Over the past months Megovis had increasingly found himself haunting the high walkway around the palisade where he strolled, strutted, paced and idled. Asked of this lofty habit—which both Biadret and Ganros had by way of making fun of him– he honestly replied that he was keeping an eye both inside and out of the barracks. Though, in truth, he’d adopted this eyrie so he could think undisturbed. He wasn’t Querkan but Clan Kairen, and he had but a short season (this coming winter) before he must return to the Dal. But he didn’t want to leave Alisalm-Land. He told himself it was because of Krisn. Lifelong friends, how could they now part? But he knew it wasn’t only that.
Of course, being atop the palisade he tended to see arrivals even before the guard had shouted alert. He saw Krisnavn come into view, returning from His Indwelling with his two eblann witnesses. As their horses clopped up the hill he could hear their chatter. Eblan Erspn had granted Krisnavn the land—traded for green-feather, one hundred bags to be delivered at each summer’s end. Now Krisnavn must send word to Bukplugn’s Hold, for Trader Maryns was to oversee the building of the new King’s Hold. Though the men he’d provide would be fairly rewarded, yet their very provision was taken as a gift from Bukplugn’s kin to Krisnavn. Demekn was to compose the confirmatory verses. Krisnavn was keeping Demekn busy, not least in learning to ride the horse he’d been given. But some folk just aren’t happy as horsemen.
Talk of Bukplugn’s Hold caused a turn in their chatter. Again, Krisnavn suggested that Detah stored her given wares there. Again, Detah refused him.
“But you’d record every item,” he said.
“Aye, and I’m not saying that their traders would intentionally take. Yet I know how easy it is to just ‘borrow’, intending to replace. You remember, Demekn, those honeyed-fruits when you acted the heron?” And whatever the story, that caused them both to laugh and splutter.
But Krisnavn wasn’t happy with her answer. “I don’t understand you. You’re happy to have the wares stored here beneath canvas where every markon’s fingers are tempted.”
“How tempted,” she asked, “when they know I’ll cast a curse upon them?”
“You’re a strong-headed woman,” Krisnavn said, dismissing the talk.
They were through the gate and the guard again closing the high and wide doors when Megovis called down to the guards to hold. “Markistes Iusan and Ismelis returning, if I’m not mistaken.” And who could mistake the Regiment horses and the markistes with their braid-tips glinting—even if they didn’t wear the usual white breeches.
Krisnavn looked up to where Megovis had stationed himself west of the gate. “I’ll have you, Ganros and Biadret in the command room.”
Megovis rubbed his hands down his breeches. Finally! To talk of the Rogue-Kerdolan along the Waters. One more battle and it all would be done. Then again he thought of his return to the Dal—where Uissid Urinod resided. He didn’t want to be near that ogre. And more, he didn’t want to live by rules set by that maliciously calculating giant. Besides, he now openly admitted, he just plain didn’t want to leave Alisalm-Land. His eyes followed the blood-coated gelding and the fire-feathered eblan. But, no, he turned away. Some dreams were impossible.
Two additional stools had been fetched from the sleeping quarters to seat the eight now crammed into the command room. Megovis and Detah took their usual places to either side of Krisnavn. Demekn sat opposite, a markiste to either side of him. Ganros had tried his usual sidling up to Detah. But one look from Demekn and Ganros had decided to sit to the other side, next to Megovis.
This was too much a chance for Megovis to miss. “What, the great bull Ganros, afraid of Demekn? I saw.”
“Not at all,” said Ganros though Megovis knew it a bluff.
And why not the fear? Didn’t young Detah ooze power, and she only an eblan of late. So how much more had her talented brother?
“Am I allowed?” Biadret asked as he took the empty stool next to her.
“Assembled,” Demekn said, though it hardly was needed. Krisnavn then gave his nod for Markiste Iusan to begin his report.
“First, Commander-sir, I have to say the Head of Kerdol told you truth of these Rogue-Kerdolan. They are unassociated with Liënershi. For if in Liënershi’s control by now they’d be gone. Instead we found their trading hold manned and busy.”
Krisnavn grimaced. “It was a small hope.”
“The Rogues present but a small force there, Commander-sir,” Markiste Ismelis took up the report. “Twenty at most. An insult really.”
“You’re certain of that?” Krisnavn asked him.
“We’re certain, Commander-sir; we saw no more, not of Kerdolan. But of Dragsin . . . Another forty.”
“Something more told by the Head of Kerdol,” Krisnavn admitted. “But only forty?”
Megovis agreed the surprise. “By the news those river-walkers brought us of Bukfreha’s Isle, I expected more.”
“Detah, how many boats did they say?” Krisnavn asked her. “I’m remembering as five, am I right?”
“Five, aye,” she agreed. “And if their boats were the same as those we saw along the Waters then, eight to each, that would be forty.”
“Yet didn’t the river-walkers say of the boats being heavily manned?” Krisnavn asked her though Megovis knew well the commander knew exactly what they had said.
