Erspn was chuckling as he entered the isle. A fair eblan-woman walked alongside him. His heart galloped like the hooves of Detah’s red horse. He knew now why the eblann of old had named her the sun’s own daughter. Just look at her glow! Like she’d ten lighted lamps within her. If his apprentice Detah had not received proof that this fair eblan was a living, warm-blooded woman, he’d have thought her a spirit. Now look at them watching her, and him as he walked along with her. In his mind he gleefully rubbed his hands, amused. Little did they know he’d only then met her as he left his riverboat at Ardy’s boards.
“Mistress Hegrea.” Commander Krisnavn bowed low to her.
Erspn frowned, but he’d not yet introduced them. He supposed the commander had had that ‘Mistress’ off Detah. Granary-born and granary-raised, she would insist on that erroneous title despite every story made it plain: Hegrea was eblan before ever she was mistress. Still, it was good to see those others there wide-eyed and puzzled—especially Shunamn.
“Please, Krisn, I’ve already said not to bow to me.”
Already: That caused Erspn to stare. And Krisn: such familiarity. He turned away—only to see Detah’s face. Oh, the dismay, his apprentice couldn’t hide it; the disbelief, the surprise. So, she’d not known her horsemaster commander had already met with Eblan Hegrea, and that they were on such close friendly terms? Hmm.
“Granary Mistress Drea, my apologies for attending this meeting uninvited,” Eblan Hegrea offered. “Both your sister and Krisnavn urged me, separately, to it. But I do promise I’ll not interfere in granary matters.”
“A meeting?” By Mistress Drea’s hesitant voice it seemed this had been suddenly thrust on her. “But we’re not prepared.”
“I’ll fetch cushions,” Demekn said, already hastening towards the lodge. “I’ll ask Haldalda to prepare us a brew.”
“No, I’ll go,” the returned Markon Glania said and was onto her feet.
Erspn watched as they bumped into each other, both trying to be the first through the door. They held together for far too long, as if bound. Erspn doubted the others had noticed, all too busy agog at Eblan Hegrea. Shunamn was worst, when he should have been watching his eblan-apprentice with that Markon Glania buzzing around him.
Haldalda’s daughters brought out the cushions. Mistress Drea fussed to have them set just so in a circle around the hearth, and that offset to east of the Meeting Tree. Shunamn set a new fire. They waited. The brew seemed long in coming. Erspn’s eyes hardly strayed from the lodge-door. Commander Krisnavn glanced several times there.
“How is Glania settling?” he asked Mistress Drea after a tight silence.
“She’s proving herself valuable. It was . . . thoughtful of you to place her here.”
These were unexpected words. Erspn looked at Mistress Drea. That day Detah brought him that news that Markon Glania was to lodge there his concern had been all for Demekn. Thereafter, busy at Cloud Stone Isle, and with no dire reports, he’d thought no more of it, supposing things were humming along uninterrupted. Only now did he realise how unlikely that was. Yet by Mistress Drea’s own words, that clearly was so. But what had happened in his absence to effect such a change?
“I did notice her skin,” observed Commander Krisnavn. “Usually with the sun it roasts to red. Yet here it looks . . . I might say honeyed.”
“It’s a herb we use,” Mistress Drea said.
“She’s filled out, too,” Commander Krisnavn remarked. “She was painfully lean when she arrived at the King’s House.”
Mistress Drea laughed, so strange a sound from her. Erspn, still door-watching, flicked a look back to her. “Your cousin does like to eat,” she said.
“She’ll be too heavy come summer-next to mount her horse.”
“She is happy to walk.”
“That’s good. It strengthens her leg.”
“Commander Krisnavn,” Mistress Drea said suddenly. “I know we Alsime will not speak without first the brew but, just this once, might you just tell me, do you bring ill news with this a visit?”
Commander Krisnavn smiled. But before he could answer the brew arrived.
Erspn jumped up, ostensibly to help Haldalda, the bowl in her hands heavy and steaming. He took it from her. “Where are they?” he whispered urgently, a glance back at the door. “They’re coming, shortly,” she answered equally quietly. “Nothing to fuss on.” He carried the bowl the no-short distance back to the Meeting Tree. He heard the door slam but bowl-encumbered he couldn’t glance back. It wasn’t until he was seated again that he could easily look. Demekn’s face flared fierce as a thorn-fed fire while the Uestin-dressed markon tripped hard on his heels. Still, the one good thing of it was that neither party looked pleased.
“You haven’t yet killed him?” Commander Krisnavn asked with a smile that threatened to grin.
But again, Erspn’s attention was drawn back to the brew. Detah was supposed to serve it and yet she hesitated. Erspn could see her dilemma. Who now took precedence? Commander Krisnavn, or Eblan Hegrea? But he couldn’t advise her, confused of it too. No mind, it seemed that Detah had solved it. Eblan and Mistress, she must be first. Or had she decided—and here Erspn tried not to chuckle—that Eblan Hegrea held the precedence of age?
