The Alsime women have offered to ease Mistress Drea’s burdens by taking on at least one of the granary-chores. Will they also provide her a trader-man? Meanwhile her sister Detah still is trying to confound and confuse the Saramequai horsemasters as they ride the long-neglected bounds . . . Read on.
Detah was both pleased and displeased. Already they were nearing South Alsime Commons. Yet it was only that morning they’d left Isle Ardy. They were here too soon, too early; it ought to have taken them twice as long. It was the land across Long Water: South Landing; they had crossed it in no time. Aye, Detah had known what to expect once here, despite she’d never been here before.
Here the hedges gave way to fences, grain-fields to sheep-grazing. No steep-sided hills, no ups and downs; no tangled tunnels to waylay them. They simply followed alongside the river, silted black beneath its slow-moving water, their horses’ hooves muted by the close-growing ling that invaded the track. Beside them unfurling ferns nodded their silent snake-heads. And now she’d be glad to be off this horse. But at last they had run!
Commander Krisnavn had looked back at her and nodded as the track had widened. Her heart had galloped in anticipation. Yet he held them back. They weren’t yet out of the hills of First Landing, and the track again climbed. “Best to get this hill out of the way.”
That hill was the highest yet. Then at the top the track opened, no fences, no overgrown hedges. Detah grinned. He was sure to say now they could fast-run the horses. Breathless she waited. But he said nothing. Was it because the track again rolled downhill? Did he fear they’d gain crazy momentum and lose control like the fiery hoops of Chilhilshin at the Ulmkem Feast in the summer?
And again the track climbed. Thereafter it so widened that ten men together could have easily ridden without shoulders touching. It ran straight, on and on into the haze-veiled distance with only a few little dips and hollows. By her calculations, at the very end of the track was an Eblann Freeland. Though in truth not having ventured to this part of Alisalm-land she wasn’t entirely certain and so wouldn’t say. Yet she knew which family-lands fronted which rivers; she knew where the fording places. She knew too which family-lands straddled which streams or headwaters. By that alone she could determine their route, all gleaned and extended by talk overheard while her father was dealing.
“You’re ready for this?” Commander Krisnavn asked her, his crinkle-held eyes belying his sober mien.
She bit back a grin. “We’re going to run? Really?”
“Now, you hold the reins as you’ve been doing. No pulling: you’ll confuse Belgantros. Use your legs to grip. And if you feel you might fall, then lay yourself flat. Above all, don’t be frightened. We’re not going our fastest.”
Oh. She was disappointed at that.
“Then if we reach the end and there’s no light to ride farther, we’ll set camp for the night. I expect you’re aching and a little bit sore.”
Aye, she was that but she’d not admit it. The tops of her legs were raw in that gap between clout and chaps. It didn’t help that she sat on sweat-slicked leather. She wanted to tuck her skirt under her legs but feared Belgantros wouldn’t like it if she squiggled.
But she’d no time to worry of it. Commander Krisnavn did something (she didn’t see what) and his stallion, Fierce Wind, took off like a panicked deer; Belgantros followed. All those instructions, but what had he said about leaving the saddle? Her bottom kept bouncing and she was sure she would fall. She couldn’t work out how to perform all his instructions, all together, not while Belgantros was galloping along. She gripped with her legs. Did he say to do that? It seemed to work.
When, exactly, the magic happened she couldn’t afterwards say. It was like when she first sat up on his back and he moved and she yelped, yet soon her body was moving with his and riding Belgantros was easy. Now, too, after those first panicked moments, she suddenly wasn’t an awkward bundle precariously bumping upon his back. Instead, she was an integral part of Belgantros. She then couldn’t stop laughing. Look! Just look at her racing the wind, her eblan-cloak flapping as if she’d wings, her hair pulling out from their plaits and streaming long ribbons behind her. She wanted this never to stop.
But already Commander Krisnavn was pulling back, slowing, and so too was Belgantros. Now they trotted, now they walked.
“Why have we stopped? I was enjoying that.”
“You should have been Dal-born. You could have been a markon,” he said.
“No!” Now he’d destroyed all her joy. “I’ll never be a markon. Markons kill.”
“Only when necessary,” he said. “The king must protect his people, you know that. If an enemy is prowling the bounds, killing indiscriminately, then they must be stopped. Permanently.”
They waited for Captains Biadret and Megovis to catch up. They had been slower, their packhorses trotting with burdens wobbling. Commander Krisnavn told them he and she would continue the gallop. That pleased her.
