Alsalda – a Neolithic fantasy:…
Though it seems like an age, it’s been but four days. And now the day of the Saramequai Talks has arrived . . . Read on.
Biadret’s disembodied head poked through the blood-brown canvas tent wall. “Ready?” he asked.
“No,” grumped Megovis. “I can’t fix this band. Will you . . . eh?” He had managed to wrap the red linen band thrice round his waist, as per regulations, but tying it at the side always defeated him.
Biadret pushed aside the canvas, heaved on the band, and tightened it. “You’re spreading in the middle, Govvy.”
“I am not!”
“So it’s the thousands of charms you’ve tucked into the folds.”
“And I suppose you’re happy to walk into that hallowed land without protection?”
“A jabbing-spear,” Biadret said.
“Against spirits? And the lady only recently dead? You reckon her corpse will still be there, birds pecking at it?”
Biadret laughed. Megovis pulled back an arm.
“Hey!” Biadret’s hands flew up as a shield. “And our commander awaits. He sent me to fetch you.”
They headed off to the horse corral. “I’m not happy,” Megovis grumbled.
“It’s noted—noted, recorded and stored. I’ll tag it to my next report.”
“I’ll tag it onto your arse. Look, all I’m saying is Ganros isn’t long a horsemaster, so oughtn’t there to be the two of us here?”
“Nine markistes not enough? Govvy, you’re worse than a woman with your fussing. Just look round at the men. Where’s a back not bent to a task? See any hands not busy? Whopping Uath, at this rate we’ll have proper wood-buildings by the time we return.”
“Not if the Alsime attack. And what if their eblann start casting curses?”
“I swear you slept through the briefing. Alsime. Are not known. As aggressors. Now, close that mouth before you talk it up the trouble. The commander’s there at the gate and waiting. And so will I be, long before you.”
Megovis grunted as Biadret, light on his feet, broke into a sprint.
“Make a note,” Krisnavn said when Megovis joined him and Biadret at the makeshift gate of the Saramequai Regiment’s makeshift barracks. “Proper roads. I don’t need a lore-man to tell me that’s the first thing we need here. I swear, by Sweet Saram’s Smile, this land is awkwardly laid for gaining the corners.”
Megovis grunted agreement. It wasn’t disrespect and Krisn knew it. Just, he slept deep and it took him a while to climb back to the surface. As to this of the roads, what more could be said? Thrice now they’d ridden from the barracks to the Highlands of the Sun, from the middle reaches of South River to its upper reaches, having to pass by that muddle of rivers known as the Meet. It would be no great distance if this were the Dal, little more than between two villages. Yet here . . . The problem was with finding a route. There seemed always a river to bar their way and though there were fording places, gaining that place wasn’t always easy. As Bukplugn’s trader Maryns had warned them, the Alsime treated trespass as the worst of offences. Set a toe across their bounds and you’ll find your head hanging off a tree while your body is thrown to the swine. And Biadret didn’t understand the need of these charms?
On their first visit to Bukplugn’s Hold one of the Ulvregan markons had helpfully detailed the route. Later, the same markon had said to reach Isle Ardy they needed to stay with that same track till they came to the back of Burnise’s Hold, then to turn left. The bound-track there would take them to Ardy’s wharf where the river was forded.
Now thrice-followed, those tracks ought to be easy to ride, their overgrowth trampled, broken, wilted and dying. After all, this was still winter. Yet Megovis stared at the ghostly signs of their passing, and groaned. Was it that this land was triply blessed by the Mother? It seemed here everything green grew rampant regardless of season. It was unbelievable that just four days before they had ridden these tracks. Now that bound-track alongside Burnise’s Hold was a solid barrier again. It wasn’t natural, Megovis grumbled of it.
“How do they visit hold to hold?” he asked.
“Haven’t you noticed?” Biadret answered. “Beneath those deerskins lurk folded wings.”
“Roads, first thing,” Krisnavn repeated.
