Episode 8 of Alsalda
Saram, Sauën and Alsalda, all have answered Demekn but with three different signs, and only one he (part)-understands. But, then, the question was different for each. It’s going to require more than a stroll in the Freeland for him to realise what he must do—and long before that it could be too late.
There’d been no resolve. Glania was safely ferried to His Indwelling; Demekn could return to Isle Ardy. But sooner or later—especially once she again had a horse—their paths must meet. What if Shunamn were to send him with a message to the eblan head man? Erspn dwelt at that same Sapapsan’s Isle. True, in these past seasons, Shunamn had done no such thing. But what if . . .
“Nod’s Nuts! And about time too.”
Demekn jumped, so deep in his thoughts he’d not even seen where he was. The northern gate of the isle gaped cold before him. He looked up. There atop the wall, like an owl roosting at twilight, perched Shunamn. Behind him the sky already was purple.
“Has everyone eaten?” he asked. “Has Haldalda left anything for me?”
Shunamn slid down the steep bank and fell into step beside Demekn. “Can you not walk any faster? Your father’s been pacing like an angry bear—round and round this blessed isle, muttering of where are you. Now all you can say is, Has everyone eaten?”
“But I told Detah—”
“Aye. For me. For your eblan-master. But it’s your father who rants.”
“I broke no arrangement.”
“Only because you left before agreements were made. Think!”
Demekn was thinking—so hard it hurt his head.
“So what do you do?” Shunamn chided him worse than a father. “You go puff into thin air as if you’re not here. Where have you been?”
“I told Detah.”
“The Eblann Freeland, aye. You think you’re our Eblan Murdan, just taking off there? You’re my apprentice, and my apprentice does and goes only as I tell him. What’d you do there?”
“Looked for signs,” Demekn blurted, tripped by Shunamn’s sudden change from stony annoyance to warm interest.
“You’ve been inspired!” Shunamn danced, all high knees and clapping. “My Uestin Demekn has been inspired! Stick that in your grumbling mouths and choke on it.”
“Um . . .” Demekn didn’t want to upset him but he wasn’t sure it was inspiration.
“Our Mistress been spinning her fingers inside your head, has she? Set up a whirlpool there? Not a straight thought to be had?”
Well, aye, that did exactly describe it. Demekn nodded. But closer now and he could smell what Haldalda had cooked—a stew—and his belly was grumbling. Haldalda ought to have been an eblan, for her stews surely were inspired creations. It wasn’t the meat she ever put in them; it was the blending of herbs. Oh, but was he too late? Had she saved him some? His belly, as hollow as a worked-out flint-well, cried to be filled with it.
“Well?” Shunamn asked and nigh tripped Demekn by his sudden stopping.
And Demekn had forgotten of what they’d been talking.
“Aye-yi-yi, must I always prompt for it? What signs did you find?”
“Might this wait till I’ve eaten?” he asked.
“No it might not. You’ve left your noddle in Nod’s Land, eh? Your father’s waiting, there’ll be no talk for us. As for food, you think there’s any left for you? I’ll tell you this, the bread is all gone.”
“As long as there’s stew.”
“Inspired? Tuh! I’d say it’s more likely the salt-spirit’s in you. Unborn infants, seabirds and sea-dogs; toes, traps and stewed meat.”
“Aye, I can list the gifts, too.”
“Ha!” Shunamn jumped again in front of Demekn. And “Ha! ” as if he didn’t know what else to say. “Ha!” he said yet again. “See it, see it, my apprentice can list the gifts for the salt-spirit. He listens. Hear that, Nod’s Daughter, hear that! He listens and learns. Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!”
Demekn sighed. It would be ill-mannered to move him aside. But Master Bukarn was waiting, and his belly was screaming, and his patience with Shunamn now fast was slipping.
“So what of these signs?” Shunamn asked. “Or did you find none?”
“I found this.” Demekn held out a shed snake-skin.
Shunamn sniffed, disparaging. “Last season’s. But where’d you find it? Not in the Freeland?”
“The Ancestral Long Boat. I’d not have seen it but that a live one darted from under my foot and forced my eyes down.”
“A live one? This early? Now there’s a sign, a right eblan sign. Particularly coming upon last night’s story.”
“You mean the snakes Murdan used?”
“Nononono. No. Murdan’s father, Luin. See, we call that place the Ancestral Long Boat, but that’s only the Alisime name for it. They’ve not our stories, have they. No. No, that’s Jaja’s own house, it is, built by Luin himself.”
“You’ve not told me of this.” And if that were so then surely the eblann must know that Luin had fathered their Eblan Murdan. Moreover, he’d be the same Luin as featured in Luktosn’s founding story. Luin, his name could mean father. Could. Or it could be corrupted from luk, the raven.
“So, what other signs?” Shunamn asked him.
