Alsalda—a Neolithic fantasy:…
The ‘talks’ have begun. But while Eblan Head Man Erspn’s idea is to be accommodating while angling for whatever can be gained in return, Mistress Drea, the eighty-third granary-mistress since Mistress Hegrea, predictably is being awkward . . . Read on.
Megovis made no attempt to cover his grin. Why bother when none looked at him. Only Saram would see him and Saram wouldn’t chide him for this. So Krisnavn believed it possible to woo this woman, that come summer-next she’d cheerfully consent to be his queen? He had some work ahead of him, and he without experience of it. Young and pretty so she might be. But she was stubborn as an old sow: Krisnavn had said to sit—so of course she would not.
Detah had immediately plonked herself down, to sit inelegantly on the cushion supplied. Her brother Demekn had followed. Eblan Erspn—speckled cloak fanned out behind him—knelt not sat, there to lean forward to stir a bowl set half into the embers. Krisnavn, cushion eschewed, sat cross-legged, thighs flat on the ground. And so alone and sullen Mistress Drea stood.
“The brew—” Eblan Erspn nudged his apprentice. “Would you kindly pass it to Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn?”
Detah heaved her attention back from Krisnavn and ungainly got to her feet, hands held cupped and waiting. She ouched at its heat yet held the bowl steady.
“We Alsime will not talk without first a brew to wet our lips and to ease our tongues,” Eblan Erspn explained. “And as our guest, it is polite that you are offered it first.”
Megovis caught Biadret’s eye. Already two attempts on Krisnavn’s life. Ought they to taste it before Krisnavn sips it? Biadret looked to Krisnavn. If he so wanted, he would sign for it. Megovis waited, hoping if called it would be Biadret who risked it.
“What herbs are used?” Krisnavn asked Detah, eyes fast on the offered bowl.
“It won’t harm you, you have my word on it.” Her command of Uestuädik was good, not a stumble upon the words. “It’s a blend, but I can’t name the herbs, not in your speech. They’re mixed to bring out the strengths of each. It tastes exquisite, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.”
“Exquisite?” Krisnavn raised a brow. She looked down, face flared red. Megovis could see her hands trembled, too, the bowl no longer held steady. Krisnavn took it from her before she could spill it. With face still hidden, she took two steps back. Krisnavn inhaled of the steam. Megovis could guess at his thoughts. The brew intended for sharing. The bowl a ritual vessel like the Dal’s tall beakers. It was unlikely, then, that it would be poisoned. Detah waited, feet shuffling, hands held first in front, then behind her. Megovis saw her fleet glance back at her cushion.
“We drink to patience, and to tolerance, to clear-hearing, and to thoughts that are ordered,” Eblan Erspn said when Krisnavn still stalled. “That’s what their strengths (if you fear our herbs). We drink to pleasant talks, not—” he glanced round at Mistress Drea “—not strife.”
Krisnavn sipped and returned the bowl to Detah. She all but skipped back to Eblan Erspn, a wonder she didn’t spill the remainder. The bowl then passed round those there seated. Mistress Drea still stood.
Krisnavn started his talk with the ritual opener: May Saram witness. He said, “I have no doubt, by now, your Eblan Demekn has explained why the death of your granary-master. And you must understand, my kin were killed too. Also, he will have told you of the Uissids Judgement, and of Clan Querkan’s need of land away from Dal Uest. You must realise, even without his telling, that Clan Querkan has decided that land is here.”
Megovis watched as each in turn silently nodded their understanding as the commander’s gaze fell upon them. Except Mistress Drea.
“Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn. First, let me say that I find it odd that—as my brother has striven to convince me—you do not come here as our granary-master. That, in our straits, might have been useful. So why kill him if you don’t want to be him? So, my brother tells me, you come here to be . . . king?”
Megovis thought she was going to laugh. But no.
“King of the Alsime? But, as I have told my brother, who being Uestin-bred has forgotten, we Alsime have no king. We have no word for your king-thing—see, I must use yours. We have no king for we have no need. Now, if my word were law, as you seem to think it, I would tell you to get on your horse and speed your way back over the sea. But, though I am Mistress of the Granaries—the eighty-third granary-mistress since our Mistress Hegrea—yet my voice means nothing amongst the eblann, the Alsime and the Ulvregan of Alisalm-land. So may I respectfully suggest you speak to these eblann assembled here. For they, at least, speak for the Ancestors and thus, too, for the Alsime. You’ll agree, we will all be marginally happier if you don’t speak to me.” At that, her gaunt face reddening, she dropped like a stone caught by her cushion.
Krisnavn started to say—but she wasn’t yet done.
“May I say, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, you will not make a very a good king if you don’t even know which folk you’re to speak to.” She concluded by wrapping her arms round her knees and burying her head. As if to imply she no longer was there?
Meanwhile Megovis’s attention had shifted to Detah. Clearly she believed herself unobserved. For she was glancing back and forth at Krisnavn while trying to push down on her knees. Was she trying to copy the way that he sat? But though she had hitched up her breeches they, being Dal-styled, not Regiment, were narrow-legged and hampered the bend of her knees. And now with Mistress Drea’s diatribe done Krisnavn leant in closer. Megovis could just hear his words. “It takes a season or two of training to lay the knees flat.”
Again, Detah’s face turned battlefield-red.
Krisn, having many nephews and nieces, had an avuncular way with children. But Detah wasn’t a child, she was on the cusp of being a woman, and he was encouraging her. This wasn’t the first time—Megovis had seen them at the Ulvregan funeral—and it was entirely wrong of him. Megovis scowled disapproval.
“Mistress Drea,” Krisnavn returned his attention to Sauën’s seed-keeper. “I address myself to you because I believe you are the one best able to help me with what must be done as a matter of urgency.”
