Granary mistresses and Ulvregan traders have arrived for the Ulvregan funeral; so many men have been lost. And amongst those dead were Regiment horsemen, Saramequai. Now they, too, are represented. Though two of these Regiment horsemen are there purely as guards. Expecting trouble? Read on.
The grave wasn’t far inside Bisaplan’s Land; Megovis could still see the horses. He forced down his shoulders, an attempt to relax. That his ‘cousin’ Demona had greeted him had helped. Krisn’s cousin through her father Ulquon the Fingerless, Megovis’s kin through her mother, she was yet another Uestin woman wed to an Ulvregan trader.
“Have they a reason to set the cenotaph here?” he asked her. “Only it isn’t exactly clustered amongst the others.”
Demona shrugged—while trying to hold onto her toddler’s hand without disturbing the infant held in her arms. “Granary Master said here’s to be, is all I know. Who’s objecting? It’s his land—or Ardy’s. It’s also him providing the brew.”
“Feeling guilty, you reckon?”
Biadret, wandering near, typically honed in on that word. “Brew, did I hear?”
“We mightn’t think it,” Demona said, “but by their beliefs their Father’s Brew is appropriate here.”
“How?” Megovis asked. “Ulvregan markons say it gets a man horny.”
“Aye, I said by their belief,” Demona said. “By their belief the dead are born again as wee babies. That’s why its name. Father’s Brew. It gets them coupling.”
“Creepy odd folk,” Megovis said. “But I’m looking for Melissa. Have you seen her?” He didn’t like to ask outright if still she lived. She’d been gone many seasons with scarcely a word.
“Probably with Trader Skaldys. Let’s see.” Demona turned slowly, searching the tight knots of Ulvregan encircling the wide gaping grave. “There! See the grizzle-haired trader wearing red, blue and black? But, hey, Govvy, be gentle with her. No comments about the dead, eh. Her husband was one of the several traders that Jitnebn’s Hold lost.”
“Yea.” He nodded his thanks and was gone.
“Eh!” Biadret called after him. “Duties.”
“Yea. I’ll be back.”
Melissa was wrapped in a woollen cloak almost the colour of their battle-red breeches. It made her hair seem even paler, and it had always been lighter than his own honey-brown. She wore it in two thin plaits. As she turned, he saw how dark and hollowed her eyes. Yet she opened her arms and grinned at him. He lifted her up. She threw his arms round his neck then strained on tiptoes to maintain the hold.
“Hey, Buttercup.” He held her away. Then held her close while she sobbed.
When she pulled away she again hid her face, now by looking down at her children. They stood placid as stones around her. “See here? Your Uncle Govvy.”
The boy, perhaps six summers-seen, whispered something to Melissa who leant down to hear him.
“Ismelvens says you look like a bear.”
“He does so,” the girl, the elder, averred.
Melissa nodded, a smile coming, then bitten. “I used to say that of you too.”
“Fifteen summers, eh? That’s a few stories to share. Can’t promise when, but I’ll visit as soon as. Pity is, today this bear is on duty. Any tips, my Buttercup? Where to keep an eye for trouble?”
“No, there’ll be no trouble today—though that only for Eblan Erspn’s fancy words. It would have been different elsewise. Many Ulvregan—Skaldys amongst them—would have cheerfully piled that wastrel Bukarn onto a fire. Want, want, want, yet he doesn’t do his own duty, too busy dozing beneath his eaves—Apologies.” She suddenly broke off. “There has been strong feelings.”
At a loss for words, Megovis nodded. He’d known it, of course, though Bukplugn’s kin hadn’t been quite as open in expressing their anger. Still, for Krisnavn’s purpose this was a good thing. First the Kerdolan, now the granary master. Despite the overcast day, it seemed Saram was smiling. “Which one is he, this chief, Master Bukarn?”
He followed her line of sight, though he would have known the man anyway. While many an Ulvregan trader had served his four in the Regiment, only Master Bukarn still wore the Regiment plaits (though plain-beaded, not glinting with Beli’s fire-metal). And he was garbed in Clan Reumen colours, worn as an Ulvregan pleated skirt over a drab brown shirt and breeches. And that travel-cloak! Megovis couldn’t be sure, for the distance, but he’d swear it was sewn from mouse-skins. He stood alone, watching Krisnavn.
