Again, Detah sits high on Belgantros to farewell the Alisime fleet. Only now it’s Megovis beside her—for Krisnavn rides in the lead boat, his destination Liënershi, his target the immortal Head of Kerdol . . . Read on
It seemed all a repeat and yet not a repeat. Again the seamen loosed the moorings. Again the black-skinned boats glided into the river’s strong flow. But this time, prepared, Detah held aloft her eblan-rod. If Eblan Erspn knew what she did he would shred her, such an abuse of the Ancestors’ voice. Yet it seemed to her the right thing to do. Then Krisnavn started the chant. Alsalda! Alsalda! Alsalda!
“He’ll be fine, he’ll return,” Megovis said when she let her head drop with the boats now away.
“Where did he find that name of Alsalda?” she asked.
“You don’t like it.” He didn’t ask; he seemed to know. “As far as I know it was the Alsime started it. River Woman, they said, that’s you.”
“So it wasn’t Mistress Hegrea?”
“I’m not party to what passes between them,” he said. “I just know the first mention I heard was with the seamen.”
“Has no one told you the story?” She turned away from him, to return to the barracks.
“Another of your Alisime ‘long tales’?” he called after her.
She ignored him. Behind her she heard him curse. Then rapidly he was catching up with her.
“I didn’t mean . . .” he stumbled on words. “No, Buttercup, I’d like to hear your story. Only, well, I’m supposed to inspect the bounds—Mandatn’s Hold to Erleldn’s Hold, in the commander’s absence. So . . . can you keep it short, eh?”
She looked at him. Was that an apology? She supposed it was. So she told him the story but kept it short.
It happened a long time ago, before the Ancients. Then Spirit Bear had twin cubs, Alsalda and Ulmelden she called them: River Woman and Earth Man. As cubs the twins played, always together, always inseparable. But the young don’t remain young forever and they grew to be proper-bears. Yet despite the summers now spent apart, every winter-half they again came together to snuggle under the leaves of their mother’s old den and sleep the winter through atop Bear Hill. And so it was and seemed always it would be. Until one summer’s end.
Alsalda waited, and waited. But there was no sign of Ulmelden. The days grew shorter, the nights grew longer and still Ulmelden didn’t return. Where was he? Winter crisped the fallen leaves now thickly spread on the woodland floor. That was the first year Alsalda slept alone.
“When spring again woke her, she stretched and she yawned . . . then something struck her, something was wrong. Something . . . missing, but Alsalda didn’t know what. See,” Detah explained her story, “what she was seeking belonged to the far side of her long winter sleep.”
“No happy ending, then?” Megovis asked. “She didn’t find . . . ?”
Detah shook her head. “The story stops there. According to the eblann, Alsalda still waits atop Bear Hill. Hoping, though she doesn’t know what for.”
“That’s . . . yea,” he said. The catch in his voice sounded almost a sigh. “So guess you would object to the name. And now you’re fearing the name foretells your own fate? To always wait, not knowing what for? Though I’m sure that’ll not be so, yet I will tell Krisn when he returns not to allow them to call you that.”
“No!” she cried in alarm. “Please, Megovis, don’t say anything to him. He’ll likely try to find me a man so I won’t be alone. But I’m eblan, I’m supposed to be alone—an eblan’s lover is Sauën.”
“Yea? Then how come Arith Dragon-Slayer left the Dals to wed your Mistress Hegrea?”
“Because Mistress Hegrea is different,” she said with perhaps more force than intended. “I’m sure she did many things she oughtn’t have—as an eblan. But she was inspired, it was allowed—or at least, ignored.”
“Uath’s bones, Detah, keep talking; I can hear that you’re trying to be happy. But I can hear that you’re not. And we can’t have that. No, while the commander’s away, what say you we do something to brighten you, eh?”
She tried to smile—he meant well—but it didn’t quite happen. “I’m to return to Sapapsan’s Isle for the Send-Off Feast,” she said. “But that’s not for another four days. I thought I’d use those days to look for a place to set the King’s Hold.”
