, the relief. Ah, the joy. I had done the Task and was alive. And what had I gained? Well, I’d had a fantastic wedding day without having to put up with a husband afterwards. I'd saved the CLG from marriage with a fool--he had decided to build a city on a swamp, apparently. There was also the carved chair, which I had sent to an antique-dealing friend for appraisal. The following day I received this note from him:
‘Various factors, such as the condition of the wood and the wear of the edges, lead me to believe that it was made very recently. It is a likeable enough peasant chair, but worthless as it is so new.’
--which is the other thing I meant to tell you. Stick to jewellery and ceramics when bringing back souvenirs--they’re the only sure things. The rest of the antiques market is a riddle.
About Cathy Bryant
Cathy Bryant was convinced that her writing was no good, until her best friend blackmailed her into submitting some to magazines. She only sent them to prove to him that no one would want them, only to find that two were accepted! There's been no looking back, and Cathy won the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize for the (intentionally!) worst opening line of a novel, and is a former blogger for the Huffington Post. Her stories and poems have been published all over the world in such publications as Storm Cellar, Third Wednesday and Popshot, and she performs her poetry in her home town of Manchester, England, and all over the country. As well as winning the Bulwer-Lytton, in 2012 Cathy won the Sampad 'Inspired by Tagore' Contest, the Malahat Review Monostich Contest and the Swanezine Poetry Contest. She co-edits the annual anthology 'Best of Manchester Poets' and her collection, 'Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature' was published recently. Contact Cathy at email@example.com , or you can see more of her work at http://cathybryant.co.uk/publications.html