Kerrid, the Immortal Head of Kerdol, has given to Detah a vision and message for Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn. But what exactly is the message? And whatever it is it can’t be given until Krisnavn returns . . . Read on
Megovis turned his attention from the fire-heron. It was Detah, of course, racing Belgantros, her cloak rippling like wings flapping as the wind caught beneath it. Instead, at Markiste Hildret’s call from his post atop South Rivergate’s east station, Megovis looked out to sea. But with Sauën’s early light on the sea he had to squint and shield his eyes before he could make out the boat, barely a blur in the distance. Yet its white sail unmistakably shouted of Kerdolan. And it was coming in from the east.
“That proves it,” Megovis growled.
“Nothing. Yet. Just a theory our commander has.” Yet where else could it come from?
“That’s a Kerdolak longboat,” Detah said as she slid from the gelding’s back.
“And guess where it’s been,” he answered her.
“It could be shore-hopping from the Waters.”
“Could have called in at a certain place.”
“It could have come from the Dal,” she said.
“Along this coast?” He pulled a face at her. She still wouldn’t allow Mandatn’s kin to be involved in the massacre along the Waters. “No, according to Tamesen they hop the Hiëmen coast until South Eskin Head.”
“Not if it’s to pull in to Du Dlida.”
“Detah, you are deliberately finding excuses. You know well where it’s been, and why. Dealing in venom I’ll wager.”
“Has there been a markon-report from the station there?”
He glared at her. No there had not.
“Captain-sir!” Hildret called from his rooftop perch. “It’s not pulling out to sea.”
“Kerdolan spies?” His blood quickened. Anticipation: an addictive sensation to any horsemaster. He stroked his beard, now worn close-clipped. He wished he’d a hundred markons posted here. Then they’d show these Kerdolan the Saramequai weren’t here as a dribble but a mighty swell. But he had only the twelve to east and twelve to west of the river.
“Send a markon across,” he called up to Hildret. “I want every markon armed and on display. And if it seems they’re pulling into South River, I want every arrow loosed at them. But make sure they’re Kerdolan first.”
Megovis heard his orders repeated, then the scramble and splash as the Alisime ferryboat slid into the water. It was a hand-over-hand haul-a-rope job, the rope wet and slimy from its many submersions. He then thought of a second instruction.
“Hildret! Organise for a report to alert South Water stations. Though . . .” he turned to Detah, “you reckon they’ll try to pull into here?”
She nodded, and to his surprise she looked afraid. It was then he thought to ask why she was there.
She waved his question away. “You’d not believe me. But . . . what’s the soonest anyone could be here from Dal Uest?”
“What kind of . . .?” But his thoughts chugged into action. “A day to reach the coast—on a good horse and if pushing it. Two days at sea—Murky allowing (could be more). Say three or four days. You reckon it’s Clan Dragsin? Uath’s Pizzle. Hildret! Issue that armour Ganros devised. And another message across the river.” Though his second message hadn’t yet been dispatched, the messenger having to wait the return of the ferryboat. But Megovis no longer cursed this clumsy procedure having found it better than shouting and more versatile than the signalling rags that hadn’t the range of meaning.
“I wasn’t thinking of Clan Dragsin,” Detah said, after he had fussed with the messages.
“Uissid Urinod.” Her flashed smile was at odds with her worried frown. “I ought to have come sooner but I needed to find Mistress Hegrea.”
He looked to see past her. “So where is she, your smoky-cloaked Eblan-Mistress?”
“She’ll be along.”
“Fine. Six months ago I wouldn’t have trusted a word you said. Uissid Urinod, on his way here: I’d have said as likely as me having two heads. But you’ve proven yourself, and now . . . well, you care to explain?”
She huffed a sigh. “As I said, you won’t believe me. It’s because the Head of Kerdol isn’t dead.”
He stared at her.
“Megovis, Captain-sir,” Hildret called from his rooftop post.
