An oil-lamp offered the only light. Feeble though it was, it caught and reflected off what seemed to be blood. It was blood, drip-drip-dripping from a huge throbbing heart.
“An illusion,” Mistress Hegrea said with amusement; then: “Stop your tricks, Ardhea. Stop them now.”
Detah stared at the heart. Though the pulsing had stopped there still was a trickling of blood. “Where are we?” she mouthed without sound. Though perhaps she’d rather not know.
“Inside the hare,” Mistress Hegrea said, quite brightly. “See, there’s her heart. It’s a stone. We’re inside the boat.”
“Beneath the waves?”
“Aye, if you will,” agreed the eblan-cum-granary-mistress though she smiled.
Detah looked at the stone (only a stone?) red and as tall as she stood. She had to force her eyes from it. But now she saw the bones that littered the floor. Her eyes tracked across them—to find yet more bones stacked in a side chamber.
“It’s a bone-store!” She could see that now. Bones everywhere. They filled the place. But if a bone-store then the Jinnigrits had built it not the Eskin-Kredese.
“Well,” Mistress Hegrea declared, “I’ve not heard it called that for many a season. That’s the Ormalish name for it. Aye, a bone-store. The Ormalin would say, To store the bones and no babies will come. That’s what they did in ill seasons, when the flow was stymied and the grain wouldn’t grow. Better bones stored than a baby who dies, eh? Then, when the seasons again were flowing they planted the bones in their fields and Lo, swelling bellies! You look amazed. Ask Naussia, she’ll tell you. She’s Ormalish-born.”
“Luknaussia. Reputed ancestral mother of your granary-family. That is what you wanted to know? But in truth she’s no more your ancestral mother than me.”
“Ormalish?” Detah queried, missing entirely what else was said. The Ormalin dwelt to the south of Chadtamen’s Pass. In Dal Sahalis.
“Aye, well, Ormalin is the Tuädik name for them. But as Naussia will tell you they’re Nats-de-lats.”
Detah’s hand flew to her mouth. “But I used to laugh at that name with my father. And you? I’m told you were Eskin-born. Krediche? Or are you something other?” She’d not have been surprised had Mistress Hegrea claimed herself Feg Folk.
“Sit,” the eblan-cum-granary-mistress told her and pushed aside several old pots. She discarded her eblan-cloak leaving it to pile beside them. Detah retained hers (though, as she had discovered, the feathers would snap and crack if she sat on them). She fanned it out behind her, careful not to touch the blood-oozing heart-stone.
“Hmm,” Mistress Hegrea said and drew a finger through one of the bloody red runs. She held it up to the light. “Clear water. See? It seeps through when it rains. Ah, but if you’d been here when this was used as a shrine . . . tiny lamps, not enough light. Drums, their throbbing. The smell of death, some fresh, some not. And not always the blossoms to cover it. Seven winters-seen, and I trembled, an aspen leaf in the wind. But now the ghosts haven’t the strength even to groan.”
“So I’m right, you were born here, at His Indwelling. I mean your first birthing. Twice-born, the eblann say of you.”
“Aye, to a Krediche mother and an Alsime father, at Buknekhea’s Isle.”
“But I know Buknekhea’s! It’s beneath the east-most wind-hill, edging the Wetlands.”
“Not wet now, now as those lands once were. The mists, aye, like icy fingers, unable to see beyond our gate. Then on a winter’s night, when the wolves did howl, how we prayed to Buknekhea to protect us. Ah, so long ago now.”
“You still wear the granary’s red-yellow squares?” Detah could see the granary chemmy now, hidden before by her eblan-cloak.
Mistress Hegrea shrugged. “Old ways.”
Though Mistress Hegrea had easily answered, Detah found herself horrified. Such atrocious manners. If she’d not been staring so hard at that chemmy she’d have seen it only as a grain-coloured blur. And another question occurred. Mistress Hegrea, a warm breathing person, must have some form of shelter, but where?
“This isn’t your house? I mean, you don’t lodge with the Krediche ghosts. Do you?”
Mistress Hegrea laughed—a wrap-around sound that felt like a hug. Detah had been uncertain of it, but now she decided she did like the mistress. But she was keenly aware of her eyes. Beyond palest grey, they were a spring-mist upon the river. They seemed not to look at her but to fix upon something deeply within her. It was unsettling.
“I’ll try to answer your questions,” Mistress Hegrea said as if that’s what she’d seen, her questions. “I still reside at Buknekhea’s. Another day I’ll take you there; you shall meet Naussia. Perhaps we’ll be, um, blessed by my Murdan’s return. He does sometimes, you know, though mostly he wanders. Naussia’s daughter sometimes comes with him. But Asars, you’re not to be afraid of them—of us. And neither must you mistake my reason for being there. It’s certainly not for my earlier memories. Huh, seven winters-seen when taken from there; seven years of being hated, tormented, because of my Krediche birth. I was glad when the mariners took me away to Banva Go. I was to trained to be a granary-keeper! I was . . . I was almost to be a magician. That was far above being a wife. But . . .” Mistress Hegrea she sighed.
