Alsalda—a Neolithic fantasy:…
The Saramequai horsemen are riding the bounds of Alisalm-Land—on the very same day as the families walk their bounds to be rid of the spirits and lurking ghosts. Oops! But perhaps the two parties won’t collide . . . Read on.
The next bound-track after fording the Linden was much easier going, leading as it did between ancient trees. But in the distance Megovis could hear thunder, crackling and roaring.
Krisnavn groaned. “That’s all we need. A storm.”
“That’s no storm,” the young eblan said with what Megovis would swear was a snigger. “I said, today the families walk their bounds.”
And now she had said, Megovis could distinguish the sounds. Men shouting. Drums rumbling. The cracking of crossed sticks. But from which direction? He turned his head and honed his ears yet still couldn’t say for the sounds bounced and distorted around the trees.
Krisnavn’s sigh was louder than usual. “If all families are out, I suppose sooner or later we must meet.”
“Alisime ways are Alisime ways, they’ll not be changed,” Eblan Detah said. “But it’s best they don’t meet you today. They’ll mistake you for demons, riding these horses along their bounds.”
Krisnavn was quiet for several long moments. Megovis knew what he was doing: controlling his responses before they controlled him, as taught to all the horsemasters by Uissid Huat. But that was a good sign; it meant the little eblan-demon was losing her hold on him.
“Why did your eblan-master not say?” Krisnavn asked her. “We would have delayed the day.”
“But you told him of haste. Besides, he like the Alsime travels by riverboat; he’s never encountered it so he wouldn’t have thought of it.”
“Your Alisime riverboats,” Krisnavn repeated and nodded. “But, Eblan Detah, I will not hide myself from these families. Yet neither will I have word spread of me, that I’m a hedge-way demon.”
Megovis noticed Biadret had turned his head (to hide his laugh?). But it wasn’t funny. She now was winding Krisn like a thread on a spindle, the demonous spinner.
“It is only today,” she said, no hint of guilt to her. “By tomorrow everyone in Alisalm-land will know who you are and why you are here. The men returning from the feasts will carry it with them.”
“Enough. For today—today only—you may take us where you must to avoid them.”
Megovis growled. Further west. Soon they’d be riding into Uath’s Caves to be swallowed by the Forlori dragon. And up-down and up again, this land was one big hill after another. And, plod-plod-plod, he wasn’t alone in not liking the pace. Resentment oozed from Truth Studder. Horse and rider needed to run. Ahead the bound-track divided, each arm running alongside a woodland. Sturdily crafted fences edged the tracks.
“A Drukem Freeland,” she said.
“Not a family holding?” Krisnavn asked.
“No!” She clearly was shocked. “A Freeland is for the society only to use: to take as they need and to leave.”
Krisnavn nodded. Reluctantly, Megovis, too. Tree-clans, the noble Uestin; in the Dal were large tracts of woodland set by lore-verse to remain inviolate. Moreover, here at last was a track wide enough, clear enough, that they’d be able to let their horses run. But no. Because of the eblan-girl they still had to amble.
They were at the top of a hill and again heading down when, perhaps in response to Megovis’s growing impatience, Krisnavn told the eblan-girl, “Once we come to flat land, and an open track, we’ll see how you do at a run. How do you feel on that?”
Sweet Saram! Megovis wanted to whoop.
“Will I fly like the birds?” she asked.
“Perhaps not quite like that, not yet.”
Her young shoulders slumped. Yet she wore feathers, surely she needed no horse to fly.
They descended by way of another gulley with rain-loosened stones that rolled under hoof that slowed them further. Megovis wouldn’t say it, but he was beginning to understand why the Alsime used riverboats. Though their boats wouldn’t be needed if only they’d keep these tracks hinder-free. Still, he doubted they’d have seen so much of the land if they’d just sat in boats. The hillsides grazed, river valleys cropped, the woodland reserves, the coppiced trees; and now they were passing through hazel groves, catkins gone, the new leaves coming. But they also had seen, and it worried him, places where five hundred men could easily hide, and that along these same bound-tracks. The situation must repeat many times over across Alisalm.
“There’s a river ahead,” Krisnavn said. Megovis too had smelled it. “We’ll stop there and breakfast.”
Of course Eblan Detah had to object. “We ought to wait. Just till we’re at the back of Fraskhea’s Land. Only here, along this river, we’re trespassing. And it’s open, we’ll be easily seen.”
“But I was told that since we have an eblan with us we might get away with an odd indiscretion. Else, Eblan Detah, why are you here?”
She drew breath as if to answer. Then nodded instead.
“Krisn—Commander-sir,” Megovis corrected for the sake of the girl, “you reckon Ganros will keep those men busy?” It had been playing on his mind since she’d said of the feast and its rites.