Without looking back at him, Megovis held up his hand to acknowledge and tell him to wait. “Let me get this right. You reckon that the great Dal Uissid, Urinod, is on his way here because Krisn hasn’t killed the Head of Kerdol? But it was our agreement that he wouldn’t. Your Eblan-Mistress Hegrea said the woman is immortal, that she’d be reborn. It would be a waste. So tell me—no, Buttercup, you’re not making sense. I’d rather believe that boat carries Clan Dragsin.” He called up to Hildret, “Report!”
“Captain-sir, there is no doubt they’re Kerdolan. And they’re pulling to here. Doesn’t look like they’re going to slip past us.”
Megovis issued the order, “Prepare to attack!” then looked again at Detah. “You aren’t in armour; best hide back there in the woods. I’m not risking you with a poisoned arrow.” He called again to Hildret, “As soon as in range, let them have it.” There was no time to send the ferry; the markistes’ signalling rags could relay that.
The boat pulled in closer despite the tide ebbing. Now he saw the two tiers of oarsmen. “Not quite as small as the ones we saw along the Waters,” he said. “And you ought to be gone. And where did that heron come from. Shoo! Go! Get rid of it, Detah. My men see that, they’ll be shitting it. Defeated before they’ve begun. Wretched long-legged guide of the dead.”
“It’s Ardhea,” she said.
Megovis rolled his eyes. “Oh, so you’ve named it, like it’s a hound or a horse or a—”
“An Asar,” Detah said. “Immortal.”
“I don’t care if it’s a rutting Uissid, Detah. Get that accursed bird away from here.”
Suddenly a woman stood where the heron had been. Megovis let out a yelp.
“You are quite helpless,” the woman said. She wore a Uestin gown and narrow-legged Uestin breeches. She looked remarkably like Sitasha, his mother.
“Er?” he said.
“If you look, you will find your men unmoving. Yet that boat, now, is within easy spit.” She had a deep soothing voice, much like his mother’s when in his boy-days she had sung him a lullaby to quieten his night-fears.
And what she had said was true. His men, six kneeling, six behind them standing, held their bows, arrows nocked, at what looked from this angle to be perfect aim. Yet none loosed them. Across the water, at the western station, he saw another bank of immobilised men. Meanwhile the Kerdolak boat slowly slipped past. And there, in clear view on the high deck, was the unmistakable figure of Uissid Urinod.
“But . . .” And now he couldn’t move too.
“Uissid Urinod is an Asar,” Detah said. She seemed unaffected. “He has powers you’d not believe. He does this to you, so you’ll not shoot him.”
“If you order your men to stand down,” said the woman. “he will release you.”
“It’s not you he wants,” Detah said, her voice catching as if it wouldn’t come out.
“No, Little Buttercup,” he said, “don’t you fear. He won’t have you; we’re here to protect you.”
Detah shook her head. “Megovis, tell the men to stand down. It’s neither me nor the Alsime needs your protection.”
He considered her good and long. “He wants Krisn?” he said.
He licked his lips before calling the command. And at once his men again could move.
“He asks you to follow,” the woman said. “To gravelled place, short way upriver. The Kerdolan will pull the boat into there.” The woman didn’t wait. She was a heron again, now with wings outstretched as with a whumph she took to the air.
“Th-that woman? Was the heron? What’d you call her?”
“Ardhea,” Detah said and smirked an unsteady smile.
“Some pet you have there,” Megovis muttered as he mounted Truth Studder. Detah, too, mounted the bay. He called back to Markiste Hildret. “The commander arrives before I’m back, you keep him here. Even if you have to tie him. I’ll explain it later.” He didn’t add that he’d first to discover what this was about, though already he was guessing.
They rode in silence, his thoughts raging. Herons didn’t change into women, and it was a known fact that Uissid Urinod never left the Dal. So was he dreaming? Did that explain it? Or had he been wafted to some other land? He wondered had Detah slipped him one of her eblan-potions. But that was unfair. An apprentice, she wasn’t that powerful. And even then, she wouldn’t do that to him. Besides, look at her, all atremble with fear. No, more likely that eblan-woman Mistress Hegrea was somehow involved. Just look at what she wore? That same grey-heron cloak. And where was she anyway? Detah had said she’d be along soon.
