At fourteen, he stood upon the threshold of manhood: his Proving would be that very Midsummer. That ancient danger-laced ritual was an occasion of high drama for a community, and often of terror for the boy; Raian had years ago decided for himself that there was greater glory in making the Proving an anticlimax. Wolf and bear skins of his own providing made his bed at home, and he had given as gifts falcon eggs and fist-sized crystals, won from the barren peaks of the Uissig, to both his father’s chieftain and his mother’s prince. Scars of tooth and fire decorated his young skin already, and his once-fine nose crooked aside. The black of his left eyebrow made a sharp jag where a wildcat’s claw almost took his sight a year ago, and an upturned crescent moon at the base of his throat marked where a wolf once laid bare the living veins. No, there would be little the priests of Kavin could offer to challenge his mettle at Midsummer.
Restless always, he had left the city two nights before, this time burning with the fire of a queer dream, a vision he was strangely reluctant to put before even the High Priestess of Night. No explanations were forthcoming out here, either, only rain and huge old trees who kept their ancient wisdoms hoarded deep in their silent hearts. He savored his vision alone.
There had been a bit of excitement yesterday, when the small boy-pack that followed him like dogs discovered his absence and came tracking him. He had led them a merry chase, for a while, a short while, till the fun of it evaporated like mist in the blaze of his dream, and he let their unabated enthusiasm carry them farther and farther from the rocks where he sat still and stony, outwaiting their impatience, before he too ran off, away from all paths and the tamed world. He feared no Piper, for he had found no greater mentor.
Another rain rolled in that evening. Shortly before he settled in under a ledge of rock, he cast a last glance around and saw, not ten yards off, a hound, tall, slim, and white as moonlight, seeming almost to glow in the green-misted twilight. He stared, agape and breathless, but before he could frame even a thought to move, she turned, elegant and queenly, and sprang away into the rain-veiled woods. He shook himself; but there was neither profit nor sport in hunting blind in the dim wet, so he wrapped himself in cloak and dry leaves, to sleep, though he stared out often even after the gloom blinded him utterly. Night and dreams brought no repeat of the previous night’s terrible exhilaration, nor any explanation nor afterthought, despite his day’s fast; and he woke in the dawn cooler than yestermorn, schooled himself to patience, and set to the serious business of tracking the white hound.
No trace of a print could he find between the trees where she had stood. Had he dreamed early? He moved on, puzzled and pensive, after the way he thought she had gone. Then gazing ahead, he glimpsed down the glen something that looked in the dawn light like a walking tree-branch. He watched till he was sure that it, at least, was no phantom; then, leaving aside the dream-hound, he crept down after this new interest.
The quarry trod lightly. Maybe it was elvish: that would be a rare prize! It had an eldritch look. The rain wore steadily away at its traces, but the soft and soggy earth yielded even to a delicate step.
All too soon, it -- or he: Raian had had a fair view of the stranger across a crooked gorge a while back -- had discovered the pursuit, and moved with an eerie lightness over the sodden mould. Raian too followed more warily, watchful, when the dark larch woods grew still, against ambush; but this spoor excited him, this joy burned bright and new: he had never before hunted a man. He closed slowly, the rain despite.
Waterfalls, small but urgent, thundered white through the dark, craggy land. A cold wind blew, sucking the warmth from him; he shivered, and snarled at himself for weakness, and thought fiercely on his prey. And then the tracks vanished.
Astonished first, he cast further and further about. Here the bones of the Tre-Uissig lay in vast sheets, sloping down toward the broken Caiar Glen like a roof over some subterranean city, and leaf and needle lay thin, or not at all. In growing rage and disappointment, he lost even his last clear trace of the trespasser, and stood finally, silent and sullen, listening to the mocking laugh of rain upon the stones.
Shuddering with cold, he huddled into his dripping cloak and thought now of shelter, and fire. He knew this area well, at least. Here on the shoulder of the Catrocks stood a grove of ancient fir down against the cliff-wall, that should surely be dry, deep within. He jogged for it, hugging himself, stamping for warmth. The dark bulk of the great old fir his people called the Elder Pendiu, more than four ells thick in the bole, loomed up through the veiling rain.
Something flapped wildly out at him, a great greenish moth -- or a winged tree-branch. He leaped aside, groped without thinking for a stone and flicked it sharply after the fleeing creature, striking it solidly in the head. The moth-man dropped with the stone. Raian eased up, forgetting rain or chill.
A long slender object, or two together, maybe, well-wrapped in dark rags poked up beneath the stranger’s pack, higher than his hooded head. Raian noted it incuriously, and rolled his victim over with a cautious foot.
He tossed his head, shaking loose his plastered hair. When you catch a wolf, you kill it, skin it, take its teeth and claws; he belatedly realized he had no idea what to do with a successfully-bagged man. Boy, he amended, studying the slack face, and an unfortunately pretty one at that: one could almost see him as just an inordinately tall girl. He grinned at the idea of a girl taller even than his father Wylfric, then stepped back as the dark lashes fluttered, and wished he had brought his spear. His dream seemed far from him.
Rothesay jerked to her feet, and grabbed at her splitting head to hold it whole. She glared darkly at the figure before her, dismissed the obvious child as too small and young, and human, to be the demon that pursued her, and spun about, groping in the downpour for some glimpse of the hunter, even as something began to waken in a dim corner of her mind.
Raian, for all his great-sized spirit still bodily small for his age, knew that kind of dismissal all too well. With a roar that cracked humiliatingly into a squeak, he hurled himself at the back of the stranger’s knees.
Rothesay leaped, and discovered why she leaped as she floundered to miss the boy beneath her. He somersaulted away and bounded to a ready crouch, shoving back his overlarge hood with an oath. Then his war-scowl faded slowly to disbelief, and finally to reluctant mirth. “What ara doing, lad?” he demanded, fighting not to laugh.
She cut short her slow backstepping, stopped fumbling, one hand at the back of her head on the blade of -- must be the barrow-blade, she could feel the scabbard through the blanket -- the other hand up behind her back trying for the hilts of the Meredale sword. Her thoughts tumbled: a fool’s way to carry a weapon! . . . I haven’t heard a voice in . . . What am I doing -- lad? . . . voice in a long . . . ‘lad’? Oh. Right.
Raian sized up his prize swiftly: an adventuresome idiot, messenger possibly -- looked like Geillan bard’s hair, though cloak and clothes were green; old enough to have got bone but no meat, say sixteen. No obvious clan token. “Who arta?”
“A stranger,” she began, and Raian spat and laughed.
“Ya would be that,” he mocked complaint. It was a grave crime against hospitality, to ‘bag’ one who claimed a stranger’s place: so much for the hunter’s glory this time! “Eci, have I nothing fora, stranger, so, little point then in your claiming. Though I’d offer meat and mead at once, had I them.” He clenched his teeth against chattering, steeled himself against shivering as excitement chilled, and glanced back at the firs.
“Dry -- uh, dry enough in there,” Rothesay pointed out, trying to pitch her voice low enough to support the boy’s error. Raian’s quick ears caught the change, and he flashed the ‘lad’ a wry, understanding grin. She decided that a laconic manner was the way of wisdom, till she figured out how best to play this game.
They sheltered together among the roots of the Elder Pendiu, as magnificent a lord of the forest as Rothesay had ever heard tell of. Padriag should hear about this one. Its bole stood as the pillar of a great circular hall, thirty or forty feet across, roofed with great limbs that drooped at their ends, to form low-hanging eaves that were almost walls. The floor was dry, and soft with fine needles that lay ages thick. Resinous spice blent with the rain-smell, sweeter than Padriag’s incense.
Raian swelled under her admiration for this treasure of Tre-Uissig, and told her tales as they munched on her sweetcakes, of councils held beneath it that were unmatched in wisdom; and spells, wrought here by priest or bard, that were yet unbroken; and lovers’ trysts that bore uncanny fruit.
“Like you?” she asked, hearing a smugness in his tone; and he grinned, and winked.