Megovis’s head shot round.
“I’ll just be a moment, he says,” said Biadret. “I’ll be back, he says. Duty, I says. So now I’ll take the south and you—and I hope you suffer for it—can have the north.”
But no sooner said than Biadret was lost again to the knots of people now closing in and forming like a continuous blanket. Megovis shrugged and turned back to Melissa.
“Listen, Buttercup, I’ll talk to you later. And . . .” he’d forgotten the boy’s name “. . . you take care of your mother, yea?”
He pondered as he made his way through and around the crowding mourners. Was Melissa right, that there’d be no trouble? It wouldn’t fit well with Krisnavn’s plans if the Ulvregan killed Master Bukarn now. Still mulling, he took up his station to the north of the cenotaph, several paces back from the nearest person. The north watch, this was his own fault. By preference, an ambush was always set to the south. That way Sauën would make blind the advance forces while leaving unaffected those who waited. Not that Sauën glared today in Saram’s clear sky. His eyes tracked over those who had gathered. Which of these Ulvregan wanted Bukarn dead? Where were they?
His eyes lit on the grain-women in their long pastel gowns that opened low at the front, way too revealing. And those tight bands round their hips! He looked away before he started breathing a little too heavy. But his gaze shot back as one blonde beauty bent over her brew-vat. Now there was a woman begging for bedding. He watched, impossible to take his eyes away. And the Ulvregan markons said the brew made men horny? No, it was the brewsters.
The Ulvregan markons, and their sisters and aunts who had married into the Dal, were the prime source of the Uestin knowledge of anything Alsime. Of course, Truvidir Yandros had additionally briefed the horsemasters. But he’d relied on only one, supposedly unbiased, report. So, no need for Megovis to be a truvidir to realise there was much he still didn’t know. As to any attempt to compare Alsime to Dal ways, that was fated to muddy the waters. Mostly he was ignorant about the Granary Family. For starters, what was the source of their power? In the Dal, every village had its granary, with brewsters called King’s Wives, their prime duty to brew for the King’s Feasts. But he’d been told it wasn’t as it was here. Brewsters, granaries, nothing was the same here. Truvidir Yandros had said that the Alsime eblans were the same as the Dal’s uathren, but he wouldn’t trust them not to eat the horses left to graze beyond the fence.
His eyes wandered again to the elegant-hatted eblan. And he felt his hackles rise. Elegant Hat was watching the horses. Head turning. And back. And turning. Best to keep an eye on that one. But then—Megovis chuckled—a dark bearded eblan, finger-wagging, chided Elegant Hat. That Elegant Hat, he was only a boy, probably Black Beard’s apprentice. That explained why so short for a man.
An eblan clad in speckled feathers stepped over the stacked turf that formed the curb and into the wide circular grave. He had to be their headman, Eblan Erspn. Another joined him, with white-feathered cape. Megovis stared. Something was familiar about this Eblan White Feather. But . . . no, that wasn’t possible. Then he saw it. While the Alsime were dark (burnt butter, charred chestnut, eyes like coals) this eblan was not. He was Uestuädik in colour. Yea, that’s all that was familiar about him. Both his hair and his skin were reddish-fair. And he was tall; tall while the Alsime were known to be short. Megovis squinted. Yet something about him seemed wrong. Did the eblans accept the Ulvregan in? He’d not heard of it.
The speckled-feathered Eblan Erspn held aloft his staff. Silence. Instant. Even the birds and the wind had stopped. Megovis shivered, that was some power.
A horse nickered. Eblan Elegant Hat turned his head to look. Krisnavn turned, too, though not to look at the horses. He was looking at the young eblan.
Eblan Erspn, headman, began his address. “The Kerdolan denied us the bodies of our dead.”
They’d been told the Alsime spoke Hiëmen but he’d disagree. Though he could understand what the eblan was saying, that wasn’t proper Hiëmen. Megovis spoke proper Hiëmen, learned from his Hiëmen mother.
“The Kerdolan left us this.” Eblan Erspn held up a large leather bag. “Do not despise or grudge these few pieces. These few bones are as much your sons and your brothers, your nephews and uncles and cousins, as were their whole bodies.”
