Master Bukarn has called an Assembly of granary mistresses and the traders. He has a particular plea to make . . . while Eblan Head Man Erspn wants only to keep him out of trouble, and alive. Read on . . .
“Ten days hence,” Erspn set the day for the Ulvregan funeral, “—six days before the Feast of Winter Ending.” But . . .
“You say here, on the Alisime Highlands? Why not at our holds?” asked Trader Skaldys of Jitnebn’s Hold, in surly tone.
“Together they travelled to the Water of Waters,” Erspn answered as rehearsed. “Together they worked to clear the obstruction. Together, when done, they celebrated. Together they died. Ought we now to separate them, each to rest in your separate holds? Their grave shall be here on the Highlands of the Sun, in the very heart of Alisalm-land. Here, in the Land of the Ancestors, in the Land of the Dead. And it’s apt that their grave should be close to Isle Ardy. For it was Isle Ardy that brought together the Ulvregan traders, and from here sprang all the other granaries. And Isle Ardy shall provide us the feast.”
That hadn’t been easily arranged. Even now he could see Mistress Alenta’s stiffening stance. Yet who else could brew them the Father’s Brew? And Isle Ardy had that already in making. (Though true, it was for the Feast of Winter Ending. But they could brew more; Isle Ardy had ample women.)
“Are you certain of this, no survivors?” asked Trader Manspek of Mandatn’s Hold.
“Eight killed of his kin,” Detah whispered. “Sapapsan’s trader was one.”
“I have said. Of the Ulvregan, none.”
“If no survivors how tell you this story?” asked Trader Burtamens, Manspek’s cousin.
Erspn allowed the words to repeat amongst the others before, with a raised hand, he quietened them. He wondered how many realised the significance of that (no use of the eblan-rod).
“Does an eblan not walk in the many worlds?” he said. “I have met with your sons. Your husbands. Your men. I have heard their story. I tell you of a certainty, no Ulvregan survived. I would that this news were better.” He shook his head, implying his grief and his speechlessness. He sighed, purposely heavily. “Now, I have said what needs saying. Now Granary Master Bukarn begs your attention. At this time, it’s . . . regrettable. Yet were it other, he’d not have the need. These deaths have left the granary with several problems.”
He didn’t envy Bukarn the task. Though he had, at least, deflected the blame—and with it the anger that could have ended Bukarn’s life. He stepped away to allow the granary-master to have his say.
“This Kerdolak bridge that has caused us such grief still is able to cause us trouble. You’ve heard where it is. Many of you older traders know full well its location. Right there on the joining of North Rib. Right there on the bounds of Un Dli, where already there is an Eskit trading-granary. Why build it there? I puzzled on that from the first I heard of the Saramequai’s tale. And so I sent river-walkers, and they returned with the answers I needed.
“That bridge is so positioned to enable the felling of trees. They fell the trees to build a log-fence. That fence is to protect a Kerdolak trading hold. Aye, not a trading-granary as we have here, and so too the Eskin. But a trading hold. I’ve no need to say what that means.”
Bukarn was angry. And now he no longer feared their blame he did nothing to hide it. Indeed, his words rattled with it. Erspn knew his intent. He wanted the Ulvregan angry as well. He needed that. If they sank into grief they’d never agree to help him remove this further obstacle to granary trade.
“I know, later, when you leave here, you’ll think upon this,” Bukarn said. “You’ll ponder its effect, what it might mean to each of you. Then you’ll be as angry as I. Yet nothing can be done about it till we’ve buried our dead. Something, however, must be done of our loses. With that bridge gone there now is no hindrance to the trade at our northern granaries—at Ablabran’s Isle, at Bajapa’s and Sapapsan’s. Yet these very same granaries now are without traders. At Sapapsan’s, old trader Erlunen has agreed to step in until a new trader is found. But for these other two, I must ask—”
He stopped abruptly. Erspn looked at him.
