It was to be a grim day, for the news of the massacre must be told to the families. The Assembly would be held at Murdan’s Stones, at the Old Isle of the Dead, at the very heart of Alisalm-land. Erspn had several reasons for setting it there. It was easily accessible by riverboat, and all had riverboats. But also, uppermost in Erspn’s thoughts was the story of Eblan Murdan and how he had broken the Kerdolan’s hold of the Alisime lands. Today that association seemed apt. Read on.
Erspn stood two steps back from the ‘Watcher at the Gate’, a great squat stone much resembling a giant toad. Beside him was his apprentice, Detah. In exchange for introductions to the arriving eblann (should any arrive that she didn’t know), Erspn had set her a task, double-purposed, to name the granary mistresses their isles and where located, as each one arrived. She was to do likewise with the Ulvregan trading holds. He thought it might keep her occupied, and from growing restless. Detah, of course, had objected that she already knew everyone. Aye, so she might. But he did not. (Though he now had met those from the farthest granaries, they having overnighted at Ardy’s—the lodge had buzzed as each group arrived).
Being the nearest, the contingent from Isle Ardy were the first to appear: Mistress Alenta with her aunt (Old Apsan), her sister (Jaljena), and her daughter, the named next-mistress (Drea). The eblann Shunamn and Demekn accompanied them, the latter looking less grey since Shunamn’s talk to him.
“Am I to name these?” Detah asked him.
Erspn smiled and allowed her not.
“Where are we to sit?” Mistress Alenta asked despite she had attended yesterday’s discussions.
“Mistress Alenta,” he inclined his head to her, something he’d never done with Mistress Siradath. “You may sit if you wish but I’d advise against it.”
“The Sun’s Cove,” said Detah.
“Sun?” She looked up at the sky and sniffed disdainfully. “Father Jaja too is in mourning.”
It was true, He had graced them with a white veiled sky.
Next to arrive was a solitary man, a stranger to Erspn.
“Eldliks Krekys, from Luktosn’s Hold,” Detah said quietly.
Erspn greeted him by name.
“I know the call was for traders, old and remaining,” said Eldliks Krekys, “but our traders upped and awayed, so I’m attending.”
“He’s Old Apsan’s brother,” Detah explained when, catching up with Ardy’s grain-women, Krekys wrapped his arms around the old woman.
“Mistress Judla from Bridatha’s Isle. That’s at South Landing,” Detah said as the next party arrived. “The trader with her is Lunen. He’s originally from Jitnebn’s Hold.”
Erspn had briefly met with them the previous night. Bridatha’s Isle was set along Long Water, which was almost as south as the sea. Thankfully, Sapapsan’s trader hadn’t cast his net so far.
The next arrivals were unknown to Erspn, he being of His Indwelling and they of First Landing. And not as distant as Bridatha’s Isle on Long Water, thus no need to overnight at Ardy’s, these from First Landing were only now arriving.
“Mistress Jannah of Bisdathea’s Isle,” Detah told him. How he envied her ability to place everyone without hesitation. “The old woman is her mother, the retired mistress Sinha. And with them, Sinha’s old trader Marvenkn—Erleldn’s kin—and Mistress Jannah’s trader Beldys who’s Burnise’s kin.”
“See, there to your sister and her panics,” Erspn said. “Not all traders are gone.”
The next group needed no introduction for they were from Ablabran’s Isle at North Bounds, Mistress Salada with her mother, the retired mistress Babnah. Mistress Salada’s daughter Savah (better known as Lalah) trailed behind.
“I take it you know that the mistresses Sinha and Babnah are sisters?” Detah asked.
No, he’d not known that, though he’d not admit it. He didn’t want Detah knowing he’d not always been at Sapapsan’s Isle.
Mistress Brahan, the trader-less keeper from Bajapa’s Isle at East Bounds, accompanied those from North Bounds, and her trader-less daughter, the next-mistress Balasin. Apart from their eldliks, Vreah’s two sons Stalun and Brestan were the only men left to that isle. And they’d thought not to return?
“Here’s two more from South Landing,” Detah said. But these, again, he’d already met the previous night at Ardy’s. “From Hamfala’s Isle, Mistress Ashana and her mother, retired mistress Mistrana. Ashana’s trader is Datys, Jitnebn’s kin. From Sinya’s Isle, Mistress Falena with Trader Namyns—Duneld’s kin. Must I say next of your sister?”
