Alsalda (Act 2):
Ten days to wait for the Ulvregan funeral. Detah sat with her father beneath the deep eaves of Ardy’s lodge and, while she sewed her feathered cloak, he told her the tales of Dal Uest—and of how every new recruit to the Uestuädik Regiment vowed to be Saram’s weapon. A promise not relented by time . . . Now read on.
It was agreed: until all had arrived the eblann Erspn, Detah and Demekn would make themselves scarce. Invisible, if possible. Shunamn might grump that he wasn’t included but, as Erspn told him, his place this day was at Mistress Alenta’s side—despite Mistress Alenta had personally to oversee the portage of Father’s Brew.
“Sleds will not do,” she had grumbled, still smarting at having to make this donation. “Doesn’t anyone here know about brews?”
Actually, aye, Erspn did. That’s why he stepped in with a suggestion. There were sixteen river-walkers—aye, sixteen!—idling and swarming around Isle Ardy, having arrived with the trade-wares from the northern granaries too late in the day to return to their homes. Let them port the brew-brimming vats.
Despite their instruction to remain invisible the two younger eblann were a delightfully colourful sight: Detah in her fire-heron cloak and equally fiery feathered cap; Demekn in his swan-feather cape topped by an Ulishvregan striped hat. Erspn, in his Alisime bonnet and speckled-owl feathers, felt dingy beside them. They waited atop the earthen wall at the western end of the Ancestral Long Boat—where Erspn thought none would look at them., offset as they were to the north of the Ulvregan grave.
If asked why he’d set the grave specifically there he’d have claimed inspiration off the Eblan Mistress, for on reflection it was an odd place. Almost all the Ulvregan, and even those of the granaries, would approach from South River, taking the path that skimmed the Old Isle of the Dead with Murdan’s Stones. Yet here was the grave to the far side of the Land of the Dead, barely within it, all-but nudging the Freeland Walk. He’d not considered it when choosing the site—he’d swear to it—but that north-south Walk served only one Ulvregan hold: Bukplugn’s. Now he nodded at the significance of that. As to the grave itself, it was almost the equal of the belly outside Isle Ardy used exclusively for the granary-masters. Its circle marked by a low wall of stacked turves; within, the cleared soil showed suitably white, Nod’s Rocks. Immediately north of it were piled the white river-rocks, close to hand for those attending to make a start on the covering. Once that was complete and a white mound formed, Erspn would carve the charms into its centre post. That might take him some days.
And then he’d go hunt for Mistress Hegrea.
If Mistress Hegrea and the Ancestors agreed it, they might yet save the granaries by training young Alisime men to be traders. Though that would set a problem for the eblann who, anciently, were forbidden to trade with the Alsime. How then might they obtain the eblan-herb, the flywort green-feather? But for now such concerns must be set aside. Today the only thought must be for the Ulvregan burial.
The Ulvregan arrived first, all gaily attired. Until this of the bridge Erspn had taken no note of their holds’ colours worn as plaid-weavings. He’d known Mandatn’s (blue, green and yellow) but only because Sapapsan’s trader as-was had still wore his. And he’d known Bukplugn’s—blue, green and white. Now, with help from Detah, he was beginning to identify the others. Luktosn’s Hold: brown, yellow and black. Duneld’s Hold: red, black and white. Burnise’s Hold: red, yellow and green. Erleldn’s Hold: brown, white and green. Jitnebn’s Hold: red, blue and black.
Then came the granary families, though only those with losses—except Mistress Hanasan who accompanied her sister, Mistress Salada, despite her journey had been partly by sea. Compared with the Ulvregan with their pleated and gathered plaid skirts and narrow Dal breeches, these latter arrivals looked drab. Well might the grain-women wear their long linen chemmies but their flowery colours were hidden beneath their dull woollen cloaks.
They made a ragged procession. But, early or late, Ulvregan or granary, they all came as families. All bore a spirit-belonging, be it their brothers’ stone-working tools, their fathers’ brew-bowls, their sons’ high-necked Dal beakers, their cousins’ bows, arrows and spears—some carried a travel-cloak, others a hat; one pulled a sled holding a hound now dead as his master. All brought food, although Isle Ardy was to provide more (fresh-baked flatbreads, at least). And many were the children who’d been out early that morning to gather spring flowers.
Beside him, Detah sighed. “I want it all to be over.”
He patted her shoulder. He dared do no more.
“Now, Demekn,” he turned to her brother. “You know what you’re to do?”
Demekn nodded. Erspn was sure that in helping to make this grave he had gained greater acceptance regarding the markon. Though still withdrawn, at least now he was eating and sleeping. The eblan-apprentice hefted his bow’s carry-strap over his shoulder.
“Wait,” Erspn cautioned. “We’re still waiting for—Ah! I see them now.”
Bukplugn’s kin. He’d just then seen them through the gaps of the bounding hedge. Most up on horseback, they couldn’t be missed. They formed a long procession along Freeland Walk.
Erspn grunted, surprised, concerned. “Now who are they?” Three, high on horses, their hair plaited, copper tipped, their tall crowns of black feathers waving and bobbing.
“Saramequai,” Detah said.
