Alsalda – a neolithic fantasy:…
While the Saramequai Division of the Dal King’s Regiment were settling into their barracks, Demekn, aided by his sister Detah, has been busy preparing the family for when Commander Krisnavn comes for his ‘talk’. But not everyone wants to listen . . . Read on.
Detah closed her eyes. Yet two sights remained. One was her father slowly folding to fall on his face, his life-blood pulsing faster than the soil could sup it. The other was of her mother spread upon the Crows’ Bed, Eblan Shunamn, black-blade in hand, slitting her belly and spilling her guts. And in that vision their fall, their slippery-slithery fall, seems never to stop. She saw again Eblan Erspn with his long-handled bone-bladed shovel chopping them up. Again, she could smell them. Would she ever again watch the slaughter of goat, deer or sheep without smelling that? Without seeing her mother’s naked form upon that platform? Then the birds had come.
She opened her eyes. She resumed her pacing. Back and forth atop the southwest section of Ardy’s wall where, in the distance, she could see the Old Isle of the Dead. She had thought, what with its triliths-setting that formed the Sun Cove, the eblann might set her mother’s ‘Bed’ there (as in the old days). But no, it stood proud in the ungrazed grassland that lay between the two isles. And the birds flocked to it still. Screeching.
Their screeching recalled the memory of Drea: “I’ll not have that done to me,” she had screeched.
“It’s the way it’s always been done for the First Granary Mistress,” Old Apsan had told her, “the sooner to have her head back in the granary. And that, Girl-Drea, is now your duty.”
Wise Apsan to call Drea ‘girl’. That had shocked her out of her woes and her wails. Fiercely she’d turned on Old Apsan. “Mistress! Mistress. I am Mistress Drea!”
Unmoved, Old Apsan had answered her, “Then behave it. Time to wear that name properly .”
And so back at the lodge Drea had called a meeting. Straight backed she had announced, “Decisions to be made of what to say to this commandery-man.”
Detah continued to pace that same quarter-wall but now with her eyes turned to the isle’s interior. A tree grew there, the Meeting Tree. Detah had no memory of it being thus used, unless by couples at the Feast of Winter Ending. An oak, its buds now golden-brown upon it. An old tree, though not as old as the hollow oak at Bisaplan’s Old Isle. It grew to the west of the lodge, in Murdan’s second ring where the goats grazed around it. In nibbling the shoots those goats had kept the trunk bare, at least to Detah’s head-height. But from there spread branches hefty as a muscled man’s trunk. It was to be there they’d have this meeting with Commander Krisnavn.
Krisnavn. It was for him that she paced. His name stirred an ants’ nest in her chest. His name moved her legs, wouldn’t let her be still. There was something she ought to be thinking, to consider, to accommodate. Accommodate? Aye, that’s what Eblan Erspn wanted to do with Clan Querkan.
“If they must come to Alisalm-land, then let them settle on the Ancients Land. They’ve kin enough there.”
“The Ulvregan, or the snakes?” Drea had asked; then screeched again, “You cannot agree to this! You’re eblan.” Then again, once she had quietened: “I thought you at least, as Eblan Head Man, would support me.”
Unspoken, yet loud in the way she had glared at him, Drea deemed Demekn not to be trusted, grandson as he was of a Dal king. And as for Detah . . .
It hadn’t been Demekn alone who had seen her with Commander Krisnavn acting like she were clay to be worked in his hands. Detah cringed with embarrassment that that had been seen. But she didn’t want to hate him, to rear and hiss as Drea did. He had played a part, moved by Saram. Yet she saw again her father’s dying.
“My duty is to the Alsime,” Erspn had told Drea. “We’ll give them the Ancients Land. That’s the best way.”
“The best would be they went away,” Drea sneered.
“Forget it.” Demekn shook a wearied head at her. “That’s not going to happen.”
“We’ll let them have the Ancients Land—it’s no good to us,” Eblan Erspn repeated. “Then with them out of our way we can return our thoughts to the granary’s survival.”
“Tch! No longer a concern for a certain sister,” Drea had sneered–she always was sneering since she’d become Mistress. “Might explain her recent behaviour. Well timed, Detah.”
Even now, while pacing the wall-top, Detah turned her face as if she’d been slapped, tears freshly stinging. Yet at the time she’d said nothing, just bit her lip. And how she’d have liked to up and walk out of that lodge, away from her sister. Forever.
