Unexpectedly, Uissid Urinod called a halt to his fight with Krisnavn. Remission? No, for then reminded the Commander Horsemaster that his mother and Clan Dragsin are still awaiting him along the Waters—with Mandatn’s venom, and the rogue Kerdolan. According to Urinod he’ll yet celebrate Krisnavn’s demise . . . Read on
Erspn pulled his cushion in closer to the fire. A mere quarter-moon since the Send-Off Feast but already the days were nigh as chilly as night. In that moment his attention was caught by an idling leaf falling down from the Meeting Tree. Aye, and soon those sinuous limbs would be entirely bare. Winter’s half almost was here. Would all be settled by then, and Mistress Drea learned to present a calm face? That last seemed unlikely, for now she’d set her head into a continuous negative nod as Commander Krisnavn respectfully made his report.
And she was up on her feet, too agitated now to be sitting. Erspn looked away, a silent tsk on his lips. Thus far Commander Krisnavn had done all that he’d promised yet Mistress Drea scowled darkly at him.
“All this you have done,” she snarled. (Was that an improvement on her previous screeches?) “Yet the Kerdolan still patrol the Waters. They are the threat, not some long-lived woman in Liënershi.”
To Erspn’s surprise Commander Krisnavn accepted the rebuke, inclining his head. “It must seem to you, Mistress Drea, that I delay the day. Yet our attack on Liënershi has provided previously unknown information.”
“Oh? Such information as will help you destroy them?” Her sarcasm boiled.
“Please, Mistress Drea,” Erspn urged her to sit.
She sniffed, flounced, and tossed her head. Yet she did sit. “What information?”
“For one: that these northern Kerdolan have broken with the Head of Kerdol.”
“Oh, I can see how that information is vital to your success!”
Erspn signed to Glania and mouthed of another brew. “Something calming?” Despite he’d rather she wasn’t so close to Demekn, he did find her an obliging young woman, always ready to help. He returned his attention to the current contentions.
“Mistress Drea,” Commander Krisnavn answered, his composure unruffled. “A blundering attack on these northern Kerdolan could have drawn the might of Liënershi upon you.”
“Really? And the destruction of Bukfreha’s Isle was not that?”
“Bukfreha’s Isle wasn’t destroyed by Kerdolan. That’s part of the information gained. It was Clan Dragsin.”
Erspn’s mouth dropped. Mistress Drea too was astounded, gone suddenly quiet. “Your own people?” she remarked in almost a whisper. Then indignation caught her. “You dare to bring your feuds to here? To kill my people!”
“I do not, Mistress Drea. And had we launched this blundering attack upon the northern Kerdolan, we’d have found ourselves much outnumbered. For they have many Clan Dragsin warriors fattening their forces.”
“Source of the viper venom?” Erspn asked.
Commander Krisnavn nodded. “Just one of the problems. That’s a battle that must be carefully structured. And there’s much to do before then.”
“So tell us of these Kerdolan. What else have you learned of them?” Erspn asked him.
“There’s been turmoil amongst the Kerdolan of late. Because of Kin Mhuiris. Let me explain. The Kerdolan have several source of ores; of copper, tin, and gold. Yet they count such metals as worthless: They can’t be eaten, they don’t keep a body warm. They may only be traded for what they lack. From their first settling on Liënershi the Kerdolan have traded south. But now Kin Mhuiris blocks them. So they’ve been seeking new trade partners. Only Kin Mhuiris too have been seeking partners. So, when the Kerdolan presented their wares to the Dal chiefs who did they find there but Kin Mhuiris, already established.”
“Is this story taking us somewhere?” Mistress Drea asked.
“The commander is answering my question,” Erspn said sternly and kept to himself his chuckle at her exaggerated eye-roll.
“The northern Kerdolan are based at Saria Go,” the commander said.
“That’s an island off the coast west of North Eskin Land,” Detah put in. “Apart from the Kerdolan, the Jinnigrits hold there.”
“That explains these stories we have,” remarked Erspn, “of the Kerdolan now trading with them.”
