Episode 2 of Alsalda
Detah was surprised when Granary Master Bukarn invited the four Saramequai horsemen to share in the family’s evening meal. Not because of their clans, who rather would slaughter each other than talk. It’s Mistress Alenta: she can’t abide anything Uestin. Detah considered escape—she doesn’t want to be there when Mistress Alenta vents her fury.
Detah sneaked a peep beyond the door-hanging before venturing out. As well that she did. Mistress Alenta sat astride a bench beside the heart-tree where the light was strongest, a birch-sheet spread on the bench before her. Was she sufficiently absorbed in her granary-craft; dared Detah slip past her? Elsewise she must wait here till the evening meal when all were gathered around the hearth.
Detah didn’t understand it: Why when in company did Mistress Alenta say nothing of Detah’s absence; yet to be caught when alone was to invite beak and claw? And it wasn’t only the words that Mistress Alenta used, though they were enough. It was the look, like she was one of the worms that infested the granary if everything wasn’t properly scrubbed. And it was always her the mistress picked on, never any of the granary-women. She was, supposedly, lazy and careless, skimping on thoroughness. Detah sighed, she supposed that part was true. But why must Mistress Alenta always say of her—and that in a sneer—that the grain spirit had withdrawn from her in disgust? Why in disgust? Then always would follow: What of your sister Drea? when the concern wasn’t for Drea at all but for after Drea. For if Drea should die without yet a daughter to follow then Detah would be expected to be the next granary mistress—but only if the grain spirit dwelt in her. Detah shuddered. She could imagine nothing worse that being a granary mistress—except to be a granary worm.
The outer door slammed. Detah drew back into the lodge-store. But whoever it was they stopped at the inner arcade. Detah teased back the door-hanging, enough to peep out again. There stood Master Bukarn, the markon’s gift heavy in his hands. Could he see her? But no, he had eyes only for the mistress, and she either hadn’t heard him (though how could she not?)—else preferred to stay with her craft.
Detah glanced between mistress and master. Now could be a good time to gain her chamber, while he was there to distract Mistress Alenta. But what of the other grain-women? She’d have to pass three other chambers to reach her own, and that chamber shared. What if Drea was in there, with Aunt Jaljena?
Master Bukarn coughed. Detah could swear she heard the rip of Mistress Alenta’s eyes as she tore them from her craft.
“My deepest apologies for disturbing,” Master Bukarn said. “I have need to speak with you.”
Beneath his reverence, and scarcely veiled by it, Detah could hear his fondness for the granary mistress—though why, she did not understand. Was it for her beauty, retained through the seasons? Sun-touched skin still unblemished. Delicate nose and never a sniffle. Feline chin—and as yet only one of them. According to Master Bukarn, Detah shared most of these features (including the leaf-green eyes). Only in hair-colour did she differ. But then in that she differed from all her family. Her mother, brother, sister and aunts could hide in a ripe wheat field and never be seen. But it would take a heath grown with bracken to hide her. And Detah was sure Master Bukarn didn’t know the truth of Mistress Alenta. Straddling that bench, green-dyed chemmy hitched to her knees, Mistress Alenta looked a warm sun-spirit. Yet in behaviour and character she was more of an ogre
“Well?” Mistress Alenta’s curt-said query wasn’t (quite) cutting.
“We have guests. For our evening meal.” He hesitated. And knowing what he had to say Detah could understand why. “They’re, um . . . Saramequai. Clan Querkan.”
Detah held her breath.
Mistress Alenta’s face lost colour, paler now than sun-bleached linen. She held still—absolutely, not even a visible heave of her chest. Was she thinking, perhaps, wondering, and reasoning it through? Or was she dredging up the worst invectives? But they ought to come easy to her tongue, used everyday upon her daughter.
“How many?” she eventually said.
What, no screech? No verbal violence? Had some calming spirit gotten inside her? Perhaps it was the woodland spirit with its abundance, its honey and song-birds. Oh, please, Father Jaja, might it stay? Master Bukarn, too, looked taken aback.
