Episode 11 of Alsalda
On their journey to His Indwelling, Master Bukarn has let slip of a secret kept by the traders of Luktosn’s Hold. Now, guessing the secret is somehow connected with the Saramequai visit, Detah is determined to uncover it in full. Now read on . . .
The hill wasn’t steep and neither high and the path, cut deep into the earth by the thousands of feet that had previously walked it, should have been easy to follow. But of late it had channelled the rain and the water in gushing had loosened the stones. Now they rattled beneath Detah’s feet and upset her tread. Moreover, a sharp wind blew straight into her face. It snatched at Master Bukarn’s half-gasped words. His legs were all she could see of him now, his boat on his back like an uprighted beetle. She wasn’t sure, did he speak to himself?
He was getting old, he complained. He oughtn’t to leave her to carry the water and food while he carried only the boat. He muttered of remembering how once it had been: how steep the climb, how far the walk, how much he’d carried. She heard him chuckle.
“They never did know what I carried hidden. They thought all those mouse-skin pockets just my travellers’ cloak. Aye, the only sweat I did then was by Chief Oal’s fire—wouldn’t be relieved of that cloak; wouldn’t allow another to touch it, especially not of those Reumen. Oh, they did clamour, how they did so—Find us copper, bring us it. And, aye, I did. I did.” He chuckled again. “Brought them copper—worked copper, copper from Dal Sahalis. Didn’t want that, did they. No. They could deal direct with the Ormalin for that same copper—worked copper.”
Detah squinted, nose wrinkled, the wind harsh in her eyes. Did Master Bukarn say this directly to her? Or was he reminiscing? She grinned. The wily trader with his travel-cloak. Everyone admired it. Pieced-together mouse-skins (easily had at a granary isle), each formed to a pocket, each pocket padded with flax-tow. And he’d used it for smuggling! Aye, but smuggling what?
He looked back at her, having to turn his whole body to see past the hide-covered boat. “We’d best hasten our step. Those clouds beckon rain. I’d rather we hit First Water before the Father spends His passion again.”
The hill flattened. “Is this the top?” she complained. “I thought it would be like climbing Ardy’s wall. Up, over and down.” It wasn’t at all the same.
A little way down he called back a warning. “Don’t walk in the water, you’ll slip.”
There was a spring hidden near; the grass ran with water. Not many steps more and the water drained into a gulley.
“Is this the birth of Long River?”
“Aye. Best to use that staff now, to keep you upright. A ricked ankle will slow us.”
“Why don’t we just use the boat? Here’s more water than grass—we’ll whoosh down.”
“Aye, and hit a stone and rip a hole in it? We’ll walk a way further.”
The gulley deepened, becoming wider, the water now a stream. Master Bukarn set his boat on it, the rope held firm in his hand. But Detah could see his body was hurting, his movements much slowed and deliberate.
“In you get,” he told her. “You’ll enjoy this next stretch—though it’s not as fast flowing as those to the north. But oddest named river—Long River, shortest there is.”
The stream widened, the water deepened, but still it ran fast. It carried them downhill in an unbroken gush. Master Bukarn deftly guided the boat with a paddle while, squealing and laughing, Detah clutched at the seat. At the junction, where Long River shot her waters into the east-flowing First Water, Master Bukarn expertly turned them into the flow.
“That was good.” Her face hurt from the laughing. She was wet.
“Used to be better. Chances I took. Frightening. Yet never upturned the boat, never gave Murki my wares. And it now looks like those clouds have passed us.” He glanced up.
The sun had grown strong, crisping the top of Detah’s head. Master Bukarn’s face was slicked with sweat, got by poling against the flow (First Water was a powerful stream). His breathing soon laboured, sweat dripped from his sand-coloured ‘tache.
“This is no way to arrive at Sapapsan’s Isle,” he said. “There’s an Eblann Freeland along the next little feed-stream.”
He pulled the boat out of First Water and into a channel so narrow the black leather sides brushed the banks. And he now was so stiff Detah must help him. She hauled the boat onto the grass-covered bank where already he’d his travel-cloak spread.
“We’ll eat in a while,” he said, “—after I’ve eased my limbs and rested my eyes. But you, you’re young, you need no rest, so I’ll set you a task—best I keep you out of trouble. You want Eblan Head Man Erspn to take you along to Cloud Stone Isle? Then you need take him a gift.”