As they splashed through the shallows upriver of Ardy’s wharf Megovis whupped his relief. That relief was teetering on laughter by the time they cleared the steep valley. But the incipient laughter stopped as he came over the top.
He had seen it before. Yet its sight still inspired a frightening awe. He’d not believed what the Ulvregan had said of it, for men usually exaggerated when describing their home-land. But here they’d not said enough. Though what words could thoroughly catch it? Sauën shone bright on the walls as they rose, almost sheer, in blinding glory, impossibly high. The gate was a black gash in their midst.
“You have your orders,” Krisnavn said. “Again, you’re there to witness. Keep within hearing. Don’t be intrusive. And stay alert.”
Megovis’s hand rested upon his red linen band and the charms hidden there: protection he trusted against their holy lady’s restless spirit. Less easily quieted was that internal voice that whispered of eblann akin to uathren. But a markiste didn’t graduate to horsemaster without first he faced what’s within. He knew that voice was his own. He remembered how Uissid Huat had taught him to breathe. Yet still the horror rose from the depths. Why wouldn’t it leave him alone?
He shuddered as he rode through the dark shadowed gate. Then, to emerge into the sun-blasted isle was like deliverance into Beli’s Bright Land—except Beli wasn’t here. Instead, here was the powerful heart of Alisalm. And it pulsed, there, in that slumped wide circular thatched lodge.
Megovis didn’t like it. Those eaves were too deep, no walls could be seen. An army could be hiding there and none would see them. Not a blinked eye nor a flash of teeth, no glint off their weapons (for those weapons were stone).
He had said to Krisn, though they knew they weren’t the Alsime’s foe, did these Alsime know it too? By Saram’s Sweet Smile, they’d have to be blinkered to think these folk would fall at Krisnavn’s feet. They couldn’t even be certain of the Ulvregan, not now that they’d come to reside beside them. There had been a few sullen faces after Krisnavn jabbed that spear into Bukarn. But they must have known what their mission. For half a division to sail overseas wasn’t exactly usual. Besides, who didn’t know of the Judgement. They expected Clan Querkan to do nothing, just crouch in the shadows?
Megovis kicked himself out of the reverie. If an army lurked beneath those eaves, then he, Biadret and Krisn already were dead. Instead he checked to either side of the lodge. Behind it, to the east, was the granary. Smaller than the lodge, it more resembled an Ulvregan roundhouse. Beyond that he could see other buildings, smaller, rectangular, probably their brew-house, possibly one serving as their goats’ winter-quarters, others as stores.
He turned his inspection to the dead Bukarn’s family. They had gathered beneath a solitary tree. A wide-crowned bare-branched oak to the west of the lodge, in that goat-grazed ring between high outer wall and netherworld trench. In the surprisingly windless warmth of the isle, they sat around a stone-ringed hearth, a low fire burning. No one rose. None came to greet them.
“Guess that’s where we’ll be talking,” Krisnavn said, respectfully hushed.
As if from nowhere appeared a grey-bearded man. “Your need must be dire to visit at this season,” he said, neck cricked to look up at them still on their horses.
“Dire indeed,” Krisnavn responded to the Alisime visiting-formula. Then, “Granary Mistress Drea expects me.”
Suffering Uath, but the commander needed lessons in Alisime-Hiëmen. It hadn’t been noticeable before with the few words he had said. But now, hearing it said next to this inlander . . . there’d be no wooing of ladies while he sounded like that! Grey Beard seemed not to notice, too intent on looking askance at them.
“My captains. Here to witness,” Krisnavn said, seeing Grey Beard’s interest.
With a haughty sniff Grey Beard looked back to the family group. Clearly he had not been instructed on this. “I’ve goats,” he said. “I’ll not have those beasts near. I can find you stakes to tie them.”
“Not needed,” Krisnavn said. “They’re trained; they’ll wait unattended.”
