Eblan Detah has been charged with delaying the Saramequai horsemen on their ride of the bounds, to confuse and confound them. Yet it seems she isn’t doing a good job. Perhaps she needs help . . . Read on.
Detah was glad to be riding Belgantros again. Though unlike the horsemasters her feet hadn’t suffered. (She had turned her head before grinning, seeing all three dangling their raw blistered feet in First Waters.) And now with Long River forded as well, they would make up the lost time. For this track now led direct to Black Water.
“And this forms the east bounds?” Commander Krisnavn asked her.
“Not really, no. East Bounds and Bayland are here thoroughly mingled.”
“Bayland?” Commander Krisnavn queried.
“It’s a Lenevan holding. Just east of here.”
“Thoroughly mingled?” he asked, then with no further look at her rode on ahead.
Detah frowned. “But Lenevan aren’t Kerdolan. They’re not Kredese or Eskin even. There’s much visiting. Wedding, you call it.”
“Ah, Little Buttercup,” Megovis soothed. “We know the Lenevan too. Kin to Kin Mhuiris and to the Lugisse.” Then, the track here being wide, instead of dropping back he remained at her side. “You know, all roads in Dal Uest are made this wide. Every one of them, so a horse might easily pass an ox-drawn cart.”
“Aye, so my brother has said.” She hoped he didn’t take that as a snub. “And these ‘carts’, he says, are like sleds but high on looped runners.” Actually, it had been her father said that but she’d not mention him to Megovis.
“Looped runners?” Megovis chuckled. “But they wouldn’t take a cart very far. No, Little One, everything in the Dal is different. Take the way we use land. Every Dal village has tilled fields around it, and we grow beans—you don’t have beans here?—and hemp. I’ve seen no hemp here.”
She knew of their hemp-cloth. The Ulvregan traded it at the granaries. “But we spin from mallow, nettles and flax,” she said with a sudden need to defend.
“Then beyond the fields and the grazing there’s woodland,” he said as if she’d not spoken. “Stands between every village, long wide tracts of it. Roads run through it. Our roads connect to everywhere. I tell you, in the Dal a man moves easily, anywhere. From the Gousen north to the Rizzoni south. He never has to claw a way through burrs and herbage and briars.”
“In Alisalm-land, too,” Detah defended. “From North Bounds to South Bounds, and not a bramble or briar in sight. For brambles and briar don’t grow in the rivers.”
“Detah,” Commander Krisnavn called back to her. “If he’s annoying you, then come ride alongside me.”
She considered it. Many of the East Bounds families kept to the old ways. Which meant come summer’s half the men drove their herds before them as they went visiting the women’s families. Indeed, since fording Long River she’d seen increasing signs of it. Cow-pats, hoof-pattered ground, though likely the cattle numbered only a few. Yet it was these cattle drives that kept the tack wide with no overgrowth to it.
“You’re not annoying me,” she told Megovis not to offend him now he was treating her like she might be human instead of some ogre’s child. “But I am here as the commander’s guide, I ought to ride with him a while.”
That soon proved wise. As they neared the head of the Sometimes Stream she could see the banks broken and freshly trampled. All around was red sticky mire. It was no small herd had passed here. Upwards of a dozen she’d say.
“Cattle,” she explained as their horses picked a way through it.
“I had noticed,” Commander Krisnavn replied.
Then, where the track ahead again straightened, she saw them. They roamed across the full width of the track, impossible to count.
“We’ll hold back,” Commander Krisnavn said. “Alisime beasts, won’t be used to horses.”
Their young herder seemed oblivious to those behind him, strolling, whistling, not once a glance back. Beside her Commander Krisnavn seemed patient enough. At first. But the day was collapsing, it soon would be night, and they’d agreed to set camp at the head of Black Water where there’d be easy grazing for the horses. But at this rate they’d have to set camp on the track. She became aware of him looking around him, eyeing the sky. He even whistled, though tunelessly.
Perhaps it was that which alerted the herder. He stopped his own whistling and turned, his mouth opening to hail a greeting. But his arm froze in mid-movement and no words came.
Now Detah could see who he was. Jinhigen, the youngest son of one of Ardy’s families. He’d come a long way that day, his family’s holding edging the Wetlands.
“Don’t stand with your mouth agog, Jinhigen,” she said. “You’ll catch flies and your belly will swell.”
“Well, aye, it’s our Eblan Detah.” Jinhigen sounded more agog than even he looked. “I’ve just this day heard of you and these men.”
“Aye, riding the bounds. But your cattle are blocking our way.”
