Detah’s head is a’tumble with questions—though the most easily answered is who rides behind her on Belgantros. It’s just the why of it puzzles her. The last she remembers she was trying to move, to pry her lifeless limbs from the ground. It was that potion, leaving her body as dead. And now . . . Read on
Now she was awake, the night all but gone. Long shadows purpled the west as the Mistress coyly showed her face. But that appearance would likely be brief: to the north Detah could see heavy rain clouds amassing. That ought to please the Mother, thirsty for it. Despite most mornings had been dew-licked, they’d had six moons now with scarcely a sky-drop. Was as well that the Father had amply spent His passion winter-last else the Mother mightn’t have given a harvest. The dryness showed here along Freeland Walk. Too many horses had scuffed it bare; dust puffed and rose around Belgantros’ hooves, leaving a trail.
“Why do you say nothing; why don’t you explain it?” It troubled her. Mistress Hegrea holding so quiet when before she’d been straight from Detah’s head and telling her everything.
“But which of your questions am I to answer?” Mistress Hegrea said back to her.
“You know which one. Why you’re riding Belgantros with me.”
“Ah, that. So you’ll not fall off.”
That seemed altogether too logical. And neither did it really answer. “And was it you helped me mount him?”
“You think you’re so heavy I can’t do it alone?”
“And that was back at the barrow?—but it must have been. But what were you doing there?”
“I wanted to know the granary-master’s answer. I guessed you might have some questions after.”
“There was a wolf,” Detah said. Her intended glance back over her shoulder was swiftly halted by the sight of those icy eyes. “Was that real?”
“Aye, real as you and I. He’s been prowling the Highlands these past few days. A loner, not part of a pack. That’s why your brother kept watch.”
“Demekn? But I told them not!”
“Aye, well,” Mistress Hegrea answered, “since he slept, not watched, then I guess he did not.”
“Why must I keep asking you questions when usually you tell me whether I ask it or not?” That seemed a bigger question than the questions waiting.
“Maybe I’d rather not tell you more than you want.”
“You know more?”
Detah wanted to turn, to look again at the grey-cloaked Mistress. But she didn’t want to encounter those eyes.
When Mistress Hegrea didn’t answer, Detah peeled another question off the pile. “So what did you expect my father to say? I wanted only to ask him of the King’s Hold, how to acquire the land.”
“And he said nothing other?”
Detah grunted, realisation, dissatisfaction. Now Mistress Hegrea had said, aye, there had been something . . . but Detah couldn’t remember. She tried to recall it but so great was the effort. How could she forget it?
“I saw my mother,” she said instead. “She apologised. I never thought she’d ever do that. But she said something . . . What was it? But what good to remember when I didn’t understand it.” Though if she could just remember the words . . . “Aye, she called me an eblan-child. But, no, that wasn’t it. It was as she faded and her voice remained. She said . . . No, it wasn’t an ‘eblan-child’, but an eblan’s child. What did she mean? Was she just saying I was born to Isle Ardy? Yet why say that when I’ve always known it? Is it because Eblan Erspn calls me his child? But, no, he says ‘eblan-child’. Mistress Hegrea, do you know what she meant by it?”
“I know some of it,” Mistress Hegrea said.
“So will you tell me—so I shan’t have to keep asking? But, no, wait,” Detah had another thought. “Can we stop some place? Dismount and talk properly? I want to see you, not just hear your voice from behind me.” And face-to-face, she’d not have to look at the eyes.
“You know the tumun atop Bear Hill?”
“You want us to go there?” Detah had been there, once. It was said to built on the site of Alsalda’s old den. But it was the ghosts that walked that land that frightened her.
“No I think not there. Yet near by the tumun there’s a large lady-beech, her roots bent high and exposed—like she’s offering her knees for us to sit.”
It was no straightforward affair to get them there, on and off Belgantros to open the gates to let him through. But the tree was gained (it grew as if out of the crown of Bear Hill) just as the clouds opened and let down the rain.
“Drink it, Mother, drink it in deep,” Detah shouted, though herself was glad of the leaves as shelter. She laughed as she sat on the mother-tree’s knee. “This rain is washing away my cares. If only they’d then stay away.”
“You have cares?”
“Aye.” And though Mistress Hegrea had asked so lightly Detah knew she’d not been teasing. That brought her back down. “Aye, Eblan Erspn for one. He’ll be fretting—he’ll yell at me. I was supposed to back by now.”
“Well that’s one care less. Ardhea took him a message. Though don’t be surprised if he says he met with me this early morning. You know how that heron is for illusions. As for the others . . . Let me tell you a story.”
“Is it a story that contains many answers?” Detah asked. She was sure Hegrea’s stories always held answers. Just she couldn’t always discern them.
“Maybe,” Mistress Hegrea said. “Maybe not. You’d best listen carefully.”