“Other signs? Or was that snake the only one of them?”
“I dropped my eblan-rod.” He kept quiet of the question he’d asked—and that he’d asked it of Saram. Though Saram was Jaja by another name, to say that to an Alisime eblan was to invite a wrathful eruption
“Dropped it? How?” asked Shunamn.
“Please, later, Shunamn, it’s long in the telling.” And he’d rather not say. “Then the clouds parted and Nod’s Daughter, in sudden glory, did momentarily blind me.”
“But you turned away?”
“Aye.” He’d seen the uathren seers in the Dal blinded by staring long at Sauën, that she then would give them, instead, inner sight. No, such consolation wasn’t for Demekn; he enjoyed the sight of this world.
“Then” he said, “there was a deer who, instead of skittering back into trees, came right up to me. I swear she would have taken leaves from my hand.”
“She thought you were a tree,” Shunamn said.
Demekn shuddered. Aye, the very same words he had thought. “So what does Master Bukarn want of me?”
“Strange signs from the Mistress.”
“Aye, but can you talk of them later? You said Master Bukarn is waiting.”
“Waiting. Ranting. Pacing. He’ll fire his belly—I told him, he oughtn’t to eat while ranting.”
Detah’s spine was a post, her head a rounded chalk boulder balanced atop it. She wobbled that boulder round and round. A grin spread over her face at her imaginings. Yet she did sit with her back extraordinarily straight, her shoulders akin to the beams that held apart the chamber walls and stopped the weight of the roof from squashing them flat. At least according to Ublamn that’s what would happen without them.
She looked again at those Master Bukarn had invited, listed with satisfaction those he had not. This was to be an important meeting. That’s why Detah, brimming with knowledge, was there, and why Aunt Jaljena and Old Apsan, though both grain-women, were not. No Haldalda either, and neither her daughters, and no Old Apsan’s sons. Ublamn and Shunamn, she noted, were there. Now if only Demekn would finish his eating they could start. Detah had watched him. The stew (the first of this season’s fawns eked out with the last of the salted swine) had been exceptionally tasty. But Haldalda had insisted they saved some for Demekn—elsewise Detah would have come back for more. She sighed, for now the pot was thoroughly empty.
“Finished?” Master Bukarn asked as Demekn wiped off his mouth. He slapped yet another of the wood-leafed posts as he passed it, still circling the arcade. But at least now his face wasn’t battlefield-red—a term she supposed derived from the Regiment’s red battle-breeches.
Demekn gave a deep satisfied sigh.
“Good. There.” Master Bukarn nodded to where those invited were already gathered in that stretch of arcade they had used the previous night for the meal with the Saramequai-Querkan. The benches now had been cleared away. Instead, a three-legged stool awaited a certain master’s backside. Detah, Drea and Mistress Alenta sat upon cushions. Shunamn and Ublamn leant their lean forms against the posts. That left the rush-matting for Demekn. He refused it. Master Bukarn took his place on the stool.
“Do stop moving,” he complained at Demekn. Demekn shrugged and dropped to a sit, shoulder’s down to show his reluctance.
“Now, this news the Saramequai brought,” Master Bukarn began. “There is more to their story than might at first seem.”
At last! Detah could barely contain her grin. Now to know that unspoken ‘something’. But, while the fire in the cook-hearth crackled, the wind seethed through the thatch, and at the centre the heart-tree’s naked branches danced, not one of the isle’s family spoke. Detah looked at Mistress Alenta. Would she be the one to say of this ‘something’? Yet her face remained stubbornly closed. Detah looked to Demekn, another, she was sure, who knew the secret. But Demekn’s only interest was in picking the threads of meat from his teeth. What of Ublamn? He’d been the first to speak with the visitors. But no, he was examining the toe of his boot. (Detah agreed, it did need mending.) Though she glanced at Shunamn, she expected him to be as ignorant as she. Indeed, he was silently counting, tapping his fingers, turning down each one in the Alisime way (not as efficient as the granary’s). And unless this unspoken ‘something’ concerned the granary, she couldn’t expect Drea to know either. That it didn’t concern the granary was clearly seen for Master Bukarn was the only one trying to hide fear. Mistress Alenta seemed almost of the opinion that why should she care. Indeed, what would she care if Master Bukarn were decapitated right there in front of them. She’d probably tut at the mess.
“Their story,” Master Bukarn said. “It . . . irritates. There is something amiss in it. Am I alone to notice this? Listen. Four Saramequai Regiment are attacked from behind, unaware till the hammer falls. A band of unwary travelling traders, aye, I’d believe that of them. But not of the Regiment. The Regiment are trained to fight. They’re trained to expect such attacks. No one creeps up on them unawares. The Regiment are always alert.”
“You’re saying it’s all fabulation?” Shunamn asked.
“I wish that it were.”
