Another granary hit, the news of it shattering for the granary-family. And it seems Mistress Drea might be next dead—and that before she’s been told of Detah’s new role . . . Read on.
Shunamn was hovering uncertainly around Mistress Drea’s lifeless body. Erspn waved him away. Then with an apology for intimate touching, he turned her over, belly down, head turned, one leg pulled up in support so she wasn’t quite flat. He used a corner of his feathered cloak to fan the air round her, there being no breeze in this isle and she needed all he could give her of Jaja’s breath. Still fanning, he chanted words learnt from his own eblan-master. He didn’t know their meaning, they were not Alisime. Eyes watched him.
Detah, he heard, mumbling prayers to the Father, the Mother, to Master Nod, to please not take another. He heard Krisnavn ask what he was doing, and Detah’s explanation: “Enticing her spirit, calling it back. Likely she’s gone seeking our mother.”
“But he’s not entranced.”
“Trancing takes time and my sister’s spirit could be lost by then. He’s our Head Man, he’s not lost one yet.”
Erspn stepped back as an awful moan issued from the depths of the granary-mistress. But was it her spirit, or was it some other, possessing? Her shoulders heaved as she took a deep breath. He held his own, not wishing to share it. Then as her breathing shallowed, so Erspn spoke to her, though again in words he’d learned from his master, words not Alisime. When the spirit didn’t answer, he smiled and nodded, satisfied it was no other spirit but Drea’s.
She spoke, though her voice was weak and fractured and he had to lean close to hear her. “I don’t want them near me. Tell them to leave.”
He signed for Commander Krisnavn and his captains to move away. Detah, he noticed, stepped back along with them. Between them, Erspn and Demekn helped her to sit though she tried to push them away.
“We’d best get you inside,” Demekn said, speaking as if Mistress Drea were a child.
“No.” She seemed still confused, thrashing with arms as if fighting off ghosts. Her breathing was panicked.
“Hush,” Erspn tried to soothe her.
She took a new breath and held it. Then slowly released it. She nodded. “Aye. Tell the commander king-man that I am ready to talk. If you’ll just help me onto to the cushion.”
He noticed she quickly dabbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her chemmy.
When Commander Krisnavn returned, Detah beside him, Mistress Drea signed them to sit.
“I had not expected them to strike at our south bounds,” she said, her voice still weak, her hands clasped tightly into her lap.
“I feared it,” Commander Krisnavn admitted. “But I’d hoped we’d have time to set a guard there. Now we must act before more happens. I have my men ready, I wait only for your agreement to move them into position.”
“Where?” she asked.
Commander Krisnavn listed the stations and the patrols. Erspn approved. The river-gates, of course, he’d have done the same. But West Bounds, Eli Go Common and Black Water, that surprised him. As for the scarp around His Indwelling, he ought to have thought of it.
“But First Water already is guarded,” he said. “I’ve alerted the Alsime dwelling along her length. They’ll not allow any Kerdolan longboat to pass.”
Commander Krisnavn nodded acknowledgement. “But I shall still post my men where it gates with the Waters. And these men you speak of, you must warn them. These Kerdolan use poisoned arrows. If one hits—”
“Commander Krisnavn, we are talking of Alisime men,” Erspn said. “These are hunting men. They know how to hide, and how to drive an arrow into a sitting duck. It’s the man who stands to pole his lumbering longboat that makes himself the target.”
“Even so,” Commander Krisnavn said, “if one does take an arrow, barbed though it is, he must immediately pull it. Should the wound start to swell, they must cut it away. It’s not the venom that kills, it’s the festering, after. It is a slow and most unpleasant death. Make sure that you tell them of this.”
“We’ve already told them.” Erspn offered the slightest of smiles. So much for Commander Krisnavn, thinking himself the only one knowing. But what of Detah? Why did she then look away? To hide her pride in her master? Or her shame for sitting beside him? Ten days away, much could have changed in the course of those days.
“I heard the news,” put in Demekn which then explained things.
Detah’s head snapped round. “Of Glania?”
He didn’t answer, not in words. Yet his slight head movement gave it away.
“I would like to see Bukfreha’s dead before they are treated,” Commander Krisnavn said. “May I have your permission, Mistress Drea? I need to know if poison was used.”
“Aye,” she said, weary, exasperated, who knew which. “Aye to the men. Aye to the inspection. Aye to whatever must be done.”
