To Eblan Erspn’s surprise, three horsemasters of the Saramequai Division of the Dal King’s Regiment have attended the Ulvregan funeral. To the horsemasters’ surprise, young Eblan Demekn has rendered the traditional Regiment’s anthem, The Song of Beli, into the native Alisime tongue. As for Detah, the newly-made eblan, her attention is more for a certain man with Saram-blue eyes . . . Read on.
She had delayed in serving him, standing alone at the western edge of Bukplugn’s party. Back and forth she had been, five times as yet, filling the Ulishvregan baked-earth beakers at the vats and returning with them. Demekn and Shunamn were helping—as well, since Detah was able only to take two at a time. And some of those beakers were big. And they were heavy, then, to return. She named, in her head, each of the living to ensure their dead had their Brew. For these, the first beakers, were to be set beside the piles of ashes and spirit-belongings. Later, before they covered the grave with the white river-rubble, Eblan Erspn would smash all the pots, and thus sever the ties. But she could ignore him no longer.
A Saramequai horsemaster, he held three tall Dal-beakers. She’d not manage that alone. She looked for Demekn but he still was busy. Then Shunamn swept in and swept off with two beakers. With some relief she took the third, her eyes respectfully lowered, and having filled it, returned it to him. Did he know what to do? But, aye, she saw he’d already deposited the other two.
The dead duly served, the back and forthing now was repeated for the living, which numbered far greater. And now the type of pots varied; not many had brought the big Dal beakers to drink of their own. Most were smaller, some were of leather; some even of bark. Again she came to Bukplugn’s kin. Again, standing apart from them, there was the Saramequai horsemaster with his bright fire-buttons. He was Clan Querkan—she’d noticed the carved cluster of acorns used to fasten the neck of his white linen shirt. She admitted she had looked at him closely during the singing.
“Your drinking pot?” she asked in his own Uestuädik.
He smiled at her. She’d heard women say that a man’s winning smile could open their legs faster than any amount of kissing. She heard herself swallow, she heard her sigh. Then she felt the heat of her face as she flushed. She looked away quickly.
He spread his hands. They weren’t calloused hands as most men’s were. Neither were they exceptionally large. Indeed, she thought them elegant—delicate. Nice. No, best to amend that thought lest he heard her and thought she insulted. Well-formed, aye, his hands were well-formed.
“I knew the Brew was for the dead,” he said, “but I didn’t know it was for the living as well.”
Again she looked up. And there he was, looking down at her with his Saram-blue eyes. She saw the crinkles around them. She saw he was smiling.
“The living should drink with the dead,” she said. “We have additional cups for those who’ve . . . With travelling sometimes they . . . Break.”
She didn’t wait for his reply but threaded her way through the bodies to fetch the Saramequai horsemaster a bark-cup of brew.
“You must be Mistress Alenta’s daughter,” he said when she returned with the cup. “Detah?”
He took the cup from her, his very fine fingers brushing hers. She glanced down, expecting to see her fingers burned. Hilshin’s Lights! but his flesh was hot. Now how was she to talk?
“It’s Eblan Detah.” She had to concentrate to say it. “See, the feathers I wear.” She couldn’t say too of her eblan-rod, since that had been left by the vats while serving.
“But not long an eblan,” he returned. “Less than a month? Yet already you wear a full cloak while tour brother wears only a cape? Does that mean you’re more powerful than he?”
He was teasing her, though he didn’t laugh or grin. Yet his eyes were held in a spinner’s web, and that told all.
“It means my family gifted me,” she said, desperately trying to keep her head. (Dizzy girl, she opened her legs! No, that wouldn’t be said of her.) “You might note, these feathers aren’t found in Alisalm-land, but in your own Dal Uest. My father collected them.”
“When he was a trader? But an apt bird for an eblan. They say in Dal Uest that the fire-heron guides the dead to the Land of Uath. Beli’s own kingdom.”
“I didn’t know that.” She’d have to muse upon that. But later.
“And is the cloak of your own making?” he asked. “One month is no time at all.”
“It was made in nine days. But I did nothing other, morning till night.”
He seemed to understand how great the task, how her fingers now hurt, the fingerpads punctured and torn, a white mess. He took a step or two back and made a thing of studying her. That made her feel awkward; she glanced around. She oughtn’t to spend so much time with him. There were others still without the Father’s Brew. Aye, and there were other eblann to do it, not only her. Clearly he was a guest at Bukplugn’s Hold. And she’d seen him add spirit-belongings to each of three ash-piles. Copper buttons, she guessed, from breeches left back at the Dal. So she could safely assume he was kin to the massacred horsemaster and his markistes. Those men had been guests at Isle Ardy. It mattered not what then became of them, she could not treat their kin ill-manneredly. Besides, something of him—his smile, his Saram-blue eyes . . .