“The grain-spirit was large in you,” Detah said, and couldn’t help but a little envy.
“Detah, child, so I have grain-spirit, but you have another. Don’t despair. I have said.”
“Aye, I’m a seed. A seed without soil.”
“As was I too. You think my life set when they took me to Banva Go, to that granary at Ul Dlida? Had that been so there’d have been no Alisime granaries. Think on that when you start to bewail your lot. No, I had the wrong, let’s say the wrong light. Mine, red, roars like fire. But it should have been silvery green and flowed, like water. And for that I was returned to He-Who-Gave-It to me. Know they begetter,” Mistress Hegrea said, leaning in close to Detah. “Mine was no Alisime man. Mine was the Immortal, Eld Freilsen. See him? See how different from any man here?”
Detah stared, for there between her and the blood-stone did, indeed, stand a man, though he was the strangest being she ever had seen. Were they rope-lengths he had for his hair? They hung like a cloak around him. But other than that, and a skirt of dangling furs, he was naked with skin like moon-light. No wonder, then, Mistress Hegrea’s pale looks!
“It was he who told me of my nature. Brictan, he said. Immortal, almost, though not an Asar like him. He laughed about Kared, Head of the Kerdolan on Liënershi. Kerrid he called her. She—like Freilsen, like Chadtamen, like the Uissids, is an Asar. Immortal. But Asars are born with different types of light—exudations they call them—and that’s what betrayed me; displaying for any to see my most likely begetter.”
“I saw a light,” Detah gasped. “It was all around you when first you appeared. But . . . where is it now? Now you look as dull as me.”
“Oh bless you and your questions. No, we have control of it. What would the folks say of me if I walked the land like I’m twenty lamps-bright? No, mostly we prefer to be dark.”
Mistress Hegrea would have told Detah the full of her story but Detah was impatient to know just the one thing. “What were you doing in Dal Sahalis?”
“Mostly trying to escape a trader. He’d wanted to sell me.”
Detah’s eyes shot wide. “You were a slave?” Though the only slaves she knew of were the rebellious Bridren.
“No I was not, but he thought I was. Arith Dragon-Slayer scooped me up and rode me away. Ah, my Arith. There has been none other than him.”
“But . . . Luin?” Detah wished at once she hadn’t asked.
“Him!” Indeed, the Brictish eblan-granary-mistress did have a light that resembled fire, and it blazed around her. Detah scooted back lest she was burned.
“Apologies, apologies, I do apologise,” said the mistress, the flames and the heat instantly gone. “He took me. Took! And I shall never forgive him. And that after Arith had left me, supposedly safe, with his kin. No-no-no, that isn’t true. Arith left me safe in the care of two Saëntoish traders, Jarmel and Linl. And they brought me into the metallurgists’ camp where that one, being the sister’s son, was apprenticed. Dah! Rather it had been Meksuin or Bulapon. They at least had humanity. You’re staring, Detah. Ask your question.”
“I . . .” she didn’t know how to say it. “Meksuin, and Bulapon, I know those names. Are they—were they—Brictan like you?”
“Oh aye, they were,” Mistress Hegrea answered amid several nods. “Least, Meksuin, aye, he’s . . . he, like him (Murdan’s begetter) is one of the many sons of Amblushe.”
“And Luknaussia, is she—was she—of this same family?” Why she asked Detah didn’t know, especially since she’d a head full to brimming with other questions, all muddling with the answers she’d yet to sort.
For a moment Mistress Hegrea turned away. Detah thought she was laughing (maybe she was). “I seem not to remember—least not for so long—but aye, Luknaussia was—she is—sister to him (Murdan’s begetter). Oh, but so different from him. I could not have established the granaries without her. Was her who mended me when they stoned me; she who later gave me her craft-box.”
“But she’s not our ancestress, mother of the granary-family?” Detah asked.
“No. I wanted no Brictan in that position. No repetition of the problem of lights. I even forbade those Ulvregan traders who had her blood. I wasn’t against her, it was that . . . I suppose you could say I deemed it just; that there would be no strategic advantage. Does that answer you?”
No, it did not. From Detah’s one question had arisen a million and there weren’t enough days left in her life to ask every one of them. So which were the most important, and how to select?
“Then who was our granary’s mother?” she asked.
“Bisaplan, of course. That first granary—Ardy’s now you call it—was built on her land. It was where I lived, part of her family. The first granary-keepers (beyond we Brictan) were Bisaplan’s daughters. Mortals every one of them. Does that satisfy now? But no. This Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn has filled your head with his Uestuädik stories of me, and you want to know the truth of them too.”
