Megovis had to admit, for the lay of its land he preferred Un Dli, north of the Waters, to Alisalm-Land. Here the hills were more gentle, little more than slight hummocks. And the land wasn’t awkwardly cut by rivers. Perhaps that’s why the Alsime eschewed it: unable to traverse it by boat. The few rivers encountered tended to a southerly flow to feed into the Waters. But as to what clothed that land . . . no, Megovis had to admit it was poor. Where were the woodlands? True, their route was punctuated by copses of beech, rowan and birch, darkly padded with holly and yew, yet here was nothing resembling the Freelands of Alisalm-Land. Still, at least these copses provided the Regiment with daytime cover.
Detah was strong in his thoughts those first nights of the journey. Demekn had composed verses in praise of Saram, and to ask Him to allow no clouds to veil the sky. But Detah (Alisime-born) lacked her brother’s trust in the High One, despite Clan Querkan were Saramequai, Saram’s own horsemen. She begged off Krisnavn three muscled men. “Alsime, Querkan, it doesn’t matter.” And she had them dig a deep shaft for her. It dropped three men’s heights into the chalk beneath Hill Barracks. Over it she wove an Alisime bender. As he rode through the night, Megovis’s belly churned at the thought of what she was doing down there. He wanted to be there. He didn’t trust the rope that would lower her down and, more importantly, would pull her back up.
She had told him some of it—as much as allowed. The first night she would gift Master Nod with the fermented mares’ milk the Ulvregan had recently favoured. She had asked for the milk to be only from white mares. But this wasn’t the season, and, anyway, the Regiment hadn’t even the one. Bukplugn’s kin had provided, thrusting five full bladders of the drink upon her, they said in thanks of the gift of West Rivergate hold. Poured into three birch-bark beakers she had especially made, the fermented milk would be left in a niche she had scooped at the bottom of the shaft. That shaft then would fill with the smoke of the eblan-herb, green-feather, while she communed, as she said, with Master Nod’s lesser spirits. Though she had listed them all Megovis could remember was the fox and the hare. These two little beasts, trapped two nights before, would be given to Master Nod on the remaining two nights. And all to ensure that Master Nod beamed bright from a cloudless sky. Megovis prayed to Saram to keep her safe.
The day before the planned attack they forsook the night to ride instead through a seemingly empty sunlit land. They came to one of the few fords so far encountered. Megovis held back to allow the markons and markistes to cross first. His eyes strayed up towards Saram.
“I reckon a ground-attack is more likely,” Biadret ribbed him, his horse brought alongside Truth Studder.
“We’ve scouts enough,” Megovis answered absently, his thoughts engaged and rolling on. “You know how disastrous it’ll be to have rain this day? You heard Detah. As long as it holds fine the Eskin will dance and drink until unable, then they’ll drop wherever they are. But if it rains . . . then they’ll leave their feasts as soon as able.”
“Hmm,” Biadret grunted. “So imagine their horror on hearing the thunder of our Regiment horses—and they can’t yet see us, out of sight in the hills.”
“In hills that echo the thunder,” Megovis said, satisfied with his conjured image of the horrified faces of the Eskin feasters, all turning and wondering. “You reckon they’ll take it as one of their deities speaking?”
“They’ll take it as a sign, that’s for certain. And so it will be.”
The ford cleared of congestion, Megovis gee’d his horse into motion. They had a distance to go before Sauën fled to Beli’s bed and Master Nod rose to light the way. There would be no riding this night—not if they managed to get into place. For there they would rest; they would wait. Their attack was to come early—while Roguish heads still were foggy with brew.
There had been a query of that, Krisnavn asking as soon as Detah outlined the plan: What if the Rogues didn’t attend the feast? After all, they had four longboats bobbing on the water, and a hold brimming with portable metals. Would they really leave it all unguarded?
“They’ve also a Dragsin longhouse nudging against them,” Ganros had added.
“Oh, they’ll feast,” she had assured them. “Listen, this is as best I know their feast fable. The Father begot a son on the Mother—the Eskin and Kerdolan call him Kerdol but to us he is Nod. When we celebrate our Feast of Winter Ending. the Eskin celebrate his birth. Then, in their fables, Kerdol-the-Child becomes Kerdol-the-Man and weds the Mother. Close your mouths, don’t say a thing. I know that’s wrong. Yet that’s what the Eskin and Kerdolan say. I don’t know what they call their feast but it’s held when we have the Feast of Sun Calling. Next, Kerdol ages and, like Master Nod, he dies. Their feast of that is held around the time of our Send-Off feast. And now, like Master Nod, Kerdol becomes Master Death. Yet because they are Eskin and Kerdolan and don’t know the truth, they say Kerdol has become the Father again.”