Well he might, she thought, still trying to make sense of what she saw, and heard. Black hair -- as best she could tell in the wet -- and violet eyes: by legend the coloring of the High Sferan born, though she recalled no mention of freckles. His green cloak was circular, as the edgelings made it, though they now wore roundels on the shoulders that were only inoffensive decoration, where Raian’s were bold blazons of his House -- or Houses, maybe: the two were unalike. A circlet of fine wire, twisted and braided with meticulous Sferan skill, bound his brow, though his sodden bangs had escaped its command. But his baggy tunic rioted in big checks of red, yellow, green and blue, green-fringed at hem and elbow; his yellow leggings, now thoroughly grubby, were cross-gartered by many-colored leather bands. His torque and arm braces, like his circlet, were copper, the mark of a younger son of an obviously wealthy family; but a family of what race? A young Geillan noble might be proud of such a broken nose, or that white crescent at his throat -- she shuddered at the thought of how close he must have come to a grim death -- but surely the old imperials did not prize blemishes, however honorably won? He addressed her in what seemed a kind of stew of both the Geillan and High Sferan, that wanted all her concentration to untangle.
“Do -- h’r’m, er, got a name?”
“Raian na Drogh,” he replied promptly, mingling races in his name as well: ‘drogha’ was Geillan for ‘black.’ “And you -- ?”
“Ro -- uhh, Rothric.” She blushed at this deception; but still more at the indelicacy of being young, female, and unescorted. Padriag might not understand; Raian surely would.
The violet eyes regarded her intelligently. “Uh-huh. Strong name, Rothric. What’s your House?”
She faltered again, unwilling to say Dunhaldring and waken any association with queer news from the north. Orthunder? She almost grinned, dourly: true it might be, but she suspected she owed them no loyalty. She opened her mouth to give Padriag’s affiliation, and suddenly realized that she did not know it, had never known it, nor ever wondered: the wizard seemed a sovereignty in his own person. “I am a student of the wizard Padriag,” she offered lamely.
Raian nodded. “Heard there’s a school of wizards, requires you to forswear birth-hall and bloodright. Like that? I’m Kinnaith and Dunwyrding.” He displayed the roundels on his cloak, one bearing a black dragon rising, twisting against a field of green; the other showing a spray of wheat against a constellation of stars -- Neis the Swan.
‘Kinnaith and Dunwyrding’: a marriage not just of one adventuresome couple, but a couple of adventuresome tribes? She brimmed with wonder; Raian grinned, and told another tale.
Almost two centuries before, three extraordinary men met.
Anlaf, proud young king of the doughty Dunkerring, crossed the Saddle from the Carolanth and looked down into the broad meads and fens of Merthow Astrad, that he had planned to take for his people. He looked, and scratched at his fair beard, and turned his eyes south, south and west, where the rugged uplands of Tre-Uissig rose, dark and green. Perhaps he thought the highlands a challenge, and so more glorious in the conquest; and if it was difficult to take, then what a stronghold it would be in turn, unlike the fat defenseless fields below. Perhaps he had heard tales of the dreadful fen-wights, bodiless emanations of the swamps, and thought it wiser not to arouse their cold malice. Perhaps he cast the eagle feather from Dunkerring’s lofty crest and saw how Kavin bore it towards the mountains. But though many songs told and still tell of the terrible midges of the Merthow fens, no tale says how Anlaf hated them.
He turned his army to the highlands, and such was his force of character, and the love his people bore for him, that they embraced this challenge with all the fire of their fierce desire.
Word came to Inriall, prince of the House of Kinnaith, of the barbarian threat. Then in the long Glen Westhial, as the white mist thinned at the rising of the sun, two bitter lines scarred the tender grass: one drawn with geometric precision in green silk and burnished bronze; one, three times thicker, a restless braid of checkered wools and blood-lust. Inriall looked out from under bushy brows.
Suddenly he handed down his banner to his young page and, right hand held high for parley, spurred his great horse to the middle of the glen, and waited. Surprised, but not to be outdone, Anlaf went to meet him, but on foot, for he felt his own mount, stout and sturdy pony that he was, shamed by the magnificent white stallion of the Dragon-lord.
To Anlaf’s further surprise, Inriall too dismounted, and sent his horse back to his lines riderless.
They were much of a height, Sferath and Geillath, and their hair shone, Anlaf’s like the young sun, but Inriall’s like moonlit snow. Anlaf bore the Sferath’s quizzical study with wary fortitude, while his own gaze devoured Inriall’s shining cuirass, cast to the likeness of powerful muscles, and the lapped bronze plates like the belly-scales of a dragon, all engraved with fine and elaborate tattoos and studded with emeralds.
His attention flickered further to the silent Sferan ranks behind, every man of them helmed and armored, if none so bright as their master. Little like were they to the retreating fragments of House Morag he had routed last summer in Erodonica, after Ollaf of the Dunbrandeing died. At his own back he had three times their number, that chafed noisily against this delay of slaughter; but he began to sense that the uncanny stillness of the foeman was not want of fortitude.
“Your people wrestle?” Inriall asked suddenly, without preamble.
Anlaf stared: the Dragon-lord spoke his tongue, lilting strangely. It was a fool’s question, though: wrestling was a man’s art, without which he could scarcely be called a man at all. He nodded cautiously.
“Good,” the Sferath grunted. “I’ve a mind to take your measure, son, before we do business,” he indicated the ranked warriors with a sharp nod that tossed his white forelock. “And show you mine,” he added, stripping off his articulated gauntlets and tossing them idly into the grass.
Anlaf narrowed his eyes. “You jest.”
Inriall rubbed the side of his nose and peered at Anlaf shrewdly. “Umph. I dare say, jest. I am reputed odd. Odd,” he repeated meditatively. “Yet I mean what I say: we shall wrestle, you and I, and know one another.”
The older man shrugged. “I had a dream.”
This was reason enough to the Geillath; or would have been, had it come from the lips of a kinsman. He did not expect it from any of the Dragon-folk; though for no reason that he could now imagine.
Anlaf won the match, though the sun stood at the noon before he did. Inriall won the Geillath’s respect, and his love. The Dunkerring came to the highlands as invaders, and stayed as brothers, and called themselves then the Dunwyrding, for they too were now dragon-folk.
From the reverence in the boy’s voice, thought Rothesay, old Prince Inriall had won Raian’s love as well.
“We still wrestle, to settle dispute,” Raian concluded, and grinned. “Fair chance to watch a good match most any week!”
He talked, not for a garrulous nature, but for the comfort of his stranger. He longed to know more of wider lands, and would have interrogated ‘Rothric’ closely; but though the traveller answered when he asked, the replies were brief, and shadowed with some sorrow or trouble. The long bundle proved to be a pair of swords, a mighty treasure; but so grim was his companion’s mood when they were shown -- “Doom and destiny,” he had growled, as if naming them in bitterness -- that Raian at once dropped deeper inquiry. At least for now. Maybe later there would be time for friendship, and the opening of hearts, and minds. He was quite certain the name was false; but he was himself fond of being mysterious; and had not the legendary hero Arac Fearnoth travelled under many names? He struggled not to pry, but instead pressed for word of the lands Rothric had seen, and the people there and their ways. When he discovered that Rothric had not merely seen, but actually lived by the ocean, though, he all but forgot tact in his eager envy.
Rothesay paid no heed to his hero-worship. The rush of power that had flooded her when the Meredale bullies backed down, had ebbed swiftly before an unending round of plodding days and solitary nights, and hatred of her weirdness and her predicament blossomed. She glowered at her two swords, emblems of her exile, swathed again to oblivion in her thin blanket like a furled battle-standard for a vagabond. Raian dreamed of travel, and she of home: we are each in the wrong story, she thought.
She peeled off her brogans, a sticky mass of sodden leather and rosemary mash. Her feet were pale, her toes like strange white prunes. “What I would not give to be dry again,” she groused, more to herself than to her companion.
Raian’s heart swelled. This strange wizard-boy, this wide traveller of many mysterious adventures, with neither gold nor jewel but two fine swords instead -- and what was most on his mind was being warm and dry. Thornac said that veteran campaigners dreamed more of simple comforts than of wreaths of glory. What more had Rothric seen, that did not pass his lips? Raian’s own accounting of wolf hunts and mountain-daring suddenly seemed small and without consequence, beside his half-formed fancies of Rothric’s bold deeds.
“It is not far to home,” he burst out, then faltered, remembering the miles. “At least, we could be there by . . . . ”
Raian considered. “Yes,” he admitted, slumping. He so wanted a chance to be as great in hospitality as his adventurer was in his dreams.
“Yes, easily,” he snapped, startled, and looked up into a face half-hopeful, half despairing.
“Could we get in?” Harrowater, being remote, seldom locked its gates, or even guarded them; but most towns she knew of did.
A great grin spread over Raian’s pleasant face. “One way or another!”
