Dawn slipped rosily into the attic, waking Rothesay gently. She lay in peace for a long moment, listening to Padriag putter about in the kitchen below, raising a fragrance of tea and toast. She leaped happily to her feet, tumbled the width of the room and bowled hard into the last of the wizard’s potatoes. Her stomach knotting, she remembered. She was a bewitched murderess, and an outlaw.
Rolling to her back, she lay among the vegetables and stared into the careless rafters. Kelmhal came seldom to Harrowater; even his seasonal clan-moots, held at Fair-times, took place three miles away in Outing. Rothesay had seen him twice, that she could recall. It was often so; nonetheless a sense of a chieftain’s presence pervaded a clan: in the setting aside of produce or product for the paying of levies, in Fair prizes awarded in his name, even in casual mead-hall threats to haul a neighbor before his justice. If one’s lord was a source of nuisance and trouble at times, still in his hand was found justice, in his walls, safety, and in his name, family. And if the bonds of fealty frayed a bit at the edges, among the whores and the beggars and the slaves, still they wove the cloth of community: an outcast was as good as dead.
She was as good as dead. What would the king’s justice demand of her?
She sat up, carefully, thinking grim thoughts. What would she demand of justice? Who the devil were they, the men at her home, arrayed as if for war-moot? Why were they there? If they had not come storming out like that, frightening her, shoving Brannar around like a bunch of bullies --
She squelched that line of thought, not without a shudder: Padriag would not like her making excuses, and she had unarguably done -- what she did. She desperately wanted an excuse, a way out, a way back to her old familiar self, raunchy pursuers and all; but she wanted Padriag’s friendship still more: in thirteen years, no punishment had weighed so heavily with her as being sent home, away from his enchanting hall, disgraced.
Well, she thought, I’m still here. She drew a firm breath, straightened her tattered tunic, lifted her chin -- and slunk down to the warm, dim kitchen.
The teapot whistled at her familiarly, and Padriag looked up from the fire.
“Good morning, dear!” he called brightly, not at all the address for a desperate felon, and it snatched her from the grip of nightmare guilt more powerfully than secret runes and mystic passes. Startled, she began to consider her predicament afresh, and sat down at the table abstractedly.
“Excellent,” said the wizard, pulling toast from the fire and piling it on a trencher.
He touched her hand lightly. “You are bigger than anything that can ever happen to you,” he reminded her.
“‘I am bigger than anything that can ever happen to me,’ ” she repeated back as she always had, dutifully, without believing a word of it, but wishing, as she always had, not to disappoint him.
“A little butter, a little of Pinnar’s raspberry sauce -- ?”
“I made that.” She often worked with the old edgeling widow, trading chores and gossip for scraps of half-forgotten Imperial cookery.
Padriag chuckled. “Did you indeed? You have taken to heart my counsel to study only with the best! Will you continue to heed it?”
“Of course! Er -- why?”
Padriag seated himself comfortably, broke a sweetcake, and dipped it unhurriedly in his tea. Rothesay drew a deep breath and tried to practice her patience.
“I’ve made inquiries,” Padriag said suddenly. Rothesay glanced at the hearth and saw an empty saucer there: for the cat, Minalece, or Kri the rat?
“You’ll have heard of our lord Kelmhal’s Darian visitor?”
Of course. The clan had been abuzz with the gossip. Men boasted of the deer or goose they had taken for Kelmhal’s hosting, women bragged of their ale or pickles chosen for the guest’s table. Indeed, she had heard of little else.
“The one you would not let me go ask about my mother?” she replied coolly, and not without some vinegar.
Padriag’s little eyes twinkled. “Sheath your claws: they’ll never scratch my old hide. Aye, the same -- who, hearing of a half-fay whore’s child in the neighborhood -- your pardon, dear -- took a fancy to, ah, try you himself.”
Rothesay grinned wickedly. Her canine teeth were ever so slightly too long, an inheritance from her mother, had she known it; it gave even her prettiest smiles a somewhat feral character, and made others suitable for scaring misbehaving children. Padriag paid no heed.
“Those were some of Kelmhal’s hearthguard, sent to fetch you to Dunford Keep. A handsome place, the Stonekeep,” he went on reflectively; “not much changed from Alcieta’s time. . . . The wounded man has been lodged at the Hall and Thyrne has taken the children -- as I always thought she should; and the other fellow lit off for Dunford last night. I think it goes without saying, dear, that you ought not stay here and wait for Kelmhal. His sense of humor is widely underrated, but it runs a little on the rough side.”
Rothesay, who in thirteen years had not travelled even the ten miles to Dunford, stared aghast. “‘Go’? Go where? Wait! Pinnar’s Marigold is farrowing soon, and I have to help!”
Padriag chuckled. “A old sow like Marigold can manage, even without the elf-child’s aid.” From the folds of his robe, he pulled two pieces of parchment, each folded to a small square and one sealed with honey-gold wax. He opened the other. “This is a map of Peria. Here is Harrowater; Andrastir, the capital: I should avoid that, were I you; the Myrinine Forest; and,” he finished triumphantly, “Colderwild Hall.”
“This,” he indicated the sealed paper, “is a letter for Dav.”
“Well,” said the wizard placidly, “no one will follow you into Colderwild.”
It was spring, and the early sun ran slender fingers through the forest, turning the new leaves to green jewels glowing in a dark matrix of branches. The air was cold and sweet; washed clean of winter’s staleness, it was scented like a bride in a fragrance musky with wet loam and spiced with resin. A noise of water from freshened creeks filled the world. Rothesay had no attention to spare for the splendor of the dawning year.
She had a number of skills, of sorts: raspberry sauce and small charms aside, she could put a sling-stone through a bullseye at a hundred paces; climb a tree like a cat; catch a fish barehanded; and she could hide, like a stone on a mountain, a splinter in a woodpile, a raindrop in a creek. Later that morning, sitting almost nose-deep in a hollow behind a knee-high waterfall, she had watched half a dozen horsemen gallop through the shallows not ten feet away. Then she had crouched still as a boulder, dark soggy cloak plastered to her, among the mossy rubble where the track from Harrowater cut deeply through the grey Coast-ridge rock, and heard conversation not meant for her:
“What’s a wizard want with a girl-thrall, anyway, Breagga?”
“He’s a wizard, you dolt, he’s not a corpse!”
Incensed by the sniggering that followed this witticism, she almost betrayed herself with a quick-flung stone; mastering herself swiftly, she had dropped back down just in time to be missed by a last, suspicious survey before Breagga and friend entered the cutting.
Now she lay, damp yet but no longer dripping, stretched thin and low as a cat along a branch of a huge old spruce, its thick needles shadowy and green about her, while horsemen conferred in a jumble of irritable voices on the road below. Here the Outing track joined the North Road, that ran west to Dunford and far Feillantir, east towards Sparca, arrow-straight under the overarching trees: the remains of an ancient Sferan highway. Most of the men wore the vibrant red-and-yellow striped cloaks of Kelmhal’s household, but two she recognized as nobles as much by their casual arrogance as by the glory of their plumage: surely these were the Darian lord and his -- nephew, was it? Their raiment was of unfamiliar cut and subtle of color, and the wide borders were stiff with rich and jewelled embroideries; unfamiliar, yet they nagged at memory. Perhaps her mother’s kin had worn such?
The Dunhaldring warriors chafed before the strangers’ silent disdain. Crossly, their leader summoned them as for battle-muster, and his harsh bark subdued their grumbles.
