Episode 16 of Alsalda
Eblan Hegrea spoke of changes, of dying and death. But Detah is young, she’s full of life, those aren’t the words she wanted to here. And then came some boats from the west . . . Read on.
“You’re thinking they’re Kerdolan?” Erspn chuckled at Detah’s evident distress. “No, hush your worry. They’ve not used those western passes since our Eblan Murdan sealed them.”
“They’ll be from the Highlands,” Bukarn told her. He, too, had heard the sound of the boats and come out to see, old trader Erlunen with him. “That western stream we saw? It delivers the traveller to First Water’s welling.”
“So many,” she said. And now Erspn was paying more heed he, too, would say there were more than just two. And that was unusual. It might be wise to stroll down to the boards. Wait there to see what the river brings.
Bukarn followed him. Detah too as he expected.
The first boat appeared from behind White Belly, which this late of the day was barely discernible, merged with the hill behind it. Detah recognised the boatman. “It’s Demekn!”
“Now what’s happened to bring him here?” Bukarn murmured.
Four river-walkers followed. All pulled their boats into Sapapsan’s boards where Erspn, Bukarn, Erlunen, and Detah formed a half circle, watching and waiting. Erspn was curious, aye, but Bukarn was nigh clawing the sky. He scarcely gave Demekn time to haul his boat out of the water and then upturn it. “What’s happened? More Saramequai?”
“The river-walkers,” Demekn said as if Bukarn ought already to know it. “They came to Isle Ardy with their report. But we’d already heard of Trader Imblysin, so we guessed you’d stayed here till his return.”
“Aye, if there is a return.”
“More has happened?”
“No,” said Bukarn, swiftly. “No, it’s just me. I fear for the worst.”
“They only went to tear down a barrier,” the old trader Erlunen repeated as Mistress Siradath had said.
Erspn held his opinion. He was inclined to agree with Bukarn. Erspn saw things in other worlds that sometimes related to here.
“Still, we’ll know more now,” Bukarn said. “These are the same river-walkers I sent.”
“Bring them in,” Mistress Siradath called from the gate. “Best give them our arcade as shelter this night, they’ll never return before dark. Have they eaten—have you, Eblan Demekn, are you hungry?—It’s no bother to stir you a stew, I’ll have Namha do it, she’s all at a loss with our eldliks gone. What’s the news?”
“We’ll hear it inside,” Bukarn said and ushered everyone in.
“You’re as anxious as him,” Erspn said to Detah, both lagging behind.
“I’d rather not hear it,” she said.
“You feel it too? When something calamitous happens in this world it creates such a disturbance that it sends waves through all other worlds—worlds with seasons at odds with our own. Then those like Dalys, and sometimes some eblann, feel those waves long before that calamity happens. Or long after. Is that what you’re feeling?”
“It’s not ‘sight’,” she denied. “I thought we’d agreed it, it’s just my reasoning.”
“As you say. So best we go in. They’ll all be crowding, we’ll have to curl round the rafters.” He laughed. “I’ve not done that since a child.”
He was right, there was little space left for them. The family were gathered around the hearth, Bukarn close with old trader Erlunen, Demekn standing apart and looking awkward. The river-walkers, standing too, looked even more awkward.
“Why not sit?” Erspn offered but their spokesman said they’d rather not.
“You want to be with Master Bukarn?” he asked Detah. He’d have squeezed her through but she shook her head. “Well, we’ll get ourselves closer to Demekn.” She was their guest, the family ought to have moved aside for her. She was Mistress Alenta’s daughter, too. But she’d also been helping Mistress Siradath that day in the granary, so now she was rated as less than Sathea, named the next-mistress.
Mistress Siradath fussed. She wanted them all to wait upon her brew. But Bukarn said no and Demekn agreed, the river-walkers too. They were Alsime, unused to such surroundings, they weren’t even local, from His Indwelling. Then there was a moment of hesitancy, a matter of etiquette. But after all, the river-walkers had been sent by Master Bukarn. What had old trader Erlunen to do with it?
“You have news?” Bukarn asked their spokesman.
“Fandunen,” Demekn leant forward to whisper.
“You have news, Fandunen?” Bukarn amended.
“Aye,” Fandunen said and shyly sighed.
“Fandunen, before you left for the Waters, I asked you particularly to investigate certain . . . certain aspects of this barrier. Did you?”
Erspn leaned in close to Detah. “Why does he say ‘barrier’ when we all know it’s a bridge?”
“But it’s not yet proven a bridge.”