Horsemaster Megovis, not in the sweetest of moods, reined back his horse. A shame when ahead was the only clear track they’d found since coming to this mist-laced land. But the ancient trader Venkys at Bukplugn’s Hold had said it plain. “To the Alsime the Highland’s good as their Land of the Dead. And we do not offend them.” Megovis sniffed. He resented his having to attend. Now Biadret beside, his companion horsemaster who together with him was bringing the rear, had reason to be here. Biadret had kin at Bukplugn’s Hold. But, though he’d a sort-of cousin there (Demona) Megovis thought of her more as Krisn’s kin, and tended not to acknowledge her—unlike his own sister, little Melissa, at Jitnebn’s Hold. But he’d not seen her, now, for fifteen seasons. But poor little Buttercup; Venkys had reported her man amongst the dead. So he owed it to her to be here. Beyond that, he was here as second-in-command to Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn. Besides, he and Biadret were the assigned witnesses-in-attendance. And he’d be glad when that episode was done.
His eyes tracked the land to either side of him, or as much as he could see through the trees. Clusters of huts, seeps of smoke betraying the life within. He figured they’d be the Alsime. He’d seen them, their skin-clad lean bodies out in the fields. Saram’s Eyes! but life here must be grim.
“The Highlands, Land of the Dead,” he remarked, quietly to Biadret. “How do they live here? And it’s not just a few—I mean apart from Bukplugn’s. I’ve been counting.”
“Counting? No, Govvy, best leave that to the lore-men; I hear they’re good at it.”
“But doesn’t it make your flesh creep?”
“What? The living, the dead, or you counting?”
Their commander, Horsemaster Krisnavn, dropped back to speak with them. “The trader Maryns says no horses on Bisaplan’s Land.”
“What?” Biadret spluttered. “He wants us to leave them here on the track, unguarded?”
“And you trust the Alsime not to eat them?” Megovis had heard the tales, the Ulvregan markons full of them. And Biadret reckoned his skin didn’t creep? Either he lied or lacked any feeling.
“Demona’s and Luaka’s boys will stand guard,” Krisnavn said.
Biadret laughed. Several heads swung to look at him.
“Shush it,” Megovis said, though another time he’d have laughed along with him. “It’s a burial, look where we’re riding—to their rutting Land of the Dead. But, Krisn, look, see, neither boy is above ten summers-seen.”
“We’re guests. You will obey,” Krisnavn said and returned to the front of the column.
“He’s edgy,” Biadret remarked.
“I argued against our attendance. And still I argue it.”
“No, Govvy, that wouldn’t be right. Won’t say of the others but Makesen and his markistes, they were Regiment and his kin.”
Megovis hefted a sigh. “But I’m telling you, Biadret, I’ll be glad when it’s over. Gloom, gloom, and more rutting gloom. But reckon that’s why I’ll ever be the horsemaster, while Krisn, there, he’s ever the commander.”
“I don’t envy him.”
The hedge to the east of the track abruptly thinned. Biadret looked, and gasped. “Whopping Uath!”
Megovis stared at the Land of the Dead now fully revealed. “Sweet Saram and Beli too! Just look at that! More bone-houses here than amongst our Bridren.”
“Rightly named, then: Land of the Dead,” Biadret said.
“You know what this looks like, this Highlands of the Sun, as they laughingly call it? A rutting giant’s garden. And he’s got a gigantic problem with moles. See the hills?” Megovis laughed.
“That’s what they are, eh? So what’s that then, those stones?”
“That has to be the Sun’s Cove.” Megovis had heard stories of that. Impressive, the Ulvregan markons said, and maybe it was when closer to. According to the Ulvregan it was a magical contraption that magically told them when the feasts were to be held. Some tale, that: he had laughed. So what was wrong with asking their lore-men as they did in the Dal? He groaned. “Oh, these next few months, I can see, are going to be fun.”
“There’s the cenotaph.” Biadret nodded to where a small crowd mostly obscured a patch of raw earth.
Megovis puffed agitation. “Should have brought a bigger guard.”
“Why? You reckon we can’t handle these?”
“You’ve seen how many have come?”
“Yea, but they’re only Ulvregan. No different to Dal folk.”
“Huh, no different—like they wear proper clothes? So what about those in the feathers and skins?”
“If befeathered, they’re eblans,” Biadret said. “You’ve forgotten the briefing already? Or did you sleep through it? Ha, forgetting, it’s winter still.”
“Want to sit on a short stabbing stick and rotate? Besides, that briefing was brief. Eblans, eh? Same as uathren, yea? Though I don’t see our uathren got up like that.”
He’d an urge to turn round and not attend the funeral. His body was building to restless, same as it did every time the talk came to uathren. He didn’t deny he held a grudge of uathren – and truvidiren, they were the worst. He didn’t trust them. He preferred not to be within a spit of them. And here were four of the befeathered fiends. To think his sister had wed into this land. Would he find her still sane? He couldn’t pull his eyes from the feathered group.
“Sweet Saram’s Eyes! But that one’s elegant, in the hat—for an Alsime.”
“He says ‘the one in the hat’—which one in the hat? I see three wearing hats. And best not to mock in their hearing. They’ll cast a curse on you.”
“Yea? Like they’ll make it so I lose the last shred of reason? Too late, Biadret, it’s lost coming here. And I meant the fiery hat. Neat, eh?”
At the front of the column Bukplugn’s traders had drawn to a stop. The women formed into knots while the men dismounted and fussed their horses. Children, restless and not understanding, got underfoot.
Megovis heaved a bear-sized sigh. “Come on, Biadret, let’s see this over.” He hoped Melissa was attending with the mourners. He hoped he would recognise her. Fifteen long seasons, eh? That’s nigh a lifetime for some.