crimsonprose’s new serialised story—ALSALDA—starts here.
Episode 1 of Alsalda
How many times now had Detah slipped between the wood of her bed and the rough plastered wall, hips nipped and arms squeezed alongside her, and no one yet had discovered her.
Not that Mistress Alenta would trouble herself to come seeking, not for an uninspired child. Besides, she had no need when the grandmothers saw everything. Or so Mistress Alenta told her. Detah scoffed at such tales. The grandmothers saw nothing, for their fleshless skulls had no eyes. Nor did they know beyond the granary, for the spirit must always stay with the bone, and their skulls were perched, all eighty-one of them, high upon the granary’s shelves. Mistress Alenta must think her a mud-head to believe it, and all because she hadn’t the grain-spirit.
Her own ears keened at a sharp rap-tap the far side of the wall, planted amid Master Bukarn’s snores.
“We’ve visitors,” she heard Ublamn say—so the rap was the tap of his staff against the granary-master’s hide soles.
Ublamn amused Detah, always trying to seem more important. And so he would be important—if an ordinary eldliks to an ordinary family at an ordinary isle. He’d be the head man and the family’s sons, five or fifty winters-seen, would answer to him. No driving the herds to their summer grazing, no culling at summer’s end without his saying. But this was no ordinary Alisime isle and no ordinary Alisime family dwelt here. No longhouses either, only the original sprawling lodge founded by the ancestress Hegrea. For here was the first-made Alisime granary, prime amongst the nine. And here dwelt Mistress Alenta, mistress of the Alisime granaries, within whom the grain-spirit was strong. This was Isle Ardy, and here lodged Master Bukarn, master of the granary-traders. There was no other head man here.
But Ublamn did keep a herd—though of goats, not of cattle, nor even of sheep. And in summer, when he allowed them to graze outside the isle, he kept them close. He’d not have them call him away from his post atop the white boundary wall. There he sat out his days and kept watch. Detah hadn’t a hope of sneaking out.
“Four visitors,” Master Bukarn answered the eldliks. “Not Alsime, and neither Ulvregan.”
“How do you do that?” Ublamn asked.
Detah wondered the same. He’d only just woken. She’d heard him snoring.
“I listen,” he said.
Detah listened as well—that’s why she squeezed between bed and wall (not only to hide). She listened to everything said on the far side of that wall where Master Bukarn, the granary’s trader, sat out every day. He made all his trades there, in the shelter of the deep eaves. Aye-yi, the tales she had heard. Every wedding, be they Alisime or Ulishvregan, the births, their names, the deaths; though the grain-spirit was weak within her (she’d say absent) she swore she could name every one living in Alisalm-land and most of the dead. Moreover, she knew the names of all the folks who shared this land of Jitinnis, all those dwelling east, north and west of Alisalm-land. And that wasn’t all. She knew the names of all the folks that dwelt over the seas, and what was happening there—all the way to the far eastern Ussamen.
No grain-spirit in her, so Mistress Alenta complained of her, yet she could speak Lenevick and Hiëmen (though, true, Hiëmen and Alisime weren’t so different). She could speak the Uestuädik, too, they used in Dal Uest—though never in front of Mistress Alenta. Mistress Alenta, like most other Alsime, scorned the Uestin. Detah often pondered on that, why the aversion. She figured it was probably because of the Ulvregan who no longer took their wives from amongst the Alsime but now, these fifty summers past, turned ever more to the east. To Dal Uest.
“Listen,” Master Bukarn said, which meant he was about to impart some useful information. “With Alsime you hear their chatter before you see them. With Ulvregan, it’s the jangle of their beads and trinkets. But with these? I’ve heard only their feet.”
He probably could feel them too, stretched out as he probably was on the ground. There’d not been much rain; that ground would play as a drum.
“Uestin,” he said. “Horsemen of the Regiment.”
But, by Sweet Saram, how did he know that? Yet—(she now was grinning, hands tightly clutched)—Uestin? Dal folk! But horsemen of the Regiment? Dear Father Jaja, that sounded serious.
“Saramequai,” she heard him say. And there was something in the way he said that word. It came tinged with fear. She held her breath, afraid for the master.
“How can you tell?” Ublamn asked him.
“Head wear,” Master Bukarn answered. “The Rizzoni wear bearskin caps. The Gousen have hats worked from horns.”
So what did the Saramequai wear? Horsemen of Saram. Did they wear horse tails? Detah had to see this. Likely no Saramequai would ever again visit here. But how to slip out without being seen?
