Alsalda—a neolithic fantasy:…
Master Bukarn is dead. Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn has said he’ll return in four days to talk. Dal-bred Eblan Demekn has taken on the task of preparing his shocked and grieving family while knowing the Regiment will be making their own preparations . . . Read on.
Megovis leant on the top bar of the makeshift corral and watched the markons sweat with their work. They had much heavy graft ahead. The hilltop to be skimmed, which was no small area, then filled and tamped until level. The corrals to construct. The outer palisade with its encircling walkway and watchtowers to erect. The stores and the captains’ quarters with its command room to build. Then nine barrack-houses with quarters for twelve markons above the horse-stalls, room for tackle and bedding and fodder, and a separate room at one end for the markiste. By the time all this was complete they’d have felled close to three thousand trees, mostly elms. Though that did depend upon size of trunk. Twenty seasons’ growth was preferred; they were easier to fell and to split. Megovis grunted. There’d be no shortage of firewood come winter from all those loppings.
But his Uestin heart wept at the thought of so many trees felled. But at least the oaks would remain where grown too old, too tall and too wide for their use. That ought to satisfy Clan Querkan. And it was only the once, a sacrifice that must be made. Still, Megovis was glad that Ganros had drawn the red-lot. Let him supervise the work. Megovis would rather hang upon Krisnavn’s tail as his witness than to plunder the woodland.
Biadret slapped Megovis’s back. “The commander wants us.”
“Next set of instructions? What’d you reckon: he’ll tell us now the rest of his plan?”
“You reckon he’s hiding a part of it?”
Megovis shrugged and strode on ahead.
Krisnavn’s quarters shouted attention amidst the bloody-brown tents now splattering the hilltop. His was white, square and big.
“Take stools,” he said as they entered. They were as yet but campaign stools pressed into service, light folding affairs. Once the markons had done with the felling, proper stools, tables and beds would be fashioned from what wood was left over.
“Krisn—Commander—you’re not looking happy,” Megovis observed.
Krisnavn smiled and waved the comment away.
“Problems, eh, Commander?” Biadret jested. “And we’re only just here.”
Krisnavn shook his braided head. The copper tags chinked and rasped as they collided. “More . . . a feeling. Don’t ask, I can’t define it, but something is wrong.”
“You feel that too, eh?” Megovis said. “I said as much to Biadret.”
“You said it was because of Sauën, always hidden in this mist-smothered land,” Biadret said.
“Did not. I said I felt something’s wrong, though I might also have said of this land.”
“No, it’s not Alisalm. I’ve been trying to single it out. What do you know of Truvidir Yandros?” Krisnavn asked them.
That was the last question expected. Megovis pulled back. He’d never hidden his opinion of uathren and truvidiren—some might say he voiced it too often—but he sealed his mouth on this one.
It was Biadret who answered. “You spent the most time with him. All I know is he was appointed by Uissid Urinod to oversee the terms of the Judgement.”
“So he was,” said Krisnavn. “But whence came he? I had never met him before. Yet on that day there he was, telling us this, telling us that—altogether having a mighty big say.”
“I assumed him appointed from the other tuds—Gousen or Rizzoni,” Biadret said. “An impartial, I heard it said.”
“Impartial?” Megovis exploded, leaning in closer. “How in rutting Uath’s Land can a Gousen or Rizzoni truvidir be considered impartial? So what’s it of him that’s raking your spine?”
“Tell me, Govvy, Biadret, who assigned Makesen to escort Glania here?”
“Yea,” Biadret leant back dismissively, “but he was her kin.”
“Oh, and she has no other kin? Clan Querkan suddenly light on men? Come on, that’s not the claim made of us. Three,” Krisnavn said, three fingers raised in emphasis, “three of my men he sent here. Then again, say what business of his was her wedding?”
“Well, he’s been appointed . . . ” Biadret stumbled.
“None of his business,” Megovis agreed with Krisn. “Her wedding—”
“ – which already shouted of things unsaid.”
“Agreed, Krisn, I agree her wedding has nothing to do with the Querkan resettlement.”
“But your brother approved it,” Biadret cut in.
