Episode 15 of Alsalda
Eblan Head Man Erspn has taken Detah to Cloud Stone Isle—with ulterior motive. She knows what it is and she needs to ask questions . . . but of whom? Read on.
She had gasped at first sight of it, though as yet a good distance away. But now, up close . . . her eyes tracked up, and up, and up. This Cloud Stone Isle truly did touch the sky! It towered above the hills around it, and they were high. And it wasn’t only the height of its wall, but its depth. For that wall began in the depths of a trench itself twice as deep as Ardy’s deep ring. Set beside this inspired creation Murdan’s Rings were a mere child’s toy.
“You may enter,” Eblan Erspn said, having left Master Bukarn to saunter along. “Within is the place of First Creation.”
As with Isle Ardy, here were four gates. But these gates were narrower, forcing an impression of a passage to deliver her unto a different world. Nothing from without could be seen from within. Stunned by the sight, she dared not to enter far. And here was a second trench, its depths surely piercing Nod’s Deep Beneath-Land—and that in fact, not merely a saying. Then a circle of stones. Oh but what stones! Neither those along Reclamation Walk, nor the triliths at the Old Isle of the Dead could prepare her for this. These were giants! But her cheeks ached, she’d been smiling that wide and that long.
“It was here that the Father first saw the Mother and desired Her,” said Eblan Erspn, his voice awe-softened.
Detah knew the story. Though she’d yet to attend the Feast of Winter Ending, she knew they told the story there.
“It was here that He wrapped His arms about Her. Here that he drove His Fiery Snakes deep into Her. Tthe force of that passion has never been equalled,” he said. “Though as I understand it, the Alsime do like to try. Come, I’ll show you.”
He led her to one of the largest stones, of incredible size. If set at the centre of Ardy’s lodge there’d be little space left to squeeze around it. But it didn’t recline as might be expected but rather, like the stones along Reclamation Walk, it stood erect. A herd of aurochsen could have hidden behind it.
“See? Here’s where His Fiery Snakes drove deep into Her.”
They were the same holes she’d been told not to probe, and she would not. What if His Snakes still were in there?
“Deeper and deeper, His passion spending. She trembles, She quivers, so great Her pleasure . . . Aye, here at His Indwelling, the very place of His entry. It was here, too, that First Act of Creation bore fruit. While hidden deep within the Mother young Master Nod was forming. And he formed and he grew—until it was time for his birthing. Then from Her depths he was thrust—up, up, up! Into his Father’s arms. That birth broke Her body. You’ve not yet seen them, I’ll show you them later, the stones still strewn where they landed that day. These you see standing are but a part of them.”
“But why are they called Cloud Stones?” she asked. “Is it only that they look like rain-clouds?”
“Ah, you’ve seen that likeness? I thought that you would. But, no, look again at the stones. Indeed, look at any one of them. What do you see? Go, walk around them. Go look, and see.”
She’d no need to walk far. A tree has a tree-shape, a sheep has a sheep-shape. Even hills have a hill-shape. And while the stones at the Old Isle of the Dead mayn’t have had their own shape, yet shape they had, imposed in a way. Yet not these stones. These . . . like clouds . . . hadn’t the shape of one thing nor another. Instead, like clouds, they seemed to be caught partway in becoming. She could see one that might yet yield an aurochs. Another might yield a bear. There were even stones becoming a seal and a fish. It was like they’d been ripped from the Mother before She’d completely formed them. Detah named the creatures as she walked around them. “Aurochs. Bear. Bustard. Seal. Boar—look at those tusks.”
“I knew you would see it,” Erspn said. He had followed her.
She stopped at a stone-becoming-a-bear. Mother Bear. The Ancients claimed descent from her.
She had a question for Mother Bear. But she couldn’t ask it out loud, not with Erspn so near that he’d hear. He wanted her to be his apprentice (he didn’t try to hide it), but she had to be the one to ask. Was it what she wanted? She didn’t want to be a granary-keeper-in-waiting, waiting in case Drea died without daughters. Yet that was what she’d been born to be. Now had she been born a son . . . a son would have been returned to his father’s family. She’d have become one of Luktosn’s traders. But she was a daughter so she couldn’t be that. Yet she could be an eblan. Eblan-women were rare—yet she was eblan-born, for wasn’t Isle Ardy ancestrally an eblan-isle.
