Episode 7 of Alsalda
What was the talk between Glania and Detah? Demekn dragged his sister outside in the quiet of the night to find out. And now, disturbed by the answer, he’s headed out to the Eblan Freeland, there to seek inspiration.
Clan Querkan, Children of the Oak. But that wasn’t the reason Demekn climbed the ladder-limbed tree (awkward while holding his eblan-rod, the feathers of his eblan-cloak catching and sticking in every twig-yoke). No, he had chosen the tree for its position. Seven rungs high, Demekn stretched his body along the wide limb. Grown elsewhere, that seventh branch would have been no great height. But here the view down was dizzying as the land fell away in a long, almost sheer, drop to the river.
He could see in the distance, stark amid the night-shadows, the white walls of Isle Ardy. Yet even as he watched those same shadows slowly dissolved, revealing a cluster of thatched buildings here, hedges and copses there, pastures and croplands and the sheep in their folds close by the houses. And there—as yet as black dots on the dawn-silvered water—river-walkers. Demekn counted them. Eight.
He heard a dog bark, leftwards of him, the former wastes of Bisaplan’s Land. Now that land supported Skakem families spread from the hills edging the Wetlands. Bisaplan’s kin had accepted the loss. What’s done is done and that is that. No feuding in Alisalm-land—unlike in the Dal.
Movement within Ardy’s walls again drew his eyes. The Saramequai—no mistaking them: that glint as Sauën, newly born, kissed their copper-tipped plaits. He could just make out Master Bukarn. Ublamn, too. But no sign of the grain-women. That didn’t surprise him.
He laughed at himself. What craziness to cling to a tree just to watch some riverboats set off for His Indwelling. He was possessed, as surely as the legendary Eblan Murdan had been. But his possessor was no ancient spirit.
The river looped widely as it left Ardy’s wharf. With the steep valley sides, and that valley so narrow, for a while he lost sight of the boats. Now he must wait till the river returned them, completing the loop, in a sweep towards him. He stared intently at that place. His eyes began to blur. Then—he blinked to be sure—there! Six riverboats, four with passengers. Glania sat in the third. Oh, she wouldn’t like that.
Aye-yi, she’d like even less when they came to the pass and she had to climb. And it made no difference which route the river-walkers took when the river split just into the Wetlands. True, the western route was more direct. But against that was the ridge which there was steeper. Then, after the ridge, the waterless hills—all the way down to First Water’s welling. The alternative (eastern) route was longer yet, taking the traveller far out of his way. But in comparison it was gentler, the climb through to Long River shorter, less steep. And did she yet know she’d be carrying her baggage? The river-walkers must porter their boats; though their boats weren’t heavy it would be impossibly awkward to extra carry baggage as well. How Master Bukarn had managed it, those summers he’d traded north, Demekn couldn’t imagine. And Luktosn’s traders still made the journey, their wares and supplies all neatly packed into a backpack, he supposed.
Demekn let out a frustrated sigh. This all was wrong, it shouldn’t be happening. Glania so wanted to be a markiste. If only he could do something to stop the wedding.
He imagined himself the speaker at an Alsime Assembly. He’d hold his eblan-rod aloft. The Alsime then would stop their chatter.
“I speak for the Ancients,” he’d say.
But that wouldn’t do. What cared the Ancients for granary happenings? They’d not even grown grain till Eblan Soänsha thought to do it, gathering it one night from the Eskin fields.
“I speak for the Ancestors.”
But that was no better. Why should the Ancestors care for a Saramequai markon and an Ulvregan trader?
“I speak for Eblan Hegrea.” Now that ought to fetch their attention. “I speak for Eblan Hegrea, Nod’s Daughter’s daughter, Mistress of our First Granary.”
He then would pause—just long enough that his audience listened the sharper. He’d learnt that from serving his four with the Rizzoni chief Krinik.
“Eblan Hegrea is unhappy.”
No, that had no bite.
“Eblan Hegrea is angry.” That was better. He’d repeat it. “Eblan Hegrea is angry.” Then he’d pause again while the assembly repeated it as a question. “Eblan Hegrea is angry?”