“He approved so that Makesen could scout around and return a report. He wants Querkan settled, and soon, because otherwise . . .” Krisnavn sighed. “Need I say it?”
Megovis spat. “Those Uissids and their Judgement!”
“What’s it matter to you, you’re not Querkan, not affected,” Biadret snapped at him.
“Yea? But summer-next, do I return to the Dal to which I’m sworn? Or remain here with my commander? You think I want to leave Krisn, when he and I go back to child days?”
“Not forgetting by then he’ll be king.”
“He could be a rutting goatherd, still I’d stick by him.”
Krisnavn coughed, a severe eye to his captains. (Megovis looked briefly away.)
“No, Govvy, though I’m flattered, this doesn’t answer the question. We were speaking of Yandros. Now, I don’t know what it is with him but . . . He comes from nowhere, assigns three of my men—not his to command—to escort Glania; one of them a valued horsemaster, two valued markistes, all my own cousins. Then, when only Glania returns, he picks on her every word about this granary-master, and goads us to go seek revenge. Now here we are, committed. I feel I’m being manipulated but I cannot see why. And I certainly don’t like it.”
“You reckon Yandros has reasons—dubious reasons—to settle Clan Querkan here?” asked Megovis.
“As if we’ve leisure to be choosy?” Biadret added. “Besides, is Alisalm such an ill-favoured place?”
“Rivers. Mists. Savages in skins. Feather-decked eblann—the dead returning to life.” Megovis shuddered. Only two safe places for the dead: Uath’s Land for Beli’s favoured and dark graves for the rest.
“Your talk is just repeating my thoughts,” Krisnavn said. “And I’d hoped you’d break me out of the circle. Here, on one hand, we’ve every good reason to believe Yandros has Querkan’s best interests in mind. As you say, Biadret, seasons turn, and if we haven’t moved out in time then my brother is dead. And what have our scouts brought us but a bar against every place else. And here is land. Here are trees—herbs and herds, all familiar to us. Here are Ulvregan, many of whom are our kin. That’s a strong consideration; we have good accord with them.”
“And against that?” Biadret asked as if in a prompt.
Megovis mimed that he should clean out his ears. “You might then hear what’s being said.”
“Against this feeling I get of things being not right,” Krisnavn answered in disregard of his captain’s banter. “I ask, why did he interfere in Glania’s wedding? Why did he assign my horsemaster and markistes? Why did he hear Glania’s report on his own, without witness? And that before she’d yet recovered, while her mind was fuddled with doctor’s potions. Then why did he, a truvidir—not even a markon—stress the need for revenge? There’s been revenge enough for what ought to have remained a negligible incident.”
“I can fit my every answer into one hand,” Biadret said in tone regretful. “And it remains unchanged.”
“I am not imagining it,” Krisnavn insisted.
Megovis observed his own answers while still in his head. He dug deep. Yet surprisingly, given his opinion of the truvidiren, his answers, too, supported Yandros. He shook his head. If Yandros was up to no good, then he’d tied it tight.
A thickening silence spread between them. Finally broken by Krisnavn.
“I want your heads kept open on this. Ears too. Any thought, any word. You both have kin in the Ulvregan holds. Old traders can be full of tales and, though old now, they might have known Yandros when he was a lore-man or uathir.”
He stood and circled around the stools. Though he didn’t pace, didn’t strut or stride, yet to Megovis that stroll seemed aggressive. This wasn’t like his old friend Krisn.
“I’ll say this,” Krisnavn said. “He sets foot on this land and I shall kill him.”
“Suffering Uath,” Megovis marvelled, “that’s a mighty powerful feeling you have for the man.”
Krisnavn smiled. “Guess it is. Though I hadn’t realised it until I said it. Well, that’s something resolved. He can interfere as he will in the Dal, but here he’s worth less than a hollow nut.” He sat again, oozing hearty satisfaction. “Now, these talks with the granary-family . . . By now young Eblan Demekn will have told them everything he can think of about me. They’ll believe they know exactly what’s to happen. So let’s say we keep them off-balance, eh, and not do as expected. You reckon in the end we’ll have them begging for me to be king?”
Biadret’s cheeks bunched as he rubbed his hands. “And the granary-mistress?”
