Episode 5 of Alsalda (Don’t miss Episode 6 tomorrow)
Ambushed while trying to negotiate the blockage along the Waters, their Hiëmen boat searched, their Uestin weapons (and Glania’s horse) taken, the Saramequai are ignorant as to the attackers. Yet according to Old Apsan, the legendary Eblan Murdan has the answer. Now read on . . .
The bench beneath Demekn rocked as Eblan Shunamn leapt to his feet. “Crows, kites and worms! To ask Old Apsan for an eblan’s tale, no! Eblann to eblann and grain to the granary. I shall tell this tale.” The bench shook again as he sat.
“I would agree,” Master Bukarn said “—but that our guests don’t know your Alisime tongue.”
“You’d agree?” Mistress Alenta sounded aghast. “And as to your guests, they seem unused to our berry-juice.”
Horsemaster Makesen was so unused it he had blinked himself into sleep. Now he snored, his chin on his chest. The markistes fared little better, leant back to back, askew on the bench. It seemed of the Saramequai only Glania now was to hear the story.
Demekn felt his breath drawn painfully from him . . . just to see her . . . But he wanted to curse her. Come here, disturbing him—and that after he’d accepted that he’d never again see her, see the flame of her hair, her delicate face, never again see her lips parting as if to be kissed. And why was she wearing those Hiëmen clothes? Clearly not hers. The shirt was too big: it opened too low. Same with the white shift beneath it: it’s neck wasn’t nearly high enough. It was breathtakingly upsetting. He couldn’t turn his eyes from it. And that skirt: Ulvregan-styled, yes, with pleats gathered and cinched at the waist, but of only one colour? (And its colour—the deep green of summer—did captivating things to her hair.) But that skirt should have been longer—and she oughtn’t to have worn those Dal women’s breeches: they clung upsettingly close to her shapely legs.
“Are you listening?” his eblan-master Shunamn elbowed his ribs.
Aye, he was listening.
“Twice-born Eblan Hegrea, thrice trebly-inspired, was taken by Eblan Burnisen to be his apprentice. He being Bisaplan’s kin, of course Bisaplan granted Hegrea the land when she said she had need. Thus here she sited her fifth inspired-creation, the first Alisime granary.”
“And how long ago was this?” Glania asked.
Shunamn seemed surprised by her interest. “Our, um, our eblan-stories say three hundred seasons since.”
“Eighty granary mistresses since,” Old Apsan sniped her correction.
“We might ask Detah, here, the years,” Mistress Alenta said with blatant sarcasm. “She’s the one knows all our stories, always eager to learn more of the granary-craft. How many seasons has our granary?—I know you’ll know the answer. Tell it to our eblan, there.”
Despite Mistress Alenta’s vicious intent, Detah seemed happy to answer. “I’ve heard stories tell that Eblan Hegrea was born one thousand winters-since. But by our granary calculations it’s five hundred winters more.”
Mistress Alenta drew back, eyes shot wide. Yet, as Demekn noticed, she quickly recovered. “Hear that, Eblan? The least of us knows it.”
“You’re saying this . . . Isle Ardy? . . . is one thousand five hundred winters old?” Glania asked in awe. But she, too, was fast to recover. “Yet that is nothing when set against our Uissids’ thrice two thousand summers-grown.”
Demekn had heard that said of the Uissids—and still they strutted as if they were still young.
“Cloud Stone Isle at His Indwelling is older.” Shunamn surprised Demekn by speaking to Glania, a hated Uestin. “It’s at the exact place of First Creation—where Father Jaja first entered our Mother.”
“He says he’ll tell us the story of Murdan,” Old Apsan jeered. “What’s First Creation to do with it?”
“Had the Father not stuck it into the Mother there’d have been no Murdan to speak of,” Shunamn retorted sharply. “—Nor you, you bothersome crow. But one thousand winters-seen or not, in Hegrea’s huge-many seasons she gave us only one son. A pale whit at his birth, white ruffles like feathers upon his head; that’s why she gave him the Murdan-name. Eblan-inspired, too, that young one was, even from the day of his birth. When only seven winters-seen—seven—Nod’s Daughter, our mistress, stirred in his head with her rosy fingers and inspired him to create these mighty rings around our Isle Ardy. Ring one so tall it touches the Father. Ring three so deep it enters Nod’s night-land. Ring two between them, the Mother. Aye, inspiration such as his hasn’t been seen since his day.”
“Nod’s Daughter’s fingers would freeze touching you,” Old Apsan sniped.