Though the bowl now was passing around, yet Mistress Drea still was impatient. She waited only for Eblan Hegrea, Commander Krisnavn and herself to sip from it, then motioned to the commander to say on, not even waiting for Erspn’s own turn.
“Mistress Drea, my apologies,” Commander Krisnavn began. “I ought to have advised you of this meeting but . . . I am here only to say of my plans. And I wanted to surprise our Glania.”
Mistress Drea ignored this last: they’d already spoken of her. Instead she snatched at his plans. “Your attack on Liënershi?”
“I’ll keep it brief.”
“Please do. At this season, after the harvest, we have much to do.”
“We are not to attack Liënershi. Yet.”
Mistress Drea groaned. “Yet another change to your plans? I do wonder . . .”
“But as I explained, that plan wasn’t yet made. No, first we’ll attack the Kerdolan’s trading holds.”
“But you said Liënershi . . .”
“That will come, Mistress Drea. But first we will weaken them. By circling round we can hit six of their eleven trading holds. There’ll be no killing, we’ll have no time to stop. The intent is only to maim.”
As Commander Krisnavn unfolded more of the plan, Erspn couldn’t help but approve it. With the attacks coming late in the day, by the time the confusion cleared it would be too late for the Kerdolan to set sail for Liënershi. Then when they did set out, in the morning, the Alisime-Querkan fleet would be far away. Thus no risk to Alsime lives. Aye, he approved it.
“We’ll be back at South Rivergate while the Head of Kerdol still is receiving reports. But though I say ‘we’, I shan’t be present on this first campaign.”
“Not on this first? Say how many campaigns do you plan?” Mistress Drea asked with a return of her archness.
“Three. The second is our attack on Liënershi. For that I must be there—to disable the Head.”
“But we agreed you should kill her, not merely disable,” Mistress Drea complained.
“We agreed that I would if need be.”
“There will be no killing,” Eblan Hegrea said flatly. “The Head of Kerdol is an Immortal. You kill her, she’ll be born again. Though it hasn’t yet happened with her, I’ve known it to happen with other Asars. I’ll not hide my feelings. I’d like to smash that woman’s head into the ground and jump on it ten thousand times. But she cannot be killed.”
While this was all news to Erspn, it seemed Eblan Hegrea had already informed Commander Krisnavn of it. Unperturbed, he answered, “And so we must weaken her, and so severely she then must capitulate. I’ll have her surrender her strength and her lands to me.”
Mistress Drea leapt to her feet. “Commander Krisnavn!” Her hands gripped her hips but that didn’t satisfy. She wildly gesticulated while the force of her words tore through her. “Is our Alisalm-land not enough for you? You’ve rapidly become one of your own Uestin demons. Must we set the eblann—”
“Please, sit,” Commander Krisnavn said calmly but firmly.
Erspn’s shoulders slumped. So much for her recent composure. He saw the captains Biadret and Megovis step forward, hands to their blades. He saw Commander Krisnavn sign them back again.
“Sit. Please,” Erspn said. “Is it our concern what he does any where else? Eh? As long as it isn’t done here.”
“But, Eblan Head Man Erspn, I must gainsay you,” the commander said. “This does concern you.”
Erspn groaned. That, just as Mistress Drea had started to sit. So up she goes again, hands again on her hips, head thrust out.
“Please do sit, Mistress Drea,” Commander Krisnavn urged her, apparently, miraculously, holding his patience. “You misunderstand. This concerns less the granaries, more the Ulvregan traders. I won’t be taking the Eskin lands, only the Kerdolak trading holds. And that only to disable them enough that they can’t use them. It’s the only means I can find to defeat the Kerdolan thoroughly.”
“Mistress Drea,” Eblan Hegrea said. “Please listen to me. Leave one small hole in the granary wall and the mice are in and thieving. Leave one leg of the shelves not greased, and the bugs are up and crawling. Leave one pot unwashed, and the grain is spoilt. I did not set those rules to keep your grain-women ever-working. And it’s the same with the Kerdolan: thieving mice and crawling bugs. When I was a child their Kerdolak fingers reached only into the Eskin lands. Now a thousand winters-gone, they’re everywhere. Throughout the Eskin lands, amongst the Jinnigrits. Even, now, amongst the most northern Feg Folk. So to be rid of them they now must be utterly destroyed. Yet that is beyond Clan Querkan’s ability—they have not the numbers. All we can do is to cut off their fingers so they can no longer hold.”
Erspn hadn’t intended it, but he found himself watching young Detah. Her face revealed much, especially her eyes. Back and forth. But not from Eblan Hegrea to Mistress Drea, as Erspn had first looked. No, from Eblan Hegrea to Commander Krisnavn. Erspn noticed young Detah’s frown deepening, and felt his own face take the same dark turn. He felt for her. No longer of use, the commander had cast her aside, discarded in favour of Eblan Hegrea. With all that had happened these past few moons, her young heart must be torn and all awry.