“Ah,” Erspn said, then thought for a moment. Aye, it had been said of the thing that it could be a built-platform, the better to make offerings into the river’s deep heart. “Our granary master has a sharp turn of mind. I see where you have it from it now.” And it might be as well for him to acquire it too, especially now these unknown things were about to happen.
Before the river-walkers had left Isle Ardy Bukarn had given them full instructions of what he wanted explored or examined. He now questioned them accordingly. Erspn was impressed. It was as if he had gone along and taken a look. Assumptions were smashed. New explanations were formed.
The barrier was exactly where Bukarn had thought it, having heard Horsemaster Makesen’s report: close to the confluence of North Rib with the Water of Waters. To the south of the river was the Wilds. But ‘wilds’ meant only that is wasn’t tilled or pastureland. Asked further, the river-walker said it was woodland, but untouched, unlike the Freelands. Where it met the river a tangle of bushes grew amongst the trees. It was the opinion of the river-walkers that this wasn’t a place to be over-nighting. As to the north bank, that was fen. No place for walking, they said, what with the fever-spirits, the biting things, and it absent of land.
Erspn crinkled his brow. Why would anyone, Kerdolan or otherwise, want to build a bridge there? So perhaps Bukarn had it right, that it was a platform for depositing offerings. How wise to investigate, rather than to go bulling off like Trader Imblysin and his companions.
But that thought was upturned by the river-walker’s subsequent description of the structure. It was a Kerdolak-type bridge, no doubt of that. But it was so flimsily made that, in the river-walker’s opinion, it wouldn’t last beyond the season.
So again came the question of why build it there. And why build it shabby?
The river-walkers explored on foot the south bank. There was patch seaward of the bridge where it looked like a cow had been lolling. Perhaps the cow had mites it needed rid of, the river-walker suggested, since all around were thistles and nettles. The ground around the end of the bridge the ground was much trampled. Yet they found one track, wide, that led into the woodlands, to a glade with tree stumps and chippings thick everywhere.
Well that explained why the bridge in such an unlikely location. Not for porting timbers across. Wood floated. But for the tree-fellers’ use. Its flimsy structure suggested the Kerdolan intended to remove it before the sailing season began. That would make sense, since their own longboats were often seen as far upriver as Bajapa’s Isle. They’d not want to bar their own traffic. But more than this was beyond Erspn’s ken. It was of trade, and trade was Master Bukarn’s concern. Still, Erspn did feel a certain relief. Detah’s call of ‘no one returns’ was founded on the Kerdolan being irate at the Ulvregan and Saramequai destroying their bridge. Now it seemed more likely they’d be pleased to have it uprooted for them. They’d probably been cheering while Imblysin’s men were sweating.
But Bukarn wasn’t yet done with his questions. He wanted to know where these Kerdolan dwelt. Obviously not immediately onto the river, since the north bank was fen. But in that fen the river-walkers had found a second track, laid to meet with the bridge, and this they followed, though only a short distance (Bukarn had told them not to risk danger).
“We stopped, but not before we’d seen it.”
“What was it?” asked Bukarn.
“Not a notion,” the river-walker answered, a great swaying shake of his head.
Erspn was impressed by how patient Bukarn was with the man. Of course, he traded with Alsime. But then so did all granary traders, and not all were as welcoming of them, especially not those who had served in the Dal. They returned with an arrogance learned from the Uestin, that anyone not of a noble clan was lesser-than-less. Plants, they called them, to be trodden upon. Yet there was no sign of this in Bukarn. Erspn approved. It meant that Detah wouldn’t have learned it from him.
It took several more prompts for the river-walker to describe what he’d seen. At the end of the track, right on the edge of the fens—which to his mind was a fool place to build, what with the snakes and the fever-spirits and the biting things—was a high log-fence. Had it been within Alisalm bounds he’d have taken it for a granary isle. But he knew the Eskin didn’t build theirs like that. Often they didn’t have bounding fences at all but a ditch and a bank of scant dimensions, and those more usually four-sided.
Detah started to shake her head. Bukarn looked at her in query.
“Whoever they are, these folk aren’t Kerdolan,” she said. “This river-walker—Fandunen—has just said of the snakes.”
Erspn saw the rise of Bukarn’s brow.
“The Kerdolan fear them,” she said.
“They could be new to Un Dli,” Demekn suggested. “Or even be new to Jitinnis. There are no snakes in Banva Go, nor in Liënershi, so maybe they’ve not yet discovered them.”
Detah wrinkled her nose while she thought upon that.
“May we continue?” Bukarn asked her, teasing.