“I’m listening,” Detah prompted when Mistress Hegrea didn’t immediately begin. Instead she was taking her time to find the best place to sit on the old beech-mother’s knee.
“It’s easier to tell a story when it is your own,” Mistress Hegrea said as if to apologise. “Let me begin with your sister Drea. She was no easy child to birth, and less easy to tend. She was strident, always wanting attention.”
“And she hasn’t much changed.”
“Your mother was . . . well, she was not well. So you can imagine, this wasn’t a good time to be troubled with a troublesome baby. Mistress Sinapsha hadn’t long died. Alenta was thrust into being mistress of all the granaries.”
“As now is Drea,” Detah cut in. “Yet this must happen every time when a granary-mistress dies.” She didn’t mean to sound hard and unfeeling, yet it was so.
“It’s not every time,” Mistress Hegrea answered. “It’s only when one dies while still active—before she retires. No mind. Your mother had your brother, three winters-seen, and now Drea at her breast. And with now being First Mistress, it was essential she birthed a second daughter.”
“And so she did,” Detah said gracelessly. “She birthed me.”
“Aye, birthed you. But the problem lies in how she got you.”
“Are you to tell me the heron brought me?”
“Detah,” Mistress Hegrea chided, “stop being flippant. This is difficult enough for me to tell. Alenta found the ‘getting’ not easy. Nod’s Hand was always upon her; the Mother wouldn’t grant it. Five winters and still her belly wouldn’t swell. She grew desperate. Another woman would have gone to the Feast of Winter Ending but, First Granary Mistress, that wouldn’t be seemly. So, very quietly, without others knowing, she sought an eblan’s help.”
Detah’s mouth dropped. This was not what she had expected. And Mistress Hegrea needn’t say more. Her mother had sought an eblan’s help; Detah knew what that meant. It meant that ‘he-who-can’t-yet-be-named’ (the granary-master) wasn’t her father. And that’s what he’d been trying to tell her, and why he’d said of the shock. In life he’d not known. Fourteen winters and never had guessed it.
But questions followed. Which eblan? She feared to ask Mistress Hegrea, a vision in her head of Shunamn with his farts and his feet and wiry black beard. And no one knew why he lodged Isle Ardy! No, don’t let Shunamn be my father.
“No,” Mistress Hegrea assured her on that. “No, Alenta knew what was entailed. She looked for a young eblan. Handsome. Virile.”
“I’ve seen none like that, except for my brother.”
“Yet all old men once were young. Remove the wear and care of fourteen winters.”
“Eblan Erspn.” Detah didn’t ask it: she was sure of it, though she barely could breathe the name. She didn’t know how many winters-seen yet she guessed Erspn would have around Demekn’s age when . . . that. He’d said of becoming eblan when Dalys, at three winters-seen, had been sent to Bukplugn’s Hold. And Dalys couldn’t have seen above five winters more than she.
“I cannot say for certain aye,” said Mistress Hegrea. “Yet is true, your eblan-master did visit much around that time. Yet I can tell you this: the granary-master was never out of her bed.”
Detah hid her head in her hands. This was worse than her father’s death. He’d now been taken twice from her. Killed by Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, aye, but long before that by Eblan Erspn. Eblan Erspn was her real father. And now that she knew it, it did seem right. Yet she and . . . (she couldn’t yet say his name, it wasn’t yet the feast) they’d been so close, her only friend. Aye, her friend but never her father.
Detah took a deep breath. “She said—last night in the vision—she said that’s why I’ve no grain-spirit. But . . . and now my head is spinning! You do know Eblan Erspn’s more Uestin and Dal than he is Alsime? Not in his ways, but in his blood. He’s kin to Krisnavn. Oh! Sweet Saram’s Eyes! It means I am too. I do swear, Mistress Hegrea, this is too big, it’ll never fit into my head.”
Erspn usually used this day to muse on the old ways. Today was no different. He even mused the same thoughts, of how curious it was that the old ways were kept for long after they’d served their purpose. There was a time, before Eblan Hegrea came with her granaries, and her Father’s Brew, and the magically rising Mother’s Bread, when at this Send-Off Feast the remains of their dead were burned upon each family’s bone-fire. Next morning, the women would sprinkle the cold ashes across their fields. It was said the dead guarded the land against hungry spirits who would otherwise suck the life from the plants, the beasts and the soil.
So, earlier this day he had gone to the wind-hills, an almost useless Detah along with him, to collect the sun-dried, bird-pecked remains of two corpses—because two, from all the families at His Indwelling, still followed the old ways. And those bones now burned on a solitary fire.
“Yet I have known many a feast,” he said quietly not to disturb, “when we’d no dead at all to burn. Empty fires. Lifeless ashes. Yet in the morning the families still came to collect and to scatter.”