All the way back, through the narrow glens and rocky passes of the eastern Uissig, Raian debated within himself. There was more sport in climbing the wall, more pride, he thought, in flaunting his reputation at the gate. When the sun set and the rainy darkness blinded them, he made a golden magelight in the air, a lamp with neither wick nor bowl. The wizard’s apprentice made no comment, and Raian made a private promise to learn some more elegant, more impressive variant. He pressed on firmly.
An immense voice spoke a single melodic word that filled all the forest in the night. Rothesay grabbed for her sword-hilts; Raian smacked his lips. “Ah! The Sonthe bell. We are almost home, friend!”
The trees ended before a deep fosse, beyond which an empty slope climbed steeply to the foot of a high wall, as the bell tolled again.
“Yah. Have your people no such chime?” His question came muffled by wet weeds and loam as he scrabbled about the roots of the trees, searching.
Rather than admit, Yes, it clanks, she only said, “Not so splendid . . . . What are you looking for?”
“Ach, dwch!” he swore. “The rope -- we had a rope here! Around here,” he admitted, staring about at the walls of black night that the little magelight held not so very far back. He could not seem to find his finding-spell, either. “For climbing the wall . . . .”
“Can we not?” she suggested hopefully.
Rain rattled. Raian shrugged, and turned to follow the lip of the fosse.
The great tetrapylon at the Dawn Gate of Teginau had been built in the pride of the House of Kinnaith. Its four pillars were cut from green marble in the likeness of dragon’s legs, with massive móriad-steel claws clutching huge white marble spheres. Oil lamps dangled like shining dewdrops from the tips of the three spurs carved at the back of each leg, and a wheel of twelve more lamps hung from the center of the overarching dome, washing the wide stone floor with a steady golden glow.
The gates themselves stood wide. Within, more lamps high on posts lit the open square and the broad avenues that struck off from it; the wet cobbles glistened. Rothesay stared, amazed at the lights. “Is it festival?”
“What? No,” said her guide, staring himself but blind to what might have impressed Rothric’s fancy. “At least, Sowingfest is weeks off and we don’t start decorating yet. Ho, Malthes! Nargallond!”
The two guards, helm and armor gleaming under the lamplight, glanced up from their dice. “Yah, na Drogh,” grinned one, the owner of a thick brown beard braided with copper wire. “High time you found your way home. Thornac’s set to flay you, let him but catch you.”
Raian flashed his teeth. “He can try!”
The second guard, as burly as his fellow though his face was hairless as a boy’s, waved the dice cup at Rothesay. “Another present for the Prince, or the Chief? It’s been off its feed, perhaps! Not like you, boy, to bag straggle. Where’d you find her?” He grinned at his jibe.
“His name is Rothric,” Raian said pointedly. “He is a stranger. He comes from the north, on an errand for his master, the wizard Padriag.”
Rothesay was grateful for the introduction. The guards glanced over her, shrugged, and waved them on. “Welcome to Teginau, stranger,” the bearded one said gravely. Then he called out helpfully, as they passed into the square, “Owar the tailor, on Weavers’ Street, makes the most charming gowns and aprons -- !”
Raian gripped ‘Rothric’s’ arm sympathetically, as the two guards howled at the jest. “No offense, friend, but you do look like a girl. Grow out your beard, would help.” Rothesay rubbed at her chin, crushing a grin. “Er, when you can, of course.”
“As soon as I can,” she agreed gravely.
She tried to shake off the queer feeling of walking into a trap. She was back in the safety of civilization, and great civilization, at that: she should be breathing easy for the first time since maybe the Meredale, and not ‘reaching’ for a warding-spell. She set her jaw, and walked resolutely beside her host. And watched, her breath short and her muscles hard.
Beyond the square, the great boulevard rose gently at first, and then more steeply. High walls of decorative stone pierced by strong but elegant gates only half-concealed the many-storied structures -- could they really be houses? -- that stood behind, engulfed in gardens, and all topped by the acorn-cap roofs that the Sferiari loved. Small lanes and alleys, some also warded by gates, slipped off from side to side, down which she glimpsed other walls, doors, and avenues. And everywhere, lights: more lamps on posts, where the larger lanes met; at the greater gates in the walls; some even in the gardens. Light shone from the many windows sheltered at the back of deep porches: though the hour was late by Harrowater’s reckoning, the citizens of Teginau showed few signs of retiring. More than one splendid home that they passed roared like a great water with the chatter of many voices, and unfamiliar instruments making half-heard music. Raian shook his head at one.
“Andramor and Tegi: they spend fortunes on parties. Everyone goes, of course; but watch your back. And your tongue!” He strode on; she was glad, not to go where she should watch her back, or more than she did of late. But she was beginning to think that the journey to Teginau was less than the journey in Teginau, that arriving at the city of one’s home was not at all the same thing as arriving home: Teginau sprawled in her imagination as huge as a whole country. All of Harrowater would fit between one cross-street and the next!
A large cloaked figure rounded the curve higher up; Raian at once melted back into the shadow of a dark gate, pulling Rothesay after. The man stalked purposefully past, swinging a heavy-headed cudgel and glancing all about, alert as a hunter. He did not note the deeper shade by the mortuary gate, and Rothesay almost forgot him in her interest in the dim tombs within, pale marble shapes in a skeleton of a garden barely touched by the mountain spring; but when Raian moved on, without comment or evident concern, “Who was he? Thornac?” she puzzled, recalling the guard’s remark.
“Nah -- Thornac’s my tutor. That was a City-watch: we are out past curfew. Let him but catch us, it’s a rare drubbing for us, and a fine for Da.” He glanced up at her as he realized that his father would in no way owe a fine for Rothric. “Jail for you, I should think.”
“What!” Harrowater had none, but Kelmhal at Dunford did; she did not like its rumor.
“Just till morning,” he said dismissively. “Then you pay the magistrate.”
She pulled up short. “But the guards at the gate: why didn’t they -- ?”
“They know me!”
“The -- the city watch doesn’t?”
“Galhur? Yah, and that well!” he exclaimed, his eyes dancing with meaning. “And the magistrates! Oh, oh, I see. Malthes and Nargallond -- gate guards, them: not letting in anyone who doesn’t belong. Enforcing curfew -- that’s the watch’s worry.”
“Oh, well! Once you’re in, they don’t care what you do?”
Raian grinned. “Yah. Good fellows, Malla and Nargo. Here’s my gate, anyway.”
It was metal, bronze maybe, knotted and braided like rope; beyond, a neat cobbled alley served a variety of tree-laced buildings, as though a village the size of Harrowater were walled and warded against the stone bewilderment of the city without. A door opened well down the alley and an elderly woman stepped out, a basket on her hip, her scolding voice answered from within by a man’s placating laugh; she snorted her scorn, and crossed to a door opposite. Rothesay heard it snap shut, and saw a small window glow with a lamp behind.
Raian shook the gate gently, but it was locked fast. “Just checking. Here, give us a hand up, lad: I’ll go over the wall, then open for you.”
Rothesay stood alone on the strange streets, feeling much more wildly the sense of a trap; or as though she trod upon the back of some vast slumbering creature, that might waken at a careless step and notice her, rather like the eyes over Great Cernefell. Heartbeats stretched into eternity; her glance darted up and down, watching for the dreadful watch, and she ‘touched’ every warding-spell she possessed. At long, long last, it seemed, the latch clanked, the gate drew back, and she was ushered in amid a rustle of vines to Raian’s curious home.
He locked up carefully behind them. Then, “Welcome to Raingold Enclave,” he said with great formality, making a deep bow.
“You honor me and all my family,” she replied equally formally, bowing back. “Er, we’re home, then?”
Through the mazy enclave, a family’s private holding within the great city, they wound on past slaves’ quarters, gardeners’ housing, even a smithy: Raingold of Kinnaith-Dunwyrding were numerous and important, with enclaves also in Alforrow, and Iril, the seat of Kinnaith. Raian’s father was Horse-master to the Prince of Tre-Uissig; his mother was the Kinnathen Librarian.
