A flotilla of white-sailed Kerdolak longboats fill South Rivergate. Further upriver two immortal Uissids are slogging it out for the privilege of killing Krisnavn: one for his failure to kill Kerrid, immortal Head of Kerdol, the other for his audacity of even trying . . . Read on
Detah raced ahead of Megovis, that unlikely grey heron flying alongside her. “It’s Krisnavn!” she called.
“But how can you see at this distance?” Yet Megovis dug in his heels. Either it was Krisnavn returned or another Uissid with Asaric tricks. For yet again, though Markiste Hildret stood high on the station roof, his markons, armed, armoured and arrayed beneath him, no arrows were loosed.
It took Megovis till he was almost at the east rivergate station to recognise the man who stood on the deck of the nearest longboat. The boat wasn’t as big as that bearing Uissid Urinod, yet its deck was equally high above water. “Krisn!” he hailed.
Krisnavn turned, his fire-metal tipped braids suddenly glinting.
“He’s awaiting a boat,” Detah said.
Megovis laughed, dumbfounded. “How many boats does he want? Has he captured the entire Kerdolan fleet?”
“To ferry him,” she explained. “A markon is fetching, but it’s over the far side.”
And how did she know so much? That wretched heron-woman, he supposed. Yet Megovis again followed to where she was looking and true enough, there were two markons heaving on the ferry’s rope, the attached boat midway across the river.
“Hildret!” Megovis called to the markiste. “Does the commander yet know there’s a Uissid upriver?”
“A what, Captain-sir?”
“Is he here, Captain-sir?”
“Asaric tricks,” Detah said. “Urinod has taken their memory.”
“Then it’s as well he’s left ours. Couldn’t have Krisn blundering upriver and not an inkling of the giant hoping to slaughter him.”
“Two giants,” Detah corrected. “There’s Raesan, too.”
“You mean, if by then they haven’t slaughtered each other. I suppose we can hope.”
“Asars,” said the heron-become-woman. “Not easy to kill.”
“Detah, I beg you, just tell your pet to stop doing that.” The bird-become-woman stood just off the track. Again she resembled Megovis’s mother, Sitasha. “I swear she’s turning my head inside out.”
“I am not her pet. You want that I speak into your head, as I speak with Detah? Believe me, I spin your head to another world.”
“It’s the changing from bird to person. Isn’t right,” Megovis muttered.
“Listen, Ulmelden-Govvy-Bear-Belly. Bird, person. Person, bird. But is it me asking blithering questions? Huh?” Ardhea jabbed a finger at him. “Aye, Commander Krisn knows a threat waits him. You think only you can tell him? Why else he waits at rivergate?”
“Well that’s something,” Megovis said (with a heart-felt prayer that Markiste Hildret hadn’t heard this exchange).
“You still fear you’ve been sipping her eblan flywort?” Ardhea asked and tossed back her head as if she laughed.
Megovis ignored the jibe and turned his attention to the ferryboat. Oh, but frustrating to watch. The markons weren’t Alisime to have river-skills. They could neither paddle nor pole it, the boat lurching and spinning as if of its own will. Yet—eventually—they manoeuvred it alongside the Kerdolak boat. Then, to Megovis’s surprise, a woman disembarked ahead of Krisnavn.
“Close your mouth, Megovis,” Detah said. “You swallow a fly, it could be an Eskin magician.”
In a voice untypically dreamy he asked, “Who is she?”
“How many ladies in Liënershi?” answered Ardhea. “She is Kerrid, Head of Kerdol. You expect another? You’re not the first man besotted just by sight of Her. Kerrid is Life.”
“She is beautiful.” Yet he could see nothing outstandingly different about her. So she was tall—even compared with Uestin women—and slender, topped by a bouncy bonnet of dark brown curls. Her skin, where revealed, glowed with the colours of autumn. Her mouth wide, her lips full—and decidedly kissable. She wore a long amber gown, too soft to be linen, a hip-band like the granary-women’s though possibly woven of gold. She wore no other adornments. She had pulled a cloak around her which was tugged by sea breezes. Megovis sighed.
