Having turned northward the Saramequai horsemen now are riding the Western Bounds—beyond which are the Eskin who are, as Eblan Detah said, more Krediche than the Kerdolan themselves. And there is possibly something even worse . . . Read on.
“What’s this?” Megovis asked. But no one answered. He looked round at Biadret, at Krisnavn. Both were staring at what hung from the fence. As for Eblan Detah, wild-eyed, she looked ready to run.
It was only a fence, he told himself, trying to quell the same impulse. It was just that the freshly gathered sticks, densely interwoven through it, made it seem more of a solid wall. And it was tall, topping most Alisime men by at least a rod. Then again, it was hung with skulls. And leg bones. Arms. And those not of sheep or cattle, not of wolf or bear. But human bones. Ancestors, he guessed.
Eblan Detah had said not to stray from the bound-tracks. But when Krisnavn saw a grazed plain ahead, saw it stretch northward far into the distance with not a cross-hedge or a fence to trip them, and that after the days of pushing through overhung, overgrown, tangled tunnels . . . But again she’d been right.
“What place is this?” Krisnavn asked her.
“Depends who says it.”
She wasn’t being deliberately awkward, Megovis had learned that of her now. It was just she trying to give a thorough, correct answer.
She said, “The Alsime here say it’s Eli Go Common. But the Eskin says it’s Alsime Common.”
“In other words, no one wants it,” Megovis remarked. Those bones gave the reason. He patted his amulets. “And you mocked,” he mouthed at Biadret. Like Eblan Detah, he wanted to be out of here. But Krisnavn still regarded the fence.
“Common? Like South Alsime Common? Land that all might use?” Krisnavn asked her.
“Um . . . no. See, at South Alsime Common, at least men will hunt and trap near the edges. But here . . . no, few venture there.”
“So those bones aren’t for keeping the two-footed out,” Krisnavn remarked. “So, what is it: more vengeful ghosts?”
She shook her head. And she’d already said, not three days since, that spirits and ghosts didn’t trouble the eblann, yet here she was trembling. “It’s the Eskin. They fill these places with vicious spirits that lurk in the water and turn it foul. Lying in wait, clutching, drowning, taking a man’s life.”
“You’re saying they are Eskit spirits?” Krisnavn now had the swing of it: Eskin, the people; Eskit, the speech—and these spirits.
She shrugged. “I guess. And they’re wherever you find the Eskin, in places like this.”
“But I can’t see beyond the fence; what sort of place is it?”
“You can see the rills feeding it,” she said, turning to look at them.
Those rills seeped from the higher land in the east and, despite they trickled through the pasture, cutting it into so many strips, none were deep. The horses splashed through them. Some were mere puddles of mud. But all disappeared into the sedges that formed a band beside the fence.
“They flow into some river beyond?”
“The widest of wetlands, the foulest of swamps,” she said. She was not at all happy. “They say it’s the best place for a boar hunt—if you’re keen on a spirit-wrought death—and that, they say, is an agony—though they say several things other. They say you don’t die straight away, that you suffer for seasons. And it’s not only you but your family that’s taken. Then again others say it’s only the man drowns and the spirits eat him. But all say some nights you can hear the screams, and that’s why the ancestor-bones.”
Krisnavn looked eastward across the plain. There were no Alisime dwellings near. Yet someone had raised that fence and hung the bones there, keeping it all in good repair. “The Alsime don’t use it at all?”
“Why would they? You think they’d want to eat fish caught in that water? The same of the berries growing there. Though I’ve heard that Bridatha’s Isle trades in feathers gathered there. And in clay.”
“Some resolve,” Megovis remarked. “To venture in there.”
“I’d wager the hunting is good,” said Biadret.
“But, like she said, would you eat it, demon-infected? You won’t catch me venturing there.” Let Biadret laugh at him, he didn’t care. A man had the one life and it was best to protect it till Beli took it.
“Do the Eskin fear this place too?” Krisnavn asked her.
Megovis was glad of the question, again donning his Regiment-head, able to see it now as the commander saw it. If the Eskin feared this place too then they’d need only a small patrol along this stretch of the bounds. But it soon became obvious that wouldn’t do.
“Most of the stories come from the Eskin,” she said.
“Do they?” Krisnavn cocked his head. “The streams go in, and a river come out. Which river?”
“Long Water,” she said in her innocence.
Long Water, Megovis reviewed what he know of the rivers and their granaries. Both Bridatha’s and Hamfala’s sat on the banks of Long Water. It then flowed into South River.