“Aye, angry! Angry with what’s happening here in our granaries.”
And the Alsime would ask, “What is happening here in our granaries?” For what did they know of the granaries. They knew them only as places to bring their grain to store or to trade, and to bring their crafts—notably their Alisime rugs—and other produce not needed, in exchange for the tokens. They knew nothing of the granary ways—except that the granaries brewed Father’s Brew for the Feast of Winter Ending, and baked Mother’s Bread for the Send-Off Feast. The granary to them was a grain-store, a trade-store, a brewery and a bake house. It was the Ulvregan who were intimately joined to the granaries, providing the granary-traders, bringing their wares at summer’s end, exchanging for cheeses, honey and salt; returning at winter’s end, exchanging again for the wares to trade overseas.
So why raise his eblan-rod at an Alsime Assembly? There wasn’t one Alsime who cared whether Glania wedded Imblysin or spent her nights with Master Nod, alone.
Then he must speak with his father. Master Bukarn was Master of the Granary Traders. And Demekn knew that Master Bukarn didn’t approve of granary traders taking Uestin wives. Master Bukarn had had talks with Mistress Alenta—a deaf man could have heard them! Yet Demekn remembered, too, the conclusion. In the end both had admitted these traders went against no granary way. Their pledge concerned only the granary’s trade: that it was the granary-trader’s prime concern. So what did it matter in whose bed he slept? Not even the provision of a son and two daughters was part of the pledge, more of an assumed obligation.
So what would he say if he took this to Master Bukarn? That Imblysin oughtn’t to have a Uestin wife because . . . Because what? Because if Imblysin were to wed Glania then, sooner or later, he (Demekn) and she must meet. Then he’d be dead. Though he’d rather be dead than to see her if to see her was to ache to hold her as he had ached last night. Yet his death, though willing, would solve nothing for Glania. She wanted to be a markiste, not a wife. Not even his.
He had told his father the truth of it. She had been young when they met—only then of age, and friendly. He too had been young—and a hard-horned goat. But it was their talk he remembered most fondly. The things they talked of . . . Everything! How he’d wanted to be an uathir and train as a poet, maybe in time to become a truvidir. She had teased him. Chief Truvidir Demekn had a poetic ring to it. Then she’d said of wanting to be a markiste, like her brother Nevisan, to make her father proud of her. Her father was Ulquon the Fingerless, brother to King Geontus as-was. And Demekn had said of his grandfather King Rudrens (though in truth Rudrens was his father’s grandfather). They had laughed that they both were close kin to kings. They had talked of everything—but not a word said of his granary family, nothing even of Alisalm-land. He’d not even said of Luktosn’s Hold, yet he’d not have been there but for his Ulvregan kin.
Demekn still watched the river though Glania now was long-gone. She had not even realised how close he had been. Just as she’d realised the truth of him, believing him Uestin, so Rizzoni in his ways. Rizzoni, Clan Reumen.
He continued to muse—beyond her wedding to Sapapsan’s trader. And, oh, how that hurt!
Perhaps if he went to Sapapsan’s Isle . . . He could talk to Erspn, the eblan head man. Erspn had no liking of Uestin ways. Eblann, Alsime, none liked the Uestin. Erspn had no liking of Imblysin either, that was widely known. Imblysin had been a markiste, served in the Regiment, had worn Gousen horns. Imblysin was more Uestin than a Dals-man. Yet, what could he say to Erspn? And what could Erspn do to stop the wedding? At best he could offer coldness to Glania—which he doubtless would anyway. How long then before she spat fire at the eblan head man? There’d be no more peace at that granary.
He let out a long sigh.
Maybe Detah was right and Glania wouldn’t kill him. But she’d spit, as she spat that last time they met. Ay-yi, her blade in his heart would have hurt him less.
He rolled his eyes skyward, his vision wet and blurring. “Saram! Saram, what can I do? I’ll do anything—anything, I swear it—to stop her from wedding—”
His words stopped abruptly as he found himself falling. He grabbed at the nearest—a branching limb—and flung his arms round it. He must have lost his balance in changing position. And he’d dropped his eblan-rod. He heard it clatter. Clatter-clatter, all the way down the limb-made ladder.