Raian spoke the title with radiant pride. Rothesay marvelled, firstly that a woman held a post; and secondly and more at the very thought of a Sferan library unscathed by war. Her fancy fell far short. Padriag owned some seven hundred volumes; as many more had burned at Anvedras long ago. But more than eighty thousand works were kept and cared for under the scrupulous eye of Linnas na Sul, Kinnatysel, Wylfricschara. A thousand were the fruit of the third extraordinary force in the alliance of the Uissig: Godrach, the Bard of Dunkerring, Anlaf’s mentor and his closest friend. Godrach lost no time in learning the Sferan sorcery called writing, nor in demanding it of anyone aspiring to attain the rank of bard -- or to keep it. And so the lore of his race, the Songs of the Dawning and the Tugach Laws, the Kerring Chronicles and the Witch-boy stories and all the Riddles of Fradh, and so much more, were first committed to everlasting memory. Rothesay lusted for such a hoard; but the Library was at Iril.
A beautiful door, untidily framed in leafless vines, opened into a wall like a cliff-face; within, stone stairs spiralled down to the right, up to the left, and they climbed to a torchlit landing and turned, down a hall whose colored mosaics resembled neither Geillan nor Sferan art, as Rothesay knew them: in the dimness they looked like arguments in geometry, explained by a poet.
Raian now moved as warily as a forest creature, and Rothesay recalled the tutor Thornac who would flay him. She was deep in regret for accepting the invitation, never dreaming that a wish to be warm and dry would lead to such a labyrinth, when Raian slipped them at last into a long, low room and softly closed its heavy door with unmistakable gladness. Hanging by fine chains over a small altar against one wall, an oil lamp burned in a pierced bronze vessel, that scattered vague yellow stars upon the walls and ceiling. There were several beds, mats raised in carved wooden frames to knee-height and invitingly piled deep with furs and blankets. None were occupied; she wondered if their owners were away, nonexistent, or just still up like the rest of this peculiar nest of nightbirds. She let her pack fall to the floor.
A boy started up from the darkness between two farther beds. “Raian!”
“Sh! Sh! Sh!” Raian hissed fiercely.
“Where hava been, targa?” the other wailed, heeding him not at all but hurrying over to take his damp and dirty cloak. “Out for two days, and the rain so bad! Come, here, sit by the grate and do off your boots. Shall I fetch -- ”
Raian seized his young servant by his plump shoulders and shook him till his teeth rattled and his yellow curls bounced. Having thus stunned him to silence, he let go, but slowly, ready in case he started fluttering again.
“Good, then. Supper; wine; dry clothing.” He ticked off his commands on his fingers. “Lots of everything. And,” he pressed a rigid finger firmly to his lips, and held it up warningly. The boy nodded, round-eyed and anxious to please, and scurried aside. Raian turned to beam a proper welcome at Rothric, when from the door the boy bleated, “Thornac -- ”
Raian whirled with a fiery glare. But, “ -- can wait. Till morning, I should think,” he said levelly, a temperance that surprised Rothesay, who expected nobility to be rude, even violent. The little yellow-haired servant was lucky in his master.
She was shown to ‘the grate’, a heavy bronze screen set in the stones of the floor, and on it stood low stools with thick cushions and luxurious tassels, and a small round table. A draft rose through, deliciously warm and dry. Raian plopped heavily onto a seat, wrenched off his short boots, and upended them on the grate. Rothesay joined him joyously. Padriag’s villa had such grates in each of the main rooms, all connected by narrow tunnels under the floor: she had crawled in them as a child, as long as she could see no spiders, but she had imagined they were for the ease and comfort of the wizard’s four-, six-, eight- and no-legged guests and servants; certainly they had never been warm. She asked and Raian explained, surprised, the furnaces down in the scullery that fed the vents throughout his home. Padriag used his for a root cellar. Rothesay determined to set him straight, when she returned.
Long leagues away, over the cold sea and beyond to the very knees of the Dur Manthanor, Hautiger an-Velaker also settled in warm relief above the hypocaust in his private suite. His servants hastened to peel away his travelling garb, heavy with the melt of a late snowfall upon spring mud, and envelope him instead in the weight of thick silk robes and furred slippers. Mead, a parting gift from Kelmhal, warmed gently above a brazier fire that smoked with sweet incense. Beyond his door, the voice of his steward snapped like the bark of a watchdog, keeping at bay the dependents, officers and courtiers with all their urgent affairs that only his excellency could put right. Nothing that could not wait for morning would pass the formidable Gerrender.
Then, as a pretty little girl -- Hautiger seldom remembered servants’ names, but the face was new, and a good choice for which he must commend Gerrender -- pressed a cup of the steaming mead into his hands, the watchdog at the door and all the hungry horde fell silent. The servants within paused in their ministrations, and glanced at the door. Hautiger sighed, and stared sightlessly at his shuttered window.
He heard the door open, heard the rustle as all the staff flowed out like an ebbing tide; or as if the room rose to a height exalted beyond their measure, as the one who entered no doubt intended. He drew a long breath, turned, and favored his lady wife with a familiar smile.
Asilay el-Seremay had been a beauty in her prime. Many still thought her so; Hautiger knew the magical mask for what it was, for she did not trouble to maintain it for him. A long moment froze between them, pierced between their locked gazes, these lovers and adversaries, each weighing how best to use the other in their respective devices. They had grown much alike, over the years.
She was thin, even gaunt, as though her sorcery consumed her body like a fire. Her many robes, all of colored gossamers, stirred in the lightest breeze: one could think that a stronger wind might scatter her like ash. Only her hair weighted her down, massive golden ropes piled and coiled with jewels about her skull. And that, too, was illusion, of a sort: a great part of that gold had grown on other heads than Asilay’s. To the Darian eye, hair signified power; female slaves had theirs cropped to the jaw, and males were shaved entirely. Their loss was their owners’ gain: Hautiger possessed several luxurious veils to his naturally-naked pate. Yet still he sniffed, covertly, of course, at Asilay’s enhancements; nor ever suspected the hilarity that the courtesy of Geillan hospitality hid from Dunhaldring’s bewigged guest.
Asilay glided to the other chair upon the hypocaust and perched there like one of her infernal ravens on the rooftrees. She twitched her skirts into order, and lanced her husband with her pale gaze. “And what was so very -- exciting? -- in the southland?”
He would tell her. He knew he would tell her, give her whatever she wished to know. He could hardly hope to find Cherusay’s brat without Asilay’s aid; yet he could wish he still had choice in the matter. At least she could do no more than feel the pulse of his heart. What he saw with his eyes, and what he thought, remained his own, closed to her; he was not yet reduced to being merely a large flightless spy for her. And he still could command the manner of his revelations.
“Mead, my dear -- ?” It might have been as much answer as offer, for a moment, till he extended the cup, relishing even this small frustration. “Sweet mead.”
“Another time, perhaps. What was in Anstrede?”
Hautiger refilled his drink, swirled it idly, then leaned forward to smirk, “Oh, nothing. Nothing. Only your late lamented cousin’s elfin brat.”
For a moment there was silence as his words made no sense, conveying an impossible image. Then the dead waked and walked in her thought: she shuddered to a chill of horror as though the cold breath of the ghosts of the betrayed whispered on her neck. And then a tidal rush of avarice, that drowned all else: the witch’s pale eyes blazed. “No! Where is she? Where do you have her?” she cried. Her talonlike hands clutched the arms of her chair, and her gaze darted about the room, as if the girl might be stowed in a corner among the luggage.
“I do not,” he admitted with a grunt. “Kelmhal’s oafs blundered, and frightened her off. They, ah, sought her for me, for a time, but she eluded them.”
“Sought her for you? You took Kelmhal into confidence?” Asilay poised for rage; but his indignant surprise reassured her, more than his angry reply, and she remembered that while he might be boring, he was at least not stupid. “Fled, did she? Where to, I wonder?”
Hautiger shrugged. “Southward.”
“South -- what a fantastic notion,” she retorted sardonically, and he flushed.
“Bah. All of Peria lies that way -- can you find her, woman? I’ve sent for Haukur, to be ready for the morning.”
She nodded, but absently, already retreating towards that inner place of magic. “Of course. Haukur will do -- very nicely. But not tomorrow. I shall need, ah, a few days. A few.” She pressed him then for every detail that might in any way touch upon the girl, all that he could recall and some he had not known he knew, and took her leave, oblivious to the dull, murderous mood at her back: it was so very familiar.
Asilay fluttered to her suite in a dream, there to accept only the least of ministrations from her attendants before dismissing them and bolting her heavy door to secure her solitude. Long she leaned against it, her head spinning with implications.
