Episode 17 of Alsalda
Detah couldn’t sleep, disturbed by the storm-spirit Hilshin as he threw his light-spears, stamped his feet and rocked the earth, as the wind roared around the lodge seeking entrance, screaming to be let in through the thatch. But her thoughts weren’t upon him. It was the river-walkers’ report that occupied Detah. Read on . . .
“What if the northern hold has decided now to deal with these westerners, instead of the southerners?” Detah asked Master Bukarn in barely a whisper. And she durst not to speak the names lest, despite the storm’s violence, another not sleeping might hear. But she meant that Meksuin’s Hold might now have decided to trade their copper to the Gousen instead of honouring their ancient alliance with Luktosn’s Hold.
“They would not,” Yet she’d swear she could hear an unspoken the plea in Master Bukarn denial.
“But if the Eskin granary is dealing fire-metals,” she said, “it must come from somewhere. So scornful of more that they’d offer a piddly pot of honey? No, they must have their own source of it. And you heard the old one: the copper-fields are away in the west.”
When Master Bukarn said nothing, Detah said more. “It’s the thorny cows; you’ve already said they’re so hungry they’d bite an arm off for it. Breaks their dependency upon the oak. And unworked?” Thorny cows, the Gousen Clan Dragsin; the oak, the Saramequai Clan Querkan. “But that’s Dal-business; why should that worry you?”
She heard Master Bukarn’s wearisome sigh. “Oh, my girl, you can fill in the gaps. You know it, you’re able.”
“The eblan-herb,” she said.
“No other source for it,” he said.
The eblan-herb, green-feather, was traded from Isle Ardy, and only from there. Yet what had the eblann to offer for it? Most, not a lot. No grain, no crafted wares, no mined stone. If they offered skins—which mostly they did—they were inexpertly treated, and the deer hunted specifically for it (no small furs from them for those must be trapped). Anything else an eblan might have was for his own craft: the flyworts, the healing-herbs, the spirit-gifts. But no matter the deal, Master Bukarn had never refused them.
The Opener, the eblann called it, a flywort, as green-feather implied. She oughtn’t to know but Detah listened, and Shunamn was loud in his voice. The eblann used it particularly when they needed to speak with the spirits, particularly the spirits of the Ancestors. Aye, Master Bukarn had been right when he said of the Alsime, that they did nothing without the Ancestors saying. How different from Dal Uest. As she’d heard it—from Master Bukarn, from Demekn, from many a returning Ulvregan—there a Uissid named Urinod set ‘laws’ concerning and ordering everything. On first hearing that, Detah had taken a Uissid to be a Uestin Ancestor. But now she knew different. A Uissid was only a long-living being. Like Eblan Hegrea.
But how came green-feather to be bound with the granary? It must have been in the first days of the granary’s creation, when the trader-brothers Meksuin and Bulapon had travelled among the Ulvregan. There were nine granaries now, each tellingly set on Eblann society land.
Green-feather, the eblan-herb. And what now might happen if Meksuin’s Hold dealt its copper to the Kerdolan instead of to Luktosn’s to then trade it south? How would the eblann speak to the dead without their green-feather? And what would the Alsime be without the Ancestors to guide them? Detah had sudden visions of chaos crashing upon them—just as the storm’s spirit Hilshin again stamped his feet and threw at them yet another light-spear.
She must have slept, for then she woke. But it still was early with no one else stirring. Beside her Master Bukarn rattled out snores. She was careful not to disturb him, slipping silently from betwixt the furs. Quietly she folded them, straightened her chemmy and tied up her boots. Then she grabbed her travel-cloak and crept out of the lodge.
The long passageway was in darkness but for a faint outline of the door. And even there she could already smell the river. It was closer here than at Isle Ardy. There was the grittiness to it, and a tang of fish. She expected a fine drizzle or a mist to greet her, smells more pervasive on damp days. She wasn’t wrong. The misty-drizzle clung to her as if it were dust. All this rain (with last night’s storm and now this) the grain-women would be happy. They’d been fretting of their early-sown grains.
The gate wasn’t barred. Likely Dalys had left early. She’d discovered he often did that; no one knew where he went. None seemed to care, as long as by dark he’d returned. He’d left the gate open a slip of a width. Without opening it further, she squeezed herself out.
She was about to take a welcome lungful of air—but halted.
Two sets of feet had marked the wet grass. They led through the pasture down to the river. Dalys and Erspn? But why to the river? That wasn’t the way to Cloud Stone Isle. Please, don’t let them be lurking. How was she to think and to make a decision when she was all day squeezed together with folk who did nothing but yabber around her? But at least, despite the mist, above it the sky was clear. It fair sparkled.
