Four days, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn has given the granary-family to treat their dead. Then he’ll return and they’ll talk. Four days for Demekn to prepare his family for this. For Dal-bred, only Eblan Demekn knows what will be said. . . Read on.
The message they sent out with the river-walkers was not easily worded. Demekn didn’t want the granary families, nor the Ulvregan, to arrive at Isle Ardy and ply them with questions. Eblan Erspn agreed, though as yet he didn’t know the story. In the end they agreed they’d say only of the two deaths, and that Granary Mistress Drea would shortly be talking with Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn of the Dal King’s Regiment. They’d then be notified of any changes affecting the granary or granary-trade. Ublamn returned from instructing the river-walkers. He was the last to arrive at Demekn’s meeting.
Demekn had had little choice in where to hold it. There was one clear space (around Haldalda’s hearth) while elsewhere beneath the inner arcade the trade-wares brought from the northern isles still formed mountains and canyons and caves. He supposed there they’d remain till after the Feast of Winter Ending. Only then would the grain-women have time to record them and distribute or stash them accordingly. Moreover, while Demekn knew the granary-master as-was would have avoided Haldalda’s hearth (because of the interruptions for another fresh brew) this now was a favoured consideration. Sited here, Haldalda’s legs wouldn’t be worn down to stumps. He accepted another brew from her.
Detah seated herself beside him. She leant in close. “How much will you tell them?”
“They have to know everything,” he said. “I think, too, you don’t understand—”
“I know of the pledge, and that he failed in his duty.”
She looked at him sharply. But she must wait; he’d explain to them all.
He had dithered on whether to adhere to the granary-way, with which the grain-women were most familiar, or to go with the way he had learned in the Dal. At least there, when he’d served as assistant to Chief Krinik’s lore-man, his thoughts had had structure. Now they could easily break apart. Like a trampled basket.
He began as the granary-master would have, by thanking them for attending. But in thanking he named them (as was done in the Dal, though none were present here to record it). Old Apsan, Aunt Jaljena, Mistress Drea (now Mistress of all the Granaries), Eblan Head Man Erspn (to give him the proper respect in the Dal-way), Eblan Shunamn, Eblan Detah, and Eldliks Ublamn.
“Our granary-master as-was was more than the usual granary-trader,” he said. It was a beginning. “It was to him that each new named-granary-mistress turned to find her own granary-trader. And having chosen, it was for him to train the raw Ulvregan son until fit to be placed as an apprentice at her isle, there, as yet, to be trader-in-waiting. Beyond this, he also regulated the granary-trade.”
He noticed the eyes straying off to the mountains of trade-wares. The granary-master as-was had been Demekn’s own father and while he didn’t like for others to find him wanting—and there was obvious criticism in those looks: the granary-master as-was hadn’t done his duty—that now would help him in what he must say.
“Together with Ardy’s granary-mistress, he organised the granaries. And through these granaries, master and mistress governed much of this land.”
“Hoi!” Erspn objected. “That’s not a thing an Alsime would hear. Indeed, as Shunamn will tell you, an Alsime likely would not understand it.”
“Neither Alsime nor eblann,” Shunamn said and folded his arms with finality over his chest.
“Had I never been to the Dal, nor never dwelt in an Ulvregan hold, neither would I,” Demekn allowed. “But I have heard their talk—as I’m sure you have too—and that is the way the Ulvregan see it.”
“It’s true,” Detah said. “It is how they see us. And that’s what they tell the Uestin, too.”
“Well, if our Detah says it, then it must be true,” Drea jeered. “We all know she’s the mighty—what’s your Uestin word for it? Oracle?”
“Oracle is Eskin,” Erspn said quietly.
Haldalda passed Drea a bowl of newly-made brew.
“Mind how much of that,” Shunamn cautioned, a hand laid upon Drea’s arm.