“Four,” he answered. “King’s Men. Regiment.”
“Sssth!” she scorned. “Saramequai? Aye, may my mouth not rot. So you’ll have these Uestin see how we live? And I suppose you want Ublamn to kill one of his goats? That’ll not please him. But, you mud-head! Aye, so Nod’s Daughter plays in an empty sky, rolling northward, yet still we’re in the hold of winter—or haven’t you noticed beneath your eaves? So say, where will you have us find these other foods for your ‘show them how well we live’ feast?”
He gave no answer. He, like Detah, knew that Haldalda had been gathering small foods every day this past moon.
Mistress Alenta gusted a sigh. “You’ve a reason?”
“They bring news,” he said.
“Important?” She sealed her lips upon further remark.
Detah frowned. This wasn’t the Mistress Alenta she knew. Either it was true that a calming-spirit possessed her else . . . Else she, too, knew what was happening here.
“The Water of Waters, blocked,” Master Bukarn said. “Some hindrance. We shall have the story this evening.”
Mistress Alenta looked at him for a very long time. Finally she frowned. “We’re too close to winter’s end, Bukarn. You have to do something and fast. Three granaries along the Waters and her ribs; how will the eastern trade reach them if the Waters are blocked?”
“I am aware how little time.”
“You need to move on this, Granary Master.”
“So I shall. But I need to hear their story first. You might move in a day to cut the grain, but I’d be a fool to so blunder along the Waters. Then whatever needs doing, it shall be done.”
“What needs doing is it must be gone.” She tugged at the hem of her hitched-up chemmy.
“Aye, so it will. But this needs thought and preparation.”
“Thought, while you sleep beneath the eaves? You fail me, Bukarn, and you will know who is mistress here.”
“Aye,” he said while backing away. “Again, apologies. Now I must go find Demekn and warn him.”
“What’s that in your hands?”
“A gift. A carved acorn.”
“Hah, Uestin gifts. As useless as their Uestin bearers.”
“It’s a love-charm. I thought I’d store it for Drea.”
“Uestin, for Drea? But store it the same. Then best you go warn your son.” Mistress Alenta turned away, eyes returned to her craft.
Warn Demekn? So Demekn, too, would know whatever was happening. Was she alone not to know it? But, bless the Ladies, catching her so she couldn’t move from the store. Now she need only sneak out the north door and off she could go with Master Bukarn. She knew where Demekn was. As ever he’d be at Bisaplan’s Old Isle.
Detah strode out alongside Master Bukarn, frantically trying to find a way to ask what was happening. But as they neared the old isle, with five others paths converging, the brambles now taking ring-shape, its mighty oak, grown old and hollow, beginning to tower, she’d still found no way of asking. She hoped the answer might appear in this talk with Demekn.
And what a terrible noise came from within that oak! Like the granary cat when she calls to her toms. Detah looked at Master Bukarn. Master Bukarn looked back at her.
“That’s not Uestuädik,” he said. “And I’d not call it music.”
Detah had to agree. It hurt her ears. “That’ll be Eblan Shunamn’s doing.”
“Eblan work,” Master Bukarn tutted. “And I suppose Shunamn will be in a grump if disturbed.” Yet disturb them he did.
He kicked at a flint chipping part-hidden beneath the matted grasses until he’d unearthed it. Then he threw it. Hard. Dust sprang up as it thudded not far from the tree. The dubious music halted, both string and voice. Master Bukarn rolled his eyes up to praise the Father.
“That’s mocking Jaja and you oughtn’t,” Detah said though she laughed at the antic.
“You misunderstand. I was praising Saram—whose sense of humour is infinitely greater.”
Shunamn poked his head out from the oak. “Bukarn! You come to speak with my apprentice.”
“I’ve come to speak with my son.”
