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 things to come? And what will they find at the fabled isle Liënershi? . . . Read on
Megovis glowered at Ganros. That could have been his thumb instead of the peg. Could have been the shingle broken. Digging his ribs just as he swung the hammer. Undignified work anyway, Megovis grunted, not meant for captains. Rutting markons ought to do this. But they, in their haste to take up their stations, had left the captains to finish the roofing.
“Gate,” Ganros said.
Megovis looked round. The guard, leg splinted and bound, a crutch supporting him, held open the right wing of the gate.
Ganros let out a whistle. “Now that is—”
“Leave it. Not yours,” Megovis said. He watched as she walked the blood-coated horse through the gate. Then called down to Krisnavn. “You expecting a Hiëmen to visit?”
“Now that you say . . . Clean forgotten it.”
Megovis rolled his eyes. As if that were likely.
“That’s . . . the eblan?” Ganros gawped.
Megovis agreed she did make a sight. He couldn’t stop watching her either, eyes following her as she led Belgantros off to the corrals.
“I want you two, and Biadret, at my quarters,” Krisnavn called up to them. “Now.”
Megovis was first down the ladder. Ganros called down to him, “You reckon Commander’s afraid to be alone with her now? Calling for company.”
“Wouldn’t you be? No, don’t answer. But, for his honour, our commander is more wise than he is a man. And where is Biadret?”
“Here.” Biadret appeared at the door. “That’s the last of the bed-rolls in this last of the dorms. Sweet dreams, our Alisime allies. I swear they’ll believe they’re wrapped in Saram’s own arms.”
“We’re wanted,” Megovis said.
“I heard. More work, you reckon? Why’d he let those markons go before everything’s done?”
“I’d say this is more by way of being a witness.”
“Ah. Yea. Today’s the day, isn’t it. Is she dressed to the part?”
“Enough to wake the dead,” Ganros said. “And I’ve just the place for her to sit.”
“Touch her, you’re gelded,” Megovis said. He reckoned Eblan Shunamn’s warning would apply trebly to her.
“Oops,” Ganros said. “Snake turned to snail.”
Seeing her at close quarters Megovis was stunned into silence. He couldn’t even manage a greeting. He tried not to stare.
“Do I look the part?” She held out her arms, displaying the clothes.
“Pretty,” Biadret said.
No, more than pretty, but Megovis’s thoughts stayed locked in his head.
She had combined the clothes exactly right for a young newly-wed Hiëmen. The finely woven green woollen shirt held close to emphasise her high young breasts, its embroidered opening just low enough to invite exploration. Beneath it the white linen shift, barely visible, added further temptation. And those shoes—rope sole, blue and green ribbons—highly impractical but beautifully revealing of her young delicate feet. As for the narrow blue breeches, the way they stopped just short of her ankles . . . tantalising. So much flesh, so young, so . . . too much for a Uestin man to resist. Then—inspired!—the blue, green and black Ulvregan skirt, pleated and gathered and cinched at her tiny-tiny-tiny waist. Saramequai colours. She had added beneath it a skirt in plain green that, folded over at the waist, served to give her the hips she otherwise lacked. All cleverly done. But now Megovis didn’t want to make this voyage with her. As well that Ganros wasn’t invited along.
“Haldalda fixed my hair.”
How innocently said. Did she not realise the affect? Freshly washed, the frizzles gone, it shone like chestnuts in the sun. The woman Haldalda had woven it into the twenty-seven Regiment braids, and hung each with three tiny green bows. Green for fertility. And each of those bows was thick with tiny black beads.
“My cloak too.” She held it out. The day was too hot for her to wear it.
“Waxed leather?” Ganros remarked with approval.
“It’s wolf-fur lined. ‘Newly-wed’, my family gifted me.” She grinned. “I could hardly appear with my brother’s old cut-down travel-cloak. Not beside my wealthy husband.”
