Episode 14 of Alsalda
No one goes to His Indwelling without they visit Cloud Stone Isle. Eblan Erspn, delighted at the chance to show Detah the stones, has an ulterior motive for taking her there. But first, there’s the gift . . .
Erspn was surprised—aye, genuinely—when Detah presented it. “For me?” He held the slightly squashed globe of woven grasses up to the light.
“It was a ball when I made it,” she said.
“Aye, I can see.” He waited for her to say more. Ought he to prompt her? Yet he couldn’t believe she wouldn’t know of the custom.
“I made it from grasses gathered in the Eblann Freeland,” she said. “—Just west of Long River. You know it?”
“Aye, I know where you mean. But what were you doing there? You’re not an eblan.”
“But I am, sort of. Isle Ardy is set on eblan-land.”
“Ah, eblan-born. But that still doesn’t explain.” He did wish she’d hurry and say. Although the squashed grass globe wasn’t heavy, clearly something was inside it and he wanted to know what. But there was the etiquette. She must first tell its story.
“We broke our journey there. We needed to . . . eat.” She glanced back to Bukarn. He was chatting away to the old trader Erlunen.
Erspn suspected one of the two travellers also needed to rest. These past few seasons Bukarn had noticeably aged.
“All morning I’d been sitting in the boat—but for the pass, and that was nothing. I wanted to walk. There were alders growing; I went to look closer.”
“I know exactly where you were. The winter’s water stays long round their stems.”
“Aye. And there was moss—I’ve not seen it grow so thickly before. It was like the woodland-spirit had thrown a mossy rug over the toes of the alders.”
He nodded encouragement. Here was no daughter of a granary. She’d not a glimmer of grain-spirit in her—though he had known that since she was still a whelp and Bukarn came complaining of her. The ‘woodland-spirit’, and ‘mossy rugs’ and the ‘toes of the alders’. But still she must tell the story.
“I saw what I thought were finger-bones.”
“Oh? So you know how finger-bones look?”
She nodded, her own fingers fishing around in her pouch. With a captivating grin she pulled out three bones.
“Aye, well, that one’s a toe-bone,” he said. “So is this what you’ve given me? Finger bones?”
She shook her head. Her hair grew as full as an Alisime bonnet, and she was of an age where she ought have it covered. It tempted fingers to ruffle through it. Not his. He had to remember whose child this was. It was a rich colour, her hair, with the red strong in it. And yet it was brown.
“I crouched down beside it the better to see,” she said. “I thought then by the shape it might be a moss-covered stone.”
“It weighs too light for a stone.” He chuckled. He’d a good guess of what she’d given him. What a treasure, both giver and gift. His fingers itched to pick apart the weaving.
“So I parted it from the mosses—though not from what was growing upon it. Then I could see it. A gift to several spirits! All but the sweet-waters. So that’s why I wove the grasses. Now I’ve said, you may open it.”
He had to sit, not to drop it. He knew it was a skull, though not from which creature. Something small. It couldn’t be an otter’s since she’d said of needing the weaving grasses. So some woodland creature. It was too big for a mouse. It could be a squirrel. A martin. A weasel. The first thing revealed was the moss. It sat on the skull like a cap of green hair.
“I left it there in case it has taken the creature’s spirit—so as not to part them. Besides, moss is one of the woodland gifts.”
He looked up from the gift to the giver. He was speechless.
Beneath the green, he saw the teeth—what at first she’d taken to be the fingers. They were defining. How apt when, like her mother, she had a feline-shaped face.
“A cat. My, but I’m pleased with it. So let’s see what we have for the spirits. Moss, as you say, for woodland-spirit. Cat is the grain field’s protector, so that’s a gift for mountain-spirit. But also the cat is a renowned hunter and a destroyer of snakes, which makes it a gift for Spirit-Sun. Then the skull is a gift to Spirit-Moon, and the teeth, a gift to spirit-salt. You were right to weave the grasses for the sweet-waters-spirit. Truly, a gift for the High Spirits. Now I must ask you how you know of these gifts. This is eblan-craft; not for granary daughters.”
He tried to keep his tone light. He didn’t want to frighten her; he’d rather encourage. But he needed to know this knowledge wasn’t stolen. There were severe penalties for that.
“Have I done wrong?” she asked and he shook his head and offered a smile. “It’s Eblan Shunamn, he’s always listing the gifts. I listen.”