But—Hilshin’s Lights—voices, and near! But wait. That wasn’t Dalys, though the other was Erspn. No, it was Demekn with him, and they were talking of the missing traders—of something Dalys had seen in the night. Fire.
She could turn and go the opposite direction, wander along Reclamation Walk. Go talk to the stones, the beings-caught-in-becoming. Like her? But too late. Demekn had seen her. He hailed her.
“Demekn. Eblan Erspn,” she answered. They sat in Demekn’s boat, set back in the water.
“Detah, come join us,” Erspn called to her.
She could have refused her brother but not Eblan Head Man Erspn. So much for a walk along the river. She turned her steps. “Where are you going?” she asked them.
“Round and round in circles. Apt for eblann?” Erspn said and grinned at her. “But please, come join us. A third head might set the course right.”
Demekn’s riverboat wasn’t intended for more than the one; it already was crammed. Erspn signed to Demekn to move. He sat on the bottom, knees under his chin. So then she must sit next to Erspn. It seemed she’d spent much of these past four days either sitting or standing close to him. He smelled of his herbs, particularly green-feather. It wasn’t unpleasant—preferable by far to Shunamn’s feet and unwashed body.
“You’re out early,” he remarked.
“I didn’t sleep.” It would be impolite to say she had wanted to be on her own.
“Disturbed by Dalys? You heard him? More visions. Screaming and crying.”
“Aye,” Detah lied. “I thought the lodge afire. I was all ready to gather my things. What had he seen?”
“As you say, fire. A great fire, with bodies burning. I’d rather not say it, but they were men, our men. Must have been. But one, he says, is alive—no, must get his words right. He said, One, alone, and limping. This is sad, very sad news.”
“They ought to be back now, oughtn’t they.” What else could she say? She dared not look at Demekn. His heart must be hurting, his markon amongst them.
“How long does it take to destroy a bridge, one shabbily-made? Aye,” Erspn agreed. “They ought to have returned before last night.”
“If they still don’t return . . .” She’d been thinking of this these past few days, following paths left hollow by death. “Three granaries with no granary-traders, and a fourth trader lost. The Ulvregan holds with no young traders to them.”
It was as Hegrea had said. Changes. The granaries had been decaying these past many seasons; they now were to die. Detah could see no other way for them. But it had come so fast, so soon. Too soon.
“With no young traders left alive who will be granary trader to my sister? And Drea’s not the only one,” Detah reminded them. “Master Bukarn talks of destroying the Kerdolak hold. But why? If none return, the granary trade is already gone.”
“See there.” Erspn turned to Demekn. “Did I not tell you? Your sister sees things clearly. Sharpest eyes I’ve ever known. What else do you see, young Detah?”
She so wanted to see the young markon as the one still alive. But more likely the one alone and limping was a coward, caught running. She saw pain seeping from Demekn as smoke seeps from the roofs of the Ulvregan holds. She saw the death of those holds.
“How will the Ulvregan continue to trade when they have no young traders? And with no traders, how will the boys learn? Without the young Ulvregan sons learning the craft, there will never again be a granary-trader. Either the granary changes its ways, else . . . else it is gone.”
“She’s right—every twist and every sight of it. Ay-yi!” Erspn groaned. “The damage done by those traders and their Saramequai.”
“Was not their intent,” Detah defended the men now considered lost, though in the Alisime way she couldn’t mention their names. If they were dead—and she knew that they were—then to say their name was to call them back. No dead wanted that. They’d be waiting now for the Send-Off Feast, when Nod’s Daughter would guide them to the Land of Nod. They’d wait in Nod’s nether land until the Feast of Winter Ending, when Nod’s Daughter would deliver their spirits into many a mother’s new swelling belly. It was every woman’s duty to lustily couple on that night. “No, this was the Saramequai’s doing.”
Demekn grunted, his words were barely a breath, “For them there is no greater glory than to die in battle. They’ll go then to be with Beli in Uath’s Land.”
“Well, I fail to find glory in what’s to happen.” Erspn shook his head. “Detah, the Sayer, again speaks Truth. But you, too, Demekn, it’s true what you say: The Alsime scarcely will notice. But the granaries and traders’ holds . . . Oh sad, sad day.”
“Detah over-says it,” Demekn tried to amend. “There’ll still be traders. Luktosn’s sons didn’t go. Then many of the holds have sons serving their four in the Dal, and they will be traders upon their return.”
Detah wouldn’t argue.
They sat in silence. She wanted to leave them, didn’t want to sink into their gloom. Alisalm-land would turn black soon enough once the news was known. But, no, that wasn’t true. As Demekn had said, the Alsime wouldn’t care of it. But the granaries . . . was there a grain-woman who now would not weep, a trader’s hold that would not grieve? And their grieving and weeping would last till the Send-Off Feast. She knew she also ought to feel sad. In a way she did, yet it didn’t pierce deep. Because she hadn’t the grain-spirit in her.
