Detah denies it, yet it seems obvious she suffers from the same ophidiophobia as the Kerdolan. Unfortunate that, for today she must venture into the snake-infested Ancients Land. As for Megovis, he still has a threat dangling over his, um-er, well not his head . . . Read on
Krisnavn had begun the day with a stern talk: they were to keep to the tracks. “It’s early season, the snakes are basking, and I won’t have the horses rear in startlement. You two can handle it, but I worry of Detah. Though she handles Belgantros, we can’t call her experienced. And I will not have her returned to Isle Ardy a corpse, her skull smashed from a fall.”
“Certainly not,” Megovis agreed. “She’s being most helpful. Clever and knowing. Altogether a useful young woman. For an eblan.”
“I see the commander’s threat is effective,” Biadret smirked.
“Threat?” Megovis put on a puzzled face. “Did I sleep through that?”
True, he did admit—silently, reluctantly, to himself—that the mere thought of Eblan Erspn coming anywhere near him had sent a flux through his guts. But that wasn’t the reason he’d said of Detah. It was because she truly had been helpful. Admittedly at first he’d thought her awkward, but he now had the answer to that. As for her being an eblan . . . yet she was also a woman. And women—unless trained as a markon—tended not to axe people’s heads. Besides, she’d let it be known she wouldn’t kill. Still, it would be wise to be wary of her. She mightn’t use a mace or an axe but, an eblan, he didn’t doubt she could cast a mean curse.
He returned his eyes to the terrain, checking for threats, weaknesses, strengths.
In some respects this Ancients Land resembled the Dal, at least more than anywhere else he’d seen in Alisalm. Except even here there were no villages, just family-holdings. Clustered roundhouses, smaller by far than the traders’ holds, each serving a single family, each cluster circularly fenced. Circles, Megovis tsk’d. As many circles here as across that death-land, the Highlands of the Sun. But surrounding the roundhouses, first, were their fields and then their pastures. And surrounding the pastures, there was the woodland. It could almost be the Dal—except for those wretched ubiquitous circles. As to the tracks, though they wove in and out of the trees, yet they were wide and well-kept—and absent those treacherous blind-corners! But as yet, for all Detah’s talk, he’d seen none of those snakes.
There was another notable difference: the Dal didn’t abut the sea, not on any of its bounds. While here . . . it was late morning when he first glimpsed it. Mud-edged, and host to clouds of small piping birds, it looked more like a river-gate. Yet Detah insisted it was a long inlet of sea.
As they came out of the trees, Krisnavn drew to a halt, Detah beside him, Megovis and Biadret behind. Their combined sets of eyes tracked north and south. Slowly Krisnavn shook his braided head, his fire-beads hissing. Megovis had seen the same. Here before them was an open artery—all the way north to Black Water. From Black Water it was a mere hop to South River and the Highlands. And Krisn had said East Bounds, once away from First Water, would be a regular patrol? No, this Big Water, as Detah named it, was a clear invitation to Kerdolak longboats.
“You reckon Yandros was testing us, sending us here?” asked Biadret, his humour now gone.
“I’d be stretched, with the entire Regiment, to defend this land of rivers. Alisalm! Make a note,” Krisnavn commanded. “Come summer-next we’re the Alisalm Regiment, and it takes Alisime men. If only a tenth of those available, they’ll swell our numbers tenfold. Meanwhile, let’s hope the threat remains only to the north. Detah, did you say something of an Ulvregan hold along Black Water?”
“Erleldn’s,” she said. “Glania’s sister is there: Gimenbavnia—”
“—Ulquon’s daughter,” Biadret cut-in quickly. “By his first wife.”
Undeterred Detah continued. “They’ve no traders left now, all killed. Only boys and old men.”
“Might be an idea to have that manned. And I want a patrol all along here. And a permanent station at the seaward end.”
The track thereafter didn’t follow the inlet. It looped between water and woodland, and as the woodland retreated it left ever-deepening tracts of marshland. Then, just as Megovis glimpsed the sea-proper in all its vastness, so too did he see the tall sweeping roof of an Ulvregan hold. There it sat between woodland and marsh, the marsh webbed with numerous salt-fleets.
“A hundred longboats could put in there,” Krisnavn voiced what Megovis was thinking. “Mandatn’s?” he asked Detah.
She nodded. Unusual for her: no information offered.
“You know who’s wed to there?” he asked her.
“Aye. Your mother’s sister. Glontria.”
Glontria. Megovis followed the thread. Glontria, of Clan Dragsin. Clan Dragsin, of the Gousen—who of late had been hosting Kerdolak traders. The Kerdolan, who traded in copper. And the Gousen no longer dealt with the Saramequai, saying they had their metals elsewhere. The Kerdolan who had used viper-venom on arrows to kill Krisnavn’s own kin. And here on the edge of the sea was Mandatn’s Hold. Beside the viper-infested Ancients Land.
