Detah might be away, riding the bounds on a horse (no less). But today is the Feast of Winter Ending when men and women, Ulvregan and Alsime, come together—and Detah’s sister, Mistress Drea, must face their resentments and questions in all their confusion . . . Read on.
As an eblan-apprentice at the Feast of Winter Ending Demekn ought to have been fixed to Shunamn’s side. Instead he was more often with Drea. “An eblan’s second duty,” he told Shunamn: “His family.” And Drea did need him. The Alisime women penned her with their questions, particularly: Why had she no trader at her side; now how could they trade? They bewailed the size of Master Nod’s hand to have taken her mother, the granary-master as-was, the Ulvregan traders and the traders’ sons too. At the feast’s beginning Drea had held her composure. But as the day aged, the questions repeating like thorns in a wound, she faltered.
Demekn did as he could to answer for her. Bisdathea’s Isle was no great distance, seaward of the Meet; they should take their trade there. But he, too, wearied of repeating his answers. Why say it over, when he could say it the once. Yet it wasn’t for him to assemble the Alsime.
He sought out Shunamn, and found him beneath the eaves with a coterie of Alisime elders. He had all-but to drag the black-bearded eblan away. Shunamn sniffed and grunted while Demekn explained. But at least then he did agree the need.
“But you’ll not be the speaker. You’re too Uestin. I’ve heard you, kissing the toes of those horsemen. No, you’ll make them into our friends, come here to Alisalm-land only to serve our granary-mistress.”
“And so they would be our friends if we’d but allow it.”
“No, listen.” Demekn wanted to grab him and shake him. “They’re out there this day, making their plans of how best to defend us. And not to defend against an imagined foe, but against those same Kerdolan who have already killed all our traders.”
Shunamn shook his head owl-like. “If that’s what they do, then they’re wasting their time. We’ve all heard the viper’s hiss: Best defence is attack. No, they ought to be riding their precious horses along the Waters, not skulking along some never-used back-tracks.”
Demekn wanted to say that the best defence was the walls of a nest, preferably high in a tree, in a heronry. Or maybe the dam that the beavers built and warder-posted. Not to ride off along the Waters—wasn’t that what the dead traders did? But Shunamn was his eblan-master. And Demekn needed his permission to speak. And he’d not get that by crossing opinions and shoving the truth down his throat.
“Listen, please,” Demekn entreated. “All I’m saying is that the Alsime are asking—they’re not Ulvregan to know—and we have a duty to tell them. Isn’t that the fourth eblan-duty? Unanswered questions, Shunamn, will breed mountains and monsters.”
He thought Shunamn had answered with his turned back; he was walking away. Yet at some little distance he stopped, indulged in more sniffing and grunting, and gazed up at the sky. Was he beseeching Saram for an answer? Demekn waited. After some little time Shunamn returned.
His ‘aye’ was grudgingly given. “But I will fetch their attention—and best we do it before the grain-women release their Brew. Get them sipping, bodies rubbing, clustering around those vats like pecking birds at the wind-hills . . . only attention then is their tightening balls. But I’ll tell you this: You say of those horsemen, that they’re wonders, and you’ll have no balls to tighten. You understand me? And neither will you raise your rod. You do not speak for the Ancestors. So, I’ll call them after the games.”
The games reminded Demekn too much of that fateful day of the Uissids Judgement for him ever again to enjoy their watching. He paced. The press of people around the arena grew thicker as the contests progressed. Target shooting. Spear casting. Log rolling. But these weren’t the contests most wanted to see. They gathered early to ensure their place to watch the wrestling. In the final bouts the contestants would strip down to their clouts, the women the loudest in their encouragement. Last feast, just at this moment, the Father had released His passion and the women had hooted in frenzy as the men’s glistening bodies were smeared with the Mother’s fresh mud. The eldest women the worst!
Shunamn, as Ardy’s eblan, presented the winner of each event with a lamb. In the old days the prize had been a cow-calf. But few were cattle herders now: a handful of families and those along East Bounds, and some Ulvregan. The champion’s prize, however, remained unchanged. Duneld’s Hold had loaned the bull-calf, to be returned when it wasn’t claimed. For the champion was the man who won every event, and that hadn’t happened since Arith Dragon-Slayer, so stories told.