“Did you now? Does he know?”
She shook her head.
“So let’s say I accompany you?”
“But you’ve just said you have duties.”
“My duties will wait. I can perform them while you’re at Sapapsan’s.”
Detah pulled back on the reins though they weren’t yet at the barracks gate. She squinted at Megovis against the sky’s glare. He wasn’t as inscrutable as Krisnavn could be, yet . . . “Why would you do that?”
“Let’s say, because I know what a king needs. And he said to keep an eye on you. Besides, I don’t like to see you so down and troubled.”
“No, of course.” Now it all made sense. “It wouldn’t do for the Alsime to see me less than happy. They might start to question this would-be king. Megovis, I know what he’s doing. Though he’d rather have my sister’s praises and approval, she being the Mistress of the Granaries, failing that he’ll have the Eblan Head Man’s apprentice to wave his banner for him. He’s making use of me, Megovis. What cares he for me, only what the Alsime might see.”
She glared at him—and dug her heels into Belgantros calling on the watchman to open the gate.
“No, wait!” he called after her.
Eyes stinging, suddenly fuming, she was straight to the tent that served as her quarters. Belgantros obediently waited where she dismounted. She gathered her things: the feather-filled bedroll she’d brought with her, her travel-cloak, and the hare-skin bag that Drea had given her. It held the cloths needed, for Master Nod’s Hand again had touched her. She went to leave. But now Megovis stood between her and Belgantros.
“Wait. Listen. I wasn’t laughing at you. It was at him.”
“Your close friend and commander?” she sneered.
He glanced around. What, so now he was looking to see who was near? Fortunate, then, that the barracks nigh was deserted.
“Listen,” he said—and what choice had she when he blocked her way. “We were born to the same village, Krisn and I, though not the same clan. We spent our child-days in chasing and tumbling—just like your bear cubs. We were always together, and though his family provided the king it made no difference. (Beats me how a Dal king ever begets a son; he’s seldom with his family.) When we grew, we became markons together, then we both became markistes. By then his brother was king. And, yea, that did make a difference. Tanisven and Krisn are close, very close. But I’m not saying of that.”
He paused. The pause lengthened. Not knowing his purpose, she waited. When he didn’t go on she cocked her head. Yet she could see he was thinking, probably weighing the wisdom of what he was saying. Then, decision apparently made, he continued.
“In the Dal there was talk of us. You know, when we were younger, before being markistes, Krisn . . . well, he never . . . ‘dallied’—you know, with women. So neither did I. Oh, I wanted, the fire was there. But it felt a betrayal of him—I don’t expect you to understand, you’re a girl—but how could I do that when he did not? It was like I’d be leaving him out, on his own. Then we came here, and here was you. Detah, truly, I’d never seen Krisn like that. Falling over his feet to put you at ease, to ensure your comfort, to make you happy. At first I thought it because of your father—he was making amends. Yet it continued beyond that. But now there’s a thing he must do before he is king—don’t ask, I can’t tell, I’m sworn. But my guess is he’s easing you away. Away from here—” he laid his hand on his chest, on his heart “–so it’ll not hurt so much, later.”
“Hmpf,” she said, tears now very near. “Hurt me? Or hurt him?”
“Detah, please don’t start sobbing. I’m useless with sobbing.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not my sister.” She would have laughed at that but felt too brittle. “And I think you’ve seen it all wrong. He’s using me, Megovis. But that’s fine. For Mistress Hegrea says the Ladies are using him too. Something to do with my destiny.”
Detah preferred to think of the King’s Hold than of the approaching rites of the Send-Off Feast. Thoughts of those rites turned turmoil inside her because of her father.
