The eblann-chamber went suddenly dark. Demekn knew who it was; he didn’t look up but continued to roll his feather-filled bed, tucking his flyworts and sewing kit into its folds.
“I knew it!” Shunamn snarled.
“It’s only till winter’s end. I’ll return.”
“Huh! Likely. More likely you’ll stay there with your precious king-man. We don’t need Dalys to see that. One cock of his finger, you’re there.”
Demekn rolled his winter furs and travel-cloak and strapped them together with the first roll he’d made. He hefted the whole onto his shoulder. They weren’t heavy, just bulky. But he’d still to carry his musical bow.
“Well?” Shunamn said.
“Maybe you’re right. But if I do stay it’s because the Mistress asks it of me. She’s heard my song and, Shunamn, she likes it. Now she wants me to raise that ring on the Highlands, just like the eblann of old. She’s saying the time is right for it.”
“Like the eblann of old?” Shunamn jeered. “You’ve been blinded by Uestin charms. There’ll be no old ways now that they’ve come. Rings! You think to build a ring for our Mistress? What, you alone will build it, eh? Fool! What, when of old, every family sent their men to work on it, what ever the . . . “ he waved his hands having run out of words. “Aye, I can see our Uestin king will allow you that.”
Demekn made no reply. Encumbered now with bow, bedding and furs, he squeezed gingerly past his black-bearded master. He was almost at Haldalda’s hearth where his stew-bowl and beaker sat muddled with the others when the lodge-door banged. He rolled his eyes skyward. If this was Glania . . . he’d rather have seen her alone. But he heard the step and smelled the grain and know it was Drea.
“I thought I saw you—” She stopped scarcely out of the narrow passage, her face horror-stricken. “You’re leaving?”
He sighed and repeated, “It’s only for winter-half. And it’s not like I’ll be in the Dal. It’s only downriver. I’ve a boat, I can return.”
“Return, of course. To visit Glania. You’d most want to see her.”
“I might want to see you.” He relinquished his load, neatly stacking it in front of his feet. “Drea, you know I’d not leave you here alone.”
“Alone? But I’m not alone. I have the grain-women, and Haldalda, and my dearest Glania. Rather I’d say it’s you who’ll be alone. Or are you as big a fool as our sister, believing our commandering-king-man will value and foster you? He’ll discard you, Demekn, as he’s discarded her, the wretched child. Did you see that pain when he dangled Mistress Hegrea in front of her?”
Demekn ignored her, pointless to argue with her in this mood. He picked up his bundles and continued along to Haldalda’s hearth. Drea followed.
“I understand why my sister fled to him. She’s young, and he seemed to offer her something. Whatever. But Demekn, why you? Can you not see how treacherous he is?”
With wearied sigh he set down his bundles again. He had intended not to say this, but she would keep pushing till he couldn’t hold back.
“Drea, just listen to yourself. You’ve told the man you accept him as king, yet you don’t accept him as himself. All this savage snarling at him at every least chance. What’s done is done, what’s gone is gone. Isn’t that the Alisime way? So let it be. We have lives to live.”
He turned his back to her, kneeling while he tucked his bowl and beaker into the folds of his bedding. She didn’t say further, yet he could feel her watching. Again he hefted the bow to one shoulder and the strapped roll to the other. Then outside the lodge he hesitated. He didn’t want to leave Drea like this. It felt . . . final. And also, he’d not yet seen Glania. Yet he couldn’t go back in to ask after her. That really would infuriate Drea. Uath’s curses! And now his guts felt so heavy they trailed on the ground.
He wasn’t even out of the gate when Shunamn fell in step beside him and snapped a reminder. “Eblann duties?”
Demekn tried not to show irritation. “I’m not deserting my family. And as an eblan the Mistress comes first.”
“Ah, the Mistress you’re to build a ring for. Or do you mean the other mistress, she who holds you by your stones? That one I’ve just seen waiting down by the river.”
“Glania?” He realised the trap even as he jumped at the news.