“Long Water,” Krisnavn repeated. “Long Water rises in that Eskit swamp-land?”
“It doesn’t rise there,” she objected. “It rises in the hills. I said, those rills.”
“But they become Long Water somewhere in that swampland?” he said.
Megovis drew in a breath, whistling it between his teeth. She swung a look at him.
“I guess,” she said now beginning to falter.
“Long Water forms in an Eskit swamp and flows into South River.” Krisnavn’s voice, the set of his shoulders, advertised his disbelief. “A station to north and south of this . . . grazed-land,” he told Biadret and Megovis. “And a strong patrol presence.”
“Noted,” Megovis said and was glad when Krisnavn suggested they raced their horses, the sooner to be away from this land.
They had ridden a fair way north, and now their track kept atop a steep escarpment. That escarpment divided the lower grazing lands from the semi-circular protrusion above that was the western reach of His Indwelling. Eblan Detah started to say of their Eblan Murdan and the Kerdolak corpses, a story which Megovis would have liked to hear. But Krisnavn wanted only to know of the rivers. That pasture below was crazed with them.
“Where do they flow?” he asked her.
“They feed West River—it snakes through Ani Cobi.”
“Ani Cobi, Eskin land; there where you’re looking.”
Megovis didn’t wait though he couldn’t keep the weariness out of his voice. “Patrol or a station?”
It was this land, so different from Dal Uest. In Dal Uest they had only the southern hills which rose to become the Sahalian Mountains. But here? Here there were hills everywhere. Deeply folded hiding places for any number of foe. As for the bound-tracks . . . how could they ever be effectively watched? Long term, that wasn’t Megovis’s problem. Come summer next, when Clan Querkan arrived, he’d be gone, though it wasn’t what he wanted. So long together, he and Krisn; may as be dead not to be with him. He shook himself out of that particular reverie.
They seemed forever to skirt the western half of His Indwelling, keeping high on that ridge. But finally, Megovis noticed, they turned to a more easterly direction. That cheered him. He reckoned they now must be half way round.
“Those streams?” Krisnavn asked of the silvery threads that formed a web over the graze-lands north of the ridge. He had accepted now (as if Eblan Detah hadn’t said it a hundred more times) that everyone here travelled by boat. Alisalm, the River Land. But with so many rivers that was worrying.
“Those?” Eblan Detah asked. “They flow to the Waters.”
Krisnavn groaned. “And those pastures, still a part of Eskin-land?” Without waiting for her answer, he turned back to Biadret and Megovis. “I want three—no, make that four—patrols, to be divided between from West Bounds, along Eli Go Common, around and up to here.” He sighed heavier than Megovis ever had heard him. “And I’d thought it was only the Kerdolan on the northern bounds.”
“But it is,” she said. “We’ve never had trouble with Eskin.”
“No? Yet your Eblan Murdan had to chase the Kerdolan out of here?” Krisnavn raised an eyebrow as emphasis.
“Aye, but Kerdolan aren’t Eskin. And that was a thousand winters since, when the Kredese held His Indwelling.”
“You miss the point, young Detah.” How did he hold his patience; he’d already explained it once. Megovis would have long ago snapped.
“What he’s saying,” Megovis said, “is that the Kredese and the Eskin are the same. And if the Kerdolan once could enter His Indwelling this way, then why not again?”
Things were progressing more smoothly for Eblan Erspn.
The granary-master had held his assembly at the Old Isle of the Dead (Murdan’s Stones). Set at the very heart of Alisalm-land, where the Ancestors’ spirits roamed in greatest abundance, it seemed an apt place. There was also the fact that Eblan Murdan was Mistress Hegrea’s son, and this of the grain did concern her. Thus Eblan Erspn had set his meeting the same.
Despite an overcast morning, an unbroken stream of eblann passed between the Watcher- stones. Erspn watched, amazed. He’d never seen so many men, all in one place. If all the eblann in all Alisalm-land attended then there’d be five hundred!
Erspn leaned in close as if to confer with his young companion. “The granary shouldn’t have moved the stones.”
“Old Apsan said the same,” Demekn agreed.
“But since they are removed—removed, reset, the remainder piled around like . . . well like Uestin seating . . .” He chuckled, leaving the rest unsaid.
“So we’re to use the stones to raise us up? So all can see us?” Demekn asked, in full approval of Erspn’s unspoken suggestion.
They stood high on the stratified stones.
