The northern bounds—where the Kerdolan in their distinctive longboats ply the Water of Waters. But for Captain Megovis, Saramequai horsemaster, there’s a more personal worry . . . Read on.
“Sixth day. No dark tunnels. No hedges to block the view.” Megovis restrained his whoop.
“No skull-warded fences,” Biadret added with a grin.
“No steep hills. No treacherous gulleys.”
“No Eskin pastures abutting.”
“No,” Megovis groaned. “Just this narrow strip between us and that treacherous river. Is there nothing easy about these bounds?”
The track they followed raised them above the surrounding levels, and they yet higher upon their horses. But worse was the cross-breeze that snatched and billowed their breeches. They may as well have yelled across to the Kerdolan, Hoi! and waved their war-banners. Even Eblan Detah in her fire-feather cloak stuck out like a bee in clover. Megovis was certain that thousands of Kerdolan watched them just as Megovis, himself, couldn’t take his eyes from their fancy-made boats. For all his complaints of hedges, he’d not complain of one now to shield them. Just for this stretch.
Krisnavn’s thoughts must have been on the Kerdolan too. He didn’t think to ask of the granary-isles until almost midday. “Where are they?”
Eblan Detah looked off behind her. “There’s Ablabran’s Isle. We’ve not long passed it.”
And it would have served her if Krisnavn had shouted. After all her whittling of where to find this and that of the southern granaries, trying to wheedle a detour so she could go visit each one, now here in the north, with the Kerdolan at their most threatening, she’d said not a thing. Because the granary-keepers now had fled them?
But Krisnavn allowed no annoyance to show in his voice. “So is it possible for us to return there?”
“Not if you want to reach Bajapa’s Isle today,” she replied, “—it’s at East Bounds.”
But Krisnavn insisted.
And how could they have missed it! That sun-bleached wood of the wharf turned almost to white. That track leading to it, a thousand summers of use, worn down to white bedrock. The white earthen wall that so resembled Isle Ardy’s, if not so high or so wide. White, white, white, and they’d ridden past it, eyes too busy upon watching the Kerdolan.
A palisade topped the white wall. Wide double-gates secured it—except those gates now hung ajar. Inside, the lodge looked more an Ulvregan roundhouse than Ardy’s sprawling slumping structure. Beside it sat a similar though smaller granary.
Was it only five days since a feast had been held here? Amazing, for the isle felt long-deserted. Birds flocked, rising in noisy crisis on being disturbed—though not the family of swans and some geese that continued to crop. A swarm of finches bobbed between thistles. The eaves remained busy with swallows and martins. Grasses rattled. Something darted. A lizard?
“Is this isle no more to be used?” Krisnavn asked Eblan Detah.
“Would make us a barracks,” Megovis said. “Till something more permanent.”
“Would not!” she jumped at him. “Might be empty now but folk will be back for the feasts. Four of a summer—five with the Send-Off.”
“Hey,” Megovis held up his hands. “I wasn’t saying to have all the men here.”
“And he’s right,” said Krisnavn. “Say ten? Then only until a proper barracks is built. They could make themselves scarce for the feasts. I can imagine our markons wouldn’t yet be welcome.”
“No,” Eblan Detah held firm. “Not any way round you care to say it. This is Mistress Salada’s lodge, and her family always has lived here. She’d not have left had she not been so scared.”
Krisnavn, too, held up his hands. “Hush. I hear you.”
Megovis was caught between grinning and not. Here was Krisnavn, intending to wed the Granary Mistress, Eblan Detah’s sister, and yet was afraid to ask that same woman a simple favour, the use of this isle. Well, Megovis doubted that wedding ever would happen. His commander would do better to forget what the truvidiren wanted and look elsewhere.
“Commander-sir,” Biadret said. “What say we change into our battle-breeches before we ride that track again? They don’t shout Hey, look at me quite so loudly.”
“So they don’t,” Krisnavn agreed. “Instead they shout, We’re going to battle. I hear what you’re saying, but no.”
“We’d be less visible if we walked the horses,” Megovis suggested.