He meant well by it. Still, Demekn would rather he’d not so forcibly remind Drea of their mother’s death. Haldalda answered him, “There’s nothing in there from your eblann-chamber. No need to fuss, she’ll be fine with that.”
Demekn tried not to frown, not to alert the others. But that answered his unwanted suspicions. Shunamn had waited upon their mother; it hadn’t been one of Haldalda’s brews that killed her. He hurried on with his talk.
“In Dal Uest they have a king—”
“Aye,” said Drea. “We’ve heard his name, heard it till it oozes out of our ears.”
“Hush, Mistress Drea. Sup the brew,” Haldalda soothed. “Anger never dealt a bargain.”
“A bargain? How much is a dead trade-master worth?”
“You’re right, Drea, we’ve heard too much of him of late, since the Saramequai—” Demekn stopped abruptly. Would that also ignite her? But it was only since the Saramequai’s visit that there’d been talk of King Tanisven, the Dal-King. He wondered what might have been said amongst the grain-women. He remembered how Aunt Jaljena had all-but devoured that markiste with her eyes.
When no snarl sounded from Drea, he continued. “The Dal-King—”
“Has a Regiment,” she said, entirely sarcastically.
He took what he hoped was a steadying breath. “Aye. But as yet their king is of more concern than the Regiment. The Dal-King regulates—governs—the Dal. To help him to govern he has the truvidiren who, in many ways, are like we eblann. So too he has his lore-men who, in their numbering and recording, could best be likened to your grain-women.”
“Have you tasted lard-n-ash lather?” Drea’s words, though driven by anger, were remarkably calm. “This . . . man? . . . who says he’s our brother? Hah! No. No, Demekn, you’re not granary, not any part of you. You’re Luktosn’s son through and through.”
“Please, Demekn,” Erspn encouraged when he turned away. “You’d not be saying unless with need. Even those who now sneer will yet understand it. Come, say as you must.”
Demekn nodded his thanks. He took another breath to calm him. An eblan’s duty, he reminded himself, was to his family.
“Together—Dal-King. Truvidiren. Lore-men—govern the folk and their land of Dal Uest. That this Dal-King and our granary-master were not the same need not be said. We know that. Yet as Detah has said, that’s how it’s seen in Dal Uest.”
“He was aware of it, our father,” Detah said before Drea could turn burning eyes upon him.
“The Uestin think they know everything of us (Alsime and Alisalm-land),” Demekn said. “Ulvregan markons, Ulvregan traders, Ulvregan daughters gone there as wives—they’ve heard much about us. But I tell you, they’ve heard only as the Ulvregan see us, and what do they know? Aye, they know of the granaries. They come here to trade; they supply our traders—”
“Our traders?” Drea jeered. “Since when have the eblann been granary?”
“Since Eblan Hegrea created this granary on Eblann society land,” Detah snapped at her.
“The oracle!” Drea mocked, her hand laid dramatically over her chest. “Oh, but I forget, you’ve met her.”
Demekn glanced at Detah. She answered him with a quick stretched smile. He took yet another steadying breath. So much to tell them, yet there was Drea with her dramatics as if she played out some eblan feast fable. He caught himself at that thought: it was too much like Detah had said.
“The granaries aren’t the same in Dal Uest as we have them here. There, they’re used only to store grain. One at each village. Their keepers main duty is simply to brew beer for the king’s many feasts. They have no association with trade. Trade there is had only with chiefs and kings.”
“Well, is this true?” Drea looked at Detah.
Detah’s mouth twitched like she wanted to smile. “That is why the alliances. Ulvregan-Uestin. That is why Demekn is grandson to a Rizzoni king.”
Drea’s mouth worked, though without sound. She stared at Demekn.
“You knew it,” Demekn said. “You prefer to forget.”
“But if you’re grandson—”
“At a remove. Our father’s mother Kolmika was the king’s daughter.”
Drea’s lips curled to a sneer. “What did I say! I told you, you don’t belong here. My own brother, kin to a Dal-King.”