“I can’t,” Bukarn said quietly. “All the talks we’ve had, you and I, yet . . . What right have I to ask this off them when their lives are already ripped apart? And but for what you said, I, too, would be dead.”
“Yet the granaries do have the need,” Erspn pressed him. “And who but you can ask them. You must!”
Bukarn took a deep sigh. Erspn could see he was trembling. Now he felt as ill-eased as the granary-master, forcing him to it.
“Will you . . .”
In the moment of Bukarn’s pause, Erspn prayed. Don’t let him say ‘please’, I beg of you.
“Will you give us two traders?” Bukarn resumed, now sounding stronger, “—only the two. And they needn’t be young. There is no travel involved. Two granary-traders? There’ll be no question of sons and daughters.”
The answer was silence, but for the shuffling of feet and the jangle of Ulishvregan beads. Eyes averted, only the granary families now would look at him.
“You, Trader Skaldys?” Master Bukarn asked. “In your days you were called ‘the best-of-traders’.”
Erspn didn’t want to stay here to watch. He feared how it might end. Yet Master Bukarn would be failing his position if he didn’t keep trying.
“Hasn’t Jitnebn’s given enough to your granaries?” Trader Skaldys answered. “Six dead of our hold. Three of these granary-traders here today are our brothers. What more would you have off us?”
“Master Bukarn.” Mistress Brahan (of Bajapa’s Isle) pushed forward until she stood almost in front of him.
Now what was this? Erspn frowned.
“Master Bukarn, we’ve no need to embarrass these Ulvregan further. We ought to have said but . . . Well, now it is clear. We ought to have followed our eblan’s advice. It is as he said, the Mistress intends something other for us, though for now we see no sense in it. We have to say, too, Master Bukarn, we feel unsafe being so close to the Waters.”
Eblan Bureldn, Erspn mouthed the name. What had he been advising without consulting? Though, aye, Erspn agreed, the Mistress did intend something other for them. Fruitlessness. Decay. And death.
Another woman spoke from the press of people. Erspn couldn’t see her but Mistress Salada of Ablabran’s Isle Detah whispered to him. “What Mistress Brahan is saying—though she’s not said it plain—is that we’ll no longer stay at our granary isles.”
Folk parted, leaving a pathway to the diminutive keeper. But she held back where she was, surrounded by family.
“Our isles stand unprotected,” she said. “Both easily spied from the Waters. Before—before we were invisible to the Kerdolan, as good as. Now, since their bridge and the killings they pass by our isles daily. Up and down the Waters, eyes ever upon us. It’s like they’re waiting for something . . . for something to happen.”
“We have families,” Mistress Brahan added now Mistress Salada had said so much. “Children. We cannot put them to danger; we cannot stay. So there, you’ve no need to find us new traders.”
And what would Bukarn say to this? As granary-master his concern was for the traders only. Erspn tried to resist a look, but failed. He saw the plea in Bukarn’s eyes directed at Mistress Alenta. This of the granaries was for her to say. Yet she seemed sealed into herself, maybe not even hearing. With reluctance, Erspn stepped in.
“What of the feasts?” he asked the women. “Who will make the Father’s Brew, the Mother’s Bread? Our granaries are more than places of trade. What of the grain you hold?” He wasn’t pleased. Eblan Bureldn ought to have told him of this.
“And what about Vreah and her sons?” Detah leant in close to ask him.
“Aye, later, we’ll ask of that later.” For Mistress Brahan again was speaking.
She was a strong woman, she had a strong voice. “We have talked and given this thought. The grain we hold we’ll return to the families, except that had in trade. We’ll no more till the granary’s fields. Instead, our families have agreed to supply for the brewing and baking. For that we’ll return to our isles. Our families have agreed to provide men to be guards for that short while. This is no criticism of Master Bukarn. We know he has not the resources.”
“You’ve wasted no time,” Mistress Alenta roared despite two moments before she’d seemed in comatose state. “You and your eblan, and no reference to me!”