Though Krisnavn looked long at that hold he asked no more questions of Eblan Detah. Indeed, he didn’t speak, not even when Biadret asked what number he’d have stationed here. Instead, having looked, he turned his horse and rode on ahead, silent and brooding. Megovis held Detah back when she would have dug in her heels to ride alongside him.
They found him later, staring out to sea across a wide sandy shore. An island lay there at a distance that none would dare swim it.
“Who holds there?” Krisnavn asked Eblan Detah.
“Well, no one, not for their dwelling. That’s Summer Isle. The South Alsime seamen use it of a summer’s half for drying the fish they’ve caught in these waters. And I’ve heard some men resort there to have a quiet place away from their women.”
Biadret laughed. Megovis snorted. Krisnavn glared at them. That wasn’t like him.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “The Kerdolan mariners could gather there. Are there havens southward of it? No, I don’t suppose that you’d know. But it’s too close to South River and South Water. And it’s a wisp away from Mandatn’s Hold.”
Megovis noticed the drop in his voice. He signed to Biadret: best to get on with setting the camp. The deepening gloom had forced them out of the woodland, despite away from its shelter now was cold and damp. Some short time later, tent raised, Biadret suddenly punched Megovis hard on the shoulder. “Nearly there! Nearly the full round, we’ve done it. Soon be back at the barracks again. Well aren’t you excited?”
No. Megovis looked to where Krisnavn still stood, staring out across the sea to Summer Island, its low cliffs turned bloody in the last of the light. Biadret followed both sight and thoughts. He mouthed the name. “Mandatn?”
“Likely. And have you seen our sweet little Buttercup?”
Detah stood apart.
“Sorrowful couple,” Biadret agreed.
“But you notice where she is looking?”
“You jealous? Oh, come on, you know he’s a handsome man. She’s not exactly the first to wistfully drool over him. Though, shame he’s to wed the older sister.”
Next morning, the shore flat and stretching far, Megovis wanted to dig in his heels, to give Truth Studder his head, to race against Biadret and Detah. But how, when Krisnavn set the pace and that slowed by whatever his thoughts. Never had Megovis known him to be so bleak. Though he understood it. Grim, that man’s thoughts now must be.
Apparently Biadret was feeling it too—and he couldn’t bear to be low. At first, to help lighten the mood, he had asked Detah of the many small streams they were crossing (Megovis had stopped counting at ten). She had mentioned of a story that told of their making but by then Biadret had wearied of her and had shushed her. Yet after a while of this uneasy silence he asked her of it.
“It’s what the South Alsime say,” she said—which Megovis took to mean she didn’t believe it. “They say that, long ago, the river’s spirit and the sea’s spirit held a contest to see who was the stronger. The river’s spirit believed it was he, because he was always flowing, never stopping to rest. He said that, though the sea’s spirit might flow stronger, yet twice a day she must stop to take breath. Are you sure you want to hear it? It’s a very long story.”
“So which spirit won?” Biadret asked her.
“Well, the sea’s spirit, of course,” she said with a wrinkle of nose. Megovis thought that a delightful habit.
“The sea is always the winner,” he said. “My mother’s people have similar stories. Like, one day the sea grew hungry and swallowed a big chunk of the land.”
Detah laughed. Now he was seeing her as other than uathren, he noticed her deep chuckle-cum-giggle, more pleasing to hear than many a woman’s shrill laugh.
“I’m full Uestin-bred,” Biadret said. “We’ve no sea, no shores, no silly how-it-came-to-be stories.”
“We’ve few rivers too,” Megovis added. “So we’re not ones for messing in boats.”
“No? Yet I remember the ‘messing’ while crossing the sea,” smirked Biadret.
“Not me,” Megovis denied.
Biadret started to say . . . but ahead Krisnavn stopped and turned. Time to move it; he was waiting for them.
“South Rivergate,” he said when they reached him. “We’ll rest here awhile. Though I want us back at the barracks by Sauën’s light.”
“Time to eat?” asked Biadret. “I saw ducks in the woods. Easy to fetch, not being on water.” Before any could say, he was off at a gallop, back the way they had come.
“If we’re to eat, we’ll need a fire. I’ll fetch the wood,” Detah offered.
“No,” Megovis said just as Krisnavn said the same.
“No,” Krisnavn told her. “You’re first watch.”
“But I’ve no weapon.”
“You don’t need weapons to watch the horses.”