Not through the usual egress, the long narrow passage beside the trader’s store. (When she was younger she used to play in that store, trading with the invisible folk who came to deal for her honey. “My very best bee-juice. Fresh, not crunchy. Lots of runny.” She sighed at the memory. She used to believe it one day could happen, that she’d be a trader.) No, she couldn’t use that door. Though it opened askew of the isle’s southern gate, it would deliver her too close to the visitors and she’d risk being seen. Instead she’d use the north door. Hidden, secret, it was known only to her and her brother Demekn.
Light-footed, holding close to the wall of the inner arcade, she made her way to the lodge-store. Safe behind the hide door-hanging, she allowed a giggle. All this creeping, as if she’d be seen. This close to winter’s end the grain-women were working away in the granary—as she ought to be, except that she hadn’t the spirit. As to Ublamn’s woman, Haldalda and her daughters were out harvesting the Mother’s first offering.
She picked her away across the store, ducking beneath the rows of smoked fish that hung like red flags from the cross-beams, stiff sticks of dried meat between them. In the far corner squatted tight-lidded barrels packed with salt-fish. Everything edible was here in the store. Thick-sided pots for the family’s grain, kept away from the granary. Dried fruits. Baskets of roots. Herbs in garlands. Sacks of seeds, some still in their pods. But right now Detah’s sole interest was the door. Invisible from the outside, it could only be opened from within. So she and her brother had agreed to keep handy and hidden a wooden splint to wedge it. How else to return?
Although across from the door there was the granary, a dozen sleds, leant one on the other against the lodge wall, shielded her from its view. And there was no chance of anyone hearing her, not with Ublamn’s goats conveniently set to bleating in protest of a river-walker now poling his riverboat along South River and singing gaily of the coming summer. Yet that cut two ways. Against their noise how was she to hear the visitors talking?
Yet she could hear them. She wasn’t yet fully west round the lodge when she heard a man’s voice—not Master Bukarn’s, nor Ublamn’s. Closer, she could make out the words. Hiëmen. Yet Master Bukarn clearly had said these were Saramequai. Saramequai, there was music just in that name.
And now she could see them. But that meant they might also see her. She shrank back into the shadows. With no crumbling plaster out here she could cling close to the wall. Though, fool, she ought to have thought to put on her wrap. Washed out black would have disguised her better than this chemmy of sun-faded yellow.
Apparently, Ublamn had delayed the visitors at the oddly-named Second Gate. (Odd, because it gated not the Second but the Third Ring. The Third Ring was a trench. Detah prided herself that she knew its dimensions. Five men abreast could walk the bottom of it. Fifteen men standing shoulder-to-shoulder measured its width at the top. It was cut into the ground to the depth of three men’s heights. Depths and heights, that bit confused her. There was a ladder down to it—needed, for at every Feast of Winter Ending some besotted fool would stumble into it. In its western section ran the granary’s pigs.)
Detah once had heard a Hiëmen trader say that a hallowed place ought to shout at the senses. Isle Ardy loudly hailed, walled as it was by the First Ring (fifteen men standing shoulder-to-shoulder measured its base; five men abreast could walk atop it). And in the sun’s light it shone brightest white. A shame that between the First and the Third Rings was only an open plain dotted with thorns and brambles that served the goats’ grazing. (Isle Ardy hadn’t three rings but seven, she once had asserted. Mistress Alenta had scorned her but Master Bukarn had listened. “How so?” “It has four more at its centre, for the lodge has three: the outer arcade, beneath the outer eaves, the chamber-ring subdivided to twelve, and the inner arcade beneath the inner eaves which give onto the central yard.” It was there stood the heart-tree, an elder with gold-dusted branches arching and hugging its own deformed trunk.)
Ublamn’s staff blocked the way through the Second Gate, across the deep trench—coincidentally allowing Detah a clear view of the visitors. She must feast her eyes upon them and gorge until full, for likely she’d never see the sight again. She tried to take it all in all at once but wasn’t able. Best then to apply some kind of order. She then would remember it better when she came to tell of it. And what a tale this would make! “Well, my friend, you should have seen them,” she’d say. “Identical, all dressed the same way.”
She noted the black-feather crowns around their heads. Crow-feathers she guessed, for no other bird sported such long black feathers. She noted, too, they all had the same light-coloured hair, same as the Ulvregan traders, same as her family, though in shades some varied. Ah, but now she corrected that first impression; the smallest horseman’s hair was harvest-red. All wore plaits. She knew their purpose: to keep their hair from blowing and blinding them. She knew their number. Twenty-seven. (Nine-times-three. But each plait had three threads, so in all their hair was divided into nine-times-nine parts). Twenty-seven small plaits; Master Bukarn sometimes allowed her to tidy his. But his were weighted with plain wooden beads while theirs, these Saramequai, flashed and glinted with copper. That must have made them heavy to bear.
