Krisnavn has encouraged Detah to scheme-up a plan for the Regiment’s engagement with the Rogue Kerdolan. Detah, of course, has been raised on tales of Eblan Murdan whose own devious battle plans were somewhat ‘creative’. Will Detah take inspiration from him . . . Read On
It was early in the morning when they reached Mandatn’s Hold. A needle-sharp wind whipped over the marsh, driving salt from the sea straight into their faces. Megovis shook his body, quivering like a hound from water. “Who’d choose such a place.”
“Someone who prefers their movements to be unobserved,” Krisnavn said. Almost invisible, deeply-cut fleets brought the sea close to Mandatn’s gate. Easy for boats to slip in and out. “Who knows with whom, and what, they deal.”
The hold with its high palisade stood alone just into the marsh. To Megovis, its isolation seemed more fitting a Regiment barracks than an Ulvregan trader’s hold. The gate remained closed, defiant of them, as they rode along the short ditch-defined causeway.
“Maybe they don’t know we’re coming,” Biadret remarked, contrary to his previous argument that they should go direct to Mandatn’s, not ‘weave and dawdle while days are passing’ (a reference to Detah’s suggestion that they first visit the herding families—they had already called on Luktosn’s and Erleldn’s Hold).
“They know we’re coming,” Krisnavn said with certainty.
Megovis glared at the hold’s blank wooden gate. “What do we do if they don’t open it?”
“Knock?” Biadret suggested.
“Call,” Detah and Demekn said together.
But they could be calling all day with this wind against them. “That could make a man hoarse,” Megovis said.
“To not answer is the worst of ill-manners,” Demekn said. “Tantamount to declaring hostility.”
Megovis grunted. “No comment.”
Krisnavn nodded toward the gate. There were sounds of someone within, hauling it open.
Megovis watched the gap slowly widen. “You reckon they’ve a second gate, one facing the sea? Only that looks mighty stiff to me—like it’s not often used.”
No one answered him. Once the gate was quarter-way open he realised its problem: it was badly hung. The gatekeeper left it leaning at a drunken angle.
“Trader Manspek.” With a slight inclination of his head, Krisnavn greeted the trinket-bedecked grey-haired Ulvregan.
It was a brave man who would eye a Regiment commander who was also Thrice Chosen as king with such open distaste. But then a man who dwelt behind such defences could afford to offend. His gaze moved to take in the two befeathered eblann. For Detah he offered a hesitant smile. For Demekn a beetling scowl. But at least he acknowledged them. He wholly ignored Biadret and Megovis as if they were no-account underlings.
“Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn. This isn’t the season to be visiting. Your need must be dire.”
Megovis growled. Clever man, hiding behind the Alisime visiting formula. Or did he not know the purpose of their visit? Had no Ulvregan whelp been sent to him with the news? Though more likely the one sent had turned back rather than to brave the wind.
“Trader Manspek.” Demekn, acting the lore-man, answered on behalf of Krisnavn. “We are looking for a person or persons skilled at snake catching,”
Manspek’s head swivelled as his eyes snapped from Krisnavn to Demekn. “Who can’t catch a snake?” he snorted. “Doesn’t take a certain person. Any who knows how to be quiet and still.”
“We want someone able to catch live snakes and, if vipers, to draw their venom,” Demekn expanded.
“We?” Manspek’s piercing dark eyes locked onto Demekn. “We, you eblann, is that? Or we, you granary? Or are you ‘we’, the king’s family? Or is it simply we, his Saramequai, his Regiment?”
“Trader Manspek, would I ride in the company of Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, and his captains, if the need were other than the Regiment’s?”
Manspek again snorted deep in his throat. Megovis could almost taste the man’s phlegm. “Is the Regiment short of food that it resorts to snake-meat? I cannot answer you, Eblan Demekn, without first knowing your purpose.”
“The Regiment doesn’t discuss its needs with traders,” Megovis cut in.
“And I don’t answer without first knowing. It makes a difference, what you want. The snake-handler needs to know it.”