Eirenseld: her mother’s clan, and Cherusay’s, claiming descent from the elder Darians, children of the Moon and proud of it, despising the Sferan House Orthunder and desiring its ruin; Cashellan, who stood with Cherusay against her father: their resentment of her half-brother, the king Rúmil, slumbered now, but uneasily; the flames of her own hatred, that she had thought quenched in the Celta Sferyn all those years ago. And the treasure. Oh, yes, the treasure, the mysterious wealth to whet even the gold-glutted Runedaur appetite. This brat -- what had been her name? Rossay, Thessary? ah, no, Rothesay: for the snow-clouds -- the child could know nothing about it. Yet maybe, just maybe enough resonance remained between Cherusay’s blood and Cherusay’s gold, that a certain sorcery might catch its fading echoes.
Not without catching the child, first. And so much to prepare . . . . Asilay fled for the warded room of her magical works, her thought so bent on its desire that the finding and freeing of the secret latch, the opening of the hidden door, the traversing of the twisting, narrow way happened as if done by servants’ hands and servants’ feet. The candles blazed up at her gesture and she scarcely knew that she moved; but now she stopped to look about, and remember.
The round room at the top of the Lady’s Tower was known to the residents of Castle a Geste, from without; they sometimes saw its eight dark windows flicker when their lady pursued her arcane studies. Its approaches were not; they were secret, and surely filled with traps; and though the centuries had faded the stains of the blood of a Geste’s architect from the stones, the power of that grim sacrifice still guarded those hidden ways from the unwarded trespasser. None but the sorceresses of Eirenseld had seen the eight arches, or the narrow apse at their hub under its blue glass dome; and few of those had seen the thoroughness with which its current mistress stocked it with every available aid to magic.
Cunning chests held stibnite, galena, mispickle, orpiment, flowers of sulfur, and tin, rotten or bright, in their many compartments; shelves and tables groaned under beakers of oils, jars of quicksilver, pots of grave wax; there were casks of Isorchian incense; a treasury of jewels, sapphire, ruby, amber, onyx and zircon, feathers of native silver, warts of copper. Codices and scrolls packed one vault of the eight-chambered room; and one housed Asilay’s particular fascination. In here lay the bones, pale and cold, of countless ravens, all carefully sorted and arrayed, but for a few skeletons left whole, with silver wire for sinew. Ravens’ beaks lay ordered on their special shelves, ravens’ feathers filled many baskets with soft darkness, raven-skin parchment waited on the desk to be written over in inks of raven’s blood. And caged in gold and silver, one living bird brooded over the corvine mortuary below, the sudden candleglow at Asilay’s entrance hardly rousing him enough to lift a feather.
Asilay paused, considering her stockpile. All was neat, arranged to exacting order; she knew the place of the least metatarsal as well as any dragon knew its hoard. But it had been so long ago that she had managed to obtain one tiny snip of her cousin’s chestnut hair . . . there. In an insignificant-looking drawer closed in a small silver jewel-case, a folded scrap of waxed silk that cracked as she opened it, but the one dark curl was still there. Ah, yes.
To the apse between the inmost legs of the arches, she brought a shallow silver bowl, and lit the candles about: dark blue for swiftness; and incense: Rodrane cedar, to rouse the pulse of kinship. A doll, made of silk and stuffed with herbs and her own hair and blood and spittle, her manikin, blackened now and hard from many occasions of the use it would once again serve: that, too, upon the slate-slab altar.
Then she must make a nuisance retreat to the kitchens and butteries of Castle a Geste, for wine and cakes, wroth with herself for being so giddy as to forget them at the first, and she spent the wait upon her sleepy maid stilling herself to steady attention. She warned the old woman to assure that no one sought the Lady of a Geste for three nights, at least, as her noble husband would understand aye well, and hastened back to her work.
The offerings arrayed, she opened a grey ash box, polished with antiquity, and drew from its furred nest a silver-hilted obsidian blade -- and, for the first time since she first dared to lift it, Asilay hesitated.
Sarra Khel was the knife’s name, a name in the old tongue of Daria that was remembered now by few. Sarra Khel was by ancient use forbidden to any but the matriarch of Eirenseld -- and that was not Asilay but her aunt, her mother’s sister, Arrowy el-Narronwy, eldest daughter of an eldest daughter in unbroken succession back to Oraay the Moon, the Daughter of the Night.
That little detail had not stopped her before. Arrowy was far from here in the king’s city of Teffan Lir, nor had she so much as set foot in a Geste in thirteen years, nor ever shown more than a token interest in the affairs of her clan. No, what slowed Asilay’s hand now was once again the breath of ghosts: Arrowy, second bride of the old Orthunder king Herumer, was the mother of Cherusay.
Arrowy, for all her self-preoccupation still not a witch to be trifled with, had had her suspicions about her daughter’s sea-cold death, and kept an unsleeping, though subtle, eye on her niece even now, knowing Asilay’s jealous hatred all too well. Asilay dropped Sarra Khel back into its furs lest any hint of what now burned in her be borne over the miles from the sacred blade to stir the coals of its lawful mistress’ interest. She closed the box and fixed its latch, slowly and resentfully. She had used Sarra Khel for so long -- and Arrowy had never even touched it -- it should be hers, she who cared, to use as and when she pleased. When Arrowy died at last --
-- the knife, and the matriarchy of Eirenseld, passed to the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter. And that would be the brat-child Hautiger lost in Anstrede!
Asilay rocked on her knees, battling to master the spells of inner discipline to dam her rage and sluice it to her will. Springing once more to her feet, she let that fury roar into her warding-spells, to raise an unassailable castle of magical force about her work, that neither demon nor any resonance with Arrowy might pass. Blue fire licked up the eight pillars that closed her round and roiled beneath the dome high overhead. Away on the North-gate walk, a lone sentry, stomping dutifully through the piling slush, saw the glassy bubble glow like an eye, and he made the sigil against soul-capture, and then stomped on.
Spent of that first wave, once more Asilay took up Sarra Khel, to call on her mother Moon, and grandmother Night, the Well of Creation, to aid her; lighting the oil-soaked charcoal in her brazier, she summoned Sorche of the Flame and begged the strength she would need; with a fist of granite from the heart of the Dur Manthanor, she invoked Maolin the Earthshaker, that the ground the child walked would announce itself to her; and with the sweet cedar smoke she besought the Windlord to blow her towards blood like hers, towards all that was left of Cherusay alive upon the earth. And she added the curl of hair to the fire.
Then swiftly, with familiar ease, she slipped out to fetch the raven from its cage, pinning it in a hard grip against its wild struggles. Above the bowl on the altar, she snapped its neck, gutted it with the holy knife, drained blood and entrails into the bowl. Into the bloody cavity she tucked the manikin, closing it well in, winding it about with black silk threads. She swallowed its eyes, that its sight should be hers; drank just a taste of the blood in the bowl, and moved, fluttered nervelessly to a window and thrust it wide, as the spell began to grip.
Deep under the eaves of the Great Hall ravens huddled, unseen through the dark and the biting snow, but she felt them, knew them in her soul. Summoning all her furious power, she closed the spell and flung her spirit forth into the night.
A gaily clad man with a hat as blue as summer, in a place where he was no stranger at all, took a pull on his ale and stretched his feet to the fire gratefully. “Ah! My, that’s nice. I wonder what the poor folk are doing.”
An appreciative chuckle ran around the room at the old jest. One man only did not join the laughter, though he did allow a smile: the wolf-haired one standing taut as a bowstring on the hearthstone, impatient for the conclusion of the story. Blue-hat grinned up at the hot sapphire eyes that would have burned him away, leaving the tale revealed, if they could.
“But somehow I thought the one little girl’s remark the most telling,” he went on, serenely drawing out his narrative. “As I thought over all the father could tell me, the little one up and said, almost defiantly, and I quote: -- ”
“Yes?” snapped his victim, eyes flashing dangerously.
“‘I thought ‘she’ was pretty!’“
Ire vanished before surprise. The other men and the lone woman in the room stirred, and Wolf-hair murmured, “Now, that’s interesting.”
“Isn’t it?” Blue-hat grinned. “Children can be so bloody hard to fool. We should send all the students to practice before them.” Here he poked at the youngest of the group, a fluffy-headed young man of nineteen who looked far too mild to keep such dangerous company.
Cheerfully refilling Blue-hat’s plaintive mug, the youth smiled blandly. “I think we have enough to do -- babysitting Masters.” He returned the mug with a pointed air.
This time even Wolf-hair added a harsh bark to the burst of indignant mirth. “Well answered! Tread warily, Peri,” he warned Blue-hat, “for you dance with one of my best.”
