Now Krisnavn understands more fully the plot against him he’s able to sharpen his plans. But to effect the first part he needs a helpmate. His choice there surprises everyone, especially Detah . . . . Read on.
She didn’t want to make this ride. It wasn’t only that she’d see no more of Belgantros, there was also the thought of facing her sister. No doubt Drea’s greeting would be laced with spite, as if her tongue hadn’t been barbed enough before. Now, after ten days away in Krisnavn’s company, Detah was bound to be Drea’s least favourite person. And Krisnavn was the other reason for her lack of enthusiasm, though she included Megovis and Biadret in that. She’d grown used to their company. She had enjoyed being their guide. Even though, in the end, she’d not been as awkward as her eblan-master had wanted. To her, they’d become not Saramequai Regiment, not horsemasters, Querkan or Uestin, but friends. She sighed—perhaps for the twentieth time.
Last night, after the meeting—before she would spend her last night, alone, in the white-walled tent—Krisnavn had called her back. She’d thought it was to confirm the arrangements for this morning, that they’d assemble at the barracks gate.
She had turned. “Commander?”
“No,” he’d said. “I’ve told you, you’re to call me Krisnavn.”
It was true, he had said, though she’d never called him that in front of his captains. She squinted, nose wrinkled, head cocked. But then he’d said nothing, his intention obviously changed. His captains had looked quizzical at him, but still nothing.
Now he called to her again as she was leading Belgantros from the corral. She stopped and waited. And closer now, he rested his hand over hers where she held the reins and rested it upon Belgantros’s back. The heat was startling. And he oughtn’t to do that. Yet the thrill it! The heat raced through her; she wished it never would stop.
“Detah,” he said again, and to her disappointment withdrew his hand. Now his tone turned formal. “You have served the Commander of the Saramequai Division of the Regiment most thoroughly these past nine days. As a guide. With your knowledge. Entertaining me with your stories. I cannot let you go without a gift.”
But she needed no gift. Though she’d not refuse a pair of Regiment breeches.
He said, “I would like Belgantros to be yours. If it won’t upset Mistress Drea for you to keep him at her isle.”
She wanted to laugh, to jump, to grin, to hoot, to throw her arms around his neck. She wanted to . . . But she stood as if paralysed while everything rushed around inside her. She wiped at a tear.
“It pleases you?” he asked.
She sniffed back a tear even while her mouth broke into a smile. She nodded, vigorously. “Does it please me? Enormously.”
“And you’ll be able to keep him at Isle Ardy?”
“No, likely not, but that’s not where I’ll be. An apprentice must lodge with her eblan-master, and that’s at Sapapsan’s Isle. They’re used to the horses there; their granary-trader . . . Then likely this summer-half we’ll spend at the Cloud Stone Isle.”
Megovis laughed when she joined the captains at the gate. “Someone’s happy. Must be delight at leaving us.”
She shook her head. No, she’d no delight in that. Yet the gift had opened her sadness and made it a bloom. She was the honeysuckle, she was a rose. How she had longed for the freedom this horse now would bring her. No more to have her feet buried in earth. No more turning to stone. Every bound-track in this land was hers to explore. She grinned to think she now could nose through the hedges, see deep into the otherwise forbidden family-lands. And on those wider clear tracks that they had found, there she could fly. What a gift! Krisnavn had given her Saram’s wings.
“Detah?” Krisnavn’s voice startled her out of her reverie. Already they’d crossed the Sometimes Stream and she’d not even noticed. “Detah, we need to talk before we reach Isle Ardy.”
“Talk, but of what?” she asked in sudden fear. He’d sounded so serious.
“Of Liënershi. I want you to come with us.”
“You need say that again. I think I misheard you.”
“I doubt that you did. I want you to come to Liënershi with us.”
She didn’t immediately answer. She had to think about this. Then she asked why. “I’d be no guide there. I’ve not been before.”
“Please do. Seems I’ve left my reasoning head back at your barracks.” She could find no reason he’d want her with him.
“By now you’ll know I don’t make plans on hearsay. Though I’ve heard much of this island and of the people, I trust it all as traders’ tales. I need to see this place. See how the land lies. What is built where. But, no matter how you dress me, I am a Saramequai commander. My captains could wear Alisime garb and still they’d be Saramequai captains. So I need a reason for this horsemaster to visit there, a reason that won’t raise suspicions. You are that reason.”
