Next episode of Alsalda:
Pride swelled in Erspn as he watched Detah, squatting there amongst the ashes, not a qualm to her, just scoop, tip, scoop, tip, filling the sack. Unlike Demekn. But then she stopped. He saw her look up . . . Read on.
It was no idle glance. She had seen something, or heard. Something just into the southern fringe of the forest. Though he kept his head low he, too, took a look. Aye, she was right.
“Keep to your task,” he told her quietly. “Best to give no sign that we’ve seen them.”
“Kerdolan?” Demekn’s hand was already clutching his blade.
“Keep working. Same as your sister.”
He’d caught a long glimpse of them. Two, he would say. But there could be more hidden.
“Ulvregan?” Demekn asked.
“Alsime I’d say by their clothing.”
“The Lenevan dress the same,” said Detah, ”– when hunting. And we’re as close to their land as to ours.”
But Erspn insisted, “I swear I saw bonnets. Must take care not to startle them. Startled folk tend to let fly their arrows and we’re mighty big targets out here.”
“But we’re eblann,” she objected.
“Aye. But if they’re frightened . . .” And they would be frightened whatever they were doing, so close to this place.
“I want you two to sing,” he told Detah and Demekn. “But not yet—when I stand. These are our dead and I want you to sing to them. You understand? But keep it low—a dirge. They’re not to hear which words are missing. You understand? You’re not to sing the full thing. And best too not to look at the sacks or the ashes. The spirits here will have their full rites with all families attending.”
“What’s your intent?” asked Demekn. A fair question.
Erspn couldn’t help grinning. “Oh, only to do some eblan-doings.”
He stood, his back to the hidden men to the south. If he’d guessed wrong then this could be the end of his life. And yet, though he could find no story to account for their presence he’d swear by Nod’s Nuts these weren’t Kerdolan out there—not with them wearing deerskin bonnets. He waited for the two young eblann to start their singing.
It ought to be Demekn, two winters now an eblan-apprentice, who knew best the words. Yet Detah began it, and that didn’t surprise him. Demekn only belatedly joined her. As told, they kept their voices low and, turned from the south, their words didn’t carry. He started his play.
Arms outspread as if embracing the sky, he intoned to the Mistress. “Light of the sky, eyes of the Father, witness of our deeds, every one.” That ought to stir whatever their conscience, for good or for ill. He hoped it the former. “Eyes of the Father, you saw what befell here. Spirits thick here of our kinsmen. Whisper it into the mouths of the beasts. Give the truth to the birds to tell. Let the trees recount it as they shiver their leaves. Let them say what you have seen.”
If the night hadn’t been breathing hard upon them he’d have listened, as said, to the birds and the trees and the deer and the mice and the badgers and weasels. But they’d not the time, and there in the trees were two Alisime-tongued tellers, he’d swear.
“Movement,” Detah said, her lips not moving.
“I’d say not. Now stepping out of the trees. Do you want us to repeat the song?”
Slowly he turned.
“I know them,” Detah said leaving her brother to drone. “Vreah’s sons, from Bajapa’s Isle.”
“The older is Stalun, the younger, Brestan.”
“You’re a beast,” he told her, and added, “That’s praise.”
By the time he arrived at the Eblan Freeland, weighted and slowed by the two brothers, Detah and Demekn had a fire roaring. His passengers hadn’t spoken all through that journey; they didn’t speak now. And yet they helped haul his boat up on the bank. Erspn guessed at some disagreement between them. When they joined Detah and Demekn by the fire they sat turned away from each other.
“I’ve not much food to share but . . . ” Erspn held out the package for Stalun and Brestan to take. There was meat and an early egg, hard cooked. Again, Demekn refused the food, which left Erspn and Detah with the last of the travel-cake. When they’d finished eating he asked the brothers what was their tale.
“A sorry one, that’s what,” Brestan said. His lips were crusted. Either someone had slammed a fist into them, else he’d savagely worried them.
“We’re not storytellers,” Stalun said. “Rather you ask us. If we can then we’ll say.”
Erspn approved. It was a fact of the Alsime that once started they tended to wander down some very odd ways. He began by repeating their names. “Vreah’s sons, aye? Born at Bajapa’s Isle? Likely begot at a Winter Ending.”
“Aye. We’ve no fathers beyond Him Above,” Brestan said. He was surly, words angry. “We’re Alsime, we’ve said.”
“Aye, neither granary nor Ulvregan,” Erspn said though it brought an impatient roll of eyes from Brestan.
“Eblan Erspn says that for a reason,” Detah said, unprompted. “Neither Ulvregan nor granary-family, no one expected you to respond to the call. This fight wasn’t yours.”
“Listen, Little Eblan,” Stalun said. “Expected or no, we wanted to go. Not family, aye, yet there we dwell, and what happens to one, happens to all. Bajapa’s Isle is a mite close to that bridge.”
“We went to pull down the bridge,” Brestan said. “No one said what those on horses intended.”
“Aye, we’d not have gone had we known.”
“We didn’t look,” Demekn said, “was the bridge destroyed?”
“Aye,” said Stalun. “Southern half of it. The bigger boats now can pass it.”
“That we were happy to do,” Brestan said, his anger chopping the words. “Happy we were to heave and to pull and to sweat—we enjoyed it. All working together felt good; Ulvregan, granary, those Dals-men and us. Even the girl did her share though she was away every chance to see to the horses.”