“I have my moments, I have them,” Shunamn defended. “But inspiration’s not only the making of rings. So hush it, grain-woman while I tell this eblan-story.”
“It’s the granary’s story,” said Mistress Alenta.
“Aye, well,” Shunamn allowed and shuffled his owl-feathered shoulders. “Yet you grain-women scoff at it, saying it’s not possible, young Murdan born the same day as his mother, our Eblan Hegrea. But we eblann know better than you: We know it’s a riddle. Scoff too, you do, when we claim his father a swan.”
“Scoff, he says?” Old Apsan laughed. “Because we have the truth of it, as we ought. For often we see his mother, our Mistress Hegrea, white as the wheat as she walks through our fields.”
Shunamn answered with a deep-bellied burp.
“Shunamn, Aunt Apsan, let’s keep to the story,” said Master Bukarn, sternly, with a glance at Mistress Alenta who nodded agreement.
“Fine, aye, fully-fine,” Shunamn mumbled. “Had I not been interrupted, I’d not have been saying—as I am saying now—for we eblann know well who was Murdan’s father. Luin, he was—Father Jaja’s own son.”
“Luin?” Glania gasped. “But we, too, know of Luin, son of Saram. Saram’s—”
“Not the same one,” Mistress Alenta cut her words short.
Demekn frowned. He, too, knew of a Luin, though he didn’t know the full story, just that he played some part in the founding story of Luktosn’s Hold’s.
“You want to know of Luin’s father?” Shunamn asked the grain-women, ignoring the previous interruption. “Then ask Murdan’s mother when next you meet her in your fields.” He chuckled at his own wit. “But I’m to tell you of Eblan Murdan and the Kerdolan, not all this other . . .
“Ten seasons it took to measure and dig and heap his three rings around Isle Ardy—though it wasn’t him that did the work. He said how he wanted it done then he set off to spend his eblann-seasons in the Eblann Freeland.”
For a moment Demekn’s thoughts drifted as he mused upon that. That’s how it was in the old days—as Shunamn liked continually to tell him. Every eblan apprentice had to remain alone in the Freeland for at least three seasons, living as the Ancients had lived. Demekn was glad it was no longer done despite—so Shunamn said—that was often the way that inspiration had come.
“Eight seasons our Murdan hunted the woodland around Bear Hill. Eight seasons he dwelt there alone with our Eblan Mistress. At the end of it she opened his head and invited an ancient spirit inside. Some do say it was Ulmelden himself, though I answer that: Alsalda is the more likely. She was the one left forlorn on Bear Hill. But Ulmelden, Alsalda, or another, this spirit-lodger directed our Murdan. Aye, made him to walk to His Indwelling, which then was a mixed Alisime-Krediche holding. Showed him the Kerdolan as they took the Alisime grain from the Krediche granary. Alisime grain, note, grown in our Alisime land.”
“But, Shunamn,” Master Bukarn objected, “there are no Kerdolan this side of the Waters.”
Shunamn laughed as he nodded. “And that is what the old grain woman was saying. See, there are none now, not since our Murdan dealt harshly with them. Not since he saw that Alisime grain, grown on our Alisime land, taken away by the Kerdolan. Not since he saw and grew angry at them.”
Shunamn continued his story. Demekn, who now wore Murdan’s head, listened intently.
The directing-spirit had shown Murdan where the Kerdolan had hidden their longboats as they came in from the west, from the Eskin lands. The ancient spirit showed him the Kerdolan as they carried the grain from the Krediche granary, and loaded their takings into their longboats. The spirit had no need to say anything, Murdan knew what to do. He sent a call to all Alisime men. He asked for the best of hunters. They came carrying spears, but Murdan wanted bowmen. He found the best amongst them and these he took to His Indwelling. They numbered thirteen. He set them in ambush. They waited. When the Kerdolan came, heavy with furs and the sacks they’d taken from the granary, Murdan and his men let loose their arrows—and killed every Kerdolan there at that pass. Then Murdan sealed the pass with their Kerdolak corpses. Only that wasn’t the end of it, for more Kerdolan came, now through the northern pass. So again Murdan and his band lay in ambush. And again they killed every one of the Kerdolan and sealed that pass, too, with their Kerdolak corpses. And still more came, these now from the east.
“Along First Water?” asked Master Bukarn. He, like the others, had become engrossed in the tale.
“Aye, they came along our most sacred of rivers with their Kerdolak longboats.”
“So what did he do?” asked Master Bukarn. “A river cannot be sealed.”
“He could have built a bridge across it,” Ublamn suggested.