“More,” Detah said, spilling her new-gained knowledge like an over-filled brew-bowl. “The ores of Saria Go used to be taken to Liënershi. But since this break between them, the ores go now to Adly Ce, in North Eskin Land, and then by river through Eli Emiso.”
“And Eli Emiso isn’t far north of the Waters; not far from the new Kerdolak trading hold at Un Dli.” Erspn nodded. This now made some sense. That trading hold would be ideally placed to take trade from the Feg Folk, the northern Alsime, the Hiëmen and the Wallingas from across the East Sea—even from the Tuätin of Dal Nritris. All made use of the Water of Waters. “But why destroy us?”
“Apart from the plot to entice me here?” Commander Krisnavn said. “They want South River.”
“They want to trade across the Hiëmen Sea,” Detah said, “but without the seven or more days they currently spend shore-hopping. From the Waters to First Water, thence by Long River to South River, that’s only two days, maybe three.”
“Well,” said Erspn, “I must thank you for bringing these answers.”
“Thank him?” Mistress Drea spat like a cat, spittle spraying. “Yet he has not done as he swore he would do! What of that, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn?”
“The final battle will come.”
“Aye? When?” She leant forward to ask, almost over the fire.
“Before winter comes.”
“But you came to speak of other things?” Erspn asked Commander Krisnavn before Mistress Drea could work to another display of ill-manners.
“He came to talk of kings,” she said. “Yet like a lapwing he limps around his viperous nest.”
“I—” Commander Krisnavn began.
“Erspn, tell him,” Mistress Drea cut across him.
Erspn shot her a look. This wasn’t how he’d planned to begin.
“If there is something, then please do say it,” Commander Krisnavn encouraged.
So what else could he do but as bid.
“We know what you offer us as king—to protect and defend us, to govern our land and our people. Eblan Demekn has been most thorough in telling us, and he advises that we accept. He has much to say in praise of your Dal ways—though not all of them.”
“Please,” Commander Krisnavn held up a hand. “I shall be bringing few—”
“Please, don’t interrupt,” Erspn begged of him. “For I shall likely forget some part of this. Now, for my own part, I have no or few qualms in accepting that you’ll be our king. But who am I? Aye, the Eblan Head Man who speaks for the Ancients and the Ancestors. But, of myself, I cannot speak for the families of Alisalm-land. And so I called an assembly of we eblann. There Eblan Demekn explained at length what they must know. There we then discussed what we would do.”
Here Erspn paused. It was a long speech though, of course, he’d rehearsed it. Now while he regained his breath he called to mind the next part of it. And if Mistress Drea and Commander Krisnavn both would hold quiet he might yet get it all said.
“It has been agreed to name you the Alisime King.” Would the commander catch the implications of that? Not King of Alisalm-Land, for how could the land have a king. But king of the Alsime, for they had agreed to accept him as their governor, odd though the notion was to them. “We also agree to accept what you offer by way of protection and defence, and that you should take fairly from us of food and findings for your Regiment. But of your Dal-ways and Dal-lore, we want none of them here.”
“I’ve already said—”
“Please, I am almost finished. All that is said in answer to what you want of us. But in return we want something off you.” He waited until Commander Krisnavn cocked his head. “What we want is to live as we have lived since the days of the First Ancestors. We will not change our ways for yours. On this we, one and all, are agreed. So now, what do you say to that?”
He waited while Commander Krisnavn stroked his moustache slowly as if carefully weighing all Erspn had said. Yet that hand didn’t cover the deep crinkling smile around the commander’s blue eyes.
“First,” said Commander Krisnavn, “let me say that I’ve no desire or intention of exchanging your Alisime ways to the Dal ways. Had you let me speak, I would have told you sooner. Here is not Dal Uest—though, of course, Clan Querkan will bring certain Dal-lore and Dal ways with them. They live by these ways, as you live by yours. But, I repeat, here is not Dal Uest; Dal Uest no longer wants us as you might remember. However, I must ask that you accept a thrice-chosen king to govern the people and the land. And that you accept that our peoples share equally the upkeep of that land.”
Erspn looked at Demekn. “Is that not what I said?”