“One fault,” Megovis said and turned to Krisnavn. “The Hiëmen wear trinkets. More heavily hung than an Ulvregan trader.”
“And that is why I wanted you here. These things will need accounting when the lore-men arrive,” Krisnavn said quietly.
He steered Detah to the work-bench at the back of the command room. On it lay several soft leather bags, varying sizes, none were large. The smallest would fit into a palm. Krisnavn felt around them though Megovis suspected that was an act. His hand lingered on the largest. He teased open its drawstring. Widened its neck. Peered inside it. He nodded and snaked in his hand . . . to slowly ease it out again.
Detah was right to gasp. Though it wasn’t extravagant if she was to play the part well. It was a necklace, triple-stranded. The smallest, the top, of gold beads formed to animal-heads. The middle, of crystal beads cut so they sparkled. The longest, the lower, of amber left natural. From its centre hung a heavy gold pendant of a horse, a dog and a hare chasing each other around in a circle. At the back, the three strands became one.
It seemed Detah never would speak, for so long did her mouth hang open. Then she said, “Cut off my hands if I ever should lose it. You shall have it back the moment this playing is done.”
But Krisnavn shook his head. Megovis gasped. He never intended to gift her this?
“But you gave me Belgantros. If it’s a choice I’ll have Belgantros, you can have the necklace back.”
“No. No choice. He was reward for your help with the bounds, and the snakes. This is for agreeing to play my bride. You could have refused me.”
Detah laughed. “Me, refuse to go to Liënershi?” Her eyes were wide, her hands moving, not knowing, like she was perplexed. “But I need no reward. Just to go there is my reward. What will I do, an eblan with gold and gems?”
Yet Megovis noticed how still she held, like a tree on a windless day, while Krisnavn fastened the necklace about her.
“Now if your Haldalda will forgive me, I’ve something better to put in your hair.”
No! Krisn was doing it again, touching her hair, and she dressed like that. Megovis couldn’t close his mouth. He looked at Biadret, at Ganros, but they seemed not to see what he saw. He told himself, as he had with the necklace, that it’s what the Kerdolan would expect of a doting old horsemaster and his young Hiëmen wife. He was hanging her braids with yet more amber, more crystal, more gold. The wealth he was putting upon her! Fine (as with the touching) if he intended to wed her, but this wasn’t the right sister. If he gave her expectations, allowed her to think it, then broke her heart, then . . . oldest, truest friend or not, Megovis swore he would turn his fury upon Krisnavn.
Krisnavn stepped back, the better to see the effect. And what did he see? Only the gifts? This display of his wealth? Or the eblan-girl weighted beneath them? This wasn’t the Krisnavn as Megovis had for so long known him.
“What do you think, Govvy?” Krisn asked him. “Is it enough? Or does she need more?”
“Decorate her more and the traders of Liënershi will wonder your need.” He couldn’t hide his disapproval but Krisn appeared not to hear it. He gave an affectionate slap to Govvy’s back.
“You’re right. So let’s take them off and bag them until we are nearer. Then best we all grab an early night. Boatmaster Tamesen tells me we’re to leave at first light.”
And where, Megovis wondered, would those two be sleeping? Did the Commander want witness to that?
One day at sea in this Alisime sea-boat—fashioned as their riverboats (from bent-stem and hide though with a keel of sorts and a deeper draught)—with the wind filling the black-hued sail, and that prow with its grim carven head cutting the water, they were making better time than they had in the Hiëmen boats when they crossed the Lenevan Sea. For which Megovis thanked Mistress Nod. Her Stew-Dish contained the waters around them; they and this boat were in Her hands.
But in that one day at sea Boatmaster Tamesen hadn’t yet stopped talking. Before ever they’d set sail he was talking, though none of it rubbish. He’d told them if they must vomit then please to do so over the boat’s rim. Mistress Nod wasn’t at all fussy of the quality of offerings. He’d expanded on that, saying please to do it away from the wind, else it’d all come back at them. The Mistress mightn’t be fussy, but Tamesen was, and he wouldn’t have a fouled boat.
