Krisnavn has realised his mother’s plot—not a nice taste to have in the mouth. So now what will he do? Meanwhile Detah’s not happy to be back at the Saramequai barracks, her adventure over . . . Read on
“The hill soon will green again,” Krisnavn told her, though Detah had said not a word. If she had it would have been to ask why these Saramequai with their tree-clans had destroyed so many trees. Still, she figured they’d not have done it without a need.
That hill stood stark against the pale sky, topped by a tall log-fence that shouted of the Regiment’s presence. But at least down by the river they’d left all alone—except, she now noticed, a newly-made wharf. More wood. Yet the extensive reed-beds were untouched, the haunt of herons and swans, all threaded through with a confusion of channels to defeat a stranger arriving by boat.
A raw track wrapped its sandy-coil a round the hill to deliver them up to the double-leafed gate. More wood. It swung open slowly to reveal . . . she slapped hand to mouth to catch the gasp.
It wasn’t so much the longhouses, rows after rows of them, all facing south. It was more their construction. Even though both Demekn and her father had said, she’d still thought them to be like the old Alisime longhouses such as those still found around East Bounds. But no, not these. Now she understood why they’d cut so many trees. Every building, even the scatter of smaller huts tucked out of the way, all were built of split logs. And this all done in the time taken to ride the bounds? Nine days. But no, Krisnavn had been at the Ulvregan burial, so likely his Regiment had been here too. Yet that only gave them an additional seven.
“Corral. For the packhorses.” Biadret nudged her to move.
She followed him to the back of the buildings, west of the gates. Around her the markons were busy. Though no one spoke she was aware of their watching. Mostly they stared. None seemed friendly. Yet here were Ulvregan who surely must know her. Would not one acknowledge her? As well that she’d changed back to her own clothing. What a reception she’d have had if she’d still been wearing the commander’s breeches!
Biadret left her at the corral. She watched him go, willing him back. But he had his own horse to attend though the pack-horses had been given over to the care of a markon. That markon didn’t speak. That was fine. She feared she might cry anyway, this last time to be grooming Belgantros. Usually she chatted to him while grooming. But now, in front of the markon, she found that she couldn’t. Yet tomorrow, after a final ride back to Isle Ardy, she would never have his company again. So now she took her time in brushing him. She fussed round his ears and patted his muzzle the way that he liked. He was her friend. Her only friend now her father was dead. She would miss him. She bit back the tears.
Someone called her name, not a recognised voice. She turned to look. A markon stood by the corral gate.
“When you’ve seen to your mount, Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn requests that you join him and his captains in his quarters.” It was crisply said.
She looked at the longhouses. “Where are his quarters?”
“The one with the banner floating above.”
Aye, obvious—to a markon who’s familiar with everything here. But banner? Aye, she’d heard the word spoken before, once or twice, but didn’t know what it meant. Yet . . . floating above. She could see something flapping around a tall pole. That must be it. She made her way there. The ‘banner’ was made of three long black ribbons.
The door was made of split-logs. Split-log-everything. She hesitated. Best not to keep him waiting but she couldn’t just enter. Her first time here, she needed an invite. So she called out his name. “Commander?”
Had he heard her? She heard voices within, wall muffled—split-log-wall muffled. She called out again, this time louder.
The talking stopped. There was a creak as of split-logs rubbing. The door opened.
“Oh.” The man was a stranger.
She took in his Regiment shirt, Regiment breeches, the latter sporting Beli’s fire-metal buttons—which meant he must be at least a markiste, though more likely the commander’s third captain-horsemaster.
“Captain Horsemaster . . . ” She tried to remember his name, sure she had heard it mentioned. “I was told Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn wanted to—”
“Fire heron feathers,” he called back over his shoulder. She could see it was bright within, with firelight and lamps. “Regimental braids. Ulvregan skirt—Clan Reumen colours, tcht. Soft leather shirt. Is that deerskin?” He leaned in closer to see. “Could this be our eblan?”
“Is she a woman?”
She recognised the voice. Biadret.
The captain stood back to regard her at length. Though she knew he was playing, still she wanted to curl like a snail and hide under a log. She looked away.
“I believe there could be bumps beneath that shirt. That is very fine leather. Is it deerskin?” he asked her again, peering closer.
“Smoke treated,” she said, though resented.
“Smoke? And that makes it hang as soft as cloth?”
“Softer,” she said grudgingly.
“Ganros, you goat,” Biadret called again. “Stop flirting. Commander is waiting.”
“I’m Ganros,” he said, though he still blocked the door.
Megovis suddenly appeared at his shoulder. “Welcome to the commander’s quarters. Ignore Ganros; he’s newly horsemaster.”
Whatever she’d expected, this wasn’t it. No beds, no hearth, no shelves with pots and baskets. Everything wood, everything new. The smell of that wood was everywhere strong. There was another door, and that, too, of wood. And the floor—not even softened with matting, no wonder it creaked. It groaned beneath Ganros. Though he’d no paunch, he was a big man. Truly an oak. At a corner was a thick-walled pot holding coals. And everywhere along the walls fancy-shaped lamps depended from shiny brackets. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. But the oddest thing was the bench. Not for sitting for it was set too high, it stretched along an entire side of the room.
