Liënershi, home of the Head of Kerdol, Queen of the Kerdolan—or so it is said. Now will Detah’s Alisime eyes spy out more than the Uestin eyes? Will she enable Krisnavn to lay his vital plan? Or is she now too distracted, wrapped in the warmth of his arms? . . . Read on
Detah tried yet again to imagine how it would be to be wed to Krisnavn. The trouble was until a moon and a quarter since she’d no expectation of wedding at all. True, she had thought of the young man as-was from Duneld’s Hold, but that would have been a fumble and a grunt beneath the eaves at the Feast, a dutiful opening of her belly to bring the returning dead into life. She tried to imagine how it would be to fumble and grunt with Krisnavn—but couldn’t. Though she had no trouble in imagining how it would be to sleep every night in his arms. She sighed. If anything could bring greater contentment she didn’t know what it might be. She thought of the nights at Isle Ardy when she had woken, through-and-through warm beneath the furs, the fire in the chamber still glowing embers. Now he had become both the furs and the embers. But to wed him, with the fumbling and grunting that entailed? Maybe if he kissed her. Kissed her a lot. Maybe then.
“There,” he said, having again trimmed her hair with the gold and gems. Tamesen had watched them.
As she turned her head she felt the beads moving. They made little noises. She turned her head back and forth, feeling them, hearing them. Though they weighted her head, yet something of them felt magical. She imagined this was how the Ulvregan felt, hung about with their hundreds of trinkets. But she wasn’t so happy with the necklace. It was heavy around the back of her neck and if she didn’t hold her head erect it would force her head forward. Moreover those beads were cold; she could feel them even through her shift and her shirt. And the pendant kept slipping inside the shirt’s front-opening, there to rest like a clammy corpse-hand between her breasts. It sent ripples and shivers and ghost-flesh around her. She again fished it out. Such a magical, wonderful gift, but would it offend Krisnavn if, some time in the future, she traded it for the eblan-herb? That thought brought her back to their purpose here. She wasn’t wearing these beads, pretending to be Krisnavn’s Hiëmen wife, just to see how it felt.
Boatmaster Tamesen had now brought the boat some distance inland, and still she’d seen no joining rivers, no wandering salt-fleets, no burbling rills. It seemed Tamesen was right, that Liënershi was drained by this single ‘Holds River’. And as to its magic, if magic flowed here it was black. Black bleak rushes and blighted water-grasses grew tight along the banks, and an occasional attenuated willow strangled by grey-tufted vines. She saw no dragonflies, no colourflies, just gnats, rising and swarming. Black swift-birds flitted amongst them. She’d seen no sloping banks, either, hard with gravel where a boat might be pulled. Her eyes strayed to the pastures spread with buttercups and thistles.
Then, though still at a distance, she saw what might be buildings though she couldn’t distinguish their edges. They didn’t even have what might be roofs. Closing upon them, they more resembled tall stone cairns, grass grown.
“No guards,” Megovis remarked.
They were near enough now to see that the buildings were made of stacked stone. The Eskin around Du Dlida and Blisa Go built like that, so she’d heard. She had tried to imagine how such houses would look. Like Lir’s Boat at His Indwelling? These did not. She saw now the reason for the lack of lines. Each was a cluster. Maybe at the heart the walls were vertically straight but those around it, building upon building upon building, were made as corbels, and all different heights.
As they drew level with the first of these buildings the river rapidly narrowed. Detah snapped her head round. It wasn’t only the buildings stone-made. Here even the riverbank was encased in stone.
“Where do they fetch so much stone?” she asked for she’d seen none growing naturally here. The low cliffs she’d seen to the east were of the same sandy gravel as those alongside South Alsime Common.
“Likely from Blisa Go,” Tamesen said when no one else answered.
Ahead, Detah could see a dark gash in the river’s stone-wall. Then as a cloud moved away and the light caught it she saw that gash hosted steps within, leading up. Now Tamesen’s men used their oars to pole the boat until alongside it. Detah wrinkled her nose and tried not to breathe for there was such a foul stink in the air and it was growing stronger the closer they came to that wall. Was it the seaweed, brown and green, that covered the wall where the tide rose and fell? Crimson crabs, no bigger than eyes, scurried amongst the slimy greenery. But no, it wasn’t that. Decay, she thought it. And something other.
“Those Kerdolan are using this river as lats,” said Megovis, disgusted.
“My men will go first,” Tamesen said. “Then they’ll give Mistress Detah a hand. Not so easy when you’re unused to it.”