“Oh, so taking a granary-born Alisime eblan along with you won’t raise suspicions?”
“If that’s how they see you . . . But listen. As you know, it’s forbidden for the markons and markistes to wed. But not so for horsemasters.”
“Aye, I know that of the Regiment. But how’s that to do with my going to Liënershi?”
“Every man wants to wed a young woman, but mostly the young women want only young men. Pity the older, widowed, man who must content himself with an older, widowed, woman. Of course such women have value. Wisdom, knowledge, experience. But she’s less likely to provide for him a son. So those few women who have served as markons are snapped up. But what does this leave for a horsemaster thinking to wed? Older than most widowed men, what young woman would want him?”
“If you think yourself old, you’re wrong,” she said. He was younger than she remembered her father to be. He’d hardly a grey hair in his braids and not one that she’d seen in his floppy-grown ‘tache. So what if he had wrinkles around his eyes. They were from laughing. She always knew when he was amused, even without him chuckling aloud. Those lines formed like fine spider webs around his Saram-blue eyes. No, he wasn’t too old for a young woman to wed. Just look at those shoulders, no slumping there. Broad and solid, like the triliths of the Sun’s Cove. And his belly too, that was flat and looked hard. She’d heard the women say they liked that. Her eyes tracked down to his legs, long and shapely. But she bit back further thoughts. What young woman would refuse such a man. She sighed. Then caught the way he was looking at her, and felt a heat-surge that burned in her cheeks.
“Well, old or otherwise, there’s one thing all horsemasters possess that makes even the ugliest of us seem attractive. Saram’s power, Beli’s fire. And Uath’s wealth. And this particular horsemaster, now that he has a pretty young Hiëmen as wife, would like to spend some part of that wealth adorning her with fabulous fabrics and gold and gems.”
“You’ve a wife?” She panicked. Would his Hiëmen wife come claw out her eyes for what she’d been thinking?
“I have not,” he said. “But I shall have.”
Oh, she allowed herself to relax. So he hadn’t yet wed her. But that didn’t make her feel that much better.
“Detah, when have you ever not reasoned it out?”
Oh, no, he was muddling her further. She could feel herself shrinking. What was he trying to say? That he wanted her . . . No! No, he could not be saying that.
“As a pretence, a disguise,” he said.
“In play?” She swallowed the sudden disappointment.
“It isn’t unusual—ask my captains, we’ve all seen it. The Kerdolan will think nothing of it. And who better to play the part. These past days we’ve grown close, become familiar. We know how each other thinks. We touch. These things are important in convincing another. And you ask questions. You listen, you reason. I’ve no doubt that you’ll discover more than Megovis and myself together.”
“You want me to play like I’m your Hiëmen-born wife?” This was unbelievable.
Detah saw the two riverboats moored at Ardy’s wharf long before they reached it. Visitors. But who? Two men—she saw them as soon as she turned Belgantros to enter between the high walls of the gate. Alsime by their bonnets, talking to Shunamn. She guessed they’d not long arrived; they’d not yet been allowed beyond the trench that formed the third ring. Though perhaps their business was with Shunamn only.
Shunamn and the Alsime turned to look as she, Krisnavn and his captains emerged from the shadows. And suddenly she didn’t want to enter here. It was something in the set of their bodies. They’d brought ill-news; she didn’t want to hear it.
Belgantros ought for the while be stalled in the western section of the arcade where he’d not be seen from the granary. But instead, when she dismounted, she left him with the others horses, reins stone-weighted—so she could wait with the Saramequai for Shunamn.
“Eblan Detah. You’re not expected back this soon.”
“She would have been sooner but for the state of the bound-tracks,” Krisnavn said.
Shunamn turned a fierce face to him. “Aye, and had you returned sooner, likely these men wouldn’t be here now with their news.”
“More killings?” The word killing repeated as torment inside her head, though she’d no need to ask. She’d known from the moment seen.
“Bukfreha’s Isle,” Shunamn said.
But . . . No, that wasn’t the most easily gained, set far from South Water’s sea-gate. Had they come over the hills from West Bounds? Yet none without knowledge could find the way. No, this made no sense. She looked to Krisnavn as if he could answer. But he, too, looked dumfounded and shaken.