Detah barely could stretch a smile. Though the mistress’s knowledge of her every thought was intimidating, it also was satisfying. She nodded: Aye, she’d like to know of them.
“I return you to Chadtamen’s Pass,” said Mistress Hegrea: “In her rage, Amblushe commanded her sons to stone me. Unto death. I fled. And as before, when first I met him, Arith Dragon-Slayer scooped me up and took me to safety—to an Ormalish village where dwelt Luknaussia—though to the women there she was known as Luänha.
“Once able again to stand and no longer so—let’s say so battered— Arith fetched me again, and took me to be with his friends, his, let’s say, fellow warriors. One was Uissid Urinod, a name your Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn will know. He and Amblushe were, um, close, shall we say. So of course he’d not let me stay. Moreover, he knew of the child I carried and knew it not Arith’s. And so I was given to the same two traders who had left me at Chadtamen’s Pass, and they brought me to here. Does that answer? But, no, no need to say it, not yet it doesn’t. You want to know how came I to be an Alisime eblan. But you think my family wanted me here, taken away to be trained as their granary-mistress, returned now in shame with swollen belly? No. I was sent to the eblan head man on the Sun’s Highlands; he would deal with me.”
“And you became his apprentice. I know that story.”
Mistress Hegrea nodded and softly chuckled again. “And have you heard that I traded my way to it? I had with me a certain herb, had in trade. Travelling with traders . . . but I’ve no need to tell you. This herb—”
“Aye! The eblan-herb. And I knew Burnisen would want it. I thought first off only to use it to oblige him, so he’d suggest something other than death.”
“But green-feather cannot be given.”
“No it cannot, it must always be traded. And so if he wanted it, he’d have to deal for it.”
“You traded the herb for eblan-training, and the adoption?” Inspired, Detah thought, but also devious.
“Then, as an eblan, adopted, I set up my first granary. Isle Ardy. Though then it was known as Hegrea’s Isle. Mine. But then . . . oh, that demon could not stay away. He just had to come hunting me. Though, no, that’s not the truth. In truth what cared he that he’d begotten a son on me. And anyway, it was all this Uissid Urinod’s doing. He sent him (Luin) to here, to part the Kerdolan from their gold and lure it back to the Dal.”
“And you fought him,” Detah said, piecing together the various stories, the eblan, the granary, and what Krisnavn had told her.
“We all fought him! Arith, and Naussia’s son Dannyn, and Murdan, and the Alsime and Ulvregan, and even the Head from Liënershi sent some mariners over to join us. Now that was a battle indeed! Kared fighting because of Urinod’s involvement; Arith in defence of myself; Dannyn because he’d not have this false cult of Father Jaja established upon Alisime land. And Murdan. No, Murdan needed no excuse for a battle. But what puzzles me, even to this day, is how Urinod and him, Luin, fixed up together. Amblushe had kicked her son down a pit and left him to die. Yet there he was, sweet with Urinod. If Amblushe had known . . .”
“According to Krisnavn’s story, when Luin escaped the pit he went straight to Uissid Urinod and offered his skills as metallurgist. Something of cutting Chadtamen out of the deals. I admit I don’t full-understand.”
“So that was it? No, but you wouldn’t understand. Chadtamen is another Asar—Immortal—Amblushe’s brother. There’s trouble between them, goes back to the beginning of time.”
After that Mistress Hegrea was quiet for a very long time. Detah didn’t mind, busy wondering how to put her next question. She was, maybe, disappointed that Mistress Hegrea didn’t volunteer the answer as she had with the others.
Then, into the silence, and full-unexpected, the pale mistress pounced. “Oh you poor thing!” Detah jumped back.
Mistress Hegrea seemed shocked. “No, I meant no harm. But I have kept you here overlong. Your body is cramping.”
“No, my body is fine,” Detah insisted.
Mistress Hegrea softly laughed. “No, your body is asleep, up there.” She looked up at the massive stone slab covering the bone-cave. “But before I return you to there, there is something . . . Alisime at heart, heedless, I know, of the Ladies Three—”
“I know of them, as the Uestin know them,” Detah insisted.
“Aye, you know of them, as a fable. But they’re not carved into your heart as they are with the Uestin. Yet for whatever their reason, the Ladies Three have woven this Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn into your life. Detah, I urge you, be true to their wishes. Support him, advise him, guide him. Even if everyone clamours against it. I cannot say what’s to happen—ours is not to see. But I do know you’re a seed, and I know in some way this man holds your destiny. Stay with him. You promise me?”
Detah knew of the Ladies Three—the Fates, as others might call them. But that name and that concept, of the spinning and weaving, and cutting of a life-thread, was an Eskin thing; no Alsime ever would give it credence. Yet according to Mistress Hegrea, whose experience of life was a hundred times deeper than Detah’s, those Ladies had woven Commander Horsemaster Krisnavn life-thread into some tight pattern with hers.
Now she wondered how would he deliver her destiny.