As Megovis remembered he had spluttered a laugh. And Detah had thrown up her hands and shaken her head as if angry at him. “Aye, I agree—and you tell me how Master Nod can become Saram. Anyway, this Eskin feast at summer’s end is to honour this miraculous transformation. They slaughter a bull and say it is him. So aye, I do assure you, the Rogues will be feasting him. Though maybe they’ll do it while watching their gold.”
Megovis hoped she was right. Fine for Biadret and Ganros to swagger and say of their numbers, yet their success on the morrow depended upon surprise.
Ahead, sprouting out of a hilltop, was the smallest copse Megovis yet had seen in this all-but naked land. Krisnavn had seen it too. He signed for the Regiment to draw their horses to a gentle trot, then to a walk.
“It’s the closest to the Kerdolak hold,” Markiste Iusan said when Megovis looked at him.
“But on a hilltop?”
“We’re to have no fires,” Ganros said. “We’ve an Alsime Division to take care of that.”
“I know the plan but . . .”
“What, you think spitted meat would be good?” Ganros patted the slinky weasels slung to either side of his horse. “Sorry, Govvy, these aren’t for us.”
“Cold night, cold food.”
“Soon be over. Soon be roasting,” Ganros said.
The copse wasn’t big enough to provide adequate cover. Did they even need a watch when the men couldn’t stretch out but must doze while propped against the trees? But though it was yet summer’s end, there still was a long night before them. They staked the horses to the west where least likely seen. Megovis paced along their ranks, drawing heat from them, cloak drawn tightly around him not to flash the white of his shirt. He must not think of Detah this night, though he prayed yet again that she had been safely hauled from her pit.
Later when he tried to sleep he found he couldn’t. Not that that was unusual before a battle. Yet it was too early to waken the spirit that dwelt within him, curled and waiting, Huat-given, imbibed during those many months of training. Even so, back on his feet and pacing again, he started the chant. He kept it sub-vocal not to disturb the markons. Once the spirit took hold, his own will and wants would be subordinate, submerged and forgotten by the greater demands of the spirit of Beli. The awakening was slow, not to jolt and to risk his own spirit’s destruction. He had known that to happen. An imperfect blending, two spirits fighting for the same body, the greater spirit clawing and tearing the lesser, the horsemaster slain by the Beli within. Beli, the spirit with two faces. One was of flame, the other a bird. The raven, the death-bird—the bird for which Krisnavn was named.
Nod had passed his peak before Megovis felt the first signs of Beli awakening. He went in search of Ganros. He had volunteered to go with him.
“Not till you’re armoured,” Ganros told him. “Reckon I sweated all summer with goats’ piss for you not to set the example?”
“Tysk,” Megovis spat. “I feel like a woodlouse in that.” Yet he had roped it together and slung it over his shoulder to bring it along with him.
“Better a woodlouse than a swollen black pig. Now don it. See there? Our heroes wear theirs.” Ganros turned to look at the five markons who were to go with them.
The five and Ganros waited while Megovis strapped on the shaped leather pieces, each made of small scales, lashed tightly together. Once he had shuffled his shoulders and wriggled his hips the pieces sat feather-light upon him. But for all the armour’s many devious joints still he grumbled they’d hamper him.
“We’ve trained, we’ve trained, we’ve trained,” Ganros told him, grown impatient. “So now let’s go. Ismelis tells us we’re still at a distance.” Ismelis was to ride with them while Iusan was to guide the second party (by which was meant everyone else).
They rode out eastward beneath a canopy of stars though ahead the sky showed the vibrant blue of pre-dawn. “You reckon the Alsime are in place?” Megovis asked Ganros, voice not even a whisper.
Ganros glanced to right. “Hard to say. Though don’t want them starting their fires too soon.”
“What’s too soon? If Detah is right then those Rogues will be sleeping it off.”
“So the Rogues will; but what of the Dragsin? And what’s this of Detah? Detah this, Detah that. I’d say our Govvy’s gone soft for her.”
“It’s not soft,” Megovis answered him voice rising too loud. “And we’d not have come this far without her.”
Ganros grunted and said no more.