“Sit,” Krisnavn commanded and indicated the stool beside him.
The horsemasters sat in a loose circle, as if now they would eat.
“Here,” he said when she hesitated to sit between him and Megovis (though neither did she want to sit near Ganros and Biadret). “You’ve been at my side these past nine days, I’m not losing you now to Ganros.”
“Oh,” Ganros whined. “And I so wanted to touch that shirt.”
“Only the shirt?” Biadret asked.
She saw Megovis start to rise but Ganros held out his hands, signing peace.
Krisnavn looked round at the men. “Am I missing something here?”
“A camp full of men, someone needs to protect her,” Megovis said.
Biadret laughed. “You? Protecting an eblan? What happened to you not liking them?”
Though Detah knew well of bantering men, she still was grateful for Krisnavn’s one word. She eyed with caution the oak-built Ganros, not sure how to take him.
“He jests with you,” Krisnavn said. “He’s harmless. Though he does have a good skill at working skins. So, should we now get this started?”
“I have said, and will repeat it,” Krisnavn said, “I refuse to lead my men to certain death. But that’s what the Kerdolan expect of me, waiting along the Waters with their poisoned arrows posed, thinking they’ll kill the entire Saramequai Division of the Regiment. Which, of course, are mainly Clan Querkan. As are two of my captains.”
“I’m Clan Kairen,” Megovis explained to Detah.
Ganros laughed. “You think they’ll ask you first before taking aim? No, not that one, he’s Kairen; let him live.”
Krisnavn ignored him. “What digs into me most is knowing this plan was set before winter—it must have been. And there’s no denying it’s Galena’s work.”
“Are all Uestuädik mothers like that?” Detah asked, her frown heavy. “I mean, to want the death of their son?”
“Ah, the Alisime heart, as soft as their shirts,” Ganros said. “You don’t understand the Dal-feuds.”
“It is so,” Krisnavn said. “Clan Dragsin doesn’t like Clan Querkan, and it’s always been so. No, I cannot blame my mother. She was of an age with you when her father, needing to secure Clan Querkan’s Sahalian metals, offered her as wife to King Gleän’s son Geöntus. My father. But at that time Geöntus hadn’t been chosen as king, so that was no incentive to her. She was simply a young Uestin woman raised in the Dal ways, always obedient to her father. She was that obedient it didn’t matter that she loathed Geöntus from the start. And because we were his children, and she resented the getting of us, she swamped us with loathing. Though I will say, she did like being his queen.”
“So much so she won’t relinquish the name,” Biadret added.
“But is she not pleased?” Detah asked. “To have two sons Saram Chosen.”
“Saram Chosen, maybe, but also Clan Querkan,” Krisnavn said. “No, my brother’s rule ends summer-next and my guess is the new king will be from Clan Dragsin.”
“The talk is Genutos,” Ganros said. “They say he’s sequestered with the truvidiren, even now.”
“Her brother’s son,” Krisnavn explained.
“But Saram chooses,” Detah objected. “Thrice Chosen. Queen Galena might hope but she can’t do more.”
“Oh, Saram chooses,” Megovis said, vigorously nodding. “But it’s for the truvidiren then to recognise whatever the mark. No, Buttercup, stories abound of false kings. Trained, accepted, but then their rule fails. Lacking in strength, the people won’t follow, then demons invade. Then a true king must be found, and he kills the false king. Ask your brother; all poets know the songs.”
“Mistakes, I understand,” she said. “It happens with eblann. But you’re talking of Clan Dragsin deliberately supporting the wrong one.”
Krisnavn shrugged. “The new king will be Clan Dragsin, mark my words. But, as you said, I too am Saram Chosen. I could invade Dal Uest from my place of exile. I have with me one half of the Saramequai Division of the Regiment. I could kill their Dragsin king and take his rule. The clans would declare for me. There’s been increasing support for Clan Querkan since the Uissid’s Judgement.”
“But you wouldn’t.” Detah knew, if that had been his intent he’d not have bothered to ride the bounds.
He laughed. “See, already she knows me better than does my own mother. No, Detah, I would not. But my mother has never taken the time to know me. She rather would listen to Dragsin talk. And to Clan Dragsin I’m . . . you could say, a big bee in their plans—in her plans.”
“And Glania’s wedding?” Detah asked. Markon Glania had told her of Queen Galena’s involvement in that. ”Without the wedding there’d have been no attack along the Waters. No diversion to Isle Ardy. No stirring the Ulvregan traders. No ambush, no massacre. No need of you to avenge your kinsmen. Peace would have remained without that wedding. Yet it doesn’t seem right, when Queen Galena’s own sister’s son was killed in it.”
But it seemed no one cared to answer her, only Biadret with scornful grunt.
Then Megovis said, in an almost mumble, “I doubt that promise ever was made.”
“It was a drunken moment if it happened,” Megovis added. “He’s my uncle, though by his first wife, but in those days I knew him well. No, he would not have promised her the day she was born.”
