Episode 4 of Alsalda
After the disturbance of Demekn’s arrival, head hidden within that of a long-beaked heron, and of the hilarity of Horsemaster Makesen’s brave bites of Old Apsan’s hottest spiced paste, Master Bukarn has asked for his guests’ account of the hindrance along the Waters. Now read on . . .
“We had with us Markon Glania’s horse,” Horsemaster Makesen said, “though during the sea-crossing we had to feed him liberally on herbs known to calm horses. I’m not idly trimming; this of the horse and the herbs is relevant.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Glania jumped in.
Makesen ignored her snarl.
Demekn knew the horse, Swift Dawn. He wasn’t big, not one of the Regiment’s fighting stallions. But he could imagine the beast wasn’t easily transported. The horsemen were probably screaming at each other by the time they reached Jitinnis—two days across the Lenevick Sea (tides, currents and winds allowing). Demekn had made similar journey so knew that Makesen was omitting the worst of it. They must have been relieved to see land, their spirits up-turning as the seamen lowered the sail and took up their oars. Makesen then asked the Hiëmen boatmaster how much farther to His Indwelling and was told four days.
Two days later they came upon the obstruction.
Makesen claimed not to know what it was. Apparently the boatmaster, too, didn’t know—or so Makesen said. Yet Master Bukarn knew it at once from Makesen’s description. “It’s a Kerdolak bridge. Except . . . there is no bridge along the Waters.”
Demekn knew these bridges once had been common in Alisalm-land though he never had seen one. Yet he did know that, with their particular construction, they overcame the usual complaint that a bridge offered hindrance to the passage of boats. The Kerdolak bridge consisted of two opposing jetties with ‘footboards’ that could be slid into place when needed. But those ‘footboards’ limited the width of gap between the two jetties. For the types of boats used by the Kerdolan, Eskin and Alsime this wasn’t a problem. But the Hiëmen boats, intended for sea-travel, were of a wider construction.
The boatmaster had tried to pole his boat through—and had managed to wedge it. It took sweat and graft for the crew to free it. The boatmaster then brought the boat to bank while he consulted the Uestin horsemaster: What now would he have them do? As Makesen had already said, he knew nothing of Jitinnis (other than whatever he’d heard in stories). He needed advice.
The horse, meanwhile, was growing restless so Glania made the obvious suggestion: If they must wait, that he’d be better up on the bank. They all agreed it.
There was a tone to Makesen’s voice; Demekn couldn’t quite place it. Dulled perhaps with regret? If it weren’t for that unwieldy beak, Demekn might have glanced his way. Even so he saw Markiste Nevisan pass the fermented cordial to Makesen so he should have been warned. Long in keeping, that cordial’s spirit was strong. At the first draught Makesen drew back, upsetting the bench and almost tipping Demekn off. Yet the horsemaster took several more swigs before continuing the report.
They had soon discovered that a horse while easily loaded was less easily retrieved. All hands were needed. Then the struggle, their shouted instructions, the horse’s shrill neighing—they’d neither heard nor saw their attackers. They knew nothing till they came to their wits and found themselves bound, belly-down, faces squashed into the mud amid nettles and thistles.
Now Demekn understood why the preamble: They didn’t know the land, didn’t know the people, the horse was a trouble, must be fed upon herbs. The Querkan horsemaster had been set upon and with one blow had been defeated. He couldn’t omit the embarrassing incident for his own kin had been witness.
They had lain in the mud and the thistles, listening as their attackers searched through the boat. Strings were cut, wrappings torn and discarded, contents emptied; everything was turned and moved.
Master Bukarn interrupted. “You heard them, but did you see them? Can you describe them?”
“Chief Bukarn, I must beg your patience. Allow me to finish this first. Then, if you must, you may ask.”
Chief Bukarn? Demekn was glad of the heron’s head to hide his reaction. Chief was not his father’s title, nor were the implied responsibilities his. And since when did a Querkan horsemaster beg anything off him? Something here was not right, and Demekn didn’t like it. It wasn’t just that Glania would kill him if she discovered he was the heron-headed eblan. It was the entire visit. A family matter, they said. But wasn’t King Tanisven family, too?
Meanwhile, Horsemaster Makesen’s report reeled on. Regiment and resourceful, with limber bodies, fire-blades kept at their waist—their attackers foolishly hadn’t taken them—one kin cut through the bonds of the other. But by the time the horsemen had freed each other and then the seaman it was too late to give chase. Besides, what weapons they’d had had been on the boat and that now was drifting downstream. They had only their fire-blades. So first need was to rescue the boat though the boatmaster seemed unconcerned of it. Sooner or later it would fetch up on some weeds, or a branch would catch it. They’d come too far for it to drift back to sea.
Making their way along the riverbank proved not to be easy. Jitinnis wasn’t the Dal to be laid with neat tracks. Moreover, the attack had occurred in what Makesen called ‘wasteland’—the bank was a tangle of rampant briars beyond which were dark and dense trees. Others might expect the seamen to lead, to trample and flatten a way through this unholy place. But these were Saramequai. Regiment. And that wouldn’t do.