Fine for Demekn to believe he’d gone to Beli in Uath’s Land as soon as dead. But the more Detah thought of it the less that seemed likely. Why would he want to be forever dead when, by eating the Mother’s Bread (as given at every Send-Off Feast) he had already committed his spirit to Nod, to be returned to the living come next winter’s end? No, come this feast of Send-Off Nod’s Daughter would gather her father’s spirit, along with the other Alsime and Ulvregan dead, and deliver him to the Land of Nod.
Then she truly would be Alsalda; not even her father’s spirit to hold her. For though in the spring he would return he would then be a baby. She wouldn’t know him from any other. She swallowed a lump before it could choke her. Too late now to mourn him.
“Where are you taking me?” Megovis asked. They had reached the ford at Ardy’s boards. “Please don’t say, to your Land of the Dead.”
“No,” she answered though distractedly.
“But you won’t say where?”
“I’ll tell you the trail of my thoughts,” she said. Perhaps in chatting of this she’d have less time to think. “If Krisnavn were king in Dal Uest he’d have a King’s House in every village. But here in Alisalm—”
“There are no villages.”
“No. The closest we have to a Dal village is a family-land. But while your Dal-kings have one hundred and fifty King’s Houses, here he would have seven short of five hundred. And I do not see as a king needs so many.”
“Hold there, Detah, you don’t have to convince me. And Krisn’s already said he’ll have only the one king’s residence.”
“Aye, but . . .” she needed to keep talking. “Even if the Alsime agreed it—which never they would—with a King’s House on every family-land he’d only be able to visit each house for the one day in every three summers.”
“And you’ve worked all that out in your head?”
She glanced at him as he rode beside her, like a big bear on a bristle-maned Regiment horse. And rather she’d see him than, just beyond him, the granary’s burial barrow, huge with its many past masters.
“Did the lore-men not teach you numbers?” she asked.
“Not to use them as you do. I’ve never known the like. And I’d still like an idea of where we’re going.”
She ignored that he’d teased her (for once, she welcomed it). “West Highland. Far side of Linden Stream.”
“Through the worst of the back-bounds?”
“They’ve been cleared and you know it,” she laughed. (She laughed! Silently she thanked Megovis.) “Now may I say? So, everything has a centre.”
“Ah. And you’re thinking of the centre of Alisalm-Land?”
“Aye. And no. For the centre won’t do.”
“The Meet?” he asked.
“No. There.” She looked over to the raised bank of the Old Isle of the Dead and the partly obscured remnants of Murdan’s Stones, and the granary’s Cove of the Sun.
Megovis laughed. “I can imagine there’d be an Alisime uprising if we tried to build the King’s Hold there.”
“Alsime, eblann, Ulvregan, granary. Nor can we place his Hold any place here. The Highlands are ringed with family-holds and the centre taken by the Land of the Dead.”
“Not to say of it being dry,” remarked Megovis. “No rivers, I’ve noticed.”
“Aye, and we have no stories for that. Though it does explain why the Ancestors used it for treating their dead. The land is dead, no grain will grow here. So we agree, it’s no fit place for the King’s Hold? But where I’ve in mind there are rivers aplenty. First requirement; how else for the Alsime to reach him.”
“By road?” he suggested.
“Have you not learned that of us yet?” Though she guessed he again was teasing. “But, that’s the second requirement—”
“Third,” he corrected her. “You said for the first to be central.”
“Then the third is to be served by horse-worthy tracks so the Ulvregan and Clan Querkan can easily reach their king.”
“Horse-worthy? I like that,” he said. “But cart-able is better.”
She slipped off Belgantros to slide open the gate to the Freeland Walk. Once through she turned south.
“Hoi, no,” he called (he’d halted his horse.) “We can’t have the King’s Hold next to Luktosn’s.”
“Aye, and you think I’d even suggest it?” Not when Luktosn’s had little tolerance for all things Uestin—not to mention their ancient alliance with Clan Reumen. “No, that’s not where we’re going.”
“So we’re going far down this track? If so I’ll race you. Freeland Walk is too good for ambling.”
“Done! Race you to the Ulmkem Freeland. That stops at the marshland.”
“So we are going to Luktosn’s Hold?”
