Detah had watched as the horsemen filed through the gate at Isle Ardy. No longer the three of yesterday’s funeral but, it seemed, the entire Saramequai Division of the Dal King’s Regiment. And gone were the blinding-white breeches as worn on parade; these warriors now wore battlefield-red. She knew why they were here; she wished she were wrong . . . Now read on.
Megovis had been trained in the way to breathe to level his feelings. But it seemed ineffective today. A captain, second-in-command to Krisnavn, yet he knew he wasn’t a perfect horsemaster. He hadn’t Krisnavn’s control . It was that elegant-hatted Eblan Detah who disturbed him the most. Well might he not like the uathren, and he certainly didn’t trust the truvidiren, and where, say, was the difference between those and these eblann. Yet he couldn’t wish this upon her this day.
He tried to dismiss it. It was her own fault, wearing those fire-heron feathers. That bird was Beli’s own guide to the Land of Uath. And perhaps she’d been trained to deal with the dead yet she’d regret wearing those feathers for the rest of her days. He thoughts filled with Melissa. Poor little Buttercup, it had affected her, too, that fateful day.
But trained, he allowed none of his troubling thoughts to disturb his composure as he waited beside him Biadret while Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn walked his horse slowly forward. But this wasn’t the day for it. It felt . . . wrong! Though, he admitted, the uathren would deem it auspicious: Saram deep and Sauën bright.
It was wrong that Master Bukarn wasn’t alone, that he was surrounded by eblans—eblann, Megovis corrected. It was wrong, too, that those eblann included the man’s own son—and, worse, his own daughter! Again, Megovis’s head filled with the memory of his own father’s death. And the plant-folk, the Bridren, talked of the horsemasters, that they abandoned their feelings? It were not so! They’d merely been trained to do their duty no matter the cost. And that duty often wrenched a man’s heart. As it was doing today.
It was a drama played out, so he told himself, the same as at a King’s Feast. Hadn’t Krisnavn said much the same that morning. They were but actors, puppets in Saram’s wide hands. No, this wasn’t of Krisnavn’s wanting. And it certainly wasn’t of his opponent’s. This was what Saram wanted. Krisnavn had had to say all of that because, as Megovis knew well, of Krisn’s own accord he couldn’t have done it.
Megovis scanned the isle, his head held immobile. So the one daughter was there, but what of the other, where was she? And where the mistress of the granaries, that most holy of ladies from whom the odd-styled king took his power? He prayed to Saram they’d remain out of sight. To know who had plied the blade wasn’t the same as to see it applied. His eyes returned to Krisnavn and Master Bukarn. Bukarn was still to the far side of the netherworld trench. He’d been told that swine rooted around down there, as if in a pen.
Krisnavn dismounted. He drew two of the short stabbing-spears from the carrier all warriors had fixed to their mounts. He walked on a few steps. Another two and he’d be where the break in the trench served as a bridge. He threw the spear, blazing blade upward.
Master Bukarn, Alsime king, snatched it out of the air. Krisnavn gave a slight nod. Regiment-trained, the man hadn’t yet lost his skills.
“Chief Bukarn, Granary Master, you know why I’m here.” Krisnavn said. “Because during your rule thirty Ulvregan and three Clan Querkan were killed. Needlessly.”
“I did not send them,” Bukarn answered, as calm as any Regiment man.
“I have not come to hear your defence. You pledged to Saram. And now he grants you.”
“This isn’t the Dal, this is Alisalm-land,” Bukarn said. But his words lacked conviction.
Krisnavn up-jutted his chin. “Look. There. Matters not the sea, nor the distance, Saram always is with us.”
“I shall not fight,” Bukarn said. “As I told your kin, it’s long seasons now since I left the Regiment.”
“My kin never returned. And you know Saram honours the pleas that are made to Him.”
Krisnavn closed the distance. Now within reach of his opponent he jabbed with the short copper-topped spear. “You shall fight.”
Bukarn didn’t run as he could despite his words. He fended. Spear-shafts clashed—which was exactly as Krisnavn wanted. He couldn’t plunge that blade without first a fight. He was a warrior, not an executioner. So he danced; a delight to see, an inspiration to every markon when on the practice ground. But this wasn’t practice, and his opponent knew it. Krisnavn jabbed, his short spear seeking ways around the other. Again. Again. And fighting in earnest became fighting in play.
That second thrust should have impaled the man, Megovis could see that easily. Indeed, he could have killed Bukarn a dozen times over. But, no, Krisnavn was teasing him. Megovis knew the ploy, he wasn’t this summer’s markon, to believe it easy to slay. A man needed Beli rising in him. He needed the battle-god’s heat. He needed the fury. So Krisnavn goaded, he pressed. He jabbed, and goaded again. Jab. Goad. Jab. Goad. Pressing this Alsime king, this Master Bukarn, until so riled he no longer defended but thrust in return, to attack.
See, that was better. See, now there was anger between them. Spears clashed, sparks flew. Now it wouldn’t take long. With face roaring red, Master Bukarn bulled at Krisnavn. But he’d left himself open.
Krisnavn angled the spear. He held it steady. He watched his opponent throw himself on it. Impaled.
Even from his distance Megovis heard the rip of his flesh and the snap of a rib. He saw, delayed by an instant, the first spurt of blood. Then it pulsed and gushed. He saw the shock on Bukarn’s face. Did he feel pain? And though he was swaying, his eyes locked on Krisnavn.
