Episode 3 of Alsalda (Don’t miss Episode 4, tomorrow!)
Master Bukarn has invited the Saramequai horsemen to share their evening meal. But Demekn and Markon Glania have history. When last seen, she had threatened to kill him. Bukarn insists he must attend. So it’s down to his eblan-master to find a disguise for him.
Now read on . . .
Demekn squinted but all he could see was indistinct grey. It was the chamber, too dimly lit. Once he joined the others beneath the lamplight then he’d be able to use the provided eye-holes. He sighed. Though he was likely to suffocate, at least he could hear. He’d been listening to Mistress Alenta’s endless instructions.
She’d not have their Uestin guests, these Saramequai horsemen, complain she lacked manners by offering only the usual cushions. Neither would she have them sitting up while the family sat down. No, indeed, she’d have them all sit up on benches. And she’d have them positioned beneath the western arcade, instead of around the cook-hearth as usual. Demekn softly chuckled to himself. Was she also protecting their guests from the ripe smells that wafted from the eblann-chamber? Shunamn’s clothes were stiff and rank, his body perpetually deprived of water, he constantly farted, and his feet stank worse than two-seasons-old cheese.
And now Mistress Alenta was fussing over the seating order. She wished not offend, but neither would she flatter.
“Hush, my mistress,” Master Bukarn tried calming her. “They’ll not fuss of it. Though they’re ranked as Regiment, they also are kin.”
“We too are kin, but I’ll not have one of Aunt Apsan’s boys sit closer to me than do you or Demekn. And this Glania: Is she to sit with us women or—Jaja forbid—with you men?”
“Best she sorts it and soon,” Demekn mumbled, more to himself than to his eblan-master.
“What?” Shunamn shouted. Apparently he’d the notion that since he couldn’t hear Demekn, Demekn wouldn’t hear him. “You’ll have to speak up, wearing that head. It muffles your ‘saids’.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Demekn said.
He heard the door slam, just the far side of the wall. He heard the Regimental tramp echoing along the long narrow passage. Heard Markon Glania say, “Pretty,” of the paintings that she couldn’t possibly see with any great clarity; she’d see them better on the walls beneath the inner arcade. He heard Ublamn announce their arrival.
“We ought to be out there,” he said to Shunamn—though he’d rather not be. “We’ll miss the introductions.”
“Are we eblann? Do eblann wait upon Uestin men?” asked Shunamn, suitably curt. “Are they wise spirits that we do their bidding? No. We eblann arrive when we eblann arrive.”
“Markon Glania,” he heard Master Bukarn’s greeting.
“No longer markon, Chief Granary Master,” she replied.
No longer markon? Demekn’s jaw dropped despite the head’s restrictions. No longer markon, that was what she said. He was suddenly sweating, his head filled with thoughts all chopped and spinning. He heard only vaguely the remaining naming and greeting—though Haldalda’s name and her daughters’ returned his attention. Soon would be the scramble for flatbreads, spice-pastes and small-foods. They ought to be out there; get theirs before all was gone. But she was no longer a markon. What had he said to his father? That a woman markon couldn’t wed. Now her kinsmen were taking her to His Indwelling. They must be wedding her to Trader Imblysin. Demekn groaned.
“Now,” Shunamn said.
Demekn ignored him. He couldn’t believe it: Glania given to an alliance-wedding? No, it could not be true. Though, Sweet Saram’s teeth, he could find no proof against it—except that she’d not brought her horse. She wouldn’t have left him in Dal Uest. Unless . . . was the horse intended to arrive later? After all, this wasn’t yet the sailing season. But to wed Imblysin? I have my heart set on being a markiste, she had said when he’d asked her.
“Demekn,” Shunamn prodded him.
No! He didn’t want to see her. He hadn’t wanted it before he heard this. It wasn’t only that she was sworn to kill him. To see her would open the wound.
“Demekn,” Shunamn said louder, patience lost.
The false head blinded him. No sense of direction, and the floor wasn’t level. Yet Demekn walked—and two steps later he tripped. The cumbersome head hit the wall with a crack.
The mumble of small talk immediately stopped.
“Eblan Shunamn?” Master Bukarn’s voice called.
“We’re fine,” Shunamn called back. “Fully fine. Now coming.”
“You’re leaving it impolitely late.” Master Bukarn’s voice now was close. He must be at the chamber door.
“Young one fell,” Shunamn said.
Demekn tried to stand. The tangle of carelessly strewn clothes and cloths told him he was in Shunamn’s part of the room. He turned to where he thought was the door but his feet were still tangled and, again, he tumbled.
