Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn has resolved another of his problems, that of governing the Kerdolak trading holds, surrendered to him by the Head of Kerdol. Meanwhile there’s Demekn, who also has problems, one in particular now become pressing . . . Read on
Answers, Demekn muttered as he slid his musical bow into its leather case. Why did the Mistress still deny him the answers? He slung the carry-strap over his shoulder and strode off at a determined pace. It wasn’t the best day for walking. His boots already were soaked from the grasses around his oak-cavern at Bisaplan’s old isle. His narrow Uestin breeches tightly clung to his calves, their damp creeping upwards. Yet he set off determinedly along Freeland Walk to the Eblann Freeland. And Bear Hill.
The air was heavy with the rich scents of the season, of damp earth, sodden leaves, and fungi. He liked those smells of decay, of life returning to the Mother. Yet he scoffed at that notion. As if the decay was only now beginning! And wasn’t it true that, rather than to wait till after the winter, new life was already springing from that decay. At least Drea would say so. And Detah?
Demekn part-snorted, part-sighed. Detah couldn’t seem less substantial to him if she were a spirit. “No!” He suddenly realised his thought and called up to Saram before Saram could act upon it. “No, I don’t mean to think of her dead.”
Again he snorted. Before Saram can act on it. Wasn’t that how this all began?
He kicked at the leaves, now thick on the ground beneath the Freeland trees. It was here he’d seen the deer that seemed to think him a tree. But he had told Glania now. And he certainly wasn’t a tree: a tree wouldn’t hurt like this with the wanting.
Bear Hill. He scoffed of that too. So where were the bears? Not here any more. The Ancients or Ancestors or some other hunters long ago killed every last one of them. He turned in the direction of the hidden tumun. Only Alsalda’s spirit roamed here now, ever yearning for her Earth Man, Ulmelden. Another snort, again in scoff. Alsalda: that’s what they were calling Detah now. And if she were yearning some man, then he felt for her.
He arrived at the crown of the hill where the huge mother-beech offered her knees. Demekn sat there, as he had before. And wasn’t it there, on an overcast day after an overnight rain—just as now—that he had looked at the clouds just as they parted and, yi! Sauën had blinded him. But he wasn’t blind any more. Nigh an entire summer now with her dangling before him the friendship they’d started before the Judgement. He ached at the memory. With the right moves, that friendship could have developed to more. Could have.
He looked again at the sky. Would Sauën give him another sign? But no, Saram had already answered him with the sign of the dropped eblan-rod. He sighed, this time full-heavy like he’d a full belly. So, ought he go to Commander Krisnavn now, and say, thank you, I’ll be your lore-man? But there was more to being an eblan than an eblan-rod. Must he tear out his heart? For it was with his heart that he was committed to his Mistress Sauën. And there was his maelstrom. For given the chance, that same heart would commit to Glania.
“Blighted irony,” he muttered as, savagely, he tramped back down the hill. He’d only asked to be an eblan apprentice so he’d not have to return to the Dal and face her. “And you’re no help,” he said up at Saram. “Asking of me the impossible.”
After some distance and more stomping he again looked up at the deep-clouded sky. “You want me to set this rod aside?” He brandished it at Saram. “Fine. Then give me a sign.” Then he laughed at himself. So how many signs would it take to convince him?
Back on granary-land, he sat on Ardy’s boards, his feet scarcely a hand from the rushing water. Aye, and what cared he if the water splashed him. His jaunt up to Bear Hill had left him soaked, his feet now freezing. And he shouldn’t be sitting here, dangling his feet, doing nothing. He’d do better to upturn his riverboat and slip it into the flow. Instead, his gaze was back and forth, from the boat to the steep rise with Ardy’s lodge hidden beyond it. Until the crack and whumph of a heron’s wings drew his attention. The bird had risen from the river’s bend, disturbed by a riverboat.
He’d no need to see the man’s face in that boat, anyway blurred by the distance. His speckled-feather cloak was enough, and his bracken-brown hair. Demekn waited until he was close before standing, intending to help the older man to haul in his boat.
“No, no,” Eblan Erspn brushed his offer aside. “I’m not visiting here. I only pulled over to talk.”
Demekn frowned. “What, to me? I assumed . . . my sister.”
“Well, aye, I am off to visit her, too—I mean the younger one. I take it Detah is down at Hill Barracks? So hard to keep track of her now.”
“If it’s only a message, I might save you the pole,” Demekn offered. “Only I was then thinking of going there myself.”
Eblan Erspn pursed his lips, clearly considering it. “No, it would not be polite. Yet . . . aye, well, she might take it better coming from you. Just let me haul out, just let me think. You’ve totally topsed me. And I suppose your visit is to deliver your answer?” He stood aside while Demekn pulled the black-skinned riverboat onto the bank.
“I’ve no decision made,” Demekn mumbled, ashamed to say it to the Eblan Head Man.
“Yet that in itself is decision.”
Demekn looked back at him, hoping the older eblan might pass on a few wise words. But Eblan Erspn seemed deep in his thoughts.
“It’s never so easy when another speaks for you,” he said. “I don’t want her to misunderstand my words. If I went there myself I could quickly explain before she slides into the mud. It’s not easy, composing a message.”
