Detah huddled close to the fire though it was too mean to warm her. It was a cold night, the air heavy with dankness not brought from the river. She cast another glance at Ardy’s wide gate. Shunamn knew she was here. She had told him she was sitting watch at the barrow, no more. She’d also left instructions that Demekn was not to disturb her. Shunamn had muttered something of Demekn’s thoughts being elsewhere. Aye, Detah’s too of late; too busy to think of Demekn and Glania. Though briefly she wondered how they fared. Then she dismissed them and looked up at the sky. Nod’s Head already was two hands high. She glanced across at the isle. Everyone there ought now to be sleeping. And yet she delayed.
Afraid? Yet she had wanted to do it alone. Now she wished Eblan Erspn were with her. But it was only the thought of the potion, of over-imbibing (she’d no desire to end her life here).
She’d been reluctant to consult at all with her eblan-master, worried of the questions he’d ask. And yet he had asked none, merely saying not to exhaust herself, that she was to return to Sapapsan’s lodge immediately after “—no matter it’s not yet dawn when you’re done.” He’d been insistent, wanting her to rest the day there. “For, night of the feast, you’ll be entrancing again.” He had grinned at her involuntary gasp (but she’d not expected it). “No, young Detah, your body is hale, your spirit strong, you’ll come to no harm. But you must rest between trancing.”
She sighed. And she still was delaying. If only she’d been able to set the fire closer to where she’d entrance. But they had buried her father awkwardly: tucked him in on the west side of the barrow, part the way down. She couldn’t set a fire there. Even to sit there wouldn’t be easy. Then to settle with the bowl in her hands—it couldn’t be done.
She was making excuses. Only one way to do it. Do it.
The raw cut of the grave no longer showed, the turves long returned. Not that that made a difference. It’s exact location was burned into her eyes. She set the fire-blackened bowl amongst the thick speckling of hawksbit while she fussed with the travel-cloak. She sat just on its edge with the bulk wrapped around her. The leather would keep out the cold and the damp while her body lacked spirit. The fur would protect her with the wolf’s own spirit. But alone that wasn’t enough. She needed the fire-heron cloak, with its feathers for flying. She drew it up and around her shoulders, settling it in a fan around her. “Best you don’t take me to Uath’s Land,” she told its fire-heron spirit. “That would be a shade too far.” She tried to laugh. Then she settled her own-made drum.
She looked long at the potion, seeming black-and white-both. Fresh flywort. Not the first time she’d used it, but the first time alone. The highly reflective inky fluid no longer steamed though the bowl still was warm. “Aye, well, this ought to warm me.” She needed some warmth now: she couldn’t stop shivering.
She looked again at Nod’s Head climbing fast into the sky. Again she sighed. “The night will be gone if I don’t do this soon.”
The potion burned where it touched her lips, burned her tongue, burned her throat. Well might it have cooled, but it was fiercer than Old Apsan’s fiery paste. She wasted time fanning her mouth when she ought to be drumming. And already that potion was working and she was tumbling—she couldn’t stop it. Tumbling forward, rolling downhill.
Quick now, she must think of her father, must see him clearly in her internal eye. She must remember everything of him. Must say his name. Bukarn. Bukarn. Bukarn. Else she’ll not arrive where she ought. She could end her journey snarled by the night-sprites.
Sprays of light exploding around her, seen from her eye-corners. Dancing jots and spangling jags. Then the veil between the worlds tearing—is ruptured—she slithers on through. Behind the colours now is darkness. And the colours congeal and there is her father.
He stands before her, a tree-trunk grown out of his head. No, she realises, that’s his mouse-skin cloak hanging . . . upwards? His sandy moustache, grown long since his death, dangles, too, into his eyes. He flicks it away. It returns. They must both be hanging upside down. And she had thought he’d appear sitting down, leaning against Ardy’s lodge wall.
She sees no other form but him. Behind him all is darkness-grey. “Father—”
“No, hush and listen. I say you must deal for it.”
He’s more brusque than ever he was in life. And now he’s slowly rotating. She tilts her head, her eyes following him round. The pleats of his Ulvregan skirt slither into place. His mouse-skin cloak falls with a whump to hang around him.
“Aye, for the king’s land you must deal and trade, that comes clear,” he says, eyes suddenly wide. “Death gives such vision. Truths are revealed.”
And that has been her very fear. That he has seen her with Krisnavn, seen how she is with him. Her innards begin to dissolve into worms, each forming a hard curling ball. “You don’t approve—”
“No, my girl, not that.” He laughs and the worms stretch out to reform into herself. She adjusts her head, for now she finds she, too, is the right way up. “No, Krisnavn is merely Saram’s hand. I offered, he took. Don’t you shrivel with meanness and guilt for that. But I see what you’re doing, setting yourself aside from your kind. That’s not wise. When you’re no more use to him, what then? I’ll tell you. You won’t belong to anywhere-anyone then. Then what will you do?”
“But I don’t want to belong. I don’t want to be owned!” The words seem not to be her own yet they voice the fear she found before she was eblan, of her feet planted like stones in the ground.
