“You’re looking exceptionally bright. Have you good news?” Detah asked Trader Buteld when at first he didn’t acknowledge her (despite he had greeted Krisnavn).
He shrugged. Then a grin formed and widened. “It’s our Flasina. There’s an infant to come next season, all being well—our Buhigen’s first. We hope for a son. It’ll be good, eh, a boy, a son.”
“Indeed.” Detah nodded, her smile genuinely given.
“May the Ladies bind it,” Krisnavn said.
Though it was a Dal-wish Trader Buteld nodded acceptance and without asking why their visit he scraped open the gate. They had walked their horses through before he remembered. “But what brings you; it’s late in the season to be visiting.”
“Is there a season?” Krisnavn asked aside to Detah.
She chided him, “You know full well it’s a greeting.”
Trader Buteld’s eyes glinted as he looked from one to the other. “A wedding soon, eh? I see she has you on a good leash.”
Krisnavn looked away, his crinkled eyes gone. But Detah had grown used to it now.
“Foot’s grown again!” Trader Buteld tried to make light of it. “Forgive an old man. So what’s your business here that you’re not tending your herds?”
“I’ve come to talk of gifts and trade,” Krisnavn said, his composure more swiftly regained than Detah’s. She could feel her face burning.
“Best you enter,” Trader Buteld said and closed the gate behind them.
“If your sons are to hand,” said Krisnavn, “I’d like them to hear our talk, too.”
Trader Buteld cast a glance back at them. “An Ulvregan is always ready to speak of trade. They’re not far away, I’ll call them. Moving the cattle down to the late pastures. We want to get the most from those beasts before we need bring them in. If you’ll wait . . . Burhata! A brew for our visitors,” he called ahead though there were no women outside the roundhouse where they usually were.
“You think they’ll agree to it?” Detah asked once Trader Buteld had left them alone to meander their way between the pens of sheep with their wide-flared horns.
“They will as long as the reward is great enough. And if not these, there are others. I can’t swear to Eblan Erspn that his eblann will have the herb for all time until I’m assured it will be perpetually fetched.”
“What’s this of fetching?” They’d not heard Buhigen come up behind them, the sheep loud in their bleating and trampling, mud squelching, wind blustering. “You want to sit out here?” He looked around at the muddy ground in front of the roundhouse. “Only I’d rather sit by the fire, inside. If a king isn’t offended at our meagre dwelling?” He led them beneath the arched thatch of the doorway muttering the while of Buteld finally losing his wits. “Fancy him leaving a king to make his way in.” Buhigen scarcely glanced at Detah; he gave no greeting. She shrugged it off. He’d other things to be thinking.
Inside, and she tried not to let her excitement show. Though she’d heard all her life of the Ulvregan roundhouses she’d never been inside one. It was dark, not at all like Ardy’s lodge, and it took more than a moment to accustom her eyes. But then what she saw was more similar than different. True, there was no open yard at its heart. Instead was a wide hearth in which burned fierce embers, probably holly and hawthorn. And neither were there strong-walled chambers ringed around it. Yet there were rooms, if oddly shaped, divided off by wattle-walls, rug-draped. As she looked around she saw the Alisime rugs were everywhere—on walls, used as door-hangings, as sit-upons to cushion hard boxes. She noticed, too, how warm in here, more cosy than she remembered her mother’s lodge. But she was surprised to find no women except for Burhata. Probably out with the children gathering winter bedding and fodder while the weather still held.
Buhigen’s young brother Takenn had followed them in. After them came a trail of boys, the oldest maybe graduated to ‘travelling apprentice’. Each took a place around the heat-belting hearth, dropped to a half-crouch, ignoring the rugs. They left space for Krisnavn, but not for Detah.
Burhata handed the brew-bowl to Trader Buteld, then gently steered Detah away. She wasn’t happy with that, a plea shot to Krisnavn. But he wasn’t watching.
“You sit here with me, now.” The old woman Burhata used her chin to show her a tussock. Despite all the rugs, it wasn’t even covered. It was like sitting down in the Wetlands. And this her father’s own family! A fine way to be treated just because his spirit was away now with the Mistress. But, no, in truth Bukarn hadn’t been her father at all. So neither was this family her kin. Even so, she resented where she’d been put. And Krisnavn had allowed it.
The bowl passed around the men. None thought to offer it to her, not even Krisnavn. The old woman Burhata jerked up her chin in derogatory comment and from behind her produced a bark mug. “Young eblan-woman, too, should drink.”
Detah drew back after the first sip.
Burhata chuckled. “Good, eh? My recipe that. Brought it from Meksuin’s Hold.” Fermented juice, spiced and hot, it was easily equal to any Old Apsan could make.