“Not easy to understand one either. Not even when it’s clearly given,” Demekn said. For hadn’t Saram again answered, now in the sign of Eblan Erspn? Yet what did it mean, more than deciding him to visit the barracks? Aye, and once he was there? He may not even see Commander Krisnavn. The man could be away inspecting the bounds-stations.
“Are you listening to me?” Eblan Erspn recalled his attention. “I’m talking here for the sake of the clouds? Now, you’re to say to your sister, to Eblan Detah, that I send my apologies, but that I’m unable to attend her as her eblan-master.”
“You’re setting my sister aside?” Shocked, Demekn’s words spilled in accusatory tone.
Eblan Erspn’s hands fluttered as he tutted. “See, she’s so busy, Demekn. How can I continue to instruct when . . . I never know where she is. It’s been no easy decision but, no, I can no longer be her eblan-master.”
“Does this mean my sister will be no more an eblan?” Demekn asked, his own thoughts racing.
“No, no, no, I’ll say not. What, Detah? But she’s inspired beyond our imagining. No, the Mistress guides her—though to us, the ways may seem strange. But the Mistress works with her and through her. How could she ever not be an eblan? Though I will say, it’s unlikely she’ll ever be master. But that’s of little importance. Eblan Hegrea’s no master either.”
“She’ll still have her eblan-rod?” Demekn asked.
“Hmm. Aye. Her cloak as well. Aye she’ll still wear her feathers. Then, once everything is settled and . . . you know, then I’ll welcome her back should she want. You must tell her that. Make sure she knows. I don’t want her to feel . . . abandoned. Never that, not by me.”
“I’ll tell her.”
Demekn nodded. But this wasn’t the answer he’d wanted, that Detah was to keep her eblan-rod.
“What if she . . . what if she weds?” he asked Eblan Erspn.
“No,” Erspn said without pause for thought. “I know what you’re thinking. I’ve heard the talk and I know how it looks. But I’ve seen them together and . . . No, he doesn’t intend to offer her that.”
Demekn didn’t immediately know what he meant. Then slowly it slotted into place, and he laughed. “No, you misunderstand. I didn’t mean she’d wed the commander. I just . . . Eblann are not . . . I just wondered, now you’ve set her aside, if she’d now be allowed.”
“What an odd talk this is turning to be,” Eblan Erspn said and shook his head as if to clear it. “Demekn, who has told you that eblann mayn’t wed? That Shunamn I suppose. Though, looking around . . . Aye, I can see that you’d think it. But no, there’s nothing at all in eblan-lore that prohibits. But, I ask, has an eblan time for a wife after he’s kept the five eblan-duties?—and those duties must ever come first. And, oh, I suppose now I’m this close I ought to visit Mistress Drea. Now she ought to have been an eblan. Determined never to wed, is that one.”
Demekn watched him climb the path to Isle Ardy before turning back to the boats.
The seasonal winds threatened to batter Detah as she wound her way up and around Barracks Hill. But she didn’t mind. She enjoyed them,they made her feel alert and alive. And neither was she alone. She and Krisnavn had been farewelling Biadret and Tamesen. They were off to the Kerdolak trading holds to take notes of the stores, to take oaths and obeisance from however many Kerdolan might remain there. Tamesen was confident they’d return before the sailing season ended. Krisnavn had told them they’d best be back for there was yet to be the final battle. Even now he was waiting on the reports of the markistes Iusan and Ismelis, they being charged with the reconnoitre of North Rib and the Waters. Detah didn’t doubt she’d be included in making the plans. Luktosn’s kin might have pushed her away but Krisnavn was now keeping her close.
They were almost at the barrack gate when something, some sound, some sense, told her to look back. She let out a whoop of delight.
“Look, see! My brother Demekn visits,” she called to Krisnavn.
“I’ll see him in my quarters,” he said. But she knew he didn’t mean it as a slight; it’s just he was too busy to sit by the gate and wait. She knew he was pleased.
“Detah!” Demekn greeted her. And it felt so good when he hugged her, it had been so long. She regretted she must break the hug to repeat of Krisnavn.
“I’m to bring you along to his quarters.”
“You don’t share those quarters . . . do you?” he asked in worried tone.
She laughed. “No. When here, I’ve a tent. The same as we used when we rode the bounds. See, it’s over there. I have it all to myself, it’s so big.” Big. Empty. Alone. But he’d no need to know that.
“Are you saying you shared it when you rode the bounds? Ah, but the Regiment, they think nothing of it. But no one has . . .?”
“Demekn! No.” Then she laughed as amusement replaced annoyance. “No, I think they’re afraid of what curses I’ll cast upon them.”
They were almost at the captains’ quarters where Krisnavn had his command room when Demekn suddenly stopped, his hand on her arm to hold her back. “Detah? I’ve something I must say—”
“Aye, later. He’s expecting you. You are here to accept?” she suddenly thought to ask.
“I’m not sure why I am here. Except I’ve a message for you.”
“From my sister? You can keep it.”