“No,” She found herself grinning. Was it only the thought of the race? “No, there’s a bound-track runs west of the Freeland. It’ll take us down to a fording place on Linden River.”
“So race you there.” And he was off, giving her no time to say more though she had wanted to say of the tracks that crossed West Highland, that they came in from every-which-way to that one fording place. Good tracks—cart-able. That’s what made the southernmost tip of West Highlands the best place to set King’s Hold.
Megovis sat astride Truth Studder beside the high fence that enclosed the woodland, and pondered of whether to enumerate the problems. Yet she was no fool, she must be able to see them too. For a start those trees would need to be cleared for a fair distance around. True, some would be used in building the hold. But Krisnavn intended an Ulvregan-styled roundhouse (he had already spoken to Trader Maryns at Bukplugn’s Hold regarding the design and the men to build it ) and though they’d use timbers for the roof and the wall supports, the bulk would be thatch and wattle. He supposed there’d be a perimeter palisade, as with the other holds. That would use more. Yet it wouldn’t account for above half the timbers they’d need clear from the site. And it would need clearing, for security.
“It’s a Freeland,” he remarked having learned how to identify them. The solid high fence, the stiles. “So which society?”
Detah looked down as she answered, he thought shyly. “Eblan.”
He grunted. That wasn’t so bad. “You can gift it?”
“Not me. But our Eblan Head Man can.” And she, of course, was his apprentice.
“It’ll need a wharf,” he said.
He looked back along the track. From here an out-jut of land partly hid the ford. Against that, in its favour he could see that the truvidiren would approve it—who would NOT include Truvidir Yandros. Krisn wouldn’t even speak of the man, refusing even to say why he’d turned so fully against him. He’d been edgy of Yandros since that day he’d realised his mother’s involvement with the massacre. But something more had happened since, and Megovis didn’t know what. He guessed it was something Eblan-Mistress Hegrea had told him. She’d been a frequent visitor of late, and she had ancient knowledge of the Dals. Eblann. Megovis shivered.
But the truvidiren would approve the site. The Land of the Dead set to the north as it ought be, the anciently hallowed Bear Hill beyond it. Then His Indwelling, place of First Creation with its Cloud Stone Isle (which he now had visited and preferred not to again) where the Mother and Saram first were united. And all set in a straight line. A perfect fit with their arcane stories. Shame of the problems.
“I can’t say, Detah. Not without seeing how the land rises–and I know it does. The Linden valley: I remember a steep climb out of it.”
“You want to trespass?”
“Not if it means I’ll be gelded, no. Might as yet have a use for those bits.”
“Ah, but aren’t you forgetting? You’re with me, and I’m eblan.” The wicked bitch, she’d been teasing him, but he laughed.
“There’s a gate,” she said, “but none’s to know of it. Though we need to back-track to the next west-track.” —which had to be the only bound-track in all Alisalm-land that hadn’t been cleared.
Leaves crackled beneath the hooves. And most of the way Megovis had to flatten himself along Truth Studder’s back to avoid overhanging branches. Moreover the track seemed never to end. But while along it he took note of how the land was rising—always allowing that here mightn’t be the same as just three paces away. For all he knew there could be a sheer drop within an arm’s length.
“We’ll need to take the horses with us,” Detah said as she slid aside the gate. (He’d not noticed it.) “Just far enough in to hide them.”
He dismounted too: impossible to ride beneath the trees. “You’ve been here before.” He didn’t intend it as accusation.
“You think being an apprentice takes all my days? I’ve been everywhere, thanks to Belgantros. I’ve even ventured into Lenevan-Bayland. I don’t know what I expected, but it looked no different to the land around East Bounds. They even have our Earthen Boats, just the same.”
“But I thought the Lenevan kin to Lugisse and Kin Mhuiris.”
“So they may be, yet they and their land look no different to ours. Mind here. There’s a pit. Likely an eblan communing with Nod’s netherland spirits. And when I came here before there were snakes around here. But summer’s descending so they ought to be sluggish or sleeping. There.” She stopped walking.
