Alsalda—a Neolithic fantasy:…
It is agreed, Detah shall ride the bounds with Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, with intent to confuse and confound him. Will she succeed? Or perhaps before she ever leaves someone will stand in her way—such as her sister, Mistress Drea . . . Read on.
Scarcely a glimmer of light filtered through to the eblann-chamber. Yet already Demekn, Shunamn and Eblan Erspn had left her alone in it. She made a final check of her clothing.
Despite Eblan Erspn had said that once she had the eblan-cloak she could wear as she willed, he now had insisted a return to the Alisime deerskin shirt and chaps. But she’d not wear that deer-leather double-apron. Instead she wore an Ulishvregan skirt, it’s colourful plaid of brown, yellow and black cinched at her waist. Aye, she knew they were Clan Reumen colours but what of it. In the pouch hung from her belt were her fire-stones. In the hare-skin bag hanging beside it (Drea’s gift to her) was the wrapped bronze-bladed dagger that Demekn had, at the last, pressed upon her—in case. She checked again her boot-bindings. Aye, they were tied. It would not do to trip over them as she left the lodge. It would be deemed an ill-omen. Finally, she pinned twice through the fire-heron hat to secure it, took a deep breath and tied at her chest the fire-heron feathered eblan-cloak.
Her father had given her those feathers less than a moonspan since. Yet he no longer seemed real, a character in an eblan-drama, though they’d buried him only two days since. It was her head, confused, a jumble of happenings, a stream of people. She took another deep breath. Perhaps the next few days would help to straighten it, though she doubted it.
“It’s their commander you ride with, not Sauën.”
Detah spun round. Demekn stood in the doorway.
“Your horse awaits.”
She took yet another deep breath. Her head felt light like her spirit might leave her.
“You remember everything Eblan Erspn told you?”
“Aye. I’m to be as awkward as I possibly can. I’m to show the commander why—” ah, why? She couldn’t remember it.
“Why we Alsime use riverboats, and we’ve no need of his roads,” Demekn supplied. “That shouldn’t be difficult. When did the Alsime last use those bound-tracks?”
“They’re still used in the east where they keep the old ways.”
“Haldalda has packaged your food,” Demekn told her. “And Captain Biadret has stowed it along with their own on their pack horse. So you’ve no need to go hungry. And they’ll make sure that you’re watered. Haldalda has also included some cloths—she said, in case of accidents.”
“No!” Detah turned around, hands clutching. She’d forgotten about that.
“What is it now?”
“Nothing. No, nothing.” Dire thanks that he didn’t know what Haldalda had meant. Thanks, too, to Haldalda for the forethought. Though she prayed Master Nod wouldn’t touch her while she was away. Not that his touch was that regular yet. “My travel-cloak,” she said to change the subject.
“No panic. I personally gave it to Captain Biadret. He’s stashed it along with your other things. Now, ready?”
“No. Demekn, I don’t know how to get onto the horse! I’m sure once I’m up there I’ll be fine, I’ll enjoy it, but . . . How?”
“You ask me? I was assistant lore-man; I’ve never ridden one of their beasts. They scare me straight into Uath’s Land.”
She laughed as he had intended. But her legs now were trembling worse than wet mud. How was she to walk down that long narrow passage? She couldn’t breathe, hand to her chest. From throat to bowels was a river roaring, full spate through her belly.
Demekn pushed open the door.
She was glad today was the Feast of Winter Ending. Yesterday the grain-women had been so busy, today they weren’t so early rising. There were only the eblann to see her leave.
The isle was ankle-deep in wispy mist. It would be thick down by the river. Aye, that was better, thinking of things other than what awaited her. As she emerged from the eaves she glanced up. There were still a few stars, bright against the vibrant blue. Then her eyes lit on the horses. Another intake of breath.
Only three were the stiff-maned yellow-coated Regiment horses, stallions all. Of the others—all blood-coated, with long dark manes—one was high laden with parcels, one was wide-laden, the other bore but a tiny thin-padded seat.
She glanced at Demekn walking beside her. She looked to where Eblan Erspn was waiting, talking with Captain Megovis—the one she thought looked like a bear. What would they say if she turned around now and refused to go? But she’d always wanted to ride a horse. And she’d no more be able to say that her feet were buried into the ground. She’d not even be touching it. Why then did she tremble?
“Eblan Detah,” Commander Krisnavn greeted her.