A small headland forced the river to bend. Beyond it the Kerdolak longboat had pulled into the riverbank, a gangplank laid across for access. Closer to and Megovis had a better sense of its size: rising from the river like a three-storey house built for twenty families or more. He estimated a hundred men sat at those oars while its sail, when unfurled, would provide tented shelter for two hundred more.
This wasn’t the first time Megovis had met the Uissid. He was, after all, a horsemaster, and the Uissids were involved in their training. Yet the Uissid seemed to have grown, and he’d already been taller than a man had a right. He’d a wide square jaw, and bones that rivalled the aurochs. He was solidly muscled, too, not all gangly with nothing but joints. As for his face, that was ugly, no denying—fish-belly pale, a piggy-snout, bulging eyes of dark sludge-green, his mouth like a wobbly ridge, his ears heavy with lobes that sagged to his shoulders. It was reputed he carried a tree-stump with him wherever he went. He’d sit on nothing other.
“You might prefer to disappear into those trees,” Megovis said quietly aside to Detah, though he knew that she wouldn’t and he appreciated that of her.
“He doesn’t want us,” she repeated. “My guess is he’ll wait here till Krisnavn arrives.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Kerrid told Ardhea. Kerrid is Head of Kerdol.”
“Did she now? When?”
Detah shrugged, she didn’t know. “Ardhea told me of it four nights ago.”
“The night of your feast, the Send-Off? When at dawn Krisnavn was to . . .”
“I think Kerrid gave herself over to him, so her people wouldn’t be harmed.”
Though Megovis hadn’t seen him disembark, Uissid Urinod now stood on the track before them. Megovis preferred to stay high on Truth Studder but found he hadn’t the choice. Before he’d yet halted he found himself forced to dismount. Detah dismounted beside him.
“Captain Horsemaster Megovis,” the colossus growled—and the markons called Govvy a bear? “Where is Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn?”
Megovis held back, not wanting to answer.
“I should kill him—crush him—tear his useless limbs from his execrable body. Well, where is he?”
Megovis spread empty hands, words stuck in his throat. He’d always thought Uissids were benevolent, supporting the horsemasters they had previously trained.
“Abject man, given just the one very simple mission—to slaughter that accursed Kerrid. Where was his problem with that—the lame lump of a fool! I laid it out for him, he had only to follow the prompts. The incompetent! We ought now to be home, all returned to our world.”
“He’s not yet returned,” Detah said, her words quiet in the void left by the giant.
“Then I shall have to wait here for him—And if that now sailing upriver is . . . Knots! But he too can . . .” his words merged into a long-drawn growl. His face turned deep purple with ill-suppressed rage.
Megovis didn’t want to turn his back on the Uissid. Yet he was curious of who this was, so irksome, now sailing upriver. He attempted a look over his shoulder. He just could see what seemed to be a small Hiëmen boat under sail. But racing upriver against the tide? That wasn’t possible.
“Who is it?” he asked Detah since she seemed to know what was happening. But she shook her head, not knowing.
The sailor—there was only one in the boat—leapt ashore in an equally impossible feat.
“An Asar?” Detah suggested in a low whisper.
“Are all Asars giants?” The newcomer equalled Urinod in height if not in build being, instead, rather wiry. Also he was easier upon the eyes; golden skinned, heavy-lidded, perhaps a woman might find him handsome—except for the mangy pelts and filthy rags he wore about him. By way of contrast, Uissid Urinod wore a unblemished long gown, typical of the truvidiren.
The ragged newcomer advanced on Megovis, a stout staff held before him. “You!”
“No! He is not Krisnavn.”
Megovis never thought he’d be pleased to see the grey- cloaked Eblan Mistress Hegrea. Yet there she stood behind his would-be attacker.
“And Kerrid isn’t dead,” she said.
The rag-dressed avenger halted, staff already raised to stove in Megovis’s head, the waft of stale fur overwhelming. “You shall live,” he told Megovis and turned on Uissid Urinod instead. “You cheerless ogre, why can’t you leave her alone?”
Mistress Hegrea stood between the two giants—rather her, the brave woman, thought Megovis. “Raesan! Think on it,” she said. “You know that Kerrid cannot be destroyed.”