He regarded his herd for a few moments before nodding. “Seems that they are.”
“So would you mind moving your herd to one side and allow us to pass.”
“Your horses might startle them,” he objected. “That’ll have them off all over the place.”
“Aye. That’s why we’ve been holding back. But now we must pass. How far have you to go?”
“Only down the way a short piece. Luhana’s Land.”
“Where’s that?” That was a Lenevan name.
“Just down the way a short piece,” he repeated with scorn like she’d not been listening. “Edges East River, there.”
“Where’s East River?” Commander Krisnavn asked her.
“Bayland,” she said. “Though it flows into Black Water. You could say both form the east bounds of the Ancients Land.” She turned back to Jinhigen. “East River, lower or upper?”
“Were upper reach, our Eblan Detah, would I be along this way?”
“Lower, then?” she said.
He laughed. “You’ve it wrong. Luhana’s Land lies neither upper nor lower, it’s half in the middle. Up over there.” He nodded off eastward.
His eyes twinkled. He was enjoying the play. She could see Megovis and Biadret, off to her sides, shaking their heads. Amused or despairing, she didn’t know which. But what of Commander Krisnavn? Rare though it was for his patience to slip, she had seen him come close to it. She didn’t want him snapping at Jinhigen. The tale would be told and that prove disastrous.
“Well,” she tried again. “Could you not make your cattle walk faster?”
“Aye,” Jinhigen answered.
He did nothing, not even to return them to their previous plod.
“So, Jinhigen, would you?”
“You’d have their milk-filled udders filled with butter? No, our Eblan Detah, that’s not a wise thing for us to do.”
Detah leant forward, almost hanging from Belgantros’s neck, the better to see Jinhigen’s herd.
“Jinhigen, not one of these is a milk-cow!”
He laughed. Then glanced at the horsemen around her. His face fell to serious. “These are the same horse-riding men we’re told of? Those your sister have asked to clear out the Kerdolan?”
“Aye.” So now would he let them pass?
“Which is he who wants to be king-man?”
Detah glanced back at Commander Krisnavn. And if he wanted a proper introduction he could twiddle his thumbs till the Send-Off Feast and beyond.
But Jinhigen nodded. “Aye, well. I’d best let you pass then.” He used his staff to pull the cattle across to one side of the track.
Detah reined in her growing anger. So now Jinhigen would have a good tale to tell to his woman and her family. She supposed he’d have no other talk all summer through, just how he’d seen the new king, met him and watched him on his big yellow horse.
Commander Krisnavn drew alongside her, chuckling. She could hear Biadret and Megovis behind her, laughing. Was she the only one strained by the exchange? She scarcely could manage a smile. And all ‘cause she’d not known how tolerant Commander Krisnavn would be.
“Is it the Alisime way,” he asked her. “To be awkward for amusement’s sake?”
“Aye,” she said. “The Alsime do have a way with it. I could see he was playing; I just had to find a way to best him.”
“I congratulate you on holding your patience,” Biadret said. “Though I couldn’t understand a word that he said.”
They encountered another two herds between there and Black Water. But both were coming towards them so they held their horses into the edge. If the herders wished to arrive at their destination before nightfall then they’d have to drive their herds past the horses.
“Black Water,” Detah said with a sigh of relief. The black water glinted amid the wide pasture. “Erleldn’s Hold is just west of here, close to the river’s source.”
“We could push on,” Commander Krisnavn said. “We’ll have good light for a fair while yet.”
“But you said.” Detah scowled. He’d said, no matter the light they’d set camp here.
“Hey, you’re agitated,” he remarked.
So she was. Her fingers wouldn’t be still.
“What’s upset you? No, wait. We did say we’d camp here. It’s a good place. You can tell me what’s firing you once we sit.”
He waited for her answer. She nodded.
She kept her hands and thoughts busy in gathering firewood while Megovis and Biadret raised the tent then rode off to hunt for their meat. They returned soon after with two goslings, each enough to fill two bellies. Detah offered to pluck them, again to keep her hands busy. She’d have made the fire too but they never would let her; that was for Megovis to do.
Commander Krisnavn picked up a gosling and sat down beside her. Now her breath wouldn’t come, waiting and waiting for the question she knew he would ask her. Head down, yet she was all swift glances for the blackness around her. Now they’d a fire, that blackness was fast-closing in, and who knew what things it might hide.
They spitted the birds to roast them, and still he’d not asked her. Had he forgotten? Yet there were things that had to be said, things she’d rather not say this side of her bed.