“How much farther to Bajapa’s Isle?” Krisnavn asked of Eblan Detah.
“How far?” he repeated.
“Walking? But the Regiment don’t like to walk.”
“We don’t like being targets for arrows either. How much farther?”
“Walking? We might gain it before Master Nod’s Light.”
“Before moonrise? Then that’s the answer, we’ll walk, the horses beside us to shield us. Then hopefully their eyes will miss us.”
“But that cuts our own range of vision,” Biadret complained.
“Behind us, yea,” Krisnavn agreed. “So still be prepared to drop flat.”
Again, Eblan Detah proved to be right. Foot-weary, Megovis slogged through Bajapa’s gate. And there was awe-struck. Stick, plaster and thatch, everything gilded. Sauën ablaze in the western sky had made of the granary something . . . other. Uath’s Land, surely, for this must be Beli’s own dwelling. But even while watching, with Sauën slipping, it transformed back to a nondescript granary-lodge.
“A hundred or more could be hidden in there,” Krisnavn remarked, his eyes fixed on the lodge.
“Potential ambush?” Megovis considered it. But the same could have been said at Ablabran’s Isle. Except here they intended to set their camp. “It needs checking.”
“No argument there,” said Krisnavn. “But I’m reluctant to send you in. Two against whatever is potentially waiting.”
“Two horsemasters,” Biadret said with a puffed-out chest.
“But they’ve no need to enter,” Eblan Detah chirped in.
Krisnavn cocked his head.
“A granary-lodge isn’t an Ulvregan roundhouse. Though I’ve not seen inside one of those, I can tell you that here the outside wall doesn’t join with the roof. There’s a gap.” She held her hands to demonstrate. “Even slight sounds travel through that.”
“You’re suggesting we walk round the outside and . . . listen?” Megovis asked her.
She shrugged. “Unless there’s just one, and he’s very quiet.”
“What about deep into the centre?” Biadret asked. “No internal walls?”
“If you look you’ll see there’s no roof over that. One peep through the door, down the passage, should tell you—while there’s still light.”
Krisnavn studied the lodge for a very long time. Megovis, too, his head atilt as if to see better.
“Inside is divided to rooms?” Krisnavn asked. “You said of sharing a chamber with the other eblann. How is it divided?”
“Easiest,” she said, “to say like a Dal-house. Though long and divided, imagine it curled around.”
Megovis frowned but Krisnavn nodded; apparently he understood. He sent Megovis and Biadret to quietly walk round it and eavesdrop. Himself would take the more dangerous task of peeping into its heart. Megovis checked out the granary too; Biadret the sheds. By then, Sauën had taken the last of the gold and left them with grainy shades of grey. Lodge checked, Krisnavn said to set camp.
“Best to set it behind the lodge,” Eblan Detah said.
“Ho! Listen to that,” Biadret cheered. “Six days with the Regiment and already she’s the commander.”
“No, I’m just thinking, we’ll be less easily seen from the river.”
“And that works both ways,” Krisnavn told her. “We could have Kerdolan creeping in through the gate and we wouldn’t see them. Then, too late, we’d find ourselves trapped. We are three while they are . . . how many? So we’ll set the tent to the right of the gate—though out of immediate sight. And Biadret?” He waited till Biadret looked round. “No cook fire. Cold food will do us tonight. And I’ll take the first watch.”
“Cold rations. Cold toes. And this close to the river, a cold night,” Megovis moaned while he and Biadret raised the canvas.
“But since there’s been no hunt—your suggestion, was it, to walk?” jibed Biadret, “—there’s nothing meaty to cook. You know, Govvy, he’s right, our commander. You are turning into a woman.”
Megovis desperately sought a searing retort. But could find none. He knew what would happen. He’d wake in the night with one clung to his tongue.
They gathered to eat.
“Now where is she?” Krisnavn said when he realised Eblan Detah wasn’t there.
“Probably out trapping a badger for breakfast,” jested Biadret.
“Probably,” Megovis agreed. “She doesn’t much like our cold rations.”
