Black Birds, White Sails

Alsalda_Installment_Birds_SailsThe time has come for the Alisime-Uestin fleet to set out, their mission to disable the Kerdolak trading holds around Liënershi. Detah must be there to see them leave—to be their Alsalda . . . Read on

Biadret, Ganros and Megovis slapped their right hands to their chests, as when swearing an oath by Saram. But instead of rolling eyes up to seek Him beyond the sky their eyes stayed on Detah . . . for a just moment . . . before a slight lowering of head. With this they saluted her. The markistes, Iusan and Ismelis, chosen for this campaign, saluted her too. She acknowledged all five with the same. Krisnavn, too, made his salute, though his without lowering his head.

Detah had been musing while she waited. Why wasn’t Drea here, too? This campaign, after all, was on behalf of the granaries. But no, she then realised, it was as much for Clan Querkan (for in defeating the Kerdolan, Krisnavn would gain his clan a new home). It was also for the Alsime—for all of Alisalm-land. And it was to protect that land that the Alisime seamen now boarded their boats.

Not all the seamen were winners of the Feast Games (as Detah had suggested). Tamesen had been the first to say it and the four other boatmasters also agreed it, that they’d rather have a crew used to pulling together, and at their boatmaster’s direction, than to have the best of fighters. So, the first Alisime men to arrive had been sent home with instructions to return come winter’s half. With more time to train them, they’d then form a division of the Alisalm Regiment. Meanwhile the boatmasters had called on their own men, a crew of six to each boat. Ganros and Biadret then had trained them, occasionally Megovis helping. But more used to training markons eager to learn horse skills and weaponry, they’d had to adapt and adopt in order to perfect the seamen’s existing skills. One problem was with their weapons.

The seamen had grumbled when given the Regiment’s short-bows. They’d asked what was wrong their own. Their long-bows could drop a stag on the run, unerringly pierced through his heart. Biadret had told them they’d be of no use on a boat, and Ganros had proven it, setting targets into the trees along South River’s east bank while Biadret hid in the bushes. When the seamen stood to take aim with their powerful yew-bows so Biadret let loose his unpointed reed arrows. Point proven: The Regiment’s short-bows had more manoeuvrability.

There had been other concerns, too. Well might these seamen might be hunters but how would they be at killing men. Ganros qualified that: at the unprovoked killing of men.

Megovis found the answer. “Haven’t you noticed there’s rivalry fast developing between them?” He’d noticed it, boat against boat, which crew pulled the fastest. They’d been the same at their target practice. “These mayn’t be the champions, yet all have contested the Games at one time or another.” Such rivalry amongst markons wasn’t condoned—it barely was tolerated yet here it could be put to good use. “Give them a contest. Who can down the most Kerdolan.”

Then there’d been the question of command and direction. Tamesen had been loud in his objection. Seamen took direction from their boatmasters only, and these boatmasters and crews had been long together.

“But, Tamesen, they’re Regiment now,” Krisnavn had said. “You I have made the equivalent of my horsemasters. You are a captain. The other boatmasters are your markistes; they must answer to you. Their crews are their markons. Don’t wear out your teeth chewing it. Believe me, once they’ve grown used to it they’ll accept it.”

They had grown used to it. But it had taken these past three months.

Detah’s eyes travelled the length of the wharf where the crews of the five sea-boats awaited the signal to loose their moorings. The men didn’t wear Regiment issue. Yet their deerskins and bonnets served them equally. Megovis, Biadret and Ganros, and the markistes Iusan and Ismelis, in their Dal-Regiment uniforms, looked like the red fly-wort fungi growing on the brown forest floor.

Detah marvelled there was room in the boats for all these men. Each was stocked with food and water, enough for their sixteen days away. Each had a tall straight-sided pot internally divided to hold upright their Beli’s arrows, each readied for use with their thread-bound points soaked in resin. And beside each pot sat another. Both were securely placed. This latter, of thick-walled pottery, was made to hold fire. How the boatmasters had screeched over that. They’d have no fire in their boats! Yet Biadret had shown them that the braziers were safe. “Though I won’t recommend it in a high swell.”

“In a high swell we’ll not be attacking,” Tamesen answered him.

More arrows were stowed in waterproof packets—flint-pointed for the Alsime, bright fire-metal for the Saramequai horsemasters and markistes. Tamesen had scarcely needed persuading before he agreed, too, to use them. As Ganros had told him, it wasn’t accuracy needed, just a scattering left so the Kerdolan knew it was the Saramequai who’d attacked them.

“I want no dead heroes,” Krisnavn had told them just this morning before the loading. “In. Out. Do not delay.”