He was right. Detah hesitated. How to transfer her foot from this unsteady boat to the solid stone step? And having stepped with one foot, there now was the other. And that climb was vertical. How did the Kerdolan women manage it wearing chemmies that reached to the ground? She was glad of the Ulvregan skirt and Uestin breeches. Tamesen’s crew did nothing to help except at the top when they steadied her by gripping her arms. She shook them off and moved away, musing that Krisnavn was wise not to use his Regiment for the Kerdolak attack. What good would they be if, with mouths still foul with their vomit, they must clamber up these slimy steps from unfamiliar boats that were bobbing. Would they be fit to fight? She thought not. Best, then, to use seamen.
By the time all were ashore she had wandered off. But it would be expected of a young woman in a strange land. Indeed, it would be counted odd if she didn’t stroll, looking around her, eyes everywhere. But her stroll wasn’t random. She was heading, though slowly, for that huge cluster of buildings. Though the wharf was lined with clusters, each with a low encircling wall, this was something different. Special, she thought it.
These others, even without Tamesen’s talk, she’d have known as the traders’ holds. Besides, each had a stall in front of his wall. How unlike the Ulvregan holds. But then the Ulvregan travelled to the feasts, to seek out the kings and the chiefs. They didn’t deal from their holds. And here was another difference. The Ulvregan traders, like those at the granaries, dealt in whatever they’d acquired. But not here. Here was a stall of weavings, another of pots—did the pots contain foods?—a stall of metals, another of furs. One she strolled past must have been dealing in perfumes. She lingered, grateful for a more pleasant smell. She then wandered back to find Krisnavn, her arm wrapping around his.
“You’ve been here before,” he was saying to Tamesen. “Tell me how it is done.” He absently patted her hand.
Tamesen shrugged at the question. “You go to whichever the traders offer whatever you want.”
“This is such a beautiful isle,” Detah said, her voice not at all hushed. “But, I can’t help but wonder how they get the cows over there. See?” She drew his attention to the cattle-grazed field just across the river. “Do you suppose there’s a ford farther upriver? Or would it be a bridge?” She turned to the nearest trader, a fat old man who was bald. “Do you know the answer?”
“You are right of the bridge,” he answered in near-perfect Hiëmen.
“Oh. So is it stone-built like everything here? I’m so unused to seeing this. We Hiëmen say stone is found only in the Otherworld. You know of our Coves of the Sun, our Nod-shrines and bone-stores?—but of course you do. Well they’re all built of stone. But here . . .” She looked around her, eyes forced wide as if in delight, focusing again on the huge cluster. “Mayhap I am in the Otherworld.” She managed a bubbly giggle.
The old trader nodded, a slight grin on his face. “It has been called so.”
“So is the bridge stone? But if stone, it cannot be wide.”
“My heart,” Krisnavn said, “do stop troubling the man. We’re here to find you some pretty weavings.” He snaked his arm lightly around her waist and guided her away.
“It’s wide,” the trader called after her. “Ten head of cattle can cross it together—to the Otherworld.” She could hear him chuckling.
“Only a snip but it could prove useful,” she said softly and close to Krisnavn’s ear while pretending to nuzzle. She noticed, not for the first time, his face suffused a ripe pink.
“Weavings,” he said. “Three stalls along.”
“Oh good.” More nuzzling. “But it’s still not close enough. That vast sprawling building, I’m sure that’s where she is.”
“The Ladies are with us,” Krisnavn said in-close to her ear. “That trader is busy with dealing. Are there more?”
“I think I saw one. See there? Almost upon that huge building—or is that a hill? If wrong, we can always return.”
Detah clapped when she found, to her delight, the last trader along Holds River (hawk-nosed, clean shaven) was indeed a dealer in weavings. Her eyes danced across the fold upon fold of colourful cloths while casting frequent glances at the building. And she’d no need to act. The weavings tempted her fingers as much as that building held her eyes.
By structure the building much resembled the traders’ holds, but not in its size—like Cloud Stone Isle set against Ardy’s lodge. Yet both it and the traders’ holds were enclosed by stone walls, waist height (a man could easily step it). She could see no gate. If such it had then it must be sited on the farther side. Yet how illogical when any arriving must come from the river. And what was its age? It looked incredibly old. A rowan tree had taken root upon a roof, honeysuckle and rose briars rambled around it. She was as sure as could be that this provided residence for the Head of Kerdol. Perhaps she dwelt at its centre—the queen bee in this, her hive-like building.
