Episode 18 of Alsalda
Eblan Hegrea had warned of the approaching changes. And perhaps Detah had already a glimpse of an inkling. But the reality . . . The granaries soon to be gone. The Ulvregan traders’ holds likely to follow them. And herself, an eblan? Now how unlikely was that. And she knew her first duty would be grim. But that wasn’t yet. First there was Eblan work. Read on . . .
Master Bukarn had teased her, said he didn’t recognise her. “It’s the bonnet.” Detah wasn’t happy with that but Erspn had insisted. She was to wear Alisime clothes.
“But what’s wrong with these?” They’d been standing beside the river and she’d stepped a bit closer to see her reflection.
She wore a faded yellow granary chemmy—though hers came only to the knee while the grain-women wore theirs to the ground. And she’d no hip-band around it (she wasn’t yet a women). Instead, a plaited leather belt held a hold-everything pouch. Her legs were encased in close-fitting chaps—though thankfully not Alisime-styled (no matter how soft the deer-leather). Hers were of a dark brown linen. Her thick unruly hair was for the first time this day plaited, but it still was uncovered. She wore no jingly jangles—except that every seam and hem was first braid-covered then trimmed with hundreds of tiny beads of baked clay. Around her neck hung her two amulets, but they only to ward against ghosts.
In the water’s reflection she saw Erspn peer over her shoulder.
“But what is it?” he said. “Neither this nor that. An eblan is Alsime, Young Detah. So Alsime you needs look.”
Demekn held up his hands as if to say, ‘innocent and don’t compare me’.
“Your brother wears an eblan-cloak.”
“Cape,” she corrected.
“There will be no argument.”
Aye, what had she done? Exchanged the nag of a mistress for the nag of a master. She’d not realised Erspn could be so stern.
“I have the eblan-rod,” she said, though as yet her palm stung when she grasped it. Her spirit nigh had fled her, Erspn saying more blood, more blood—her gift to the yew tree.
“Aye, but until you’ve made it yours—however you do it—it could as well be an Alisime walking-stick. No, until you wear the feathers you’ll wear Alisime clothes. Once clad in your feathers, you may wear whatever you wish. Aye,” he answered before she could say, “Uestin breeches like Demekn if so inspired to it.”
She had sighed. Exceedingly heavily.
“Go see Namha,” he’d said. “She’ll help you put something together. But be kind to her. Distract her a while, huh?” Namha was grieving for her man, the eldliks, who foolishly had gone with the Ulvregan traders along the Waters.
So now Detah was fully Alisime garbed, and irritable at being uncomfortable. The bonnet, kindly donated, might be skin-soft deer-leather but it made her head sweat, and it itched. And that double-apron . . . she’d not the hips to hold it and it kept slipping round. Besides, with its mass of tassels it soon would be grubby. It wasn’t granary-woven linen to be easily washed. She tutted. All in skins, where before she’d been in everything linen.
“You can sit,” Demekn said when he came to join her in Erspn’s chamber.
But she’d not been in an eblan-chamber before, warded as they were by their charms, and she preferred to stand just in by the door. Besides, it was dark, too. She feared if she moved she might stand on Dalys, since he too shared the chamber.
“What do we do now?” she asked. Erspn hadn’t said.
“We wait for Eblan Erspn to join us.”
“Aye, but what then?”
That brother of hers, he was as frustrating as her new eblan-master!
“Aye, but what exactly is eblan-work?”
“Depends what needs doing.”
“Eblan-work ,” Erspn had said when she’d asked, “is learned by the doing. Eblan-lore is learned by the telling.”
He then had said of eblan-lore. That there once had been only the one body of lore—long ago in the days of the Ancients. But an eblan learned the lore from his eblan-master, and each eblan-master deemed as important a different part of the lore. So one eblan passed on this part of it while ignoring another part, while another eblan passed on that part without even a mention of any other. Then again, some eblann added new lore: things they’d discovered.
“The eblan-knowledge isn’t shared? Not even at the seasonal meetings?”
“We are eblann, not truvidiren. Neither do we lie.” He looked sternly at her.
She frowned, not understanding.
“You were asleep when Dalys cried out.”
“But I knew of the fire. Could I have I dreamt it?”