“To say we have visitors, aye, we know.” The wild-haired eblan squeezed through the oak-cavern’s crevice. “Old Apsan’s young boy, on his way to raise river-walkers, came to tell us. Uestin horsemen wanting His Indwelling, eh? And with this, our third interruption, our mistress says no more music this day. Put your bow away,” he called into the oaken cave. “Master Bukarn needs to speak with you. About these Uestin horsemen.”
This last was said in flippant tone: Whatever the matter, it could be nothing compared to their eblan-work. The flippancy annoyed Master Bukarn, his fingers curling and flexing.
By whatever means Demekn had manoeuvred his musical bow into that cave, it now was a great trouble to manoeuvre it out. It wasn’t its size but its shape—a long curving limb, a barrel of a belly. It was eventually done. And with his fair hair resembling a tattered bird’s nest, his clothes (an unlikely assemblage of Alisime, Uestuädik and Ulishvregan) now dirty, Demekn followed.
“And I once had visions of you as a horseman,” Master Bukarn said. He brushed the debris from Demekn’s short swan-feather cloak (two winters in making and still it barely covered his shoulders).
“Rod?” Shunamn said, his own cloak long and full, of mottled owl-feathers.
Demekn retrieved his eblan-rod, a staff as tall as himself. With his other arm curled around the bow, he straightened as if for Regiment inspection, brows resentfully beetled.
“We must talk,” Master Bukarn said.
And now was the time to be invisible. If Master Bukarn forgot she was there she might finally hear what wasn’t being said of this Saramequai visit. She strolled away as if looking for berries despite the season.
“What concern of mine are your Uestin guests? I am eblan,” Demekn said.
“Querkan. These are Querkan. Close kin to King Tanisven.”
Demekn shrugged, ruffling feathers. “I am eblan,” he repeated.
“Aye,” agreed Master Bukarn. “But not long returned from Dal Uest where, I remind you, you were a guest of Clan Reumen.”
“Guest? I’d query that. But still I am eblan.”
Master Bukarn’s fingers again were curling. Detah knew his annoyance. Demekn ought to have served the Dal as a markon before serving Luktosn’s Hold as a trader. She pulled a face at her brother. It wasn’t fair. He could have had everything that Detah wanted, and yet had refused it. And why? To be an Alisime eblan.
“My son, you might fill your head with eblan-talk and eblan-work, and believe yourself full-Alsime. You might deck yourself in this higgle of clothes, neither one nor another. Yet still these Saramequai will know your stock. And while your eblan-master might scowl darkly at our Querkan guests and none will say of it, not so with you. You think if Horsemaster Makesen saw that bow he’d not immediately know you?”
“Makesen?” That changed Demekn’s tone. Detah turned to look. He no longer looked sullen though his brows were drawn tighter. “What does he want here?”
“Nothing. Nothing more than river-walkers to ferry him to His Indwelling. Should we keep it that way?”
“His Indwelling by South River? That’s a strange route.”
“Aye, and he has a story for it. Thus he and his men are our guests. I need to know what’s happening along the Waters. You think I invite them for pleasure? Rather ten vipers. Now I want you there. Both of you. I want you to hear their story.”
“Where else would I eat?” asked Shunamn.
Where indeed. Though it was usual for an eblan to lodge at a granary isle, they always were family. But not Shunamn. Who were his family?—he never spoke of them.
Detah didn’t mind that Demekn now walked beside Master Bukarn. It best served her purpose if they forgot her.
“Who are these other horsemen?” Demekn asked him.
“Two markistes, Isvron and Nevisan. And a markon. Glania.”
Master Bukarn’s head snapped round to look at his son. One word, one name, yet the way he said it, here was a story.
“What’s this, my apprentice?” Shunamn skipped around them. “I’ve seen paler poppies.” Demekn waved him away.
“But Shunamn’s right,” Master Bukarn said. “You could crack a wren’s egg on your face and cook it. Glania, King’s cousin, you know her?”
“As you said, I’ve not long returned. I was there for the Uissids Judgement, remember? But what’s their business at His Indwelling?”
“Not for us to know—though probably an alliance-wedding. This Markon Glania and Trader Imblysin perhaps?”