“We’ll wait up at the far end. Next clear track I’ll take the packhorses so you and yours can run.”
“This horsemaster instructs us as if we were markons,” Captain Biadret observed with a glint of humour.
Commander Krisnavn ignored him. “Ready, young Detah? You wanted to fly.”
She wasn’t sure if he was teasing or if he said it as a warning. But, though their horses galloped faster than ever, still every fourth beat the hooves touched the ground. Her eyes were wide, chilled with the wind; her cheeks were aching with her laughing. And it all felt so good!
Then too soon there was the Eblann Freeland, and the track was falling away to Long Water. Again they slowed. Walked. Stopped. She straightened her back. She shuddered with joy.
She nodded, unable to speak for the grin.
He then had helped her dismount and told her to walk. Ouch! She’d hardly been able to put one foot to the other. He’d glanced at the sky. To her disappointment there still had been two hands of light.
Detah eyed the fences sturdily crafted, eyed the charms hung upon them, and knew exactly where they were. South Alsime Commons. She noticed how Commander Krisnavn eyed those same charms. Ought she to tell him that it weren’t only wolves that hunted that fenced-in scrubland? But since fording Long Water he’d scarcely spoken, at least not to her. He now was guiding them, and not once had he taken a wrong turning. Though truth, any track eastward was bound to bring them to here. Now riding ahead of her, when the track divided he correctly took the right-hand path, west to veer south of the Commons.
She shivered. It wasn’t fear, she told herself, but the chilled air now whispering around her. If only there was a sight more noise, more than a whick of harness and cluck of hoof. Just listen! Not a bird call, not even a crow. Then—relief!—she caught sight of the sea.
Yet that didn’t much help. Though it was but a glimpse still she could see how vast was this Mother Nod’s Stew-Pot. She remembered what the South Alsime said of it: that if you’d the ears, you would hear Mother Nod singing her song while she stirred in the dead bodies. South Alsime sea-lore. Detah, from the Highlands, was West Alsime.
The land suddenly stopped. Beyond was a low sandy cliff that spilled on to the beach. Detah peered eastward along the shore into the mist-swallowed distance. She nodded, she grinned. Here they might be at the southern bounds but they yet were a good way from South Rivergate.
“You’ll not reach there before night,” she gloated. See, she’d said it couldn’t be done in a day.
“Biadret, Megovis,” Commander Krisnavn called back to them. “Might be only scrubland beside us but there’s birch mixed amongst it. I needn’t say it. No stakes, no tent, no shelter.”
“You cut the stakes,” Captain Megovis said, already moving. “I’ll gather the firewood.”
Ought she to tell them? She told Commander Krisnavn, “Wolfs hunt there, in packs. And, um . . . there might also be ghosts.” Stories said of the ancient Earthen Boats broken open, the old bones stolen.
He ignored her warning. “Let’s find a way down this cliff.”
There was a ramp formed by a cliff-fall. Once onto the sand he signed for her to dismount. But she couldn’t, too pained and too stiff. He had to help her again.
“Now walk—not round in circles, go look at the sea. At least do that. And you’re not to sit till I tell you.”
“I was rather hoping to curl into a ball, and sleep.” She didn’t mean it to sound surly. He laughed.
Walking on sand wasn’t easy. Her feet sank in and if she didn’t keep going the sand might swallow her. She kept glancing back to the Commons. But she would be on the beach, she would be with the three horsemasters. Still, she ought to have told them.
It was easier walking close to the surf. The sand there, being wet, was hard—though she’d not get too close. She didn’t trust Mother Nod not to reach out and grab her. Then who would save her, so far from the others? But at least Master Nod now was rising, his cold eye watching. That helped her feel safe.
The breeze, increased to vigorous, caught at her cloak, trying to take it. She had to hold tight. Yet the commander he had told her to walk so she walked. She watched the waves as they rolled in only to die on the shore. She watched the grey-cream patterns left behind them slowly dissolve. Like the granaries, she thought, slowly dissolving. But that wasn’t a thought she wanted, not while away with the Saramequai, riding their horses.
Again she glanced back. But where were their horses—where was Commander Krisnavn? How far had she walked? She was alone on this hard cold strand. She hurried her feet, she must return. She ran. Gone now was her tiredness, the soreness, the aches. She was like Belgantros, galloping, her heart in her mouth.
Then—was that a pin-prick of light? It flickered: it was firelight! She slowed. She stopped. She gasped to recover her breath. Then again she hurried.
“You should have been a markon,” Captain Biadret remarked. “No matter where a markon is sent, he’ll always return when the food is ready.”