“It is what you said,” Commander Krisnavn confirmed with a smile. “But let me explain. I don’t criticise Eblan Demekn, he’s told you much. But here is Alisalm-Land, not the Dal. In Dal Uest four peoples dwell. Saramequai, Rizzoni, Gousen and Bridren. Each is as different in their ways as the Alsime, Ulvregan and Granary. These soon would have been warring neighbours if the Dal king hadn’t united them and now he governs them with the Dal-lore. That aspect of the Dal will come here. As king, it will be my duty to unite the different peoples and through the lore-verses to govern them. And, aye, those lore-verses will come from Dal Uest, as will the lore-men to apply them. But those verses aren’t unchanging. They’ll be made to fit this new land and the needs of these particular people. Those that don’t apply here won’t be brought. While others—new verses—will be added.”
Erspn nodded satisfaction. As he would expect of their prospective king, Commander Krisnavn had covered all questions. “It seems we have agreement. So, on behalf of the peoples of Alisalm, I hereby accept you as king.”
“Oh good,” Glania exclaimed, and clapped her hands.
Aye, Erspn too felt like clapping—and sighing—and sleeping. The strain of these past few moons . . . but now it was done. It was like moving out of a brew-house with its smothering heat into the sweeping winds of an open plain. He breathed deep of this fresh air.
“Now, if that’s done, may I have my say?” asked Mistress Drea.
Erspn held back a groan. He’d been too soon in his celebration.
“Mistress Drea,” Krisnavn inclined his head to her.
For a moment Mistress Drea said nothing. Head down, chewing thoughtfully upon her lip. Then with a look at each present she said, “Mistress Hegrea gave the granaries into my family’s keeping, and the Mother did much to help us. At least for the first eighty keepers. Alas, in the time of my mother and grandmother, that previously helpful divine began to nibble at us. Now in my time She takes unbidden chunks. Indeed, Her appetite is quite prodigious. Our Ulvregan traders. Mistress Alenta, Master Bukarn—don’t look surprised, their names again are allowed now they are gone—the families at Bukfreha’s Isle, the sister-keepers. Yet we know ‘to take’ is the Mother’s way, as much as it is ‘to give’. Now I am Mistress of the Granaries, and I must either release my charge and allow the Mother Her way else . . . else become as a granary-seed and sow myself in new land.”
Detah spluttered and turned accusingly to Erspn. “Mistress Hegrea said that of me!” She didn’t screech as Mistress Drea once had, yet her anger was there. “What do you mean, to give it to her?”
Erspn held up his hands as if to calm her. “But I did say at the time, I like the imagery. It’s apt. And it fits Mistress Drea as much as it fits you.”
“It fits Detah?” Mistress Drea’s mouth curled her distaste. “What has a granary-seed to do with her?”
“But Eblan Hegrea didn’t say granary-seed when speaking of Detah. There are many different seeds,” Erspn said before a fight could erupt between the sisters.
“But she did,” Detah insisted. “She’d been saying of the granary’s decay.”
“But, my sister, you have not a jot of grain-spirit in you. And not a grain of interest in my granary. You care only for trade, and for riding horses, and for deceiving yourself, thinking you plan the commander’s campaigns!”
Erspn shot a look of appeal to Commander Krisnavn. But it wasn’t needed.
“Mistress Drea, while I’d not dare to interfere in sisterly quarrels, yet I must say, to be fair, that Eblan Detah has proven ten times her worth in helping to plan these campaigns.”
“Then that explains why you’ve not been successful.”
“Mistress Drea,” Glania, beside her, quietly prompted. “You were saying of your granaries.”
Mistress Drea shuffled her shoulders. “Aye, my granaries—of which only I am the seed. My brother will vouch, it has taken these past five moons, and I’ve scarcely slept. But since Glania has been with me, only then did I see it. Without her help . . . nothing, I was blind. Though I admit, the Ancestors have still to approve it.” She looked almost beseechingly at Erspn.
“Their approval lies in whether it works,” he said.
