Her Hungry Head

Episode 10 of Alsalda
Master Bukarn has decided to visit Trader Imblysin at Sapapsan’s Isle; Detah is to go with him—Mistress Alenta has agreed it! But Bukarn won’t make the journey in hammering rain, so already a day has been lost. And that day could prove to be fatal. Read on . . .

Detah waited while Master Bukarn settled himself beside Haldalda’s hearth—then set a steaming bowl in his hands.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Barley-stew.” She had made it herself. “Haldalda says it’s the best food for travelling—I’ve added honey.”

“It’s more usual to travel the day on meat,” he said.

“Aye, and Haldalda says it was likely yesterday’s meat that made us so glum. But I’ve cooked some anyway, and packed it. I’ve filled the water-flasks, too.” She nodded to where she had set the skins with the other parcels.

“Anything else you’ve prepared?”

“Have I done wrong?”

“Well . . . no. But we’ll take only one flask. Everything taken must be carried over that pass. We need more water? There’s always the river.”

“I made us some nut-cakes, too,” she said, pleased with her efforts.

He nodded, his mouth seeping with barley-stew. “Nuts?” he said once he’d swallowed. “At this season? With dried berries too I suppose?”

“I’ve done wrong, huh? It was Old Apsan suggested it.”

“I know you meant well but . . . they came from my trade-store?”

“Aye, but they’re only for you to eat.”

“No, Detah. What’s in that store is for me to trade; you shouldn’t need my telling. Please, your heart is right but . . . no, this time only we’ll say it’s Aunt Apsan’s fault. In future, you need something, you take it from Haldalda’s store, never from mine.”

He was right. Old Apsan was a crabby old crow and oughtn’t be heeded. Detah hung her head. “If you tell Mistress Alenta she’ll not let me go.”

“Aye, likely. So we’ll say nothing. And I expect we’ll enjoy the cakes. So what else have you done?”

“What else wrong?” She looked up at him from beneath her thick hair. “Nothing . . . I think.”

“Well, if you’ve eaten, and you’ve done your business, you can load yourself with those packets and the flask and see how you’ll carry them.”

She wasn’t too sure what he meant, but she did her best. She wanted to be away from Isle Ardy before Mistress Alenta was up and about—and before the Father could drench them again with His rain.

“Heavy?” Master Bukarn asked her.

“No.” She denied.

“So let’s see you walk with them.”

She walked once around the inner arcade. Twice she stopped to rearrange the parcels. They kept slipping from her hands.

“Now you know why we have a backpack,” he said. “Just into my stores. Right hand.”

She easily found it—though at first she thought it a net for fishing.

“Arrange them neatly,” he told her—or did he advise? He’d not the sharp tongue of Mistress Alenta.

She packed the larger parcels in first, everything (which mostly was food) folded into parchment-fine leather.

“Now heft it onto your back, arms through the loops. Do that before you pick you the flask. Now walk. Better?”

She nodded. “Can we go now?”

*

As she emerged from the long narrow passage the glare. of Nod’s Daughter blinded her. The huge fiery ball hovered huge over the walls, painting them gold.

“I feel it,” Detah declared, “today’s going to be a very good day.” And despite the weight on her back she skipped all the way down to Ardy’s boards. There, the cold and the dark still lingered. “My second time in a riverboat.” But her excitement tailed as she realised the truth of it: this was only her second time away from the isle.

She was all hands, not knowing how to manage this—until Master Bukarn took the backpack and steadied the boat while she stepped into it. It was a small craft. A skimmer, he called it, because even when laden the wide-bottomed wood-and-hide bowl still sat atop the water. But Detah didn’t feel safely sat upon the plank that served as seat. She feared if she moved, even a little, she’d topple Bukarn, herself, and the boat right over.

He laughed. “Yet I stand to pole and I don’t upset it.”

Despite his words she grabbed the seat as the boat bobbed and bobbled as he stepped into it. But that’s all the boat did. She began to relax, eyes keen on the banks as the steep valley-sides slowly passed by. She really was leaving Isle Ardy—leaving the Highlands of the Sun.

A muffled clap for a moment startled her. But then, there ahead, a heron rose up on its grey-and-black wings. Yet it didn’t rise far from the river’s valley before dropping again to its feet. Again it rose before they reached it. And again up, each time flying a little ahead of them. Then, when she no longer was watching, the heron was gone.

Yet when they came to the alder-stand (where she came with Haldalda’s daughters to gather the leaves and the cones for their dyes) there, standing knee-deep in the water, was the heron again. And again, it lifted its heavy grey wings and flapped and glided ahead of them. Detah frowned.

She frowned again when that heron was waiting by the runnels that drained the marsh-filled hollow where Detah gathered down-feathers and duck-eggs. And again as they passed it, it rose on its wings to fly on ahead.

“She’ll do that all the way to the Wetlands,” Master Bukarn told her. “Only once there, with the frogs to entice her, will she leave us to go on alone.”