They came upon boat within the day (doubtless effected by Murki in answer to the boatmaster’s prayers) and, as the boatmaster had said, it was snagged by a branch. But the river’s current then had swept it and turned it so it now was snuggled close into the far bank.
“The Hiëmen don’t swim,” Makesen said, disbelieving.
“Few seamen do,” Detah said, her voice uninvited yet Mistress Alenta allowed her—perhaps in the hope of belittling the Uestin visitors (look, a child has greater knowledge than you!). “They say,” Detah went on since she was allowed, “Better to be quickly taken by Murki’s Mother than to swim and still not get there. See, the Hiëmen live mostly on the sea—not like us here; we splash about in our rivers.”
Makesen acknowledged Detah with a slight dip of his head—to Demekn’s surprise—before resuming what was, clearly, an apologetic report.
“It was Markon Glania who risked the drowning, diving in as if without care.”
“And why would I care?” she snarled at him in their native tongue. “Swift Dawn gone, and me no more than baggage to be hauled to His Indwelling. I’ve told you, I rather would die.”
“And I have told you, you still have your blade, the choice is yours. But don’t expect Beli to honour the offering. Now seal it.” Makesen turned back to Master Bukarn and to Mistress Alenta. “Apologies. These family matters ought not to intrude. Yet she did lose her horse and she is upset by it. He was precious to her—though, as you know, for the Regiment any tamed horse is worth more than metal. Markon Glania acted with bravery, without self-interest. I shall recommend to King Tanisven that he sends her a replacement horse to set against the loss.”
Demekn wondered which of the horsemaster’s words angered Glania the most—he could see how she fumed, her face a fiercer red than her hair.
“We had the boat back,” Makesen said. “And it seemed nothing was taken except for our weapons. The Ladies Three had been good to us; Saram still smiled. But the day was now spent. We moored the boat, there to discuss and decide what to do.”
Demekn found himself frowning beneath the false head. Makesen was a horsemaster, and while a horsemaster might listen to advice, he then decided and so commanded. He did not discuss. But this horsemaster had failed to post a guard while they’d been busy with the horse. Unguarded, they’d then been attacked. It wasn’t only Glania’s horse taken; they’d lost their Regiment weapons too. And by Makesen’s own words, their attackers had searched the boat. Perhaps they’d taken something other? Now Makesen, horsemaster, was so thoroughly shaken he could no longer decide but only discuss.
They had before them three choices—to Demekn’s mind they had only one. They could return to the barrier, destroy the structure, thence to continue to His Indwelling—that is, if the Hiëmen were willing. Or they could load everything onto their backs and walk it. But Demekn knew, as a choice, that was laughable. Without the Hiëmen to help them they’d not have reached His Indwelling in four, eight, or even twenty days, if at all. And Uestin, they knew nothing of the Alisime law of trespass. One strayed foot and they’d be dead. Besides, no Regiment horseman walked farther than from barracks-house to horse.
“If we still had the horse we would have walked it,” Makesen said as if he knew Demekn’s thoughts. “We could have laden him—”
“We could not!” Glania jumped to her feet, Uestuädik words sparking, her Hiëmen skirt flouncing. “He isn’t a packhorse, he’s a racer. Swift Dawn, Swift, Swift—why his name? And they might have been gone by the time we were free but we ought to have tracked them. It would have been easy; they had my Swift Dawn.”
“And your Swift Dawn is much like his rider,” Makesen replied through closed teeth. “He probably reared at his captors and killed at least one.”
“His rider would have killed more than just one.”
“Enough! We have talked. Now sit. I tire of this. And this while we’re guests? You forget I am horsemaster.”
“You forget I am no longer markon,” Glania retorted.
“While away from the Dal I am your clan father. I say again, sit.”
Glania up-jutted her chin.
Demekn chuckled, though not for the humour. It was just good to see her still brimful with Beli’s hot spirit—as long as he was safely inside the false head. But despite the family drama being played here, he still had a niggling notion that something was not being said.
Glania sat, but with head turned away. Then she slowly turned back. And looked down. Demekn followed her glance—to see Detah’s hand resting on her arm.
May the Ladies bless her. She’d understood the exchange and now was offering comfort—not something expected of Detah. What exactly had Glania said to her when he’d seen them heads together and whispering, earlier. Though it didn’t surprise him that Glania had preferred Detah’s spirited talk to the dreary tones of their sister Drea. Drea had grain-spirit large in her.
“The boatmaster advised us and I agreed,” Makesen resumed his report. “We returned to the sea, to approach His Indwelling from the south. But, we almost were here before he told us he could take us no farther—a hill pass, he said, to negotiate. So here I come begging off you this favour: That you will provide us with your river-walkers. And you have anticipated and already arranged it. Indeed, Chief Bukarn, you are a king amongst men.”
Demekn’s jaws tensed as a shudder swept down his back. Yet Master Bukarn seemed unconcerned by Makesen’s words. “You flatter me. But I cannot promise you the river-walkers. As explained, they are not mine to command.”