Ashore, Kerrid, Head of Kerdol, abandoned Krisnavn and made directly for Ardhea and Detah. Megovis ought to have greeted his commander but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. For a moment, as she embraced Detah, Megovis saw a family likeness, though he knew it a ridiculous notion.
“Hegrea’s granary daughter,” Kerrid addressed her.
“No. She is Bisaplan’s kin,” Ardhea corrected her. “And Amblushe’s. That’s whence her sight.”
“And you, Ardhea, are still too rigid in interpreting words. Now, if you were to keep to that form, instead of returning to be a heron, you might one day perfect your communications.”
Ardhea sniffed and tossed back her head. For a moment her nose became a beak. “You taunt, when you know in this form is my punishment.”
“Apologies. Forgive,” Kerrid the Immortal, Head of Kerdol, relented. “And rather the child be Amblushe’s kin than Freilsen’s or—may he forgive me the thought—Urinod’s. But listen, Child-Detah, Urinod—”
“I told her,” Ardhea said.
“He uses your Black Bird to his own end.”
“I told her,” Ardhea repeated.
“You must not allow it. He intends me dead, and without me—”
“I told her,” Ardhea said yet again. “She understands. Better you hammer it into that Commander Krisnavn.”
“For Urinod to over-plant it? To ream his head till it’s empty of all but his own commands?” Kerrid scowled. And still Megovis thought her most beautiful. “He needs someone beside him who knows.”
“And I repeat, I repeat though you will not listen,” the bird-woman Ardhea said, her form fluid and changing and confusing Megovis. “Mistress Hegrea is that.”
“And I have said I have other things for her. Ardhea, why must you always counter-say me? Now listen, Child-Detah, you must understand—”
“That Urinod blames you, I know,” Detah cut in though her voice crackled with awe. “He blames you that the Asars were banished to here. But I don’t understand why your banishment, though I’ve seen how it was done. Your memory . . .”
“See?” Ardhea said. “I did all that you asked.”
“Poor featherless whit. If all she has seen is what I gave you, no wonder she doesn’t understand it. No, Child-Detah, there is more to it. You saw only the end, not the beginning. Yet perhaps it will do—for now. You understand Urinod’s fanatic drive for vengeance? That he will use anyone—anyone?” She turned to Krisnavn, sharply, as if Detah now was dismissed. And his Buttercup might understand but Megovis did not yet he ought for wasn’t he Krisnavn’s second-in-command.
“Now. Black Bird. I’ve told you all that I can. You remember it?” she asked Krisnavn. And though she was beautiful she was most severe in her manner. Perhaps it was only the import of the moment, yet it caused Megovis to shudder.
“Hold it deep into you,” she told Krisnavn—instructed, “for as sure as I stand here, he will try to wipe it from you. And listen to Ardhea, to Detah. To Hegrea while she is here. And remember what I said of the rogues along the Waters. They are not my Kerdolan. Urinod uses them.”
She turned on her heel and whisked past Megovis, leaving his jaw a’dangle. At the river’s edge a Kerdolak longboat waited, more the size he’d seen along the Waters. Where had it come from; when arrived? It ferried the Head of Kerdol back to the seafaring boat.
“You’re letting her go?” Megovis finally found his voice.
“The Head of Kerdol, and all her family?”
Again Krisnavn nodded, his attention all for the Kerdolak boats now leaving the rivergate.
“Has she stolen your tongue?” Megovis asked, fear for his friend now taking hold.
“No. Nor my wits,” he answered. “And I am aware that Urinod waits me.”
“Then, Krisn, Commander-sir, might you spare your men an explanation?”
“Hmm,” Krisnavn almost visibly shook himself before he answered. “Our Detah was right; yon Kerrid did take our attacks as a message, though not from Sauën. Her trade of late has suffered—Kin Mhuiris grown too strong. They’re unable now to acquire the wares they’ve always had from the south. Then this of Uissid Urinod . . . It’s not his first attempt to destroy her. Her grandson Lirabien these past many seasons has been seeking new land. He returned just days before our attack with news of a discovery. Now they’re to sail there. The granaries she gives into Mistress Hegrea’s keeping. I’ve yet to tell her. And the future of the trade, or what’s left of it, is for me to decide.”