Detah waited while Krisnavn parted with five gold lock-rings, three ivory combs, a shallow bowl of creamy alabaster, and a child’s toy cart with oxen crafted from copper. In exchange for these he had, so far, stowed upon her a wisp of a weaving with no substance to it (it could have been spider’s spin though the trader said it was cotton), an embroidered length of bright floral colours threaded with gold (a perfect complement to her jewellery), another almost sheer weaving, this threaded with woven bands of gold, and one of thick wool for the winter, dyed deepest blue (which she’d thought at first would be rough, its fibres showing, but was soft as thistledown). And every deal had been sealed by their mutual spittle.
Now the hawk-nosed trader tried for one more deal—an intensely embroidered cloth held almost under her nose. Hmm, this seemed a good time. “I do like it,” she agreed though so clearly distracted. She smoothed her hand over it, her fingers delighting in the fine weaving.
“It comes from a far eastern land,” the trader told her, using now the Uestuädik speech though he’d started in Hiëmen.
“But my heart,” Krisnavn said, “you’ll upset the Dal Queen. You now have so many fine weavings.”
“Hmm,” she said, her eyes turning again to the brooding presence of stone. “But tell me,” she asked the trader, “I am so curious. Is that another trader’s hold?”
“No, bless the question.” How sweetly said after these many deals, each favouring him. “As if a trader would have such a need. No, that’s the Head of Kerdol’s dwelling.”
She opened her eyes wide, as in wonderment. “But how big is his family? How many wives has he? But he must be a goat to get so many children.” She tittered softly and half-hid her mouth behind her hand, eyes turned to her wealthy Uestin husband to seek approval of this Regiment-inspired joke.
“You are so funny, my heart.” He nibbled her neck and touched on a particularly sensitive spot. Her entire body quivered. She arched her back.
“Is it old? It looks old,” she asked the trader once she’d regained composure. She couldn’t help looking again at Krisnavn, now nothing to do with the Head’s dwelling.
“He is no goat.”
“Oh, have I offended?” she gasped.
“No. At least, not me. But he is a she. The Lady. As to her dwelling, it was built when we Kerdolan first came to Liënershi. Very long seasons ago. We say to count the wings to tell how old. A new wing is built at each one hundred winters.”
“It takes one hundred winters to gather the stones?” She stared at the building, not feigning at all her amazement. “But it’s like the swallows’ nests, with new nests lapping onto the old. But tell me now, the oldest part is no longer used?”
“Oh, all are used.” The hawk-nosed trader chuckled, perhaps amused that she’d likened the Head of Kerdol to a bird.
“But . . . has she really so many children? Then they must all be twins. Or has she sisters to dwell with her, or aunts, and all with their children?”
“You’re right that the Lady’s dwelling is full of her kin. They come from the granaries—girls and young women—for the last part of their training. And you know how many granaries we Kerdolan have. But the Lady also has her own daughter to dwell there.” He laughed. “Daughter and mother as old as each other, would you believe. There’s a grandson too, but he’s away sailing. I’ve never seen him.”
“All these women, with no man?” Detah drew back as if shocked at the thought. “Please don’t tell me they follow the Alisime way, getting their babies at the feasts. They say they’re brought by the geese, would you believe?”
“Those who ask questions, ought then to listen. I have said, those girls aren’t begotten but are given. They are sent here for training.”
Detah’s understanding had been slow to open. But she now couldn’t hide her frown. Every keeper of every granary throughout the lands held by the Kerdolan and their Eskin allies, all brought here for the last part of their training? That would be to receive their craft-box, always the last to be given.
“This Lady-Head, do you know, would she object if I sneaked a close look? Only I’m so fascinated with such a vast house. And all built in stone. We’ve nothing like it, and neither in the Dal where I’m bound. They say there is all wood.”
“Walk as close as you please, lady.” His tone had changed, grown bored now he realised he’d not have more deals. “But I’ll warn you. Set the geese squawking and you’ll soon find the guards on you.”
“Guards?” She looked beyond the stone hive, and along the wharf toward the sea. She craned her neck to see around the traders’ holds.
“No, lady, you won’t see them by looking. But believe me, they’re watching. They’re all around you.”
She spun round. There were traders. There were a few travellers who’d come to deal with them; there now were four boats tied at the wharf in front of Tamesen’s. And there also were flies, irritating, buzzing. She’d heard said of the Eskin, that their magicians took such a guise.
“Oh,” she sighed and strolled her fingers along Krisnavn’s arm. “Then I guess, my brave, we ought to be moving along.”
Is it true, their visit to Liënershi has drawn a blank? Merely the information that the Head of Kerdol lives in an ancient, vastly-clustered stone bee-hive, seemingly impossible to storm, with invisible guards all around. How disappointing—or is all not as it seems? But, regardless, must Detah now relinquish her horsemaster’s embrace? Likely that will please Megovis better.