Black Birds On The Water

Episode 13 of Alsalda
Detah was disappointed to find the horses gone from Sapapsan’s Isle—as were most of the men. Even the Eblan Head Man’s brother, Dalys (who doesn’t quite live in this world), was absent.

He must have returned during the night for Dalys was there at the hearth, replenishing the fire, when Detah woke. The mist seeping in formed a halo around him.

“He barely can see,” Master Bukarn said quietly to her. “Hears hardly a word that’s said to him. Doesn’t speak so well either. So don’t take it as impolite if he ignores you.”

She’d rather be ignored than to have him look at her the way he was looking at Master Bukarn. With hatred unveiled.

“He looks more like a spirit made form,” she said. Like a toad, he crouched by the hearth: too short for a man yet sufficiently wide, his back humped like an Earthen Boat, his hair muddy string that hung from his scalp, the Alisime bonnet eschewed. Yet he was no ugly thing. Had his face been set to a different body he would have been handsome. Though at first he had scared her, Detah thought now she might like him.

“That’s enough sticks,” Mistress Siradath told him as soon as she joined them. She seemed quieter this morning for which Detah was thankful. She removed the bundle of twigs and branches from Dalys’s reach. “He’ll have the lodge in flames unless we watch him.”

“Followed men,” Dalys said in words not easily formed. He looked up at Mistress Siradath, his dark eyes a’sparkle. “See bad things.” He looked away, head swaying back and forth. Vigorously.

“What bad things?” Mistress Siradath turned back to look at him.

But Dalys wouldn’t answer, his head still widely swinging, his ropes of hair in danger of catching the fire he’d been feeding.

“What bad things?” Detah asked him, though Master Bukarn signed her to silence.

“Bad things,” he repeated and looked up at her. She saw sorrow there in his eyes. “Black birds.” He flapped his arms, he quarcked. “Many, and many. Black birds—making big flock.” He smiled at Detah. He’d said a lot of words without a stumble.

Detah smiled back. She nodded, she hoped to encourage him to say more.

“Black birds flocking on horses.” He nodded, possibly in imitation of Detah, though there was no smile in return for her. He tilted his head, now frowning. Then nodded again several times. “Black birds, ride over water.” He reached and retrieved the bundled sticks. He added more to the fire.

“Do you understand him?” Mistress Siradath, busy now with blending a brew, spared a look at Detah. “It takes such an effort for him to say anything so when he does of course we listen—though, aye, he’s not easy to understand. Erspn is best with him, Erspn usually can understand him—perhaps they inhabit the same strange world? Now saying of Erspn, where is he?—Has he upped and away before I can wake him?”

“I was asleep until your chatter woke me,” Erspn called from the eblan-chamber. As in every granary lodge, it was set to the morning-side of the long narrow passage. He emerged into the light, hobbling while holding close to him a long furred cloak. His hair, brown, rough-lopped, was a mess. Though his moustache and beard had been neatly trimmed (not the wild exuberances cherished by Alisime men).

Mistress Siradath looked up from her brew-blending. “If you are naked beneath that . . . ” Her remark was curt.

“It’s holding my sleep, you sour-minded woman. Ah, I see Dalys is back. Where have you been, Dalys?”

But Dalys, having spoken, now retreated into silence.

“He followed Imblysin and the men,” Mistress Siradath answered for him. “Though how far he went along First Water—How far could he have gone and still returned by first light? He says he saw bad things—a flock of blackbirds and horsemen riding over the water. It means nothing to me, do you know what he means by it?”

“Did he say he saw or he sees?” Erspn asked her, ignoring Dalys who now ignored them.

“He saw them.”

“No,” Detah corrected her. “He didn’t say he’d seen them already. He said see bad things, see.”

Eblan Erspn nodded and sat himself beside Detah. “Mouth like a nest of demons. That brew ready yet?” he asked Mistress Siradath.

“That’s Uestin talk; I’ve told you—”

“Hush it, woman. That was the point.” He turned to Detah. “Our Dalys sees things that have yet to happen. But that’s not to say that all that he sees then happens. Much doesn’t. I call them his ‘likelies’. Likely they’ll happen but likely not in this world. So, he sees bad things? Did he say what bad things?”

“I’ve just said,” Mistress Siradath answered sharply. “A flock of blackbirds, and horsemen riding over water.”

“He said ‘black birds’,” Detah said, which earned her a scolding look from Mistress Siradath. “The blackbird is our midnight triller. But ‘black birds’, I take those to be crows—the big ones that feed at the wind-hills.”