“Huh, enough said! You ought never to have asked to be my apprentice.” Shunamn turned his steps back to the lodge. “You sing,” he called back. “You make rhymes. But it’s Uestin. Like everything packed into your Luktosn chest. Uestin.”
“Will it be Uestin when I build the ring?” Demekn called back. But Shunamn feigned not to hear.
His step lightened when he saw Glania, and his face loosened into a smile. She was down by the river as Shunamn had said, her cloak tugged beneath her against the wet as she sat on his upturned boat. He felt a twang of guilt at feeling happy when he ought to be sad at leaving Drea.
“How did you know to wait here?” he asked while still walking the muddy path down.
“Eblan Erspn visited the isle yesterday. He said you’d taken a message to my cousin. You’ve accepted his offer?”
“I’m glad,” she said. “You’re a poet, a singer, and musician; what does your Eblan Shunamn know of such things? And I see by your bundles I was right to wait here.”
“I’d not have left without finding you first.”
“Liar. What would you have done, burdened as you are? Hiked all the way to Bear Hill, looking for me? But Hill Barracks isn’t so far we’ll never again meet. No need for farewells and painful partings.”
“Would it be painful?” he asked her.
“I was saying it as—”
He set down his bow and his bedding and furs on the wind-dried wharf. “Would it be painful, Glania?”
“But you’ll be with my cousin for many more seasons.”
“You’re not answering, you’re avoiding. And I mayn’t stay as his lore-man beyond the winter.”
“You’ll remain, you’re to be a truvidir. And since you’ll be ever at my cousin’s call we’re unlikely to be parted by any great distance. So your question isn’t a question I need to answer.”
He sat beside her. The boat wasn’t big enough, it forced them close. She could have stood but he noticed she didn’t. “Glania . . .?”
“No,” she said before he’d a chance to say more. “Don’t even think of asking. If my leg heals I shall be a markiste. The answer then must be no.”
“Oh? So as a markiste there’d be no pain in our parting? So what if you’re not to be a markiste?” He looked at her, his head set atilt.
“You know that’s not what I’m saying.”
“I know you’re tying yourself into knots. Glania, I ask but a simple question. If we weren’t to be together ever again . . .?”
“But we aren’t together and never will be. Doesn’t matter if I’m a markiste, you’re still an eblan.”
“Hmm, and eblan-lore says that no one, not man, woman, husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister, is to be given more than the Eblan Mistress.”
She swing round to look at him. “More?”
He shrugged. “More attention. More gifts. More devotion. More love. Every song, I give to my Mistress. I am to give to her a ring of stones built on the Highlands. In the past and in the future, I give to her my constant devotion. But I cannot hold her. I can’t kiss her. I can’t give to her my body. I cannot make for her a hearth nor build for her a home. I do believe she’d not be jealous if I were to give these things to another.”
Had he said too much? Glania edged away. But he would not set foot in his boat without first he’d given it his every try.
“And I doubt my Mistress would be jealous were I to give this woman beside me one small kiss. There was a time—”
He looked at her. Why not? He frowned.
“Then this parting would be painful,” she said as if he had asked it. “There, I’ve answered. Have I said enough?” She surged to her feet. And yet didn’t leave. Instead she paced across the boards, her body turned angular in her anger.
“Glania, there’s something I must tell you,” he said. If they must speak of pain, then why not of this. “When I believed you dead, amongst the massacred, I was convinced I’d as good as done you the deed myself.”
She stopped pacing and turned. “But why, how?”
“I didn’t want you to wed Imblysin.”
“Ha! Funny that, I didn’t want to wed him either.”
“But I didn’t leave it at not wanting. I asked Saram to interfere, to stop the wedding.”
“You did, huh? That makes two of us then. Pleaded to Saram, to Uath and Beli, to the Ladies. Offered my life rather than that.” Her lips curled in distaste. “But Uath didn’t want me, and it seems the Ladies have some other fate for me.”
“Maybe they intend you for me?” But he barely could say it, his hope, his fear, weaving together, stolen his breath, caused a great tremble, so all he could do was to gawp.
“You’d best pitch your boat. Only I think it’s about to rain and I’m sure you don’t want me caught in it. And Demekn, don’t ask me again.”