Demekn had agreed of the Ancients Land—though that too brought a torrent of insults from Drea. What right had he, a mere eblan apprentice? Erspn had signed him to let it pass.
“Apart from where else can we grant them,” Demekn continued, “that land is hardly touched. Just the two Ulvregan holds and a few family holdings. But a king has duties, he’ll not remain there.”
“To protect the bounds,” stated Erspn now he was knowledgeable.
“From himself?” Drea sneered.
Demekn ignored her. “When the commander comes to talk he’ll tell us what he intends to do for the Alsime, the Ulvregan and for the granaries. That’s if he’s yet thought of them—”
“They’re differently structured in the Dal,” Erspn explained.
And Drea had looked away. Detah thought she’d reached the point where she no longer wanted to know. But that wouldn’t do. She couldn’t close in on herself—she must not. But it was no good Detah trying to say. Detah was no longer granary, no longer family, not wanted, for Detah had dared to like their father’s slayer.
Her pacing had brought her level with the granary-masters’ barrow outside the south gate. She could sense his spirit lingering there even though, by the Dal-ways, he ought to be in the Land of Uath with Beli, fighting and feasting.
He hadn’t wanted to fight, not when the time came; she’d heard him say it to Commander Krisnavn. And why must she see them again, now through the eyes of the witnessing horsemen?
Neither had Commander Krisnavn wanted to kill him. He hadn’t come strutting through that gate. He hadn’t called to him and thrust that spear through him. They had fought. Her father’s skills mightn’t have equalled those of a Saramequai horsemaster (a commander, at that) yet he had been trained as a killer. He could have killed Krisnavn. It could have been the commander face down and wet in his blood. At the last it had been the two, both intent upon killing the other.
“What!” And again Detah was back at the meeting with Drea. Drea’s head had snapped round, again paying heed.
“Don’t leap down my throat,” Demekn had snapped in return. “The Ancestors themselves have told Eblan Erspn that we must be prepared. Now I’m trying to prepare you.”
“Please say I didn’t hear it, please say it,” Drea demanded. “Enough we must accept this commandery-man as this king-man-thing we don’t want. But then he’s to tell us what he wants from us? He can go dwell with the snakes and be done.”
“He’s not like our granary-master,” Demekn repeated.
“Aye,” said Eblan Erspn, “we’ve caught that drift.”
Detah knew he was making light in the hope of saving their ears from another shattering. She didn’t envy him the task. She liked him—Erspn—and now she’d no father . . . Well, couldn’t Erspn be that for her? She smiled at the thought. And Demekn, how hard he was working that Drea might understand. As well drive a pin into stone!
“Saram has chosen the commander to perform certain duties. And while he performs those duties Saram will protect him.”
“Too much of Saram,” Shunamn had protested but Demekn ignored him.
“His prime duty is to protect and secure our bounds against all dangers, animal, human, and demon. For this he has the Regiment. For this he has his lore-men, uathren and truvidiren.”
“You say these uathren and truvidiren are like we eblann?” Shunamn had asked. “And these are to come with him? That could be trouble.”
“They serve the king.” Detah could hear her brother’s agitation though he tried to hold patience. He had so much to say and scarcely a day left to say it. He was bunching it together, punching it out—aggressively, she’d say, and that didn’t help. He said, “It’s also the king’s duty to ensure high yields from the herds and the fields.”
“How does he do that?” asked Drea —then answered herself in a sneer: “No, I know, he turns himself into a ram.”
“It’s done as with the eblann of old,” Demekn answered her. “He keeps a bull, the best in all the land. Then should a herd need new blood, they may have the loan of it.”
“My, but this king-man is generous. Does he also shit in the fields?”
Again, Demekn had ignored her sarcasm. “He orders new fields to be cut from the forest. The old fields then revert to woodland. There is a Dal law—”
“Oh, surprise,” said Drea. “Does he not have a duty to ensure everyone farts at least twice a day?”
“Drea, mock as you will, but unless you understand this it’ll go the worse for you. You forget you’re no longer only a grain-woman. You now are Mistress of the First Granary.”