Before she’d yet knocked at the door it opened. In mock, Megovis bowed and ushered them in. It seemed he always was teasing her, even though it was sometimes inappropriate. But she did appreciate that he made her laugh. Now she flicked her fingers at him as they passed. He feigned that it stung. She tushed him.
“Eblan Demekn,” Krisnavn greeted her brother. “You’ve come to talk of my offer? Please sit.” The usual stools had been set in their usual circle.
“But first I have a message I must give to my sister. From Eblan Erspn.”
“From . . . Erspn?” Detah felt her heart lurch; her head went woozy. He’d no need to say the message, she knew what it was. More complaints, that she stayed at the barracks instead of attending her master, and when was she to return, and was this any behaviour for an eblan. She looked away, not wanting to meet anyone’s eyes.
“Would you prefer, you two, to be alone?” Krisnavn was already making to leave.
“I thank you, Commander Krisnavn, but no,” Demekn answered. “I believe Eblan Erspn would prefer that you stay. As witness?”
Detah stared at her brother, her curiosity caught. Her eblan-master never would chide her or nag her in front of Krisnavn. He’d previously kept such words strictly between them.
“Then say on,” Krisnavn bid him. “Then we two shall talk.”
All the same, Krisnavn and Megovis kept themselves apart, allowing Demekn and Detah to seem as alone.
“So what is it?” Detah pressed when at first Demekn hesitated.
“I’m arranging the words.”
“I thought it a message, not a song.” And if he ever composed that promised song to Alsalda she would refuse to hear it.
He rendered the rehearsed words: “Eblan Head Man Erspn regrets that he can no longer be your eblan-master. He says you are too busy—which is true, Detah. But he says that once everything is settled, if you wish to return—”
“He’s saying I’m no longer an eblan?” She’d not expected that. All her excitement at seeing Demekn, and he’d brought her this message? She felt again how she’d felt at Luktosn’s Hold. Excluded. And this time not by traders who weren’t after all her father’s kin. But by Eblan Erspn, her actual father.
“I asked the same,” Demekn was saying, but she wasn’t sure she was hearing it right, “and he said no. He says you’ll always be eblan, that the Mistress inspires you. He insisted I told you of that—are you listening? You look like you’re listening to spirits. Eblan Erspn wants you to know that he’ll always welcome you back.”
“He does? I don’t suppose that was a decision easily made.”
“Aye, he did say something like that.”
“Aye, I guess he is right to set me aside. I do see that.” She flicked her head back, lips pressed tight on what could have been tears. But he would take her back, he had said that. “Would you return a message from me, to thank him for his consideration. If you’d tell him, too, I would like to return when I’m able.” Despite what Mistress Hegrea had said, she couldn’t see that Krisnavn could offer her anything. Maybe the Ladies intended her only to bring Krisnavn and Demekn together.
“If that’s all?” Krisnavn asked.
“Aye, so best I leave.” Detah was already part-way to the door, eager to be alone with her thoughts.
But Krisnavn stayed her. “If it’ll not be too boring for you? I need two witnesses.”
So again she sat, now to witness with Megovis their talk of oaths and service and duration.
“As to reward,” Krisnavn said, and Detah echoed the words in her head, having heard him say the same to Luktosn’s kin. “It’s Dal-lore, the king is generous in gifting any and all who perform even the slightest of service. But we talk only of this winter half. If you remain thereafter you’ll be apprenticed, and that’s another thing. You agree?”
“You’ve not yet offered,” Demekn said.
“I spoke in principle.”
“Then in principle, I agree.”
“Good. Now, I understand you wish to build a ring on the Highlands. I take it that’s a ring of stone. Maybe to rival Cloud Stone Isle?”
“How do you know that?” Demekn scowled accusingly at Detah.
“But it’s what you want,” she defended. “Like the eblan of old. One last ring to out-glory them all. My gift to the Mistress, yours to Sauën, and thus Krisnavn’s to the granary-family. A ring on the Sun’s Highlands where we’ll gather together, two peoples now become one.”
“High words from an eblan-true,” Demekn said. But there was a sourness to it.
“Well?” Krisnavn prompted.
“Aye, though that . . . that’s more than I’d ever ask of you. But then I haven’t the bare-faced boldness of my sister.”
“You must tell me everything you need for it,” Krisnavn said. “You’ll need more than just stone and rope, I do know. You’ll need strong and skilled men for the work, and food and housing for them. Between composing these lore-verses, you’d best give some thought to it. But, just name what you need.”
“Well speak,” Detah pressed him, for Demekn now sat astounded and slack-jawed.
“But . . . it’s a dream. I never thought . . . just a dream. I can’t even think where to start.”
“By saying where it’s to be?” Detah suggested.
“On the Highlands. The Old Isle of the Dead. We can use Murdan’s Stones, and show again our dominion over the Kerdolan.” He nodded as if he liked the sound of it.
“Now of that, I approve.” Krisnavn said. “So have we an agreement? You accept my help as your reward?”
And that’s another thing sorted. But if Demekn is to serve Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, even if only for the winter-half, then he’ll no longer reside at Ardy’s Isle—and there are three people there who mayn’t be overly impressed with this sudden departure.