The night of Winter-Ending when beneath Master Nod’s pale light Alisime couples at every feast-ground are expected to ‘join’—and Detah more fears a ghost that might wander out from the Commons than any nocturnal straying of men? . . . Read on.
Megovis had drawn the last watch and so was in no hurry to bury his head into sleep. He lay abed looking out of the tent. He saw the eblan-girl return from grooming her horse. He saw Krisn combing and plaiting her hair. And of their own volition his fingers curled. Yet Krisn must have known it was wrong. There wasn’t one in the Regiment who hadn’t heard Baginset’s tale. (An Ulvregan, he’d fled to the Dal charged by the eblann with rape. “But all I did was to snatch her hat—her wretched hat!”) Ignorant man, all his life with his head in his crotch. Even the Uestin knew that of the Alsime: No one, but no one, touched their hair. It was an invitation to bed. Yet here he lay, watching Krisnavn.
Fine if this were the Dal: there it was different, especially within the Regiment. The markons, markistes, horsemasters, all groomed and plaited each other’s hair. It was part of the rites that bound them together, kept them closer than brothers. Was that Krisnavn’s intent: to bind her? Her? Or had she cast some sly charm upon him? Megovis sniffed; it was likely the latter.
He heaved a sigh. Commander Krisnavn was his to defend, yet here he had to look away for shame. He pulled his cover over his eyes. His oldest, closest, dearest friend and he couldn’t protect him. No more than he’d been able with his father . . .
Horsemaster Agonos had been a season short of retiring when, in a border skirmish, he’d taken a tumble and cracked his head. His spirit had fled, yet his body still lived—helpless as a babe that must be fed. Megovis hadn’t been there, himself in the Regiment, but he remembered Sitasha, his mother telling him, weeping, so pitiful to see. Still, at least the uathir fetched in by the family had shown his mother and sister how best to care for him. But the days had passed with never a change.
Word reached Kairsuik (where the rest of the clan had a mere five houses). They banded together and fetched in what they said was a better uathir. Better by what definition? Stripped naked, groaning and thrashing, the uathir lay beside the babe-like Agonos—until he ejaculated. Three nights the family endured that, with Melissa kept hidden lest the uathir decided he needed more than his fist. All wasted effort, wasted time: he’d not been able to fetch back Agonos’s spirit.
When the rest of Kairsuik heard of Agonos they too banded together to fetch in yet another—better—uathir (or better so they said). He gave ten of Sitasha’s hens to Uath, hens the family desperately needed. He shook a feather-hung rattle, burnt foul-smelling amulets, the reek filling the house, everyone choking. He chanted—from sunset to sunrise, all night. And to what effect? Still Agonos’s spirit couldn’t be fetched. Word had eventually reached King Geontus who was processing around the Dal. By then Agonos was scarcely a shadow of what he had been, a wisp of a thing. Still, the king sent a truvidir. And he was the worst.
Megovis pushed the memory away, fists clenched, sweating, raging anew at his helplessness.
In the morning again Megovis was watching. He watched as Krisn gave the beguiling eblan his battle-red breeches to wear to protect her little chaffed legs. Krisn, the fool, even left the fire-buttons on them! Of course, the breeches were enormous on her. But she drew them in tight before pleating her skirt over them. Megovis had to turn away. That girl now had hips like a proper woman, too rutting charming by half. But at least she offset any alluring effect by tying an off-cut of the same skirt around her head. Megovis heaved yet another sigh. There had to be some way to protect Krisnavn from her. Pointless to talk to Biadret; Biadret was equally taken. He’d have to watch her especially close.
He watched her mount the horse, expecting her to struggle now she’d no help. But a fast walk, a spring, a vault, and she was there. Biadret applauded. Megovis glared.
Today Krisnavn allowed her the reins. In fairness Megovis couldn’t begrudge it, she’d taken well to the horse. That set her apart from uathren and truvidiren of the Dal: their only interest in a horse was to sacrifice it.
It wasn’t until Krisn agreed that Megovis and Biadret be allowed to race their horses that Megovis finally swallowed his grumbles. To race! Truth Studder’s hooves skimmed the sand. Faster, faster. The wind in his face blasted away all cares and his fears of this ghost-ridden land. While he flew, Saram catching and lifting him, he could forget Eblan Detah, left far behind with the packhorses and Krisnavn.
But too soon the sand became mud, and the mud fell steeply into the river. He was at South Rivergate. But he’d beaten Biadret at least by three lengths!
He scanned across the glistening banks that rose from the fast-running water, black and brown and white with thousands of birds all sweetly piping. He saw ten thousand or more lift, to turn on the wing, to disperse like some kind of cloud, then all together to turn as one—just like the Regiment’s formations. He grinned and nodded to Biadret of it. But Biadret was looking back, waiting for Krisnavn and the troublesome eblan.