Her hand again came to her chest. Was it his white breeches, unstained and billowing? His white shirt? Was it that red band neatly wrapped around his middle—or his travel-cloak of pale brown furs, with the Ulvregan plaid lining, green, blue and black? Or perhaps it was his honey-brown hair held in twenty-seven braids, each copper-beaded to weight the hair to stop it from blowing and blinding when fighting (She noticed today the Saramequai had abandoned their black-feathered crowns.) But no, it wasn’t any of that. It was the way his eyes showed his amusement.
“Commander Krisnavn,” she said, her voice become feeble.
He nodded. She breathed. His Saram-blue eyes had crinkles around them. He approved the manner of her greeting.
“I know you’ve qualms of how to reach your legs over the horse.”
He did? She sighed. She smiled.
“Every novice has that.”
They did? She sighed again. Again she smiled.
“So these first few times I will help you.”
Oh, she wasn’t sure of that.
“It isn’t difficult. Not once your body is trained to it.” He was already walking away—to the unladen blood-coated horse. She assumed she must follow.
“He’s not a Regiment horse.” Oh, but that came out wrong. Now he’d think her ungrateful. She was not. He was a beautiful horse. She looked underneath him. “Oh, is he not a he?” She slapped her hand over her mouth, hoping the horse was not offended. But she didn’t know what to make of it.
Commander Krisnavn smiled. She did hope he’d not be doing too much of that—though she was determined to control what happened inside her.
“You’re right of him, and yet you are wrong,” Commander Krisnavn said, his hands smoothing over the beast’s powerful rump. “While it’s true that the Regiment rides a different type, yet Belgantros is also a Regiment horse. A pack-horse—though he’s also trained for riding. I chose him particularly; he’ll be easy for you. And he is a he, but he’s a gelding.”
She looked round. She didn’t know what the word meant.
Captain Biadret mimed like the cutting of string.
“His balls have been lopped,” Captain Megovis said more bluntly.
“He’s been bedding where he oughtn’t?” she asked.
Silence. Oh, and now what had she said that was wrong? She looked around but no one would answer.
Captain Biadret held the gelding’s reins. Commander Krisnavn began to form a cup with his hands.
“But I’ve not yet fed him. If I don’t feed him he won’t carry me.”
Commander Krisnavn straightened again, now grinning. “Belgantros has had his morning fuss. More and he’ll believe he’s done some heroic service. First, let him carry you the day. Then you can fuss him and feed him. When he’s earned the treat. Now, can we mount up and be away?”
She wasn’t happy to stand on Commander Krisnavn’s cupped hands, even though he offered them. Rather would she master that little skip-jump that brought the horsemasters into their saddles. After all, the horse, Belgantros, wasn’t so tall. But for now she must stand in his hands. She swung her leg over just as he said. Then she tugged at her skirt to settle it around her, amazed that her bottom fitted exactly upon the small pad.
Eblan Erspn handed up her eblan-rod. With everything new to her, and her head all a’swim, she’d have forgotten it. But then Commander Krisnavn said no, she couldn’t ride and carry it. He tucked it into a leather holder like the Regiment used for their spears. Then he handed her the reins.
“Today, you’ll do no more than hold them. I’ll have the lead rope.”
Well—she sighed yet again—here she was atop the horse. She sat straight-backed. She looked down at Demekn and Eblan Erspn. Shunamn was again grumping and already heading back to the lodge. She could feel the smile spreading and couldn’t stop it. Then Belgantros moved and she yelped lest she fell.
“May the Mistress light your way,” Eblan Erspn called to her as she passed through the dark outer gate.
Already she’d set into the feel of the horse. The clip-clop, the swig-sway.
Megovis rolled his eyes at the young eblan’s protest. “No, Commander Krisnavn, we need go west.” And this was only the start! They’d yet to leave Bisaplan’s Land. And her ‘west’ would take them straight through the Land of the Dead.
He had tried to argue against taking her as their guide but Krisn, already in the eblan-girl’s thrall, had turned a look on him. If this were the Dal Krisnavn would have been greatly wary of her, for there no girl would be yoked to the Chief Truvidir without she had exceptional powers. Yet here . . . apprenticed to the eblann’s headman, her mother a holy lady too, yet Krisn couldn’t shackle himself fast enough.
Megovis could heard her explaining. “If we’re to start west of South Rivergate, then we need to use the Freeland Walk. Then over again to ford the Linden before we reach the Low Stream. See, there’s no fording place at the Meet: it’s all marshes, bogs and fens. But you must know that already.”
Megovis wanted to scream at Krisn not to accept her devious explanations, that to begin their journey by traversing the Land of the Dead was, of a certainty, inviting trouble. Had they gifts for Uath? That might offset any harm taken.