They wore traveller’s cloaks. But unlike Master Bukarn’s, which he’d made by piecing together hundreds of tiny mouse-skins, theirs were of pieced-together various furs. And while his was leather-lined, theirs were lined with Ulishvregan plaid, the checks being blue, green and black.
She noted, too, with some relief, they’d not come for war. Then they’d have worn narrow breeches of red or brown instead of those white billowy things. Master Bukarn had told her of them and how they were made—seven widths wide! He’d said that it wasn’t the sewing that was the trouble but the getting them on. All that width to draw in to the waist, and it must be done before the standing. Their shirts, too, were of the same linen. So much white, it glared though the sky was cloudy. Then banded round their middles were blood-red sashes; she knew there’d be many amulets tucked within there.
Her eyes tracked down to their feet and—oops!—she just stopped a whistle. That would have given her away. But look at them! Three had Beli’s buttons at their ankles, made of copper, fixing their breeches in tight. And, as she knew, only horsemasters and markistes were allowed to wear those. These weren’t just any Saramequai horsemen. These were commanders and captains.
“Horsemaster Makesen,” Ublamn reported to Master Bukarn who now was standing close to the trench. “He comes to deal with you.”
She must have missed the visiting formula. Your need must be dire to arrive at this season. It always was said no matter the season.
“Deal?” Master Bukarn said. How mutely garbed he seemed in comparison with his dirt-coloured narrow-legged breeches beneath his brown, yellow and black pleated and gathered Ulishvregan skirt. “It is early season to be trading.”
“I do not trade,” Horsemaster Makesen said. “I offer a deal.”
Detah wrinkled her nose. How haughty of him.
“The gift?” the smallest, youngest, put in—a markon by the lack of Beli’s fire-buttons.
“Yours to give,” Horsemaster Makesen grunted.
Detah would say he needed a foot to trip him. Preferably close to a muddy puddle.
“It would be impolite for us to visit without some gift reflecting your standing,” the markon said to Master Bukarn, and offered it up.
“For me?” he sounded genuinely pleased. But what was it?
Detah leant back (she’d learnt that from Master Bukarn, he said it helped him to see). But still she couldn’t see what the gift. A wrapped parcel, the size of Haldalda’s cook-pot. It must have been heavy—muscles tightened. Ah, but it weren’t muscles only beneath that shirt. The markon, Detah now could see, was a woman. So that explained her more delicate build, and why she was shorter, and why when she’d spoken in impeccable Hiëmen her voice had been boyish as if unbroken.
Master Bukarn smiled and passed the parcel to Ublamn. “It won’t offend if we leave this to later? I’m eager to know what you’ve brought but I’m also curious to know of your visit.”
Detah, too, was curious. And if they’d come a bit closer she might hear better. But she knew Master Bukarn’s habits; she waited.
“Saramequai Regiment. A horsemaster, two markistes, and a markon, that I can see,” said Master Bukarn. “Clan Querkan, too, every one, by your badges. And you’re not here on King’s business else the gifts would be more, with accompanying verses. You say you offer a deal, yet you don’t come to trade. So who are you, and what do you want this early season?”
Detah held her breath. That had been bluntly said, had he offended? Had she been him she’d not have risked it. There was something about them. Or was it Master Bukarn’s fear she was sensing? He knew something of them and of their visit that as yet she did not. What was it?
“Apologies.” Horsemaster Makesen bobbed his head enough to make his feathers flirt. “Such rudeness was not intended. She with her gift—it interrupted our introductions. My name and rank you have. These—Markiste Nevisan, Markiste Isvron, and Markon Glania. You are, of course, correct in your observations, that we are Saramequai, Clan Querkan. I shall not ask of your own alliance.”
Detah scowled. Though she appreciated the given names, that of Master Bukarn’s alliance was nastily said. No doubt Horsemaster Makesen had noticed the Ulishvregan skirt in Clan Reumen colours. Still, the man needed his nose thoroughly bopped.
“Any alliance,” answered Master Bukarn, “is former and no longer relevant. I am Granary Master Bukarn. And you have yet to say of your business here.”
Detah grinned. That was one into the ribs and twisted.
“As surmised, we are not sent on King Tanisven’s business. It is rather . . . shall we say personal. Family, clan business.”
“Here? But this is Isle Ardy, not Bukplugn’s Hold.” Bukplugn’s, amongst the Ulvregan traders’ holds, had the most kin of Clan Querkan.
“We go to His Indwelling,” Makesen said.
Detah’s brow tightened. His Indwelling, by way of South River? Might as well go to Bayland via Banva Go. Coming as they did from Dal Uest, they’d have crossed the Lenevick Sea, and that would have delivered them neat as can be at the Water of Waters. Three or four days along and there was First Water branching. Another day poling upstream and lo! His Indwelling.