They waited while Commander Krisnavn spoke to his captains, to have the men moved into position. “Then, Biadret, Bukfreha’s Isle, you know where it is. Take a good look around. I want a full report. Also, take a couple of markons, I’m sure we can spare two. Have the trader’s store emptied and loaded to packhorses. Everything brought back to here. You remember the route?”
“You’ll need more than two men and your horses to move what’s there,” Erspn said. “I’ll find you some river-walkers. That’ll be quicker, be easier.”
“I thank you for the offer, but I think not. Not while the Kerdolan make use of the rivers. Right now it’s safer to use the bound-tracks.” He turned back to Biadret. “Take three horses each.”
“I must see to the burials,” Mistress Drea said as though to herself.
“No,” Erspn told her. “You know that’s for eblann. I’ll go there as soon as these talks are done.”
“Is it not done? What more is to say?” Her voice sounded strained, as if she must force herself to speak at all.
“I know this is an ill-time, I regret I must ask,” Commander Krisnavn said. “Yet, well, my men do not live on air alone.”
“You ask for my grain?”
“Only as needs.”
“How much?” She glanced back at the granary though it couldn’t be seen.
“That’s something Linkess knows better than I. He oversees our stores. I’ll send him to you. He’ll tell you the sacks required, how much meat.”
“There’s a granary along South Water, and now none there to use,” she said “—Though, no, the families . . . I’m not thinking. Erspn, would you, while there, collect up the tallies and bring them to me? But for now, aye, take as you need of its grain. But record it. Then best, too, take all the goats. There’s no one there now to tend them.”
“Goats would be preferred,” Commander Krisnavn assured her. “The right size for a detachment of men. Cattle are too big, the meat soon spoils.”
“Convenient then, our losses. Is that all?”
“The removal of the Kerdolak threat,” he reminded her.
“But I thought that why you are posting your men.”
“The stations and patrols are for your protection. No, the Kerdolan must be destroyed. Utterly destroyed. Else they’ll harry the bounds to eternity.”
“I think that will not be my problem,” she said.
Erspn heard the weariness in her words. But what could he say. Why deny what he knew to be true. The granaries were now so far into decay, there could be no recovery.
But Mistress Drea straightened her back and bid Commander Krisnavn to say on. “Though why you must tell me, and ask me, when whatever you intend you know I’ll agree it. A leaf in a stream has more control of its drift than me.”
“We’ve become aware from recent intelligence,” Commander Krisnavn told her, “that the Kerdolan along the Water of Waters have set us a trap. And so I must change my plan.”
“Oh? So now you’re to go share a brew with them instead of killing them?” Mistress Drea’s lip part-curled in a sneer. “You said they are a threat, they must be removed.”
“But they are the arms. We kill one, another appears. That’s not the way to be rid of them.”
“You’re saying they’re like the weeds amongst Old Apsan’s herbs? That her garden cannot be cleared of them till all are uprooted?”
“Exactly that,” he answered softly, with evident care.
“So what other do you intend?”
“To strike right into the heart of them. To cut off their head.”
“Arms, hearts, heads . . . it’s true what my mother said of you Uestin. You hide your intent beneath obscuring words. Please, I beg you, speak as you’ll do. This day has been tiring without the need to unriddle your words.”
Erspn couldn’t help but chuckle though he did hide it. He noticed, too, Detah’s hand came up to cover her grin. So she was still granary, Alsime, eblan—his. And there he had worried of losing her to Commander Krisnavn despite that man had killed her father.
“The Kerdolan are ruled by a woman,” Commander Krisnavn said, which, being the subject of many a fabulous story, was commonly known. “Whoever she is, whatever her name, she bears the title, Head of Kerdol. And she dwells on Liënershi.”
“And you intend to kill her.” It was flatly said, not a question. Erspn wondered, did Mistress Drea approve it?
“I intend to defeat her,” Commander Krisnavn amended. “But if to defeat means I must kill her, then so I shall do—though it’s not as I’d have it. Yet, Mistress Drea, I see no other way to it. Not if I’m to clear the Kerdolan from your land.”
“My land? You mean Alisalm? Let me explain this, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn. Alisalm belongs to no one. Not to me. Not to you. Not even to the Alsime and Ulvregan you find living here. We are but its in-dwellers, that is all.”
“Well, the only in-dwellers here will be spirits unless we destroy the Kerdolan, lop off their head and chop off their hands.”
“Such a reminder, and on this day? But, aye, I agree to your going, if that’s what you’re asking. I agree, too, to the killing if that’s what is needed. Wretched woman has brought it upon herself; it is her due. So what more do you need off me?”