“And that is not much encouragement. But . . . first, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, aye, my granaries will accept you as king. More: I offer you as king the use of my granaries for the store of the king’s takings where those takings are grain. My granaries will provide brewing-women to make Father’s Brew for the king—as I understand it, a more potent brew than your Uestin beer—and this will be made ready for the feasts. This I offer. But in return you, and any future king, are to leave my granary-family alone. It is to remain fully under my own governance. I shall remain Mistress of the Granaries and, as I rule now, so too will those who come after me—with no interference from the king.”
Erspn wanted to chuckle, though not at what Mistress Drea was saying, despite this was the first he’d heard it. It was the way that Commander Krisnavn stared at her, as if she were speaking some strange tongue. Then slowly the commander nodded and moved his gaze to Glania, who grinned. From across the fire, Erspn saw Demekn sign to Detah to close her mouth. Erspn wanted to laugh aloud but that wouldn’t do. As Mistress Drea had said, it had taken five moons, but now they were finally finding solutions.
“I have not yet finished,” Mistress Drea said. “There is the matter of granary-traders. At last summer’s end, my mother governed a full nine granaries, each with a trader. Now I have only four with traders. So it’s clear to me that the Mistress no longer wants my granaries to offer trade. So be it. Those remaining four traders may go or may stay, the decision is theirs. But—and I say this while I have you here as my witnesses—no more shall my granaries offer trade. And one more thing,” she said, her gaze now tight upon Commander Krisnavn. “My granary-keepers are daughters of the sun—our Mistress, your Sauën. They are not King’s Wives, as Glania tells me they are in the Dal—honorary or otherwise. Here in Alisalm-land, the grain was given to our Mistress, who gave it to her daughters. It was not given to any king. Do I make myself clear?”
“You do indeed, and I agree to what you ask of the king.” Commander Krisnavn might have long mastered the art of concealing his feelings, but for a glimpse of a moment Erspn had seen beyond that screen. In his snipped look at Glania the commander had revealed a man not at all pleased.
“Well, if that’s all sorted and agreed . . .” Erspn rubbed his hands and hoped that, indeed, it was all “. . . might we now get back to what we were doing before you arrived and asked to be our king?”
“There is one other matter,” Commander Krisnavn said. “I still have much to do, and I find I have need of a lore-man. Eblan Demekn, you are thoroughly versed. Might I ask that you serve me?—if only until such time as Clan Querkan’s own lore-men arrive.”
Erspn understood the commander’s need. And there was only Demekn who, for now, could help him. But Erspn wasn’t blind. Though Demekn tried, what with his music and singing, everything of him shouted, at heart, he was not eblan. Thus Erspn was surprised by Demekn’s reply.
“Did Uissid Urinod not give you the verses?”
“Those that govern kingship and the like. But, you must know, there are details.”
“You’ve said of new lore-verses and old ones changed. So why need me?” asked Demekn.
“How can I amend without knowing the old? Please come to me. I need you as an adviser.”
“When I left the Dal it wasn’t my intent to be a lore-man again. It doesn’t make for a popular person.”
“I have nothing to wave to tempt you, Eblan Demekn. Except . . . a musician and poet, with both Dal and Alisime lore? Such a man would be most welcome at my hold. And richly rewarded.”
“Nothing to tempt him?” Glania scoffed.
“Would you rather I offer him a Uestin wife? If not, hold your voice. You and I have yet to speak. Well?” he turned back to Demekn.
“It’s not a decision I can quickly make.”
“And neither would I urge you to hurry except that the need now presses. But . . . go, go play your bow. And while you are playing consider my offer? It need not be binding beyond this winter.”
“Now,” Erspn said. “If that’s all said, may we get on with what we were doing?”
“Aye,” Commander Krisnavn said when after a pause none raised an issue. “But, Glania. A word with you before I go.”
The Alsime have accepted Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn as their Thrice Chosen King. Mistress Drea has accepted him, too, on behalf of the granaries. Yet in doing so she has laid one rather awkward stipulation: that no granary-keeper will ever be (honorary or otherwise) a king’s wife. And that goes against Krisnavn’s requirement to wed her if he’s to be king.