“Clansmen! Stout Dunhaldring! You fret like war-horses yoked to a farmer’s cart. And why not? It seems more a nursemaid’s part than a warrior’s, to fetch home a truant brat. But think again! Though no task is too mean even for a king, if it be done in the name of hospitality,” at which he shot a grim glance at the foreigners, “remember! Our cousins Ottu and Forld, on this same errand were slain or broken. We seek, not for a child, but for a kinslayer!”
A great cry broke from the foremost horseman: “Ottu!” His spear flashed, thrust skyward; and his comrades roared and their spears leaped up like a thicket of steel.
Rothesay gripped her branch and cowered. Guilt for the death and injury at her hands racked her till her stomach roiled, guilt, and terror of the warriors’ vengeance; that it was an accident, a freak of an ancient magic, might count for something, but she doubted if, in this mood, they might not dismember her before she ever saw King Kelmhal’s court.
Presently Kelmhal’s men rode out, some east, some west; to her frustration, the two strangers lingered under her tree. She considered how accurately she could drop a fat blob of spit down the neck of the elder one, but restrained herself, as much from a dry mouth as good sense.
The younger man, possessed of brown hair in three tiers of meticulous curls, turned to the elder. “Respects, Uncle; and if that ravening horde does find her, just how do you propose to extricate her from their fangs?”
The language was the High Sferan -- and accented Darian. So, these were her homewreckers: one false-haired old tub -- fifty, if he was a day -- and one primped, horse-toothed ferret? For all their blatant wealth, she curled a fastidious lip: the wizard’s apprentice could afford a little choosiness. But she pressed forward to catch Uncle’s reply.
“Why, I shall offer to pay the honor-price of the dead and wounded, on her behalf. She is poor, they say,” he chuckled strangely, “and surely cannot do so herself? Then, being thus indebted to me, she must be bound to -- me.”
His nephew eyed him suspiciously. “And -- ? What’s the fuss? Kelmhal’s got some pretty ones you haven’t tried yet, handy in his own kitchen! Why so keen for this one?”
Uncle was slow to reply; Rothesay bared her teeth. If the spruce’s needles had been thicker and more concealing, she would indeed have spat down his neck.
“You are young, Ebya, but you must have heard tales. The clansmen called her name ‘Roshi.’” He gave the youth a tutor’s glance.
“So?” his unwilling pupil retorted.
“So how would you shorten ‘Rothesay’?”
Ebya -- short for Ebier -- stared. “That’s a Darian name.”
Hautiger sighed. “Perhaps ‘Cherusay’ means more to you?”
“The Orthundrysel, who tried to be queen?”
Rothesay lost her grip on the branch, dislodged a chunk of bark in the recovery, snatched it from the air as it fell and missed the segue.
“ -- Runedaur, to help her take the throne. She had a child -- ”
“Named Rothesay?” Ebya guessed eagerly, his ennui dispelled.
“And rumored to be a Ceidhan bastard,” Hautiger said smoothly. “I hardly think Cherusay herself still lives. No. There would have been a considerable noise from Peria if she had! But if she lived long enough to reach shore, and the child survived . . . .”
Ebya’s enthusiasm ebbed as swiftly as it had flowed. “You fancy returning the girl to the embrace of her family?” he mocked, then brightened with new interest. “Would there be a reward?”
Hautiger laughed. “The embrace of her family? As well send her to the embrace of a nest of serpents! The girl will do well to stand clear of the House of Orthunder, at least without powerful allies! As for my interest -- well, bastards have threatened thrones before, and Cherusay’s would be particularly threatening, even should she prove to have none of her mother’s, er, spirit. Think of the House of Eirenseld, or of Cashellan! Who waves her under our good King Rúmil’s nose just may be able to lead him by it -- don’t you think?”
Ebya and Rothesay both thought Hautiger’s interest ran still deeper, but she was in no position to inquire, Ebya did not, and Hautiger went on to suggest, meaningfully, that he breathe nothing of this to their host.
“Why?” his nephew demanded. “What would he care anyway?”
“Boy!” Hautiger scoffed. “Not Darians alone would command Daria’s power, if they could! The old Perian clans want their country back. The Geillari want to crush the Sferan power -- what remains of it. Daria keeps herself carefully neutral: we should not like to betray old alliances; but neither do we care to incur the enmity of powerful new neighbors. If Rúmil could be goaded into taking sides here -- eh?”
Ebya stared at his uncle for some while before remarking, with a breath of genuine compassion, “Glad I’m not her,” and kicked his horse and set off westward, impatient for his dinner.
“Well, that’s pretty spiritless of you,” Rothesay called after him, after Hautiger, too, had gone; but her voice trembled in her throat, and she could not at once muster the strength to climb down.
‘Tried to be queen’ -- ! Padriag had never hinted at an ambition so exalted. Did he know? she wondered, and crushed the thought: of course he did, but what did such things matter to one who could not remember (so he said) Kelmhal’s father’s name, yet could tell the local wolf-lineage back seventeen generations? She laid her cheek along the branch, feeling the living strength within, the innocent power of a being concerned only with the great matters of wind and weather, and wondered if she would ever find the strength to climb down.
Presently a lone rider passed beneath, returning to Dunford, red and yellow stripes aflutter at his back. What had the boy meant -- ‘Orthundrysel’ simply meant a woman of Orthunder’s clan, regardless of her rank; though that was the ruling house in Daria, there were many families therein, both noble and lowly; what was ‘the’ Orthundrysel? And ‘Don’t tell Kelmhal.’ In that case, while she might be a valuable pawn, as yet only one man knew about it, and the more distance she could put between herself and the smooth Darian baron, the happier she was likely to be. She slithered swiftly down the tree and faced away from the road, southward, where no track made by humankind led at all.
And Dread gripped her like the hand of Winter. At her feet the tamed land ended: before her lay the ancient Waste, empty, inhuman. The world was vast and dark to men; only here and there over Earth’s broad breast flickered the hearthlights of homestead or clan-hall, a few lonely stars in an impenetrable night of wilderness. Cobweb threads of road linked the little stars, and here she imagined leaving even that wisp of order. Wilderness was jealous. Subtly, relentlessly it strove to reclaim its usurped domain by root and tendril, web and nest, wherever the vigilance of mankind faltered. Not for cleanliness alone did a housewife beat her rafters and change out her rushes, but rather as a holy guardian, defender of the ordered hearth against the encroachment of the Wild. And people too long away from roof and hall, alone in the heart of its cold power -- they went queer, it was said, forgetting their names, becoming wild creatures themselves, gathered back into His fold by the lord of the Waste, the Hunter in the Green, Dagn the Piper.
The rules were different, the whole cloth of life was an alien weave, out there. At home she was ‘the fairy-child,’ ‘the madwoman’s foundling,’ ‘the wizard’s apprentice’; she was ‘a friend of pigs and edgelings’ and she was ‘the stranger’ -- the stranger: words like these wove her into the tapestry of Harrowater and the clan of Dunhaldring, words like these shaped her place, herself. What would she be, out there, without a word at all? In wilderness was oblivion. What if she could not win through?
She unfolded her map, and tried to wring reassurance from its laconic marks: after ‘forest’ was marked ‘field’; after that, ‘moors’; she could name the distances, but the leagues were meaningless, and she could not tell when she would next see another human face, friendly or un-.