“The horsemaster was covering,” Demekn said. “He didn’t follow procedures.”
Detah hugged her hands close to her chest. She bit her lip. She ought to speak up. She knew things they did not. “But why ought they to follow Regiment procedures?” she asked. “They’re not here on Regiment business.”
“The girl’s right,” Ublamn said. “They’re here on clan business.”
“Aye, we know that’s what they said but . . . You believe that?’ Master Bukarn glanced from Ublamn to Demekn. He didn’t look at Detah.
She ought to have said it all, not just that snip. But he’d be angry. Demekn too, he’d be uppity that she’d not told him the rest last night.
“It was Regiment business,” Demekn insisted. “Anything else and, aye, the horsemaster would have been humiliated, but not that shaken he couldn’t make a decision. And he could not. He admitted it.”
“Well, we’ll leave that for now,” Master Bukarn motioned—and it was there again, that dribble of fear she sensed in him.
But what had he to fear from the Regiment, twenty, nigh thirty seasons since he’d ridden with them? Or did he fear that it was family business—clan business, as Horsemaster Makesen had said? And that clan was Querkan while Master Bukarn’s kin were allied to Clan Reumen, and their ancient feud had recently been fired anew by the Uissids Judgement. That’s why Demekn had covered his head.
“Then there’s the bridge,” Master Bukarn said. “Tell me, why all that fuss? Did they really not know what it was? Aye, well maybe not, being Uestin. But the Hiëmen ought to have known. There’s not a place where the Kerdolan trade without there’s a Kerdolak bridge nearby.”
“They trade into Hiëmen lands?” Shunamn asked.
“Around South Eskin Head, aye. You know, I’ve seen these bridges even amongst the Jinnigrits. But, to be certain, I’ve asked four of the river-walkers who are ferrying the Saramequai to continue on past His Indwelling. I’ve asked them to investigate. I want to know exactly where is this bridge.”
“The Wilds,” Ublamn said. “We agreed that last night.”
“Aye, and how unlikely is that?
“If it’s close to North Rib, then it’s right on the edge of the Eskin lands,” Detah said.
“Aye. Worrying isn’t it.”
But that wasn’t why she was worrying her lip. It was that she still hadn’t told him all she knew, and now the moment had passed and it was too late.
“Worrying, why?” Drea asked. “The Kerdolan always have dealt with the Eskin. We know that.”
“But the Eskin where?” Master Bukarn asked. And answered, “The Eskin north of the Waters. So why the bridge?”
“You think the Eskin have cut into the Wilds?” Mistress Alenta asked. And now she, too, was worried. She’d no need to say of the Wilds edging the East Alsime Bounds.
“Let’s leave that till the river-walkers return,” said Master Bukarn.
“They could be establishing trade with the Leneva,” Detah suggested. The Leneva dwelt south and east of the Wilds.
“That’s still rubbing close to our bounds,” said Master Bukarn. “Then there’s the question of what they are trading. Not grain, not from newly-cut land.”
“Furs. Honey. Flints,” Detah suggested.
Master Bukarn nodded.
“Maybe they’ve found copper,” she added.
He shook his head. “Any more sources, the Kerdolan already have them.”
“Does it matter who built it, and to what purpose?” Mistress Alenta asked and stifled a sigh. “If it can turn a Hiëmen boat then it could turn others. We’ve three granaries reliant on the Waters for trade. Think of the size of the Feg-folk boats. You’re to destroy that bridge before winter’s end.”
Detah, wanting to comfort Master Bukarn, had to sit on her hands. She knew how it felt to receive one of Mistress Alenta’s belittling demands.
“You fret, my mistress. I have said I’ll destroy it,” Master Bukarn answered. “But I’ll do nothing without first the river-walkers’ report. We’re saying it’s a bridge but what if it’s not? Those Waters are sacred to more than just us. The Eskin could have built it—could use it to bring them closer to the Water’s spirits, there to make their offerings. Or they could have reason of late to placate the spirits across the river in the Wilds. I’ll know all of it first. Go treading on toes with hammers when to talk might get us further . . .”
“This mightn’t connect,” Demekn said. “But the Kerdolan have been trading with the Gousen of late.”
Before Detah knew what she was saying she’d said it—and in Uestuädik. “Gousen—as in Clan Dragsin, Gousen? The same Clan Dragsin who gave their daughter Galena to Clan Querkan’s King Geontus?”
“An alliance solely to acquire Clan Querkan’s copper,” Master Bukarn remarked, his words over-spoken by Mistress Alenta, and hers yet louder.
“Detah, how many times! We’ll have no Uestin talk in this lodge.”
“Apologies.” Detah bobbed her head.
“Detah,” Master Bukarn said, “why say this of Clan Dragsin and Queen Galena? What are you thinking?”
So now she could say it.