“We know the plan,” Megovis said, and by his tone Detah guessed it was not the first time.

“Be guided by the boatmasters on matters of the sea and her ways. If they say there’s an ill-wind, you take note and take cover. They know where the havens. I want no loses.”

“It’s the Harvest Moon,” Megovis said.

“There’ll be no storms,” Tamesen assured him.

“When the men tire—and tire they will—remind them of why they fight. Not for the Dal. Nor for a king. But for their own land. For Alisalm, and the granaries. But most of all, for their families. Our Regiment chants won’t do for this.”

“We have our own,” Tamesen had said.

*

“Go! Go! Go!” Krisnavn roared as he punched the air. “Saram be with you. Sauën watch over you. Beli ride with you. Go!”

Detah couldn’t control the shudder she suddenly felt, standing beside him.

Slowly at first, the boats slipped their moorings and glided swan-like into the current. So stirring, the sight, Detah, overwhelmed, felt the tears in her eyes. Though not directed to it, she raised her hand high (and she already high upon Belgantros). She waved. She though the seamen still busy with oars and with sails. Yet they responded with an unexpected chant of Alsalda! Alsalda! Alsalda!

“I told you,” Krisnavn said.

She was spared need to answer. The clouds that had been gathering that early morning finally released the Father’s blessing. Another time she would have rejoiced, called on the Mother to sup it all up. The land certainly needed it. Instead she turned her horse and rode away. Alsalda, the lonely bear-spirit, longing for something no longer there.

*

Megovis had one qualm about this campaign and it wasn’t that by the time they reached Taca Riori word would have travelled overland and the Kerdolan be ready for them. The Kerdolak arrows held no fears for him. Even if poisoned, such a death still would take him to Beli. It was the dread prospect of dying in Mistress Nod’s cold arms. Tamesen said no, it wouldn’t happen. “See, Master Nod and me, we’re very good friends.” Such good friends that Master Nod demanded, and Tamesen gave, five young goats and ten doe-hares, and the hair off the head of every Alsime there. Those naked scalps now were hidden beneath their earth-coloured bonnets.

Yet it did seem true to Tamesen’s claim, that Master Nod was favouring them. Though Megovis resented the long days of holding off, out of sight until Sauën had slipped herself into Beli’s dark bed, yet by the time they hit Taca Riori he had to admit the tides and the currents every time had flowed with them. And it continued to be so. Six trading holds on six separate rivers, none sited far from their sea-gates. They sailed in with the tide, no oars needed, all hands to bows. Later, at night, ashore at the agreed places, Megovis repeatedly slapped Tamesen’s back and hugged him. Well done, well timed, well planned. It was working out perfectly. At which words the Alisime seamen shushed him. “Say nothing till we’re back at South River.”

Six times the braziers glowed. Six times Beli’s arrows drove into the thatch. Six times Saram’s breath helped spread the flame. Six times the Kerdolan fled the fire. Six times the Alisime flint-pointed arrows felled them. Six times the copper-headed arrows advertised who had attacked. Six times the boiled hide Regiment shields provided protection should the Kerdolan retort with poisoned points. On three occasions those shields caught a brief volley. None did damage. One of the seaman took a nick in his neck. The graze missed the artery by a thumb-width. The point carried no venom. Six times the boatmasters gave the command that turned the boats and sailed them to safety again. Six times they disappeared into the veiling gloom. Six times changing course once out of sight. Six times ashore for another night. The boatmasters knew where to go.

But in waiting for tides they were delayed. It was the fifteenth day before they hit South Eskin Head. In, out, no hits were taken. They sailed away eastward into the night. But they couldn’t sail far for the light was failing. Yet even this had been planned for. They set camp in a sheltered bay amongst a medley of Hiëmen boats. There they celebrated, feasting on freshly hunted blood-oozing meat. They laughed. They sang. They took their ease. Sweet Saram, they’d earned it. Megovis led the horsemasters and markistes in singing their praises, though the Alsime understood not a word of it. And in the morning they set sail for South Rivergate.

*

Krisnavn now had learned of the tides. So he knew when not to expect the Alsime return. Yet that made no difference. Detah had joined him every morning for the past five days, even before sunrise. Together they’d ride the riverside track to South Rivergate. There, while he sat up on the station’s birch-wood roof, eyes fixed on the sea, she, restless, raced Belgantros along the beach, pitting her horse-skills against the off-duty markons.

The first time she’d taken the challenge he’d spun her round. “You are not to tell them where is our fleet. You know nothing.”

His barely noticeable glance along the shore to Mandatn’s distant hold wasn’t needed. She held up her hands. “I know nothing. Nothing.” She stared hard at him. He then had nodded and smiled.