Prizes given, Shunamn raised his eblan-rod. Tightly packed within Ardy’s second ring, the gossiping, laughing, cheering feasters fell to immediate silence. Shunamn allowed the silence to stretch, waiting for those who might be flirting (or more) beneath Ardy’s deep eaves. A few couples belatedly joined the crowd, all eyes watching.
“You have heard it,” Shunamn said, voice strident. “Thirty sons of the Ulishvregan traders’ holds dead. Killed by the Kerdolan along the Water of Waters. You have heard it. The Master of the Granaries killed by the Saramequai commander. You have heard it. Mistress Drea replaces her mother, that most hallowed of grain-women, dead with the shock. You’ve heard it. Isle Ardy no longer can offer trade, Mistress Drea has no granary-trader beside her. You’ve heard it. Aye, and you have asked: How come this to be? Some may have heard stories given as answers. Some of those stories may have the truth. But my apprentice here, Eblan Demekn? He can tell it better. Too, he will tell you what’s now to be done.”
Though Demekn, former assistant to Chief Krinik’s lore-man, was unfazed by the eyes turned upon him, he was acutely embarrassed by his skimpy cloak. Two seasons now he’d collected the feathers yet he’d found scarcely enough to cover his shoulders. By now those feathers ought to reach his waist. It seemed more like a token, as if he were playing the part in a drama. Shunamn was the only other eblan here, yet even the Alsime might question the Eblan Mistress’s acceptance of him.
“They’re waiting,” Shunamn prompted.
He fumbled and found Drea’s hand. He squeezed it. Strength for him, strength for her. Then he began. While waiting he had ordered his words. Mindful of phrasing he repeated as best he remembered Eblan Erspn’s given story. The granary-master as-was had heard of this hindrance, had resolved to remove it before this feast and the season began. But by nature cautious, the granary-master had first sent river-walkers to assess it. Demekn said nothing of the impetuous, impatient, reckless Ulvregan, only that the Saramequai bent on revenge had led them. Yet as the words left his lips, Demekn realised that the Alsime knew nothing of the Saramequai and their horsemasters. Thus his prepared speech became more a clipped version of the exposition told to Drea, Shunamn and Erspn.
For the most part Shunamn nodded approval. But not when Demekn related how Mistress Drea had engaged the Saramequai commander to fight the Kerdolan along the Waters.
“I was asleep then was I?” The hush of the words didn’t hide his anger. “As I remember it, the commander offered and would not be refused.”
“Would you rather they knew we were bullied into it, or have them think the granary controls?”
It was turning into a very long speech and he was glad to conclude it. “Now, this very same day, the Saramequai commander has set out to inspect the bounds of Alisalm-land. When he returns he’ll know how best to protect us, and how best to destroy the Kerdolan.”
“You could’ve done better,” Shunamn complained, no longer lowering his voice. “You could’ve had the Alsime haring to support us.”
“But we’ve discussed this. To fight is not a viable solution.”
“There you go again, speaking like those Uestin.”
“Because they’ve the best words for it.” He would have said more except that a question was called from the Alsime.
“Does this mean you’re no longer offering trade at this isle?”
“We have no granary-trader,” he said. “However, as usual at the end of the feast there’ll be trading, one to another. We have Ulvregan attending. And I see Hiëmen too amongst them. Now, unless they’re here to pleasure our women, they’ve likely come to trade with you.” That brought chuckles and bawdy remarks.
“These horsemen,” asked another, “they’re the men we’ve been seeing of late, thick in the Ancients Land?”
Demekn nodded and answered aye.
“They usual men?” another asked. “Not spirits?”
“I have said, as usual as any Alsime.”
“They’ll not snatch our women?”
At that Shunamn stepped in. “Any trouble with them, you bring the complaint here to me. They’ll not be usual men after that, and so I’ve warned them!”
There followed a long silence. Demekn thought the questions done. He allowed his shoulders to soften, his spine to relax.
Then, “How long before another trader is here?”
“I cannot answer, not yet,” Demekn said. “Since its creation, the granary has taken its traders from the Ulvregan holds. Now those holds are empty of sons. Our Eblan Head Man had been in talks with the Ancestors—other possibilities, maybe taking Alsime as traders—but now we’ve lost the granary-master who would have trained them, we must start again.
“I’m not happy to say this,” Demekn added. “But there is a thought that, as we eblann know, even while day-to-day and season-to-season all seems the same, yet when seen by the hundreds there is visible change. Thus it is possible the Mistress now wants an end to the granary trade.”