Megovis was away before Krisnavn could change his mind on it. But before submerging himself in the chill of the trees he glanced back. There was Detah, hands flapping, not knowing what to do, while Krisn was already down by the water’s edge. Megovis felt a heavy stab in his chest as he saw the way her shoulders slumped. He waited to see what she’d do. She busied herself with Belgantros, using the bark-cloth Krisn had given her to brush him. Satisfied, he continued his way though his thoughts wouldn’t be still.
Was she pining for the commander? Was that it? Or was she just sad at losing the horse at the end of the ride? She had taken to Belgantros. Then again, it wasn’t so long since that business with her father. He remembered how Melissa had been: soft on a hound for many months after. Maybe he could take Detah to meet her; that might help. Both were witness to their father’s death, and Melissa had been the same age: thirteen or fourteen summers-seen. Then again, maybe it was his own company she’d miss. He snorted at that. No, they hadn’t grown that friendly.
There was no sign of Krisnavn when he returned. Detah sat on the sand, alone. He threw down the armful of sticks and kindling. She looked at him, silently asking to make the fire. He ought to refuse her but . . . an eblan, she must be able. And she’d be best kept occupied. He watched, impressed at her practiced hand. She soon had flame. Then she knelt before it to feed in the sticks. It was burning steady by the time Biadret returned.
“One duck,” he announced, wheeling his horse around them and slinging the dead duck down on the sand. “I killed it, gutted it and I will cook it. But someone not-me is going to pluck it.”
“I’ll do it,” she said.
“And she’s right,” Biadret said with a nod back to the woods. “Ankle-deep in vipers there.” He threw two snakes beside the dead duck. Detah snatched her hands away and leapt behind Megovis.
“They’re dead,” Biadret said.
Megovis watched as she edged her way out.
“You’ve never eaten snake-meat?” Biadret asked her.
“Quit teasing,” Megovis told him. He could see her eyes never left those adders.
“Tastes fine—if you’re hungry for meat.”
Megovis scowled at him, still high on his horse, still wheeling.
“Maybe they’ll wash up on Liënershi’s shore,” Biadret said and scooped up the dead snakes as he passed and rode on down to the water’s edge.
“Why’d you bring them? You’ve brought us duck,” Megovis said on his return.
“I wanted to see our eblan’s reaction,” he said over his shoulder while he gaveg his horse a swift rub. “Dead, they wouldn’t have harmed her. Even so, she didn’t like them. Did you?” He turned fully to look at Detah.
She looked down. She didn’t answer.
“Would you have picked one up?”
“I said, leave her be,” Megovis repeated.
“No, I’ve reason. Would you?” he persisted.
“So you wouldn’t have milked them for their venom?”
“You aren’t thinking she’s—”
“No. Listen.” He turned back to Detah, her face now paler than a fish-belly. “Would you say you fear snakes in the same way the Kerdolan fear them?”
“No. I—I just don’t like them, is all.”
Biadret patted his mount and came to sit down beside the duck. Despite he’d said of not plucking it, he set to the work.
“There are two ways of not liking snakes,” he said. “There are those who don’t like them because of their bite, the same as another mightn’t like bees for their sting. I’ve no liking of them for that reason, and neither has Megovis here. Yet once dead they’re just meat. Skin them, cook them. Not bad, as I said, if you’re hungry. People like us, they’ll take the venom. Cautiously. But there are others who—even the look of them brings on a shudder. Dead or alive. It’s not for their bite since they’re equally afeared of the harmless grass snake. It’s just, what you might say, the look of them. Isn’t that so, Detah? Now you can’t deny you’re one of them.”
“I thought it only uathren made such studies,” Megovis said. He didn’t understand Biadret’s purpose and he didn’t like that he was frightening the girl. “So what’s this about?”
“The Kerdolan had that venom in trade.”
Detah laughed. “It’s taken you nine days to reason that out?” And if she said that scathingly, Megovis couldn’t blame her. “Had you been listening, I’ve already said it. And likely they had it from Clan Dragsin.”
That stopped Biadret. He stared at her. Megovis too couldn’t help but look.
“What’s this of Clan Dragsin?”
Their heads turned. Krisnavn was wading through the dry sand, battling the wind that whipped his breeches, entangling his legs.
“Well?” he asked once nearer where the wind wasn’t stealing his words. “What’s this talk of Clan Dragsin?”
“The Kerdolan,” Biadret said. “They had their venom off Clan Dragsin.”
Megovis wouldn’t have told the commander that. Too much. And too pain followed upon it.
“It seems we’ve all been thinking the same,” Krisn said. “I can tell you, it doesn’t feel good to know your own mother is trying to kill you.”
Biadret gulped, his eyes shot wide. “Your thinking has gone way beyond mine.”
Megovis said nothing.
“Detah, have you reasoned it? All the way through?” Krisn asked her.
Though she licked dry lips, she nodded.