“The snake-handler needs only to know how many,” Megovis snapped back. “That and, as said, if they’re vipers to draw the venom before delivery.”
“Ten,” Demekn said. “Though more if it’s possible.”
“Then you don’t mind which snakes, sun-touched or green? These snakes don’t need the killing-juice?”
“We’d rather they not,” Detah said, drawing Manspek’s eyes to her. “But if that’s all can be caught, then we’ll need them milked.”
“Uath’s bones, how many more times?” Biadret seethed—but the wind discreetly covered his softly-said words.
Megovis clamped his jaws else he, too, would have sworn. Was it really so difficult to understand? Or was Manspek playing with them? Any other Ulvregan hold and they’d have turned their horses and ridden away.
“I won’t lie,” Manspek finally said. “We’ve someone here could do as you’re asking. But you’re Clan Querkan . . . she ain’t.”
“This isn’t the Dal; there are no clans here,” Krisnavn said sharply.
“I did wonder, what with a Reumen riding among you.”
Was that his only reason to be awkward? He wasn’t fretting that he’d now be found guilty of . . . ? Megovis wondered what would be the charge. As Krisnavn had said, this wasn’t the Dal. And Krisnavn wasn’t yet the Alisime king.
“There are no clans here,” Krisnavn repeated as Demekn’s mouth opened, no doubt to repeat his oft-said objection. “And Demekn is eblan and lore-man and will have your respect. Now . . . Demekn?”
Demekn duly quoted the words he’d been given. “Any person who serves the Regiment with whatever their skill will be amply rewarded, be they man, woman, Ulvregan, Alsime, Uestin, Saramequai, Gousen, Rizzoni or other.”
Manspek nodded. “I’ll fetch her—though I’d still like to know why you want those snakes.” They could hear his mumbles as he returned to his lodge. “Live snakes, but snakes that don’t bite. A snake without killing-juice, what use is that? Now juice without snakes, that I can understand.”
Biadret looked at the open gate. There had been no invitation to follow the trader. “Was it an oversight, you reckon? Or intent?”
“Gross lack of manners,” Megovis agreed. “In Dal Usast they’d cut off his hands. Though to be fair, here is so far from the other holds it’s unlikely they get any visitors.”
“I can’t find any trust for this family,” Krisnavn said. “But I regret I am judging before I know. Detah, give me a reason to distrust; what do you know of them?”
“Apart from what’s already said, that they’re Dragsin kin?”
“But that could be said of Jitnebn’s kin too,” Demekn said. “Didn’t their Nebona wed into Chief Gulaen’s family?”
“But it’s not the same,” Detah answered him. “That’s an Ulvregan woman wedding into the Dal. Trouble comes when the Dal women come here.”
“Do you hear yourself, Detah? You sound just like our mother. Wretched Uestin women, wedding our men!”
“But, Demekn, your sister speaks truth,” Krisnavn defended her. “My brother’s wife is Mandatn’s kin and you couldn’t find a sweeter woman. But here? . . . And I don’t like how this hold is placed. Here are the real vipers. We need do more than wipe out the Rogue-Kerdolan. Mandatn will still sit here, allied to Dragsin—not forgetting Dragsin have more men than those few they’ve sent. And Dragsin could call upon all the Gousen. No, I’ve a deep feeling our troubles don’t stop at the Waters. Mandatn’s kin will continue to drip trouble till the day we ensure their loyalty. And how do we do that?”
“Simplest would be to kill them,” Biadret said. “Wipe out the hold.”
“Drastic,” Megovis said. “Best would be for Mistress Nod to rise up and swallow them. That would serve them for building so close to the sea.”
“So you want the eblann to cast offerings into her Bowl, to oblige her to help?” Detah asked him. But Megovis could see she was teasing (the glint in her eye). Demekn, face sober, apparently did not.
“No eblan would agree it,” he said. “It would be the same as us killing them.”