“I hadn’t expected a strike this soon.” He kept to Uestuädik for Shunamn not to be party. “It has to be in response to seeing us along North Bounds. But . . . three, four days? Can they move so fast?”
He asked Shunamn and the Alsime how it had happened. Though he’d asked in Hiëmen, the way they looked at him, he might have been speaking northern Feg. Detah had to repeat it.
“Kerdolan in their longboats, heavy with archers,” Shunamn said. “What use their high fences when arrows fly over?”
“How many . . .?” She could not say the word dead.
“But . . .” Her head fogged. This wasn’t . . . they weren’t . . . here were families. “Ablabran’s mistress as well? Her daughter, her sister? Her sister’s children? No! Please say it’s not true.”
“All dead,” Shunamn said.
She turned to Krisnavn, anger already replacing the horror. “These women, all were kin to Mandatn. Sisters, mothers, aunts. They were Glontria’s own nieces. I will not believe it of her.”
Horsemasters were trained to show no emotion yet it was there in the way he closed his eyes, as if to shut out the news. Though otherwise, his composure didn’t falter. He asked of Shunamn if Mistress Drea had yet been informed.
“I’ve only now had the news.”
“This is not a good time to be speaking with her, yet I must. What of Eblan Demekn, and your Eblan Head Man, Erspn? How soon can they be here?”
“They’re here,” Shunamn said and turned towards the lodge as if to fetch them.
“No.” Detah caught hold of his arm. “These men have brought news, and no small distance. Would the granary-master have dismissed them without a reward? Stay your fetching while I find them something. Then there’ll be no need to hold them longer.”
“Away a few days, and here you return, the granary-master.” He spat his opinion. “Even wearing his hair.”
Detah eased closed the lodge door, not to allow its usual slam. She didn’t want the others alerted. Not yet. She didn’t want their questions. Inside her everything jarred. How could the day begin so happy, with the gift of the horse and to go to Liënershi? Then it crashes to this: the granaries dying, her sister left to manage alone. Was there nothing they could do to halt it? She knew Eblan Erspn would tell her no. She told herself to focus on what she was doing. That was the horsemasters’ way. In that came their composure.
She entered the trader’s store. While she’d been away the bulk of trade wares brought from the northern isles had been stowed in here. But she’d no time to fumble. Instead she found two lengths of woollen-weavings amongst the wares still stacked beneath the inner arcade. Their colours were muted; she deemed them suitable. She took them and turned, to be gone from there.
“Helping yourself?” Eblan Erspn’s hand lay heavy upon her shoulder. She’d not heard him approach.
“Gifts,” she said, hushed. “Two river-walkers, with news. You’re needed outside. Where’s my brother? And Drea?”
“What news?” he asked, his own voice now quiet.
“What you and Mistress Hegrea have said of decay. Another granary gone.”
He stopped his steps. Though into the long narrow passage where there barely was light, yet she could see his face, how it had paled. “Which one? Not Sapapsan’s?”
“No. Southern. Bukfreha’s.”
He held open the door for her.
“You’ve not yet answered. Where are they, my brother and Drea?”
“Demekn? He’s out hunting feathers. Your sister . . .” He nodded back to where the granary was hidden behind the lodge. “I’ll send Ublamn to fetch her.”
“Already sent,” Shunamn sneered at him.
Then Drea must be busy, not to come out at once. Detah was glad of it. It meant she could gift the men and they’d be away before Drea need be told the news. But then Eblan Erspn delayed her. With scarcely a nod to acknowledge Krisnavn, he went straight to the Alsime. He asked them again for their news.
“We’ve said,” the older one said.
“Then, please, would you say again. I do need to hear it.”
So they repeated it.
They’d been poling along South Water, some two days since, when five boats, heavily manned, passed them heading downriver. Five boats together wasn’t unusual, but these weren’t Hiëmen, Alisime, Lenevan or Lugisse. Yet upriver was Bukfreha’s Isle, so they reckoned they were traders from wherever. Still, five boats together, and with so many men . . . they were curious. And so they pushed on beyond Kaskadha’s Land, which was where they’d been bound. They went to Bukfreha’s Isle. But they didn’t arrive till late in the day.