As if to prove him right, the heron still was with them when they passed the first of the two family holdings. Behind the fences and hedges, clothing the hill rising beyond, were trees all hazed a golden-green in the early sun.

“The Eblann Freeland,” Master Bukarn told her. “We’re travelling through Skakem society-land now.”

“We’ve left Bisaplan’s Land?”

“We’ll soon be leaving the Highlands, too.”

Detah couldn’t tear her eyes from the hills. “Look! They’re climbing right into the sky.”

Master Bukarn laughed. “Before we’re there, you’ll see them rise higher than that.”

“Higher than these?” But that wasn’t possible. The tops would come sliding down, like grain piled too high. She watched the hills, fold after fold of them, each hiding a cluster of thatches and fields not seen until they were beside them. She watched the sky. Clouds had formed since they’d left the isle.

“Those clouds look like flat stones in the sky.”

“If you’re polite to Eblan Head Man Erspn, he might take you to see some real ‘Cloud Stones’.”

“At Cloud Stone Isle? Might he, will he, do you think? I ought to have brought him a gift. How much farther—are we there yet?”

Master Bukarn laughed. “We’re only now nudging the Wetlands. Not even at the Joining and Kelulm Isle.”

*

There was no mistaking the Wetlands. The hills fell away; now all was flat all around her. The tallest thing here was a tree, and that was stunted. But the grasses grew tall. Deep green, some almost black. Then South River divided: they were at the Joining. Master Bukarn steered the boat into the easternmost course.

“Kelulm Isle?” she asked when they passed beneath a high earthen wall. But she couldn’t see any thatches. “Does nobody live there?”

Kelulm wasn’t a name she knew from the granary. She could name every family-land within the bounds of Alisalm, and knew how much seed-grain each family needed. As a grain-woman at Isle Ardy she’d need such knowledge. She knew the signs to record their names as well.

“We’re into Ulmkem Freeland, and that, there, was once a feast-isle,” Bukarn told her.

Well it hadn’t been a feast-isle for long seasons since, else she’d have heard tell of it. And for a freeland, this wasn’t at all as she’d expected. “It looks grazed.”

“It will be, come the season.”

“Are they the Hills and Plains of His Indwelling?” she asked, looking ahead at what seemed a high wall, though still far in the distance.

“That’s only the Rim.”

“Where the wind-hills are?” She’d heard tell of those.

“Aye. And some Alisime families around here still use them.” He didn’t approve, she could tell by his tone. Yet that’s still how they treated the granary mistress. How else to fetch her skull to keep in the granary? He must know that.

“Look, Detah,” he sounded suddenly urgent and fearful. “Can I beg a promise off you? That you won’t let Shunamn do that to me.”

“Give you to the birds? But why should he? We’ve a high barrow of granary masters west of our gate. You’ll be buried there, with the others.”

“I don’t trust that Shunamn—what he’ll do with my bones. I’ll not be at his bidding. Why he lodges at Isle Ardy when he’s not even kin . . .?”

“But all granary isles have an eblan. We need them for the feasts.”

*

As they came closer to the Rim with its wind-hills Detah could see there had been a new death—maybe laid-out only yesterday. The kites and crows were noisy around it, and Mistress Nod had sent some of Nod’s Greywings in from the sea to claim a part of the feast.

“That’s high-high,” Detah gasped as she looked up and up the side of the hill as the stream brought them almost in to the foot of it.

“It’s nothing compared to Chadtamen’s Pass. When I used to trade south with the Saëntoi and Ormalin . . . Ah, those hills were high that I crossed.”

Detah looked up at Master Bukarn, his arms rhythmically moving as he poled the boat. “Do you not grow restless? Having to lodge at Isle Ardy when you used to travel to so many places?” Her feet itched just at the hearing, though she’d never be able to travel beyond the granary-isles.

“I didn’t go to that many places. Every other summer, north to Meksuin’s Hold, and return. Next summer, south to the Saëntoi. Back and forth, the route never changing. Same people, same places.” He laughed, sounding suddenly weary. “Even the weather was usually the same. Repeating exactly the same as Luktosn’s traders have done it since Bulapon first came to South River, and that in the days of Eblan Hegrea and her swan-son Murdan.”

“Who was he, Bulapon? I’ve not heard him mentioned before.”

“A trader,” Master Bukarn told her. “Was him who set Luktosn’s Hold where it is, overlooking the Meet.”

“He was your Ulvregan ancestor?”

Bukarn hesitated. “Aye, I suppose.”

She squinted up at him against the sun, curious. What was it he wasn’t saying? “So why isn’t it called Bulapon’s Hold?

“Probably because it was his son Luktosn who built the first hold.”

“And who is this Meksuin? I’ve not heard his name either.”

“No, you wouldn’t. And I shouldn’t have said it.”

She rubbed at her nose so he’d not see her smile. Aye, she’d known there was something—like she’d known there was ‘something’ he wasn’t saying about this Saramequai visit. But she’d root it out.