She heard Buhigen belch, saw him wipe his sleeve across his beard-rimmed mouth. She sniffed in disgust.
“So,” Buhigen said, “Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, what’s this you want fetched?”
“Not so fast,” Krisnavn told him. “First you need hear the full proposal.”
“We’re listening,” the younger brother Takenn said—which earned him a slap and a scowl from Buhigen.
“We’re listening,” the eldest trader, Buteld, repeated. “But first I’ll remind you, for our woes Luktosn’s Hold is allied to Clan Reumen.”
“An old alliance, you have said, and not to your liking. But regardless, this doesn’t involve Dal Uest. Except that in being King Tanisven’s brother I am presently indebted to the king of Dal Sahalis.”
“Good juice?” Burhata asked, disturbing Detah’s eavesdropping. “You’d like more?”
“It’s warming on a cold day,” Detah remarked. Too warming. She wanted to shed her eblan-feathers. Yet those feathers were her protection, and since she’d been pushed away from the hearth she felt it wise to retain them.
When she could again listen-in, Krisnavn was explaining of the recent gift from the Sahalian king shared between him and his brother. “King Tanisven promptly replied with an equally exquisite gift. But here I am in Alisalm, with nothing to send. As you’ll appreciate, I must set this right as soon as I can.”
“You leave it late,” Trader Buteld said. “Less than a moon till the end of sailing; nothing then till come next spring.”
Krisnavn held up his hands. “No, this I know. And I don’t speak of venturing before the next season. But this Sahalian king, his greatest liking is for something I do not have here and I can send him nothing other.”
“You’re asking if we have it? What is it?” Buhigen anticipated, wrongly.
“No, I doubt that you have it. Not yet. Not in the quantity required.”
“What is it you’re after? More metals?” Trader Buteld asked.
Krisnavn shook his head. “No. Sauën’s tears—amber. We’ve already spoken of it. I said of its source.”
Despite the previous scold for his keenness, Takenn jumped in. “You want us to go to the White Sea? You want us to fetch back the amber so you can to send it off to your Sahalian kin?”
The old woman Burhata leant-in closer. “Your man go cutting Meksuin out of a deal, he’ll catch a blade with his throat,” she said with quiet urgency.
“Meksuin’s deal is safe,” Detah assured her. “Krisnavn will take whatever Meksuin has of unworked metal.”
“Their salt too?”
“Meksuin has salt?”
“They used to trade it off to the Feg Folk. But now the Feg Folk have it off those Uestuädik Kerdolan.”
“I could take the salt for the granaries.” But no she could not. The granaries were no more to trade. Though she’d heard her sister say it, the full implications hadn’t yet sunk in. The granaries were no more to trade. She felt her eyes sting, her nose begin to fill. No! She mustn’t allow it to show, not here, not now.
“What is it?” Burhata laid a comforting hand on Detah’s arm.
“The juice. I’m unused . . . “
She’d always known it was no more than idle dreams. But if the granaries were no more to trade then Drea had stolen away even those dreams. The loss hit harder than Bukarn’s death—harder than anything she could ever remember. Broken dreams; now what was her life to be? Empty. Idle. It mattered not that she’d known those dreams were impossible. They’d been there, they were hers. She sniffed and hoped the tears didn’t show. She was an eblan now, and that was a better life by far than any life Drea now had.
“Let me be clear on this,” Buhigen said, having listened to Krisnavn’s explanation of the Tuädik king’s ‘gift game’. “We’re to take your hundreds of rugs and pots of honey as a gift to the Nritrian king who, you say, dwells close by the shore of White Sea. This Nritrian king, in his delight, will ask us what you might most like. But we’re not to say the eblan-herb, although that’s what you want. We’re to say the amber-stone, which as you say, grows ample there. These stones, more easy to carry though maybe more weighty, we then ferry along that river you’ve said of till we come to Dal Sahalis, and there we seek out the Sahalian king.”
“I shall give full directions of how to find both the Sahalian and Nritrian kings.”
“Such directions might be sore-needed,” Buhigen agreed. “Laden with wares isn’t the safest time to be asking directions. But then these amber-stones we give to the Sahalian king, saying they’re a gift from Krisnavn, the Alisime king.”
“He will ask what our king most would like,” Takenn took up the process. “And we’ll tell him he’d most like the eblan green-feather-herb—which grows so rampant in his lands that he’ll fill our boats higher than they’d been even with rugs.”
“But isn’t that what you said to me when you visited before?” Trader Buteld asked.
“Not quite, no,” Krisnavn said. “Then, I only suggested. To improve your own trading.”