“I hear the Ladies speaking here. They have given you into his care. Still, you never were mine.”
“No, but listen, you must understand of this land. The eblann gives to the king. The king gives to the eblann. Land for green-feather. Green-feather for land. You understand? But of course you do, my clever one.”
“—wonder what’s to be done when green-feather is gone yet the land’s still around?”
She nods and says, “Aye,” very faint and faraway. He speaks so fast, and she’s not at all sure she’s understanding it. Maybe with waking it’ll all make sense.
“Listen. You arrange for green-feather, a steady supply—you know the where’s and the deals. But enough of that now, I’ve answered your question. I have things to tell you. Death’s revelations. Listen, she meant none of the harm. She’s most contrite.”
He has now grown agitated, looking back over his shoulder. In the midst of the featureless grey she sees now an elder-tree. As in winter, it appears to be skeletal. It is Ardy’s heart-tree and upon its branches grow bones. At its roots sits a skull.
“Father . . .?”
“No, I’ve said I must say ‘she meant no harm by it’. But you’ll not understand till she tells it herself. I’ll call her to you.”
He turns to look at the heart-tree. She looks there too. It loses form, becomes a mist more dense than the mists from the Alisalm rivers. Then, even as she watches, it reforms to a woman. Too distant to see the woman’s features yet, horrified, Detah knows her and sees her.
No! Dread-fills her. She screams, Please to wake me out of this vision. She doesn’t want to hear what that woman will say. Bukarn might forgive her for what she’s done with Krisnavn, the Saramequai, Clan Querkan. But not the mistress.
Odd wisps spill behind the mist-formed woman as she walks through the featureless greyness. “Hush, girl.” Her voice sounds across the distance as if she is already near. “I’ve no desire to speak of him.”
Then there she is, an arm’s reach away, with a body as real as in those days when she lived. The same sun-touched skin, still unblemished. The same wheaten hair floating around her. Like the golden motes Detah has seen in other visions. The same eyes of the same green as young leaves in spring. The same green chemmy, though now slightly faded, a white linen band tightly binding her hips. She links her arm into Bukarn’s.
“Alenta,” Detah mouths, her voice fear-hidden.
“Child. But you have grown since . . . how long has it been?” she asks but of Bukarn not Detah. Then as in life she gives him no time to respond. “Aye, I have to say it’s no fault of your own that you’ve no grain-spirit in you.”
Oh, how that must cost her! Detah can almost hear the wrench as the words are drawn from the very heart of her. But she’s not yet done.
“I have wronged you.”
This isn’t what Detah would ever expect from her. Must she now forgive her in turn? But that will leave a hole where the hatred has been. She looks to her father for guidance. He shakes his head and inside her he says, “I’m not that.” Detah feels herself frown, not understanding.
“An eblan-child, you,” her mother says.
“It seemed best,” Detah says. “And you did agree it.”
“An eblan-seed planted within me.”
“But we’re an eblan-family. Bisaplan’s kin. Always have been.”
Bukarn again shakes his head. “That’s not what she’s saying.”
The vision is fading. Alenta’s body again is mist-forming.
“She cannot stay,” Bukarn says.
Yet her voice remains. “An eblan’s child, you. An eblan’s ch—”
“Tell the Grain-Mistress to take the skull now. It belongs in the granary,” Bukarn says. “Don’t want her to accompany me. Shock of my death, to hear that truth from her.”
“But I don’t understand. What does she mean? What did she do?”
“I cannot say more, you have to go. A wolf sniffs around you. Be safe. I expect to see you in an other’s life.”
Unexpected, so sharply, she’s in utter darkness. There’s a smell she hasn’t noticed before. The must of the grave, though it seems to be laced with old blood. She hears a sound; it could be snuffling. A wolf, as Bukarn said of it? But he has muddled her cloak and the beast. Hasn’t he?
No! The answer crashes through her. That’s not the smell of the grave, it’s the bad breath of a wolf. She leaps to her feet, instantly awake and alert.
Yet she’s again cross-legged on the ground, in the dark, with the smell and the sound of the wolf padding and sniffing. Was that a dream? Is this real? She tries to move, just to open her eyes. But they remain unheeding and closed. She tries her arms and her legs. But they’ll not respond. Is she dead?
She hears Ublamn saying, as he often has said, “Late summer, now. That’s when the wolves start to prowl. Wily beasts know we’re readying the cull.”
She wants to up. She wants to run. She wants not to be food from the wily prowler. But she cannot move; she’s turned all to stone.
Demekn woke with a start. At first confused, though a sweep of his surroundings soon reminded him of his self-given task. Fine watch he’d make. He glanced at the sky bright with stars and reckoned he’d slept a good hand of the night. He stretched to limber his limbs, legs grown numb with disuse and now screaming their protest. To stand would be good, to walk would be better. But he needed to keep his head down. He’d heard her stirring. Not long now before she returned for her horse. By then he ought to be absent, disappeared into the lodge. She’d be furious to know he’d kept guard. But what was he to do? Leave her body alone to be taken by any stray dog? She was his sister, and he missed her. He missed how they’d been before the changes.