While back at Isle Ardy . . .
“There you are!” Erspn pounced as his victim reached Isle Ardy’s gate. And, ho! did Demekn start.
“Ah,” Demekn’s shoulders settled again, “it’s you.”
Aye, and what if he’d been a Kerdolan, lying in wait, a spear, not words, aimed for the attack? Erspn slid down from Ardy’s high wall and came to meet Demekn as he emerged from the shadows. “Where have you been?”
“What, you’re my eblan-master now?”
Erspn drew back.
“Apologies,” Demekn offered. “I’ve been in thoughts.”
“Aye, I’ve been watching. So where have you been?”
“At the Meet,” said Demekn, and showed Erspn a batch of gathered feathers. “It feels wrong, Detah having hers and I’ve . . . Though our father did gift her. Anyway, I thought I’d try around the swans’ nests there.”
“You’ve not been messing with nests?” Erspn exclaimed, now alarmed.
“You think me an idiot? See broken bones? No. And anyway the season’s too early for feathers. So why were you waiting for me? And why are you here, not at His Indwelling?”
“I could ask why an apprentice has become over-cocky,” Erspn replied.
At least the young eblan had sense enough to hang his head, to at least give the appearance of contrition, though Erspn had only been joking.
“I am Eblan Head Man,” he said. “I attended your sister’s meeting.”
“But I thought . . . Shunamn . . .?”
“Oh, Shunamn was there. But what is he to the granaries apart from a lodger? As to why I was waiting—”
“No, wait,” Demekn held out his hand. “You’ve not yet said what’s been agreed. Are the Alisime women to grow the grain for her?”
“Oh, and I thought you’d no interest, chasing off instead of attending. Coincidence that the Saramequai camp is down by the Meet?”
“Somewhat farther seaward, I’d say, unless it’s intentionally hidden. It certainly can’t be seen from the Meet. But—no, wait. You think I went there? Or is it only that I’m wrong in gathering feathers instead of attending the women’s assembly?”
Erspn raised hands in surrender.
“I support my sister, but I am not granary,” Demekn defended. “And oft-times it’s best to be out of Shunamn’s way. So will you now tell me, what’s been agreed?”
“Nothing. As yet. There’ll be more talks—No, don’t go in yet.” They were at the lodge-door. “Let’s take a turn around the eaves.”
“Then best keep our voices down. Source of Detah’s knowledge, people talking out here.”
“Really?” Erspn raised his brow. He wondered now of Sapapsan’s lodge, though the eaves there lacked any depth and seldom were used. “But this meeting. Mistress Drea wants to accept the women’s offer, and I agree. Though we’ll need to ask Mistress Hegrea—and don’t arch your brow, she’s as real as her granaries. The problem is, if Isle Ardy does it, then all others must too.”
“I don’t see that as a problem. Name me a grain-woman who’d object at not having to sweat in her fields.”
“Oh, they’ll still have to do that,” Erspn said, “else you and I won’t be fed. But that’s not the problem. It’s more the Alisime women. If they’ll not all contribute then there’ll be trouble. Imagine it, some woman toiling away in her field, sees her neighbour’s belly swell and knows she’s not contributed. No, if it’s to work, then all Alisime women must agree to it. And that throughout all Alisalm-land.”
Demekn laughed. “I don’t envy you the task, visiting every family-holding. Is it even possible? Oh, I see. You want me to help you.”
“Aye, in a way, but not to do that. No,” Erspn said, “I’m going to ask the eblann for their assistance. Every one of them. I can see no other way to it. But that means calling an Eblann Assembly—I cannot leave it till we meet at summer’s end.”
“And Mistress Hegrea?”
“You mean if she objects ? Then likely she’ll attend the assembly. She is, after all, an eblan. So, for the second part,” Erspn said, “and why I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been remiss, I’ve delayed over-long—but so much happening. Only now it must be amended before the rumours breed mountains and monsters—”
“Shunamn stealing my words?”
“No, he said they were yours. The story you told the feasters here, yesterday? It needs repeating to the eblann. And this assembly is the perfect place for it. That’s what I’m asking off you.”
Demekn stopped walking. Erspn waited.
Demekn sucked in full chest of breath.
Still Erspn waited.
Demekn sighed, letting the breath out again. And still he said nothing.
“Several of the women said of your speech,” Erspn pressed him. “Shunamn said you did well—though he grudged it. I want you to repeat it. To the eblann.”
“Demekn, trained by the Dal lore-men, you’ll do fine. I want the best of this situation, the same as you do. I certainly don’t want our eblann listening to . . . shall we say to blind men. You know what I’m saying. That one would raise us an army and get us all killed.”
They had walked the full circle. They were again at the lodge-door.