“Our own trading, you say?” Buhigen repeated. “But how are we to trade if we’re busy doing all this king-visiting and gifting?”
“But I ask only that you go to the people I’ve named. What you do on the way . . . trade, take in the sights, hunt, that’s yours to decide. Your journey, your livelihood. Hmm?”
Detah could see these traders weren’t jumping as eagerly as Krisnavn had hoped. Now if she’d sat beside him she could have helped. But, no, she was a woman, an eblan, excluded.
“I can see how this proposal works to your advantage,” Trader Buteld said. “But I’ll scratch my head of how it works for Luktosn’s. I’ve a son here soon to have a son of his own. You reckon he’ll go off hopping around the world, and no gain?”
“But there will be gain.”
“Aye, as likely we’d gain anyway by trade on the way.”
“It’s Dal-lore,” Krisnavn said, “that the king is generous in gifting any and all who perform even the slightest of service for him.”
“Gifts?” Buhigen scoffed. “Gifts aren’t ever what you want and never what you need. Gifts are useless frivolous things.”
“You speak of Alisime gifts,” Krisnavn said. “These are a king’s gifts. You tell me what you want and what you need, and I shall give it. If first you swear to be my gift-carriers.”
Aye, and that’s unwise, to say they can ask for whatever they want, Detah mumbled away to herself. What if they asked for . . . for all the cattle in all the world? Or all the wool? Or the gold? Did he really trust them to set their sights low? But looking round at the lacklustre interior of their hold, aye, she could see that he’d trust them to that. Clearly their wealth dangled as trinkets upon their persons. Time was when she’d thought the Ulvregan traders had plenty. But now she had seen the wares displayed at Liënershi, now she realised how little they had.
“We’re to go there and back—to Dal Sahalis by way of Dal Nritris and this river you said—and for this you’ll give us whatever we ask?” Takenn asked. He sounded incredulous.
“No short journey,” Krisnavn warned.
“Neither is Meksuin’s Hold to Dal Sahalis,” Buhigen said. “And then there’s dodging the warring folks.”
“But this will only be the once in, say, four summers,” Krisnavn said.
Taken laughed. “Once in four? I’ll take that.”
“Hush up. You’re not dealing here,” Buhigen said. “So, we can ask for whatever we want? There’s no trick?”
The eldest boy, wheat-white hair and sun-reddened face, cheekily chirped, “But he’s not going to tell you there’s a trick if there is.”
“Ask it now,” Krisnavn said. “I’ll have a lore-man set the terms in lore-verse; it’ll remain unchanged, for all time.”
“That’s an alliance,” Trader Buteld said, and by his tone he didn’t like it.
Takenn ignored him, still busy speculating. “But what if we asked for two calves every summer’s end, and five armfuls of furs, and hides enough to . . . oh, and maybe, say, fifty baskets of grain?”
“If that’s what you want, and you all agree it, then I’m happy to give it.”
“You want us to say here and now?” Buhigen asked. “I mean, if this is never to change, I say we need to have a good thorough thought on it.”
“As I would expect and advise. So, I’ll give you till—Detah,” he finally realised she wasn’t beside him and turned to look for her. “How many days now till the Feast of Summer Ending?”
“Three more than three quartermoons,” she said, a quick swallow of her irritation.
“Twenty-five days?” he asked to confirm, then frowned when she grunted an ‘aye’. He turned back to the traders. “I’ll have your answer a clear seven days before that feast. That ought to allow enough talk. But I will have that answer then, else I’ll take my proposal to another trader.”
“If you can find one,” Trader Buteld said. “You’re forgetting how short that massacre has left us Ulvregan for traders.”
“And you forget not all traders are Ulvregan. But there’s yet another matter I need to discuss—if you will hear me. And, Detah,” he said, again turning back to her. “I’ll have you come join me.”
Luktosn’s male-folk made a show of reluctance as they shuffled along to make room for Detah. She spread out her feathers as she took a place by the fire. That feathered cloak might declare her an Alisime-eblan, but it was her cross-legged stance, in mimic of Krisnavn, that advertised her allegiance.
“You’ve heard of the success of the Alisalm fleet?” Krisnavn began. “That they destroyed six of the Kerdolan’s trading holds. But what’s yet kept close is that the Head of Kerdol, in admitting defeat, has surrendered the entirety of her holdings to me.”
“If you’ve come here to brag—” Buhigen growled.
“I say only to explain why this talk.”
Detah added her own quizzical looks to those of the brothers. She’d thought Krisnavn’s only intent here was to enlist Luktosn’s men as official gift-carriers.