She opened her mouth, intending to say it now was too late; he ought to have warned her before leaving Isle Ardy. But he wagged his finger.
“What need has he of whatever we have? We’ve nothing at Ardy’s that he hasn’t to hand at Sapapsan’s. This gift ought to keep you busy awhile. Go find him something—but no straying too far.” His eyes were closed before he’d yet finished saying. His words droned to nothing. He snored.
Detah looked around her. Except for the short climb, she’d been sitting all morning. She now was happy to stretch her legs and to walk. But what could she find as a gift for Erspn? The grass grew too thickly, and anyway she hadn’t a stick to dig into the ground to unearth, maybe, some interesting stone—or a bone. (She had discovered three finger-bones while turning soil in the barley-field. She had wondered whether to take them: they could have been intended as spirit-wards. But in that case there would have been others and the three that she’d taken wouldn’t much matter. Now she kept them upon her, in her waist-pouch.)
There were flowers; the grass was spotted butter-yellow with them. But flowers, given for births and for deaths, wouldn’t be appropriate. Herb-pants wouldn’t do either—though as an eblan Erspn could certainly use them. But he probably took all he needed from Sapapsan’s stores. But what else could she find him? She strolled along the edge of the trees, eyes turned ground-ward.
This close to the river the trees mostly were alders, darkly hung with the cones of three seasons. Beneath them, in places, the winter’s water still lay, the sun catching and dazzling. Startling green blankets of moss weighted the branches. Indeed, she scarcely could tell tree from earth. Then . . . what are these? They looked like small white fingers. Stone? Bone? They shone out amongst the mossy green. Curious, she hunkered down beside to see.
She grinned. She had found the most perfect gift for an eblan. But she ought to placate any spirits lurking—the tree’s, the moss’s, the water’s. How was she to do that?
“I’ll be right back,” she said to the spirits.
She returned with her share of the nut-cakes she’d made, in another land, in another season, or so it seemed.
The birds in the trees fell suddenly silent. Detah looked up from weaving the grasses. She spotted the bird straight away. A hawk. It held perfectly still in the air almost above her. Then plummeted. She couldn’t see what it’s prey, only the rawness of the flesh as it tore it, there on the bank, right in front of her.
“A sparrowhawk,” Master Bukarn said, opening just the one eye.
“I thought you asleep.”
“No, I was thinking. Of eating.” He sat up and reached for the back-pack, but stopped. “What’s that you’re doing?”
“My gift to Eblan Erspn.”
“A grass ball?”
She laughed. “No. It’s more what’s inside it. But this makes it complete.”
He nodded as if he understood though she knew that he didn’t. This was less a gift for Erspn, more a gift to the six Upper Spirits.
“So where’s this meat you’ve packed?”
“I’ve been thinking whilst weaving,” she said instead of answering. “What was it you brought from Meksuin’s Hold?”
He made a drama of finding the meat rather than to answer.
“Was it copper? Or amber or gold?”
“Have you eaten the nut-cakes already?” he said.
“I’ve left you one. Only I’ve heard that the Saëntoi bury their dead with such wealth as to make our eyes water.”
“Have you now?” He found the meat. It was this season’s spit-roast venison. He took a big bite, enough to fill his mouth. Now he couldn’t answer her.
But Detah wasn’t expecting an answer—not in words. She watched his eyes, and his shoulders. That’s what usually gave him away.
She said, “They say the Saëntoi equip their dead with ornaments of amber and gold and copper so that when they arrive in the Land of Nod all will know that they’re persons of note.”
He allowed her a nod: aye, the Saëntoi did this.
“So the Saëntoi must always be hungry for amber. And copper. And gold. But the amber, I know, is gathered around the shores of White Sea, which is far-far away to the east. So I doubt you had that from Meksuin’s Hold. As for gold, it’s that rare that I think no Ulvregan trader would trade it away. No, they’d wear it and say Look at me, how pretty I am. So I say it was copper. Am I right?”
“It’s turning cold,” he said. “We’d best move once we’ve eaten.” But she was right, for she’d seen the slight rise of his eyebrow, the one to the left.
Eyes turned up, she addressed the Father, “You see what happens when I leave that isle. I get to be clever.”
But what did the Luktosn’s traders have in return from the Saëntoi? And what had that to do with the Saramequai horsemen at Isle Ardy?