But His Indwelling? What business could these Clan Querkan have there? It could only be with Imblysin. He was the granary trader at Sapapsan’s Isle. But he wasn’t kin to Clan Querkan, he was Clan Dragsin. And of late there was no honey binding those particular clans.
“Look,” Master Bukarn said, “though there’s no heat to Sauën yet, I am more accustomed to dealing beneath the eaves of our arcade.”
And that’s what Detah had been awaiting. He turned his back to the Saramequai and proceeded, leading. Ublamn lingered as if to shepherd should they stray.
Detah pressed back against the lodge wall while the Saramequai settled. Mistress Alenta ought to see this. She was always saying of the Uestin, that they always sat up. Up on their horses, up on their carts, up on benches when eating, though the Alsime used them alone at their looms. Now here were four Uestin, Saramequai horsemen, and they were sitting down. Down on the ground with not a cushion to soften them.
The youngest markiste (Markiste Nevisan) was looking around him. “Is it true, a holy woman resides here?”
“Where did you hear that?” Master Bukarn asked.
“The Hiëmen seamen, they said.”
“Holy?” Master Bukarn drew back as if to consider. “If by holy you mean immortal, like your Uissids, then no she is not. But if by holy you mean hallowed, then aye she is that.”
Hallowed? Detah hadn’t heard Mistress Alenta called that before. Her fingers strayed to her throat. The bulls the eblann slaughtered atop the Earthen Boats were also called hallowed.
“Not powerful then,” Markiste Nevisan remarked.
Master Bukarn bared his teeth, his grin lifting his sand-coloured ‘tache. “Oh, she has power. Though she doesn’t abuse it, unlike your Uissids.”
That remark could have offended, but not with Clan Querkan. They appreciated it, nodding and mumbling. There wasn’t one of Clan Querkan who still liked the Uissids, not after the Uissids Judgement. That had been savage, three winters since.
It suddenly hit her: Was that why their visit? Did they come here seeking land? Then they’d be disappointed for here there was none.
“Now that we’re out of the glare,” Master Bukarn began, “what’s this deal that isn’t a trade?”
“I offer news,” Horsemaster Makesen said. “Then in return I ask a favour.”
“Ay-yi-yi, but news never is dealt, it’s freely given. As, too, the favour.”
“Another time, another place, I’d say the same,” said Makesen. “But I’m in Alisalm for a month at the most, then . . . Who can say? A favour might be freely given, yet we all expect a return. Best to return it now with the news that I bring.”
“Another time, another place, I, too, would agree.” Master Bukarn, inveterate trader, nodded slowly as if mentally weighing. “But your news is no deal for I already know it. There’s a hindrance or blockage along the Waters.”
Detah frowned. No, he couldn’t have known it else she’d know it too. But whence he came by it? Reasoned it out of what had been said? Ublamn was looking askance at him, too.
“Already have it, you already knew?” Makesen blustered. (But weren’t horsemasters supposed to control their responses? Trained to it so Master Bukarn had told her.) “Uath’s teeth! But I need this favour.”
“You oughtn’t to deal with traders,” Markiste Isvron said in Uestuädik.
Master Bukarn graciously smiled. Then he caught sight of Detah, though she thought herself hidden. He winked at her. It didn’t bother him, her lack of grain-spirit.
“I’ll offer solution,” he said to Makesen. “I care not for the deal but I’ll have your story. And regardless, I’ll grant you the favour. If I am able.”
“Me? Tell a story?” Makesen’s top lip lifted higher and curled.
“As a report then, as if to your commander. Or to your king? But, please, not this moment, not now. It must wait. Your Hiëmen boat is at our boards? It’ll carry you no farther—certainly not to His Indwelling. For that you’ll need ferrying by river-walkers. Though these are not at my command, usually if I call they do come. Might I suggest you lade a granary-sled, unload your hired boat, and allow it to go? The shelter of this arcade is yours for the night.”
That was a kind offer of hospitality—considering Master Bukarn was allied to Clan Reumen and the Saramequai were Clan Querkan and there’d been more cursing than kissing between them for long ancient seasons and now, since the Uissids Judgement, they would rather slaughter each other than talk. But Clan Reumen, Clan Querkan, what did that matter. It was Mistress Alenta: she couldn’t abide anything Uestin. A person with sense would not bring them together.
So what did Master Bukarn then say?
“And since I’ve a wish to hear your story, and since you’ve yet to ask the favour, I invite you to share our evening meal. Nothing formal, just my family. Say aye?”
Detah eyed the First Gate. Perhaps she could slip away? For she preferred not to be within her call when her mother vented her fury at this.
∗ ∗ ∗
Next episode: Demekn