“Hmm.” Eblan Erspn seemed to agree; a troubled look darkening his face.

Detah wanted to catch sight of Master Bukarn, to see how deeply beetled his brows. Were these birds part of his fears? But it would be the worst of ill-manners to ignore no less than the Eblan Head Man when he himself was attending her. And he wasn’t ill-looking.

“No, I get a skewed feeling from this,” Erspn said. “I’d say Trader Imblysin has led our men into danger.”

“Trader Imblysin led, not the horsemaster?” Master Bukarn questioned.

“Well, aye, the horsemaster did. Yet it was Trader Imblysin who raised the band. But what difference who leads? I felt it even before they set out, all wrapped around with . . . unrightness. But they’re not Alsime, to heed the Ancestors. Ulvregan, they’re more Uestin than the Uestin. So now my brother sees black birds?—crows, carrion eaters, defleshers of corpses—with horsemen riding over the water.”

“They’re only to tear up that hindering fence, where’s the danger?” Mistress Siradath snapped with a chest-ruffling shuffle of shoulders. “You think they’ll all tumble into the water, the timbers crashing upon them, trapped there to blow bubbles of water instead of breathing in air? You think they’ll all drown in this way, all everyone of them, Murki laughing and supping?—Now, Erspn, that’s not going to happen, not with all thirty men. His ‘likelies’? Rather call them his ‘unlikelies’—How often he sees what really happens?”

“They’ll be no drowning,” Detah said. “That’s not what he sees. In drowning there’s no corpse for the black defleshers.”

“She’s very outspoken, Master Bukarn,” Mistress Siradath remarked, not kindly. “I’m surprised Mistress Alenta allows her out of the granary.”

She’d have probably said more but that Erspn hissed at her: “Go dally, you sour-minded, sour-tongued woman, and leave her alone. Now, Detah, you were saying?”

Detah didn’t want to say more if it was to cause trouble between them. But Eblan Erspn was waiting—encouraging, even, she’d say.

“I just think the folk who built this bridge will be aggrieved when they see these men pulling it down. I’d say they’ll likely attack, if only to stop them.”

Dalys shot to his feet. “See that!” He bounced excitedly, pointing eastward. “See that, see that.”

“What more do you see?” Detah asked him.

But he collapsed again to a hump by the hearth.

Master Bukarn sighed.

*

“What’s this of Imblysin leading our men into danger?” Disturbed by the voices—else the distinctive smell of Mistress Siradath’s brew—others now were emerging from their chambers. Detah had never met the old trader Erlunen but assumed this last was he. She felt suddenly shy.

“It’s what Dalys sees,” Erspn said told him.

“Could be likely,” Trader Erlunen replied. “What danger? Has he said?”

“No more than speculation,” said Master Bukarn. “Though, aye, it’s possible, as Detah says, that the Kerdolan will attack them.”

“Kerdolan is it?” Mistress Siradath said. But the men ignored her.

“Attacked, maybe. Danger, aye,” Trader Erlunen agreed. “But thirty men—most served in the Regiment—a horsemaster to lead them, two serving markistes alongside them? And that Regiment making a craft of their killing? They’ll come through it, and be better men for it.”

“Could be. Did Markon Glania go with them?” Master Bukarn asked the old trader.

“The girl? Regiment-reared? Of course she went.”

One last battle, Glania had said. And the horsemaster was covering because he’d not followed procedures (so Demekn had said). Humiliated, did honour now demand that he set things to right? And what had been lost from their boat? Was he bent on revenge? None of this would the Alsime understand but Master Bukarn would—and the Ulvregan traders, most of whom had served their four in the Dal. Trader Imblysin would understand it. He’d served as a markiste. But how did any of this affect Master Bukarn, enough to cause his quietly-held fears?


Next episode: A Gift
Previous episode: Sapapsan’s Isle
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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4 Responses to Black Birds On The Water

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    BEsides being hyperlinked back and forth, you are doing well, bringing in a new mystery of a different type while still holding us to the old mystery of why this is all such a concerm

    • crimsonprose says:

      Yea, quite determined to keep the links up to date . . . until I get behind cos I’m distracted elsewhere.
      As to the mystery . . .we’ve had this discussion before, thought maybe not for this story. You know there’ll be something left unresolved, and unanswered through to nearly the end. As with why the Asars got kicked out of their divine realm. So too, why did the Kerdolan (or whoever) attack the Saramequai along the Waters. It’s a slow reveal, inches by inches. A bit like a stripper! Enjoy.

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