“Master Bukarn’s to leave us today,” Erspn said. “He says there’s nothing to hold him here now, only the confirmation. And though Demekn has offered to carry his boat for him over the western pass, he refuses. He says he’ll go with the river-walkers.”
“The western pass is more direct,” Demekn said.
“But he says it’s longer and steeper.” Detah worried for the strain to the granary-master.
“It’s steep when coming from the Highlands, aye,” Demekn agreed. “But leaving His Indwelling it’s mostly downhill. And he’ll not be alone.”
“He’s to call an assembly,” Erspn said. “He’s allowing six days. That’s enough for even Bukfreha’s mistress to travel to the Highlands.”
All these arrangements. They must have been talking during the night while she slept. They’d not woken her. Yet she’d thought her sleep was but a doze.
“He’ll call for all the granary mistresses, all the traders, both granary and Ulvregan. He’ll tell them whatever news we then have. Then plans must be made. Whatever appropriate.”
Six days. Perhaps by then Isle Ardy will have quietened.
“Once we have the news,” Erspn said, “the Ancestors then must be asked of how we’re to order things now.”
She was about to say that the granary weren’t Alsime to be asking the Ancestors, that Hegrea was their ancestor. But Hegrea had said she was not. She had chosen a family to keep her granaries. Her one child had been the famed Eblan Murdan.
“Before then,” Erspn went on “—tomorrow—Demekn and I shall go along to this place we’ve heard so much of and see what we can find there. It falls to us to be the bearers of this final bleak news.”
“Might I stay with you?” She thought Demekn might appreciate her company and, truly, she didn’t want to return to Isle Ardy. Not yet, for she could imagine Mistress Alenta, with her two brothers amongst the dead. Not that they’d ever been close.
Demekn nodded. “Our eblan head man was hoping you might want to come along with us.”
It took Detah a long moment to absorb the full implication of that. For her to go along with them she must first be eblan. So the time had come, the decision now must be made. How brutal, the Ladies Three, to push her so. Thirty Ulvregan killed, their trading families and the granaries destroyed, just so she’d ask to be an eblan? But the Eblan Mistress wasn’t the Ladies Three. She was Nod’s Daughter, who happily guided the dead to Master Nod’s Land.
“Might I ask a question?” she asked.
Erspn looked expectant.
“Why do you want me as your apprentice? I’m not inspired.”
“Ho! Are you not?” His brows shot up. “Detah, you are restless. You cannot settle to a task. Something stirs you, causes your head to be in chaos. It’s our Eblan Mistress with her five rosy fingers—you know it. She stirs you to create. But like all eblann, until you’ve responded, and created, you’ll not know what it is she wants of you.”
“Seems you know a lot about me.” She suspected Demekn had been talking. Well, if she must decide then first she’d admit what she’d long denied, even to herself. “Gladly I’d have you as my eblan-master, Eblan Erspn, but . . . well, maybe it’s the Eblan Mistress stirring my head, but I do so yearn to travel. Could I do that, as an eblan? Farther than just our Alisime rivers?”
Erspn chuckled quite kindly. “How many worlds would you like to visit, young Detah? How many are there, Demekn? Nine? Is that not enough for you?”
She looked down at her hands. They’d not be still. “That’s not what I meant.” She looked up, her gaze casting about as if for the illusive inspiration. Her eyes lit on Lir’s Boat—like a hare crouching upon the hillside. But a sudden flap of wings brought her gaze back down. There on the river ahead a heron was lifting upon heavy wings.
“It still muddies my head that you want me as your apprentice,” she said.
“There are changes building all around us, waiting to—”
“Aye, I know. To destroy us.”
“The granaries, not us. But the granaries are set on eblann-land, and created by an eblan-inspired. Eblann and granaries cannot be parted. Whatever’s to happen, it’s for we eblann to guide the granaries through it. I’m the eblan head man, and many say I’m too young—indeed, these past few days I have certainly felt it. Detah, I’m not sure I can do this alone. But here is Demekn and here is you, and both are granary-family, both inspired. I would have you beside me in the days to come. There. I have been thoroughly honest with you. But more so, it’s because the Mistress inspires you.”
“Will you allow me to travel overseas?”
“Oh, you are a trader’s daughter. Aye, Detah, I am sure we can find some reason for it at some time in the future—once things have settled.”
“And where would I live?”
“Detah, you now are delaying. Just ask,” Demekn pushed her.
She bit her lip. Looked up, looked away. She sighed. She thought again how brutal the Ladies to push her to this. After so many deaths, had she a choice but to ask?