“If she’s strayed out of those gates—Uath and Saram, if they have taken her!” The note of dread that raked Krisnavn’s voice rattled Megovis as well. If anything happened to her . . . He dared not think of it. There’d be an Alsime uprising.
“Biadret, check the sheds and the granary, inside and out. Megovis, a thorough search of the lodge. I’ll check outside the wall.”
Megovis stared at that huge empty building. Fine for Eblan Detah to liken it to a wrapped around longhouse, but still he hadn’t been inside it. And now it was dark—How was he to rutting search in the dark? “Be easier just to call for her first.”
“The night stolen your brain?” Krisnavn snapped at him.
“No, Govvy’s afraid of the dark,” Biadret teased. “All the seasons you’ve known him and you didn’t know that?”
“Stop messing,” Krisnavn, straight-faced, shot at Biadret. “And you, Megovis, we get back to Isle Ardy, I might just ask Eblan Erspn to take a look at you. Whatever’s got into you?”
Megovis’s mouth dropped. He couldn’t be serious? Just because he’d hesitated to plunge into the lodge?
“Go!” Krisnavn snapped at him. “Delaying like this. What if the Kerdolan have her? You think of that?”
Megovis had to admit, that was incentive. But it didn’t change that he wasn’t happy at entering that strange place, and as good as blind. Was the door warded? Had the eblann laid charms? Dear Saram, what spirits might be released to pounce upon him?
The lodge—its thatch and walls—loomed black as a mountain before him. How was he to find the door? He’d not even seen it while eavesdropping around it. And no twin posts here to mark it as they did at Isle Ardy. Yet he reckoned the door ought to be front-on to the gate. He’d noticed that at Isle Ardy, and again at Ablabran’s Isle. Well, he had the one recourse: He must grope around with his hands. Then maybe before he ever found it, Krisnavn would call out that he’d found the girl wandering outside the palisade, seeking baneworts or whatever. That seemed most likely.
But he’d no sooner started groping than he stopped moving. He could smell . . . something. Something burning? He sniffed the air. It wasn’t wood, or not wood alone. It was . . . he sniffed again . . . unpleasant. For some reason he couldn’t quite figure it brought memories crashing of his sister Melissa. He turned his head and sniffed again, trying to source it though he knew whence it came. Inside that blackness. He’d be crazy to enter, to be trapped inside with the lodge ablaze like a metallurgist’s furnace. Yet if she was in there . . . No, it had to be the Kerdolan. They were close, just across the river.
Though the wall wasn’t whitened with chalk as at Ardy’s it still was mud plastered; he could feel the fine grit beneath his fingers. He’d like to know where his feet were treading. They’d seen no creatures while circling and listening, but now it was night. If something warm-blooded then he would sense it, feel its heat. But if a snake? Uath’s Bones, he was getting as jumpy as her of the things.
His fingers stumbled on a raised edge. The gritty plaster changed to slick leather. Ruts! he’d found it. It was an Ulvregan-type door, hurdle construction covered with hide.
He didn’t open it. Not yet. He honed his hearing and listened, head turning. But no call came from Biadret and Krisnavn. They hadn’t yet found her. He had to go in. Still he held back, now to steady his breathing and control his fears as Uissid Huat had taught him (not a part of the training he’d liked).
The door creaked as he pushed it.
The smell of burning here was stronger. Yet no hint of it earlier when he’d circled the building. Someone was here.
The door slammed behind him. His hand dropped to his fire-blade, fingers curling around its charm-graven handle. Someone was here, and in raising the tent he’d shrugged off his prize weapon, the battleaxe. Fool to enter here without it.
He was in the passage that led to the centre, just as she’d said. So that explained the grey-against-black that lay ahead. Explained, too, the unexpected breeze that had slammed the door behind him. He advanced with measured step, free hand to the wall. The fear returned, hammered into his chest, denied him his breath.
Suddenly the wall fell away. A chill air whispered past him. He had reached the centre. And never had he felt so intensely alone. Yet someone was here. He could see a faint glow, as of a fire, outlining a door. Who was it? Some lonely man seeking shelter in a lodge now deserted? Or Eblan Detah? Please let it be Detah. Don’t let it be a horde of Kerdolan, arrows aimed at him. But no, a horde couldn’t be that quiet. And they’d not light a fire.