“Well?” Erspn pressed for an answer.
Demekn sighed a sea of objections. Yet nodded.
“By the way, you’re right,” Erspn said with his hand on the lodge door. “It is time that cape became a true eblan-cloak.”
Megovis noted the lack of talk between Krisnavn and young Eblan Detah. Perhaps with the Ladies conniving, Krisn had realised his folly and had now set distance between them. Whatever, her face now had the look of a smacked little lad. Krisnavn quickly scanned the rivergate before riding off northward alongside the river.
“I want a station here,” he called back. “One either side.”
“Noted,” Megovis said.
“Is this all common land?” Krisnavn was studying the birch-studded scrub to their left.
“Almost until First Landing, and again beyond Long Water’s Gate,” Eblan Detah said, sullenly.
“A man or two could hide in there.”
“Won’t be Kerdolan, not if she’s right of them,” Megovis said.
“Vipers,” said Biadret. “Saw them while hunting our supper.”
“Then as well that we slept on the sand.”
“It’s not them will harm you,” said Eblan Detah. “Scaredy slitherers, shooting off as fast as they hear you. No, I said, it’s the ghosts. Vengeful, hunting, even across the water.”
Megovis almost could hear Krisnavn’s sigh. “And I have said, there is nothing I can do of those. When the uathren arrive we’ll set them to it.”
“You think our eblann haven’t tried?” she said, clearly offended. “They just will not rest till they’re fully avenged.”
“What’s the story?” Megovis asked, a wary eye cast over the scrubland. Last night while fetching the firewood he’d felt uneasy. But he’d thought it just the chill of the sea-breeze.
“Just as said,” Krisn said. “Plundered graves, vengeful ghosts.” He sounded tired of the talk.
“Earthen-boats,” she corrected.
“Bone-houses,” Krisn said.
“A bone-house full, that’s a lot of ghosts.” Wretched ghost-ridden land; Megovis shivered.
“Houses,” she corrected him.
“So more than one?” He whistled. “Uath’s Bones!”
“Who disturbed them?” Biadret asked.
“Who else but the Eskin.”
Krisnavn turned to her. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“I would have had you listened,” she said yet more sullen. “Eli Go isn’t far away, not when they’ve longboats.”
“Biadret, Govvy,” Krisnavn said. “Make a note. I want a patrol along this south bound—but not for the ghosts. Those are uathren business.”
“What about South Water Gate?” she asked. “And Little Water, that gates there as well.”
“We’ll see what’s at South Water Gate when we get there,” Krisnavn told her.
Megovis didn’t want to admit it but they would have been sooner at South Water Gate had Krisnavn allowed Eblan Detah to lead. Instead he chose now to curb the eblan’s increasing power by talking her down and taking the lead—which resulted in two long and convoluted detours. They had two rivers to ford: Little Water, then South Water itself. Krisnavn’s attempt at the latter took them so far west it wrenched Megovis’s heart to have to track-back. Then by the time they reached the rivergate, the tide was high. The annoying thing was, when they’d seen it earlier (before fording Little Water) it had seemed but a mud-pool with minimal waves licking the edges. Now it was a vast unbroken sheet of water.
Krisnavn turned his back on the blinding reflection. “No family-holdings?”
“They keep to the higher land, away from the water,” Eblan Detah said, quiet in her answer.
Megovis scanned that higher land. Though gentle here, he guessed it would climb inexorably to the hills of First Landing. Krisnavn, too, did a sweep across it then west to where they were heading. There steeper hills started, deeply folded.
“Make a note: Two stations here, either side of the gate.” Then he again said he’d find them a track. “It shouldn’t be difficult. Just follow the shore.”
Eblan Detah laughed, no attempt to hide it. “No, there’s no such track.”
But still lost to the need to stamp his fist on her, Krisnavn ignored her.
Megovis soon lost count of the tracks they’d taken. Each ended at a sheer and high cliff, impossible to scale, and no path leading east or west of it. The only way out was to retreat. Precious time wasted, and they’d plans to make, stations to man, bounds to protect.
Eventually Krisnavn conceded before mounting frustration could break his control. “You lead,” he told her. “I bow to your greater knowledge regarding this land.”
She didn’t gloat (for which Megovis had to admire her) but led them unerringly through an intricate maze, impossible for any but an experienced traveller to follow. At times they glimpsed the sea from a distance. Other times they briefly rode along the clifftops. Megovis could only guess at their height, never seeing the beach nor the crashing surf though often they heard it. They mostly saw hedges. And hedges. And hedges. But at least some of the bound-tracks now had been cut and cleared. Though, no denying it, the ride to West Bounds was as tiring as the ride of the previous day.