“Hey! Mind that beak!” Shunamn shouted at him.
“For Sauën’s sake—just help him!” Master Bukarn himself wasn’t able for wards guarded the chamber’s door.
Demekn felt Shunamn’s hands grasp his arms to steady him while he again sought his feet. Then he guided Demekn to the hide-hung door.
“You ready?” Shunamn asked in conspiratorial tone. “Time for the bird to make an appearance.”
There was suddenly light! (Shunamn had pulled aside the hanging.) The arcade had never been so bright. Was Mistress Alenta trying to out-shine the Dal king? Lamps hung from every beam, their yellow light turning the intricately carved posts into golden-leafed trees. Behind them, every detail of the painted wall showed more clearly than ever he’d seen them. Though he knew well the red triangles, layered and joining, before this he’d not realised they formed like a fence. Above it undulated a track of red solid circles, but small. The swirls, spirals and ‘V’s of the upper wall he’d thought were meaningless lines. Now he saw them as savage-beaked, massive-eyed birds. But he didn’t know what to make of the red-lined squares strewn amongst those beaks and swirls. Cages? To see this now in such glaring intensity truly was awesome. But what did it mean? The granary-women no doubt had the answer, with their indwelling grain spirit. And also, no doubt, they never would tell him.
His eyes left the painted signs as, with a shock, he realised everyone now was looking at him. There were the grain women, arrayed in their long linen chemmies—like fragile blooms, dyed all floral colours. Uniquely in this land, they left their hair uncovered. Yet how they sat in those tightly bound hip-bands, a-dangle with amulets and beads, he never would know. Beside them, Ublamn’s family and Old Apsan’s sons were like the drab winter earth in their deer-leather shirts, aprons and chaps, their heads buried beneath their Alisime bonnets.
Mistress Alenta gasped. “What in the name of the Mother and Jaja is that!”
Demekn leant-in close to Shunamn. “You have told them, haven’t you?”
“I told little Detah.”
Demekn prayed by Saram, Beli and Sauën, that his sister had spread the word. But where was Glania? Only three present in the Regiment issue white shirt and breeches. Then he saw her—kneeling beside Detah on the rush matting where the foods were displayed. She had stopped midway in piling the small-foods onto her flatbread. She was as obscurely disguised as himself, wearing Hiëmen women’s clothing—and she looked like she was stifling a laugh.
“Hilshin’s Lightning! It’s Eblan Murdan!” Detah exclaimed. He could see she was trying to keep in her giggles: her cheeks twitched wide.
Haldalda looked, nodded, and turned away. Her daughters, like Detah, were close to giggling. Drea’s mouth hung open, eyes wide. Aunt Jaljena looked confused. Only Old Apsan openly chuckled.
Master Bukarn held out a hand as to usher them in. “The missing eblann. Eblan Shunamn and, um . . . Eblan Murdan.”
“You’ve given the names in the wrong order,” Mistress Alenta hissed at him. “And, please, do eat.”
It took only a glance to see the family had already taken their food while the Saramequai appeared to be hesitant. Had anyone thought to warn them? This wasn’t the way it was done in the Dal. Perhaps they were watching the others to see how it was done.
“Stay,” Shunamn said as Demekn went to kneel down. “I’ll get yours.”
He gladly accepted, not wanting to knock noses with Horsemaster Makesen.
Not much of the crisp buds, sweet flowers and crunchy young shoots remained in their baskets. Though, as usual, the women had made too much of their thick sticky spreads; made them variously sweet and variously hot. Demekn watched as Makesen thickly spread his flatbread with Old Apsan’s rich red paste. Then he scarcely sprinkled it with small-foods, though he must have seen the family’s generous helpings. Unused to them, did he scorn them? He soon would regret it. Those small-foods would have countered the paste. Did he know he’d taken the hottest?
Detah had seen. She nudged and whispered to spread the word. By the time Shunamn returned to the men’s bench with a loaded flatbread apiece, all eyes were fixed upon Horsemaster Makesen. That suited Demekn. He wasn’t sure yet how he’d eat with this false head covering (his chin was exposed, but not so his mouth).
“Might I enquire, if not a breach, why the mask?” Makesen asked him. He held up the fire-pasted bread ready to munch.
Shunamn sharp-elbowed Demekn to answer. But Demekn’s mouth was full. He hurriedly chewed and swallowed it down.
“Name,” he answered in Alisime, his voice awkwardly muffled. “Murdan, a water-bird.”