“I swear, Govvy, you get more like a woman each year. You think they’ll want to go play with women after sweating all day? There will be no trouble,” Krisnavn assured him.
“Else, as Eblan Shunamn said, your men will be geldings,” Eblan Detah put in with what sounded like glee.
“There will be no trouble,” Krisnavn repeated. “We’ve enough trouble with Kerdolan.”
“It’s not the Kerdolan but our own Gousen we need to watch,” Biadret grumbled.
“We have spoken of that,” Krisnavn answered sharply. “There is no proof.”
“The markon’s leg isn’t proof?” Biadret pushed. “Coincidence, was it, that a snake bites her exactly where she still has a Kerdolak arrowhead buried deep in it?”
Megovis could have added his thoughts, but wouldn’t. Yet everyone knew that the Gousen used viper venom, even though King Tanisven had forbidden its use within the Dal. But that ‘Water of Waters’ wasn’t the Dal. And there’d been loud whispers of late that the Gousen were entertaining Kerdolak traders. And the implications of that for Krisn . . . No, the bearer of this news would not be welcome. Krisn had to work it out for himself.
“If you’re saying the Kerdolan used viper-venom, then you’re wrong,” Eblan Detah answered Biadret. “They have a terror of snakes. They’d never go near one to catch it and milk it.”
“Oh? And how do you know this?” Krisnavn asked her—while behind him Megovis and Biadret were mouths agape.
“But didn’t Markon Glania tell you the story of our Eblan Murdan and the Kerdolan? Though no, else you’d know it. Eblan Murdan used snake-filled corpses to chase the Kerdolan out of His Indwelling. See, they’ve both a terror of snakes and of corpses. And the Kerdolan have never returned.”
“Until now,” muttered Biadret.
“A knowledgeable girl,” Megovis remarked.
“That is why my eblan-master offered me,” she said.
“No. I meant that you know of milking snakes.”
“Oh, myself I’ve not done it. I’ve no liking for them. But I have heard the talk.”
But that didn’t satisfy Megovis. He wanted to know more—such as how she knew of Glania’s escape and her return to the Dal.
The Ulvregan had told them the Sometimes Stream was so called because sometimes it flowed and sometimes it didn’t. But why was this Low Stream so called when its waters ran ‘high’? However, its bank was broad and, Sauën having dried the overnight dew, it now was a pleasant place to sit—especially with the grass still short from last season’s grazing. So when Krisnavn said here was a good place to stop neither Biadret nor Megovis disagreed. However, next thing, came Krisnavn’s resonant Whoa! Megovis spun round, thinking demons were coming. But his shout was at Eblan Detah. She was trying to dismount on her own.
“But why not, what’s wrong with it?”
“First time,” Krisnavn said. “I’ll help you. Now walk. Get the ache out of your legs.”
Megovis watched. It amused him, how her little legs trembled.
“We’ve all had to learn,” Biadret said, his hands deep amongst their supplies.
Megovis grunted and headed back to Biadret and the packhorses (though he’d done nothing of work that morning he still was hungry). He watched the eblan-girl over his shoulder.
“Now,” Krisnavn told her. “If you consider Belgantros has earned a reward, you may feed him from your hand. The grass here is sweet, he’ll like it.”
She looked around her, but did nothing.
“Oops,” Megovis said aside to Biadret. “I’d say our commander’s tolerance is slipping.”
“The grass is best from beyond the fence,” she said.
“You’re an eblan. And it’s only your hand.”
“Of course,” Biadret said, leaning in close, “as the commander he oughtn’t to lose his temper.”
“She’s being awkward for the sake of it. A wretched spinner, she thinks she’s Bridren.”
“Only Belgantros,” Krisnavn said and took the armful of grasses from her.
“Oh, and she had so braved the wrath of her people,” Megovis said. He had seen her eyes alert and watchful.
“Do you think we’re misunderstanding?” Biadret asked. “That maybe to trespass, even a toe, will unleash who knows what demons upon us?”
“We’ve been told a swift arrow.”
“And they aren’t brushed lightly aside.”
“Now you’re sounding like her.”
“You don’t like her?”
“It’s not her in particular, just . . . I’ll be glad when I’m back in the Dal.”
“Yet your mother was Hiëmen.”
“She wed a Uestin.”
Biadret looked past him. “See that?” He chuckled. Eblan Detah had kicked the rest of the grass to where the other mounts could easily reach it. He strolled across to her, passed her a slab of cheese, and tore off an end of the bread.
She scowled at the bread. “Where’d you get this? It’s Mother’s Bread.” She made it sound an accusation.
“Then best not to tell Linkess, he’ll worry,” said Biadret, unperturbed. “He’s our cook; he baked it fresh this morning. But it won’t keep soft long, so best you eat it and enjoy it. And don’t frown, it won’t bite you.”