“For now, a boat to take me to Liënershi, with Alisime men to man her. There will be three of us. Myself. Captain Horsemaster Megovis. And Eblan Detah.”
A hefty stone plummeted through Erspn’s body, dragging his head and chest along with it. Though already sitting, its weight bore him down. His breath wouldn’t come. No words. He stared at Detah, willing her to say that he’d heard it wrong. Liënershi? A most dangerous journey, even with their Alisime seamen. That’s if the island really existed. Erspn had heard the Hiëmen, when visiting the feasts, say that the island was a mere figment, an imagined place. Nothing real.
“I don’t yet go there to battle,” Commander Krisnavn said into the silence. “As yet we go only to see the land. Things I need know. Where this Head of Kerdol resides. How it’s defended. How many men at her immediate command. I need to see how best to defeat her.”
Erspn slowly shook his head. “You ask for Detah, but Detah is mine. My apprentice. It’s not for Mistress Drea to agree it. Aye, I approve your intention, but you’d best say more to convince me. You think because I offered her once, I’ll easily lose her to you?”
“Whether you ‘aye’ it or not I shall take Eblan Detah with me,” Commander Krisnavn said in a tone neither severe nor friendly. “However, when I give my reasons you will agree it. She is young. Pretty. And she asks her questions in a most delightful way. While myself, I’m so obviously a Uestin horsemaster, and that cannot be changed. So tell me, which of us will have our questions answered? Detah, of course. Who can refuse her? But I also need her to be my eyes.”
“You’re losing your sight?” Erspn didn’t hide his alarm. What use a blind man to be their king?
Commander Krisnavn grinned. “No. But my eyes are Uestin while Eblan Detah’s are Alisime. And it will be Alisime men who fight the Kerdolan.”
Erspn knew he looked the artless fool but his mouth wouldn’t shut. Neither was he alone, and looks were exchanging between them.
“Why?” he asked at last. “I mean, why use our Alisime men when I’m told they’re no match for your Regiment?”
“Apart from using the Regiment to defend your bounds and your granaries—an apt use of our horsemen—it’s because I need seamen.”
“That, we understand,” Shunamn said, “Liënershi being an island. Your clever tame horses can’t ride over Mistress Nod’s waters.”
“Ah! You’re after Alisime seamen to ferry you there,” Erspn said.
“To ferry, and to fight once we’re there. Though not this time. As I’ve said, this visit is only to set the plan.”
Erspn leaned in closer. There was no denying it, this Commander Krisnavn was a clever man. If only he’d not had to kill the granary-master as-was. “How many men?”
“I’m thinking thirty. More and Ganros won’t have the time to train them.”
“When? I mean, when do you intend this attack?”
“The plan isn’t yet set—”
“Aye, you said.”
“But since it involves crossing the sea . . . before your Feast of Summer Ending.”
“The Murkem Feast of Mistress Nod,” Erspn said, “that’s when they stop sailing, but that’s the same feast.”
“I’d say the earlier the better,” Commander Krisnavn said.
Erspn sat back while he thought, his fingers absently stroking his close-trimmed beard.
“I thought maybe the winners of the Games?” Detah said. “They’re proven men, and if taken from South Landing they’ll likely be seamen. I thought, too, the South Alsime eblann would know who . . .” She faltered to a stop as he looked at her. Yet her suggestion had merit.
“But thirty? That’s pushing.”
“There are four granary-isles from First Landing to West Bounds—”
“Three. Now,” Mistress Drea cut in.
“There were four at the Feast,” Detah persisted. “We need only take seven from each. Those who won first, second and third, for a start. It’s the archers we need.”
“We?” Erspn queried. He’d not yet said she could go.
“But if we didn’t offer the help, as Krisnavn says, we’d not long be living.”
“That wasn’t the query,” he said, and she knew it. And that she’d called him Krisnavn instead of Commander hadn’t been lost on him.
“Some folk sup with the snakes,” Mistress Drea murmured. She, too, had noticed it.
Erspn ignored her. “How soon do you need them?”
“As if yesterday,” Commander Krisnavn said. “They’ll need training.”
“Urgently then. Anything else?”
“We need some to have their own sea-boats,” Commander Krisnavn took up the entailing. “The others need be familiar with the sea’s ways. And in all of this, lest we forget, I need a manned boat to take us to Liënershi, and that in the next few days.”
Erspn took a deep breath. Though this of the men and their boats wasn’t granary business, yet Mistress Drea ought to agree it. He asked. She nodded.
“We need to hear you say it,” Erspn told her.
“Aye.” One curt word said without looking.