Detah couldn’t believe it. She was now helping Demekn, so great was his task. Easy enough for him to compose the verses to record which Kerdolak holds had accepted Krisnavn as king, and which holds now were empty with no traders and no mariners to guard them. But it took more than one man to record every small metallic item Biadret and Tamesen had brought back from those now-undefended Kerdolak holds. Tamesen’s boat had arrived low in the water, laden with bronze, copper and gold.
Then, when Luktosn’s traders arrived at Hill Barracks, Detah was called to witness, and Demekn again to compose the verses—though Krisnavn had first to double the numbers of everything Buhigen had asked as reward for them being the King’s Gift-Carriers.
“How can the king be seen to be generous to those who serve him when his people just don’t think big?”
“But why should they ask for more when their needs are small?” Detah answered him.
“Then they’ll have to learn to want more.”
“Aye,” Demekn said. Yet Detah noticed he didn’t share in Krisnavn’s laugh.
And now they were assured a constant supply of green-feather herb it was time to tackle Eblan Erspn on the land for the King’s Hold. Though Detah wanted first to collect the herb she’d left at Isle Ardy. Demekn offered to go with her but she’d rather ride Belgantros than to sit in his boat. Besides, he was busy, so much to do.
Drea followed Detah into the lodge, perhaps ten paces behind her. It was unfortunate timing (perhaps Drea had heard Belgantros and been alerted.) Yet Detah couldn’t have taken the herb without first saying. Besides, she couldn’t find it. Demekn could have warned her that someone had moved the trader’s store. She couldn’t just peep into every chamber. To do that would be extremely ill-mannered.
“You have nothing here so why the return?” That stung. And Drea didn’t even offer a greeting.
“I’ve come for the green-feather herb. I left four packages, early this summer’s half.”
“Green . . . ?” Drea squinted though the centre-yard, glistening with overnight rain, helped to lift the otherwise gloom.
“It’s an eblan-herb. Had you ever paid any attention . . .”
“Detah, my sister, we both can say that. Had you but paid attention you’d now be a grain-woman, maybe Granary Mistress when I die. So is this herb for trade? Ah, now, I remember. You brought it here against those rugs and honey you took. But it’s not yours, it’s for trading.”
“Aye, but not from here. You’ve declared your granaries no longer trade.”
“That’s true, but . . . O Blessed Mother!” Drea suddenly grinned and clapped her hands—though it was beyond Detah to even guess why the excitement. “Our mother has finally sent me an answer! Oh, I knew that she would, as soon as we brought her back in.”
Detah eyed her with caution, stepping back a few paces.
“No! Don’t go! Not now you’re here. Listen, we’ve been scratching our heads of what to do with the trader’s store. There’s so much here. Not only Master Bukarn’s as-was, but from the two northern granaries, and from Bukfreha’s. Oh, the trouble we had squeezing everything in—it’s even spilled into a second chamber. It’s taking up far too much room. The days I have spent just holding her skull, asking her what, what should we do with it all. And now she has fetched you here to remove it.”
“You mean Mistress Alenta?” Though she knew by now her mother’s skull would sit atop the shelves in the granary, still Detah’s eyes flicked frantically round in search of it.
“Aye, she’s fetched you here. And now you may have it.”
It still took moments to understand what Drea was saying. Had her sister lost her wits?
“No,” Drea said, “I assure you, it’s the very best of solutions. Our mother’s as clever in death as ever she was in life. But of course, you must take it. Take it all!”
“All?” Detah dully repeated.
She looked into the chamber where Drea was pointing. But it was crammed. Impossible to reach the back without first clearing a pathway through the boxes and pots and the rolled furs. And where amongst this were the four leather-wrapped packages? “Here is too much!”
“No, our mother says you must have it. Every tiniest bit of it. Aye, our mother be praised! I was feeling . . . well not particularly happy at what’s now your life—though we did try to warn you. Aye, but you’d not listen, allying yourself with that commander-king-man. Now you’ve set yourself apart from your granary family, and who knows what’s to happen to you once he has finished with you and—Though you’ve only yourself to blame. But a sister doesn’t like to helplessly watch.”