He could see her now, wending her way from Isle Ardy. Like most of the grain-women, she was accompanied by her granary’s former keeper, retired mistress Sasinha, and the old trader Erlunen.
“Ah, and these are the last from the granaries,” Detah said. “From West Bounds, Mistress Hanasan of Bukfreha’s Isle with her trader Buvregyns. He’s another of Jitnebn’s kin.”
“It’s worrying that none from the trader’s holds have yet appeared.”
“But that’s not true!” she objected. “Krekys is here. Besides, most of the traders’ holds are closer than the granaries—two here on the Highlands, another three on the East Highlands. It’s only Mandatn’s that have far to travel, and they probably overnighted at Burnise’s Hold, just across the river from Ardy’s. So they’ll all be arriving late.”
And as if they’d heard her, those of the traders’ holds began arriving, dawdling and talking, coming along the track from South River. Detah named these too: Judeldn and Bukarys of Burnise Hold; Beleldys and Lukenys of Duneld’s; Manspek and Burtamens of Mandatn’s Hold, and Skaldys of Jitnebn’s Hold. Then from the west came Maryns and Jitelden from Bukplugn’s Hold. The last to arrive were two women. Detah named them: Tenisniah and Kolma. “Saramequai, but not Clan Querkan.”
“Are we permitted?” the older woman, Tenisniah, asked. “Only Erleldn’s Hold has no men to send.”
Erspn nodded. And all-but stared to see Bukplugn’s men welcome the women.
“And why not?” asked Detah. “Bukplugn’s kin have mostly Uestin wives. Mostly Saramequai, too. The markon’s sister is one.”
Erspn puffed, his head as stuffed as his belly after a feast. “How do you hold it all in that head of yours?”
She shrugged. “Mistress Alenta would say there’s nothing else in there.”
“Well I know that’s wrong. But, now all have arrived I’d best go address them before the Granary Master says the wrong thing and they send him straight to his death. I’m only glad we sent that preliminary word. Imagine telling them now that their men are all dead. Blessed Nod, where would we begin?”
The Sun’s Cove was too small for their number, though all tried to squeeze in. Perhaps they hoped to shelter from the wind though the cove wasn’t a solid stone wall, not as the coves were in the Hiemen lands. He steered Detah around the back of the stones till they came level with Master Bukarn, then slipped between the stones to join him. Mistress Alenta stood to his right leaving Erspn and Detah to flank his left.
Erspn had to remind himself, these folk were here at Master Bukarn’s invitation. He must wait while the granary-master greeted and thanked them. But he wondered, did they realise why they’d been called? These weren’t Master Bukarn’s men; he spoke only for the granary-traders.
Master Bukarn said his few words, and nodded a prompt to Erspn.
Erspn, Eblan Head Man of all Alisalm-land, held aloft his eblan-rod. Those who’d talked during Master Bukarn’s brief speech now fell utterly silent—aye, even the most Uestin of the Ulvregan. For to hold aloft that eblan-rod was to declare that he spoke on behalf of the Ancestors.
Detah had asked, when cutting her rod, what would happen if another eblan raised his rod too and spoke against him? How could both speak for the Ancestors and yet be at odds? Erspn had laughed. It had been a good question. So he’d asked one in return. Why should the Ancestors agree, one with another, just because they all now were dead? That had sunk her to silence—though not for long.
“According to granary lore,” she’d said, “the dead are only dead for a season. So whence these Ancestors we speak for?”
And that, too, was a good question. He’d sought for an answer. “We speak for the Alsime who died before Mistress Hegrea brought us her Mother’s Bread.”
“But that’s like saying without the swelling-belly-bread, the dead remain dead.”
He’d been unable to answer that. Though now, given thought, perhaps the answer lie in the Earthen Boats.
He thought of that as he held aloft his eblan-rod to speak for the Alsime Ancestors, those whose bones were sealed into the Boats, the dead who remained dead.
“Thirty,” he said into the otherwise silence, “Ulvregan traders and their sons, are dead. You know who they are. Those who followed Sapapsan’s trader. Those who answered the call, who did not return. You know who they are, those who are dead. But you do not know yet what happened to them. How they died. Our granary-master has called this Assembly that I might tell you their story.”