Peri froze with the ale but a hair away from touching his lips, and shot the best a glance of dark suspicion. The response was an easy laugh and a clear denial: “Peace, sir! It’s clean.”
“Kind of you,” Peri grunted amiably, and drank. “Mm -- now you say you’ve had a similar tale from Anstrede?”
“Dunford.” Wolf-hair passed him a ribbon of parchment, and stalked across to thrust open the window while Peri extracted meaning from the jumbled-looking marks on the paper. Not a large man, Wolf-hair moved with a powerful grace reminiscent of hunting cats, or of a winter’s bonfire; and his air of treading at the breaking edge of dance enchanted warier minds than most of his enemies possessed. Even now Peri, Wolf-hair’s peer in most respects and with a piece of an intriguing puzzle in his hands, was briefly beguiled into watching as the simple act of pushing back a shutter became a gesture of immanent sensuality. The woman had hardly taken her eyes from him all evening, though she worked an embroidery; but those who knew the both of them generally attributed this to a desire to cover her back.
“Ho, ho -- killed the one fellow and Marked the other, eh? And unquestionably a girl?” Peri put down the parchment and turned to the woman. “What are you of the Silver teaching your novices these days, Mistress? Even among the Black, Marking is -- how shall I say? -- something of an anachronism.”
The grim woman only shook her regal head slightly, but Peri was pleased to have caught, fleet as the crescent moon behind racing cloud, a wisp of smile. She was not one easily pleased, though he looked forward to making a more strenuous attempt, later on.
Wolf-hair laughed from the window, flashing a strong white smile under his dark moustache. “Windhome’s women are Death’s own mistresses,” he pointed out.
“Aye, but at dagger-play,” growled the lean man sitting in a limber knot, by preference on the hearth-rug. What dust might be there could make little difference to the care of his clothing, for he looked a proper beggar, and sported a black eye-patch. “Cúrullan there says a sword. Bit of an art, Marking with sword-tip. Can’t call to mind more than a few dozen of us who can, and but three who do.”
“But those three could be mistaken for ducks, if it suited them,” said the woman dryly, her low voice husky, soft, and ironic. She pulled a thread gently taut, her needle flashing like a tiny golden star.
“And I should hate to think they were at all accounted for,” Wolf-hair grinned more widely, to more laughter. “Whoever he is, though, I hope he has good reason for calling our hand -- ”
“ -- Without leaving so much as a hint of a sign -- ” Peri interrupted.
“ -- And alarming a town or two. I shall go to meet him.” Wolf-hair, long dark lashes veiling the blue fire of his eyes, glanced down at the woman with a curious smile. “Or, as it may be, her.”
The woman addressed as Mistress nodded back graciously, and, slowly curling the tip of her tongue to catch her silken thread, pulled it in, trapped the thread neatly between strong canines, and bit it through, a potent little dance that did not fail to quicken the pulse of every one of her companions. “Good idea.”
Rothesay was three days in the mountain city, roaming with Raian and his liege-boys by day, sleeping like puppies in his bed of undreamt-of softness at night, except the night they spent on the floor of the governor’s palace’s lowest buttery, having gotten locked in accidentally. That was the night the Prince of Kinnaith came to visit, and held high court, and the governor of Teginau laid a great feast. Raian was not invited. That honor went to his elder brother, sixteen and soon to be knighted, who had no interest in and less use for a precocious tyrant and his rag-tag friends. By now, though, Rothesay had collected that lack of invitation or permission or authority put no bar on Raian’s will, and with heart in throat followed unquestioningly as the boy smuggled the two of them in past guards distracted by his other ‘men.’
They watched from above, through screens upon the second-floor balcony. In the echoing hall below, candle lights and magic lights shone upon expanses of gold beaten in reliefs of horsemen and mountains, and glinted from gold-touched frescoes of voluptuous dancers: not for the feast-hall the beautiful but austere images in Raian’s home, that actually were geometric discussions, old and renowned. The redoubtable Thornac, a much younger man than she had expected but twice as severe, struggled to make Raian learn them, but had not yet been able to answer, “Why should I, when I can just call you?” This intractability scandalized Rothesay, who wanted to know everything; she missed Raian’s chagrin at disappointing Rothric, and would have been almost as astonished as Thornac at his burst of scholarship in the weeks that followed.
Deep-throated trumpets heralded the entrance of the Prince. All the colored, gilded, jewelled throng, the cream of Teginau’s hybrid crop, rose to their feet and fell silent. A crier, with a body like a barrel and a voice that seemed to come from one, stepped out, a cloth-of-gold koli over her deep blue gown making her glow in the firelight. Her bronze-footed staff made the stones ring; a great crystal glittered at its top, high over her head, and the bright ribbons snapped and danced with the force of her punctuation. It was a ruld weara, a Geillan rod of law, shaped by the incomparable Sferan touch. The Dunhaldring staff looked rude and clumsy now in Rothesay’s memory.
“Lords and ladies, the powers and wisdoms of green-stoned Teginau!” she boomed in majestic cadence. The Geilleisil were proud of their reputation for powerful voices. “Behold your Prince, Gudric Adalyar Ethain, Firstborn of Kinnaith and Blood-brother of Dunwyrding, Master of the High Uissig -- ”
“They say that about the Chieftain, too,” whispered Raian.
“ -- Protector of the land and all that rightfully dwell therein, Lord Puissant and Beneficent, the Son of the Wind! Behold him and make glad song!”
Ethain was an old man with a white beard; Rothesay thought there were emeralds or some such scattered like green stars in its curls. Emeralds upon his sleeves flashed as he raised his hands in blessing over the heads of his folk bowing like grain as he passed. An anthem rose and followed in his wake, till the huge hall rang.
On the lofty upper floor, Rothesay sat with her nose poking through the decoratively pierced screen, the better to press her eyes all but through, enthralled by the beauty and the pomp and the dignity below. Her feeling of being caged had waned somewhat; she enjoyed this show immensely. But Raian watched Rothric: the ragged garments a grey and faded shadow of their former forest green, darned profusely with threads cannibalized from the ravelling hem; the brogan-laces so shortened by the many mending-knots that they barely held shoe to foot; even the lean and wind-burnt cheeks: these tokens of the traveller sang to him their own anthem of realms beyond the high walls of Teginau, an enchanted maze of strange new challenges and unexpected glory. Out there lay greatness, and he burned to know if he measured up to it. He turned his dream of a few nights ago over in his mind, and resolved to put it before Rothric, in a quieter moment.
Later that night on the hard earth of the buttery’s floor, he held his tongue. They had eaten well in their inadvertent captivity, and shared a truly great laugh over their ridiculous plight; the midst of folly was not the time to speak of dreams of bone-stirring magnificence.
Escaping next morning, he missed the awful news. A day spent dodging Thornac, weaseling into the game-theatres to watch some of the juridical wrestling, and laying plans for taking Rothric crag-climbing next day, kept him from the gossip till nightfall.
“They’re going to kill him!”
Raian’s little army convened before dawn in a sheltered niche where the north aqueduct pierced the city wall. Rothesay crouched on the stone lip, trailed her fingers in the dark, hurrying water, and tried not to hear her young friend’s anxious rage. This scheme was beyond madness. The other boys, some of them legal men older than their impetuous leader, stirred uneasily, as unhappy as she.
“Calion,” Raian said sternly, his passion abruptly, spookily, harnessed. “Remember when we lost our way in the blizzard? Just a few months ago! Who saved us then, eh? Brahald -- who took the lashes when you lost your father’s prize ram?”
“Yah, well, I think he also ate him!” Brahald, a stocky boy from a Dunwyrding farm, in town for schooling, retorted, to a tremor of nervous laughter. Raian silently awaited a better answer. “Yah, all right, then, I love him well,” the other conceded miserably. “But, Rai: this is -- this is law, boy! What matter if we don’t like it? We can’t defy law!”
“It’s law. Is it right?”
All twelve of his boys as one stared at him, and then at their feet. Rothesay watched the water begin to sparkle with the growing dawn. A breeze blew through the silence.
“I’m coming up for Proving this summer. The priests have been hammering all the Ways of a Man into my head since Yule. I remember that it says, ‘a man stands for the right, though all the world stand against him.’” His voice was low and level, his arms relaxed at his sides, his feet planted apart as though he stood braced for storm. And small as he was, one could believe that it was he would last, and the storm pass.
“It says also,” countered the oldest of the pack, a tall darkhaired beanpole once called Wolfpup, now Wolfman, for his impressive hairiness that Raian jovially suggested he in fairness share with peachfaced Rothric, “that a man stands in support of his people.”