“No,” Demekn said firmly. “Come on, you served the four. A Uestin woman can’t be wed if a markon. There’s a verse for it.”
“Unless her wedding would serve the Dal King?”
“Tell me, has she a horse with her?” Demekn asked. “Copper coated, golden mane?”
“I saw none. Why?”
“Swift Dawn was a gift from her father. She’d never leave him for more than a moon. And I’ll tell you this, there’s only one thing that Glania wants, and that’s to be a markiste. So forget any notion of her and alliance-weddings. No, some other business brings them.”
But what was this other business? Was it the same as that ‘something’ that wasn’t being said? Detah so wanted to ask. And anyway, what was at His Indwelling to interest Clan Querkan if not Trader Imblysin?
Detah reviewed what she know of Imblysin. Born of Mandatn’s Hold who, of the Ulvregan trading-families, had the widest trade-alliances: Saramequai, Rizzoni, Gousen, Lugisse, Bridren, even the northern Feg Folk. He had served the Dal King, remaining beyond the four to become a markiste. Indeed, he’d not long returned, and that only at the death in combat of his commander. Now he was pledged to Sapapsan’s granary, though word was that he’d no interest in Mistress Siradath. Not surprising when Mistress Siradath had already buried one trader (she wasn’t so young). But Sapapsan’s granary was well sited for trade and it was said that Imblysin was doing well.
“Look, Master Bukarn,” Demekn said and stopped walking—Detah had to side-step not to collide, “it’s best that I don’t attend this meal tonight.”
“But I want you there—need you there. You have knowledge.”
“Then repeat it to me after. It’s not only that I am eblan now. I served Chief Krinik. I am a grandson of the last Clan Reumen king. Believe me, it’s best I’m not there.”
“We’ll none of us attend this meal if we stand here longer,” Shunamn grumbled. “Master Nod will have blinked your guests into sleep before we return.”
Demekn ignored him. “Look, you say it’s important I hear their news. But I say if I’m there, there mightn’t be any news. So please do not ask me again.”
“This has to do with you and Markon Glania?” Master Bukarn said. “Then best you tell me.”
Demekn didn’t answer, except to resume walking. Faster. But Detah had seen how red his face.
“She wasn’t a markon, not then,” Demekn threw back over his shoulder
“She was Querkan.”
“And it has been known for Clan Querkan and Clan Reumen to wed.”
“Wed? Wed! No, don’t tell me more of it.” Master Bukarn sharply swerved to be ahead of his son and strutted on.
“He asks,” Demekn said to Detah, “then when I start to say, he walks away.” He hurried his pace to catch up. “There was no thought of wedding.”
“Demekn, Clan Querkan and Clan Reumen do not mix.”
“Aye, when you were a markon. How long ago? Thirty winters? I do not bumble, there have been weddings—at least until three seasons since. Besides, shout as you will, I am not Clan Reumen. I am eblan-born and eblan-true. Not even your Luktosn’s Hold could claim me.” He stormed away.
Shunamn hurried ahead to be with Demekn. After a few more strides Master Bukarn also hurried. He ran, puffing and gasping by the time he reached Demekn. Detah skipped along to be beside them.
“Please tell me, son,” Master Bukarn said, “that your Markon Glania encouraged this, um—”
“Is that what you call it?”
“Truly, it was nothing. She was then just of age. She was friendly.”
He might well be alarmed. Detah had heard Master Bukarn’s tales, told whilst dealing. He’d known a ‘friendly’ woman or two while serving his four in the Dal; he’d known some later, too, while he was travelling.
“Listen, Eblan Demekn, I’m speaking to you as Granary Master, and I’m telling you this: You will attend this meal this evening. And before you object, I do understand what you’re saying, the problem. And I agree, it’s best that our guests don’t see you. So your eblan-master can doubtless find some way to disguise you. Something from his dramas that might cover your head?”
Detah tutted. Must she wait till this evening to discover whatever this something was that wasn’t being said?