More hooves thudded far down the road, drawing nearer. She sprang away from the tree and barged into the undergrowth, slipped on leaves and crashed to her back upon the sword and her small pack. There she lay, frightened and annoyed, till the hoofbeats faded again. A moment longer she stayed, to glower back at a trio of inquisitive squirrels. She had not vanished into infernal phantasmagory as she crossed the border of her imagination; indeed, she was just as conscious of embarrassment over the edge, as at home. Thus reluctantly comforted, she dragged herself up and limped, clammy and bruised, away down the tangled slope.
Still she kept uneasy watch, her eyes starting at shapes in bark, at knotholes and curious crotches, at ruffles on the leafy floor, straining to see the eyes she felt watching her with no compassion for the trespasser from the tilled fields. She fingered her little bag of charms where it dangled above her quickened heart, and stumbled in thought over rhymes and words to fend off unfriendly power; but it was the land itself that she feared. Wilderness was jealous, and her charms were small. She might be lost entirely to the human world.
Not any time soon, she realized quickly. The rugged land made for slow going. It was often difficult to find a way up the rougher northern faces of the ridges, and the undergrowth on the gentle southern slopes grew rampantly, a melee of viny strife. Struggling through a dense stand of laurel, scratched and sweaty, she paused, toying with the notion of presenting herself to the Darian lord and peremptorily demanding his aid in establishing herself in her mother’s land, deigning to permit him to be one of her court. She sucked distractedly at a bleeding knuckle, and looked about her at the thick tangles of laurel, quiet and tranquil in the silver light. Through the branches she could see, a few yards off, a young doe rabbit, sitting up on her haunches, nose atwitter with bright interest in Rothesay’s scent.
“Look at you,” Rothesay grumbled at her, forgetting her knuckle. “All you’re supposed to be, and no more, and right where you should be. Nobody cares if your parents were married, nobody cares what your mother was, was she a queen among rabbits or -- well, I guess there aren’t rabbit whores, are there?” she laughed. “Aye, well, Mother Rabbit, you’d best head on down the hill: I passed a fox’s den not too far back up the slope there. That’s it. Get along, ywysta.” Delicately the rabbit lowered her forepaws to the serene earth and bobbed off with perfect nonchalance. “Shall I be superstitious and read this as an omen, that there are foxes back homeward while rabbits go in peace southward?” Rothesay called after her, but only a robin answered.
She looked back up the way she had come. The laurel seemed equally thick, and wearisome, in all directions. She made a rude gesture with her thumb and nose in Hautiger’s imagined direction, and then pressed on down the ridgeback. An imperious attitude alone would not compel the Darian lord to her bidding; Padriag had taught her how to acquit herself with courtesy among the wild folk that wandered the tamer woods around home; but she had no idea how to move her own kind. And at that, there might be some contention over just what that kind was.
No, she was ill-prepared to take on the likes of Orthunder and Cashellan and -- that other one. She would leave the foxes behind. But she did not mean to be always a rabbit.
In the afternoon, she struck a path going her way, and strode more briskly, her confidence bolstered by this unexpected human token. An old Sferan lane, it climbed the next ridge by aid of wide, clean-cut steps in the rock. At the switchbacks, weathered stone benches nestled beside stony troughs or pools, choked now with loam and debris, though at one a spring still trickled from the breast of a carved goddess. The Elanic style, she knew from Padriag’s comments about his house, which was -- about the same period as her sword, she realized with a start, and hurried past.
At the ridge’s crest, she found the remains of the villa which the path had served: one more of the haunted fragments of that great civilization that had faded southward like the ebbing of a tide, leaving behind these ghostly ruins, pale empty shells abandoned on a dark shore.
The broken buildings, silent proof of Dagn’s relentless power, unnerved her as a broken body never had, and she fled, wild and heedless through the heedless wild.
As the light waned towards sunset she left the forested hills for the wide meadows of the Carolanth. No folk dwelt here for miles about, though shepherds must surely wander the rich fields from homes in the south. Rothesay hurried over the naked lands, nervously singing a twilight-protection song and trying to remember her geography. What was in the Carolanth? other than kingdoms of aurochs and swans. She wished Padriag had said a little more about human animals.
Upon a gentle rise in the grass, she came to the edge of the deep past.
Nineteen great grey stones stood in a long ellipse stretching from northeast to southwest. Eighteen of them were twice her height, their outward faces incised with many complex lines and unreadable shapes, unreadable except for two unmistakable eyes that stared over the eons from the top of each. The nineteenth, at the southwest point, looked like a stony tooth with a notched tip; standing straight, she could just peep through the notch. Season and weather permitting, she would have seen there the last fire of the last sun of the year.
This was work older by far than the Sferan empire, older than Marennin herself. Near Harrowater, high on the last ridge, a straight line of smaller stones watched the rolling of the sea, though Padriag could not tell her why. He could say only that they were wrought by some tribe of the Ceidha, the Elder People, the Fair Folk. The eyes in the stones here, though gracefully drawn, had an inhuman look.
She drew back in amazement at the eyes. The stones at Harrowater had no such graven ornament; she could not think when she might have seen them in waking life. But in her dreams -- they haunted her now and again, not these bare lines but the living orbs the stones only remembered, brooding and remote. Sometimes they looked at her; sometimes not, but she could never see what else was the object of their . . . consideration.
Rothesay’s long eyebrows drew together as she studied the ring of stones. She tried to imagine their smiths; my father’s people, she reflected. She knew nothing about him, not even his name; she could not recall ever hearing her mother speak of him. I am like to the builders here, and all I know are fireside tales and antique rumor.
Still, she felt kinship enough to escape the dangerous hour of sunset by leaning her back against a cool grey slab inside the ring and take a bit of supper. She seldom thought about the mystery of her father, though she had more than reason to believe her mother’s tale was truth. Padriag said that men who were born to the Dragon’s magic shaped and directed their power, all the time, with such chants and charms as he himself used only for teaching, and which she, once taught, discarded like empty husks, except as she liked the sheer sound of them.
“Then you are a dragon!” she exclaimed. She had long suspected something of the sort.
“I forget,” he smiled. “But certainly no fay spirit needs words to stir what is -- er, at least half her nature!”
Now she tried the story-spell, that had failed so oddly on the sword of Arngas. Here at the between-time, neither day nor night, in a place of ancient magic the spell should work wonderfully. This time, though, as she pulled it forth, she attended to its -- shape? a dreamlike form that no geometry of the waking world could compass, and that bloomed, or flowed, from casting to conclusion. For her it also had textures, and something like mass, and, once learned, a kind of location. One could ‘feel’ it with chanted words, as if the syllables were hands by proxy, or dust cast upon an invisible thing to reveal its surfaces; but once you knew where it was, so to speak, knew how to find it, what were the words for? Could Sferan magicians not remember, from one summoning to the next, where they had ‘left’ it?
The spell opened . . . .
. . . . And there had been festival here, in the gay sunshine; and immeasurable grief in the moonlight. Seasons bent; dancers wild and dancers solemn passed like blossoms, leaves, snowflakes, on many winds. Stars wheeled, matched by glowing eyes at the stations of the stones. The oval ring pulsed through the years like the heart of the people that raised it. Then little people came, short and dark, beside whom the dancers seemed like veiled lanterns; and then only the dark people remained, bewildered by the stones, and the dancing ceased.
Rothesay blinked. The settling evening was only a little dimmer; she could still see her oatcake, pale on her lap. She had thought about sleeping the night in the ring; but the immensity of time within pressed on her like all the weight of the rock that shaped it. Rolling to hands and knees, she dragged herself beyond the circumference, and lay in the wet grass and sucked air as though she had not breathed in centuries. She hoped that was not in fact the truth; who could tell, at such an hour?
Straightening wearily, she cast a last, curious look at the fairy ring, and trudged on.