“Do we know who’s who of these folk?” Megovis asked while he found a stone. He didn’t want Truth Studder skittish because ghostly fingers played with his reins.
“—grey cloak,” Krisnavn confirmed.
“Bit drab, next to her sister.”
“Eblan Detah. And I suspect those fire-feathers might match her nature.”
“Only suspect? After the time spent with her at the Ulvregan funeral.”
“As my friend Govvy, I’ll hear your complaint. But not as Horsemaster Megovis,” Krisnavn said with a sharp glance round at him.
Biadret shot a look at Megovis. Megovis shrugged. It had been an observation not a complaint.
“The swan-feathered eblan is their brother, Demekn. You might remember him,” Krisnavn said.
“As if we’d forget. Served Chief Krinik,” Biadret said.
“Well, he’s an eblan now, and no part of the past attaches. Of the others, the black-bearded eblan is said to be kin to the isle. The other, in the speckled cloak, is their headman, Eblan Erspn.”
Closer to and Megovis again tried to see into the eaves’ deep shadows. “No, Krisn, no farther. Not till I’ve checked this.” No need to explain, just a single slight nod towards the lodge. “Biadret, cover me. It oughtn’t take long.”
Krisnavn’s nod of agreement was even less visible, and Megovis was off at a long-legged run.
He ignored the looks from the granary family and trotted along beneath the eaves, the only way he could see back to the wall. He heard voices within, too muffled to hear any words. He supposed others must reside here. It was a vast place for just those few by the tree. While running he wondered what he would do if he slammed-bang into a foul-cursing eblan. His blood chilled in his veins at the notion.
Then, movement ahead. His hand fell to the ivory-handle of his fire-metal blade, the weight of his double-headed axe against his back reassuring. A fleet glimpse of deerskins scuttling away, lost to sight amongst a muddle of vertically stacks sleds. Fool to have run, his feet thudding and sending alerts. He slowed to a walk, neck craning back. But there was no further sighting.
“Clear,” he said on his return. But there had been someone. Rutting eblann most likely, though he’d seen skins not feathers.
At their approach the family group stood.
Megovis caught Detah’s look at Krisnavn, not quite hidden by her overhang of hair. Then her eyes fast-darted away. Not his concern, he reminded himself. Then again, what might she conceal in her hand?
Krisnavn signed to his captains. Biadret already was moving to west of the group which left Megovis to back off to the east. In a way it was the better position, the lodge between him and Sauën’s glare. But he wasn’t happy to turn his back on those eaves despite he’d now checked them. He had seen someone, maybe two persons. And they had disappeared, poof, into the air. That would have made him uneasy no matter where. But here, with the holy lady recently dead, and Krisnavn the inadvertent cause of it . . . Neither would that trench stop curse or arrow. It was no use reasoning away the fear. He allowed himself a shudder, then practiced the breathing.
Krisnavn offered the eblann a respectful dip of his head. Megovis found himself smiling. Every time, it filled him with pleasure and pride. Few chiefs in the Dal would offer the same despite it was King Tanisven who’d set the example. Krisnavn repeated the dip to Mistress Drea.
This was the first time Megovis had seen her, though she must have been at the Ulvregan burial. Pale hair, paler face, dark sunken eyes. He reckoned she’d be pretty once she stopped her sobbing and had plumped-up her face. Though was it a wonder she looked like a corpse with what she’d endured. She wasn’t a horsemaster to be used to death’s ways, and the Alsime didn’t sacrifice people, not that he’d heard. So likely for these folk death came while abed, and that only after sickness prepared them.
“Commander Krisnavn,” Grey Beard announced.
“Please. I will introduce myself.” Krisn addressed himself first to Mistress Drea. “As your eldliks has said, I am Horsemaster Krisnavn, commander of the Saramequai Division of King Tanisven’s Regiment, of Dal Uest. My captains, Horsemaster Megovis, and Horsemaster Biadret. They are not here as part of these talks, Mistress Drea, only to witness your agreement.”