“Not yours,” Mistress Alenta agreed. “Yet when have they ever refused you?”
“Because I reward them. And they pride themselves on their knowledge of the riverways and passes. But that pass isn’t as hilly as the Hiëmen reported. It’s nothing compared with—”
“Chadtamen’s Pass?” suggested Makesen.
Demekn winced. There was no denying it, Makesen knew exactly who Master Bukarn was. Knew it, and wanted Master Bukarn to know that he knew. He was right to suspect something amiss in this visit.
But Master Bukarn continued as if nothing untoward had been said, thanking Makesen for the news now brought him. “But though thoroughly given, I do have questions. If you will?”
Makesen nodded. The flask of fermented juice was still in his hand.
“These men who attacked you. Were they Alsime, Eskin, or . . . what?”
“I am strange to Jitinnis,” Makesen said. “The boatmaster thought them neither Alsime nor Eskin. He said their looks were . . . too dark? Though we’re told the Alsime also are dark.”
“Eblan Shunamn here is Alsime,” Master Bukarn said and drew Makesen’s eyes there. Yet Shunamn’s face and hands were barely as brown as a winter acorn.
Makesen shrugged, leaving unanswered whether their attackers were darker. “He said also they were not dressed as Alsime—he saw, while we did not. But how does the Alsime dress?”
“Like me,” Ublamn offered. “Our eblan there, too, though he’s not usual.”
“Tst. Confusing, what everyone wears.” Makesen waved his hand to indicate all—but whether all in the lodge or all in Jitinnis was left unclear. “And in the Dal only the king and the truvidiren wear such gowns to the ground while here I see women—” But his inebriated hicc cut short his words.
“You say your boatmaster said your attackers weren’t Alsime,” Master Bukarn persisted. “So did he say anything else? Anything we might use to identity them?”
Demekn was impressed with Master Bukarn’s patience, even though his frustration was clear. Makesen might have delivered his report but Master Bukarn needed to know more, like exactly who these attackers were.
Makesen again waved his hand, now vaguely in the direction of the women’s benches. “These gowns and same hip-bands—I didn’t see them but as pleasantly worn on your women.”
Demekn frowned. Was the horsemaster slurring his words? Oh, Saram’s sweet lips! He’d over-imbibed of the juice.
“They wore white, too, the moatblaster said—wide gowns, but not for long—” the horsemaster muddled and slurred, “—They slowed naked legs.”
Detah giggled. Drea nudged her to stop.
“Did they speak?” Master Bukarn asked. “Did you hear?”
“They spoke lonely between them, nothing to lust—and no slung I’ve furred.” His hand still was vaguely waving, his words increasingly blurred. It wouldn’t be long before that berry-juice slammed him straight into Nod’s Land.
“Might it have sounded like this?” Master Bukarn asked and in Eskit commanded him to drop his spear and fall to ground.
But Makesen shook his head—which caused him to wobble, his markistes quick to catch him (though they too had sipped more than was wise).
“This, two days short of His Indwelling?” Master Bukarn mused.
“So the Swimmin moatblaster said,” agreed Makesen.
“That would be in the Wilds,” Ublamn said.
“Close by North Rib, where she joins the Waters?” Shunamn broke his silence while breaking wind. “I’ve heard North Rib wells around Eli Emiso.” He made it sound ominous.
“Eli Emiso? Isn’t that deep into Eskin land?” Ublamn asked.
“They weren’t Eskin,” Master Bukarn said.
“But they must be,” Detah objected. “North Rib forms Un Dli’s east bound.”
“So it might, but—”
“Ask Eblan Murdan,” Old Apsan interrupted. “He has the answer.”
“No,” Demekn said, “I’m as puzzled as any.”
Old Apsan laughed. “Not you-Murdan. Eblan Murdan-Murdan.”
Makesen’s hands waved around, now only vaguely attached to his body. “Who’s Bedland Morden? Only I slow nothing about your bedlands.”
“Eblann,” Old Apsan corrected him.
Detah curled over laughing. Mistress Alenta started to say—probably a stern reprimand of Detah’s behaviour.
“Please,” Master Bukarn put in quickly, “perhaps it’s time for a fable-tale—to entertain us and our guests. Aunt Apsan? You’d like to tell us of this Eblan Murdan?”
Demekn, of course, had heard of Murdan—how could he not when Isle Ardy was also called Murdan’s Rings. The Sun’s Cove too, though also known as the Old Isle of the Dead, was also called Murdan’s Stones. But that’s all he knew of his namesake. He’d not dared to ask when Shunamn had said of the name as apt for the head. His eblan-master already abused him for his lack of Alisime understanding. So, at least now he would know.
He set aside for the moment the matter of Glania and why her kinsmen were lugging her ‘as baggage’ to His Indwelling. He didn’t want to think about that. He set aside, too, the questions arising from Makesen’s story. He turned his attention to Mistress Alenta’s aunt, Old Apsan. Another woman full of grain-spirit.