He ignored the look Master Bukarn flicked at him. Aye, so that wasn’t the reason he wanted these folk to attend. Yet these, the bereaved, needed first to know what had happened to their sons and their fathers, their brothers, cousins, nephews, and kin. Aye, it would hurt them to hear it. Yet without that hearing they couldn’t sever the ties. And it had to be told in a certain way so they’d not stone the granary-master unto his death as soon as he opened his mouth. He and Detah had worked long on the wording. Sapapsan’s trader was not to be blamed. Nor the Ulvregan who had blundered blindly into slaughter.
His eyes strayed to Detah. Had she stood closer he’d have taken her hand and thanked her. But then many an eye would have seen that as wrong. They’d not even see ‘apprentice and master’. They’d certainly not see the truth of them.
He spent a moment in breathing before he began. “Twenty days since, not yet a moonspan, four horsemen of the Saramequai Division of the Dal King’s Regiment arrived at Isle Ardy. They were on their way to Sapapsan’s Isle at His Indwelling. A strange route to take, by South River. Our granary-master thought it. He questioned the horsemen. They told him of an obstruction along the Water of Waters, and they told him much more.”
As yet, Erspn repeated the story as he had heard it. The unknown obstacle, the horse they had with them, the attack from behind while unguarded, the boat that was searched yet nothing taken. Someone called out, “Their weapons.” Erspn acknowledged the correction with a slight nod. Though the Saramequai carried rich gifts these remained in their boat and the boat set adrift. When the boat was caught, at their boatmaster’s insistence, they agreed it best to gain His Indwelling by the southern route, coming in at South Rivergate.
“You all know Granary Master Bukarn, he’s neither rash, nor a fool,” Erspn said, beginning now on the delicate part. “He knew what this obstruction was, as many of you would know it by its description. It was a Kerdolak bridge. He—like you—had encountered many while travelling as Luktosn’s trader. But this bridge had a gap too small for the larger seagoing boats. That’s why the obstruction. That gap must be widened, else the bridge removed, and that before the start of the sailing season.”
“Shame he did nothing, then,” came a man’s flinty tone. “Shame he left it to our sons.”
“Trader Skaldys of Jitnebn’s Hold,” Detah said quietly. “Four of their traders were killed, all being his nephews. All that remains is his son. He’s of an age with me.”
“I hear you, Trader Skaldys,” Erspn acknowledged. “The Ancestors hear you. And those Ancestors know what Granary Master Bukarn did or not did, and know why. Listen! This was no ordinary Kerdolak bridge—raised in the wild lands, woodland to south, fens to north. So Master Bukarn asked, as I asked when I heard of it, had this bridge a sacred purpose? Say, a place for offering to Old Murki? Now think on that. What would we do, someone comes tearing down our stones? So before he would act, Granary Master Bukarn sent four river-walkers to investigate the structure, its surrounds and its likely purpose. There should have been time. Even now we have time before trading begins.”
To cut the increasing grumbles, Erspn again raised his eblan-rod. And he cast at his audience a stare most forbidding. They knew his meaning. To speak against either him or Master Bukarn would be to gainsay the Ancestors. Had they been Alsime that alone would have held them. But, as Erspn was aware, the more these Ulvregan trading families looked to Dal Uest, the less powerful was the Ancestors’ hold. Still, when he was sure none would speak he continued with their constructed tale.
The river-walkers had duly returned and reported. Had nothing else happened meantime, then Master Bukarn would have organised the men. He would have treated with the Eskin of Un Dli as needed. He’d have ensured that bridge was no more an obstruction. But others were not as far-thinking as he. Before the river-walkers had yet returned with their news a band of men were on their way to the Wilds.
Erspn wouldn’t name holds or granaries. He pointed only one finger.
“It was the Saramequai horsemaster who lead your men. Led your sons and brothers, fathers, cousins, husbands, nephews, and kin. Many of you have served the four in Dal Uest, as markons. So too had many of those who followed the horsemaster. These had mostly been men of the Regiment. Who could blame your sons and brothers, that they left their families and granaries to follow, as they were used, this Regiment horsemaster?”
Erspn glanced at Detah. Those had been her words. “Play upon their Uestin lore,” she’d said. “Let them be proud of their men who’ve died in battle.” It was the death these Uestuädik warriors sought. Clever Detah. He was proud to have her as his apprentice.