“Well it’s true, we eblann do dream.” That had been said while walking back from the Eblann Freeland, north of Cloud Stone Isle, after cutting her rod—and her hand.
Now, finally, she would learn of their eblan-work. For now, finally, Erspn came to join them in his eblan-chamber—though to her mind she’d learn more, and more quickly, if she could ask.
And still she wouldn‘t move from the door, waiting while Erspn worked at the small fire to return it to life. Its cheery flames chased away the murk. Now she could see. Three beds were tucked tight to the walls, and smooth-crafted shelves stood between them—but no Dalys to inadvertently stand on. One of those beds now would be hers. Demekn would have to sleep on the floor. And someone had brought in the furs she’d been using and dumped them against the far wall.
After a cursory look, her gaze settled upon the shelves—or rather on the baskets and pots, and the woven boxes (and those crafted of bone, horn and wood) that stood upon them. There was not a clue of what was in them, each in some way covered and lidded. She could see there were skulls set around them—including the moss-capped cat’s skull she had given to Erspn. Some of the others were human, though mostly they weren’t. She looked at the roof-beams, too, attracted there by the tails depending. How many? A tail or two from every named beast, at the least. Whatever did Erspn do with them?
But one wall insistently called her eyes to it. Nothing was set against it, yet it wasn’t (as the others) plain unadorned plaster. Indeed, across its white ground was a profusion of marks. She tilted her head as if she’d then understand them, but that didn’t help. They were made in every colour. Bright and aglow as the yellow hawksbit. Pale as the dog-rose and freshly made butter. Black as the slain swine’s heart. Blue as both the day and the night sky. Green as the tree, both summer and winter. Brown as the river-sand and the soil of the grain-field, brown as every animal skin, as every drab songbird, brown—
“Now you’re to ask me what they are,” Erspn said—which startled her nigh from her skin. In the blaze of the fire his dark eyes sparkled.
“Charms?” she offered. Every granary passage had charms painted along it, each a warding against some ghost or spirit. With a granary stacked with the skulls of the previous mistresses this was only sensible. Yet none of those charms matched these on this wall.
“Moments,” he said.
“Aye, moments. Of inspiration. Each one of these. But . . . ” he sighed, “I can say no more that that. The Mistress inspires, the eblan creates. But often it’s others who find the meaning.”
She tilted her head—all the way until it was sidewise. But the marks remained marks, not even graced with a pattern like the granary-charms.
“But, whenever you’re ready, do venture in,” Erspn invited. “This now is your lodging. Your chamber. Your space. Exciting, isn’t it.”
No, Detah didn’t agree. And for a frightening instant time contracted. She saw Erspn dead and she here at Sapapsan’s Isle, now with only the ever-silent Sathea for company.
“Yours.” Erspn nodded to the bed by the outer wall.
Detah sank to the floor, her back to the bed, angled to enable her to see the inspired wall.
At times, so she’d noticed, Erspn used the same sarcastic lilt as Mistress Alenta. She didn’t like that. And she wanted to ask what now was to happen, but dared not. Her only recourse now was to watch.
Erspn smoothed out the glowing coals of the fire and scooped a hollow amongst them as if it a nest. In the hollow he set a dark-bodied bowl. Was it empty? It looked it. He watched it. Intently. He watched it, and watched it. So, this was his eblan-work? No wonder he kept quiet of it. After more watching, he spat at the bowl. The spit sizzled. So that was it, he’d been waiting for the bowl to heat?
He produced a pad of green-feather herb from a pouch of soft leather. (That pouch was small, very small, compared to the packages in Master Bukarn’s store at Ardy’s lodge.) He teased out a tangle of burrs, tearing them small and smaller still. She inhaled. All her life she had known that sweet sharp aroma. The times it had wafted from Shunamn’s chamber, masking his other smells, his feet and his farts. Erspn dropped the tiny torn pieces into the bowl.
At once arose a filmy white tendril of smoke that sought not the thatch but spread out at head-height across the chamber as if too heavy to climb. More and more shreds he dropped into the bowl. More and more smoke rose and spread from it. Whatever the air previously filling the chamber, it now was gone. Detah breathed only the smoke of the green-feather herb. It was sharp in her chest but not unpleasant.