By midnight she had slipped deep into what had once been Erodonica like a weasel into a burrow. She glimpsed bright-cloaked clansmen twice again, once away westward as she crossed a broad road, and once at the edge of a town by the light of gate-torches flickering and spitting in the drizzling rain. She carried Padriag’s token, a wizard’s tassel that begged professional passage for her among the Geillan tribes; but she intended to avoid all human habitation. True enough, as Padriag had said, that no one in his right mind would follow her into Colderwild; but that did not prevent someone from following her to Colderwild. Moreover, women simply did not travel alone, and she was keen to the impropriety of her position, whatever Padriag might think; between the dangers of the wild and the chagrin of social indecency, she preferred the danger. Figuring that pursuers would seek out village and hall first, for their own comfort as much as for guessing the quarry’s mind, she kept to the empty meads; but now the wet weather and the shelterless land argued hard otherwise. Unable to sleep in the sodden open, yet fearing men, she merely plodded on, till, stumbling and shivering, she found a remote byre. A handful of sheep stirred as she dropped among them, and finding no danger, slept again.
The corner of Cluthmere she nipped through next day bustled, but not with the usual business of springtime. Oxen, harnessed by pairs to their plows, stood all but forgotten in half-turned mud, while men turned new-polished spears in the sunlight, and raised their voices in joyous anger. Now and again, someone, disgusted with the turn of an argument, maybe, would remember his business and goad the team on for a furrow or two, before being drawn back by the siren lure of setting his fellows straight. Soon, Rothesay knew, their women, or boys yet short of manhood, would be set to drive the plowing, to free the men for their eager preparations. She knew the signs. Only a few years ago Harrowater, too, burned with this same restless fire, as Kelmhal laid plans for summer campaigns. Alrulf had been too young then for a chance to win booty and renown, and perhaps his family’s freedom from kin-thrall; too young for war, but not for plowing. But Thyrne earned her limp in one of those summers; and the love of Mat.
Rothesay wondered what clan these folk belonged to, and whom they meant to contest for land or loot; but though summer was the season for war and she meant to be far away by then, she did not wish to be taken for a spy. All her thought bent to airy stealth; striving to move as invisibly as the wind, with a breath she called on the Lord of Air, great Kavin, traditional patron of the land of Peria. Sleek as a hare, she skittered along hedgerows, writhed down ditches on her belly, bolted for the shadow of stone-piled Geillan cairns; and noted, irrelevantly, that the little blue stars of skybright bloomed for Geillan and Sferan dead equally. She reminded herself to mention this to Padriag; then remembered that it would be some while before she would have the chance. A wave of homesickness for her family swept over her; but not for the wizard, whom she felt uncritically certain of seeing again, most probably after doing something foolish.
In mid-bite, near the end of her midday meal taken furtively under a plank bridge with her still-soggy toes almost in the rivulet, a sudden fire flared in her heart and she flung off her rabbitish desire for stealth. What matter who pursued her? She was dangerous. She snatched up a stone from the stream bed to see if her power could crush it; and bruised her hand, but not her spirit: so there were limits to this strength? It was well to know. Flinging off her cloak as well, she drew herself boldly to her full height, smacked her skull into the plank and knocked it awry. Snarling, she set the board to rights, and strode off, defying, now even hoping for, challenge.
All that met her that bright afternoon was a muddy east-west track. No sign could she see of a southward turning; shrugging, she crossed, forcing a way into the wilderness of budding sloe and sumac beyond, in a mood to spit even in Dagn’s cold green eye. Wiry vines of old honeysuckle impeded her not at all, and she acquired thick anklets of twisted vine and grass before noticing them, but the raspberry canes ripped at her and her threadbare garments. The day grew hot, and the land steamed in the bright sunlight.
Presently a queer sensation began to creep over her: a shade of horror, a wisp of rage and despair, like echoes of something long forgotten. She stopped, glanced about, strained to listen. The sun shone cheerily in the blue-washed sky, over birds busy singing for their mates or rustling up a nest; an enterprising bee hummed past; a mouse skittered by under the greening grass where no blood spilled. No; no blood anywhere to be seen, and only the rich smells of warm dirt and grass rising in the soft air. The twilight chill she imagined was only a fancy.
Ahead of her, several leagues distant, the land rose in the first of the great downs that stretched saddlelike between the mountains of Tre-Uissig and rugged Sparca. She strode forward briskly to meet them, clean heights above whatever she had stumbled into, ghostly magic or morbid fancy. In a moment she stumbled into something hard in this spongy land, stubbed her toes against something solidly real under the grass.
It was dull and dark, and metal, half-buried in the soil, new grass leaping up about it. She pulled away the weeds from a helm rather like the one in the barrow --
-- the world reeled, out of the darkling sky a blade flashed straight for her eye-slits, she leaped back -- and sat down hard onto a squishy tussock. A startled mouse bounded several inches straight up between her knees and fled in annoyance.
Rothesay blinked in the quiet sunlight. Her breath came quick, her thoughts slowly. There had been screams of battle in the rain, long ago. She was sure it was long ago. Quite sure.
She rose up carefully. She did not touch the helm again, had no wish to lift it up and see the skull within cracked across the orbits, nor blind baby mice nestling in a brainpan. “No fair,” she grumbled, hastening for the beckoning heights. “I get giant’s strength, and hallucinatory battle. No fair!”
In the summer that followed Berulf’s Winter, the Princes of Morag were Scaramor Tammas and Suriag Dyntari, cousins born in the same hour to twin fathers, and neither sorceror nor astronomer could say which was the elder. They had grown up the most affectionate of rivals, and each fought harder for the other’s respect and envy than for that of any other soul, till so skilled were they in every grace and art, that two more perfect knights could not be found among the Sferiadh. Dark Scaramor might be bolder and stronger; red-haired Suriag more grave and scholarly, but not less proud and high-spirited. Joyfully they shared in fame and in the love of their clan; they shared their jewels, their swords, even their boots, for they were much of a size. One thing only they could not share: Kiselle Aurhei, the daughter of Andragon the philosopher; and she was loath to choose.
Their fathers perished in the Rebellion of the Lions, that had inspired Talherne High-king to summon the wild Geillari; their lord grandfather’s death in the hungry winter just past left them, eighteen and untried, the masters of Morag. And then they faced one more thing they could not share: the lordship of Morag. It must at last fall to one or the other; they shrank from pressing that choice, which both ardently desired, and said that the time was evil, the clan too unsettled, with the grim Ollaf Bearkiller hunting and harrying their folk even before spring dawned. When that danger had been crushed, was time enough to settle the succession.
A raid in early spring drove the folk of rich Genresdale flying from their burning homes to the high keep at Genallic; then that, too, fell, before the Moraigh knights could muster to its defense. A third of the dalesmen died there, another third fled into the wild and were lost, and those who limped at last into the Moraigh stronghold at Farhallic found small comfort, for the harvest had been poor, with more folk set to arms than to tend the fields in that last war-scarred year; provisions were desperately low.
The princes led a raid of their own, striking not to kill but to steal, and snatched meat from the very teeth of the enemy and plundered his stew and his kettles too. The starving Morachari ate well for a few days, and praised their young lords in prayer and song, but it little soothed the humiliation of raiding, raiding like bandits -- or barbarians -- instead of standing forth in proper battle, that rankled in the princes’ hearts.
Ollaf was forced to pause to feed his own and replenish his stores. Morag regrouped, drawing in clansmen from the southern dales of Erodonica and from the near banks of the Coull; but those from the wide fields beyond were lost, and the ashes in their empty towns were cold.