Bukarn had asked the river-walkers to go as far as the Eskin granary along North Rib—which allowed them a second look at the part-built enclosure. What’s more, as yet it was open to the river. They could see clearly inside it. It wasn’t a granary.
“For when has a granary ever been four-short-sided. And of stone?” said the river-walker.
Around the hearth where the family sat there were nods and comments of ‘True, that’s true.’
Erspn felt obliged to add his worth. “Aye, we all know it. No one builds with stone without it’s for the honour the Ancestors or for the dead. As for four-short-sided, what is that? Not a belly, nor an earth-boat. Four-short-sided? Nothing’s four-short-sided.” Nothing but a small grass-plaited box.
Bukarn asked them how many men they had seen at work there.
“You never asked us to count.”
“Ten. Maybe twenty. How to say when they’re moving and all look the same?”
He asked the river-walker to describe their appearance.
“Not Alsime. Neither Eskin. I’d say darker. With naked faces. And they’re all clad in white—fine for an Eskin granary-keeper but no sense for working. Even from the river we could see them grubby—though, aye, they looked like granary-chemmies. Had those granary hip-bands, too. But that were no granary we saw.”
“No,” Bukarn agreed, “it wasn’t a granary. And those clothes mark them as Kerdolan. Did you go to North Rib’s granary to offer trade, as I said?”
Erspn again leant close in to Detah. “Your granary master is extremely thorough. Almost as if he had an answer in mind, these men sent only to confirm it.”
“He was unsettled by the Saramequai’s story. I think there’s something he’s not saying.”
“Hmm?” But if Detah hadn’t yet managed to reason it out it what point in Erspn trying.
The river-walker explained first that the granary was set a far distance along North Rib—well away from the Kerdolan, the fen and the Waters. He then described what had happened. At first Erspn wasn’t sure what he had offered for trade.
“First off the trader there sniffed it. Then he bit it. I wanted to say it were not food. Then he said something in his hissing speech. Often I know what an Eskin is saying but this was beyond me. He then offered me a pot of honey.”
“What! Is that all?”
“Aye, well, I refused it. I lay no claim as an all-the-time trader like you, Master Bukarn, but you know how we Alsime enjoy a good haggle.”
“What did you get off him?”
“This.” He signed to his companions. One brought forward a skin, rolled fur-side in.
“Bear,” Bukarn said.
“That’s what we thought though we’d none of us seen one before. Not whole.”
“So, the Eskin are offering bearskin for copper? I’d have given only a wolfskin. You did well, all of your. But now how you’ll divide it . . . ?”
“No,” said one of the accompanying river-walkers. “Fandunen did the dealing, and he’s done the talking, we’re agreed he’s to have the fur. Besides, he has a new woman to lie with him on it.”
The river-walkers shuffled their feet, furtive glances at the long narrow passage. Erspn supposed them impatient to escape the granary-lodge, surely a strange place to them. But Bukarn stayed them.
“On your way back from North Rib, did you pass other traffic? Riverboats? Horses? Ulvregan?”
“We saw some Ulvregan, aye. As you say, in boats and with horses. Some on horses had feathers, like they might be eblann but not. We laughed of them. All that noise, they’d no hope of felling a beast in a hunt.”
“Where were you when you passed them?” he asked.
“Now did you ask us to notice that? But it must have been the far side of First Water’s joining for those horses were wet, like they’d crossed the river, I remember thinking.”
Bukarn thanked them. They made to go.
“Sathea,” Mistress Siradath called for her daughter before they escaped. “A pot of honey for each of these men. Detah, go help her.”
Old trader Erlunen’s head snapped round. Ay-yi, the look he gave Mistress Siradath, and rightly too. That store wasn’t hers to plunder at will. Yet it also was right to gift the men, and they had been on granary-trade business.
“I’ll replace the honey,” Bukarn offered, at which the old trader Erlunen relented—yet he still stood guard on the store while the girls fetched the pots. A granary mistress retires at her fifty seasons-seen, her trader along with her. Retirement had suited Sasinha, but not Erlunen, robbed of authority. Erspn had been glad; he’d never liked the man.
“It’s a Kerdolak hold,” Erlunen said once the river-walkers were gone. “I saw several when I was Duneld’s trader.”
“I guessed that it was,” Bukarn agreed. “But set right beside the Waters? I don’t like that.”
“Well, not right beside, but I take your meaning,” Erlunen grunted.