It was the Dragsin the problem, the unknown factor. “What d’you reckon,” Megovis had asked Biadret during the planning. “Will they join the Rogues in their drunken merriment?”
“What, with women just a fart away at the granary?”
“Try using your heads when thinking,” Detah had chided them. “They’re Dragsin, they’ll not be welcomed there. Even the traders must await the next day.” As in Alisalm-Land, the day following the feast would be devoted to trading. “That’s how I know for certain the Eskin will stay at the granary feast-grounds, and not make their way home. Unless, of course, it rains.”
“Well I say the Dragsin will edge-in on the Rogues. It’s close enough to the Dal’s Feast of Slaughter and where’s the markon who’ll willingly forgo it? What, sacred to Uat and Beli?” Ganros had been confident of that. But now so close, Megovis wasn’t so sure of it that he’d go knocking on doors.
Markiste Ismelis nodded ahead to say they were almost there. Megovis drew Truth Studder back to a silent amble. But that wretched armour creaked where it rubbed. “I thought you’d sorted this. Something of grease?” he hissed at Ganros.
Ganros shrugged. “Stop fussing. It can’t be heard beyond a spear’s length.”
Aye, but what’s the length of that spear? But the creaking wasn’t the worst of it. His weapons jangled. He’d brought no bow; they were leaving the archery to the markons. But he had his axe slung down his back, and three long- and three jabbing-spears rammed into the holster along Truth Studder’s flank. A stone hammer hung from his belt to the left, two long-blades were sheathed into his boots. He had also a bolos, its rope looped over his shoulder. Then there was his dagger with its Beli’s fire-metal blade. But sheathed at his waist, he’d need to strip off the armour to get to that.
There were dogs. Megovis could see them. Ismelis had warned them but he’d said they’d be inside the hold. They weren’t. They were wandering free. While Megovis groaned Ganros laughed, and that not so quietly. “They’re making it easy.”
Inside those limp weasels Ganros had slung over his horse were chunks of apple. Megovis had watched while Ganros gingerly slipped them into weasels’ cut bellies, poking them further with a stick that he’d then thrown into the fire.
Megovis had no experience of using venom, no more than had any Querkan. And here Detah was of no use to them either. How potent was the poison? Didodana hadn’t said, only that she’d used the apples to draw out the killing-juices and to beware not to handle them. She had caught for them five sun-marked vipers. Another six sacks had contained harmless green snakes. But they weren’t in those same sacks now. They’d been transferred to pots, perforated and leather-lidded, the easier to smash and release their contents. The heroes, five markons, carried two pots apiece. One snake had died.
The dogs tore into the weasels that Ganros threw them. “Poison’s still potent,” he remarked no little time later. “And that’s the dogs taken care, no risk to us.” The plan had been for Ganros to throw the venom-loaded weasels over the high palisade around the Rogues’ hold. In that they‘d have risked the dogs scenting them and barking, a risk that could have brought the Dragsin running.
“Hold back.” Megovis signed to the others. “We need the Alsime to fire the reeds.” The idea was for the smoke to rouse the Rogues, but hopefully not yet the Dragsin. “And we need the back-up waiting before we start hurling those pots.”
Megovis still was saying this when Ismelis caught his attention and nodded to south. In the early light the wildwoods across the river could just be seen, their branches waving like skeletal hands. He couldn’t see flame but there was definitely smoke, billowing.
“Hey, my Saramequai, our Saram is with us!” The wind was blowing the smoke from eastward. Detah had assured them it would at this season. That’s why the Alsime, having first plunged their stone-hammers through the sewn-planks of the Kerdolak longboats, were then to set fire to the reeds on both sides of North Rib river. And here the fire had been set. But still Megovis needed to know that they weren’t alone.
“Yelps!” Ganros let out an involuntary call as an arrow zipped past him, nigh piercing his ear.
Megovis laughed. “That’s our signal. Let’s go.”
The hero-markons helled out of the night, a narrow front aimed at the Rogue’s palisade. Almost upon it, in one smooth movement pulling their horses sharply round, they lobbed those snake-filled pots up and over. Megovis let out a deep bellied-growl, satisfaction at hearing the thuds upon impact and the blossoming shatters that followed. He counted, not yet reaching ten when a scream ripped through the air.
And thus it begins . . .