The warriors of Morag abandoned Farhallic to the old and the feeble: it was a strong place, but it would be all too easy for the Bearkiller to block the mouth of its narrow gorge and hold the place in siege. Rather than risk them all in a stony trap, Scaramor led half their force in one band, styling themselves the Shadow Serpents, while Suriag commanded the rest, as the Ghost Hawks; and sported still, snake against bird. Then through the spring their two little armies snapped and bit at the Geillan band like curs worrying a mountain bear, stalling, stalling, buying time for their elders and children, their sick and wounded, to hunt and gather and -- with the blessing of the Holy Ones -- grow strong again.
That gave Ollaf no great concern, who ignored Farhallic for now. Far more worrisome to him was the chance of some stronger House, Kinnaith maybe, or Rhyllandon, or dread Andras, answering a Moraigh call for aid. But so far as he could tell, no such call was made; at least, no reply ever came.
By the Solstice, the Bearkiller had taken good measure of his quarry. He knew who they were and what they wanted, and he was weary of their harassment. Their forces were small but that much quicker, and they knew this land well. Not since spring had they let themselves be caught in battle, wherein a man might earn honest glory: dearly though they wanted it, they could ill afford it. Yet even knowing that, Ollaf was loath to close with them, for they had a magic, a flying fire. Burned once, with a dozen men lost to a grisly flaming death, the war-chief was more than twice wary. He did not know enough of Sferan sorcery to know its costs and risks, did not know that if he pressed hard and fiercely enough the Sferan spell-casters would be unable to attain or sustain the concentration they needed, nor that he could simply starve them to powerlessness. Ollaf brooded, wondering how best to play his adversaries. Then Kiselle Aurhei fell into his hands.
She had attended the little Moraigh bands, first with one and then the other of her lovers, and back again. In her hands lay one of the flame spells, and she had spent the better part of her strength wielding it. Now she crept away under cool cover of a short near-solstice night, seeking a way back to rest at Farhallic; and stumbled unawares upon a Geillan scout patrol.
With this prize in hand, Ollaf asked for two men bold enough to risk slaughter at the hands of the Dragon-lords, men to save their brothers from the horror of the magic fire-death by creeping near the separate camps, to be taken prisoner, and surrender false news.
Angwald Longarm and Rack Full-moon (so named for his wholly bald and well-scarred skull), pressed hard by their Sferan captors, at last confessed, each the same story: he was a messenger between the Bearkiller and the other Moraigh prince, to whom Ollaf offered alliance, aid in assuring the Moraigh lordship, and the hand of Kiselle, who had not left at all but gone to the other camp to the man she truly loved. And each captive claimed he was on his way back to Ollaf to report that the other prince had accepted. At dawn, the Geillari would stand with their new ally and cut down his challengers.
Scaramor was quick-tempered even at his best; now he was weary, hungry and frustrated. As reward for this ugly fool’s-tale he slew the doughty Longarm with one blow, where he crouched helpless in the grip of Scaramor’s lieutenants. Then shame bit deep, and he passed a long and sleepless night, doubt and anger twined in a smoky dance in his hot blood, doubt leading anger, and then anger, doubt. His men caught his mood; as they talked into the night, reason twisted and struggled to escape the shame of the killing of a defenseless prisoner. Before dawn he knew, they all knew, that the spy spoke truth: Suriag had betrayed them. And there was only one thing then to do.
Suriag, ever more thoughtful and slower to act, for his part seized Rack’s full moon in both his hands and burned into the man’s thoughts, and read there the whole sordid stratagem. He laughed grimly, scornfully, that this Geillan brute thought so shallow a scheme could trick men who had the gift of the Dragon. Knowing that Scaramor could, and would, do just as he had done and as easily, Suriag gave it not another thought, but slept deeply.
Dawn came slow and grey with rain. Suriag woke to his watch crying the alarm, crying with a shock and dismay he had not heard this whole bitter season. He looked out upon the charge of Scaramor’s troops, and knew with despair that Scaramor had believed. Maybe, maybe if every man of his own cast all weapons aside, their brothers’ wrath would be foiled. But now from the north the barbarians came, as if bringing the promised aid; and he dared not disarm before them, for he knew they meant death to all.
Then his own slow fury kindled, rage and hurt that his friend from the cradle thought no more of him than this. If Scaramor thought Suriag capable of such a betrayal -- what did that say of Scaramor’s own heart? Drawing his blade, he roared a roar that cracked into a wail of such desolation that all who heard it quailed and cowered; and he rushed forward to doom, and cared nothing for who followed or failed him.
Folk said after, that Suriag died of his wounds in Scaramor’s arms; and Scaramor closed his friend’s eyes and slew himself, piercing his heart with Suriag’s bronze dagger, overwhelming its encrusting rubies with the ruby of his own heart’s blood. And that blade, and many others, too, were thus lost to men, for no one ever came to tend the bodies of the fallen men of Morag. The Geillari took their own away; but a strange dread fell all about the field later called Morachallow, and they would not go near the bodies of the Dragon-lords for any price.
The Geillari triumphed; but not Ollaf Bearkiller. He took the captive Dragon-woman, Kiselle of Andragon, for his wife that very night of victory, and never saw another dawn, for she cut his throat with his own knife. As for Kiselle herself, some tales say one thing, and some another. Some hold that, having killed Ollaf, she took her own life in her grief for her beloved princes. Some say she fled in the night, already with Ollaf’s child. And still others say that indeed she fled, but with the seed of one or another of her lovers, for that was why she sought to return to Farhallic at the first.
So the power of Morag broke on Moraigh swords. The Geillari swept through like a scythe on the last stalks of harvest; and besieged Farhallic and burnt it to the ground, and their own people followed into the gentle swales
of Erodonica. But though the fields of the final battle were among the richest in the northern lands, no living man cared to try them with a plow.
Rothesay knew the tale well, for the edgelings at home were the northern remnant of Morag, and remembered their doomed young lords with love sweetened by the bitter centuries since; but she had had no idea where the Morachallow lay. She hastened across the vale of blood long faded and pressed on across the fields.
She stopped at sunset by a pool full of swans; too weary even to eat, she slept at once, soothed by the rustle of last year’s reeds, though it was poor substitute for the rumble of the surf at home. Waking to a cold blanket of fog, she hastily cast all the protective spells Padriag had ever shown her, appalled that she had forgotten them the night before: fogs and mists were bewildering-magics, favorite entrapments of Dagn and his wild retainers. Men stayed indoors when the white mists crawled. She hunkered low among the reeds and waited till Areolin’s sunfire burned the vapors away before she moved. A little marsh-bird shared her wait, and her cake-crumbs. I am bigger than anything that can ever happen to me, she told it earnestly, reciting the phrase like a charm rather than a conviction, and thought wistfully of raspberry sauce.
The land lay empty all the next day; she saw neither home nor track, and she sang out loud, just to hear a human voice. By afternoon she reached the feet of the downs. Long sunlight streamed across the treeless slopes. A small but enthusiastic brook tumbled down the hillside, sometimes crashing from pot-sized pool to pool in the grey rock, sometimes sluicing down channels that might have been carved by hand, so straight and even they were. Rothesay climbed with a will, not pausing for a cold, clean drink till she was well above the soggy meadowlands and her head was clear of mists and hauntings. Her spirits rose with the land, and she capered goatlike from rock to boulder along the stream. Passing its spring bubbling out of a tiny crevice, she bounded out onto the wide, flat crown of the great hill as the still-yellow sunset gleamed straight across it.
