I was packed into one of the bigger river-boats along with five other markan and taken down river to the Regiment’s barracks at South River’s Gate. There we were transferred to a sea-crossing boat. Our commander, much to my annoyance, was to be Markiste Isvlenys.
He did not travel well on the sea. But what can I say for neither did I. The crew-men looked at us with hardened eyes, disapproving when we had to hold tight to the boat’s high sides and lean precariously over, up-chucking and heaving the meagre contents of our bellies.
“You need to eat more,” the boat-master laughed.
I thought, aye, and let’s see you ride on a horse. And let’s see how well you can walk when, after two days’ riding, they pull you off and tell you to go wash in the cold river water. They did that to us, the markistes and horsemasters who trained us. It had hurt at first, but once we’d done it several times we became used to it. I’d liked to have seen these sea-men riding horses!
Two days out at sea and my belly was settling. Markiste Isvlenys’ was not. Now I could use these days of sailing to watch the land drift lazily by—not that at first I could see very much as we were passing high cliffs. But as we passed the river-gates, then I saw how the land came down; there I could see.
The boat-master whose name I forget, so seldom used, said that Kelis smiled on us and favoured our errand. He said that if that weren’t so then the sea would never be so calm. Was this a calm sea? I’d not have said so. Yet even while the calm sea was supposedly a sign of Kelis favouring us—and oughtn’t we markan welcome that!—in his sending no winds to speed our way that same boat-master claimed Saram had turned against us. Aye, and his sea-men grumbled for they had now to row, the sail not enough.
I had asked—because that’s how I am: I want to know as much as I can—where King Burdamon’s Hold was set. I was told it was set back from the sea, along a river in East Isle. When I asked how this was known, I was told that King Ithen’s daughter had told our king.
King Ithen’s daughter?
The message we carried concerned King Ithen’s daughter. Each of us—all six markan and Markiste Isvlenys—had been given this same message.
“If one is killed another has it.”
If one is killed: What had Horsemaster Tanetros meant by that? I worried over that for the entire journey. We were just carrying a message, why should we be killed? And killed by whom? By King Burdamon? Or perhaps by King Ithen? Or someone other?
I marveled on crossing the sea-gate for the Water of Water. How wide it was, much wider than our South River’s Gate. Crossing it was almost like crossing a sea. But soon again there was land. And soon after that another river’s gate. Here the sea-boat took the turn. Oh, so I thought, we’re now somewhere near King Burdamon’s Hold.
To say I grew anxious—aye, my belly heaved worse than when first on that boat—but I wasn’t alone in it. I noticed the sea-men now caught hold of their spears and kept them to hand; likewise with their bows and their quivers. Yet we markan went all but un-armed. Metal blades at our waists, that was all. Although Markiste Isvlenys did carry his axe, but that was his badge of rank.
The sea-men pulled the boat into the river. The sail was brought down. Now they must use the oars to fetch us up to the King’s Hold. Now none were less anxious than me.
We passed, either side of us, pastures and meadows a’glitter with water and busy with birds that rose in great squawking flocks as we passed them.
“Huh!” Markiste Isvlenys said: “So these are King Burdamon’s guards? He needs no other.” His lips were raw from where he’d chewed them. Now we were this close he’d no liking of our errand either.
The boat-master directed his crew to pull the boat alongside a high-built platform, a landing of sorts. With trembling hands, unable to steady them, I climbed the provided ladder.
Why had I been chosen to be the first whose head cleared the top? At once I saw the men King Burdamon had sent to meet us. All becovered in thick hide plates, over chest and back. All with short stabbing spears, all pointing at me (all ten or so of them) as I emerged from beneath the landing. They had daggers, too, I could see, and swords strapped to their sides. These were big men. They were frightening.
They watched as I swung from ladder to landing. But other than to point their spears at me, they did and said nothing. Markiste Isvlenys followed me, his battle-axe stuffed into his belt at his back where it couldn’t be easily seen.