“We were right to break here,” he finally said. “The light faded fast, we wouldn’t have covered much distance. But tell me, Detah, what was your reason, why the agitation?”
That agitation returned. She sucked on her lip, long before sighing. Beside her he waited.
“Ahead, that’s the Ancients Land,” she said. “You must have heard by now, there are snakes. See, those who know the land, know where they are, know where to avoid them. But I don’t. I’ll risk a night’s sleep in a hedge, and maybe there’ll be one beside me on waking. But in there, lest you know . . .” She couldn’t say more; the thought of them raised a shiver.
“You talk like they’re nowhere else, only there,” he said. “But that’s not true; never is a land without them. Like bees, like wasps. So why so troublesome, only there, in the Ancients Land?”
“We’ve a story—”
“What a surprise.” Biadret said– but Commander Krisnavn shot him a look.
“Go on,” he prompted.
In this dark? With beyond it made even darker by the fire? She’d rather wait till the morning. But three pairs of eyes now were watching. They waited.
She coughed to cover her gulp and forced herself to speak. “You know, the snake is a fearful creature: it fears to be trod on. Yet how to avoid it when they dwell on the ground where it’s in the nature of feet to be tramping? But of all the feet there’s one set of feet they fear the most. Those of the two-footed humans. See how we walk? Eyes always ahead, we only look down when we’re glum. Thus we don’t see the snake. Not till our feet’s about to stand on him and that’s when he hisses at us. So a wise snake keeps out of our way.”
She knew they were laughing at her, though not outright chuckling. To them, the Alisime stories were just children’s tales, not the artfully crafted fabrications their Uissids gave them. And so they might be, but that didn’t mean they weren’t true.
“Long ago in the days of our Ancestors, there were more snakes than Alsime on the Highlands. See, our women had learned then to grow grain. Eblan Soänsha, it was, discovered the how and taught them, taking the grain from where the Eskin grew it. But then in growing the grain they attracted the mice, and in attracting the mice they attracted the snakes. If they’d been like grass snakes it would have been fine, for none who grow grain like the mice—they thieve it. But these were vipers, venomous, and the women feared for their children, that they mightn’t back-off but stand upon them. So the men took their sticks and they hunted the snakes and, after several were hit, the snakes then fled. But those alive still had to live somewhere. So they sought a land without Alisime women to cut the fields to grow the grain. That land was the Ancients Land.”
Commander Krisnavn nodded. “I hear what you’re saying. They flourish there, with less feet to disturb them.”
“They flourished there till the Ulvregan came. See, the Ulvregan, too, sought land to settle. But there was none. So the eblann gave them—”
“The snake-infested Ancients Land,” Megovis completed. “That was generous.”
The look on Commander Krisnavn’s face as he regarded her—Did he know that’s what Eblan Erspn intended? But Eblan Erspn didn’t intend that the snakes be rid of them. There simply was no other land for them. She finished the telling, now trying to slant it so the Ancients Land didn’t sound so grim.
“The Ulvregan haven’t a problem with it. See, the snakes have learned of us now, and they’ll not stay around us. Wherever the Ulvregan build their cotts and sheds and other stores, so the snakes living there then move away. Only that’s why the problem—though it’s no problem for those who know where they are. See, there aren’t any snakes now around the Ulvregan holdings. It’s elsewhere. If land’s not dwelt upon, grazed or worked, those snakes gather in terrible numbers.”
Commander Krisnavn still didn’t say anything, apparently lost in his thoughts. So Detah talked on.
“You’ve nothing to fear from them. It’s them scared of us. Though if you lie down, then sometimes they mistake you for kin and come snuggle beside you. And I’ve heard some folk keep them like others keep geese or like the granary cats.”
Still nobody spoke. And she desperately wanted to look behind her but dared not to move. She listened intently. Would she hear one slithering close, now she weren’t a danger upon her two feet? Probably not. She dared not lean back on her hands. She pulled in her shoulders and arms, glad she wore breeches. She told herself that the creeping feeling across her flesh, from the crest of her head, down her back, to her thighs and her knees (like hundreds of tiny vipers were wriggling along her) was only because she was thinking of them. They were phantoms, not real. But saying that didn’t rid the feeling. Still she wanted to rip off her clothes and shake them out, just in case.
Why had he made her say of it now, in the dark? And tomorrow they must ride through that land.
Though Detah might prefer to deny it, seems she, like the Kerdolan, have a fear of the snake. How then will she fare on the morrow when they must ride through the snake-ridden Ancients Land, a place not well known to her?