Krisnavn sat back, his blue eyes twinkling. “Oh, I’d say by the time we’ve finished, Bukarn’s daughter will happily consent to be my queen.”
“You reckon?” Megovis frowned. “That she’ll wed the man who killed her father?”
In Erspn’s opinion, Detah and Demekn were an admirable pair. True, he had seen Detah close-in with this Commander Krisnavn at the Ulvregan burial. Though he’d not spoken of it—too much was happening—yet he’d seen in that moment how much she liked him. Inappropriate of course, and that following fast on her brother’s indiscretion. But now . . . now she had seen, and from no great distance, that same man kill the granary-master. Now she couldn’t possibly like him. One less task to raddle him. Erspn breathed deeply of the air, fresh, though no overnight rain.
As to the other, her brother . . . where a few days before he might have scorned him as being too deeply Uestin, now he could see that very same quality as being potentially able to save them. It wasn’t that Erspn was ignorant of Uestin ways. But after Demekn’s initial talk Erspn had felt humbled. He had been the eblan equivalent of those Uestin who, after a morning’s chat with an Ulvregan markon, assumed they knew all things Alisime. And had this Commander Krisnavn not come tramping his horsemen across their plains, that would have been fine. But now this Commander Krisnavn was here, and now Erspn would be ten dung-heaps-a-fool if he didn’t recognise the need of more knowledge. It was an eblan-duty to serve and protect the Alsime, and he was their head man. So, let the Ulvregan blithely accept this Commander Krisnavn as their king—they already were thick in the Dal-ways—his own thoughts must be for the Alsime. Left to their own, those Alsime would brandish their spears. Left to their own, those Alsime would soon be slaves. Slave was an Eskin word yet he knew the meaning.
All else for now must be set aside. For now he must question and listen, and listen and question. And he must question as an Alsime might question. He must listen with Alisime ears.
“What I’m not understanding,” he said as they walked yet again around the second ring of Isle Ardy, “is what interest this Saramequai commander could have here in Alisalm-land. Aye, I understand of the killing but that doesn’t mean he must trample our land and our lives with his hooves. Drea’s right. We Alsime have no need of this king-man.”
Detah began to answer, “It’s the Uissids Judgement given three winters since—”
“Four summers,” Demekn corrected her though she ignored him. Quite right. Summer, winter, what did it matter; the term was three.
“—Clan Querkan was given three winters to find other land and then to remove to it.”
“So they must be settled by summer-next?” He needed that clarified. Detah and Demekn both nodded. “But why this ‘Judgement’ in the first place? What has Clan Querkan done?” If habitual wrongdoers then, for all that Demekn might say, he might organise Alisime resistance. They’d always dwelt in peace in Alisalm-land and he’d not have that changed.
“Demekn was there, he witnessed it,” Detah allowed her brother to talk. “I only have it from our father.”
Erspn looked to Demekn. For all that had happened these past few days at least now there was colour in his fair skin.
“There’s no simple answer,” Demekn said as Erspn expected. “Easiest to say is that they’ve grown too big. In the Dal there’s a story of the Mighty Oak and the Lowly Apple.”
“They’ve grown too many branches, now they block out the light?”
“Something like that,” Demekn agreed. “Though not that alone. They’ve grown too clever—though it’s not even that, not alone. Yet without their wiles they’d not have grown.”
“This eblan,” Erspn said to Detah, “though yet an apprentice, has all the marks of a master. Hark at his riddles. Speak plainly, please,” he said to Demekn.
“As I see it, Clan Querkan did no wrong. The trouble stems from having three Clan Querkan Dal-Kings in succession. See, the Dal-King must protect the bounds—that’s a Dal-law. The Querkan Dal-Kings have done just that. But rather than do it with force of arm, they’ve done it through alliance-weddings. (No man tramps over his sister’s land.) But it’s that, in itself, that has caused the trouble. So intent on wedding their daughters out—to the Lugisse, Kin Mhuiris, the Hiëmen, Dal Sahalis, the Saëntoi, the Ormalin, Dal Nritris—they’ve not wedded across the clans.”
“And that’s what’s caused the problem?” Erspn asked.