They encountered their first Alsime, an eldliks out mending his family’s fences. From Eblan Detah’s brief exchange with him they learned something new of the Alisime speech.
“What did he say?” Krisnavn asked as they rode on.
“He wished us a good journey. Why?”
“In what speech?”
He didn’t answer her, but asked Megovis if he’d understood the man.
“No more than I would the Feg.”
“Yet you speak Alisime as an inlander.”
“He does not!” Eblan Detah all-but choked. “None of you do. You speak Hiëmen.”
Megovis had to agree. It hadn’t taken him long to realise that Alisime and Hiëmen, though similar, were not exactly the same.
“What’s your speech?” Krisnavn asked her.
“Granary? So how many Alisime speeches are there?”
She shrugged. “I’ve not thought. See, we used to be different folk. Then the Ulvregan came, and we had the granaries, and the granaries united us, and now . . . There’s West Alisime as spoken across the Highlands. North Alisime, as used around His Indwelling and east to the Waters. East Alisime around East Bounds and down into Ancients Land. Then at South Landing they speak Southern Alisime. And here it’s Southern Coastlander but still Alisime.”
“And your Granary speech,” Krisnavn said. “Different to all?”
She shook her head. “It’s Ulvregan that’s different.”
“Because they speak Uestuädik?”
“Only in the traders’ holds. The Ulvregan working the family-lands speak proper Ulishvregan.”
Megovis listened to her explanation. He couldn’t quite figure her. She wasn’t deliberately trying to confuse them with all her talk, whether of numbers or the who’s who of the granaries or, as now, the various speeches used in Alisalm. She was just trying to be exact with what she told them.
“Then there’s Alisime-Eskit,” she said. “Though I suppose that’s really Krediche—Southern Krediche.”
“And where is that spoken?” Krisnavn asked, his wariness open. Megovis too felt a chill.
“Around West Bounds—where we’re now heading. Though there are some around His Indwelling too—I’ve seen their houses. But mostly they’re close around Dividing River. See, there’s an Eskit granary across the water; our Alisime folk trade there.”
“Whopping Uath!” Biadret exclaimed. But both Megovis and Krisnavn held quiet. Megovis hadn’t a doubt of what Krisnavn was thinking.
“How far is Bukfreha’s Isle from Dividing River?” he asked her.
She was quiet for a moment. “About the same as from Bukfreha’s to Sinya’s. Why? Have I said something wrong?”
“No, not you. But does Bukfreha’s trader do nothing about your Alsime trading to an Eskin—Eskit granary?”
She laughed. “You haven’t yet seen the land. Besides, they’ve kin across the river there.”
Never in all the seasons since they were boys had Megovis seen Krisn let slip his control. Yet several times now, since they’d set out on this ride, it had threatened. Then there was the river—Dividing River, what a misnomer. And within sight to the north, a rivers’ meet, one arm from the east (from Alisalm), the other from the west (from Eli Go).
Krisnavn groaned. He had groaned, too, when he’d seen the last stretch of coastland where the cliffs sank into the ground, leaving the land open and inviting. “Make a note,” he said brusquely. “Patrols and a station.”
The houses here were different to any they’d seen—tightly clustered like cells of a honeycomb, with hollow centres.
“They call them court-houses,” Eblan Detah offered.
“Not an Alisime word?”
“Eskit. That’s Eli Go over there.”
‘Over there’, on far side of the river, the land was green. In fact, everywhere there was green. More lush than the Alisime hills that rose steeply behind them, just a spit from the river. Yet, as Krisnavn remarked, where were the trees?
“It’s their granaries,” Eblan Detah explained. “They take everything from them. So the Eskit families haven’t a choice but to till every tuck of land.”
“And you say here the Alsime speak Southern Krediche?” Krisnavn asked her. She nodded. “Krediche. What does it mean?”
“Depends how it’s used. It’s usually said as an insult, like calling someone a worm or a toad. Except that’s not how they use it here. There’s an eblan-saying, that the Eskin are more Krediche than the Kerdolan themselves. So I guess it means . . .’being like the Kerdolan’?”
“Ouch,” said Megovis.
“Double it, then multiply by ten,” added Biadret.
“Why, what’s the problem?” she asked.
“You have Krediche families residing here,” Krisnavn said. “And they’re not worms or toads, but folk who follow the Kerdolak ways. Am I right?”
“But they’re Alsime,” Eblan Detah protested.
Megovis looked at her, and for a long while after he puzzled of her. Could she truly not see the problem?
“Let’s move,” Krisnavn said. “I’d rather be far from here before the sun strands us.”
Can Detah really not see what the horsemasters have seen: that the Western Bounds are more of a bridge than a division? And now as they’re turning northward they’ve a long ride ahead—and ever within an arm’s stretch of the Eskin (more Krediche than the Kerdolan themselves).