“So who is he, this Meksuin? You may as well say now that you’ve started. You know that I’ll pester.”

“Aye, I know that you will. He was Bulapon’s brother—but you’re to forget you ever heard the name.”

“Meksuin and Bulapon. Those aren’t Ulishvregan names. Are they Uestuädik?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“I have a hungry head. So why had these two trader-brothers Uestuädik names though long before the Dal-alliances?”

Master Bukarn sighed and waggled his head. But he wasn’t really in despair of her, it was the game that they played. “They’re not Uestuädik names. They’re just . . . Tuädik. Likely they came from Dal Sahalis.”

“Wow, that’s far away. So is that why Luktosn still trades with the Saëntoi?” The Saëntoi, she knew, were to Dal Sahalis as the Rizzoni were to Dal Uest. But she gave him no chance to answer. “Then Luktosn’s ancestors weren’t Ulvregan?”

He shrugged (awkwardly done while he was poling). “I’ve not given it thought, and we‘ve no stories accounting for it. But I suppose they’d been travelling with the Ulvregan. Now can we forget that I ever said it?”

This time he meant it—or at least he looked away from her. But it wasn’t like him to keep secrets from her, and this now was two. Perhaps he’d said of Meksuin and the Saëntoi to start her thinking—so she’d reason it out on her own.

*

They were passing now beneath branches of alder and willow, the leaves of the rag-flower tall between them—and mace-headed rushes. She glanced down at the water beside them. There wasn’t much of it. It wouldn’t be long now before the stream was too shallow and narrow; then they must walk. There’d be little talk then, not while he carried the boat and she the water and packed-tight parcels.

“Luktosn’s Hold,” she mused aloud, “that one I know. But . . . north did you say, this Meksuin’s Hold? But that can’t be north as in the ‘Eskin lands’. Though I suppose it could be north amongst the Jinnigrits. But . . . I’ve not heard you say much of the Jinnis, only that likely they’re Bridren kin. Yet I have heard you say of the Alsime dwelling beyond them—between them and the Feg Folk. Is that where Meksuin’s Hold is?”

“Clever,” he said without looking at her.

“So why did Bulapon’s brother move so far away? Was there trouble between them? Did they both want the same woman?”

He swung round, the pole for the moment driven into the soft river-bed. “Detah, you’re asking questions I cannot answer without telling more than I ought. If the granary knew—” He rubbed his forehead as if it ached—which probably it did. But whatever, his refusal sent her deeper into thinking..

This of Meksuin’s Hold was probably linked to that other ‘something’ that no one was saying. Makesen, too, had mentioned Chadtamen’s Pass, and she’d seen how Demekn had pulled back at it.

“Believe me, Detah, I want to tell you—I ought to tell you, tell someone, what with everything happening.” Again he waggled his head, and let out the father of all possible sighs. “Aye-yi-yi! My girl, if the other traders were to know . . . ” He scratched at his scalp, his hair sticking to his hard-worked sweat.

As if all that hadn’t been said, she reached from the boat to pluck a bright feather from the bank. “Is this where they find the pretty feathers?”

He laughed. “Aye. Feathers. Eggs. Down.”

“How much farther?”

“Four or five times the distance we’ve come.”

Hmm, she grunted. That was time and plenty to winkle it out of him. Everything. This thing he wanted to tell her, but daren’t, and this ‘everything’ that was happening. It had something to do with the Saramequai, that much she knew.

“We’ll stop to eat before walking the pass,” he said.

Chadtamen’s Pass, she mused: she knew where it was (between the Rizzoni lands and Dal Sahalis, part of Dal Uest’s southern bounds). She knew, too, that Luktosn’s traders regularly used it (she’d heard them say it, though not of its height). She knew, took, that Clan Reumen guarded the pass (no secret in that). No secret, either, that Luktosn’s long-ago Trader Matys had wedded Kolmika, daughter of King Rudrens. It was that sealed the Luktosn-Reumen alliance of which she’d heard Luktosn’s traders complain. An unwelcome alliance—so why agree it? She also knew the answer to that: because it kept the pass open for them. Besides, the alliance engendered trust. Hmm, she grunted again. The alliance would keep Clan Reumen from prying.

So what was it that Traders Matys had carried through that pass? Something kept secret. The granary weren’t to know of it. And neither any other trader. Something Luktosn’s traders had from Meksuin’s Hold (Meksuin’s Hold, set to the north, amongst the North Alsime folk). And whatever it was, Master Bukarn now wanted to tell her, yet dared not. And she’d no doubt, too, this ‘something’ was somehow connected with the Saramequai.


Next episode: In His Pocket
Previous episode: Detah Tells It
Back to the beginning . . .

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About crimsonprose

After years as a multi-colour octopus in entertainment, now chilling and writing
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2 Responses to Her Hungry Head

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    Mystery upon mystery. And I really hate people who tell you half the story. (I’m referring to Bukarn, not you!)

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