Ahead the land dropped, not quite perpendicular-steep. The hillside formed like a half-bowl, wrapping around a base of flatland. Beyond it Megovis could see the silver glints of the river. The tree-growth here was sparse and, for the most part, wide-crowned oaks.
“It’ll make good grazing for pigs,” she said.
He laughed. “You want our king to be a pig-keeper?”
“You want him to have meat for his feasts? Besides, there’s something more I’ve not said.”
He didn’t much like the sound of that. He waited.
“While the eblann don’t much use this Freeland for fly-worts—they grow thickly around Bear Hill—they do use it for hunting. Hunting deer. He’d be a wise king who didn’t take that away from them.”
“But, no, whoa-a-mo, there. Didn’t you say the eblann lodge with the families, and the families feed and clothe them in return for whatever?—Healing—Feast-rites. So why do they hunt?” He couldn’t imagine them as successful hunters, not if they all were like Erspn and Shunamn.
“It’s, um . . .” She looked about her, awkward. “You remember King Tanisven’s gift brought to Krisnavn?”
“The seers weed? And what has that to do with eblann hunting?”
“Eblan-lore says the herb must be traded, never given.”
“King Tanisven gave it—”
“To Krisnavn. That’s not what I’m saying. Eblan-lore concerns only the eblann. It’s they who must trade for it. But, except for the clothes that he’s given and his craft-needs, what has the eblan to trade? The fine handle he carves from an antler? Or the deerskin he treats to make it soft leather? Which is the most valued in trade? Then, also, deer-blood is the best for enticing spirits—after the adder’s but that’s not what I’m saying.
“This isn’t the only Eblann Freeland. Yet this is the most renowned for its deer—that’s why the high fences. So, if I can find a way to acquire this land for the King’s Hold, then the eblann must retain their freedom to hunt it. Therefore I say pigs, not cattle, to graze here.”
“And how, Little Buttercup, do you intend to, um, ‘acquire’ it?”
In reply she turned away. “The day grows late, we ought to be leaving.”
“Hey, you’re avoiding the question.”
“Because, Megovis, I don’t know the answer. I need to speak to my father.”
“Blessed Beli, your father’s in Uath’s Land.” And Uath alone knew what spirits she’d awaken there with her trying. Though she had it right, the day did grow late. He cast a wary eye about him. “These trees . . . they have spiteful spirits, eh?”
“Only the beech. Do you need hold my hand?” The wretched walker of Uath’s Land, she was teasing him again.
He didn’t speak till they were out of the woodland and back on an open track. “You weren’t serious of speaking to your father? I mean, his spirit should be long gone to Uath by now.”
“I thought that at the time. But this isn’t the Dal. Here no spirit leaves till the Send-Off feast. And that’s not for another four days. So I have until then.”
“But that doesn’t answer. How will you speak to him.” Not that he really wanted to know. He surprised himself at even this talking.
“For as long as the spirit remains with the bones, it’s only a slip between worlds,” she said, as if she spoke of blending a brew. “A potion of flywort is all that’s needed. We eblann don’t truly walk the Land of the Dead. To do that we need die.”
“So when will you . . . do this?” Was he really asking? Aye, seemed that he was.
“Tomorrow, probably. If by then I’ve found the worts.” She started to grin. He supposed that an improvement. “At least now is the season. And with them being fresh I shan’t need much.”
He couldn’t look at her. He already knew more than was conducive to a shiverless ride.
Krisnavn will be gone for a full eight days. The Send-off Feast, when Detah is due back at Sapapsan’s Isle, is not for another three days. Time enough to gather her flyworts and do whatever it is the eblan does to contact the grave-bound dead. But to face her father when here she’s been almost constant in his killer’s company . . . might that not be a risky venture?
Next episode: The Eblan’s Child
Start at the beginning with Detah; or go to the Chapter Links