He looked at Detah and held back the sigh. But at least her cheeks had regained some colour. She had slept a full day upon her return, though even that hadn’t revived her. As worthless as a walking corpse, stumbling and mumbling this morning. Yet, oddly, she’d brightened as they approached Buknekhea’s old isle—the very place said to be haunted.
“Now, you’ve understood all I’ve said of this rite?” he asked her.
“But why did they use their dead for protection? Did the Ancestors not use the Eyes?”
He nodded and smiled, but not in answer. Aye, those Eyes hung everywhere, but he’d not a notion of their lore. He supposed them of granary provenance. If so, then she, not he, ought to know their full story. “Perhaps Mistress Hegrea can answer you that.”
“I’ll ask her, next. But without the Eyes, what protection had those families without dead of their own?”
Again he nodded. This was more like his treasured Detah, seeing beyond the edges. Yet he couldn’t answer her. He’d not thought to ask his own eblan-master. “Maybe in those days more people died? Perhaps their families were larger?”
“Or maybe they borrowed another’s ashes? To be paid back at another feast when they were able?’”
“Aye,” he laughed, “perhaps they did. But I’m glad to see you’re now recovered. I was fearing you’d be unable to entrance tonight.”
Despite she had brightened, almost along with the sun, still she’d been quiet until now, not at all her usual talkative self. Was she still upset because of Commander Krisnavn? Aye, and rather that than Mistress Siradath’s suggestion when she caught Detah gazing oddly at him. “Those sly looks. She’s just like her mother, you mark it. She has her sights on you. You’d do well to squash that before it develops. She’s no longer a child. And you know how a woman’s thoughts linger on bedding. A woman eblan, that’s not natural.”
Of course he’d defended. “There have been other women eblann. And anyway, according to Dalys, she’s to go to Liënershi.”
“Huh! I’ll hang upside down from the Circling Star and sweep the world with my hair ere that happens. You mark it, my brother, that one has designs upon you, and those designs come in the shape of a bed.”
That would be awkward. He’d then have to tell her. Yet . . . how could he. If she hadn’t been close to her father, aye but . . . Huh, father.
Detah turned from watching the last squirming glimmers of fire. She looked gravely at him. “Eblan Erspn, master, you’ve been behaving most oddly today. Don’t say you’re dazed, too, by our Mistress Hegrea? It seems a man has only to look upon her . . .”
Erspn laughed. It seemed they’d both been wondering of each other’s dark thoughts. “No,” he answered. “If I act oddly it’s only for fear of what the Ancestors will say of the help I’ve given Commander Krisnavn.”
“You mean help as in giving me to him?”
“I have not!” he denied. But she was right, he had.
“Maybe they’ll tell you more of the Spinner?” she suggested, her tone turned teasing.
“Aye, you know, I’d forgotten of that. I still haven’t discovered the who or the what of this Spinner. I suppose Mistress Hegrea doesn’t know? Have you asked, has she told you?”
“No. No. And no. Though . . . well, maybe it’s like the Father and Saram. The Spinner could be like the Uestin Ladies—only bigger.”
He looked at her, interested. “And?”
“Well, for we Alsime the Father is distant, with no concern for us—”
“Aye, else He’d not hold back His waters just to torment the Mother, and make us suffer.”
Detah smiled. It was almost a laugh and it made his heart jump. She didn’t laugh so often these days, not since the commander. She said, “Aye, but though He has no concern for us, according to the Uestin their Saram—who surely is our Father—answers their pleas, and even speaks to them. So perhaps there’s the same difference between the Ladies and the Spinner? The Ladies bring us into being—”
“That was Alsalda.”
“For we Alsime, aye. Yet I’m saying of the Uestin. Their dead are ever dead—have you forgotten? Though they’ve the Mother’s Bread, they make nothing of it. So, life is ever brought into being, and ever destroyed again.”
“Ha!” he teased. “Your mother said right when she said the Uestin are wasteful.”
“Will you allow me to say what I’m saying?”
But he had to laugh for she was delightful. He even wrapped his arms around her. Though then he released her and jumped away. She looked at him curiously. “You were saying of the Spinner?” he prompted. “That she’s distant and unknowable.”
“While the Ladies spin life, the Spinner spins the worlds. And like the Ladies, She also destroys. But She no more cares for us than does the Father.”
“That is not eblan!”
“I know,” she said weakly.
He stared at her, his jaw trying to drop. “All that thought happens inside that one little head.” What spirit lurked in that bed at her conception? Not granary. Not Alisime either. And what she had said seemed beyond even Uestin. He wondered what the Ancestors made of her.
So Detah is to entrance again, but this time with her eblan-master—her father, as she now knows him to be. And this time, too, beside the ashes of the Ancestors’ bone-fire, not atop the granary-masters’ barrow. So one might ask, as Eblan Erspn has asked, what the Ancestors might make of her.