The wind poured in a great torrent over the hilltop, tugging and snapping at her tunic and baggy breeches as if it meant to rip them away for sheer mischief. Rothesay spread her arms wide into it. All that breathes is mine, saith the wind; and all petitions borne on breath do I hear. Before her the eastern lands rolled away into grey evening shadow and blurred with the sky, and she felt as though she danced upon the roof of Peria. She cast off her pack and danced indeed upon the hilltop, for a few moments free of both past and future. Then she unbound her braids and cast her heavy lengths of hair, still damp in part from the rain two days ago, upon the air to dry.
She pulled off her clumsy brogans to air her feet as well, and despite the stiff breeze, a great reek of rosemary rose about her. A sprig in a shoe was supposed to bring good luck to the traveller; Rothesay had padded hers with as much as she could pack in and still tie the thongs. Her feet were crosshatched with rosemary-needle impressions. She poked at the dank herbs, but decided against waiting for them to dry. Reluctantly, she bound her feet up again, but left her hair free: she was alone with the wind, and still by law a girl.
A Geillan woman past the age of menarche kept her hair religiously braided for propriety’s sake; the Sferan woman also, but her religion was fashion and her arrangements were elaborate and ornamented. No peasant was too poor to twist an intricate art in the wealth of her own hair, and flaunt feathers and flowers, shells or pebbles in the coils. And though the Geilleisil broadly regarded their Sferan sisters as effete, puny things, they lusted for the Sfereisil style, and embraced every imperial cosmetic art they could learn. The rage of austere Geillan priestesses against painted lips and scented bosoms went unheeded, especially by the young.
Rothesay could twist a pretty plait or two, but not when it was heavy with damp, and not with the great Wind-lord trying hard to style it for her. She gave up trying to thwart the divine help, beyond forcibly holding the bulk of it out of her face, and started down into the generous Meredale, grey in the evening.
Kavin watched her go with some interest. She smelled of Night, and He wondered greatly what involved the Lady with mortals this time. Soon enough to ask: She approached from the east as Areolin’s light fell away westward, and He looked forward to Her touch, and how it gentled Him.
Twilight filled the sheltered dale with a tide of grey quietness. Windows of clustered cottages gleamed, and she hoped she could wheedle an apprentice wizard’s welcome from someone. Now out of the wind, she left her hair undone: she was man-clad, she might as well go wholly manlike, though only bards usually wore it so long. She had little doubt that she could play the part. At home her only serious suitor, much to everyone’s amusement, was Dagobeord, who was widely believed -- though no one could ever prove it -- to prefer boys. And surely no one here would have heard tales out of Anstrede yet; she would be safely anonymous. She hurried down from the lonely hills, leaped over a wall of dry-laid stone into well-tilled mud, leaped back out and trotted around from the blind rear of the first stone cot into a fracas.
A handful of Geillan bloods played knock-a-ball with the edgeling cottager. Rothesay knew the sport. She wondered what terrible sin the crofter had committed: having a face that the chieftain’s son disliked, perhaps. That would be that noble youth there, his yellow beard split in a bigger laugh than any of his cronies, and braided tight the better to flash the bright silver of his heavy torque. More silver sparkled in the embroidery of his bold-checked tunic, and on the rings of his hands as he shoved the stumbling cottager back into the circle of the others’ fists.
“Now just a minute!” she chided, striding up, as if they were the squabbling Harrowater infants who half-feared the wizard’s apprentice.
Cold stares froze her in mid-step. Old habit seized her in an icy grip: kin-thralls, only one slippery step above fine-thralls paying for their crimes in servitude, hardly dared address their free cousins; challenging the lords of the clan was begging for unhappiness. One, short and stocky and no more than her own age, thrust the battered peasant at her like a weapon. She caught him by his shoulders as effortlessly as so much feather-down -- and a wonderful warm delight welled up in her.
She set the man gently aside and turned back to the noble bullies. A wide grin shone white in her face all unbeknownst to her; but sight of it, and her queer canines bared, drove the stocky youth to step sharply back, and then to cover this chagrin by raising the stakes: his sword rasped forth to chastise the unarmed interloper.
To her own surprise, Rothesay whirled, bounced a heel in his crotch, stole the hilt from his suddenly-loosened grasp and, coming round, sent the blade-tip flicking into his face, twice, just as Arngas’s sword had done at Harrowater. Two swift runnels of blood striped his cheeks as he stared, blinked and stared and hardly dared believe the miracle that he still could see. Rothesay stared too. That magic was not in the old Runedaur’s weapon, then?
Roaring his rage, the silver-torqued leader bared his own sword and lunged for her, heedless of the crofter scuttling from his path. Then the man behind him, a tall, gaunt figure hidden deep in a cloak of dark and bardic blue, pulled him up short with a fierce hand on his shoulder. The lordling shrugged him off indignantly; but he waited on the dark one’s pleasure.
Rothesay studied him warily. The Geillari regarded their kings with reverence; their bards, with awe. The bard, wielder of words, kept the story, the very soul, of his clan. He it was who remembered and interpreted the ancient laws of all their race, and so was first among the four, the only four, professions free to travel unchallenged across their land: bard, smith, healer, mage. The power of a bard’s satire could bring plague, pox, or blight; he saw the future in the staves of his poetry; he could weaken a brave man’s arm with one withering glance. Padriag had once, quite offhandedly, taught her a charm to avert a bardic curse; she summoned it now, her grip flexing on her stolen sword.
The bard fixed his hard gaze upon her bosom. But her breastbands squashed her modest endowments quite flat; puzzled, she put up an involuntary hand, and felt the blossom-kalasin, still warm from her body, displayed upon her jerkin and blazoning her with dark meaning in its gay petals. He turned the stocky youth, standing stiff as a plank, and tipped his face to see the delicate wounds so precariously laid at the edge of each orbit. Avoiding Rothesay’s stark face, he pulled his princeling closer and muttered low into his ear.
“So?” that one demanded gracelessly, not taking his eyes from her.
The older man shrugged. “There are but five of us; four, armed. But that is not the whole of it -- ”
The man cast Rothesay an ugly sneer. “But it’s only a girl!” he spat.
The bard looked her over once more. “Of course it is,” his tongue agreed, his face denied, and he drew his kinsman after him. “Of course it is. Come, Guthrac, Halthu. Good evening -- ah, mistress.” Irony whispered beyond the reach of challenge.
“That’s right,” she bluffed, unable to believe she had pulled it off. “Get along, then.”
“Or what?” roared the young noble, rounding back on her again.
Mischief flared hot in her thin insides. Baring her teeth in a deliberate grin, she made the captured blade twitch like the tail of a waiting cat.
“Or not. . . .”
The bard grabbed his prince’s cloak and dragged him away into the dusk.
Watching them go, Rothesay saw an amazing, an exhilarating thing: she saw their backs as they departed. Never mind that one or another face glared back at her defiantly over a shoulder, it was their backs that spoke to her soul. When a gloom of trees well down the lane finally swallowed them from view, she stabbed her new-won prize into the earth before her and punched both fists skyward in an exultation of triumph. Then she flung her arms wide as a soaring eagle’s wings and danced, whirling herself tightly about, her feet beating a hard tattoo on the ground.
From the tail of her eye, she caught sight of the edgeling family standing mute, staring at her. She snapped at once to normal posture, slightly hunched with sheepishness, blinking back at them with wide eyes. But, the flush of power flowing still warm within her, she unfolded like an opening petal to her full height again, and her broad white grin repossessed her face.