“Aye, what of it? You’re not thinking,my sister. My blood is your blood. You’re kin to a Dal-King too.”
“I am not!” she screeched. “Ardy’s blood—Hegrea’s—is mine.”
“Huh,” Detah scoffed. “We’re no more her kin than we are Master Nod’s.”
Thankfully Drea seemed not to hear her.
“All I’m trying to do is to show you how the Uestin see it,” Demekn said, an outright plea to Drea though he included a glance at the others. “The Uestin believe our granary-master as-was is our king. And it was as our king that Commander Krisnavn came here to kill him.”
“It’s true,” Detah said. “The master himself believed it was so. He told me—he told me much these last few days.”
Drea laughed, brittle and sour. “Our father believed himself King of Alisalm-land? Please, quit this squit or I’ll puke in your faces. What are you saying of him?”
“But it’s true—though maybe he didn’t use those words,” Detah allowed. “Yet it was this belief that allowed him to die.”
“Allowed?” Aunt Jaljena gasped. “But you said he fought back.”
“So he did, at the end.”
“But you’re saying he knew?” Erspn said.
“Aye,” said Detah.
“Aye,” said Demekn. “To his way of thinking, he was Saram’s Thrice Chosen King. And neglectful of duties.”
“No!” Drea’s screech cut through the heart of the lodge, so sharp it nigh felled the tree growing there. “I said not to talk squits! He’d not believe that. No Alsime would.”
“But he wasn’t Alisime.” Demekn said.
“He was Tuädik,” said Detah. “Saëntoi. As Luktosn was, long ago.”
“His mother was Uestin, his father Ulvregan,” Demekn said. “There was nothing Alisime in him.”
“You might remember his body rests not far away,” said Drea, her back now rigid.
“Detah, are you sure he said this?” pressed her eblan-master Erspn while his eyes stayed on Drea.
“I don’t tell tall tales,” Detah said. “And everyone knew he’d been neglectful of duties. So he must die. He told me so. I just . . . didn’t understand.”
“It’s true,” Demekn said. “He told me the same, and in those very same words.”
“He told you?” Detah turned her wide wet eyes to him.
He nodded, his hand reaching for hers.
“So your bleakness, it’s not been all for . . . for her?”
He shook his head.
“Please, Mistress Drea,” Erspn said. “I know it’s not easy—not for any of us. But will you please be quiet while Demekn tells us whatever it is he deems we must know.”
“Oh, there’s plenty to say, though I wish there were not. But, my thanks to you, Eblan Erspn. It’s Dal law that a king deemed neglectful of his duties should be removed—killed—and a new king set in his place.”
“Neglectful? You keep saying ‘neglectful’,” Drea said despite the warning. “But how was he neglectful? Tell me.”
“I too don’t understand it,” said Aunt Jaljena.
“Because during his rule thirty Ulvregan and three Saramequai died without need,” Demekn repeated Commander Krisnavn’s charge.
He waited while Drea gained control of her breathing, enough to ask the predictable question. “But how was he supposed to stop it? Those men were dead before he even knew they had gone.”
“That is the Alisime answer,” Demekn said quietly. “But he knew what he’d done. During winter’s half the Kerdolan had built a bridge over the Waters. Come winter’s end and the trading season, that bridge was going to prove a hindrance, affecting trade to the northern granaries and His Indwelling. Yet he knew nothing of it until told by the Saramequai horsemen when they came seeking ferry. He had allowed that to happen. That’s what Commander Krisnavn meant when he said ‘without need‘. Had the granary-master performed his duties that bridge would not have existed. Else it would have existed in a form unlikely to cause hindrance to the wider, seafaring boats. There would have been no need for the Ulvregan men to go roaring off, or for the Saramequai to seek revenge. Thirty Ulvregan and the three Saramequai would still be alive.”
And, though he said it only in the fastness of his mind, a certain markon now would be wed to a granary-trader not of her liking. He prayed she was the one alone and limping.