She poked then at the cheese, breaking it and sniffing it like something was wrong with it.
“Goats’ cheese,” Biadret told her. “Regiment ration.”
“Have you added ransoms?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Chest . . .? No, we don’t grow them.”
Megovis moved away. Not content with Krisnavn, she now was at it with Biadret, casting her charms. He noticed Krisnavn walking the riverbank, curiously looking. Megovis joined him.
“We see no villages,” he said. “I had been told but . . . I didn’t expect it to be like this.”
Eblan Detah had heard him; she wandered over. “My brother Demekn says the winter-isles around East Bounds are most like Dal villages. Though they’re not fenced or walled like yours—they have hedges. Some there have as many as twelve long-houses. That’s as many as twenty or more families. Only they’re not families like you have in your villages. These all hold descent from the same ancestress.”
“What about those scatters of houses we’ve seen?” Krisnavn asked her. “And what’s the difference between a family-holding and a family-land?”
“Well, I could tell you the story—”
“Keep it short.”
“But it can’t be said in a gasp and a gabble.”
“Try,” he said.
“Well, long ago in the Ancestor-days, the mother-ancestors—”
“I said keep it short.”
“Shortest to say? The land held within the bound-tracks we’re using? They’re the family-lands, kept by the mother-ancestors in the Ancestor-days. In those days the family groups only dispersed across their land in the summer. But since the Ulvregan came they’ve mostly remained dispersed, in family-holdings—those clusters of houses and sheds you’ve been seeing. The granary counts the holdings as five in every family-land, but many are more and some are less.”
“You know their numbers?” Krisnavn asked. Megovis winced. Numbers were truvidiren-lore. For some reason, Megovis noticed her eyes. Green, like Uissid Huat’s. He shuddered.
“You want to know?” she asked, clearly eager to tell.
“I’m no lore-man,” said Krisnavn. “An approximation will do.”
“Well, those who are lazy at numbering will say there are five hundred family-lands. But there are four hundred and ninety-three. I can name every one of them.”
“I’m sure that you can,” he said, “but no need. How many people, do you reckon, are spread amongst them? You said of the granary counting them.”
“Well, the granary allows three full-grown and three children to each cott—that’s a house. And five cotts to each family-holding—but that’s only for ease of counting. Then we say five holdings to every family-land. But again, only to make it easy. Then—”
“Whoa. What need has the granary of all these numbers?”
“It’s the granary-mistresses: they each have to know how many people depend on her granary. How else can she store enough grain should there be need as seed? Not every harvest is ample, though mostly they are, yet no amount of gifting can secure us the sun and the rain. Then infants are born and infants die and we don’t know their number so they’re not counted till seven winters-seen. You say summers, I know. Then not everyone lives to be an elder—which is as well since if they did there’d be none to be babies (but that’s something else, not what we’re saying). So we all agree it’s impossible to number every belly, in every family in every cott in every family-holding throughout all Alisalm-land. Yet every granary-mistress knows exactly how many her family-lands. They’ve not changed in number since the Ancestor-days.”
She stopped briefly to accept the water-flask from Biadret who was grinning. Krisnavn looked like he wanted to say something. But she gave him no chance.
“So you see, the granary-mistress needn’t know exactly the number of family-cotts—which is as well since they change with the seasons. And neither need she know how many bellies residing—which considering some have ten or more while others have, say, only the three, is handy. All she needs say is her granary serves, say, fifty family-lands with five family-holdings of five family-cotts to each land. That’s the number we’ve found works out best. Then she allows three full-grown and three children to each of these. That’s three thousand, seven hundred and fifty full-grown bellies and half again allowed for children. See, it’s easy then to calculate the seed-grain.”
Krisnavn laughed, hands up in surrender. Biadret chuckled. But Megovis sat with head reeling, stunned.
”Have I done wrong? But you asked. Though I’ve not answered yet of how many in Alisalm-Land. Thirty-six thousand, nine hundred and seventy-five full-grown, and same again children, which makes seventy-three thousand, nine hundred and fifty in all. But that’s only a granary count.”
“All that said in Uestuädik, not even her day-speech.” Biadret whistled in admiration.
“I couldn’t have said it as fast in Alisime,” she said. “You need walk twice around a field to say the same thing in Alisime. You must have noticed.”
Biadret laughed. And Megovis was forced to nod agreement. He could say It amuses me in Uestuädik in just two words. But to say the same in Alisime-Hiëmen, directly translated, he’d need to say, Water runs over river pebbles at me, and then to qualify it since it also could have many other meanings.
“Besides, I had to say it fast,” she said. “so you wouldn’t interrupt. I learned that from Mistress Siradath at Sapapsan’s Isle. Though with her she mostly talks squit. If you had stopped me I’d have been lost in the numbers.”