That jerked her up, straight-backed. But not bright-eyed, with curiosity chafing. Instead, she laughed. “You think that I’d help you do anything? You, who killed my father.”
Eblan Erspn, sitting beside her, freed his hands of the encumbering cloak and positioned his feet for ease of movement. Megovis, too, shifted his weight, ready to block if needed.
“Mistress Drea,” Krisnavn made his voice sorrowful, “this situation is too dire for us to continue this fighting. Please, have patience while I tell you what needs to be done. Then you will see that you must help me.”
“Must?” she sneered. But at least she kept her buttocks low on that cushion. “We have a feast on the morrow. Perhaps you’d come along to entertain us? You can repeat this performance. It’s almost laughable.”
“Mistress Drea, there are Kerdolan on your northern bounds.”
She applauded. “I knew you’d amuse me. Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, there have always been Kerdolan along the North Bounds. There are Eskin, too, along our West Bounds. And the East Bounds we share with the Lenevan. Is this your dire news?”
“These Kerdolan build a new trading-hold not far from the confluence of First Water, They vie for your trade. Less than a moon since they killed three of your granary-traders—”
“Four. You have been misinformed.”
“Four granary-traders, and twenty-six Ulvregan men, many of whom were traders too. Killed, Mistress Drea, by these same Kerdolan who prowl the North Bounds. One of the slain, Mistress Drea, would have been your own granary-trader, in time to be your granary-master.”
“I’ve been misinformed.” She glanced accusingly at Demekn. “It seems these Uestin do know something of our granaries. But I suppose, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, you have plied Bukplugn’s kin with your questions. Aye, what you say is so. But what of it?”
“What do you intend to do—about these Kerdolan? Wait till they’ve killed more of your people? Two of your granaries no longer trade.”
“Three. Ardy’s now has lost a trader—though he wasn’t Kerdolan-killed. Was he?”
“Fear already is spreading amongst the granaries,” Krisnavn said, ignoring her accusation which, anyway, could not be denied. “Fear to be close to the Waters. Fear of the Kerdolan. I am not mistaken. As mistress of the granaries, this is now yours to deal with. So what do you intend to do, Mistress Drea?”
Krisnavn waited with more composure than Megovis would have managed. The talk between Eblan Erspn and Mistress Drea in their Alisime-Hiëmen was too fast for him to follow. But clearly something the eblan said upset the mistress. Palm on his chest she shoved him away, her colour again rising.
“—is dead,” Krisnavn said bluntly. “And the Kerdolan have killed any man who might have replaced him. I ask again, Mistress Drea, what are you doing about these Kerdolan?”
Megovis observed her. There she sat, decorously upon her pretty cushion, the neckline of her granary-gown indecorously gaping. But she said nothing. So Krisnavn continued his talk.
“These Kerdolan present a threat to more than your granaries. The Alsime, the Ulvregan, all who dwell within Alisalm’s bounds. Are you able, Mistress Drea, either personally or in concert with the other granaries, to defend the Alsime from your enemies? Not only the Alsime whose lands abut North Bounds, but those around His Indwelling? Those of First Landing? South Landing? West Bounds and East Bounds? Those whose lands are here, on the Highlands of the Sun?” He didn’t goad with his tone, but rather spoke with compassion. “Mistress Drea, are you able, even, to defend your own granary?”
Still she said nothing. Eyes filling, she turned her head from him.
Megovis had to admire Krisnavn. Truly, Saram had chosen wisely. His voice now took the tones of a clan father. “Mistress Drea, allow me to answer for you. To say what you will do about these Kerdolan. You will find a band of warriors. Men trained in strategy and use of weapons. And you will charge them with ridding your bounds of these Kerdolan.”
He paused, allowing her time to digest, to absorb, to understand what he had said. Meanwhile, Eblan Erspn was whispering something to Demekn. Megovis couldn’t hear and couldn’t guess. Demekn nodded and they both looked at Mistress Drea—whose head still was turned obstinately away.
And now Krisnavn moved in for the kill. He was wily, it was cleverly done. Megovis admired it, tremendously.
“Mistress Drea, I have at my command one such band of trained warriors. Not in Dal Uest. No need of days passing while you wait upon tides. They are here, in Alisalm. With weapons. With horses. I can secure your bounds against these Kerdolan. All you need do is to ask me.”
Megovis saw, unexpected, the grins on the eblann’s faces. Oh and what devious trap were they conspiring to entangle Krisnavn? Though he doubted them able to outwit the commander. Though if they used spirits . . .? A shiver ripped through him.
“An interesting offer,” Mistress Drea returned, her head quizzically tilted. “But why would you do that for me?”
“Several possible reasons.”
Unwatched by the others, Megovis grinned. Though Krisn still needed her word, yet now he would tease her.
He said. “I could offer this service solely for the wealth that you then would reward me. For I do know that you and your granaries possess it. Or I could offer the service because of late there’s been no chance of a skirmish along our Dal borders and the Regiment does enjoy a good bash at a battle. Then again, I could offer it because in doing so I will also avenge my kinsmen. Or might you prefer me to say that as the designated King of Alisalm, I would rather that the granaries were not destroyed and the people killed before I have been accepted by them? These reasons all hold true. Chose as you will, Mistress Drea, whichever sits easiest with you.”
Mistress Drea said nothing, her head again low. Instead it was Eblan Erspn, the speckle-feathered headman:
“In the matter of the Kerdolan, our Mistress Drea accepts your offer.”
“No!” Mistress Drea wrenched him round by the arm. “It’s a trick, don’t you see.”
Will Mistress Drea agree to the wants of Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn?
Will he be able to convince her to the need and the sense of it?
Will he ever be able to woo her and wed her?
And will these questions be answered in the next episode?