At least the river mist was clearing with the sun now rising. Around them was grassland used for grazing with birds loud in their song. It sounded like every tumble of bramble-briar, every thicket of thorn, was alive with them. But no amount of sunny flowers, of bees buzzing and droning, colourflies flitting, larks rising and trilling, could disguise that those mole-hills infesting this giant’s garden were the hills of the dead. The barrows rose like spots on a young boy’s face, each kerbed in white. Then there was the cenotaph, which to Megovis’s mind they passed by too closely, its centre now high-mounded with white river boulders.
Biadret dismounted to slide open the gate. Megovis, sat high on Truth Studder, twisted his body to check back behind them, eager to be away from the dead and onto the Freeland Walk.
“North,” Eblan Detah said—doubtless just to confound Krisnavn. At least this time he’d the sense to eye her warily. “Only to the end of Priaplhea’s Land,” she answered. “Then between that and Negkrakhea’s there’s the bound-track.”
Megovis pursed his mouth. Krisn might be blind to her but, for the sake of his friend, he intended to keep a close eye on her.
Still, at least this Freeland Walk was familiar, now they’d used it to visit Bukplugn’s Hold a few times. He knew what lay beyond those hedges of apple, rowan, elder and thorn. To his right the central plain, to his left a land falling away in deep folds down to the river. Mostly used for grazing, only that valley-floor was tilled; opposite, the valley sides were thickly wooded. But—and this troubled him—here was this eblan-girl, who’d been offered as guide because of her knowledge, and she was looking about her and craning over as if this were her first sight of it all. Never mind that he and Krisn were friends of old, it was his duty to protect his commander, and something here wasn’t right.
Then, despite the persistent grumble, he began to relax. It was that touch of green hazing the trees: it had a Dal-feel to it. And now he was properly awake, having gathered deep chest-fulls of flower-scented air, it seemed a good morning to jab in his heels and run with Truth Studder. No, Uath’s Curses! He couldn’t do that. No, because he had to hold back, because of this ambling crawl of this in-training eblan.
Though, he did allow her, she was good to her word. As said, they turned off the Walk westward, though not as said onto a track. It wasn’t even a path or a badger’s trail. He would have accused her of purposely leading them by inaccessible ways if he hadn’t already encountered the tangled tracks between their barracks and Isle Ardy. But at least with those they’d known where to turn. Here, all Megovis could see was more hedge. Pretty in white though it was, it was thoroughly obscuring. Yet she found the opening, sure as a beast, and had Krisnavn push through it.
Naked thorn and elder arched over. Whippy bare branches of spindle and dogwood lashed at his face. Truth Studder waded through the thick herbage and, despite the season, flies swarmed round them. The grass was wet; it had probably not dried since summer-last, And something had died. The odour of putrefaction seemed to swell and swamp the air. Then, inordinate relief, the all-enclosing growth released them where an oak spread its branches. He could straighten, he could breath—he could take in the view to the river. Quite startling. If it weren’t for this constant battle with greenery they could have been in the foothills of the Sahalian Mountains.
The bound-path (he refused to call it a track) abruptly gave way to a gulley. The way was steep, their progress slowed by the rain-loosed stones that rolled and scattered beneath the horses. When Megovis vented frustration using a volley of crude words, Krisnavn called back that this wasn’t a barracks.
“You see what I say of the roads?” Krisnavn said as they encountered an easier stretch.
“But Alisalm-land is crossed by numerous roads—we call them rivers,” Eblan Detah quickly cut in. “If we used the rivers, we’d be at South Rivergate in a day. But instead, on your horses, this is going to take us three or four days.”
“Two,” Krisnavn said. “At most.” She started to object but he cut across her. “Regiment horses are far and fast runners.”
“Now wouldn’t that be good,” Megovis remarked and sighed.
“Speed. I remember that,” mused Biadret in wistful tone. “But only from long, long, long, long, long ago.”
“Another land, wasn’t it?” said Megovis.
“Beyond the waves.”
“Open roads, never ending.”
“Not a bush or a bramble to nettle you.”
“You reckon we’re dead? This Uath’s Land?”
“Reborn,” Megovis said, “as we idled through the Land of the Dead.”
“Whopping Uath! Does that make us Alsime?”
“No, we can’t speak the speech—or you can’t. Though those folded wings you were saying of? They’d be a mite useful right now.”