Billows of smoke thicken the air and cover the markons’ retreat. Megovis’s throat, all ready to whoop, stops when he hears the creak and a bang of a door opening and slamming. Thence . . . an horrendous whistle of arrows flying. His whoop becomes a groan as one of the five heroes falls. And even while swearing, Megovis is heeling his horse to reach the markon. Beaten there by Ismelis, Megovis withdraws—just in time.
Dragsin are pouring out of their barrack-house, silhouetted against a barrier of flame. They’re supposed to be sluggish from sleep! They’re not. Just look at them, alert and armed. Megovis growls: rutting Dragsin, Regiment-trained. Arrows whiz. Two more markons go down. They haven’t factored the Dragsin in for this early. And do those arrowheads carry poison? Have they driven through the armour? Megovis hastens to help them. Under the command of Markiste Ismelis, true, yet these still are his men.
Before he gains them he catches sight of a Dragsin—an older man—ropes of bolos hung over his shoulder, one in the air already spinning, ready to loose. Where are Biadret’s bowmen! That one needs taking down and fast. Three thuds—whump-whump-whump—rock the Dragsin thrower as ten arrows plug into him. Beli be praised! One bolos-man down.
Rogues, in a panic now, blindly spill out of their hold—directly into a continuous volley from Biadret’s bowmen.
“You can take that for Makesen!” Megovis shouts at them, his horse trampling the ground between the two fields of action. “And that for Nevisan. And for Isvron!” Just look at the idiots run! From harmless venomless snakes straight to their deaths.
With battleaxe swinging he charges directly at the Dragsin who still are emerging—too rutting awake—from their barracks. “Take down my markons, will you?” He growls louder even than Ulmelden as with his battleaxe he lays about caving their Dragsin heads. And where is Ganros? No sight of him and no time to look. Can’t see Ismelis either. Are both dead? He doesn’t want to think of it. Too soon, the fight is still too young. Yet . . . is he now alone amongst the Dragsin? And those wretched thorns not supposed yet to be active.
With the odds stacking against him and grown to critical, the tenuous film that holds back the spirit Beli finally ruptures. Full-wakened and thirsty, Beli drives him to greater bloodletting. Yet he isn’t oblivious to what else is happening. Twenty Rogues—twenty!—that was the report. Yet their bodies still are piling and blocking the gate, those with life holding wailing and groaning. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Whence these others? Arrived after the markistes’ reccie? From Saria Go? Something else not factored in.
And now he can see Biadret’s markons—behind him, split into two forces, one to swarm over the Rogues—who still are spilling out of that gate—one to start cutting a swathe to come to his aid. Saram be praised!
But—No! Krisn’s not meant to fight! Krisn’s meant to stay back, be safe—he’s their king! Yet there he is, heading directly towards Megovis. And he doesn’t wear armour!
“Get back!” Megovis yells at him. “We don’t need your help.”
But Krisnavn hasn’t heard, his horse flat out and he horizontal lying upon it, a demon charging towards them, battleaxe in each hand already swinging.
He falls!—seen as a blur as Megovis tackles another Dragsin. He wants to go to Krisn but can’t till he’s sent this one to Uath. Metal slices through flesh. Blood spouts high. Megovis leaves him to fall, turning his horse and heading, belated, to his most precious friend Krisn.
“No!” Krisn lies on the grazed ground, unmoving, blood spilling, skull cracked, arrow embedded in thigh. “Fool!” Megovis wails. He doesn’t know what to do. Pull out the arrow, aye, pull out the arrow.
But the arrow’s as stubborn as his friend. “You purposely holding onto this? We don’t need you dead!” But it’s bedded in bone.
His fingers shaking, he tries to tear off his armour to get at his fire-metal blade. But the cords are blood-slicked and tugging them only tightens them further. He draws the long blade from his boot and, working at an awkward angle, cuts through the fastenings and rips them away. He must have that fire-blade!
He rips Krisnavn’s blood-soaked breeches. Already the flesh around the arrow blushes to a spoilt-plum colour. He stares at it, horrified, thinking of Queen Galena. And he knows he hasn’t much time.
“Leave him,” a woman’s voice says. A woman? But those few women in the Saramequai Division are back in Alisalm-Land, patrolling the bounds.
Thoughts race before he’s yet looked. Is this Queen Galena commanding him? Here to gloat as her son lies dying? But surely Detah was right: no woman could ever do that.
Who is she, this woman who dares to command Captain Horsemaster Megovis; to distract him at this vital moment of trying to save his friend Krisnavn?
Is it, as he thinks, Queen Galena?
Next episode, tomorrow, What News?