“Then best you explain. I’m not sure how steady my voice.”
“Please,” he asked her.
Megovis caught her eye and nodded.
She sighed, but she answered, “It was Clan Dragsin, most likely, who provided the venom for the Kerdolan to use on those arrows. We thought it odd—not of the venom, we didn’t yet know of it—but that initial attack on the horsemaster. Nothing was taken, yet their Hiëmen boat was loaded with gifts.”
“We?” Biadret asked.
Megovis glared at him. Had he no tact?
“My father, my brother, myself. Then at the massacre, the Kerdolan waited till the bridge was removed. They laid in wait until all were rejoicing.”
“You know that?” Krisn asked her. “Then more than my kinswoman escaped?”
“I’m promised to silence,” she said. “Though I can say they were two. Alsime. But they went only to tear down the bridge, they didn’t know of the fighting.”
“Their story stays with us. Right, Biadret? Govvy?”
“What story? Not heard,” Biadret said while Megovis merely nodded. Though that explained the eblan’s story told at the burial.
“If the Kerdolan had been angry about the bridge,” Detah explained, “then they’d not have waited to see it gone. So, we reasoned, that first attack was to divert your kinsmen. So they’d come by South River and alert us at Isle Ardy, and yet they’d still safely arrive at Sapapsan’s Isle. They had to arrive there, for there the granary-trader had, until recently, served as a markiste. So of a certainty he’d stir the Ulvregan traders, most of whom had served as markons—served the four, sworn the oath that holds them till death. Then the Ulvregan and Saramequai, set on revenge, rode out together. Straight into the trap.”
“Trap?” Biadret raised a brow.
Krisn signed him to shush. “Go on. Say the rest,” he prompted Detah.
“First in diverting the horsemaster to us, then by involving the Ulvregan traders, the Kerdolan ensured my father’s interest. Granary-master, they knew his concern was the granary-traders. They knew he’d not let it rest; he couldn’t. So we eblann were sent to investigate—aye, I went there with my brother and Eblan Erspn.” She smiled for a moment, then she shared what amused her, “It’s not that we eblann can go wherever we please, but that few care to kill us or offer us violence. They fear our curses. But the Kerdolan, they knew that sooner or later the news of the massacre would reach the Dal. And when it did . . . Well, here is Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn, come to avenge his kinsmen.”
“I was supposed to take my men and follow Makesen into death?”
“Please,” Detah said. “To name the dead is to call them back. Let them alone until the Send-Off Feast, then they’ll be gone.”
“Apologies. It’s not our way, I forgot. You two might note that and pass word onto your men. But that’s how you think it was planned? Me, my horsemasters, their markistes, their markons, all roaring off along the Waters to avenge our Querkan kinsmen. And there they’d be sitting, waiting for us.”
“With poisoned arrows,” Megovis added. “But you take a shot, you pull it out. Markon Glania shouldn’t have—”
“In the heat of battle, you do that? No,” Krisnavn said. “You snap it off, fight on, you know that. And the venom in your blood is pumping around you. The wound swells, the flesh closes over the point. Now you can’t get it out. The wound festers. The Ladies Three must have a guard on young Glania for her to survive it, though she has lost a large part of her leg.”
“So that’s why she limps!” Detah exclaimed.
Megovis cocked his head. “Knowing, indeed. How did you know that?”
“Eblan Erspn has a brother, Dalys—I’ve mentioned him. Dalys sees things. He saw ‘one, alone, and limping’. But we didn’t know who it was until the Ulvregan funeral. Then Commander Krisnavn, here, said of three Saramequai. He said of the horsemaster and his markistes. So I reasoned it must be Markon Glania who’d survived.”
“Survived, but no longer a markon,” Krisnavn told her. “Unless she can prove to me, summer-next, that she’s able to use her one leg as if two.”
“Then she’ll not a markiste?” Detah asked.
Krisnavn laughed. “Detah, my dear, it takes more than a love of horses. Discipline. Obedience. Application. Perseverance. Detachment. And many more qualities my young cousin lacks. But this isn’t of her. Biadret. Megovis. You’re to instruct your markistes. Tell them, then tell them again: any arrow wound—any—and that arrow must be withdrawn. No waiting. Immediately done. And not the shaft, it’s the point needs removing. Even if that means taking half the flesh with it. And if it’s already swelling, then they’re to cut it. Any feeling queasy on that, describe how they’ll die.”
“And when will this be, Commander?” Biadret asked. “When do we ride out to meet them along the Waters?”
“We don’t,” he said.
So now Krisnavn knows the plot—originated by his mother. But what will he do, if not to ride out to meet the threat? And how not to do that while also defending Alisalm-land—as he has promised Granary-Mistress Drea?