“Yah,” nodded Raian. “I reckon Dagn na Urthan is ‘my people.’”
“He’s mine, too!” snapped Wolfman, his loyalty burned.
Raian thrust out a hand to him. “I can’t save him alone!” It was barely more than a murmur; but his eyes blazed with the fire in his heart.
Wolfman stared at the hand. Raian’s glance swept the rest of the group, a silent summons to battle. But it kindly passed over Rothric, the stranger, who knew neither Dagn nor the law of Teginau, who had nothing to gain and maybe everything to lose.
Rothesay had heard about Dagn last night, all night. She sat upon the hypocaust while the yellow-headed servant-boy took an hour to comb out her great length of hair and twist it in a mage’s fourfold plait, and Raian talked the while and for hours more. Dagn was a vagabond in the mountains of the Uissig, living his own life with neither clan nor city to speak for him, or to tax him. No one knew to what race he belonged; Raian liked to think he was a son of the old savage folk who lived half-wild in Peria even before the Sferiari came. He liked the boys who braved his cliffs and crags, who looked to him as a mentor in a grand and solitary independence that seemed to them to mark the very root and core of manliness, the boys who called him by the name of the Lord of the Wild. He hunted the mountain sheep; but was also known to stop a traveller or two, if he thought they might have something of interest, and trade with them -- whether they agreed to the trade or not. Prince Ethain and Fiodric the Wyrdrald had decreed that he must declare a city or a family affiliation, depart, or be destroyed, but for seven years he had eluded the hand of Uissig law. Now he was caught, to be burned alive in the square at noon today, vagabondage being one of the gravest offenses a society knows, a threat to everything that means anything, a betrayal of the forces that hold chaos at bay and make community possible. Rothesay fingered Padriag’s travelling-token, her only defense against a similar charge, and prayed to pass unnoticed. And yet --
What, honestly, was so terrible about it? True enough, that if many men tried to live as Dagn na Urthan, society would disintegrate, and chaos reign; but the fact was, they simply did not. Who would? Who gave Dagn a portion of bread when his own provision fell short? Who tended him in sickness, and to whom would he turn when age began to cripple his bones? Above all, who would remember him after Death had taken him from the world? No, few men regarded freedom from clan obligations as worth the price of everlasting oblivion.
‘It’s law. Is it right?’ No, not hardly, she thought. This Dagn had thrown away more than he realized, perhaps, or maybe he was only mad; in any case, he was the one bereft, and the law -- Harrowater and the Dunhaldring had a similar prohibition, of course, but had had no occasion to raise it, in her memory -- the law would destroy him for impoverishing himself? Had they not more important things to fear, like raider neighbors?
It was not right; something was deeply wrong about it, though she could not frame it satisfactorily in her thought. She looked at Raian’s outstretched hand, and remembered the weird strength in her own.
Raian coughed in surprise as she clasped it. Before he could protest, however, Wolfman clamped his own upon their joined hands, his furry chin raised high, and one by one all the rest added theirs to the defiant pile. Raian let out a whoop of joy; but more because he knew it was expected than because he felt it. Glad though he was for Dagn’s sake, he was abruptly a young man with a problem. He had realized -- he could not say exactly when, but by this morning he knew -- that ‘Rothric’ was a girl.
In the hammering of their strategy, then, his attention flopped like a beached fish, sometimes keen upon their goal to the exclusion of all else, sometimes wondering how to ease his first recruit out to safety without betraying her. Girls troubled him, fay, unfathomable creatures he preferred to avoid. Having spent three days of great good fun with one violated everything he knew, or thought he knew, of their kind, and he had now no time to think. She ought not to be a part of this hazard; she ought not to be traipsing alone across Peria with a pair of swords at her back, either. She ought not to have been as simple a friend as she had been, nor as much plain fun; yet there she was, and the first to stand up with him, for someone she did not even know, just because he had asked.
They had to succeed, and get themselves clear of trouble in the bargain: he owed it to her.
Rothesay wondered if the disguise was necessary, or even helpful. She had on an old badgeless cloak that Calion had dredged up from somewhere, tattered and worn but still green, and a great-brimmed felt hat that cast her face into deep shadow; a crooked cane on which she was to lean as if lame; and smudges of ash on her chin and lips, to give her an unshaven look. (Shaving being an art unknown in Harrowater, she now understood the naked chins of the one guard at the gate and the two Darians at home, though the purpose for the practice escaped her.) Wolfman had at first suggested they dress ‘Rothric’ up as a girl, but Raian crushed that idea heavily, explaining, somewhat inadequately, that poor Rothric took quite enough of that sort of teasing.
A heavy wooden platform, head-high, had been erected in a market square just down from the governor’s palace. The prisoner was to be lashed to the post in the middle, upon an oil-soaked pile of brush and faggots; after proper ceremony, and spells to thwart the ghost’s vengeance, whatever noble citizen held the Venheuri priesthood of Death this year, together with the priestess of Sorche, would light the pyre with torches held ready at hand. Rothesay had passed nearly within arm’s reach of the construction earlier, and felt the evil of its aura almost as a palpable thing, and smothered a sudden urge to smash the whole pile into so much kindling-wood.
An air of carnival anticipation seemed to underlie the morning’s market. Rothesay hobbled out to join folk already beginning to gather about the skirts of the platform for a good view, though her heart screamed to flee. The Dunhaldring had no such horror as this, only beheading, which was at least swift; and most crimes, in any case, were paid for in silver, or in service. Here all about her the life of the market proceeded busily, trade moved in lively dance, a macabre celebration of death. Rothesay wondered if the Runedaur celebrated burnings as lustily, and what Ges Himself thought of the proceedings held more or less in His honor. Death, they said, came only when the soul could bear the burdens of life no longer; it was no triviality to magnify those weights, and call Death before His time. Why, then, this sense of sport?
Though the morning seemed endless, the noon-bells at last rang out from the towers in all the public squares of the city, a great music that shivered in the air long after the last chime struck. The merchants folded away their booths and cleared the square. Their places were swiftly filled by the vigorous citizenry, many with their midday meals in hand or basket, as if it were a civic picnic. Many also came armed with humiliation in the form of rotten produce. Rothesay shifted restlessly. She had seen no sign of her cohorts since they dissipated from Calion’s home this morning; had they found the disturbances they sought? When would they move? Could they move?
A brisk drum staccato rattled down the alley from the Citadel of Law and Teginau’s grimmest dungeon beneath it, quickly drowned by a roar from the crowd. Down marched a column of men-at-arms, white-and-blue striped Dunwyrding tunics peering from under Kinnaith’s articulated armor. Down rode the Teginau governor and the two senior magistrates on restless stallions. Then a curious oblong: on one side, three long columns of priests in the black robes of death -- not the warrior Runedaur, but the civic Venheuri, men of the city who served this three-year tour of duty as the lot fell to them, and looked askance at those who made a career of Death’s service; and on the other, three of priestesses in Sorche’s fiery red. In front walked another black-robed, black-veiled death-priest, and a scarlet-swathed fire-priestess glided behind, but these two glittered and gleamed, their official robes stiff with gold embroideries and bright gems, and torches flared in their hands, pale in the sunlight. Boys walked behind each, carrying the delicate frames of fanciful silken parasols. Fore and center in their square, naked but for a leather breechcloth and his rope bonds, walked a giant of a man, tawny hair and beard uncombed, unbraided, as wild-looking as the heights he loved to roam, Dagn of the Wastelands. He walked tall, and beamed beneficently at the hordes of Teginau, looking as though he were on his way to a feast, and not his own roasting. Rothesay shuddered, and wished darkly that the gawkers should have a taste of fear and fire, and not this genial, hapless lunatic. Then more soldiers, and lastly Prince Ethain himself, beside a high Dunwyrding noble who stood in place of the absent chieftain, with a score of courtiers at their backs.
The soldiers and the dignitaries assembled behind the pyre. The priests and priestesses climbed the wooden steps in file with their victim, and bound him tightly to the stake. Dagn watched with remote interest, as a full-fed cat watches a mouse. Crazy, surely; but what was that to die for?
A small disturbance brought the attention of the men-at-arms, but it was not the one she hoped for: a knot of brown-robed men, more such priests as visited Harrowater, pressed forward, crying out. But it was not the wrongness they protested; they shouted something about false gods falling before the God of Mercy, and then they were hustled away. A good idea, mercy; but Rothesay had the clear impression that they did not mean it for judgment in this life.