Megovis lifted his lip in contempt. The Regiment had already honoured Horsemaster Makesen and Markistes Isvron and Nevisan. Kinsmen of Megovis, though not of his clan, he had grieved as he should. Now he was to believe somewhere jumbled amongst those bone-fragments and other remains were their bodies? Then they’d be granular-small.
“These bones,” Eblan Erspn said, still holding high the bag, “we bury here today. With them we bury what you have brought with you.”
Eblan Erspn gave the bag to Eblan Black Beard. Apparently that wasn’t the only bag. Together, the eblans Black Beard and Elegant Hat emptied the bags to form small stacks—thirty-three in all. Megovis shuddered: was he turning into a truvidir, wanting to count? The eblans then stood aside while the families came with their spirit-belongings. Krisnavn deposited something small, one to each of three piles. He’d probably been prepared for this as part of his additional ‘special’ briefing.
Eblan Erspn again held up his staff. Eblan White Feather again stood beside him. So far the day had been without wind. Now eerily it lifted and blew. Though not a tempest, yet it tugged at the eblans’ feathers.
“We now will call back the spirits of the slain. Call them back from the Wilds. Call them to share this last feast with their loved ones.”
The wind’s sudden wintry breath found its way beneath Megovis’s cloak. Its ghostly fingers touched his spine. His shoulders shot back. And in that moment of disturbance the eblans disappeared from sight. They hadn’t truly gone to the Wilds to call back the slain—had they? Then, as two knots of people parted, he saw them again. Eblan Erspn and Eblan White Feather sat at the centre of the raw grave. An odd thing to do. Megovis tried to find a better view but was stayed in wonderment by the sweetest music he ever had heard. Rippling, cascading, watery sounds.
But . . . that wasn’t possible. Not here in Alisalm. Not in Jitinnis. Here at the outermost bounds of the world? Yet craning and peering, he managed to see White Feather was playing the harp.
“Too soft this, to call forth spirits,” Megovis heard an Ulvregan man say.
But that Eblan White Feather knew his craft. The change was barely perceptible yet the music grew stronger, grew deeper, grew fiercer. Megovis knew the tune. And what man of the Regiment did not. But that puzzled Megovis the more. How could this eblan be a Dal-served Ulvregan? He’d been told only Alsime were eblans.
Then this god-touched musician added his voice. Megovis stared, mouth dropped. Though the words were Alsime—as good as Hiëmen —they were faithfully translated from the Uestuädik.
I was there with Beli
Beli, son of Sauën
Sauën, seed of Saram
Saram of wide renown.
It took the Ulvregan a moment to realise what the eblan had done. Then they added their voices.
But not Megovis. He still was stunned, questions reeling. He caught his widowed sister’s eye and beckoned her over. While affectionately squeezing her hand he asked her, “Who is he, this musician? He’s Beli’s best, to change the words to Alsime.”
“That’s Eblan Demekn. You might know him, he served in the Dal.”
“I thought him familiar but . . . no, I can’t place him.”
“Master Bukarn’s son?”
True to the Dal way, at the end of the Alsime-worded Regiment song the white feathered eblan, Master Bukarn’s son Demekn, played the verse through three times more. Then he began again. But this time he sang it in Uestuädik. Megovis added his voice to the Ulvregan, and noticed that Krisn and Biadret did the same.
I was there with Beli,
Beli, son of Sauën,
Sauën, seed of Saram,
Saram of wide renown.
I saw Beli girt his loins,
Loins fierce with Beli’s fury,
Fury at the dragon,
The dragon of Forlori.
I saw Beli’s fire-tipped blade,
Blade two seasons in making,
Made by the Mothers Three,
Mothers of life taking.
I saw Beli mount his steed,
Steed, wing-legged and flying,
Flying to give battle,
Battle dragons vying.
I saw the dragon slain,
Slain with pierced hide gushing,
Gushing waters flooding,
Flooding waters crushing.
I saw the hero Beli,
Beli of fierce fury,
Fury of the fire-blade,
Fire-blade slayed Forlori.
I sing the songs of Beli,
Beli, son of Sauën,
Sauën, seed of Saram,
Saram of wide renown.