“All tidy then?” Megovis remarked. Though must his friend, his commander, use that wistful voice.
“All except for Uissid Urinod now waiting to tear me to shreds. And if I survive that, my mother wants me dead.”
“Fomented by Urinod,” Detah said.
Krisnavn turned, as if he’d only then noticed her. “Ah. I want you to remain here, Detah. You’re not to journey upriver with me.” Then he turned and looked there.
He seemed now to be coming out of a daze, now that the Kerdolak fleet were clear of the river. Left behind, and previously hidden in their massive midst, were the five Alisime boats of the fleet. How frail they now looked.
“You’re not to face that giant alone,” Detah answered him. “She said.”
“And whether or no I survive this, there still are those rogue Kerdolan along the Waters. It’s more than just my oath to your sister,” Krisnavn told her. “This now is my land. Your trade is my trade. And I won’t have them take it away. Horse! Where’s Fierce Wind? Didn’t you bring him, Megovis? Markiste Hildret! I’ll have your mount. And your weapons. And your armour. Megovis, sort yours. And Detah, if you insist you’re to come, then you’re to stay out of harm’s way.”
“You!” Urinod pointed as they rounded the headland, his voice sharply accusing. Detah looked from the giant to Krisnavn. But how was he to battle against this? Well might he be armoured, but that only protected against poisoned arrows. One hammer-blow from that massive fist and those jointed plates of hardened leather would crack wide open. She had visions of Urinod picking him up and slowly peeling him, to eat him like a crayfish, bit by bit.
“Detah!” Mistress Hegrea called to her from the trees’ edge, the heron beside her.
“Go to her,” Krisnavn urged and waited to see her obey.
“But . . . “ but this time she knew disobedience would be dangerous, both for her and for him.
Now with her apparently safe, out of battle’s way, Krisnavn planted his feet, and, defiant of the Uissid, returned the call with equal anger. “You!”
Mistress Hegrea pulled Detah in closer. “You oughtn’t to be here,” she whispered.
“But Kerrid says I must always be with him.”
“One of us must,” Ardhea corrected, for that moment changed into the likeness of Kerrid. “Myself, Hegrea, or you, doesn’t matter. And Hegrea, your commander has a message for you. But it waits . . . till after he makes dust of yon Urinod.”
“I wish that he would but I fear for him. Mortal against Asar?– even though Raesan has weakened him some. Protect him,” Hegrea begged of Ardhea. “Shield his head from more intrusion, at least do that.”
“Ha! You think I’m here only to watch?”
Detah wished there’d be nothing to watch. That the giant Uissid would just puff up in a wreathe of smoke and be gone. Instead, Krisnavn was barking at him, his face bright with fury. That was sure to stir a fight.
“You turned my own mother against me!” he shouted. “You killed my kinsmen, my own closest cousins, just to have me to here?”
“Your mother needed no turning,” Urinod sneered. “Though I do accept credit for the massacre, a devious trick. And I knew you would not be long deceived. I know the runnels of your mind. It would not be long before you charged at the Head. But there you failed me. Now as much Kerrid’s puppet as is that Raesan.”
“I am nobody’s puppet.”
“Oh, you say?”
Detah clenched her fists in frustration. “Why doesn’t he do something? Just shouting like that.”
“You want him dead?” Megovis said. He drew her attention back along the track, to where Biadret and Ganros had just rounded the headland. “Disembarked at the rivergate. Now they bring additional weapons. And if he can’t hold out, if that giant slaughters our Krisn, then he’ll have us three to contend with next.”
It seemed Krisnavn was only waiting for their arrival. The three captains took a stance behind him. He hefted a spear (he had brought three initially to the confrontation). “Banished from the Dal, I am no longer under your command.”
Urinod made some sign with his hands. Detah frowned. What was he doing? Apparently nothing, for nothing untoward happened . . . except that he also frowned, his heavy brows casting his face into darkness. Beside her, Ardhea leapt and flapped excitedly.