“It’s quite a view,” Erspn said, again with a chuckle. Mid-morning now and with the sun shining the grey, mottled brown, and speckled feathers, all squeezed within the ditch-and-bank, were changing into a glittering mass. He could see one eblan-cloak of startling drake feathers. Head man, he ought to know them all, but did not. A couple had chosen the black feathers of old. “Well, it seems no more are to come.”
He began by introducing Demekn. (The young eblan was right: how much easier to speak from this height.) He told his eblann of Demekn’s birth to Isle Ardy’s family. He wanted that said before Demekn started to say of the Uestin and the Saramequai. “He’s here at my request. He has important news for every one of you.”
Of course, most would know something by now, word spreading like ripples from the recent feast at Isle Ardy. Yet words had a tendency to change, even black becoming white, as they were moved, mouth to mouth. Best have it said fresh again.
Erspn nodded as he listened to Demekn’s account of what had, and what was, and what now would happen. He was thorough—it took him the length of one hand of the twelve-handed sky. He told of the Dal, of the tuds, of Clan Querkan, of the Uissids Judgement, of the Saramequai horsemen, of the hindrance along the Waters, of the Ulvregan roaring off on their horses, of the massacre at the Kerdolak bridge, of the lack now of Ulvregan traders.
At this Erspn felt he ought to step in. But only to say, as they all knew, that the Mother gives, and the Mother takes, and who were they, the eblann, to claim understanding, and certainly not to offer predictions.
“But I can say this. For many seasons now the Mother has been taking from the granaries. Several times now a granary-mistress has no daughter to take her place and one must be found from another. So, too, there have been granary-traders who needed to step in before fully-trained. Aye, the Mother has been taking from the granaries. It ought not to surprise us, this problem now of no Ulvregan traders to offer the trade. We all can see it. The granary is decaying.”
While the eblann nodded and grunted, and none disagreed, Erspn scanned and searched for some sign of a grey-heron cloak. But it seemed Mistress Hegrea didn’t want to attend—though, true, they were yet a long way off talking of this grain-growing change. First, he had something other to say.
He nudged Demekn to continue. He said then of the Ulvregan and their Saramequai kin slain, of the one who escaped, a young woman markon with a venom-painted arrow-point in her leg. That it was she who took word of this massacre across the Lenevick Sea to the Dal.
Erspn eyed him sharply. “So you did go to their camp.”
“I did not. But I did pass by the boat of an Ulishvregan markon I happened to know. Was he who told me the news. Though, aye, I admit I did ask him.”
“Venom-painted, you say?”
“We’ll talk of this later. Continue your telling.”
The eblann had grown restless, wondering of what these two were whispering. Erspn apologised. Demekn continued. He explained of mistaking the granary-master for an Alsime king. He explained of Commander Krisnavn’s offer.
“But we don’t need a king, we need a new granary-master.”
Erspn couldn’t see who called but that didn’t matter. Now others were saying the same. Though this was what he’d hoped would happen, if allowed to continue there’d soon be a riot of voices. Without reference to Erspn, Demekn held up his hands to quiet them. He was good, Erspn approved. He’d not even used the eblan-rod.
“It’s their law, their Dal law,” Demekn said. “This Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn was chosen three winters since, immediately after the Uissids Judgement. He has been trained by their truvidiren—men much like us, like eblann. Three seasons they’ve trained him to be the king. Please!” He begged for quiet but they were again in uproar. “I’ve more to say; let me finish.”
Beside him, Erspn chuckled and tutted. “You’ll not quiet them now. Best just to wait till each has his say.”
It didn’t take long. Despite there being nigh five hundred eblann here, yet each had only a variation on what another had said. With one talking over the other, their voices soon died.
“Why here?” A lone voice rang out in the now otherwise quiet. “Have you told them we’ve no land for them?”
“We’ve suggested Ancients Land,” Erspn said.
“But it’s all snakes.”
“There are Ulvregan there too. They can keep company,” Erspn said.
“Snakes?” Erspn asked and mostly they laughed.
“Close to five hundred. But that’s nothing, easily lost amongst us,” Demekn said. Then thought to explain, “That’s not five hundred men, but infants, toddlers, children, youths, women and elders, too. The commander has here with him a hundred horsemen of the Regiment.”
“How many spear-men have we in all of Alisalm-land?” asked one of the eblann.
Erspn leant in close to Demekn. “I’ve worked the numbers your sister gave us. Five hundred family-lands, five holdings to each, five families each holding, three to each of grown-status. But third that number, for neither women nor the elderly fight. Then, at most, a tenth would fight. A thousand?”