He had meant well. They all had meant well. But what could anyone say to Drea that day. And Drea had been right when she’d said of Detah being no longer granary. So, their father was dead, their mother too, but that hadn’t the same meaning for Detah as it had for Drea. Detah couldn’t begin to be in Drea’s head, all the pressures now piling upon her. It wasn’t only that she had Ardy’s granary to manage, but all the granaries of Alisalm-land. That would have been a mountainous task even had the northern granaries not collapsed, even had there been young Ulvregan men to be granary-traders, even had Drea now a granary-master to sit beside her and share the load. But alone? Aye, but Drea wasn’t alone. If only she’d allow the others to help her. As fierce as a swan defending its young, that one.
Detah sighed out her worry. And on the morrow, when Commander Krisnavn came for this ‘talk’, what then would happen? Would Drea continue to spit? Would she make things worse? And what of herself; how would she face him?
Yet again, at his name, a forest of life stirred within her. She wanted to see him, to see his tallness, his shoulders, his strength again. She smiled. To her he wasn’t an oak. He was an elm-tree. Aye, more upright, more slender. And he was warm. She remembered his heat, how it had drawn her to him. She imagined being in the guard of his arms. Odd mixtures stirred in her, of ease and pleasure—and fear. Aye, there was fear.
But how ought she to be with him now? That was the purpose of this stroll that now was a hurried pace. She had to fix him into her thoughts in such a way that she’d know how to be with him. She couldn’t ignore him. After he’d taken her to show her his horse, she couldn’t be anything but polite to him. Friendly? Aye, and have her sister fly at her? Yet she’d like to be friendly. Though how to be friendly with him when he had so recently killed her father? Before her eyes, she had watched it happened. Yet it could as easily have been Commander Krisnavn’s blood now blackening Ardy’s soil. It could, she insisted, and turned on her heel to pace back again.
Demekn had had so much to say. But did they need to know all of this? Of the king’s duty to hear all complaints, those that the lore-men couldn’t first mend—and for this he had a King’s House in every law-village.
“He’ll not have that here,” Eblan Erspn had said. “He cannot have one to each family-land.”
“Five hundred King’s Houses,” Aunt Jaljena had offered.
“Four hundred and ninety-three,” Detah corrected though she’d not said much yet in these talks.
“Too many for any one man,” Shunamn had added and sniffed.
Then: The king must provide for the Regiment though the horsemasters provided the horses. But then, also, what of the grain, the grasses, the gear for the horses, the food for the men, their barracks, the barracks’ keepers, the bedding, the beer for the feasts when they’re due. The king must provide. Provide, too, for the truvidiren and lore-men and uathren. And all this required unimaginable amounts of grain, herds of cattle and goats, cloths, hides, furs, Alisime rugs (for the Regiment had use of them) and metals, both copper and the tin-alloyed bronze.
Detah had watched her eblan-master’s face grow ever more glum. He could see what Demekn was saying. Aye, give them the Ancients Land, but it wouldn’t stop there.
“The king’s takings?” Eblan Erspn had said.
“Aye, from every family, house and law-village, the king takes a portion of what he needs. The burden, so it’s said, is evenly spread. A calf. A sack of grain. A markon to serve in the Regiment.”
Eblan Erspn was quicker than Drea to understand. “You’re saying the commander now will ask off us these same takings? Ask off all five hundred families, Alsime, granary and Ulvregan? So I’ll tell you now, the Alsime won’t be parted from goat, wood or grain. Nothing that grows on the land.”
“I’m not one to wager—”
“Despite your Ulvregan kin?” sneered Drea.
“—but were I,” Demekn continued without a glance at her, “I’d wager my life that the Alsime will gladly give as asked by the time the commander is king.”
“Never!” Shunamn had jumped to his feet.
“More,” Demekn said. “Before this day next winter’s end, they’ll have seen the benefits of having a king.”
“Oh?” Drea had arched a brow. “Do we wipe our arses upon him? So much softer than grass.”
“My sister, think. We have Kerdolan on our northern bounds. Two granaries are closing for fear of these men. So their Alisime families have agreed to grow them the grain. But give those same families through to this day next winter’s end, then listen to them. And listen with empty ears. Just hear how they moan how things have changed, how now they live in fear of the Kerdolan. They’re killers, they’ve shown it, massacring from behind the Ulvregan traders. Yet here is a man who would be our king. And as king he will, by sacred duty, protect and secure those very same bounds.”
Eblan Erspn had stood. “I’ve listened to Demekn as I hope you have, too, Drea. And listened well. I hope, too, you have heard what he’s saying. Because if we must have this commander as king, then at least let us make good use of him.”