Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn has outlined Glania’s task at Isle Ardy: to turn Granary Mistress Drea around so she’ll accept Krisnavn both as her king and her husband, no easy achievement. And there, of course, is Demekn . . . Read on
Demekn frowned. Odd, he could hear no women’s chatter though usually it greeted him as he entered the lodge. Had everyone eaten, all gone to their beds? These long summer days, he’d not realised how late. And now his belly grumbled in fear of no stew kept aside for him.
Then . . . a bump and a scuff: something being dragged; the sounds unmistakable muffled though they were by the wall. Now he understood why the ‘no talk’. They were too busy working. The women had finally gotten around to moving the rest of the trade wares. Brought from the abandoned granaries, they’d cluttered beneath the inner arcade awaiting a decision of where to store them. Demekn had tried to say—and been told to hush, he was only the eblan’s apprentice. Yet the answer was obvious and now they’d found it. They were stowing it all in the chamber left vacant by recent deaths. He ought to help yet they’d already said it was none of his business.
He made straight for his chamber—and halted, one foot through the door. He screwed his eyes tight to clear his vision while turning back to look again the centre-yard. He could have sworn he saw a woman sat on the bench by the heart-tree, garbed in Uestin gown and breeches.
Late of a sunless day, yet light enough remained at the centre. It muted the gold of the tree and made a cascade of the woman’s hair. Uncovered hair? If she wasn’t granary then she must be Uestin. A Uestin wife from an Ulvregan hold come to visit? He’d never known that to happen before. Still, strange times . . . But that didn’t excuse his ill-mannered sister to leave her sitting alone on the bench.
He continued into the chamber, deposited his musical bow by his bed before, a deep breath taken, he turned around. Versed in all things Uestin, he knew it his duty to put her at ease. He wasn’t Shunamn to hide and make excuses. Besides, he needed food which meant finding Haldalda. He hoped she wasn’t involved in this moving of baskets, pots and boxes.
The woman now had turned her face. He saw it in profile. That nose. The curve of her mouth. The tilt of her chin. Her neck . . . Yet he couldn’t remember that snug fit of her clothes. If that was her then she’d grown in some interesting places. It added immensely to her charms. Charms? He questioned the word. But no, ‘charms’ was correctly said. There was a catch to his breathing. The bitch, what was she doing here?
“Glania.” Her name bounced from his lips like he was pleased to see her. And his legs took one stride to cross to the heart-tree (or so it seemed). Then the words said so many times in his head spilled from him. “I am no tree.”
She said nothing, merely eyed him. He waited, heart thudding, ready to run.
“Indeed, so I see,” she finally said. “I see, too, you’ve changed since last we met.”
He felt his shoulders push back and cursed himself for it. He was no braggart. Yet he had grown in the seasons since the Judgement. Taller, broader, perhaps more muscled. A shame his beard still refused him, scraggy thing that it was.
“You no longer have a heron’s head.” She cocked a look at him.
“I . . . that . . . no, that wasn’t my doing.”
“So you’re not a snivelling coward who must hide from me?”
“No,” he objected despite he was trembling. He remembered how terrified he’d been when his father had said she was here. “I—” he started to explain.
“You were afraid I would kill you.”
He still was. But even Glania wouldn’t abuse hospitality. Instead she’d wait till she caught him outside Ardy’s walls.
“Trouble speaking?” she teased him. “Crows flown away with your tongue?”
She pushed up from the bench. He could see she was useless without a crutch. But he knew she’d snarl if he offered to help. She circled him, her eyes always on him: a predator, a wolf. Her staff clicked. Her foot scuffed.
After the first circuit his eyes followed her round. But he had to turn too, and in too tight a circle. He soon was dizzy. He stopped. “I was following another’s direction,” he said.
“Oh? Saram’s was it? Saram feared I would kill you? Or was it Sauën? Don’t you eblann claim her as wife? A hot little lover, I expect she’d want to keep you alive.”
“It was my father.” The words fell heavy as a boulder. “Neither was it fear that you’d kill me. He wanted no trouble. Clan Querkan, Clan Reumen.”
“But you aren’t a tree.”
“I am Alisime-born, to the granary-family.” And if that meant she’d now treat him with disdain, so be it. He was eblan and she to be a markiste: there could be nothing between them but memories.
Still circling she said, “What puzzles me is why you held quiet on it. You allowed us to assume.”
“Trees don’t mix with plants.”
“Querkan and Rosant are known to be friendly.”
“Clan Rosant isn’t a plant.”
“They aren’t noble neither. But this was your reason? Demekn, I’d have liked you better had you been truthful with me.” She sat again on the bench. He saw now how she squinched her eyes. He inwardly winced for her.
“What, you mean you’d have liked me better than you did?” he asked.
“Better than I did when I saw you standing beside Chief Krinik and his lore-man that day.”
That wasn’t the answer he’d wanted. But eblan now, he reminded himself; Mistress Sauën was his one true love. So why the fist in his chest stealing his breath?
A brittle silence hung between them. He paced, circling the bench and the heart-tree. He wanted to ask what she was doing at Isle Ardy. But it would be impolite to ask it outright, and too late to use the visiting formula. He tried various forms in his head. Another circuit, then he said, “I hadn’t expected to see you until summer-next.”
“And I’d expected to see you never again.”
He tried again. “So what brought you here?” In her present mood, he half-expected her to say a boat.
“I carried a gift from King Tanisven to my cousin.”
“No, I meant here, to Isle Ardy.” So now he had broken with etiquette, yet he had to know.
“I’m to lodge here.”
“Lodge?” He wasn’t sure he’d heard it right. He tried not to stammer.