“There’s another Dal-law—”
“The Dal has many laws?”
“Hundreds—thousands,” Demekn said. “And all set to verse. The Uissid Urinod sets the laws—”
“Not the Ancestors?”
Demekn shook his head. “I suppose Urinod has it from Saram. Or it might be that Saram approves it. Anyway, the truvidiren then compose the laws into verses which the lore-men then memorise and apply accordingly.”
“Organised, aren’t they.”
“It works,” Demekn defended.
“Until in keeping one law another is broken?”
“Aye. There’s a Dal-law, the Law of the Tree-Clans. It says, to be deemed a noble tree-clan they must provide at least one king in four generations. Should they fail they become a lesser clan—which means they lose their noble privileges.”
“All this reminds me of my sister’s brew.”
“Why?” Detah and Demekn asked together.
“Well, the different seeds, stalks and roots that she blends. I’m beginning to see Dal Uest as the same. Nothing is simple there.”
“Huh, you’d not believe the thousands of laws the lore-men must commit to their memory.”
“I’m surprised they’ve room to think,” Erspn said. “How can they squeeze inspiration in too, eh? But, tell me, Demekn, what do you know of the Spinner?”
That stopped him. He looked back at Erspn. “An odd question of me. You’d be better to ask Drea. I know the name only as a prayer the grain-women utter.”
“Hmm. I’ll do that then, I’ll ask her. But do continue. I must digest this and feed it, bird-like, to your mistress-sister.”
“Well, all this out-wedding—successful though it has been at keeping the peace across the bounds—has left Clan Querkan with increasingly fewer daughters to wed to the other Uestuädik clans.”
“Aye, you said. But now I am lost. The clans must provide a king at least once in four generations. How many seasons is that, do they say?”
Erspn whistled. “But, no, that’s not unreasonable. What, one king in one hundred seasons?”
“Except that it’s not that simple.”
“Why does that not surprise me. Go on, explain.”
“Well, first you need to know of Dal-Kings.”
“Might I say?” Detah asked.
“Please let her, if it’ll stop her skipping.”
“I’ve young legs, they need to run—like the kids. See?” She looked off to where Ublamn’s goats, disturbed by the eblann, were gambolling away to the far side of the isle.
“Go on. You say,” Demekn allowed her.
“See, a Dal-King rules for four winters only.”
“If you’re going to say, then get it right,” Demekn picked on her. “The Uestin count by summers. Therefore a Dal-King rules for four summers only. It’s known as the Rule of Four. At the end—”
“I’m telling it—just give your jaws a break. At the end of the Four seasons the king is tested. A champion is found to oppose him. They do battle.”
“Really?” Erspn felt his brows rise beyond his control.
Detah continued. “If the king survives, then the truvidiren ask if there are any complaints—”
“Forget the complaints for now,” Demekn told her. “Just keep to kings.”
“Aye, but I mightn’t get this bit right. As I understand it, if all is well (like the king still is alive—)”
“I can imagine that helps,” Erspn remarked with a twitch of a smile.
“Aye, well. If no complaints are brought against him, the king is allowed another Rule of Four. But after four of these Fours, he then must retire.”
“So any one king might rule for, what, sixteen seasons?”
“Of which there are but six—”
“And a quarter,” Detah cut in.
“—in any four generations,” Demekn finished.
“Um, and how many clans?” Erspn asked. “Did you say?”
“Twelve,” Detah said. “Four to each tud.”
“So it’s possible that only six clans might provide kings? But there’d soon be no—what did you call them, noble tree clans?”
“No, descent in the Dal can be traced through both mother and father. So, while the noble clans cross-wedded their daughters, all was fine.”
“But Clan Querkan broke with this custom? In order to secure the Dal bounds?”
Detah and Demekn both nodded, aye. Erspn couldn’t stop his sigh. Between Demekn’s talk and Detah’s not-so occasional scampering, they were beginning to tire him. But at least away from the lodge he had no Mistress Drea to contend with as well.
“Two aspects of this complaint—or the complaint and the Judgement—strike me as wrong,” said Demekn.
“Wrong? Well, if that wrong could mean trouble for us, you’d best say of it.”