“Are you saying our father was wrong?” Drea’s words came slowly, her anger again building.
“Aye,” Erspn answered before Demekn could, and for which he was thankful. “And had you been listening with a mite more heed when he and I spoke to your granary-mistresses and the traders, you’d have heard me say all in my power to divert the Ulvregan’s hatred from him. Had you heeded more, you’d have seen that I held aloft the eblan-rod. Aye! I spoke on behalf of the Ancestors. They had seen, they knew. It was they who guided me, the Alsime Ancestors, Mistress Drea. Alsime. So I’ll say again to stop your squealing and let us deal with whatever now comes.”
She sat like one slapped, her delicate cheeks flaring red. Her mouth dropped. Closed. And opened again upon silenced words.
“It’s because they’ve blue eyes, these Uestin, they see everything differently,” Shunamn remarked. “Then how can we understand them and their ways? Though as I understand it, that is why this meeting.”
“I know it’s not easy,” Demekn agreed. “But we must try.”
“Try?” Drea said and Demekn sighed. “Why must we ‘try’?”
“Mistress Drea,” Erspn said, and Demekn could tell by his sigh how he struggled to keep his temper with her. “I thought, even to you, this would be obvious. Our ‘king’ has erred, has been neglectful. The new ‘king’ has slain him. Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn is now our new king.”
Demekn feared she might choke, uttering those words over and over. “Our new . . . Our new . . .? But we’re Alsime, not Uestin. Whatever our father foolishly thought himself, we have none of their dutiful kings. I thought that we’d agreed. A granary-master is exactly that, a granary-master—Demekn has listed his duties. So when this Krisnavn comes here to speak, you can just tell him to turn his commandery-person around and go back whence he came. We want none of him!”
“Not quite that simple,” said Demekn.
“For you? In fear of him? Fine! So I shall tell him. No, Kris-commandery-person-navn, we have no need of your governing.”
“Drea, please listen. You’re not understanding. We do not have that choice. Horsemaster Krisnavn is commander of the Saramequai Division of the Dal Regiment. He has the men of that division here with him. One third of the entire Regiment.”
Though Demekn had said it, he didn’t know that for certain. He’d seen only nine markistes amongst those brought to Isle Ardy. A full division would have had twelve markistes: three captains with four markistes to answer to each. And twenty markons then answered to each of those twelve. Two hundred and fifty-six personnel, including the commander.
“Drea, these markons and markistes, they’re not fighting men such as we have here, amongst our Alsime. In a fight there are blows, bruises, maybe even broken bones and noses. Occasionally someone might die—”
“That’s not how it is with these men of the Regiment. They’re killers. Trained to it, pledged to it. To them the only death with honour is that at the point of a fire-blade—be it spear, arrow or dagger as long as it’s copper. Because Beli’s in copper—Beli who’ll take their spirits to his Land of Uath, where they’ll live again, feasting, fighting, bedding and—”
“With that awaiting them, they care not if they die. They’ve not the promise of ‘bellies’ and life renewing. For others in the Dal, if you die you are dead. Now I ask, who have we to match them?”
“None, Drea. We’ve not their weapons, nor their horses—aye, you’ll say we’ve greater numbers but what men we might find are unused to such fighting, and they’ll be long in the training.”
“No, Drea. To refuse him as king is to challenge the Regiment, and to challenge the Regiment is to die. The Bridren thought as you do—though some were wiser. But those who refused the Dal, who fought and fought till too few remained, for those when all else was lost so too was their freedom and land. Those Bridren became the plants—the King’s slaves.”
“You say those who refused?” Erspn picked up on that. “But what of those who accepted, as you’re urging for us?”
“They kept their land. True, they’ll never be rated as noble tree-clans, but neither are they plants. Can’t you see it? It matters no whit what we want. They’re here, and they will have our land. And no matter what, we can’t stop it from happening. The old king is dead. We now have Commander Krisnavn.”