“Where were the horses?” Erspn asked. That was something else they’d not looked for. Master Bukarn would look askance at them. Still, he’d see what could be salvaged through hearing their tale.
“There was a holly,” Stalun said. “You know how holly forms like a wall, like a hanging? Mostly the horses were hidden there. Tethered inside the holly tree.”
“What happened? To the horses?” Demekn asked.
Erspn was annoyed. He knew Demekn’s reason; he’d have known it without Detah to whisper it to him. He wasn’t happy; Demekn was putting this markon before the Mistress, before his family of birth, before the Eblan Society, even before the Alsime. He made a mock of the eblann duties. Most un-eblan-like behaviour. Never before had he interfered with another’s apprentice but he’d have to have words with Shunamn. Something had to be done. Maybe once he’d set this markon aside he’d then be more open to questions—such as what the Uestin knew of the Spinner. But for now that must wait.
Brestan was saying of the horses, “We followed their tracks, but not till the next day.”
“We had this notion. If we could find one, we then might ride it, the boats being gone.”
“Their tracks went southward.”
“We’re hunters,” Stalun said, “we’ve hunted those wilds; it’s no strange land to us.”
“After a day we came to a river. It was a ghost-thought anyway.”
Erspn was no horseman, and no desire to it. Yet Sapapsan’s trader had kept those horses and whether Erspn wanted or not he had learned of them. He knew enough to know that someone had set the horses loose; that someone had led them, had given them direction. Now that someone was alive, alone and limping—just as Dalys had seen.
“Thirty men killed, how?” he asked. “You pulled down the bridge, all hands helping. So what happened next?”
“They were watching us,” Stalun said. “Must have been, for we’d hidden the boats yet they knew. Makes me sick and shivery just to think on it. Watching us as we tore down their bridge. Why didn’t they yell, tell us not to do it?”
“They wanted it gone,” Brestan said. “That’s how we saw it.”
“We pulled down that bridge, we did them that service. Then we—that’s Brestan and me and some, too, of the Ulvregan—thought that’s that and started to celebrate. Ay-yi, the noise we made. We’d not have heard a herd of aurochsen had they come bulling at us. Even the guards joined in.”
“At least this time they thought to set guards,” Detah muttered.
“That’s when they attacked?” Erspn asked.
“No. They must have been laughing while we were hooting,” Stalun said.
“Those with the horses then started in chanting,” Brestan said. “Never heard the like, never hope to again. Aylalalalalalala, and ending with a curdling cry—like stuckered pigs. No matter their gabbling talk, we knew what that was.”
“Their battle cry,” said Demekn.
“Seems all joined in except us,” Brestan said.
“We were frightened,” said Stalun.
“Frightened?” Brestan said. “If I’d been an aurochs still I’d have been shitting it—begging old language but . . . you know.”
“All out of nowhere there now were these weapons. Maces,” Stalun said and described their size with his hands. “Hammers. And spears.”
“Their faces like bathed in blood they were,” said Brestan, incredulous. “So red.”
“They smear them with a red-earth,” Demekn supplied.
“Well we’re having no part of this, that’s what we’re not.”
“We’d gone only to tear up that bridge.” Brestan said.
“We’re herders, not warriors.”
“So you slipped away?” Erspn asked.
“If we say aye, we’re cowards,” Brestan said.
“And that’s a shame on our mother.”
“That’s shame on Bajapa’s Isle too, and now her with no traders. We lived while they died.”
“We’ve been stuck in that woodland. He wanted to go home but I told him no.”
“Yet you came to me,” Erspn said.
“You’d asked your Mistress for a witness, and we did see.”
“Not all of it?” Erspn suggested.
“A goodly part of it.”
“Heard too, I’d say too much of it.”
“Aye, from my arse to my tits it’s too much—begging old language but . . . you know. And not all were dead when put on that fire.”
Erspn tried not to glance at Demekn and Detah. But Detah’s face had blanched and Demekn was onto his feet and walking away, into the dark. The brothers, too, needed no time to dwell upon it. Yet Erspn struggled of how to move the talk on.
“We’ve come here with you,” Stalun said. “But how can we go home? They died. Thirty men died. While we . . .” He sighed.
“While you went hunting,” Erspn supplied. “A deer, was it? To help along the celebrations.”
“No, that’s not—”
“As my apprentice knows, I don’t hold with lies. Yet at times the truth is more painful to know. Destructive, I’d say. No, there are times when a lie acts as a salve, to heal. Now, Vreah is feared out of her mind for you. You’d have her grieve the rest of her days because you’re too scared to go home? I tell you, you did nothing cowardly. You went in good faith to destroy the bridge. You destroyed it. Then you left. Truly, it would be cowardly not to return. It would cause your family much pain.”
Stalun shook his head. “Ma Vreah would whip us good if she caught us lying. That too would hurt her.”
“Fine. So you keep your lips sealed, let me do the telling. She the only one knows you’re gone? So that’s that. Now, we’d best work out where each is sleeping.”
Detah stayed by the fireside long after the brothers had settled beneath Erspn’s propped-up boat. Erspn guessed she was thinking of more than Demekn (there still was no sign of him).
He leant in close to her. “You’re wondering who is the one, alone and limping?”
“No, I think I know who is that. But without the certainty I can’t give him false hope.”