To be an eblan. A speaker for the dead, for the Ancestors. To be as a guide to the Alsime. To heal beyond the healing of herbs. To ward, to charm, to curse. To fly. To have forever a foot in two worlds. To create, be a channel for the Eblan Mistress Inspiration . . . To be forbidden trade with the Alsime.
She jumped nigh out of her skin.
“I did call several times,” said Erspn. Though he didn’t offer apologies he did sound sorry. “I must leave—eblan-work. I have spoken to Master Bukarn.”
She knew what they’d spoken of. She knew too that he’d more to say; she could see the words waiting. She, too, wanted to say . . . but she didn’t know what. She smiled.
He looked at her an awful long time, or so it seemed. Then he too smiled and walked away. She felt he was taking with him something of her, something nameless. Something not yet given shape. Something he’d caught in becoming.
Detah waited though without turning. Master Bukarn’s approach was hardly silent, his breathing laboured—he ought to be dozing under the eaves.
“Truly a place of inspiration,” he said.
“He wants me to his eblan-apprentice,” she said without preamble.
“You have to want it.”
“I have to ask, and that before we return to Ardy’s.”
“Aye, would be wise,” Master Bukarn agreed.
“But, I need time. My head’s not used to it yet. This wasn’t what I was expecting when we set out.” She tried to laugh. “Now I feel like everyone is waiting on my decision.” Master Bukarn was waiting. Eblan Head Man Erspn was waiting. Maybe even the Eblan Mistress, Nod’s Daughter, was waiting. “I will say, though, if I’m to ask, rather I’d ask it off Eblan Erspn than our Shunamn.”
It suddenly struck her. Master Bukarn wanted this for her. But . . . they were friends, he told her his secrets, they hugged. Didn’t he realise, as Erspn’s apprentice she’d have to lodge here at Sapapsan’s Isle? No, he couldn’t want that.
“Detah, listen. It’s no secret you’ve no grain-spirit. It’s obvious to your mother and obvious to me. What else is there for you?”
“But to exchange one granary isle for another?” She wanted to explain to him, but she’d never before needed to put it to words. She looked around, though really she was searching within her. “Do you feel this, too, of Cloud Stone Isle: that it’s an entirely different world? There’s this high-high wall that separates it from the folk dwelling around it, and places it far-far away. I get a feeling that this isle wants me always to be here. And I’d be happy to stay, only . . . I think if I stayed here too long I’d become like the stones. Then some eblan would come along and plant me in the ground and . . . and I’d have to stay here for ever. And that’s how it is at Isle Ardy. It’s not part of the land and the families around it—except when they come for the feasts and to trade and store grain. And if I stay there I’ll soon become a granary-woman who never can leave.”
“But Eblan Erspn wants you as his apprentice. You have only to ask.”
“Aye—to have my feet buried here, instead of buried there?”
“Detah, you cannot forever dwell in your head. It’s the granary, or an eblan. You’ve listened to too many traders’ tales; now you believe that life can be yours.”
“No. Though I admit once I did. I’d hide in my chamber and listen to the traders’ talk and imagine how it would be to travel. But I know the truth of it now—long days of sitting in a boat with legs cramping, and one place much the same as another. Bigger, higher, yet at core all the same. Except here is Cloud Stone Isle.”
“Eblan Erspn says the Mistress wants you.”
“I want to ride on a horse, but the eblan are even more against Uestin ways than is Mistress Alenta. Why must I choose one or the other? Is there no other choice?” She was growing angry with him. She wanted to be left alone, now, with the stones.
“Detah, listen. You’re not even thinking—though why I should explain it, why try for the best for you . . .? You know any other granary daughter who has this choice? Has Sathea? Savah? Has Drea?”
“But . . . how can I choose when I know nothing of what it entails? Eblann, they’re all so secretive, even my brother. ‘What’re you doing?’ ‘Not to tell you, it’s eblan-work.’”
She turned, intending to flash angry eyes at Master Bukarn. But he was walking away.
She circled the isle, no more aware of her feet than if she were sleeping. Her head was spinning with the same question asked over. And there was no answer. To be a grain-woman with the grain-spirit absent, or to be an eblan when that, too, wasn’t what she wanted? If only someone would tell her what’s best. And here she was back at the bear-in-becoming.
“What’s best is to accept his offer,” a woman’s voice said from behind her.
Detah spun round, eyes narrowing. Then widening.
It was too much to take in all at once. An eblan. A cloak of smoke-coloured feathers. A woman. A bonnet made from a speckled white owl, its head and talons attached. Her face palest pale, almost white. Eyes like ice on a puddle. And she’d have sworn the entire vision shimmered.