Before any could move she’d lunged. Megovis flew, already into a tackling position. But Eblan Erspn did the same and their heads collided. Then even as he ringed both arms around the woman, holy lady or not, sprays of light dazzled him. He restrained her; Eblan Erspn took the blade from her, tossed it to Eblan Detah who deftly caught it.
Krisnavn hadn’t moved. “Eblan Head Man Erspn.” He acknowledged with a notable bow.
“I—” Eblan Erspn began, probably an apology, but Krisnavn interrupted.
“I take it you are here to speak on behalf of the dead. Your Alsime Ancestors?”
“I am here first to listen,” Eblan Erspn said.
Megovis noted the ruffled feathers. And Demekn’s part-hidden smile.
Krisnavn nodded. “Of course. But I must give you our thanks. To include our kinsmen in the burial rite was . . . moving. And now . . .” his gaze lingered on Eblan Black Beard. “Eblan Shunamen?”
“Shunamn.” The black-bearded eblan banged fist into palm. “Namn, Alisime belly. Not namen, Uestin name.”
“Apologies.” Krisnavn dipped his head, this time not from respect. He might be Beli’s best at swallowing anger, ignoring frustrations, redirecting the lusts of his loins, but Megovis knew he never could mask his amusement. “Eblan Shunamn. And on whose behalf are you here?”
“What!” The black-bearded Shunamn jumped back as if punched. “You ask . . . ? But I’m eblan—for the Alsime of course.”
“Is that not the headman’s role?” Krisnavn turned from Eblan Shunamn. Dismissively. “Mistress Drea. I regret the need of this intrusion. You will understand why my haste once we have spoken. Believe me, it is not done to cause you further distress.”
Megovis glowed in admiration of him. All that said without rancour as if she hadn’t just two breaths before tried to kill him.
Krisnavn turned his attention. “Eblan Demekn. We had thought you Rizzoni, Clan Reumen. It is a pleasure to see you are Alsime, and eblan. Your treatment of our Regiment song was not only skilful but also inspired. It moved my heart.” He pressed a palm there. “I heard many Ulvregan praise you for this kindness to their families at such a time. And I believe you can call forth the spirits—though I trust you will not call them to here?”
As he spoke, right at that moment, Isle Ardy was swept by the chilliest of breezes. Megovis looked around, uneasy. Coincidence. It was coincidence, only.
“I have no need to question your attendance,” Krisnavn said, still with Demekn. “You know the Dal ways, you can advise your family. I welcome you.”
Shunamn yelled and dived, incoherent, upset at something Krisnavn had said. Biadret tackled. Megovis stepped back, clearly not needed. The eblan fell just short of the hearth-stones, feathers singeing and stinking where his cloak had flown open.
And still Krisnavn continued as if nothing had happened. “Eblan Detah. A pleasure to meet you again. Apprenticed to Headman Erspn? I welcome you.”
Mistress Drea snarled. “You?” She shook off Eblan Erspn’s attempts to restrain her. “You welcome my sister? You welcome my brother? You question the right of my eblan to be here? Here? Isle Ardy. My isle? The manners and happenings in whatever strange land you hail from are none of my interest. But here it is for me to welcome you. If I so chose. Not, note, the reverse. You are a mere visitor, you have not yet our land.”
“Mistress Drea, you misunderstand. It was I who asked for this time to talk. It was I who asked for this meeting. Therefore it is I who welcome those who attend. Whose land is irrelevant. Now, if we are ready? We will sit. We will talk. We will make our arrangements. Thereafter I shall go away and leave you to your grieving.”
Megovis frowned. For the first time ever he could hear the struggle Krisnavn was having to apply that perfection modulation of voice. So what now had upset him?
Already two open attempts on Krisnavn’s life. Is it a wonder he’s finding it difficult to control his voice. What more might happen once he lays before the granary-family their lack of choices?