“Hmm,” Hegrea said in satisfied tone. “I’d say Ardhea is blocking Urinod’s influence. I think he expects Krisn’s captains to turn against him.”
But Captains Megovis, Biadret and Ganros remained standing firm behind their commander. Each bore weapons beyond their fire-blades and war-axes—stone-hammers, more spears, hafted weapons with blades longer than a man’s arm. Detah shuddered to see them.
Krisnavn hurled the first spear. Short-shafted, the same weapon he’d used to kill the granary-master, it zinged in a blur, driving with a satisfying thud into Urinod’s muscled arm. But as if it were no more than a child’s grass-dart, the giant flicked it off. He laughed. His error! In flew Krisnavn’s second spear, aimed at his face. Yet at the last the ogre saw it and ducked. Ha! But too slow. It skimmed through his scalp. But, what? The blood-beaded furrow closed in an instant. Detah’s eyes held wide, her mouth agape; she looked at Hegrea.
“That’s why it’s impossible to kill an Asar. He heals, instantly. The only recourse is to deprive him of his element. Earth. Else to use earth’s natural enemy, water. Though how, that’s the problem. Ardhea might know, but she’s fully taken with protecting the captains from Urinod’s coercion.”
Detah glanced up at the branches stretching above her. “Stuck up a tree he’d be deprived of his earth.” But how could they work it so Urinod was perched way up there?
Urinod snatched Krisnavn’s third spear from the air and returned it with force. Krisnavn leapt aside. Ganros wasn’t so fast and the spear drove into his foot. Megovis yanked it out. Blood spurted. But almost instantly, that too had stopped.
“Ardhea’s doing. She’s a wondrous healer.”
“Aye,” Detah mouthed, eyes still wide.
Then faster than her eyes could follow, Krisnavn flicked the battleaxes up from his back. They scarcely had touched his hands before they were spinning through the air. She could see Urinod watching their flight, judging trajectories. But, two together, he couldn’t avoid them. He turned side-on. Yet still there came that awful splat and crunch, and blood jetted. But, again, it stopped almost at once.
“But why can’t we use water against him?” Detah asked.
“You want to entice him into the river?” Hegrea shook her head. “No, I know it’s hard to stand by, but this is Krisnavn’s to fight.”
But Detah wanted to help. She cast about for some way. “Where’s Raesan?” She could see his boat, a mangled mess listing in the water.
“Urinod bested him. He ran.”
What hope for Krisnavn, then, if a fellow Asar couldn’t overpower him? No wonder Kerrid had warned so desperately of the Uissid. She found herself clenching her hands. Yet there must be some way.
Krisnavn took another three spears from Biadret, the closest behind him. “You cannot win, Uissid Urinod. You haven’t the regard of the Alisalm spirits. They work against you, leaving you powerless, leaving you only the power to heal.”
He hurled the spears in swift succession. Then held out his hand for Ganros to give him three more. Again he hurled them, allowing Urinod no time to recover. And again, he hurled the three spears Megovis gave to him. At this rate, if he lost, his captains would have no weapons to use. And again, more were given to Krisnavn.
The assault was fast and driven by fury. Urinod couldn’t dodge every spear, every axe, every hammer. Neither could he coerce the captains, to prevent them from helping, for Ardhea was shielding them. Detah could see the Uissids was weakening. The constant need to heal took his attention, while yet more spears and axes drove into him, the markons from east rivergate station now having arrived with fresh supplies.
Urinod dropped to his knees, a frantic look at the huge tiered boat moored not far from him. Detah’s gaze followed his. The mariners aboard stood as if so many stones. She didn’t understand. They could easily have slain Krisnavn by now, they were within range.
“Pride,” Hegrea said. “He’ll not use Kerdolan to kill Krisnavn.”
“He rather would lose the fight?”
And even as she said it, to everyone’s surprise the Uissid held up his hands. “Hold! ”
“What . . .?” Megovis sounded befuddled, so unexpected.
Has Urinod called a halt to their fight, acknowledging his weakened state? Or is it a trick, a means of removing the Asaric guard held by Ardhea? Will he yet slaughter Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, as promised?