“Will that cause you trouble?”
“It, um, depends.” His head felt foggy like he’d ingested a flywort; he felt just as queasy. He needed air . . . and wind and rain, a blizzard, and ice, enough to cool every part of him.
“Do you still want to kill me?” he asked her.
She didn’t answer at once. He knew her ploy: to torment him, to purposely hold back to make him squirm. Meanwhile she eyed him like he were a horse she considered acquiring. Oddly, her intent didn’t work. Instead he found himself wanting to hold her, to kiss her, to find somewhere secluded to—
“Commander Krisnavn forbids it,” she said.
“Then I must thank him.”
“So it won’t cause you trouble, my being here?”
“No.” No trouble—except, where was she to sleep? In the guest chamber, the one next to his? But even if given the farthest chamber still she would hear if he snored, though he swore that he didn’t. But worse, what if she took Shunamn’s nocturnal grunts and farts for his own? Then for her to see him piss-proud on first rising. Ay-yi-yi! How she might mistake that, though she had shared the barracks with men and must know. And she’d be there before his eyes every day with her little rump swaying, her swelling breasts bouncing and . . . He sweated just at the thought. But no, her presence here would be no trouble to him. No, no trouble at all.
He turned at a sound behind him, the whumping fall of a heavy door-hanging. There was Old Apsan. What a relief to see her! He desperately needed someone, anyone, to interrupt this meeting. She carried a basket, it seemed to be heavy. Yet odd that she took it from the chamber when everything else was being piled in. Still, she struggled with it so he hastened to help her.
“What is it?” he asked her.
She removed the lid. A golden spike poked out from a nest of wood shavings. Intrigued, he worked his fingers into the packing to feel around what seemed to be a large wooden egg. Fingers beneath it, and wood shavings spilling, he pulled it out. Not an egg but an acorn. He left its cup in the basket, and left the basket with Old Apsan.
“We think it was a gift from those Saramequai who visited,” Old Apsan said. “Mistress Drea said to ask Glania if she knows of it.”
As he returned to Glania he turned it every which-way to examine it. There was something inside it; he could feel it moving. Heavy, first this way, now that. Yet he could find no join to the polished wood. He shook it.
“No!” Glania leapt to her feet. But he ignored her.
“What is it?”
“A charm. Please don’t shake it.”
Since it seemed to distress her, he shook it the harder.
“Demekn,” and now she pleaded, “you’ll wake it.”
He laughed. “Wake what?” Again, he shook it.
“The spirit trapped in it.”
He stopped the shaking. Now what to do with it? But he liked the feel of it. The wood was warm, like flesh beneath his fingers. He smoothed his palms across it. Memories rose as if through his fingers, of evenings he’d spent with Glania. He caressed it, not able to stop. He found himself wanting to kiss it, this acorn of wood. He looked at Glania. He smiled. He offered it to her. She held up her hands, refusing. But he pressed it against her palms. Now it was held between them. He gazed into her eyes—such a pretty light brown—and peripherally saw her tongue touched her lips, there slowly to lick.
“Don’t you know? It’s a love charm,” she said, her poise quickly recovered.
An eblan, versed in Uestin lore; he ought not to shrug. Perhaps he’d not woken it.
He soon discovered that Glania had changed. This wasn’t the one he had known in the Dal. Dumbfounded, he watched as she helped with the chores—without complaint! Not just with the weaving or spinning where she could sit, rest her leg, but with the daily fetch and carry. He even found her kneeling in Old Apsan’s garden, stretching over the herbs and roots to tease out the weeds. And Old Apsan allowed it! As her leg strengthened, she cast aside the crutch, though her gait was uneven without it. Yet that leg now had such strength she was able to join with Haldalda and her daughters when they left the isle to gather berries and shoots. But even more surprising was to find Glania and Drea heads together and whispering. Did they speak of him with their giggles and glances? That he found frightening. When time came for the grain-harvest Demekn watched with interest. Not only would this test her leg but also her commitment to her host’s family. Yet she plunged in, working alongside the women with the sun roasting her back. Of course, she wasn’t allowed to help in the granary once the grain was in. She wasn’t a grain-woman. Yet, as he noted wryly, Drea allowed her to help with the thresh-and-winnow.
And daily Demekn regretted having shaken that charm. Now he must withdraw from his family’s company, not trusting himself to be close to Glania. He knew what would happen. He would try to touch her, to hold her, to kiss her. And as he’d several times found, to resist was an agony. Even to stay away was a misery. Yet it must be endured. He was eblan, she to be a markiste. He headed out each day to Bisaplan’s Isle and there sat within the oak-cave. Yet time and again his thoughts slipped from his eblan-mistress, and back to Glania.
He waited in his chamber until Glania left on whatever her task. With the grain-women busy, Haldalda now had command of her. Go fetch the water, go wash the linens, go . . . He didn’t care where she’d gone as long as it was out of his way. Then, bow in hand, he again set out for Bisaplan’s Isle. But he’d not yet reached the gate when he heard the horses.
He called up to Ublamn at his usual wall-top station, “Who is it? Are they coming here?”
“Aye,” Ublamn answered him. “Your commandering king-man and his captains now coming up from Ardy’s boards. But I see your sister too—she’s riding in from the north. Ought to arrive at our gate, slam, together. Though your Eblan Head Man, he’ll likely take a while longer, restfully drifting as he is from the Wetlands. Looks like a meeting. You want that I alert our granary-mistress?”
Another meeting? Doubtless Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn will want a progress report from Glania. But what else might be on the agenda? Is it yet time to launch the Kerdolan Campaign?