In a crouch, he started to back away but . . . Too late. He held, gaze locked on the barrow. He could hear her. The sounds of her now gathering her cloak. Now brushing off the grass and grit. Now retrieving her eblan-rod. Any moment now she’d emerge, her fire-heron cloak flapping around her. He kept low. He waited.
But she didn’t appear.
He sat back on his heels, frowning. What was taking so long?
And what beneath Nod’s Eye was that? Grey and shapeless, it erupted from behind the barrow, haring off westward. The hairs on the nape of his neck suddenly rose. He jumped to his feet. Was it one of Ublamn’s reputed wolves? The eldliks was always saying of them. Yet it had seemed too big. And if it was a wolf . . . He didn’t want to go look. What if he found her body a bloodied mess, guts torn, clothes ripped?
He spun on his heels, heading back to the lodge when he should have been tearing off to her rescue. But something was distressing Belgantros, his frantic whinnying pitiful. Then, however unlikely, he saw the horse hammering across the wide isle. Yet Detah had tied him! What, Sweet Saram, was happening here? He raced after the horse. But, unevenly matched, Belgantros was through the small western gate and gone long before Demekn could reach it.
Useless to run, he slowed to a walk, eyes scanning around. Nod was lighting the land as if it were day. But even then he saw no sign of the horse. No, of course! Demekn now understood what had happened. Detah, on waking, had scared off the wolf then called for Belgantros. It was her call had wakened him.
A fine story, but was it the truth? He couldn’t assume. It all could be the work of Eskin magicians: the horse’s flight, the shadowy wolf. Detah could now be in their possession. And who’d notice the difference, when she’d always been strange?
To leave the isle at night and by the western gate didn’t bode well, yet with an uneasy feeling he turned thence to south. He prayed his story was right, that nothing had happened to her. He ought to have gone to her, not chased after the horse. Fool, man! Wretched fool! He followed round the outside of the wall and came that way to the barrow.
While others slept the eblann worked. Erspn chuckled, remembering Detah’s remark when he’d told her that. Then why isn’t Master Nod our mistress? But what better time to visit the dead than when the Mistress carried her light to Nod’s Land. Thus must the eblan work alone, his only companions the owl (as Detah had said) and the wolf (as he’d said).
He had woken long before dawn, thinking she soon would return. Now, with another look at the horizon where the Mistress already was glimmering, he groaned. What if something had happened to her? He racked himself as he paced the pasture between lodge and river. He ought not to have left her alone to do it. Yet it’s what she’d wanted, and she’d had such confidence, and he’d agreed the quest was exclusively hers. Aye, she’d not want him with her for who knew what she might learn this night. He shuddered in dread at the prospect. If she learned of that would she then turn from him? His restless hands fluttered. Was that why she’d not returned? He spun on his heel and again paced back.
This was his fault, and he deserved more than this in-turned dagger that now was ripping his guts. Fool! So young. A child. And he had allowed her to venture alone?
He had worried enough when she went off with Commander Krisnavn, but at least there he knew the Querkan riders would protect her. Then while she was away in Liënershi he hardly had slept, though by then his worries had been more for the commander’s designs on her (and that had turned to be an unneeded worry since she hadn’t been the man’s interest at all). No, Erspn had the Commander’s measure now. Like himself, he’d do whatever was needed for his people.
Erspn stopped pacing and more deeply pondered. Would he likewise so blatantly make use of another in his eblan-service? He didn’t like the answer. For as Commander Krisnavn used her, he realised so did he.
And again, not calmed in the slightest, he returned to his pacing.
He created a story that eased his worries. She’d fallen asleep atop the burial barrow. The potion too strong, she’d now not the strength to journey home. She’d be fine, just let her sleep the day. There were plenty to protect her at Isle Ardy. Her brother. Shunamn. Ublamn. She’d come to no harm. He ought stop his pacing and return to the lodge. How he’d welcome a share his sister’s brew. But no.
He felt the sweat break over him. Fool! He ought not to have let her go alone. Not with the talk of a lone wolf newly-seen on the Highlands.
“I see her,” Dalys said and startled Erspn nigh out of his wits. He’d not heard his brother leave the isle, silently stalking behind him.
He turned so Dalys could see the words as they formed. “What do you see?”
“See your no-child.” Dalys smiled, all lop-sided.
Erspn shivered. “Where is she? Safe? Is she harmed?” But that was too many questions for Dalys to answer, “Where is she?”
“Liënershi, I see. She deals the herb.”
Erspn closed his eyes while he pondered the answer. Dalys tended only to see what was dire. Had the Kerdolan found her? How else could he see her at Liënershi?
Mystery upon mystery. Where is young Detah? She cannot possibly be in Liënershi. Can she? More likely that wolf has ravaged her. Though perhaps she’s stewing somewhere, pondering the meaning of her mother’s confession. Now what could that mean: Detah, the Eblan’s child?
Next episode: Upon The Beech-Mother’s Knee
Start at the beginning with Detah; or go to the Chapter Links