Erspn took a step back. When Mistress Alenta was riled, Hilshin himself knew to hide.
“Have you thought—in your overly busy heads—of poor-harvest seasons? How then to fill the hungry bellies? Aye, our granaries are not only for trade and trade alone. But have you forgotten: Mistress Hegrea set our ways to rid us of starvation and famine. She set our ways that all might enjoy the blessings of the Father’s Brew and the Mother’s Bread. That through them all might live and live again. Now you say, no, you’ll do it no more? You reek of the Kerdolan who now prowl our bounds.”
This was strong stuff; Erspn wanted to stop her. But Detah grabbed hold of him. “She merely is angry. All who knows her knows this.”
It seemed Mistress Brahan knew it; she wasn’t so easily cowed. “We have said, we’ll still make the Father’s Brew, the Mother’s Bread, still hold the feasts. Our eblann have spoken to all the families and all families agree. They’ll not hold us and our children in such danger. It’s fine for you, safe here on South River.”
Erspn groaned. Those eblann should have told him. They then could have sorted it away from this assembly with the Ulvregan watching.
“I regret this must happen,” Bukarn spoke up before more could come from the women. “Though, as you say, it is a solution. For now. And, aye, you are right, I have no men to command. But there are trade-wares at your granary isles; these I can’t leave unattended. I shall therefore arrange for river-walkers to ferry them to here, to Isle Ardy. From here they’ll be distributed amongst the other granaries.” He fell silent.
Two of the granaries effectively lost. Did Bukarn feel as sickened by this as did Erspn? To know that their death was imminent wasn’t the same as watching it happen. Of the nine granaries there now were seven. Even the Ulvregan were silent. Guilt? They could have offered traders and delayed this happening.
“Where will you dwell?” Mistress Alenta asked into this silence.
Mistress Salada answered straight off. “My sister will have me at Bukfreha’s Isle.”
“Odd,” Detah whispered. “Her sister overnighted at Isle Ardy, and yet said nothing.”
Apparently Mistress Alenta thought it odd, too. “This is arranged?”
Mistress Salada looked away abruptly.
“I’ve not yet asked,” said Mistress Brahan into the sizzling silence, “yet I’m hoping that Mandatn’s Hold will take me and my daughter Balasin.”
“Or I could go to Duneld’s if they’ll have me,” the trader-less next-mistress Balasin offered, her desperation grating her voice. “They took my Bunamen just this last season.”
“Aye, but my sister Pithea is part of Mandatn’s,” Mistress Brahan persisted, spoken to Mistress Alenta yet clearly a plea to Mandatn’s traders. “And my trader’s Uestin wife already dwells there.”
All this talk, it burrowed into Erspn’s heart. He could feel it, deeper than sorrow. He had known this day must come yet . . . He wanted to hold Detah’s hand. She seemed to bear this better than he.
“I speak for Duneld’s,” said Trader Beleldys. “Aye, Mistress Balasin is welcome with us. With no father now the boy pines for her.”
“We’ll take Mistress Brahan,” said Trader Burtamens, “—to lodge. Aye, and Mandatn’s has work to keep her busy.”
“I have crafts,” she bristled.
“Not the granary-craft!” Mistress Alenta bristled sharper. “I’ll have your craft-boxes, both of you, before you go to these traders’ holds. You may collect as needed upon your return. Mistress Salada, since you go to another granary, you may keep yours.”
Beside Erspn and Detah, Bukarn was nodding, and nodding. Rhythmic. His amended speech now in rehearsal? By the curses of every High Spirit, this disturbance had thrown out all their thoughts. Too soon; it had come too soon.
“It would seem we need no traders for the northern granaries,” Bukarn said. “Yet there are others. Isle Ardy has a need of a young trader for Drea. Likewise, Bisdathea’s young Salsens, and Sinya’s Hegathea. More will be needed. Later, when more of the daughters have grown. I hope by then these daughters will replace the northern keepers. But north or south, all will need traders to sit at their granaries. When their time comes. I’ve no need to say, you know the way. The sooner pledged, the sooner the crafts are learned.”