“Mistress Drea, understand this,” Commander Krisnavn said. “It’s not that I want to possess these Kerdolak holds. It’s that I must take them. And Liënershi, too, once the Head has surrendered. Then I shall consider what to do with them.”
“You might consider this also,” Mistress Drea returned. “Once you’ve defeated the Kerdolan we Alsime shall have no further use of you. What then will you do?”
No! Erspn pressed his lips against the plaintive groan though he’d rather bury his head in a very deep hole. She couldn’t be thinking, not for one snip of a moment, that they could possibly ever resist the man? Foolish woman! Ay-yi-yi! Must he round up the bulls? One for the Father, one for the Mother, one the Ancestors, the Ancients, and not forgetting one for his own Eblan Mistress. Sweetened on bulls’ blood, if he earnestly pleaded, would these spirits and divines then kick some sense into Mistress Drea’s rebellious head? Elsewise he must hit her.
Commander Krisnavn seemed oblivious to her implied intent. He went on, “The Head defeated, Liënershi surrendered, I then shall return here to you. And we shall talk.”
“Of kings,” she said.
“Of kings,” he confirmed as if he’d not noticed her harsh tone and unforgiving stare. “But for now I ask only your permission to proceed.”
She didn’t answer. She looked away.
“Mistress Drea,” Erspn prompted.
She turned, her face fierce. Yet her voice remained level, as calm as Commander Krisnavn’s. “How many times must I say it? Would you have my voice so hoarse that I lose it? Aye, Commander Krisnavn, do as you must.”
“One more thing I must ask,” he said.
Mistress Drea up-tilted her chin.
“I want Eblan Detah beside me when our Alisime seamen set out.”
Now it was Erspn’s turn to jump. He stood. “I have said before, that’s not for Mistress Drea to say.” He said it sharply, the request having surprised him. Surprised Detah too: he’d seen her eyes widen. “Before I agree to this, I would know why you want her.”
“Because she is my inspiration. You know without her there would be no Kerdolan campaign. Indeed, she has obtained the copper for us and even the smith to work it. So, I will have her beside me. Let the Alsime see her. Alsime, Ulvregan, Saramequai. She has become . . .”
Erspn could see the commander was seeking around for the word. He could see, too, how Detah frowned like she was thoroughly fuddled.
“They’ll sing of her, as they do of my Murdan,” Eblan Hegrea said into the silence.
Detah stared at her. Eblan Hegrea nodded, “But it is so,” she said quietly.
No, Detah wouldn’t have it. She shook her head, denying. She lowered her eyes, she looked away.
“Well, it seems you’ve a song to craft for your sister,” Erspn turned to Demekn with a degree of sarcasm before turning back to Commander Krisnavn. “I know these are exceptional times. Yet I fear for my apprentice, too much away. There are worlds other than this for her to explore, worlds which you with your praises, knowingly or not, work to turn her from. And yet, aye, I am now committed to this Kerdolan campaign. So, aye, you shall have her—for this one day of the Alisime departure.”
“That, and until their triumphant return. Please,” Commander Krisnavn held up a hand before Erspn could splutter objection. “I understand your concern, Eblan Erspn. And once the campaign is done she’ll be yours again. But while the Alisime bands are away I intend to inspect the Saramequai at their stations. Their hearts will be lifted at sight of our Detah. She is to them Alisalm. She is their Alsalda.”
Alsalda? No doubt, he’d had that name off Eblan Hegrea. It was an ancient story though few but the eblann now knew it. Alsalda, River Woman. Spirit of Bear Hill, and of the tumun hidden there.
“Hear that, Demekn?” Erspn tried to joke of it but was nigh choked with concern for his young apprentice. “So there’s the start to your song. But I wonder, Commander Krisnavn, do you raise her up for her to fall?”
Eblan Hegrea laid a hand, blood-warmed, upon Erspn’s arm. He felt himself quiver. “Your concern is noted, Eblan Head Man Erspn. And if not Krisnavn, then please trust me.”
“Please, Eblan Erspn, let go your worries,” Commander Krisnavn said. “I’ve no plan to take her to Liënershi with me. I would not place her in danger. No, our Alsalda is precious to me.”
Erspn looked at her, and looked at him. Precious? He wasn’t the only one to notice and maybe not like it. He saw Captain Horsemaster Megovis take a halting step forward. Then stop.
Oh the pains of young Detah. What began with Krisnavn as the conflicting attraction of opposites now has become, with the addition of Mistress Hegrea, an entangled triangle. Or is it a quaternary, factoring in the involvement of Eblan Erspn? Is she to be split between the three? But what of herself?
Then again there is that other couple, Demekn and Glania, habitually sparking off each other. Interesting days lay ahead.