“You’ve said nothing before,” Krisnavn said.
“What was I to say? He’s your kin closer than mine.”
“Did no one ask him?” Detah said.
“I did,” Krisnavn said. “And he claimed not to remember. Besides, an elder now, his word won’t hold against the lore-men.”
“You’re saying this all hangs on Queen Galena’s word? That she’s the only one to remember it? Did she witness it, was she there?” Detah hadn’t thought to ask when Markon Glania told her the story. Now, after what Krisnavn just said, she was inclined to agree with Megovis: that such a promise never was made.
“This is tied up with Truvidir Yandros,” Krisnavn said, onto his feet and starting to pace. “Was him who saw that long-ago promise as Saram-sent. Our scouts had been everywhere, but not yet to Jitinnis. Now, in escorting Glania to Alisalm, reports could be brought. But that didn’t happen—only Glania’s, and she hadn’t been briefed. It wasn’t thorough at all, though she did say of the Ancients Land. In her opinion it was the most suitable. She just didn’t mention the snakes.”
“You’ll be given no other land,” Detah said. “You’ve ridden the bounds; you’ve seen how it is. There is none. And you’ll not be given the Freelands.”
“No, this Ancients Land is fine, it’ll suit.” But still he paced. She could see his agitation though he tried to cover it. She could see the slight twitch of his mouth as he chewed on his lip. He dropped to the stool again. “Mandatn,” he said bluntly. “What’s to be done with them?”
“I know what you say, it all points to Glontria,” Detah said. “But five of Mandatn’s sons died in that massacre. Glontria’s own son, too, Sapapsan’s trader.”
“Buttercup, it’s not just us thinking it,” Megovis said. “You reasoned it too. The Kerdolan have a terror of snakes and yet used viper venom. That wasn’t obtained by themselves. And they’re known to trade with the Gousen—with Clan Dragsin. So we’re back to Queen Galena, who has a sister at Mandatn’s Hold. And hey, what do we find? That Mandatn’s Hold sits square amongst vipers. Evidence stacked.”
“I just can’t see how it can be Glontria.”
“My mother tries to kill her son,” Krisnavn told her quietly. “So why wouldn’t Glontria try to kill hers?”
“Because this isn’t the Dal,” she said. “Besides, Mandatn’s Hold isn’t allied to just one clan or one tud. Your own brother, King Tanisven, is wed to one of their daughters. And one of their traders, now dead, has a Reumen wife. Glontria’s daughter, too, Didodana, was wed into Burnise’s Hold, and they’re more strongly allied to the Rizzoni than ever were Luktosn’s Hold. No, Mandatn’s traders don’t play that game.”
Krisnavn nodded. “You may have the right of it. Yet that venom came from there, there’s no denying. So, as of now, none of Mandatn’s kin are to know of our plans. Moreover, I want Mandatn’s traders kept away from their boats until this Kerdolan campaign is done.”
“I doubt Mandatn will be near to their boats,” Detah said. “Not now they’ve only old men—the younger are markons away in the Dal.”
“Asavin?” Krisnavn answered her.
“Aye,” she allowed. “But he trades only to the south, to the Lugisse. And you’ll not keep the news away from Mandatn. Amongst the Ulvregan, what one knows, all know. Aye, seven traders’ holds but all of one family.”
He nodded. “That is their strength, of course. So let me change what I said. I don’t want the Ulvregan to know of our plans. I don’t even want Mistress Drea to know them, though in part it cannot be helped.”
Detah laughed. “You want the impossible! What, there must be a quarter of your markons here are Ulvregan. How will you keep it from them?”
“You see?” Megovis said to Ganros. “This is why our commander keeps the eblan at his side. You and I wouldn’t dare to tell him he’s wrong, and he’s dreaming in what he wants. But here’s our sweet little buttercup, straight out with it.”
“You’re right,” Krisnavn said. “That is why she’s here. She sees, and she asks.”
“And she’s a sweet little buttercup,” Biadret said, quietly.
“Saram smiles upon buttercups,” Krisnavn answered him. “And upon us. The very need to protect Alisalm’s bounds provides our answer. How many stations? Biadret? Govvy?”
“Eight,” they said together.
“Eight. And we’ll divide the rest of the markons between the patrols. Make a note, there: while at their patrols, they can make a start on clearing the bound-tracks. Same for those posted at the stations.”
“Separate the men. Keep them ignorant by holding the bounds. Brilliant plan,” Ganros said with a flashed grin. He’d lost two front teeth, Detah noticed. “One question, Commander. Who fights the Kerdolan?”
“Oh, come, Ganros, you heard me. I won’t lead my men into a trap. Besides, why chop off the hands when we can axe-off the head?”
It seemed his captains did not understand, looking between them, then at Krisnavn.
“Detah, I see you nodding. You want to explain it?” Krisnavn asked her.
“Aye. See, unlike the Uestin, the Kerdolan have no king. They have what they call the Head of Kerdol, who dwells on the fabulous isle of Liënershi.”
So Krisnavn is plotting a plan? But does he really intend to the kill the Head of Kerdol—Kared, also known as the Queen of the Kerdolan?