“But eight to a boat would seem heavily manned to a river-walker used to only one to a boat,” Demekn explained.
“I had thought there’d be more. Forty. Are you sure?” Krisnavn pressed the markistes.
“It’s true we didn’t stop to count them, Commander-sir,” Markiste Ismelis admitted. “Yet they’ve built for themselves a longhouse, hidden at back of the trading hold, and without them sleeping atop each other, it won’t house more.”
“Horses?” Megovis asked.
“None seen, Captain-sir. Not even piles of their doings.”
“But forty can’t be all that Dragsin can muster,” Krisnavn said, to no one particular. “Though I’d rather not more, yet it seems a low number. Unless they’ve only sent their battle-served men. I don’t suppose you saw any sign of imminent departure?”
“Signs, Commander-sir, such as?” asked Markiste Iusan “We saw four of the Kerdolak longboats, but they weren’t big sea-goers.”
“The size that pulled into South Water?” Krisnavn asked.
“Capable of shore-hopping,” suggested Megovis, “but not a sea-crossing?”
“So at best they’ll be used to ferry Clan Dragsin down to the rivergate, thence to be taken by Hiëmen boat.” For a while Krisnavn was quiet in his thoughts which no one desired to disturb. “We have to admit it,” he finally said, “we don’t know what Dragsin will do. So, we have to factor Dragsin into our plans. That’s now twenty Rogue-Kerdolan, and forty Dragsin.”
“But we have double that number, easy,” Biadret said.
“No, Biadret,” Krisnavn said, “we might have the numbers, but not available. We’ll need cover for all the rivergates—how many Megovis?”
“Four,” Megovis said. “South River, South Water, Dividing River and Big Water; five stations in all beside them.”
“And then the patrols—”
“South Alsime Commons, West Bounds, four for Eli Go Common along to His Indwelling, North Bounds, Big Water . . .” Megovis named them though not for Krisnavn. This was more for the markistes, and for Demekn.
“And what matters our numbers,” Krisnavn said, “when they have that venom.”
“They might have venom,” Ganros countered, “but we have armour.”
“We also have our Alisime seamen,” Megovis put in.
“Yea,” Krisnavn agreed. “And they’ll be deployed at the rivergates. I’d like to pull the markons off the patrols—we need them— but the Alsime aren’t riders to replace them.”
“Maybe not on horses, but patrolling in boats?” Ganros suggested.
Krisnavn didn’t immediately take it. He sighed. “No, whichever way we juggle, we won’t be up to full number. And we won’t crush the Rogues by topping them just by a few markons. If it weren’t for Clan Dragsin . . . Still, let’s have a sketch of the area, see what we’re looking at. Detah and Demekn have already provided but it covers only the Waters around the Meet of North Rib. Could you markistes supply whatever is missing? The area around the Rogues’ trading hold. And wherever these Dragsin are based. Are they quartered with the Rogues, or separate? If separate, where? Can you do it now? Demekn, give them your plan?”
“And all they need do is to shut the gates of that trading hold and we’ve a siege,” Ganros said while they waited for the markistes to add detail to Detah’s and Demekn’s sketch.
“It’ll be easier for us if they do,” Biadret said. “Then all we need do is to fire it. But while the Rogues might do that, the Dragsin wouldn’t, not if they’re time-served. They’re more likely to bundle the Rogues into the hold, there to entice us, while Clan Dragsin themselves form a circle around us. Hidden. We ride through, Beli’s points ready, Dragsin closes behind us. Ambushed, we’re trapped.”
“Beli will be smiling if they can make a full circle. Look at that.” Ganros looked over the markistes’ shoulders at the drawing. “Reeds to south of the hold, river to east. What’s the land like to north?”
“No place to hide in ambush,” Markiste Iusan said. “Tilled land as far as can see. Pasture closer, along by the river and fen.”
“As I said when riding the bounds, the Eskin have to work every last part of their land,” Detah said. “So where is the nearest Eskin court?”
“Here,” Markiste Iusan said, and added strokes to the drawing. “But not one . . . ‘court’ did you call it? No, several, all huddled around what we took as a granary—atop a hill of sorts. Their ‘courts’ lie hidden behind it. Ironic. The only cover for far and we can’t make use of it.”
“What of trees?” Biadret asked.
“None,” Detah answered before the markistes. “That’s why the bridge. There were no trees closer.”
“So the only cover is reed?” Ganros asked.
“Reed, smoke . . . the night,” Detah said and added a grin as she looked at Krisnavn.
“Do I see a plan forming?” he asked her.
Megovis held back a grin; that head of hers, did it ever stop?
“But first,” she said, “we need to pick the right day.”
The markistes, Ganros and Biadret looked at her. But Megovis had guessed it. “When everyone will be at the feasts.”
And what plan is this that requires a feast-day to succeed? We might remember that Detah was raised on tales of Eblan Murdan, whose own battle plans were both devious and unusual. Food for thought?