“Aye, well, I’m heading down to Bukfreha’s Isle so I’ll pass on the word. I’ll call in at Bisdathea’s too. As Detah noted, those of First Landing, nearest the river, also fish out of Nod’s Bowl.”
“How soon can you get us the boat?” Commander Krisnavn asked.
“Four days?” Erspn said. “Aye, if I can get it at all, it’ll be four. But you be warned, these men will want a reward. We’ve all heard the tales regarding that isle. Some say it plain isn’t there.”
“It is there. We know of Hiëmen who trade there.”
“Aye,” Erspn said. “The same Hiëmen as the source of those tales.”
Commander Krisnavn left that unanswered. “You can make a promise on my behalf,” he said. “This will be the most rewarding journey of their life.”
“If that’s all . . .?” Mistress Drea already was standing, making to leave.
“Thirty additional men,” Commander Krisnavn said. “They’ll need feeding.”
She spun round, hands coming to rest on her hips, fury roasting her face. “Empty our granaries, every last one of them, why not. We’re not to have them beyond this season. Take—take whatever you want.”
Erspn watched her storm off towards the western gate though few ever used it. He’d never seen her stride like that. Demekn raced after her.
“Troubled times,” Erspn said as he turned back. Then he saw Detah’s face, crumpling as she tried to bite back the tears. “Hey, you’re a seed, remember.” She’d told him what Hegrea had said.
“Aye, but with no soil to be sown in.”
“Remember the heron? Have patience. From death comes life, you know it.” But he hoped she’d not find that soil with this Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn. Yet perhaps that’s what the Mistress intended for her?
She dried her eyes. She offered a smile.
“If there is nothing more?” Erspn said.
“No. I understand you need to be away. I just have arrangements to make with Detah.” He was onto his feet. He and Detah already were walking to where the horses were waiting. Erspn hurried to catch them.
“My apprentice, I’ve said. Any arrangements are made with me.”
“So be it, I’ll keep it brief. I’ll need Detah back at the barracks on the fourth day. Let’s hope by then you’ve found us a boat. Are you able to do this alone?” he asked Detah. “I’ll send Megovis if you’d rather.”
“I think I can find my way there,” she said with a bitten back grin.
He laughed. “Aye,” he said, Alisime-fashion, “and I suppose on your horse you’ll be safe.”
Erspn couldn’t miss the affection between them. But how could he stop it developing further? Aye, he wasn’t a fool, he knew that he couldn’t. Then, though he’d not yet agreed she could go, he found himself saying, “Mind you keep to the paths when you get to that Ancients Land.”
“Is it true?” Shunamn asked, having followed them over. “Is it infested?”
“In places, there are . . . let’s say a few,” Commander Krisnavn said with an almost-smile. “But our Detah knows how to avoid them. It’s her been instructing us.”
“Really?” Erspn said with a surge of panic. He ought to draw her away, by whatever means, back to himself, to where she belonged. But how? HOW?
“Remember,” Commander Krisnavn was telling her, “you’re to dress as a Hiëmen. You know how? Else Megovis—”
She laughed. “Haldalda, our eldliks’ woman, is Hiëmen; she’ll help me.”
“Belgantros will remain with our horses at the barracks while you’re away. And, please, this time you need only to bring yourself. Linkess will provide all the food you can eat.”
She nodded. It seemed she wanted to say more. Erspn suddenly felt awkward standing beside them.
“Then that’s all. We’ll see you in four days.” With one graceful movement he was onto his horse.
“One thing I need to know,” Erspn called as already Commander Krisnavn and his captains were moving away. “How long will my apprentice be gone?”
Commander Krisnavn held out his hands. “I am no seaman to answer you that. Best you ask the man you find for us. We go to Liënershi to find gifts for this, um . . . young Hiëmen woman who’s newly my wife.”
“Your . . .!?” Erspn spluttered.
Commander Krisnavn laughed. “Don’t be alarmed. Detah will explain it.”
“You,” Erspn turned to her, too stunned yet to say more.
She took the reins of the red-coated horse.
“And is that yours?”
“Hmm. A gift. For helping.”
“You and I need to talk.”
“I’ve a horse to attend.”
“You can talk and attend? Only I’ve to be on my way and this is somewhat important. His wife?”
After the long turn along the Alisime borders it seems now things are moving too fast. Is Detah still to be counted as Erspn’s apprentice? Is her marriage to Krisnavn a portent of what’s to come? And what will they find at the fabled isle of Liënershi? Who is this Head of Kerdol?