He’d then asked Krisnavn if Master Nod’s hand was upon his young wife. Megovis had to turn away. Supposedly the husband, Krisn ought to have known what he meant. Instead he stood there, befuddled, with brow deeply furrowed. Megovis knew. He, like Detah, did some quick head-numbering and figured she’d be fine for the next twenty-so days. Her young face burned red as she answered. More slips like that and Tamesen soon would figure the game. Krisnavn would do better just to tell him. But they’d argued of that. The fewer knew the deceit, the less risk of a slip. Megovis supposed he’d reveal the truth on their return from the island.
Tamesen now was saying of the tales told of Liënershi. “You’ve heard it’s a magical isle, I suppose. Aye, as magical as the currents and tides, and as easily understood. See, they say the isle appears and vanishes just as it wills. So, some just happen upon it, while others, in looking, sail right off the world. Well, I’m telling you this, those are words best thrown in the lats. See, it’s its size and its shape that’s the problem. You’ve seen Isle Ardy, its lodge? Wide as from here to sun-slip tomorrow, yet not a height to it. It’s only ‘cause it sits inside those high white walls that anyone finds it. Well, that’s how it is with Liënershi. Wide, but it hasn’t the height. And it, too, sits inside high white walls—aye, those tossing white hoods of Mistress Nod’s waters.”
They crossed the Hiëmen Sea that first day. That was good going—as Tamesen told them with evident pride. “See, you’ve got to know the winds, the tides and the currents.”
Megovis and Krisnavn erected their tent on the beach. Tamesen strolled around them, laughing and tutting. “I can tell you’re no seamen. That’s a serviceable boat, we can sleep in there.”
“We prefer comfort,” Megovis said.
“Aye, well, with them just wed . . .”
By day they sailed westward, always with the Hiëmen coastline in sight. Megovis could cope with that, unlike those two days clear out of sight of land when they’d crossed to Jitinnis. Though he hadn’t been sick, Megovis had thoroughly shuddered. Now at night they pulled into shore. The third night, thick with a sea-mist, Tamesen, sheepishly crept into the tent. Krisnavn had invited him that first night but he hadn’t wanted.
“Shame there’s no room for my crew,” he said. “Though a day or so more, likely we’ll all have to sleep in there.” He meant in the belly of his boat. He waggled his head and tutted. “You know, no seaman likes being away from the land. But I tell you, that last little leg, South Eskin Head to Liënershi, that can’t always be done in the one. So, mayhap it’s less distance from Blisa Go, but those waters . . .” He again waggled his head. And he laughed, “Now that’s truly Mistress Nod’s Bowl—and there’s a good brew goes in there.”
This wasn’t what Megovis wanted to hear. So maybe the winds and the currents and the tides would be with them, and they’d do it in one.
When finally they pulled ashore at South Eskin Head Megovis was puzzled. He wasn’t alone, he saw Detah’s brows drawn.
“Have you got it wrong?” she asked Tamesen. “Where’s the river? Where’s the trading hold?” Here was only a rocky cove with a wide sandy shore while behind it, climbing, briar and gorse fringed, was a wooded hill.
“No, see, trading hold’s along the river—that river around that corner there,” Tamesen said, complete with swerving hand motions. “But I’m not asked to take you to there. Get in, if it’s busy, we’ll never get out till season’s gone. No, here’s far enough in to that hold.”
They shared the cove with five other boats.
“They’re from south,” Tamesen said of their immediate neighbour. “Kin Mhuiris. You hear them talk?”
“Kin Mhuiris boats?” Krisnavn said. “But I thought them south of the Lugisse and the Bridren. A mountainous land, with rivers for wading, not sailing.”
Tamesen laughed. He took a stick and drew in the muddy sand. “West here,” he said, “like we’re going. But when the land disappears, instead of heading off sun-wise, you head directly to left. It’s a way, but it’s there. Mayhap they’ve rivers to take them to that mountain-clad land?”