“Mistress Hegrea?” It could be no other.
“Ardhea fetched me,” Hegrea said. “She told me your problems.”
“Ardhea?” That was a name she’d not heard.
“The heron,” Hegrea said with a glance down at the bird. It stood at her side like a hound, though it stood a safe distance from the eblan’s rod. The bird seemed out of place in this isle.
Every stretch of river had it’s heron, as Master Bukarn had but recently explained. Yet something of this one . . . “Would this be the same heron as hopped ahead of us all the way along South River?”
“She keeps an eye on the granary-family.” Hegrea’s voice seemed familiar. Kind of enfolding.
“You exist,” Detah said.
“Well, aye, I believe that I do.”
Detah laughed. Now she’d have to explain what she meant. “Our eblan disputes with our grain-women. He never has said it openly but I think he believes you a spirit.”
“Well, we all are that, at heart.”
“But you’re not old.” She looked not much older than Drea. Yet the stories put her birth at at least a thousand seasons since.
“Oh, I am that old,” she said. “Nigh two thousands winters-seen.”
“You know my thoughts?”
“Aye. I hear everything—and there’s no blessing in that. And neither in this, this not aging, not dying. It keeps me apart from human company. They’d make me divine, which I am not. I’m no different from you: I, too, was born.”
“You mean I shan’t age either?” That alarmed Detah. “I’m to stay as I am?”
Hegrea laughed. It was both deep and light. It was wind and water. How could she claim to be no different from Detah?
“You seek advice? Listen, and I’ll tell you—for I have lived long and learned much. I have learned that we cannot predict the future. Yet there are patterns. Your eblan-master will tell you of this. Life has four stages. Growing, and Fruiting, Decaying and Death. And each stage is heralded by notable changes. This is so for all living things. Even for granaries.
“The granaries’ Growing stage—when I first created them—was marked by the coming of the Ulvregan, a return home to their Alisime kin. But granaries were a Krediche thing and the Alsime shunned them. So for a long season the one granary served.”
“At Isle Ardy,” Detah said, keen to display her knowledge.
“Aye, Isle Ardy. But with the passing of seasons the Alsime grew accustomed to using the one, and so wanted more. This was the Fruiting. But unlike Kared, Head of the Kerdolak granaries, I had not the daughters to keep them. So I gave them over to your own family’s keeping.”
“You are not our ancestress?” But the stories! Mistress Hegrea was their ancestress. The granary-family, no matter the isle, all claimed descent from her.
Hegrea shook her white feathered head. “The Mother blessed me only with Murdan.”
“It takes the Father too,” Detah said.
“Aye. But Arith’s days were almost over before we began. It was the Decay, already there within the Fruiting.”
“Arith?” Detah asked. “You mean Arith Dragon-Slayer? But I thought him just stories.”
“Arith, son of Gimmerin,” Hegrea said with such an intake of breath her chest swelled wide. “He was fire.” And she gave that word such power, it was the very sound of the roaring beacon. “But now again come changes. Your granary master knows it. Though he, like I, cannot see what’s to happen. But I tell you this: He wants you settled, to know you’ll survive.”
Detah swallowed. She didn’t at all like the sound of this. “It’s to do with the Saramequai, isn’t it.”
“Accept the eblan’s offer. That’s the wisest to do. The granaries already slip into decay. Soon they will die.”
“No! They can’t! Without the granaries where will the Alsime store their grain? What of the Ulvregan, what of their trade?” How could Mistress Hegrea speak of this with such gentle voice? The granaries, Hegrea’s own granaries, to decay unto death. No!
“It is not for us to say what can and can’t happen. When you have lived as long as I . . . well, we see many things. You’re a seed, Detah,” Hegrea said. “Find new soil where you might grow. Now I must go.”
“No!” But Detah’s protest came too late. Hegrea was one moment there, the next gone. Then the heron, too—Ardhea—with first a hop, then a flap, she lifted into the air and was gone.
Detah shivered, the air in Cloud Stone Isle turned suddenly cold.
“Why tell me of these changes?” she asked, though it now was too late. “It’s Drea to be the next Granary Mistress.” It was Drea ought to be warned.
Then came another question. If Hegrea was as a born person, just like her, how came she simply to disappear? Detah looked around her. No, there was no eblan. No woman. No heron either. Not even a dropped feather. It was this isle! It was an eblann-otherworld, with eblann-otherworld visions that only an eblan could see.