“You now may sit,” Commander Krisnavn told her.
She sank to the sand.
“Belgantros will need your attention after you’ve eaten,” he told her. “All those bound-tracks, he’s picked up some burrs. They’re going to rub him raw tomorrow if you don’t find every last one and remove them.”
Though she resented Commander Krisnavn for the telling yet she knew he was right. But that didn’t stop her pulling a face at his back while she groomed Belgantros. Then came thoughts of the night. Where was she to sleep? Commander Krisnavn had said of a tent and a shelter, but she could see only the one. It was big—bigger than an river-walker’s up-propped boat. And it seemed to be magically erected with nothing to hold it. But . . . was she to sleep in there? She whispered her worries to Belgantros. He softly nickered; he understood.
“I can find no more burrs on you. But listen,” she told him. “If grey fingers and noses nudge you in the night, you’re to let out a neigh. And make it loud. They might be horsemasters, and not afraid, but you’ll be calling to me. Now, best I find out where’s my bed for the night.”
But how to broach it? Commander Krisnavn sat by the fire. She glanced at the tent. He didn’t speak to her; that didn’t help. Ought she to ask? But he might assume that she’d know. Know what? That she was to sleep on the sand in her travel-cloak? If it weren’t for the angry ghosts that prowled the Commons, that would do quite well for her, but . . . and anyway she’d yet to untangle her hair.
Her arms felt heavy, an effort to reach up to pull out the pins from her fire-heron hat. Yet it had to be off. It was only a cap, it had protected only the top of her head. The rest of her hair, tugged and twitched by countless branches, long had escaped their plaits. It now was a knotted mess. Wearily she teased at it, picking out the pieces of twig, all the while sensing Commander Krisnavn’s eyes watching.
“Detah,” he said.
She spun round to face him.
“Detah . . .” He looked uncertain of something, though not quite sucking his lip. “Detah, would you say that while you’re with us you’re an honorary markon?”
“Not if you’re going to tell me to kill.”
He smiled—all the way into his eyes. “No, I promise you that. But you ride a Regiment horse. And once you’ve tidied your hair you’ll sleep in a Regiment tent.”
She nodded, glad to have that uncertainty answered. It was a tall tent, square. And now closer she could see the stakes and ropes that held it.
“It doesn’t go against some Alisime way, to share a tent with my men—does it?” he asked.
“Likely not,” she said. “I’m expected to share with my eblan-master. And at Isle Ardy there’s my brother and Eblan Shunamn as well; at Sapapsan’s there’s Dalys.”
“I ought to have asked you sooner and not assumed.”
“But as long as we’re sleeping and they don’t want to visit,” she said. Perhaps he didn’t understand what she meant. She didn’t say more.
“So, a Regiment horse, a Regiment tent, and Regiment food . . . Would you say you’re in my command?”
Detah didn’t answer straight off. She could see his reasoning, and it did equal that. Yet she was an eblan, not his to command.
“You don’t answer,” he said.
“Have I done something wrong?”
He smiled. “No. No, I was just trying to establish that you’re now an honorary markon.”
“What does honorary mean?”
“That you’re only ‘acting’ a markon.”
“As long as it’s only acting, aye.” But where this was leading? She didn’t want to discover, later, that she’d agreed to something terrible and dire.
“You know of the Regiment braids?”
“Oh aye,” she readily said. “Twenty-seven, and the most fiddly-done.”
He nodded, almost laughing. “I’d say impossible to do for oneself. But the markons plait them for each other. It’s, um, a ritual you might say, before a battle, and before the feasts. So, as an honorary markon, I could do for your. If you came to sit closer. As long as it goes against no Alisime way.”
“It would were I Alsime,” she said. “With the Alsime the hair mustn’t be seen by any but family or a visiting man. But I’m granary.” She quickly scrambled in front of him and handed him her comb.
“But I thought you now an eblan,” he said, already easing out the knots.
She didn’t know how to answer. For weren’t eblann the keepers of the old ways, and as such she ought not to be here.
“We’ve no beads to weight and secure these,” he said after plaiting close to a dozen.
“I’ve threads in my bag.”
“To bind them? That should keep you tidy.”
She felt a welling of tears. With these Regiment plaits she would look like her father. And what if her father had joined the ghosts?
And so at the end of her first day of riding Detah more fears a ghost wandering out from the Commons than the nocturnal straying of men—even though one in particular now is combing and plaiting her (Alsime-forbidden) hair; an act not missed by at least one of his captains.