“Good evening, Mother,” she said politely, speaking Harrowater-Sferan, “and would you have a bit of supper to spare a poor traveller?”
By moonlight made fickle by the raveling cloud, Rothesay crossed the dark Merestream by stepping-stone, to climb the flanks of Great Cernefell, barren and windswathed in the roaring midnight.
“Mind the tubs.”
The family had so bidden her at parting, and precious little else they had to say. If anything, Rothesay’s intervention only assured them of retribution sterner than the rudeness they had just escaped. She offered to stay in their defense, though the thought so alarmed her she could barely stammer it. The crofter shrugged, and murmured a phrase, about a single stone against a tide. He started when she finished the quote, from the Classic poet Ddreio: “yet joined in a great company/shall lonely stones turn back the sea.” But he only shrugged again, and, disheartened, Rothesay paid for her meal with such coin as she had, stacking logs for them with her queer strength, and singing the frightened children to sleep with her voice lovely and hollow as the wanton, eternal wind.
She left then, not staying the night. Once her blood cooled, she felt herself trembling like a harp, though she felt neither cold nor afraid. The bronze blade of her problematic prize shivered in her grip as she turned and hefted it. As if I knew what I was doing with it! she chided herself in alarm; though I did well. . . . I am bigger than anything that can ever happen to me; and for the first time she wondered, Well, maybe -- ?
A sword, however, was an ell of metal treasure, a portable fortune -- and the difference between freeman and noble. Its former owner would not idly accept its loss. The crofter refused to take it, and Rothesay reluctantly swathed it together with the sword of Arngas across her back. Murder in Anstrede, theft in the Meredale: she stood a good chance, she felt, of becoming eastern Peria’s most wanted outlaw before coming within miles of Colderwild. To her own surprise, she laughed aloud at the thought, drawing fresh stares from the wary family, and she set off into the night with a will.
Mind the tubs. Rothesay watched the ghostly ground shifting from silver uncertainty to black emptiness, and scowled. These tubs were ‘holes in the ground; big ’uns.’ When the track they promised her led her by several depressions larger than Padriag’s hall and almost half as deep, she breathed easier and strode more lightly, and almost tumbled into a shadow no moonlight could dispell.
Lying flat under the wind and clutching the tough grass, she groped, found a small rock, and lofted it into the darkness. One heartbeat; two; three and four before she heard, clear but remote, amplified by the shaft, the clack of stone on stone. She sucked a deep breath and crawled well away before venturing to stand again.
The ‘tub’ was scarcely ten or twenty feet broad, its contours irregular, and dropped forever, or as near as made no difference to whomever dropped in. She wondered what had made it, and whether its appearance improved by Areolin’s holy sunlight, but she did not stay, pressing on with unplumbed care till she had skirted half a dozen of the dreadful pits, and, crossing Great Cernefell at last, descended into Scealdale with Little Cernefell beyond, crowned with cold stars. That which followed, eddying up from that first troubled pit, took no shape by which to be seen or known.
At last the moon, just at the full, sank below the western rim of the dark world; the east paled, but not yet to lighten the land, as Rothesay paused at the crest of the path bending down from the last of the downs. Weariness ached in her bones, but it was not for fatigue that she hesitated.
Now was neither day nor night, neither the waxing nor the waning of the month; another step and she would tread the plunging slope, walking land that was neither peak nor vale. Times between times, places between: the veil between worlds thinned, magics peaked in power, fay or mortal either might easily stumble into the other’s world. Padriag had works he performed preferentially at dawn or dusk, on the shore where the white waves laced the hem of the sea about his ankles. Yestereve she had a village to run to; here, she stared down into inky emptiness. She looked back.
The wind had fallen almost still in the last hour; only a few fine hairs lifted on the air to tickle her cheeks. But away in the northern darkness, now a roar was rising, the voice of a mighty gale bearing down to sweep the whole world clean.
The track bent sharply down; the slope fell perilously. One stiff gust from the torrent approaching and she might descend from Caelhill without the aid of feet, and break her neck on the unseen stones on the way. With only moments to choose, she fled recklessly for the dim path, and the questionable shelter of the stony hillside.
The roaring surged above her head, whined over the dark gulf beside her, dropped away, and then came thundering back up to meet her. The path wrenched back in a hairpin bend; Rothesay missed the turn, slithered over the gravelly berm, tumbled briefly down the lumpy slope and snapped like a dishrag about a writhen shrub. The wind -- if wind it was -- fell still.
There were eyes in the stillness. Rothesay twined all her long limbs about the bush, and slowly turned her head, though she was certain that she did not want to see whatever might be there.
With the eyes in her face, she saw the shadowy ground, the black horizon, the westering stars pale in the last of the night. Without them, she ‘saw’, clearer, nearer, more immediately real, two broad eyes, like glowing pits, portals to a long fall to elsewhere. If they had had a color, they would have been yellow, wan and weird as an ailing moon.
No, maybe like feeble firelight in a lonely window; she could almost believe she saw movement, deep within. She screwed up her face, trying to ‘see’ better, before remembering that she ought not. . . .
The yellow pits billowed into one pallid maw, the maw wolfed her down, she tumbled gibbering into the witchlight, her stomach swooping with the fall even though she could feel the shrub still hard and prickly in her grip.
The shrub, a stunted tree, rather, was holly. Tiny scratches began to burn on her face and hands, and she shrank away from the needling leaves. She wondered what it portended: the Geillan clans were wont to bury their dead with a shining leaf of it on the tongue, for the safe passage of the soul; in imperial tradition it symbolized immortality. Both considered it holy to the Lord of the Dead. Nonetheless she hugged its limbs tighter, clinging to its solidity, and strained to see rocky hillside instead of witchy pit.
No hill could she see at all. She could feel the bush, feel even the sharpness of stones digging uncomfortably into her thigh, but she could not see them. She was -- in a cave, a great cavern, maybe; there was a subterranean silence, and an impression of vastness all around her. The yellowness had faded like sunset into a profound violet glow.
“Ah. It’s you.” The voice rolled out of the purple darkness like imprisoned thunder. “You are a little fool.” The thunder was disappointed.
Rothesay paid no heed to the insult, which she considered only observation anyway, but her heart climbed to her throat at the phrase, It’s you. Me, who?
Steel scraped slowly over stone. Pebbles rattled down from a height. Glossy and black as a thing carved of jet, casting violet gleams like flashes of strange fire, a vast creature emerged like Shadow taking form. Jaws, as long as Rothesay was tall, parted slowly, ice-pale teeth the size of her legs glimmered in the strange dimness. Then, as suddenly as the blinding golden fire that belched forth over the blue tongue, without needing to see the empty whiteness where the left pupil should have burned like a coal, she knew the dread author of this magic about her. Being roasted by Marennin: she felt the high honor of this death even through the terror; though less honor and more life would have been her preference.
The flames bathed her in hot glory -- and did not burn. The great dragon looked at her astonished face and laughed, doom, doom, doom, like monstrous drums deep underground. “You are all bone,” grumbled Marennin, flicking her tongue disdainfully over her snout. “And what should I say to Padriag?” The drums chortled again.
“But -- ” Rothesay moved to touch herself, to verify that she was not two ells of charred meat, and banged her arm on a tough branch. “What -- ?”
“You are like a kitten, baffled by her reflection. You are in my mirror.”