“What we found . . .” the one telling shook his head at the memory. “They all were dead. Grain-women, trader, children, the eldliks, his family, the eblan who lodged there. The only living were the goats.”
“Killed?” Eblan Erspn asked.
Both men nodded.
“How could you tell?”
“Arrows. A mighty lot of them, all stuck in the bodies.”
“What’s been done with them, the bodies I mean?”
“We moved them. Didn’t want the birds and the wolves to . . . We dragged them just into the lodge . . . Didn’t like to enter there. Ward-charms, you know. Then we came straight here. To tell the Mistress of the Granaries. But still we’ve not told her.”
Eblan Erspn nodded. “Aye, well, we’ll tell her. Our thanks for your journey.”
Detah held out the weavings. “For your troubles. We thank you.”
Though their faces flushed a beet-red, they nodded and accepted the gifts. It was usual. But their eyes were on the gate, impatient to be away.
“Commander Krisnavn, if you’ve anything more to ask them . . .?” Eblan Erspn asked.
“No. Let them return to their families.”
“No. Wait,” Detah said before the two men could turn on their heels and be gone. “The trader’s store, did you see, was anything taken?”
“Wouldn’t know where,” said the other.
Detah nodded and allowed them to leave. They exited the isle on their fastest legs without actually running. She could imagine how scared they’d been even to enter the isle with such news. And then to encounter, face to face, this would-be king.
But, in their haste, they all but collided with Demekn.
He looked puzzled as he joined the knot by Ardy’s third ring: Detah, Eblan Erspn, Krisnavn, his captains, and Shunamn. There was a confusion of greetings, Demekn with his clutch of swan feathers, Detah wanting to hug him, and all their glum faces. He glanced back to the wide shadowed gate.
“I knew it,” he said. “I saw them poling and . . . Something told me I must return—”
“A heron was near?” asked Detah but Demekn ignored her.
“They bring ill news?”
“The worst,” Eblan Erspn said. “Though perhaps not unexpected. But hush now. Your sister . . .”
They turned to see her, Ublamn head down beside her. She wasn’t crying. She showed no sign of upset. So Ublamn hadn’t yet told her. Her eyes fixed upon Krisnavn, her face set as stone.
“We’d not expected your return so soon,” she said, then asked after the river-walkers.
“They’ve given their news,” Detah said. “I’ve gifted them and sent them home.”
“You have? What did you give them, feathers?”
“I took from the trader’s store.”
“Aye, well, you once were the trader’s apprentice, so I suppose you’ve some right. Now you, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, you’ve come to tell me you’ve destroyed the Kerdolan?”
“I think we ought to sit.” Eblan Erspn glanced back to the shade of the outer arcade.
Drea flicked her hand to fetch Ublamn’s attention. “Cushions.”
Detah breathed in deep, and out again, her attention fully focused on it. It helped still her hands, and to loosen her shoulders. She couldn’t help thinking how alike to their mother her sister now was. Perhaps it was being the Granary-Mistress. But how much Detah now was noticing; it must be the ten days away.
Ublamn must have run, so soon did he return with the cushions. He positioned them between the same posts that her father had favoured. Krisnavn sat without a cushion. Detah too, now she’d grown used to it. As before, at the talks, Megovis and Biadret waited at a discreet distance. She noticed the look on Megovis’s face. She hadn’t a word for it, yet in some way it made her feel better.
“Now,” Drea said—no bend to her back, she could have been cut entirely of stone. “You have news for me? Though I see from your faces it is not good. Please say it, and be done.”
“Bukfreha’s Isle,” Eblan Erspn said. He need say no more.
Turned to stone, had it not been for her breathing she’d be unmoving. Then: “Kerdolan?” And without waiting for answer. “How many dead?”
“All,” Eblan Erspn said.
Stone, when severely shaken and struck, must shatter. Detah had already watched what seemed to the slenderest crack rapidly widen to split the stone into several parts. Now balance lost, those parts tore asunder. What had begun as a crack became a deep chasm. Subjected, now, to this second quake, and unsupported, only one thing could happen. At least one part must collapse. Detah watched as it crashed, as it splintered, as its thousands of fragments were sent flying. The remaining part lurched, impossibly held at a crazy angle. And that’s when Drea fell to the ground. Detah thought she was dead.
Shattering news for the granary-family.
So how now will they receive the news of Detah’s new role?