She smiled. So this was eblan-work. She laughed. This was Eblan-work. She laughed more.
“You’ve a joke?” Demekn asked her.
She stopped laughing and thought. She cast about, eyes roving the chamber. No, she couldn’t remember why she was laughing.
“It’s the herb,” Erspn said. “Does that to some—at first. It’s like the herb’s spirit is saying hello, getting acquainted, making friends. It soon will take you into its arms and you’ll swell with your happiness. Enjoy that, Detah, enjoy it well.”
She sighed. He was right, she did feel most pleasant. She inhaled and sighed out. Her body sagged, a flop-like boneless bag on the ground. She saw Demekn reaching for something. Next he was playing his five-stringed bow. Water dripped from it, splishing and plunking into the rain-pots.
But there were no rain-pots in Erspn’s chamber!
And she oughtn’t to be here. Here was for eblann only.
Demekn was singing.
Father Above, let your wide arms protect me,
Mother Below, let your dark arms embrace me.
How . . . How?
Aye, how pleasant, most pleasant, she sighed. She then tried to straighten but found her strength gone. Most pleasant, most odd, most . . .
But that wasn’t a song to the Eblan Mistress. Though it sounded better than the caterwauling Shunamn had off him.
Then in a flash of inspiration she understood it. He praised the Lady’s Mother and Father, that he might dally awhile with their daughter.
“Nononono,” she said, wagging her finger. “Our Eblan Mistress is Master Nod’s daughter, not the Father’s.”
He smiled in return and continued his singing.
Daughter of Dawn, let your bright light inspire me,
Your light in my heart and your heat my loins.
But she’s Master Nod’s daughter, born of the sea, of Mistress Nod’s body. But, aye, Detah guessed he was right, she was born of the dawn. She smiled and gave a slight chuckle. She grinned, almost a giggle. “This, I suppose, is my head opening.”
“Is that so?” Demekn said.
But his shook his head. “No! I am not a tree.”
Detah frowned. What did he mean? She looked at Erspn, but Erspn seemed to have departed, leaving his slumped body to linger.
Demekn plucked some more water-formed strings (she did like his music) and returned to his singing.
You I would have for my woman, such pleasure—
Detah’s frown deepened. There was something not right and she couldn’t think what. The Mistress, Eblan Mistress, she wasn’t . . . no, she wasn’t a beddable woman, not like the markon. Unless Demekn wanted to burn himself badly!
Pleasing indeed when you cast your light on me—
Detah chuckled. Everyone said that: Shine your light on me.
Detah’s head was atilt though she’d no memory of moving. She supposed she was considering Demekn’s singing. Why then did she stare at Erspn’s wall? And the chamber again was deepening to gloom. Yet that wall was bright as midday.
Inspired creations! That’s it. They weren’t just marks randomly made, she could see that now. There was a pattern to their chaos. Those yellow marks (though only the straight ones) formed like a boundary, like a fence round a field. Then the red marks (but the curved ones only) she saw now were sheep. How happily they grazed. They knew nothing of the boundary that bounded them. The brown marks (all of them, both squiggles and straights) were trees growing without regard to the boundary—yet they regarded the sheep. As for the black marks: people gazing up at the sky.
She tilted her head the other way, and everything changed—herself too, for she’d no longer words in her head to describe what she saw. But that wall now had depth. And each of the marks had a precise place. The colours . . . Inspired, she saw it now; she knew it, she understood it. But where were the words? Shy, they preferred to hide, afraid she would speak them. Yet gates she saw, aye gates not fences. And those gates with skill could be opened. Within was an isle.
She squinted and wrinkled her nose. No, she’d seen the vision all inside-out. Aye there were gates, and aye they did open onto a isle. But she, in this eblan-chamber, sat in the isle while beyond those gates was . . . Was? The Unbounded! Aye, that’s what it was. It was that which was outside all bounds.
She ought to tell Erspn. She ought to say, Look what you have created! A wall that’s a gate to a no-world beyond.
But Erspn chose that moment to leap to his feet. Unsteady, he swayed. Boneless, he tumbled.
Righting himself he called to her, “Come, follow me. Aye, Demekn, you too. And bring me that drum. I needs speak with the Ancestors—now! They’re saying they’ve something to tell me.”