“We’ve come with a message for King Ithen,” he told these burly armed men.
There was talk amongst them but not in our speech. It was hurried and unintelligible. It gave our other markan time to climb up.
“Come,” said one of them, and divided their number so some were ahead of us, some behind. They led us along a wooden walk-way and through a great door into the King’s Hold. They took us to the King’s House and there had us wait outside while one alone went in to report our arrival and errand. But we were soon fetched into that house, though only two of us and Markiste Isvlenys. The others must remain outside, so they said.
King Burdamon looked up as we walked in. He squinted the better to see across the wide chamber. He said, “That one and that one, these men I know. Kill the rest.”
And it was done, even there in that chamber, with the markon beside me falling down dead as they cut off his head. Blood jetted and splashed, it was everywhere. I was covered in it. King Burdamon laughed.
“Markiste Isvlenys,” he greeted my commander. “Welcome to my hold. And young Ingobo—Is it Markon Ingobo now?”
“It is,” I answered, my knees a’tremble though, surprising me, my voice held steady.
“And what is your message,” King Burdamon asked.
“My orders are to give the message to King Ithen only,” Markiste Isvlenys said.
“King Ithen does not receive uninvited visitors,” the giant king said. “Either recite your message to me—I assure you I’ll pass it on to King Ithen—else leave.”
Then he smiled.
“Of course, alas, you’ll have to walk. For by now your sea-men will be as dead as your other companions and their boat ablaze. We can’t have you returning to the Alsaldic King telling him exactly where we are. You are a strategist; you do understand.”
While I don’t deny this news was distressing my thoughts were more on how now we’d return to West Alsime Land with the answer we’d been assured would be given us. What a fool, this King Burdamon, to destroy our means of return without even knowing what message we’d brought for King Ithen. I hoped King Ithen would deal severely with him. At that thought I couldn’t help but chuckle. It was impolite, I know, and I feared the guards’ swords would shortly severe my head from my neck. Yet still I laughed.
“Markon Ingobo,” King Burdamon addressed me next. “If you’ll be kind enough to tell me the message I’ll ensure that it reaches King Ithen.”
“It is true, we were told to give the message to no other but King Ithen” I said, “but if King Ithen will not receive us as visitors, then I see no other way for it but to deliver the message to you. Better that than not delivered at all.” I nodded, for I felt satisfied with what I had said.
“I am waiting,” said King Burdamon.
“The Alsaldic King—King Kottir,” I repeated as it had been given to me, “has in his guard and well-protected King Ithen’s daughter Bryony. He says he will return the daughter Bryony to King Ithen when King Ithen returns Queen Bregan to him. He says there will be no giving of land. The exchange is to be of these two women only.”
King Burdamon smiled and nodded. “Have this one killed,” he said, gesturing toward Markiste Isvlenys. “As for you, Markon Ingobo, do not fear that death is near to you too. There is always one that’s left alive to tell the tale—is that not so? Besides, on this occasion one is needed to return a message to King Kottir, is he not.”
I wanted to ask: And how was I to do that when our boat now was burned. But I wisely kept quiet.
“You can tell King Kottir that his message and offer of an exchange has been anticipated by King Ithen. His daughter Bryony is to him as precious as Queen Bregan is to King Kottir. Of course he will accept. You must tell him this: That the exchange is to be made on the eve of the Feast of Trees. To make it easier for King Kottir to deliver Bryony to him, King Ithen has chosen a place on the Way. You are to tell your King Kottir to bring Bryony to where the Way crosses the river which forms the southern boundary of the Heath. If King Kottir doesn’t know this place there will be others who do—the Heath was once part of the Alsaldic Lands. King Ithen will be waiting there with Queen Bregan. To make the exchange both Queen Bregan and Bryony must be placed in carts and secured, and the oxen left to do the rest. Under no circumstances must King Kottir cross the river. And King Ithen, too, will honour that boundary. Do you understand all this?”