“Oh.” This was magic beyond her apprentice’s comprehension; especially, she wanted to know exactly what the word ‘in’ meant here. But at least she now understood the dragon’s recognizing her: on her thirteenth birthday, to her fright and lasting awe, Padriag had shown her to the dragon, through his own mirror (which behaved like a window at the time; could his, too, hold a being ‘in’ it in this curious possessive way?); Marennin evidently remembered. “Oh. You, er, were you looking for me, Majesty?” she squeaked politely, jittery after a long spell of uncomfortable silent scrutiny.
Rothesay squirmed as the monosyllable chopped conversation dead. She appeared to have no power to look away; experimentally, she let go of a branch of the shrub. Perhaps if she disengaged from it entirely, she could simply walk off and resume her journey. Perhaps Marennin would think it rude. Perhaps having the Dragon of Peria annoyed with one would not be altogether in one’s best interests. Right.
“I look for the king,” said Marennin after what seemed like hours. “You are a fool, Bones-that-walk; unless you live. Yet then, you may do.” She chuckled again like falling boulders. “Indeed, child of Ystalyfera, you may serve me best of all.”
“Oh, good,” Rothesay thought weakly, and was horrified to hear it as spoken.
“Find the king.”
Kelmhal? What was the worse, now: returning home to a charge of magical kinslaying, or offending a dragon -- the Dragon -- ?
The purple glare of a baleful eye stabbed into her baffled brain; she put up an involuntary hand to ward off its brilliance and banged the branch again. “Spare me the trifles; they are Tryddaini. Find the Eye: the king wakes the fire. Men will see.”
A hundred questions tumbled over one another in her thoughts: who? how? what were Tryddaini? Ystalyfera? The one that tumbled forth was, “Er, what am I to do with him -- ?”
After a moment of what might have been surprise, Marennin laughed again, louder than before, like a whole hillside collapsing, and Rothesay whirled dizzyingly away, thistledown in a tempest. A many-tentacled black horror grabbed at her face out of dimness; she screamed and flung herself backwards, scraping her side through dirt and stones. It was the holly, and the sky paled with the advancing dawn.
There came an unearthly shriek from the slope above her head, a keening of rage and indignation. The unseen eyes, eclipsed by the power of the dragon, blazed in frustration and roared away like a mighty wind over the top of the hill.
A lark sang in the quietness.
Rothesay crawled out from under the bush, dragged herself three yards up to the bend in the path, and blinked, dazed with magic, stupid with fatigue, at the burning sunrise. She shook her head slowly, trying to unravel the cryptic words of the dragon. Find ‘the king’; find ‘the Eye’: she was fairly certain that those were two different requests -- or orders? What if she failed? If she succeeded, what was she to do -- punch the king on the shoulder and yell, “Tag!”?
She rubbed her eyes fiercely. That thing that had hunted her: now she came to think of it, she thought she could recall a sense of surprise, and outrage, when she tumbled into its gaze, and guessed that Marennin had somehow possessed it, used it to snare Rothesay. But she had not been looking for me; she caught me by accident. . . . And now she wants me to find a king. Holly, she remembered with a start, staring down at her recent shrubby shelter, was also a token of the high kingship. Little jewels of blood still welled through her skin from its scratches.
Dawn came to the heights as a yellow flood over the rumpled backs of pale cloud running to the end of sight about the top of Caelhill. Somewhere below, men woke to crawl about their rounds of toil in greyness; up here, Rothesay was alone with the waking of warmth and color: the yellow light brought blue to the ancient sky, gold to the frosted grass, green to the winter-darkened yew nestled in the crook of the path. She sat and ate the edgeling-woman’s bread slowly, drank deep of the dashing Caelghyll nearby, and crawled under the yew to sleep the hours of revealing color away.
Just before sleep claimed her, one last question surfaced, briefly: what the devil did a dragon know about kittens. . . ?
As Rothesay woke in the deepening evening, stretched coldly, and prepared to trudge on, a stranger rode up to the rescued edgeling’s door. He was too finely clad for any Geilla, in red and green satins and a wide-brimmed hat as blue as summer even in the dusky light. He paused, gazing about for signs he expected, and whose absence raised his brows and his hackles both. Nonetheless he spoke softly to the worried woman who peeked through the door; softly, suavely, in her own tongue; and, hardly knowing what she did, she let him in.
Sitting on their bench, a mug of sour ale at his elbow, the stranger displayed his bundle of gifts: fresh linen to replace winter’s worn woollens; ribbons as gay as his own merry plumage for the awed woman; soft-stuffed dolls, with delicate faces and hands of scented wood; a cunning horse on bobbing wheels; bags of seed for the spring planting.
Turning at last to the silent husband, the splendid visitor said, “Beyond that, friend, I can point you toward refuge, if you wish it.” He gestured toward the riches at his feet. “And now you must tell me why I do this.”
“‘Sir,’” said the stranger. “Last night Gyrthu’s sons came and made sport of you. Someone -- intervened.” He sat back and lit up a fragrant pipe. “Tell me about him.”
Rothesay made little progress that night, as thick clouds settled in and even she, possessed of what Padriag inadequately called ‘respectable’ night vision, could see too little. She knew she wanted to bear west hereabouts, but the forest here was dense and dark, and the land was a careless tumble, haphazard of direction. This trip seemed endless enough; she had no wish to embroider it with lost circling, and camped grumpily, shortly after full dark, under a spruce’s bower near the sound of a spring. She was careful to sprinkle a bit of her cake as an offering to the spirits of the spring and the dell, hoping to ward off malice, and avoid any cousin of last night’s eyes. Still rested from her day’s sleep, she dozed fitfully, lying often awake to brood, to worry, and to fear, till fear ran dry and what remained ignited in anger, a fury with the gods and all the world, with Kelmhal and Marennin, Ottu and the baron and everyone who had the slightest part in driving her into this damnable exile.
Sleeping well at last, just before dawn she dreamed she climbed a steep-sided mountain of crystal, up through a band of drifting cloud to emerge at the rim of a small valley, a shallow saucer near the mountain’s peak. Moveless stars glared down from a night of unfathomable blackness upon a queer, flat-roofed house, pale as moonlight, near the middle of the bowl; a spring as bright as the stars bubbled from the shadowed doorway. Below the clouds there had been a howling or wailing, but here all was quiet. For a moment, she thought it was somehow Padriag’s house, and offered a step to run home to it; then she sensed it was nothing of the sort, but something inexpressibly vast and dangerous -- and she was expected.
Waking with a start, she blinked stupidly at a roof of hundreds of bushy green tails dangling from the rafters, and recognized the spruce and the fact that it was morning before she was wholly sure of who she was herself. With that came recollection of her anger, and, warmed as if by strong drink, she washed briskly in the spring, packed up and set off with vehemence, eating as she went, determined to end this hike as swiftly as possible, the sooner to --
The sooner she might --
She drew all blanks. Past her fancy of this Colderwild, her imagination utterly failed her. Old habits triumphed: the coals of anger cooled to ashy embers, and she pulled her cloak of worry tighter about. What was to become of her, half-human stringbean, clanless and bewitched? Would she ever return to Harrowater and Padriag’s warm kitchen, or was she to stay at Colderwild, an exile forever? Or go traipsing on till she found Marennin’s front door to ask, Please, Majesty, what king? She had a sudden vision of herself wandering door to door inquiring, Are you the king? till she passed into legend, like the ghost ship that must sail till it found, built anew, the harbor town it had once betrayed, or that Classical skeptic searching for eternal Truth. What was in Padriag’s letter to the Runedaur? Why would he send her among demons? Why had she not brought a blasted oilskin?
copyright L. Hunter Cassells 2007