Detah doubted her sister’s pity came only from her. She could hear Bukarn’s words weaving through Drea’s: You’re setting yourself aside from your kind. And when you’re no more use to him, you won’t belong. Not to anyone, not to anywhere. And she had answered him that she didn’t want to belong. She didn’t want to be owned. She remembered, too, their talk that first visit to Cloud Stone Isle. She had told him how it would be if she stayed at the granary: so long in one place that she’d turn into a stone and be planted there. And he’d told her she lived too much in her head.
Well, she now had her desire. She didn’t belong, not to anyone, nor to anywhere. She had turned her back on her granary-family in favour of Krisnavn. Now her granary-family in return had rejected her. And Drea was right: Krisnavn would keep her at his side only for as long as he had use of her. Then he too would set her aside. Despite Mistress Hegrea’s insistence that her future rests in Krisnavn’s hands, she had already seen the signs of that rejection. But her eblan-master—though he’d set her aside, it was only for now—he’d welcome her back. He had said. He had said.
“I’d like to think some man will yet wed you,” Drea was saying. “Though he’ll not be Ulvregan nor Alsime. Uestin perhaps? I don’t know their ways but they’re likely less fussy. Or there are the Lenevan. Oh, my weakling sister, do you realise what they say of you now? So you wear the feathers but that doesn’t stop them talking.”
She ought to interrupt, to answer her sister’s wild prattlings. But her eyes now had ranged over the mountains of boxes, every size, from small to hold collections of cutting-edged teeth, to huge to hold she didn’t know what, and packed between them the oddly shaped parcels and some stiff, some floppy rolls of furs and fabrics and then there were tiny pots of unguent and tall pots of honey and of honeyed fruits and all sizes between. Her head reeled. Did Drea understand what wealth was given here?
“Still, our mother forgives you and she provides. I’ve no notion of what might be here. Yet there’s surely enough to keep hunger and cold away. Take it, my sister Detah. Consider it our favour to you, and yours to us. It’ll be good to be rid of it.”
She had come here only for the eblan-herb. Now she’d been given this? Her mouth moved but no sound came. And what was she to do with this chamber stuffed to its rafters with wares? Sixteen river-walkers it had taken just to ferry the wares from the northern granaries. And here was that but four times over. Where could she store it? In that tent that served as her quarters when she stayed at the barracks? Aye, she’d complained it was big but it wasn’t that big. But she needed the herb, and who knew where amongst this mountain it had been secreted. Best to make a start on this exploration.
She almost could hear Bukarn howl at seeing how they’d treated his trade-wares. And here she was, just as destructive, moving things here and there, upsetting further the lack of order. Yet she did manage to find what she hoped was all of the perishable foods. Dried meats, smoked blood-sausages, salted fish, cheeses, dried mushrooms, dried fruits, honeyed fruits, and honey: these she gave to Haldalda (who greeted and hugged her).
An armful of weavings she found as well, warm wools, dark-dyed. These too she gave to Haldalda, for herself and her daughters. A similar armful, though of finer weavings, of linen and traded hemp, she gave to the grain-women. Jaljena was as cold as Drea, but Old Apsan clasped her hands and patted her. White linens she found, and checked and striped wools. She bundled them together with a selection of furs to take back to the barracks for herself and Demekn. She left with Haldalda three boxes of assorted beads and several bundles of ribbons to give to Glania.
And finally, at the farthest reach of the chamber, she found what she’d been looking for. The four packages of green-feather herb.
“I’ll have the remainder moved Sapapsan’s Isle,” she told Drea, having to hunt her out before she left. She had no doubt that Demekn would find river-walkers for her, and she would be as generous as a king in rewarding them. It was a wealthy gift. But it hurt deep that she should take it.
So that is another matter now sorted. Though where Detah is to store it all is (as yet) anyone’s guess. And while Krisnavn and Demekn check the now-resolved mundane matters, the day of the Kerdolak confrontation wanders near.