He peered into the otherwise-greyness around him. No, it was just that one room, just the one door, just the one person. He prayed to Saram that it was Detah.
A rustle sounded from behind the door. If it weren’t for the fire, he’d have said it a bird or a marten trapped there.
He heard the sound of someone sniffling. Careless that, if that one was a warrior.
He wanted to call. It had to be Detah. But what if it weren’t? Yet imagine her startlement when he stood in the doorway. Best to ease it open a crack. To peep into there first. Best to see what’s there first.
He found the wall with his fingers and edged along it. But this was crazy, his fear. As markon, markiste and horsemaster, though of late there’d been only skirmishes, yet he had faced battle-raged warriors, faced their axes, their hammers, their spears. Death had stared at him many times over, many times over he’d prayed deliverance to Beli. So why now the guts-rush? He answered himself: The unknown.
Beside him now the light-defined door was open a crack. Slowly, silently, his fingers felt for it. Then halted. He held his gasp. No solid door this, it gave to his touch. More tentative now, his fingers searched, puzzled at what he was touching. Heavy. Rug-like. A weaving? More of a door-hanging then, like the flaps of the Regiment’s tents. He slipped a finger behind it.
The girl stopped her sobbing and, startled, looked up, fear-widened eyes staring. He opened his mouth intending to say . . . but choked by the sight, words froze. He looked at the walls, splattered from when the blood had sprayed there when, with an axe, his head had been severed. He looked again at her, crouched in the corner, blood-drenched.
“Govvy . . .” A plea. Terror filled her eyes, head shaking. “No, it’s not what you think, Govvy. Not his, not his blood, not here.”
But he wasn’t listening. He was hearing again the whole rutting tale. His mother Sitasha had met him outside. “No, Govvy, listen. It was the only way. Your father wasn’t to live any longer, we knew that. Best to release him, let him find his own spirit.”
But of all the ways to kill him! How many seasons an honourable horsemaster, then to be denied his place with Beli because some rutting truvidir had parted his head with a stone axe. He could cry, shed tears all his life, but he’d never be rid of his anger. Rutting, rutting, rutting truvidiren! If that truvidir had waited just the one day, he would have been home. He could have insisted upon the blade, provided his own.
“So what’s this with you, Buttercup?”
“It’s . . .” She bit her lip, refusing to say. “You’re a markon, share barracks with women. You must know it.”
He hadn’t immediately understood. Then came the tears again, this time for his sister. Little Melissa, his little Buttercup, no longer a child. Now a woman, flowering.
He could see her now, crouched by the small fire she had made. She looked up at him with terror-wide eyes, hand halted midway to feeding the flames.
“Ah, there you are.” He tried to sound friendly. Brotherly. “Commander sent me to find you.”
She wouldn’t look at him, head turned aside, looking down. “What have I done now that’s wrong?”
“No, Buttercup, he’s just . . . worried. Wanted to know you’re safe. You finish up what you’re doing, I’ll . . . I’ll go tell him I’ve found you.”
“You’re not meant to see this,” she called after him, waiting till the woven door-hanging was slapping behind him. “None of you men. You won’t tell him?”
He turned back, holding aside the door-hanging.
“Look, Buttercup. I don’t know your ways on this but, well, you’re here in the company of men who are used to the company of women. You hear me? Though Regiment ways aren’t Uestin ways either.”
He fumbled his way to the passage, then fumbled it back again. He stood beside the door-hanging. “You be sure to be rid of that fire, now. And those water-skins we carry? Best to rinse your hands in it. We don’t all want to catch it.” He shuddered. There’d been enough talk of him becoming a woman.
Outside again, with air to breathe, he reported his find to Krisn—omitting what the girl had been doing. Weren’t a need for the commander to know.
So Detah hadn’t strayed far. And brotherly Megovis couldn’t begrudge her the privacy. Yet to come upon her . . . was it catching? And there was Krisn and Biadret both calling him a woman. He’d have to prove himself now before they returned Isle Ardy.