“Is that your answer?” he called up to Saram and climbed down to recover his eblan-rod.
His head was stuffed with broken questions, none with an answer, so he wasn’t thinking of where he was walking. It was his feet took him up to Bear Hill. Then, since he was there he may as well climb to the highest part of it.
With the trees set behind him, he gazed out over the Wetlands. It was patched in gold where Sauën peeped out from the Father’s clouds. But even as he watched, the clouds joined together, casting the Wetlands back into shadow. Demekn laughed—he was about to get thoroughly drenched and, it being late winter, the leafless trees would offer no shelter. He found the rain-hollowed roots of an ancient beech-tree, greenly cushioned with moss. There he sat. And another sigh escaped him.
“Saram—” he started to address the Father. But Saram had already given an answer, though Demekn didn’t yet understand it.
“Sauën, my mistress, my heart,” he altered his plea. “Might I have an answer from you? Some sign I can understand? What can I do? For I would that my Glania had her heart’s desire.”
At that moment, Sauën’s light sliced through the clouds. Demekn turned from it.
“Ay-yi-yi! You’re blinding me. What answer is that?” If this was a sign then he understood it less than his dropped eblan-rod.
And now rain dropped from the sky, heavy as if Saram was emptying a bucket.
“Is that to cool me? You’re saying I’m lusting, my blood’s too hot? I don’t want her for me. I do not! I just want her to have what she wants—and that’s not to wed Sapapsan’s trader.”
He’d no choice but to wait out the rain. Between the beech tree’s wide trunk and his swan-feather cloak (though it did only cover his shoulders), it was only his legs that were thoroughly soaked and his narrow-legged breeches being linen soon would dry. It was the wind, now whipping around him, that caused the greater discomfort. It was unseasonably cold.
The Freeland’s woodland offered protection from the worst of that wind. Except that the trees soon parted and the path he was following became the wide grassy swathe locally known as the Freeland Walk. He tried not to sigh, but he soughed just the same.
Was he inspired? Was that the reason his head felt like a whirlpool? His eblan-master had told him You’ll know when Mistress Inspiration kisses you: You’ll feel her fingers confusing your head. Aye, his head was confused, there was no denying. And he felt how Alsalda must have felt when she woke from her long winter’s sleep to find her brother Ulmelden still not returned—alone and wanting. But here was a difference. He knew what he wanted—didn’t he?
He started, suddenly alert. What was that noise? But it was only the rattle of last season’s leaves. Or was it Alsalda? Her spirit was said to walk this Freeland, to dwell here at Bear Hill at the ancient tumun. But no, it was a deer browsing the leaves at the woodland’s edge. Here warmed by Sauën, the trees budded early.
“And are you a sign?” he whispered, expecting the deer then to flee. Yet the deer stayed. “Are you a sign from Alsalda, here to tell me what to do?”
The deer ignored him, tearing and nibbling at the newly-bloomed sweet leaves. It was as if she’d not seen him. He marvelled, so honoured by this rare occurrence, to be allowed this close to the most skittish of creatures. But being this close he dared not to move. He must not frighten her else she’d flee back into the trees. So beautiful. Such a delicate beast. Look how graceful. Light-footed. She grazed and moved, grazed and moved, eating her way closer and closer to him. He was careful scarcely to breathe. She now was that close he could reach out and touch her. He grinned. He wanted to laugh in delight. This was amazing! No one would believe him. Truly, it was if she didn’t know he was there. That to her he was only another a tree.
But it wasn’t to last. He was no tree, he grew no leaves. Neither did he smell right. She caught his scent—or so he assumed. She looked up, her huge black fluid-filled eyes full upon him.
Yet even then she didn’t flee. She gave a snort like a baby’s sneeze. Then turned and picked her way across the grassy swathe. He watched as she elegantly threaded between the trees, till he could see no more of her.
“Was that a sign?” he asked Alsalda. This last one he might understand.