Erspn sniffed. They’d be talking, now, of trade all night while he’d rather slip into his chamber. But ought he to stay? The first duty is to the Mistress, he reminded himself. The second to the family, the third to the society, the fourth to the Alsime. He supposed as an eblan, it was his duty to stay. His family depended upon the granary trade; his society too, for the eblan-herb could be had only off the granary master—and the Mother only knew whence it came (for all Erspn knew, it was had off the Kerdolan).
“Seems the Kerdolan are expanding,” Bukarn said. “Waters’ gate only a couple of days to the east.”
“They already trade copper into Dal Uest,” Demekn said. “I’ve said, the Gousen, Clan Dragsin. With an east gate they might also trade with Dal Nritris and the Feg Folk.”
Erspn could feel himself sinking into the mire. He grimaced. But, though the situation now seemed less dire, he forced himself to listen. He did try to understand.
“Clan Dragsin, Demekn, did you say Clan Dragsin?” Mistress Siradath asked, suddenly alert. “You know my opinion of Uestin talk, I’ve no interest of it, yet, Master Bukarn, did you not say that my Imblysin is Clan Dragsin’s kin?”
Erspn tried to put this together, not to be bested by his sister. Trader Imblysin was Clan Dragsin’s kin; Clan Dragsin traded with the Kerdolan; the Kerdolan were building a trading hold along the Waters. His mouth fell open. Nod’s Nuts! That treacherous double-dealing Dal-sucking trader. No wonder Imblysin had to be bullied, no willing participant. It would have suited him best for that bridge to remain. Suited him best, too, for the Ulvregan traders not to know of that Kerdolak hold.
“Our men were right to go to the Waters,” Mistress Siradath said, “even if it was more at the Saramequai’s bidding than at my trader’s. And if they slaughter the Kerdolan, then that is well done.”
“The Kerdolan are after our trade,” Erlunen agreed.
“Only the trade from overseas, and the east,” the retired Sasinha said, as if he fussed over nothing. “Besides, our trade’s not in copper.”
“But why set a trading hold there?” Detah asked. “I mean, along North Rib in particular.”
“How do you mean?” asked Bukarn—and Erspn noticed his voice anxiety-sharpened again.
“Well, there’s no sense to it,” she said. “If they’re to trade with Dal Uest, Dal Nritris, the Feg Folk, why not site their hold closer to the sea-gate?”
“The girl is right,” Erlunen said. “They’re mariners, their boats made for sea travel, not for our rivers. If they’re bringing copper in from their western holds then they’d bring it by sea, not trouble themselves with passes from West River into the Waters. Aye, your girl is right. This makes no sense.”
“Unless they receive it from the north,” she said. “North Rib wells around Eli Emiso.”
Erspn followed her gaze. She was watching Master Bukarn quite intently—and his colour was high, a face like a beacon come summer’s end.
“Not if they intend to trade copper,” Erlunen corrected “The Kerdolak copper-lands are away to the west.”
“Salt?” she suggested.
Bukarn appeared now in a sweat. Detah, too, was chewing her lip. Something here was not being said. Perhaps a talk with Detah, sometime later? But no, Erspn changed his mind on that. He was having trouble following the politics of this as it was.
“That Kerdolak hold must be destroyed,” Erlunen thumped out his words. “That, more than the bridge, will lessen our trade.”
“I’ll not argue with that,” Bukarn nodded. “But it’ll not be done by picking up weapons and blindly attacking. And first we await Trader Imblysin’s return. He has all our best fighting men.”
“There are Alsime,” Mistress Siradath said. “If this is to be dangerous it might be best to send them.”
“When the Alsime won’t pick their noses lest the eblann tell them? And the eblann will not say unless first directed by the Ancestors?”
“Master Bukarn!” Erspn objected, “That’s unasked.”
“Apologies; I was making a point.”
“But my father is right,” Demekn said. “What concern is this of the Alsime? What care they if our northern granaries have no overseas trade? What do the Alsime have from Dal Uest that they’d begrudge the Kerdolan?”
“Cloth,” Mistress Siradath said. “Their hempen cloth is a wonder.”
“Whale oil,” said Sathea, her words a rare occurrence.
“That’s from the Feg Folk,” Sasinha said, then added amber.
“What the Alsime trade from us isn’t the question,” Bukarn said. “Besides, the Ulvregan take plenty. No, it’s that Kerdolak hold, it must be destroyed. But there’ll be no plans made until Trader Imblysin return us the men. I’d like to think the Saramequai might help us with it.”
“Aye? And why ought they?” Erlunen asked, his prejudice showing.
“Because that hold is set there to trade with the Gousen,” Bukarn answered him. “Particularly with Clan Dragsin. And Dragsin and Querkan are presently fierce with each other.”