For several long moments the slain man stayed on his feet. Then, slowly, oh- so-very slowly, he folded his knees and sank to the ground to lay with his face in his blood.
Krisnavn threw down the slaying spear as if in disgust. He walked away. And in one smooth movement he mounted the horse that waited patiently for him. With a nudge of his heels he made the beast to walk past the crumpled body of Master Bukarn, the Alsime king, and over the bridge of the netherworld trench. He stopped directly in front of Eblan Detah with her cloak and her hat of Beli’s own feathers.
In his poor Hiëmen he said, “Because during his rule thirty Ulvregan and three Saramequai, Clan Querkan, died without need.”
He stopped again before he re-crossed that trench, and looked back.
“Four days to treat your dead. Then on my return we shall talk.”
Detah sobbed. And Demekn held her, his own tears wetting her hair. She had known, as he had, as had their father. It was only that knowledge had held Demekn back; he’d not have so meekly watched that killing. Yet how to stopped it? Ublamn had rushed, long-handled spear levelled—until Erspn caught him. “Too many.” Aye, it was hopeless. How many Saramequai there, each with his Sauën-kissed hard glinting spear? A hundred, maybe, maybe more. And this wasn’t the Dal where they’d have been ordered to not interfere. What mattered to them the additional killing of three or four eblann. But at least Detah’s tears flowed quietly. Unlike Drea’s and Mistress Alenta’s.
Those two, and the other grain-women, on seeing the granary-master, lifeless, buckled, his life-blood spreading, had screamed in denial. “No! No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no! No! No!” Between them it seemed never to stop. Then tearing the white cloths that covered their hair, it began yet again. “No! Please no, no, no, no, no!”
Now Mistress Alenta was pulling her hair, handfuls torn at the roots. “No! I say no! No! No-no-no-no-no!”
Drea, screeching, had thrown herself down on the gritty ground, pounding with powerless fists, kicking with tender toes soon to bruise. She rolled like a hound dogged by fleas, groaning. But at least now she was quieter. Now she merely cried as she curled herself into a ball.
Detah pulled away and wiped at her eyes (they were now only seeping), and looked in scorn at their sister Drea. She drew in a breath and again wiped her face. Her tears now were gone.
“We are eblann,” she said, now unexpectedly calm. “It’s our duty to treat the dead.”
But her eblan-master Erspn waved her away, Demekn along with her. “Not with this one.”
“He’s not to be treated the Alisime way,” Detah said with a vehemence that shocked Demekn. “He said, he told me, he made me promise. He’ll not be pecked at by birds.”
“Hush, my child,” Erspn calmed her, her hand softly held in his own. He patted it. “The men are to fetch us sticks and their like, just to make him a roof to cover. To protect—to keep away those very things. He’ll be buried in the barrow, along with the others. But you and your brother still are eblann, so now your duty is to the living. You’ve a mother, a sister, and aunts.” He nodded to where Haldalda and her daughters were ushering the grain-women into the lodge.
Demekn was keen to follow instructions. He wanted the women quiet, he wanted them soothed. There were things they must know that he, alone, was able to tell them. But Detah was different: she worried at it.
“He’ll go to Beli?” she asked, her young heart desperate to know.
“He’s already there,” Erspn answered as if a true Dal uathir.
“Beli’s fire, the copper, it’s the blade,” Detah said. “He told me those last few days we were sewing together.”
Erspn signed to Demekn to take her away. Not as wild as the grain-women, yet she clearly weren’t stable.
“What else did he tell you, sat under the eaves?” asked Demekn as he steered his sister towards Ardy’s lodge . . . down the long narrow passageway, bright now from the light at the heart . . . to Haldalda’s hearth where Haldalda had already readied one brew-bowl and now was making another.
“He filled my head with the Dal-ways,” she said. “He was preparing me, I know it now, I knew it then. But . . . oh, Demekn, I refused to fully understand it. I didn’t know it would come like this. Not even when Commander Krisnavn said—and,Demekn, I liked him.”
Whether she cried again, Demekn couldn’t see, her head buried into her hands. Haldalda nodded to the brew-bowl. Though not a grain-woman, yet Haldalda was well-skilled with potions. And she knew what was needed.
“It’ll do you no harm to have some of it too,” she said. “Harsh times ahead.”
He nodded. And how was he to cope with it? His granary family had not a notion; they’d all look to him. Dal-bred, he had the answers. He wondered how much Detah knew, how much their father had told her. Would she support him, could he look to her for help? Two to say it, aye, two would be better. He accepted the brew, sweet with honey.
He was about to slump on the cushions beside Detah when she quoted Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn. “Because during his rule thirty Ulvregan and three Saramequai, Clan Querkan, died without need. It’s because he allowed the massacre at the Kerdolak bridge.”
He sank down beside her. “Aye. Three Saramequai. Three ash-piles.” Three Saramequai. “The other, the fourth, ‘alone and limping’—So that’s how he came to know of the burial! There’s been no time for an Ulvregan messenger to reach him.” But he’d been told to forget then one who’d escaped, and likely he would in these next few days. He knew the task now facing him wouldn’t be easy.
“Demekn?” Detah clutched at his hand. “Is there a way to fetch him back?”
“No, my sister, you know there is not.”
“No way at all to reverse the days?”
“Not even the Uissids can do that.”
And neither could Demekn turn back the next day and ask for another, when Haldalda, having heard nothing from Mistress Alenta, went into her chamber to look. And found her dead.