“A thousand not trained. We’ve spoken of this. And not with weapons such as they have.”
“Hoi! Remember, I agree? No need to argue with me.”
“They’re not come to fight us,” Demekn answered the eblan. Though, one hundred to a thousand, best not to let Shunamn know. Besides, there had been fewer pitched against more when they fought the Bridren. He told the eblann, “We have a shared enemy. These Kerdolan now thick on our northern bounds have already shown they’ll kill any number of us just to take our trade. These are our enemy. These are the ones to be destroyed. Against these Commander Krisnavn will fight. To rid us of them.”
“Then for this he wants us to give him land? For his five hundred children?” the same eblan asked.
“As a deal I’d say he gets the best of it,” another remarked.
“Best? With his five hundred and a hundred more warriors he could take it easily. Snatch it from us.”
“Is it ours?” said another. “The Ulvregan have it. Them and the snakes.”
“Hush your talk, all of you!”
Erspn looked to see who had spoken. He leant in close to Demekn. “That’s Eblan Maraldin from South Landing. He and I are not . . . shall we say, not friends. He contested to be Eblan Head Man.”
“You all talk like you’re accepting this commander-man to be our king-man,” Eblan Maraldin snarled into the assembled eblann. “But I say we tell him: WE DO NOT WANT A KING-MAN HERE. We’re happy as are.”
“You’re not understanding, Eblan Maraldin,” Erspn said. “Either we have him as our king, else we fight him. If we’re fighting him, then who fights the Kerdolan? Then if the Saramequai don’t kill us, the Kerdolan will. More, I’ll tell you how it was when the Bridren, cousins of the Jinnigrits north of us, tried to defeat the Uestin in their own land. They took every last surviving one of them to be slaves. They took their freedom, took their land. Now I ask, is this what you want for us here?”
Though there were mumbles, mostly the eblann withheld their shouts. Many looked down. Many more shook their heads. The faces that Erspn could see mostly wore frowns. All looked grim, all looked glum.
“We accept, or we die,” Erspn said. “Our choice.” He needed them to understand this. He wanted none stirring rebellions. So Eblan Shunamn was mumbling of it, but he was within Erspn’s daily reach.
When no more objections came, Erspn told them, “This Saramequai commander presently rides his horse along our outer bounds.”
“Rather him,” Eblan Maraldin said in a vicious sneer. “The south bounds are sea!” He snorted a chuckle. Other eblann, all from the south, laughed and snorted in support.
“He will return to Isle Ardy with a plan set for our defence and the Kerdolan campaign,” Erspn said. “Eblan Demekn, who knows the Dal ways, says first the Saramequai commander will fight and destroy the Kerdolan. He then will return to claim his prize: that of the rule of our Alisalm-land as a king. Then is our chance to tell him what we want of him.”
“Simple enough,” called Durans, an eblan from East Bounds. “Nothing. We want nothing from him. So let these Querkan come, let them settle amid snakes in Ancients Land. Let this commandering-man be named Alsime-King—if that satisfies him. But you tell him from us, we want nothing off him.”
Erspn waited while the eblann broke into cheers and hoots, Eblan Shunamn’s the loudest. But that was an improvement on him wanting to fight.
“You know it,” Eblan Durans said, encouraged by the support. “Our Alsime want only to tend their herds and grow their grain. You know it: They want only to enjoy the feasts and to go visiting each to each other. You know it: They want only to get close under covers, to have swelling bellies that produce giggling children who’ll live long after them. You know it: They want only to follow the Alisime ways as ever they have. So you tell this commandering-man who’d be our king-man that aye, he can be that, but the Alsime will continue their ways.”
The applause was thunderous. Like stone hammering stone, it sounded off the Sun’s Cove’s tall triliths. Such a noise, as if Father Jaja, too, joined in and set His son Hilshin to rolling his rocks. Eblan Durans was swamped by his neighbours, all back-slapping him, arm-punching. They lifted him up. They tossed him high, and caught him.
Beside Erspn, Demekn looked dumbfounded.
“Aye,” Erspn told him. “I’ve not seen the like either. But there is our answer.”
As the tumult died so Erspn again held aloft his eblan-rod.
Silence. Attention. Every face to him.
“May I take this as the answer of every one of you? A simple nod will do. Aye. Then this I shall tell him. Now, to the matter of grain for the Father’s Brew.”
So now Eblan Erspn has an answer for Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, for when they next meet. Meanwhile, that commander must ride the northern bounds which are patrolled, as close a spit, by the vicious Kerdolan.