“Your sons and brothers saw no danger. How could there be danger when led by a horsemaster, and he close kin to their king? Aye, your men did the deed, they removed the obstruction, they removed the Kerdolak bridge. In that they were successful. But by that destruction your sons earned their deaths.”
He started to glance at Detah. But held it mid-way. He was suddenly able to see it as others might see it. He could not look at her. It would weaken him in their eyes. Instead, in this needful pause, he tracked his eyes across the triliths that formed the Cove. Beyond—perched atop the ‘Watcher at the Gate’—was a heron. It was so out of place, his eyes seemed glued to it.
Then he saw her, though she faded in and out of clarity. He would have taken her for an eblan-vision yet Detah claimed her as real. That heron-feathered cloak certainly looked it, whiffling in the breeze. Eblan Hegrea, First Granary’s First Mistress. He felt himself gulp, felt the beginnings of a sweat. He watched as she strolled around the isle—until she was behind him, out of his sight. Only then could he speak.
But now he had paused overlong, and amongst those gathered the chattering had begun. There was nothing for it but to hold up his eblan-rod yet again. The talk stopped. He continued the tale.
Hidden amongst the reeds on the northern bank, a hundred pairs of Kerdolak eyes had watched them. Watched while the Ulvregan had hauled on the ropes, had sweated in the tree-held closeness, had toiled. Hidden amongst the reeds on the northern bank, a hundred Kerdolan waited. Waited . . . though at any time they could have called and halted the work. Waited . . . though they could have prevented the destruction of their creation. Waited . . . until the Ulvregan were celebrating. Then these Kerdolan let loose their arrows.
Only the wind could be heard in the Cove. And the flapping of a certain befeathered cloak. Where was she? Did she stand behind him still? Not being able to see her was more unsettling than to know of her presence. One thousand winters-seen and not yet a spirit. What kind of being was she? Detah claimed her to be like the Uestin Uissids. But how could that be? Were she a Uissid then Alisalm-land would be more like Dal Uest, for she and her son had done much to shape the Alisime ways. Besides, the Ancestors approved her.
Determined, he pushed these thoughts away. He’d not yet finished the tale and he now was approaching the most inspired passage.
“What warning had our men? Not one had time to set arrow to bow. This was not an attack. This was no battle. This was a massacre. Thirty Ulvregan men, four Saramequai. Not one survived.”
They had agreed to say nothing of Dalys’s vision, nor that the horses had been set free, to be led south. Aye, one had survived, one alone, and limping. But it was best not to raise hopes. Besides, lost in the Wilds, that one was likely equally dead. Neither did he say of the two Alsime survivors. No one need know of them. He had promised Stalun and Brestan.
“The Kerdolan have a terror of corpses.” He didn’t know how much the Ulvregan knew, whether they’d know Eblan Murdan’s story. “They will not touch the dead once cold. Thus it’s the Kerdolak rite to burn the dead soon after death. This rite they accorded our men.”
Our men, that had been Detah’s suggestion: to bring the Ulvregan and granary and eblann together in this. Now he took the leather bag Detah had patiently held for him.
“We eblann went along the Water of Waters. We went to the place of the broken bridge. But we found only this.” He held up the bag. Its neck was already loosened. He dug in his hand and held up the ashes. He allowed them to trickle back into the bag.
“Ashes. Bones—though those few, and charred. We gathered them all, brought them back with us. Our men—your sons, your brothers—were not Kerdolan to be so treated in death. Here, on the Highlands of the Sun. Here, at the very heart of Alisalm-land. Here we’ll accord them the Ulishvregan rites. We shall make a grave for them. You—their families—shall bring what is theirs that yet holds their spirit. We eblann shall add their ashes, their mortal remains. Then shall I call upon their spirits and call them back from the Wilds where they wait. A last feast we shall share with them before we cover their grave and give their spirits into the Mother’s care.”
He allowed them time for even the thickest of heads to grasp his words before saying the allotted date. “Ten days hence. Six days before the Feast of Winter Ending.”
This episode contains many new names. As in life, some are destined to be important players, others will fade into obscurity. To help you keep track as the story unfolds, the full set of Gene Trees is available on the Alsalda Menu.