Megovis was about to explain of jokes when finally a woman arrived at the gate. Wisps of white hair escaped her soft leather hat. Uestin breeches and a deer-leather shirt showed in glimpses as her fur-lined cloak flapped in the wind. More glimpses showed, of blue, green and yellow: her pleated and gathered Ulvregan skirt. Two gold amulets swung from a fine golden chain that was held in her cheek and her ear by gold studs, a fashion not seen in the Dal since she was a child. She otherwise lacked the usual Ulvregan trimmings.
“Lady Glontria,” Krisnavn greeted his aunt. “A pleasure to meet you. I wish you well.”
“So you are Galena’s younger boy? And, like your brother, they tell me you are Thrice Chosen. It’s an honour that you should visit Mandatn’s Hold. Your father would have sent men to do his asking, not trailed here himself. And you come asking for someone to catch you some snakes?”
“That is my purpose here,” Krisnavn agreed with a gracious dip of his head.
“Regretful you didn’t come ten seasons since. Then I would have happily caught you them. But not now. Not to creep about on hands and knees, no, I am too old. But I’ll not have you leave here disappointed—I can’t do that to Galena’s son. No, I’ll send you onward to my daughter Didodana. She’s at Burnise’s Hold. She has more need of the king’s reward than I ever shall.”
The erratic crackle of dry leaves in the woodland around them played havoc with Megovis’s sense of calm. He needed talk to counter it. He pushed Truth Studder forward to ride alongside Detah. “What do you reckon, Buttercup. Is Lady Glontria our snake-herder? Or is it her daughter, this Didodana?” He noticed ahead, how Krisnavn sharpened his shoulders as if better to hear .
Detah sighed. Clearly a question she’d rather not answer. “Which would you say? Didodana, Ulvregan-born? Or Glontria, Uestin, Clan Dragsin? But don’t forget it was her son, Imblysin, Sapapsan’s trader, who rode alongside Clan Querkan’s horsemaster into that massacre.”
“So Didodana is Ulvregan-born? Yet her mother is Dragsin?”
“Aye, and her father was Trader Elgys, a trusted man whose name is revered long after his death. Besides, her brother was that same trader Imblysin. It’s unthinkable that a sister should work against her brother. Theirs is the closest of bonds.”
Krisnavn slowed his mount until he walked alongside Belgantros and Truth Studder, leaving an anxious Demekn alone to lead. “What of Burnise’s kin?”
But Detah frowned, not understanding.
“Haven’t they an alliance with the Rizzoni?”
“Clan Ubant,” Demekn called over his shoulder to his sister, a brave move for someone with an uncertain seat on his horse.
“See,” Detah said, as if that proved Didodana’s innocence. “If Burnise had venom to trade it would have gone to Chief Krinik, not to Clan Dragsin’s chief Gulaen.”
Despite it sat across the river from Isle Ardy, along bound-tracks now thankfully cleared, they couldn’t reach Burnise’s Hold that same day. Winter-half was galloping towards them, bringing a return of the long dark nights. “Come this battle it’ll be our advantage,” Krisnavn had said when Megovis complained of it. But it still meant a night crammed five to a tent. Megovis remembered the last time they’d set camp along the East Bounds, listening to Detah’s story of snuggling snakes. Now they were more likely to wake to a wolf sniffing around them. At Detah’s request Krisnavn divided the night between five watches, including herself and Demekn.
“Master Nod’s in a hurry to take the old,” she remarked when they woke to a frost-blighted land. Yet Nod’s frozen fingers rapidly retreated beneath Sauën’s warmth. The land was again green by the time they reached Burnise’s Hold.
The smallest of the traders’ holds, Burnise’s never had prospered. And now they’d been reduced not just to two traders but to only two men. Yet confined within that tight log-fence, their bustling gave the hold an air of importance.
“You’ve come to speak with Didodana; I’ll fetch her,” said Trader Judeldn without even a greeting.
Megovis growled, “Some land this, where word travels faster than people.”