“Until someone burns it,” Shunamn answered. “Then again they would come. No, Murdan knew what he had to do. Destroy—utterly destroy unto their last—those thieving, stealing Kerdolan. Our Eblan Mistress inspired him, though he already he knew of the Kerdolan’s terror. Two things they fear beyond all: the snake, and the cold corpse. These he gathered, and all around that Krediche granary he hung them, the corpses spilling with snakes he’d stuffed inside them. Then he called the traders and keepers to come out to see.” Shunamn chuckled most gleefully. “I tell you, on seeing these terrors the Kerdolan turned straight to stone.”
“The Kerdolan Stones!” Demekn exclaimed, forgetting the mask, forgetting Glania and her promise to kill him.
Old Apsan turned a scorning look on him, the one usually reserved for Shunamn or Detah. “Have you ruptured your wits? Twenty-two, the Kerdolan Stones; only five Kerdolan at their granary. Alenta, I told you when he went to that Dal-place he’d be no good upon his return.”
Demekn froze. What had she said? Now Glania would reason it out. It wasn’t so difficult. He must be Mistress Alenta’s son. The luck of it, that he’d never told her of his Alisime family. Yet still she’d know this heron-headed eblan was the granary-master’s son. She would ask questions. Even now she was looking oddly at him.
“Turned to stone in their fear,” Shunamn said. “Our Murdan could have killed those Kerdolan right then and there. But he wanted to use them to carry a message; he wanted to ensure this would be the last of them. See, our Eblan Mistress was there beside him, and she sent him two of her spirits of light. Gifts, they were. Seeds, grains and snakes; hunters, herons and swans: all gifts to the mountain-spirit. Fire, bread and spears, gifts from the sun-spirit. Gifts, see.”
Demekn feared his eblan-master now had lost everyone’s interest with his talk of gifts. Who but an eblan would understand him. But Shunamn soon returned to his tale—just in time to spark flagging ears. These spirits of light, he said, told the Kerdolan, who now were fleeing, to be gone and to never return. They said this land belonged to their mistress, and that their mistress wanted it to give to her Father.
“But now the granary at His Indwelling hadn’t a keeper,” Shunamn said—but quietly for here he was treading upon Mistress Alenta’s tender feet, “and Eblan Murdan wanted no hurt for the folks dwelling there. So he gave the granary to his mother—isn’t that your tale, you grinding grain-women? It became Eblan Hegrea’s second granary—though now it’s known as Sapapsan’s Isle. But the story doesn’t end there, for now we move to Murdan’s Stones.”
Demekn felt himself shrink beneath Shunamn’s momentary glance. And what if Glania, too, should look at him? As yet she’d not leapt to her feet to denounce him—though he still was on edge.
“While fighting the Kerdolan,” Shunamn said, “Murdan had come upon some strange stones stacked alongside First Water’s welling. Strange, indeed, these stones, not at all like those others found around there, the up-throws from Nod’s violent birthing. These, Murdan’s Stones, Kerdolan stones, had been brought from way-far away. And Murdan claimed them.
“Five summers it took to haul them across the hills of His Indwelling, to haul them through the Wetlands and heave them up the ridge to the Highlands, then to pull them all the way to the Old Isle of the Dead. And there Eblan Murdan set them in two broken circles—broken to show he had broken the Kerdolan’s hold of His Indwelling.
“Except now those stones no longer stand—do they. No. Because the granary—this granary—extracted them from their long earthen-hold; stacked them around as if they were nothing. All done to keep the greedy Ulvregan traders happy—done to return to them their Calendar Stones, their Watchers, and now their Cove of the Sun. All those seasons since Eblan Murdan broke the Kerdolan hold, and never were we again troubled by them. Until now. And that is what Old Apsan was saying.”
“You’re saying our attackers were Kerdolan?” Glania asked.
“I’m not. She was.”
Glania looked at Old Apsan.
“Are you as addled as heron-skin, not to see it?” Old Apsan defended. “First, this day comes you and your kin, with your news of troubling men along the Waters. Then, this day comes this wit-nibbled eblan, with his Murdan-name.”
Glania frowned, no more able than Demekn to follow Old Apsan’s odd reasoning. Yet men darker than Alsime, wearing granary-chemmies but shorter, hips bound with bands? That fitted what he’d heard tell of the Kerdolan. And as everyone knew, the Kerdolan traded with the Eskin. And Un Dli, north of the Waters, close by the attack, was Eskin land.
But what puzzled him was this thing of the bridge. Why build it there, to give onto the Wilds? He looked at Master Bukarn, but found no answer there.