“It isn’t any particular bird,” Detah jumped in though Mistress Alenta tutted at the ill-manners. Detah ignored her and continued. “It’s all the big birds found beside the water—the swan, the heron . . .”
“Hence the cape and the head?” Fiery-spread flatbread still not eaten, Makesen eyed Demekn’s swan-feather cape and heron’s head.
“Being namesake, becoming bird,” Demekn said. To him the Alisime he used was scarcely different from Makesen’s (ill-spoken) Hiëmen. Yet he knew that to the Uestin the difference seemed vast.
“I expect our uathren would understand it,” Markiste Nevisan said.
Glania leant in close to Detah. What were they saying? Please, he sent a frantic prayer to Sauën (she’d understand, every night enfolded in Beli’s hot arms), don’t let my sister mention a brother. It wasn’t that he feared she’d forget the instructions and mention his name. More that she’d simply say of a brother, then Glania might start asking questions. Not that Glania knew of his Alisime family. She’d known him only as assistant lore-man to Chief Krinik. But if Glania then asked after this brother: Say, where is he? What’s his name, can you tell?
Detah and Glania were staring at him. Drea and Aunt Jaljena as well. He could feel the sweat running; it was beginning to trickle into his beard. Might he excuse himself? He desperately needed to pee. Haldalda and her daughters, Old Apsan and her sons, seemed they all were looking intently at him. But no, he realised, he wasn’t their interest. It was Horsemaster Makesen. He had taken that bite.
Glania grinned. Detah popped a laugh, a hand slapped on it. To either side of her more hands covered more impolite grins. Demekn wanted to see but couldn’t without turning his head and he’d not risk it. His long heron’s beak was sure to prod into Makesen’s face.
Markiste Nevisan offered Makesen the flask of fermented fruit juice. But it was early for that to be passed around and Makesen wisely refused it.
Those flatbreads weren’t small. At least five mouthfuls even for Ublamn. Makesen took only three—by which time his face had turned to sea-beet red and developed like an oily sheen.
The markistes cheered in a show of approval. The Alsime were less restrained: Haldalda and her daughters rattled their leather Alisime aprons; Old Apsan’s sons, being lusty, hooted; Old Apsan herself, with Aunt Jaljena and Mistress Alenta, clapped their hands resoundingly—and Detah and Glania, being the least restrained, burst into laughter as they fell into each other. Even Makesen chuckled. He took a bow.
Only three didn’t laugh: Shunamn who, as Demekn knew, held his silence as insult to the Uestin guests; Master Bukarn—who was anxious of their news; and Demekn. At that moment Demekn wanted only to exchange places with Detah; to again have flesh touching flesh with Glania. He’d give his life for that right now.
Demekn watched Haldalda’s daughters remove the empty pots of honeyed fruits. He’d been unable to eat them, appetite lost. Safe within the false head, he had spent the meal in watching Glania. He watched her still as she rinsed her hands and dried them. He watched her, hardly aware of Haldalda gathering the cloths, and her daughters returning for the bowls of water. But Demekn’s attention snapped-to when Master Bukarn stood.
Bukarn coughed for attention. “Now we have eaten, our guests have promised us a story.”
“A story, no,” Makesen denied. “I have said, I am no poet, no uathir or truvidir. I am of the King’s Regiment. This will be no more than a markon’s report.”
“Horsemaster Makesen,” Master Bukarn said, “we do not ask that you entertain us. But we are granary, and the granaries exist by offering trade. We need your news, and we need it as more than the skeletal form of the usual markon’s report.”
What Makesen offered began with excuses. They were Regiment, from the Dal; the Dal had no sea-coasts, they had no sea-boats. Neither were they Ulvregan to know the lands and their folks. They were reliant upon the Hiëmen boatmaster. “We didn’t even know what gifts to placate their sea-deity Murki.”
Inside the false head, Demekn sneered. Murki wasn’t a sea-deity. Murki was the water’s spirit no matter where found. To the Hiëmen the sea was Murki’s Mother; to the Alsime the sea was Mistress Nod. Yet they were the same: the sea her body, mastered by Nod. So all the gifts made must be made to him, to Nod. And it required a seaman’s knowledge to know when to give.
Demekn knew why these excuses, claiming reliance on the Hiëmen for advice and information. It was because something had happened along the Waters, something more than Master Bukarn’s guessed at hindrance. And the Querkan horsemaster didn’t want to admit his error to these Alsime-Granary-Eblann—these ‘lesser than tree folk’.
Demekn, hidden within the head, tapped his feet with growing impatience.