They were invited to wait within the compound. But in such a crammed space, with their horses and Burnise’s young children, they preferred to stay close to the gate. Judeldn wasn’t long in his errand, returning from a part-hidden shed behind the roundhouse with Didodana and a man.
“Her husband, Trader Bukarys,” Detah said.
“Brothers?” Megovis asked.
“It’s Trader Judeldn has the Clan Ubant mother,” Demekn supplied.
Now it was Krisnavn’s turn to pre-empt: he greeted them before they could speak, and offered a respectful dip of his head.
“Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn,” Bukarys replied with the same. “I hear you’re looking for a woman who can handle snakes.”
“Man or a woman, makes no difference,” Demekn said. “We require snakes. Caught, kept, if venomous, milked, and delivered to us at an agreed day.”
Bukarys stared hard at Demekn before finally nodding. “Aye, we thought well of you when you served Chief Krinik. But now you’ve returned and here you are, allied with them, with your flighty heron-girl sister.”
Demekn’s fair face rapidly flushed though before he could speak Didodana had grabbed her husband’s arm. “Bukarys! You can’t, they’re eblann. Who knows what curses they’ll cast.”
“Aye, who knows what curses are already cast. I said from the start, this is their doing.”
Krisnavn regarded Burnise’s trader with the fiercest of glares. “Trader Bukarys, if by this you mean your massacred sons and the destruction of the granaries, then I can assure you these two eblann, or any other, have no connection at all with it. Its cause, I know of a certainty, lies far away in the Dal. Now you will give apologies to Eblann Demekn and Detah. Elsewise I shall ride on, and number you amongst my foe.”
Bukarys held up an unsteady hand (if Krisnavn had used that tone with Megovis he too would be shaking). “Apologies, I . . . no, my full apologies. But you must understand, these are not the easiest of days.”
“You lost no sons,” Detah said with a bitterness Megovis did not understand.
“We lost our trade. Now these Querkan are here, how can we deal with Rizzoni?”
“Snakes,” Biadret recalled their purpose.
“Aye, I know, I hear,” Bukarys answered. “You want my woman to catch, store and draw. How many? Then to bring them to you when?”
“Your wife can do it?” Krisnavn asked him.
“Would I be asking their number elsewise?”
“Ten.” Demekn reclaimed his role. “More if you can. If vipers, then the venom must be drawn. We want them safe to handle. As for when, to be delivered to the Saramequai barracks south of the Meet four days before the Feast of Summer Ending.”
“Am I to promise? Ten? At this season?” Didodana asked. “Nod will be smiling if I can find you one. You know what you ask? It’s not only the cold keeps them deep underground. No bird nor beast has young at this season to feed them and flies and beetles don’t fill much. A day warm as today might draw them out. Then, aye, sluggish, they’ll be easy to take. But . . . ten? I will catch what I can. Then you shall have them, each separately bagged, and if sun-touched, their killing-juice drawn. But be warned, they make juice like a man fills his stones.”
“I appreciate.” Krisnavn told her and inclined his head deeper than Megovis had ever seen it. “You will be richly rewarded.”
“You say?” She jutted her chin. “But what riches can return a brother? We’ve not long heard how . . . he and the others . . . it wasn’t the arrows, was it. Those rancid Kerdolan used the snakes’ killing juices. I’d deny it possible yet they say it’s true. But tell me, how is it made to stick to the copper—or did they use bone? I tell you, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, if you know the way of it, gladly, aye, gladly, will I give you the juices taken to use against them.” She bit her lip, sniffed and turned away.
“I’d given no thought to using the venom. But now . . .”
Megovis could see how Krisnavn was thinking. At least if the venom was in Querkan hands it couldn’t then find its way to the Rogue-Kerdolan and Clan Dragsin.
Snakes? These are surely part of Detah’s battle plan. She’ll have remembered the story of Eblan Murdan, how he stuffed snakes into corpses to frighten the Kerdolak granary-keepers at His Indwelling. But how exactly does Detah intend the Regiment to use them?