“Aye, but there is listening, and there is listening—understanding. Well. Well.” He could have said ‘well’ till winter-next, for no other words wanted to come. “A brew, Siradath,” he called to his sister.
“She’s gone to the granary,” Erlunen returned.
“I can make it,” Detah offered. “If it’s allowed. But it won’t be Mistress Siradath’s blend.”
“Our Sasinha gone with her?” Erspn asked the old trader.
“Sasinha and Sathea both. She wanted to take young Detah too but you had waylaid her.”
“Waylaid?” He turned back to Detah. “Have I waylaid you? The cheek of it. No, no, we can forget the brew. I only asked to get my mouth working again. This gift has . . . my, but it’s taken my words. You know what you’ve done, with your woven grasses? Woven a web of obligation. Now, let’s see. I’d best start paying this back else I’ll still be owing you when I die. I know the very thing. Come,” he said and sprang to his feet. “Cloak. We are going to Cloud Stone Isle.”
She too leapt to her feet, her face swallowed by a cat-like grin. She needed no cloak, her hair swung around her.
“Have you nothing to cover your head?”
She frowned. “I’m granary; we don’t.”
Hmm, that might have to change.
Erspn watched as Detah raced from one stone to another. Reclamation Walk, named by the Alsime long seasons ago, it joined the granary to Cloud Stone Isle. He noticed she touched only the male stones. That was revealing. He noticed too the play of light over her hair. See, he told his Eblan Mistress, with most grain-women this isn’t a problem—almost as one they had grain-coloured hair. White-brown, the Alsime called it. The only thing changing was the pallor, or how ripe the grain. But not with Detah, and that was troubling. Her hair was more Alisime-coloured, and the Alsime covered their hair. That made Detah’s all the more startling. See what I’m saying? That hair would attract too many eyes. And that might turn her head.
She was waiting for him, now, to catch up.
“An eblan head man long ago planted these stones,” he told her.
“Dannyn. Eblan Shunamn told me.”
“Dannyn, aye. It was an inspired creation. With this Walk, he led the intrusive Kredese into the embrace of we Alsime. See, First-Mother and Father Jaja sit by this Walk to watch and approve them. But more, in joining Cloud Stone Isle—which place existed at the Beginning—to what was once a Krediche granary, Eblan Dannyn was bringing what was to what is, and what is to what was. That makes this more than a walk place to place. It makes it a passage through time.”
Had he been right of her? Did she understand? What questions now would she ask?
“So these are not ancestor stones?”
“I’ll tell you more of them when we reach the Isle, but no. Each is a seat of a spirit—the spirit of the Mother and the spirit of the Father.”
“It is a wide path,” she remarked.
“Walk,” he corrected her. “Like that you have at Murdan’s Stones.”
“This one is wider.”
“As it ought to be,” he said, pride unavoidably swelling. “This is His Indwelling. Yet when Eblan Dannyn created this Walk he’d no knowledge yet of how we would use it. But that is the nature of inspiration. First we create, only after comes the purpose. I’d say Eblan Dannyn would be delighted to see the groups of young men all carrying the vats from the granary to the Isle. You must be here that night, for the Feast of Winter Ending. Aye, the procession, the drums, the pipes, the loud—very loud—singing. Aye, the bellies that swell after. It’s the stones, you see. But I’ve said I’ll tell you once we’re into the Isle. You see how the Father’s Stones stand proud. Erect. Eager for the feast to come. And the Mother’s Stones, already swelling with life.”
He felt a tap on his shoulder. Bukarn (fretting of Detah) had insisted he came along with them. He likely wanted to talk of the Waters as well. The granary-master started to say—but stopped to shout at Detah.“Take your fingers out! Poked into those holes is the fastest way to a swollen belly.”
“As Mistress Siradath has already warned me,” she called back over her shoulder. “But I happen to know it takes the Father as well.”
“Hmm,” Erspn said, amused.
“She’s growing too fast,” Bukarn said.
“Aye, like the grain ripens in a good summer. But, Bukarn, you must know, girls are not grain to be measured by seasons. Some flourish sooner, some are . . . well, tardy. Now, what were you to say?”
“It’s what Dalys sees, it’s been in my thoughts.”
“Mine too.” Though it wasn’t what he wanted to be thinking this day.