“Is it true what I hear?” another asked, ignoring the implications of that, “that your Mistress has been seen walking the lands?”
“Heron-feathered cloak, isn’t that her?” another said.
“Fire heron?” Shunamn asked, clearly thinking of Detah.
Demekn couldn’t control it: ghost-flesh swept over his shoulders, swept down his back, even down to his thighs. Shunamn leant in close to him. “Best not to say. Not till we know it for certain.” Aye, Detah had said of it but Demekn had thought her affected by the grain-women’s story of her walking their fields.
“If I might say,” said a young Alisime man standing close. “If Mistress Drea lacks a man, I’ll gladly service her.” Around him, his companions guffawed and nudged him.
“Care to answer?” Demekn asked his sister. “They’ll think the more of you, even though you refuse.” But she shook her head.
“Mistress Drea thanks you for your offer,” he said—at which the man’s friends became yet louder, more rowdy. He glanced to see where was Ublamn should the eldliks’ strong arm be needed. He was not far away. “You will agree,” he said, now having to talk down their din, “it would not be fit for the granary-mistress to make such a decision while still in mourning.”
“What of the Father’s Brew?” A man shouted from way back in the crowd. “Does any of this affect that?”
“You need ask?” Demekn answered with a grin. “You know where the grain-women are at these feasts there too is the Brew.”
A woman spoke then. “Can I still bring my grain to be stored against need.”
At this Mistress Drea finally spoke. “Please, please do bring your grains to the granaries; that is our first purpose. We shall store it as ever, unspoiled, until needed. We will give you the tokens to say how much is yours. But you must know, we can no longer offer deals against it, though it saddens me to say it.”
“But if we bring no grain for trading, you’ll have no grain for brewing,” the same woman said. Several around her nodded and repeated of no grain for the brewing.
Mistress Drea held up her hands to quiet them. “I note your concern. But there’ll be no change in our ways. We grain-women still will grow what’s needed for the Father’s Brew, as it has ever been done. It is not traded grain that we use, not for such sacred purpose.”
Demekn watched the glances between the women, not knowing if he ought to speak again. There were no more questions from the men, their queries apparently satisfied. Perhaps Shunamn would offer a few words to conclude. But at that moment the previous few murmurs rose to a sudden cacophony, the women all speaking at once.
“Did you know they did that?”
“I took it they used our grain, not their own.”
“Sure I’ve seen them out in their fields, north of here, but I thought that grain for their family.”
“It’s not right. We’re the ones to enjoy the Brew.”
“Were it not for their bread we’d still be like in the stories of old, our spirits born into the birds.”
“Well, for myself, I’d happily grow the grain for them. And I say all ought to do it.”
“Those grain-women, burdened enough. My back is strong and I’ve a family-full of hands.”
“We’ve land to cut us another patch. But how much is needed for the Brew?”
“Aye, you’re right, we ought to grow the grain for her. I hear that’s what they’re to do along the North Bounds.”
Demekn looked at Drea. Surely this would cheer her miserable face. But no, though she did hold up her hands for quiet.
“You are right, aye, we do grow the grain to feed our families. But each harvest, we set aside two-thirds of our yield for the Brews. As to the Mother’s Bread, we grow a special grain for that. Our ways are the ways set by Mistress Hegrea when she created this, the First Granary.”
“But that’s not right!” answered several of the women though together it sounded more of a babble.
Drea held up her hands to quiet the threatened uproar. “I hear what you’re saying. That you—some of you—would gladly grow the grain for the Brew. But some is not enough. If it’s to be done, then all must agree it, all must do it. This needs more talk, and today’s not the day for it. There’s been enough; our heads spin with it. Have we forgotten the purpose of this feast? As I remember, it’s not for talking.”
“I’d not say that. As long as the talk is sweet to my ear.”
“I’ve better use of tongue and lips.”
More comments rose threaded thickly with innuendos. Demekn wondered, ought he to stop it. Yet it wasn’t his duty. He looked at Shunamn.
Shunamn held aloft his eblan-rod. Silence descended so swift it was eerie.
So it seems the Alisime women might ease Mistress Drea’s burdens by taking on at least one of the granary-chores. A shame they cannot provide her a trader-man. Meanwhile, her sister Detah is still riding the bounds with those ‘demons-on-horseback’, trying to confound and confuse them.