I duly nodded. I wanted to repeat it all in my head but I was given no chance. King Burdamon had more to say.
“Tell your King Kottir this as well: If King Ithen sees more than ten men—he considers these ten required to protect his daughter while on her journey north—he will, with no further delay or warning, kill Queen Bregan. That is all,” King Burdamon said. “Now, you need to return to West Alsime Land and you have no boat and no crew. How will you do it?”
I opened my mouth but I was speechless. I looked down at the headless bodies of Markiste Isvlenys and Markon Dubere. How come I still was alive and they were not? Why had King Burdamon chosen me to bear this message and not Markiste Isvlenys? What had protected me? Whatever it was, I now must stay alive to deliver the message. But how was I to return to West Alsime Land? King Burdamon had asked me, yet I could think only of the dead men.
“I’ll walk it,” I said as still he stared at me. “At least till I reach the Waters. Maybe there I’ll find someone to ferry me to His Indwelling.”
“There is no need,” King Burdamon said. “King Ithen would not be pleased with me if I allowed you to go into such uncertainty. Besides, it would take you too long. And what if you lost your way? King Ithen wants his daughter back. That means you must make all haste to return to King Kottir. Even so, it will take him several days travel to reach this place set by King Ithen for the exchange. So, I’m sending you back to West Alsime Land—at least as far as East Bounds—in one of my boats. Take him,” he said to his men.
Before I knew what was happening I’d been grabbed from behind and tightly bound. What-what? Why this? I struggled of course; I kicked, I bit. But it did no good.
King Burdamon laughed. “It’s for your own good. You don’t think I’d risk having you escape? Who knows where you’d end up then. They’ll untie you when you reach East Bounds.”
So that was that. I travelled the the length of the watery ways, first the sea, then along the Water of Waters, bound with my hands behind me. It was uncomfortable and I peed myself, more than the once. But true to their king’s word, when we reached First Water’s gate, they hauled me out of their boat and untied all the ropes. They left me on the river’s bank, my limbs uselessly numb and dangling. And so I was found by the markan patrolling there, and taken to their commander.
“I have a message for King Kottir,” I said. “It’s urgent.”
He was hesitant. These markan had seen me hauled from that boat. Their commander thought I might be a spy.
“It’s very urgent,” I repeated. “It concerns the Queen.”
He wasn’t convinced.
“What’s the message?” he asked.
“It’s for King Kottir,” I said.
He nodded to his men, those standing around him. They took me away.
I told them, “I have to return to the Highlands.”
They ignored me.
“Tell your commander that I’ll tell him the message if he’ll listen. Then he’ll know how important it is.”
They threw some clean Regiment-issue at me. They placed a bucket of water before me. “You stink,” they said.
While they waited and watched I stripped down to my skin and washed off the blood and the spew and the piss.
“Now,” they said, “you can tell your story to the commander. And this time give him the truth.”
Precious moments were slipping away. Precious days wasted while they questioned me. Why didn’t they believe when I said who I was? Why didn’t they believe I had an urgent message to take to the King? Three days they held me there—three days!—till Horsemaster Tanetros could be fetched.
“Release him,” he said on seeing me.
He asked me nothing. He gave me a horse to ride. He rode with me back to the Highlands, all the way down to the King’s Hold. There he accompanied me to the King’s Chamber. He stood beside me while we waited for King Kottir to attend.
“Ingobo?” King Kottir greeted me. “What are you doing here? Are you a markon now? Is that what Saram wanted for you?”
“I have a message for you,” I said. “It’s from King Ithen, but no one believes me. King Burdamon killed the others. He killed Markiste Isvlenys. He was standing beside me. They cut his head off. It was ghastly.”
“You’d better give me the message,” King Kottir said. So I did.
So, it seems the sisters will be exchanged. King Kottir is to have back his Queen—just in time for her to be delivered of their baby. And King Ithen’s invasion of the Empire will then be delayed, at least for a year. That is . . . if King Ithen doesn’t play false. Next episode, Fire and Water