“It’s a cloak of fire you’ve created there,” he said with approval. “Beli’s own bird.”
She’d not thought of that when she was grading the feathers. The longest feathers were also the darkest, a deep purple-brown. It made sense to her to work them into the last band, almost as if, despite being flight feathers, they would hold her down. From that dark base gradually blazed the smaller and brighter coloured feathers. Aye, around her shoulders they did look like flames.
“And what of you?” Would it be impolite to ask outright who he was? No, she decided it safer to resort to Master Bukarn’s trick. “I see by your fire-buttons you’re a horsemaster. I see by your black feathers you’re Saramequai. I see by that badge of acorns that you are Clan Querkan.”
“You see all this? I am impressed.”
“I see too you’re kin to the horsemaster who was our guest at Isle Ardy scarcely a month since. Now, since he was cousin to your Dal-King, I’m wondering of you.”
That was audacious; he ought to laugh at her. Too, Eblan Erspn ought to badger her to be offering around the Mother’s Bread and Father’s Brew. But she didn’t want to leave this Saramequai, Clan Querkan horsemaster. Was it only his eyes? Or had he cast some charm upon her? Demekn had told her, in completing their training the horsemasters spent several months in seclusion with the truvidiren. Did that not make of them eblann?
He laughed, this time not teasing, this time as if taken aback. “I’m told that the Alsime are a polite people, especially to visitors. Though you’ve not asked me outright, still in Dal Uest what you’ve asked would be deemed impolite. Though . . . you’ve caught me. For I, too, was impolite, in not providing an introduction. Please, accept my apologies. And to rectify, I am Horsemaster Krisnavn, commander of the Saramequai Division of the Dal King’s Regiment. I am here to serve Saram, to do His bidding.”
“To be His weapon?” She oughtn’t to have said it. He didn’t smile, nor yet acknowledge it. And where before there’d been heat, there now was cold.
“I saw you looking at the horses. Would you like to meet them?” asked Horsemaster Krisnavn, his warmth returned in the blink of an eye.
Aye, she’d be delighted at that. But might she slip away, unnoticed? Though if any dared drag her back to her duties she’d claim ‘eblan-inspiration’. She smiled—which likely the blue-eyed horsemaster, commander of the Saramequai Division of the Dal King’s Regiment, mistook for delight at the seeing of horses.
Not even bothering now to see what she ought to be doing, she followed Horsemaster Krisnavn to the gate in Bisaplan’s western fencing. As he moved the poles he also emptied his cup, wetting the gatepost.
“Why do that?” she asked.
“We always give libation to the Deity of the Gates. To strengthen their guard.”
“Oh.” She’d not heard of that, neither from Demekn nor Master Bukarn.
Now through the gate, she hung back. Just look at all those shiny hooves! Just look at the hard bony legs attached! It looked like they could do severe damage. She wasn’t about to go near. “Which are the Regiment horses?” she asked to cover her fear.
She’d have called them churned-butter yellow. And they had manes like upturned brushes while the other horses, Bukplugn’s, were brown-and-white spotted, with manes like a man’s long hair hanging down.
“They won’t harm you,” the horsemaster said, and held out his hand to encourage her closer.
No, she wasn’t yet sure of leaving the gatepost.
“Here.” He held out a bundle of sweet grasses he’d then pulled from the verge. “Come offer this to Fierce Wind; he’s my own mount. Like me, he’s now too old to be fierce.”
“Um.” She delayed yet longer. “Has he a stiffness of neck that he can’t graze for himself?”
“You are perfect!” Horsemaster Krisnavn, commander of the Saramequai Division of the Dal King’s Regiment, laughed. “No, it’s not to feed him—he does that of his own. It’s a token of friendship. A gift. As your father gifted you with those feathers despite, like other eblans, you could have done it alone.”
“Eblann,” she corrected him.
He nodded acceptance. “Like the other eblann, you could have gathered those feathers.”
“No, not these ones I couldn’t,” she said. “Not without first I went to the Dal.”
“Come,” he again tried to encourage. “I promise Fierce Wind will behave perfectly with you.”
She did want to edge nearer. She might never have this chance again. And what were they really, these horses, but overgrown goats—except they smelt better. They hadn’t even the horns. She ventured nearer. Horsemaster Krisnavn held out his hand to her. Her breath caught in her throat. His heat scorched her hand as she accepted. His fingers curled around hers. She took the grass from him. She still wasn’t certain—but his eyes delightfully crinkled when she looked up at him. She felt, aye, safe with him.