They set out at first light from South Eskin Head—and they still were sailing, still right-of-west, when Sauën plunged into the water, turning it blood-stained red. If Megovis hadn’t seen her do this thrice already, and there still be land and water ahead, he’d have feared they’d soon slip off the edge, just as Boatmaster Tamesen had said. They sailed through the night with Detah enfolded within Krisnavn’s arms. Megovis, himself, could do no more than doze. He listened to Tamesen talk of the stars, glad when, before they’d yet blinked out, in the east behind them the sky was lightening.
“There,” Tamesen said and directly ahead the waves were crashing and forming, as he had said, a white telltale wall. “Now you’ll want to know what to expect, ‘cause all’s not as it seems. So I’ll tell you. Farthest right of the west, that’s the highest land, and it sweeps right around to greet us. But that’s no good; that’s what fools most folks. No, all you’ll find there are some coves, little inlets, but not a river or like. See, that’s where the first-timer gets lost. No, we have to pull right around sun-wise—and that’s best done by veering left. Then you’ll see it. West of this isle, facing right into the sun’s nightly bed, is calm-pond-flat and cut by a solitary river. Drains off the hills, see. Hills?” He chuckled. “Not proper hills like we have. No, but they’re higher than flat if you see what I mean.”
It was along this ‘solitary river’ that they’d find the traders, he said. Hold after hold of them. “Haven’t an itch of what the Kerdolan call it. But we who come here a time or two know it as Holds River.”
Rounding south of the isle, Megovis thought they’d soon be to land. Krisnavn and Detah now were awake. Sauën, too, had risen from her lover’s nocturnal arms. But Tamesen said of the wind not being right, and that what he called the deeper-arse-currents weren’t yet in their favour.
“Now some will tell you that’s Mistress Nod being contrary, and they’ll throw to her various niceties. But there’s no need of that. You think She doesn’t get enough nice bits, She who can take as She wants? No, I tell you, those folk just have to learn it, is all. See, there are patterns—like regular patterns. I expect the young woman there knows what I’m saying. You’ve not yet said what name I might use for her. I hear you both call her Detah; is that right? Same name as the new granary-mistress has for her sister.”
Megovis looked at Krisnavn. He had argued against them keeping the name. He had wanted Sitasha, his mother’s name, or Dehana, Glania’s mother. Either would have come easily to them both. But then, as Krisnavn had said, what if they slipped. Best to kept to her own name.
“I’m told the sister was named after me,” Detah said in perfect Hiëmen. “My father often dealt at Isle Ardy. And you know how fathers can be. Always bragging of the new child.”
“Aye, well, more so the old ones. Eh?” Tamesen gave Krisnavn a sly look.
Detah nodded, face grave. “It is true, he was old. Older than my horsemaster here.” She rested her hand on Krisnavn’s arm. He covered it with his own, leaning in close, looking like he might be nibbling her ear. Megovis looked away. They made too good an act of it.
Then finally, the wind and the deep-arse-currents turned to their favour. Now Megovis could believe it a magical isle. The sun hot on their faces, the rolling waves crashing—though with none of the violence they’d previously seen—the sea a sparkling blue, and transparent. Then the surf, softly singing as it swept across the white sand. Enchanting. Trees dotted the lush green plain, their fantastical shapes making them seem like they were fleeing the sea. He could see there were cattle grazing around them.
There was a frenzy as the seamen lowered the sail and instead used the oars. But the rhythmic creak of oars in the oarlocks was too soporific; Megovis felt his eyes close. Krisnavn kicked him. “You’re supposed to be watching.”
“Hmm,” he agreed, yet his head now felt thick from the lack of sleep. Still, he watched as the riverbank passed by them.
The magical isle of Liënershi truly exist. But what will they find there? An unprotected Head of Kerdol? Or a land bristling with spears? And will the supposed newly-weds carry the act? Or will someone let slip?