The gulley spewed them onto the riverside, no warning, where everything was a’sparkle. The water, the trees, the flowers, the air. A party of ducks, quarcking loudly, flourished their wings and were gone.
“Is there no law for clearing these bound-tracks?” Krisnavn asked. What, that surely wasn’t irritation heard in his voice?
“Why have a law?” Eblan Detah asked. “Tomorrow the eldliks will be out mending and clearing after the families have walked their bounds today. Besides, as I said, these bound-tracks aren’t used anymore. We use rivers—except in the east where the old ways are kept. It was different in the old days, before the Ulvregan. Then men used the bound-tracks to drive their cattle when they went visiting.”
“They took their cattle, just to go visiting,” Biadret asked her.
She started to turn in her saddle to answer but stopped and just turned her head. “The men used to visit the women all summer’s half, so he’d take his cattle to graze her land while he . . . while she . . . while they bedded.”
“Interesting, the ways of other peoples,” Biadret quietly remarked.
“Well, whatever their old use, and whatever it now, the families must keep their bound-tracks in good order,” Krisnavn said.
“Is this a new Dal-law?” she asked, and for some reason sounded amused.
“No,” Krisnavn said. “For now it’s only a comment.”
“Well,” she said. “you’ll likely voice it many times over before this journey is done. I’ve said, we Alsime don’t use these bound-tracks. Alisalm means ‘land of rivers’. You’d best learn to use boats.”
“And you are not seeing what I am saying,” Krisnavn countered, incredibly patient. “A man’s foes could slink along these tracks. And who knows what demons might lurk.”
“But that’s why the families walk their bounds. To scare away the lurking ghosts and various spirits. But you’ll be fine, you have an eblan with you. The ghosts won’t touch us unless we call them.”
“Is she’s talking of calling up ghosts?” Biadret was no longer so cocky.
Megovis patted his waist. He had his charms, he was safe.
“So, we now turn northward?” Krisnavn teased her. For north was anything but the right direction. Yet what did she answer?
“How’d you know? See, we can’t ford here else we’d be trespassing as soon as over the river. So we need to go up a way before we across.”
In the Dal they played a board-game. The aim was to move the counters through a maze and reach the centre before the opponent. This ride was beginning to resemble that game—but in reverse. Still, the Linden was a pleasant valley, the river, fast-flowing, neither wide nor deep. And sheltered from the winds and frost, pink and blue forget-me-not flowers tumbled into the water. Beneath its surface Megovis could see shoals of darting glinting fishes. Somewhere not far away, doves were cooing. And a cuckoo called.
“Sure sign of summer,” Megovis called back to Biadret.
“Well today is the Feast of Winter Ending,” Eblan Detah said in a gloat.
“What happens at this feast?” Krisnavn asked her. “I imagine it a joyous affair.”
“I’ve never attended.” She ducked her head in time to avoid an oak-branch, for here the woodland had strayed across the river. “This ought to have been my first time, since I’m now an eblan. It would have been at Cloud Stone Isle, at His Indwelling.”
“So there’s an age restriction on who attends? ” Krisnavn asked.
“There is. But no matter the winters-seen, an eblan always has full-grown status. An eblan has feast-duties.”
Megovis expected a long list by the way she heaved a great sigh before answering. Instead she said, “How can I say when I’ve never attended? But next season round, then I’ll know.”
“Why the age restriction?” Krisnavn asked.
“It’s, um . . .” she tucked her head in, or maybe she shrugged (from behind it was hard to know which) “. . . well, I’d say it’s likely to do with the coupling. This night the Father fills many bellies.”
“One of the old ways?” Krisnavn asked, but not without first a pause and a cough. Megovis wanted to laugh.
“No,” she said. “Only as old as the Ulvregan’s coming. See, at the Send-Off Feast, Nod’s Daughter takes away the spirits of our recent dead—she takes them to the Land of Nod, in the south. Then today she returns them.”
Megovis looked back at Biadret. But Biadret only shrugged.
“Everyone’s duty this night is to couple,” she said. “They’re to open the way for the returning spirits. Then come the nine moons, the dead are reborn.”
“Ah,” said Krisnavn. “So that’s how it’s done.”
She nodded. “But in the old days this feast was used only to arrange the visiting.”
“Then the men would drive their herds?”
She nodded enthusiastically.
Megovis grinned. He could see Krisnavn’s sigh. And they had how many more days of this? Would any survive with sanity intact?
It seems the Saramequai haven’t quite understood what Detah said of the families walking the bounds—the very same bounds along which they’re riding.
How will the horsemen cope with that?