“But, Detah—Eblan Detah,” Krisnavn said, “you say the granaries need to know these numbers, and I do see that. But you’re not a granary-mistress, so what is your need?”
Megovis could have answered, though Krisnavn wouldn’t have liked it. Likely the eblann, like the truvidiren, used numbers to lay curses.
“I was trained to it,” she said. “Until a month since, if my sister had died it would have been me named next mistress.”
“So what happens now, if she dies?” Biadret asked her.
She shrugged. “It won’t be me, I’m eblan now. Though according to Mistress Hegrea, I’m also a seed.”
“Hegrea?” Krisnavn snatched at the name. “Does this Hegrea have a friend named Arith?”
“Friend?” Eblan Detah laughed. “By our stories he was more than a friend. But . . . you’ve stories of him too? In the Dal?”
“We have stories, yea. But she cannot be the same. When she said of you being a seed, were you entranced, or perhaps in a dream?” Krisnavn asked her.
“It was at our Cloud Stone Isle but . . . Why are saying of her?”
Krisnavn didn’t answer her directly, musing, quietly. “So she came here, and Arith too.”
Megovis looked at the eblan girl, and at Krisnavn, his eyes narrowed. He’d heard the stories of Hegrea and Arith Dragon-Slayer, who hadn’t. But they weren’t real happenings, just entertainment at the King’s Feasts, derived from the stories of Sauën and Beli.
“She must have lived a great many seasons,” Krisnavn said, voice soft in awe.
“Five hundred, or a thousand, or maybe more.” Eblan Detah shrugged that she didn’t know. “But how’d you know of her?”
“Stories,” Krisnavn said. “They say she and Arith defeated Luin when he was sent as Uissid Urinod’s envoy.”
Megovis frowned. That wasn’t the story he knew.
“Luin?” The little eblan wrinkled her nose. “You mean Father Jaja’s own son Luin? Saram’s son Luin? But he’s . . . Was him who fathered our Eblan Murdan. So is he an Immortal too? You know where he is? Is he dead like Arith, long gone?”
Krisnavn shook his braided head, the fire-beads dancing. “He never returned to the Dal, for fear of the Uissid’s retribution.”
Megovis couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Commander, they’re nothing but tales told for fun.”
“He’s Clan Kairen,” Biadret said as if to dismiss him.
“So I’m Clan Kairen. But our house sat alongside Krisn’s in Karpsvik; where was yours?”
“Yea, yea, but Clan Kairen doesn’t hail from the Pass-Lands, from around Chadtamen’s Pass. You’re . . . different.”
“Enough,” Krisnavn said. “Believe me, Megovis, the stories are true.”
“No.” He held stubbornly to his belief. “Uissid Urinod’s attempts to be rid of Luin, said to be the magician Chadtamen’s son, that’s just a cautionary tale.”
“He was Amblushe’s son, not Chadtamen’s,” Krisnavn corrected him. “Chadtamen forswore all women. That’s how it all started. He expected his nephews to follow the same, only Luin wouldn’t. So when the Krediche Hegrea overwintered at their hold she came away with Luin’s child—who apparently ended up here as their Alisime Eblan Murdan.”
“Krediche Hegrea?” Eblan Detah scowled at Krisnavn. But Krisnavn, story full spate, allowed no notice.
“Luin’s sweet loving mother tried to kill both him and Hegrea. Hegrea barely escaped—was only Arith who saved her. Then later Luin escaped and came bleating to Uissid Urinod, saying he had Chadtamen’s skills and wanted to cut Chadtamen out of the deal—”
“You’re talking metals, yea?” Megovis asked but, as with Eblan Detah, his question was unanswered.
“Uissid Urinod refused him; sent him off on a treasure hunt, intended to lure Kerdolak gold back to the Dal. But how long ago was that now? It must be a thousand summers since.”
“You’re one of them too,” Eblan Detah said with awe. “An Immortal.”
Krisnavn laughed. “I am as mortal as you. But I do find it strange that you didn’t know Hegrea’s story, and yet she is here.”
“I can tell you what happened when Luin arrived,” the young eblan said. “That’s part of both granary- and eblan-lore. There was a battle, that’s what. Arith led the Ulvregan, Eblan Murdan the Alsime, and together they sent Luin running.”
“Well he didn’t run back to Uissid Urinod. And I’d say if that Uissid ever does find him, he’ll be mashed-meat. So, your Mistress Hegrea says you’re a seed?”
“Do you know what she meant?” she asked, her green eyes fixed upon Krisnavn.
And while Detah’s away, riding the bounds on a horse (no less), what might her sister be facing as the Ulvregan and Alsime come together for the Feast of Winter Ending?