Neither was Dalys alone in his visions. But how to know when something seen in another world was to happen in this? And it could be soon, it could be in this life. But then again it mayn’t be for another five lifetimes, or more. Best, for now, to push that aside. Nod’s Daughter, his Eblan Mistress, shone in an almost unclouded sky. Though the breeze was keen, yet today tasted of life’s renewal. It was a day for beginnings, not for the Ulvregan and Dalys’s corpse defleshers. But he could see that this was Bukarn’s worry.
“Siradath has it right when she blames the Saramequai,” Bukarn didn’t quite rant. “They’ve enlisted our men in their battle, and I’m not at all pleased with it. So Horsemaster Makesen has suffered a slight, and seeks revenge, but what has that to do with our men? I can see what’s happened. First Makesen stirs Imblysin, then Imblysin stirs the others. But they are thinking only to pull up a bridge, while this Makesen goes to do slaughter.”
“But, as Erlunen says, most of those who’ve gone have served as warriors. Not so your Kerdolan. What are they but traders and mariners, miners and metallurgists?”
“Killing, I see killing.” Bukarn’s words slammed down hard. “It wearies me.”
“What I see wearies me more.” And Erspn didn’t want it muddling his thoughts this day. Yet it was unavoidable. Besides, without this of the Ulvregan traders would young Detah be here?
Erspn had anticipated with pleasure taking Detah to Cloud Stone Isle. To watch her and listen; to know her responses. He didn’t think himself wrong in his assessment. But for that he must pry her away from the granary-master, for what did that man understand. Everything seen as material forces! But Detah, now, she was inquisitive, wanting to know, able to assemble disparate parts, sharp in her questions, sharp in her thoughts. She could see Truth, he was sure.
“Too late, of course, to send men.” Bukarn’s talk dragged Erspn back. “How long gone: a day and a night? Already nearing their destination. Even if I’d a Regiment horse . . . No, no hope of catch them in time. We must wait upon their return.”
Detah stopped walking. She turned. “There will be no return.”
Cold claws raked Erspn’s back.
“No Saramequai,” she said, “no Ulvregan.”
Aye, Erspn was hungry for her, but at what cost. Such a calamity! He was hesitant to ask, “Is this sight?”
“Only if it’s ‘sight’ to follow my thoughts,” she said. “This place they go to is deep in the wilds, where few people go. I doubt the traders ever have been there—except maybe to pass in a boat. As for the Saramequai, they know it only for thistles and nettles. Yet those who built the bridge—the Kerdolan—they’ve been there all winter’s half. They’ll know where the land rises, where it falls. And that bridge they built for a purpose. They’ll not be happy to see our men tear it down. As Master Bukarn explained it to us, it could be there to make offerings to the spirits of water.”
“To Murki,” Bukarn offered.
“Aye, maybe to Murki,” Detah agreed. “Yet these are Kerdolan, who knows what spirits they’ve brought along with them? Then, thirty men with horses and boats do not make silent travellers. Then, too, the work of destroying the bridge. They may as well go visit the Kerdolan and announce their intent. No, I say none will return.” Her voice cracked on this last, and she turned quickly away. “But what do I know of fighting.” She walked on.
“Hey!” Erspn called to her. “Detah-the-Sayer, you come back here.”
She hesitated before she returned.
“Do you know the cause of your name?” he asked her.
She looked at Bukarn who lifted a shoulder.
“As a newly-born infant you wailed, and you wailed, and you wailed. That ought to have fetched you the name of ‘Pitah’. But then, moons before you ought to have talked, there you were chatting. So we called you Detah. The ‘Sayer’. Most often we grow into our names, as I grew to open my heart to Spirit-Sun. But sometimes our names are prophetic.”
“I only followed my thoughts,” she defended.
“Are you not tired, all that in there?” He tapped at her head.
“She is a wonder,” Bukarn agreed as again, red-faced, she walked on ahead. “She oughtn’t to waste it in that granary.”
“Say you,” Erspn agreed. “But what of her mother?”
Could Bukarn answer for Mistress Alenta? Did he know her that well? Erspn did, and he knew her mother had been expecting this now for many long seasons. Not wanting it. Fearing it. Wisely, Bukarn said nothing.
“You know, I have no apprentice,” Erspn pushed though an eblan wasn’t to ask. But this wasn’t asking, just a gentle guiding.
But useless to prompt the wrong person. She was the one. It must come from her. Yet . . . had she the vision? Or did she believe her path as solidly set as this Reclamation Walk? Four days she was to stay. There was time. But in four days could come the news they all were dreading. Then what would happen? This must be agreed before then.