“Unfortunately, in the attack certain trading holds incurred fire-damage. We don’t yet know the full extent; they’ve not yet been inspected. But once we know, then we’ll either repair or built anew. It’s mostly with these I’m concerned—they’re all to the south. The northern holds still have their traders.
“Now, I sit amongst traders so I don’t need to say, yet I will. The Kerdolak trading holds deal in metals—in copper, tin and bronze, and in gold. Moreover, their metal is not worked and reworked; theirs isn’t the charm-infested dross we get from the south. These Kerdolan aren’t—or weren’t—traders only, but prospectors, miners, craftsmen, metallurgists. They have their own sources of ores. The workers at these sources—miners, smiths and their like—have always relied upon Liënershi to supply them with grain and meat and—but I hardly need tell you: you provide the same for Meksuin’s Hold. All those supplies that frees a man from hunting and fishing so the miners can mine and the smiths can craft.”
Detah could see now where Krisnavn was leading with his talk. And judging by their nods, so too could Luktosn’s men. But she couldn’t see why he had asked her to sit beside him. Without the granary trade this Kerdolak metal meant nothing to her. Was it only that he’d then noticed her pushed aside and wished to rectify?
“You accused me of bragging?” Krisnavn continued. “Hey, look, all this I have! No. I tell you, all I have is a herd of aurochsen grazing my head.” And he did speak as if he was weighted with cares. “Aye, the Head of Kerdol has left all this to me. But with the southern holds destroyed and their traders gone, their miners and craftsmen are now without food and clothing and . . . So now they must stop their work to go hunt. Which leaves them less time for mining and crafting. And that means less metal coming into the holds.
“Oh, but, why ought I to fret, you ask. What does it matter what comes into those holds? For I have no traders to deal it, whether it be for honey or grain or . . . See, who am I; I’m no trader to know of these things.”
“You’re looking at us?” Trader Buteld sat back in surprise, a grin beginning to trickle over his face.
Krisnavn looked at those gathered around him before he answered. “I’m looking for a man who knows about metals, about smiths, and trade.” His gaze held on Buhigen, whose wife’s brother, Nekyn, the Saramequai had already used as a smith. “I’m thinking this might better suit an older man—there’ll be no travelling: I seek only an advisor.”
“You’re asking me?” Trader Buteld asked. “You do know we’re allied to Clan Reumen.”
Krisnavn laughed. “That you were allied, long years ago. Detah?” he finally turned to her. “What can you tell us of that alliance?”
She blinked, surprised to be asked of it when all around her were Luktosn’s kin. Yet she answered. “It was contracted between Luktosn’s trader Danskaken and King Rudrens of Clan Reumen. To seal it, King Rudrens gave his daughter Kolmika as wife to Matys, Danskaken’s son. She was my . . . she was Bukarn’s mother, and the reason my brother served his four in the Dal.”
“And Danskaken and Buteld are, what, brothers?” Krisnavn asked her.
“Indeed we are not!” Trader Buteld cut in. “He was my uncle.”
“So the alliance dates to a generation before you?” Krisnavn asked him. “And when was it last reaffirmed?”
Trader Buteld frowned.
“Well, was it during the time of your travelling?” Krisnavn prompted him. “Clearly not, else you’d say, not sit there, brows drawn and head hung down.”
“We prefer not even to speak to them,” Buhigen snapped, his words loaded with venom. “Bukarn was the one—her father. We reckoned he was chasing a woman there.” He glared at Detah, who glowered in return.
“So no one now living has reaffirmed it?” Krisnavn asked. “Then it is void. Null. Gone. And I’ll have your answer to both propositions a clear seven days before the next feast.”
He rose and, with barely a nod, left the kinsmen to their hearth.
“What was that about?” he asked Detah once out of Luktosn’s hearing. “When here before, they welcomed you. Now they push you away?”
“Bukarn’s spirit now has left. They’ve no need to honour me in fear of him.”
“Bukarn, Bukarn. I’ve noticed this since my return: you no longer say of your ‘father’, only of ‘Bukarn’. Detah, it would hurt me greatly if this is because of what happened.”
“It’s not that,” she said. “He knew, he accepted, and so did I. I could not have ridden the bounds with you elsewise. No, the reason is simple. Bukarn wasn’t my father.”
As the Feast of Summer Ending approaches so the outstanding problems are slowly resolved. To appoint an Ulvregan trading family to act as the king’s gift-carrier throughout the years and into eternity is thus to ensure the eblann have an unending supply of their green-feather herb, which in turn will secure the future kings’ rights to the land where Krisnavn intends to set the king’s hold. But that’s only one problem amongst many.