But again, silence greeted his words.
“Aye, you needn’t tell me. So many dead,” he said it for them. “Yet many holds have sons in Dal Uest, ‘serving the four’. Can you not pledge them now to our granaries? Our daughters will wait a season or so.”
Erspn wanted to say to forget it, to let it be, rather than to hear this desperate plea. Like it or no, the Mistress had spoken, the granaries now would decay into death.
“Enough!” Trader Burtamens’ one word reverberated against the stone Cove. “Mandatn’s Hold has given all that it has to your granaries. So we have sons in the Dal. We have sons, too, too young to have joined the others, to be massacred. But we need them for our hold, to be traders for us. Just . . . take your wanting elsewhere, Bukarn.”
“Mandatn’s speaks for us all,” said Trader Judeldn of Burnise’s Hold. “We struggle now to find sons to carry our craft. Who have we? Dalynys, born seven winters since. Dalkudn, and my Sulyns, both of five winters-seen. Bukarys and I shall be old men before these can carry our trade. And you ask us to pledge them to you?”
“Aye,” said Trader Skaldys, “we’ve Butan I’m training. But after him the next boy is Drekn, and he’s but six winters-seen.”
“We have two,” Tenisniah said. “The oldest is seven summers-seen. But we have no traders left to train them.”
It wasn’t only the granaries collapsing. This was exactly as Detah had seen it. Soon the Ulvregan traders’ holds too would go.
“I have a heart,” Bukplugn’s Trader Maryns said, “—aye, it’s hidden here inside my chest. So why don’t you take that as well?”
Detah leant in close to Erspn. “Must the trader be Ulishvregan? Could we not find Alisime men and train them?”
This was a thought and worth pursuing. He moved in closer to Bukarn to relay it. Bukarn glanced back at Detah.
“Why does she wait until now? This needs discussing with Mistress Alenta. It’s true, I could train them—those who’ve a will to it. But first I must ask her.”
In reply Mistress Alenta turned a high eye on him. “You think Mistress Hegrea set it with the Ancestors approval so we might any-time change it?”
“Are you blind not to see as the Mistress shows us?” Erspn no longer could hold it, he seethed. “The granaries must change else they die. And if they die they’ll take the Ulvregan down with them.”
“Then best you consult with Mistress Hegrea and the Ancestors,” she said with infuriating coolness. “It’s not for me to say.”
“Aye, well the Mistress is here with us, circling and listening.”
But Mistress Alenta ignored him, turning away. And look though he may, he no more could see the heron-cloaked vision.
“We’ll talk of it further,” he said—to Mistress Alenta—to Bukarn—and stepped back to his place.
“To return to the matter of the Kerdolak trading-hold,” Bukarn resumed his speech, calmer by far than Erspn. “Where it is set, it’ll take our trade.”
“What trade?” Trader Burtamens jeered. “Haven’t you been listening? You’ve lost your northern granaries. So what’s left now north of South River? Sapapsan’s. And likely your Mistress intends the demise of that one too. It was there this trouble started.”
“By his own nephew,” Detah hissed impolitely and none too quietly.
“Please,” Mistress Siradath said. “No more fighting with the Kerdolan. They want our trade? Then let them have it. We have only Erlunen anyway. There’s been too many killed, and not a grain of gain for us. There’s been no improving, only decay.”
“I’ll agree that,” said Mistress Hanasan of Bukfreha’s Isle. “The Kerdolan, of a sudden, want our trade? I say to let them have it.”
“Now if there’s no more to be said . . .” Trader Skaldys turned to leave.
Erspn quickly called out about the burial—“It’s another ten days.”
His heart felt fit to burst. These days of talking with Bukarn, he had hoped for respite. Now what was there? He wasn’t Dalys to have future-sight yet he knew, in some way, all hope they had was held in one seed. But here was the problem: Where to plant her?