But it now was nineteen days since the fleet set sail. “This day,” Krisnavn affirmed. “This day they’ll return.” Detah smiled and nodded.

She understood his desperate tones; she felt it the same. If they didn’t return . . . But that was too dire to consider. It would be more than the loss of his three horsemasters (there were markistes ready to replace them). It would be the loss of kinsmen and friends; how to replace them? And the failure of the campaign would entail more waiting, not knowing what’s happened until some Hiëmen trader brought news. Detah understood it. Though he showed little of it, inside he must be all in turmoil. How to soothe him, distract him, make it right? Aye, but then, was she thinking of him, or of herself?

The vista opened around the track, revealing, again, the sea spread before them. It shimmered gently in the morning light. But suddenly he was off at a gallop, a command called behind him. “You’re to return to the barracks.”

Not understanding, she dug in her heels to catch up.

“You’d disobey me? I said I want you no nearer. See, there!”

And now she saw them. But at a gallop and with the light on the sea, she couldn’t put a number to them. All she saw were the white sails. Their Alisime sea-boats used black. She all but raced Krisnavn that last stretch to the Regiment’s eastern post at South Rivergate, a small barrack-like building set clear of the estuarine mud, not quite into the trees.

“You disobey me!” he snarled at she dismounted beside him. “I don’t want you here. It’s for your own safety. There’ll be arrows flying. I will not risk your life. Now I say yet again, go back to the barracks.”

But she stood firm. “Should Alsalda, spirit of Alisalm, flee our foe? Besides, there are woods behind us. If I must, I’ll duck into there and hide.”

He tsh’d and turned his head sharply from her. In all the days since she had met him at the Ulvregan burial never had she known him to snarl and to tut. “How long have they been sitting out there?” he asked Hildret, the markiste in command of the station.

“Arrived at sundown last night. Just sitting there, they’ve not moved. I’m not even sure they know we are here. Though they must see the flash of our copper. I had my markons use the night in preparing more Beli’s arrows.” Hildret nodded to a tall pot of black-fletched arrows place beside a brazier, it’s fire as yet to be lit.

“How many out there?” Krisnavn asked, a nod towards the white-sailed longboats.

“We’re having trouble to number them. Last night was too dark, this morning too bright.”

Detah tried again now she was closer, and not riding. But the sun still was spangling the sea.

“How many do you make it?” Krisnavn asked her. “My eyes see first ten, then twenty.”

“Ten,” she said. “The rest are illusion.”

“Great. So now we’re dealing with magicians as well.”

She laughed. “Not that kind of illusion. It’s the light on the water, that’s all.”

“So ten, you say? And Kerdolak?”

“I don’t know that. They’re not Hiëmen, I do know. They could be Kin Mhuiris. But why would Kin Mhuiris be here?”

“So, Kerdolan. Those boats we saw along the Waters, will these are the same?”

Detah wrinkled her nose, still squinting beyond the glare. But still she couldn’t discern them in detail. “These are likely much larger. Those others were riverboats.”

“Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!” he said having taken certain of the Alisime seamen’s ways. “So tell me, how many men to the longboats we saw?”

“Eight,” she said, an unneeded question: he already knew the answer. He was treating her as if one of his captains.

“So these maybe will carry sixteen men? Maybe . . . what, thirty?”

She sealed her lips on what she’d heard of the Liënershi mariners. It wouldn’t help him to know they supposedly set to sea with sixty seamen to a longboat. She squinted again out to sea. With the sun’s rising, the glare was clearing. Now to count them.

“Ah, the glare lifts,” Krisnavn said. “Perhaps now we shall see their intent. Are we their target? Or are they waiting for Tamesen’s men?”

“Waiting time’s up,” Markiste Hildret said, looking now to the east.

Detah and Krisnavn both followed his gaze. Krisnavn’s face creased into a grin. “How the . . . ?”

“But they must have circled around Summer Isle,” Detah said. “Maybe overnighted south of it, out of sight.”

“Well, they’ve emerged now. And, praises to Saram, Sauën and Beli, they’ve returned all five.”

But though returned, they still had to gain South Rivergate. And the Kerdolan longboats guarded it.


Will the Alisime fleet gain that Rivergate? Or will the Kerdolan annihilate them, so close to home?

Next episode: tomorrow The Battle of South Rivergate
Start at the beginning with Detah; or go to the Chapter Links

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About crimsonprose

After years as a multi-colour octopus in entertainment, now chilling and writing
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8 Responses to Black Birds, White Sails

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    I believe you were calling someone an ill name for holding his readers in suspense? 😉

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