“Then why must that ogre keep trying?” There were tears in the avenger’s voice.
“Because, young Lippy’s pet,” the ‘ogre’ Urinod answered him, “at Her death there will exist the fleetest chance before renewal when we might have our homeward break. Not that you want that. No, it’s common-known that you want Her. So now, are you to use that puny staff of yours?” Urinod’s words slurred in the languid taunt.
“We’re best to move away.” Mistress Hegrea fast-ushered Megovis and Detah back down river, her cloak outspread and flapping. “This isn’t our concern, not of our province. It is an ancient grievance.”
“But who is he?” Detah asked.
Megovis knew he ought to shield her, to have her before him. But it was the way they’d turned and now he was in front. His ears twitched to hear Mistress Hegrea’s answer.
“You ask who is Raesan? He’s the youngest of the Uissids since Gimmerin died. But this between them? It’s a long-long story, not mine to give. Besides, I know only parts of it. I know Raesan’s in a twisted loop for the Head of Kerdol—though apparently it wasn’t Her encouraged him. And probably not for there’s only ever been the one for Kerrid and that is Jiar.”
An ear-shattering crack sounded behind them. Megovis instinctively ducked, shoulders hunching. But he pointedly didn’t look back. As long as Detah was safe, that’s all that mattered for now. Though he did look round when what he’d swear was a swift-raised gale ripped leaves and even some branches off the trees. Yet next instant a barely-breeze again was whispering around him. “Wish someone would tell me what’s going on,” he mumbled.
“Has Detah not told you?” asked Mistress Hegrea. “Listen. When I heard tell of the ambush along the Water, and then Krisn said of his fears, that his mother is plotting to kill him, I suspected at once Uissid Urinod was behind it. I guessed—and now it’s proven—that Urinod never intended for Krisn to hare off along the Waters to be slaughtered there, though his mother might want it. No, was Urinod who trained Krisn to horsemaster. He knows the weavings of Krisn’s head. He knew Krisn would go instead to Liënershi, to kill the Head of Kerdol there. So I stopped him from that. The Head is Immortal, an Asar, a banished divine, just as Uissid Urinod is. Only the Head is more.”
“The Prime,” Detah interjected.
“Aye, the Prime, and that’s many worlds’ more. The Head is the Breath of Life, the force that keeps the chaos away. And despite She’d be at once reborn, there would be that moment, as Urinod says, between death and conception when, in losing control, there would again be chaos. It was in that instant that Urinod had hoped to return to his divine world. He doesn’t belong here, none of us do, we first-born Asars; not the Uissids, nor Freilsen, nor Amblushe and Chadtamen. Not Raesan,” she said, glancing back at where the two divine giants still bashed at each other. “There was a time when, newly banished, every which way was sought to return us to home. But now we’ve accepted—or most of us have. It’s only Urinod now who still seeks it. And he blames the Head that we’re here.”
“Ardhea!” Detah accused and the grey-cloaked Mistress Hegrea became the grey feathered heron. There was a mighty whump as Ardhea rose into the air.
“She does that,” Detah said, watching as she flew away westward. “She had me deceived, until she said we. Three times she said it.”
“Yea, but, Detah, what she said . . . was any of that true?”
“I didn’t want to tell you. I knew you wouldn’t believe it. Just eblan-talk, you’d say, like the Dal’s uathren.”
“All of it true?” he asked.
She nodded. “Most likely—I’ve some of it seen.”
Now they’d rounded the headland the destruction being wrought behind them wasn’t so loud. And he could no longer see it. “So . . . are they gods, these Asars? Immortals I know but . . . banished divines?
“I’d, um, say now isn’t the time to discuss it,” Detah said.
He followed where she was looking. He could see both east and west rivergate stations. And packed between them was a flotilla of white-sailed Kerdolak boats.
Now who arrives? And where is Krisnavn? And how will he handle this situation? Two Uissids waiting for him, both it seems intent on murdering him, one for his failure to kill Kerrid, immortal Head of Kerdol, the other for his audacity of even trying.