The magistrate came forward and read out the crimes, and a tedious sermon on the duties of citizens that protect their rights and honors. Next to Rothesay, a peasant fellow eyed the speaker and hefted a scabby turnip meditatively. Then the high priest and priestess between them performed an elaborate ritual punctuated by their attendants’ shaking tiny bells. Rothesay heard almost none of it, her anxiety for any sign of her partners in transgression stretching unbearably. Overhead a great, gloomy raven circled .
What seemed like hours later, the black and red partners in this public dance of death reached formally for their respective torches: the moment had come, and Raian had not. Rothesay jigged desperately in place.
“Here, yer wood’s rotted, Holiness!” Her voice broke in a terrified, sheepish bleat as she put a hand on the nearest timber, having no idea what she intended, except delay.
“What?” Sorche’s priestess snapped, startled from her magical trance.
“Rotted!” she squeaked, feeling now as idiotic as frightened, and gave a great shove. The effort shoved herself to the ground. The pyre stood firm, and crowd and soldiers and all turned to stare, puzzled, suspicious.
But the evil she had felt before, flooded her senses now at the touch. Maddened with the horror of it, she flung herself back at the sturdy oak. This time it cracked and shuddered as her feet found purchase, the timber bent and splintered, the pyre tipped, and priests, priestesses, bells, torches and Dagn slid crashing into the dignitaries and all their horses. The pyre-fuel caught and blazed.
Chaos ripped away the veil of civility in the square. Some of those most heavily armed with vegetables for the sport of tormenting the condemned (once the fire should be lit and the holy folk withdrawn from range), now turned their armaments heartily against soldiers, courtiers, and all, for the soul of the commoner is seldom far from anarchy. An inrush of fresh soldiery from the Citadel tripped over a tide of pigs loosed from market-carts standing at the square’s edge for transport home, and a sudden, inexplicable flood of goats, geese, and chickens escaped from every household pen for blocks around. And then all were fleeing from the prize of today’s market, a matched pair of huge black bulls who took all but matching paths through the madness, and no one marked the black-haired, violet-eyed elf of disaster who hunkered under a cart and shook with triumphant laughter.
In the middle of the square, Rothesay wrenched timber from beam and bashed them to satisfactory firewood against the flagstones, moving from one to the next when scarcely a piece large enough to swing remained in her hands. Maybe a quarter of the platform had thus fallen to her before her fury began to be appeased, and, cooling, she sensed a strange and empty silence.
Looking up, she found herself ringed by several score or so of townsfolk, guards, and even the prince on his horse, watching her with round eyes, not venturing to interfere.
Fury faded utterly. “Oh, no,” she whispered, and spun and bolted for the thinnest part of the ring. Every ounce of the magical strength of Arngas she poured into her legs, as a cry of pursuit went up behind her. She lowered her head and thought of nothing but speed, her feet finding the shortest way to a gate on their own. Cats, chickens and children scattered before her; an overbold soldier held his ground and she did not know it till her shoulder jarred on his plates and he clattered aside.
The gate neared, but she was anticipated: the portcullis thudded into place, and she dared not match her power against the thick bronze. What else? Crying and fainting she could do later. Jump? A low opening gaped between the stone arch of the tetrapylon and the top of the portcullis bars. A desperate leap, the sickening shifting of a loose flagstone under her toes, flung her into the bars only a few ells short of the top; and, followed by shouts and screaming, she scrambled up, over, and leaped to the roadside grass and fled to the bosom of the wild.
Cover, screening was the idea of fleeing the road and turning at once to the forest (as she told herself later; only that, of course only that and certainly not any silly feeling of 'escaping to home'). Bashing her way through laurel and briar, she soon realized that the Uissig highway would have sped her farther and sooner. Then the slope dropped out from under her and down the hillside she slithered on her back. Grabbling madly at the loam trying to steer clear of uprushing tree-trunks, she slid away with far more speed than any mere road could have afforded, however well run. Then even the slope ended and she dropped two fathoms through open air into a turbulent pool.
The river snatched her away, tossing and twisting her about. She fought to get her face above the foam, and then to keep it above. Her shins banged the rocks and then she struggled to keep her feet high as well. Her tailbone banged instead.
Down between a pair of troll-like boulders the heavy water swept her, mere flotstam, tumbled her about in another pool and flung her over the lip of a falls twice her own height. The plunging water bore her down and shoved her head into sand. Lungs bursting, she wrenched about, planted her feet and thrust, broke air and caught a current and a breath and shot headfirst through the rapids below. Rocks peeled her arms and elbows and cracked her knees. A faceful of water from a standing wave made her choke and realize she had been screaming. Then the river-channel bent sharply and poured into a deeper, quieter though still swift-flowing stretch. As she caught up on breathing, at last it occurred to her to try to get out of the water. Embarrassed, she stroked for the bank, where she crawled out, shaking, on hands and knees. She lay for a while, staring at nothing till slowly a grin crept across her face. She would never have chosen such a trip but—finding herself alive and whole—what a ride! Even her bruises, beginning to throb, seemed for the moment more like trophies than injuries. At length she sighed, pulled herself to jellylike legs and stumbled on, still grinning.
Areolin the Sailor of the Sun approached the western peaks when she dropped exhausted into the soft needles beneath the Elder Pendiu. She had no idea how she had found her way here, still less where she would go next. Her pack and her swords, her blanket and her own cloak lay under Raian’s bed in Raingold Enclave, and there they would stay till world’s end if she had to fetch them. She pressed her hand to her bosom: the faint, worn crackle told her that Padriag’s map and letter were still with her. Yet she could hardly go on with no more than a stolen cloak and hat to her name. She stared up into the branches as she rolled her dilemma over ponderously, and was suddenly asleep.
“Waaagh!” she yelped, leaping up like a cat.
“Relax, it’s me!” Raian laughed. “I’ve brought you something.”
She blinked. She had not slept long, only enough for the sun to slip below the hills. “Uh. Hi,” she mumbled. “How did you -- ? I didn’t even know -- I mean, I’m lost, really; I’m here by accident.”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. Seems an accident to you, yah, but they do say that this old tree draws fate instead of water by the roots. As for me, well, you left the craziest trail I’ve ever followed till -- what, did you fall in the Kellstream?”
“Yes -- whatever it’s called.” She shivered, and her eyes grew round at the recollection of that wild, watery tumble down the stony breast of the Uissig. The bruises were just beginning to throb, but she was only grateful they were not fractures.
He laughed, at once sympathetic with the terror and envious of the thrill. “Here.” He handed her her forgotten property. “I know how the Kell twists so I took a chance that you might have ended up here, if you hadn’t broken your neck and drowned.”
“No, I’m not so lucky. Um, thanks.”
“We saved Dagn,” he explained simply. “He burned his bonds and escaped -- what with half the Watch chasing you. Wolfman’s going to take him out a knife and some stuff tomorrow. Now,” he stood up expectantly, and picked up a tall black bow. A fat pack crushed his cloak to his back. “How far do we travel before supper?”
“What?” she yelped again.
“You did say you don’t mind travelling after dark. How far before supper?”
She flung her own belongings to her back and marched out from under the tree. “You aren’t coming!”
“You can’t go alone. I will help you meet the perils of the road,” he promised chivalrously, striding after her.
She gaped at that, all the horror of the morning rising again like an undead spirit. She did not understand what had overcome her in the square, but the shattered oak vividly spelled for her the terrible price of an unguarded temper. She cast wildly about for an answer. Seizing on a fallen trunk, she snapped it in two against a standing bole. “I am the perils of the road!” she roared. “Who will help you meet me?”
Raian blinked; he had not missed her performance in the market-square; but stoutly he asserted his faith that she would not harm him. Bursting into tears, she hugged him with a delicacy that would not have ruptured a soap bubble, picked him up and wedged him by the pack in a crotch of a dogwood, blew her nose and ran.
Raian roared and struggled; but he had done on his pack altogether too securely; he would be long enough getting free of it. A huge raven soared down, following the crash of Rothesay’s passage; for sheer pique, he raised his bow and shot it.
As he worked his way free, he realized that he had never taken a chance to tell her of his dream. Strange and remote it seemed now, that vision of standing as king before all of Peria, with a storm like a huge black dragon at his back. He wondered if she would laugh.
At sunset in Castle a Geste, Asilay el-Seremay screamed and dropped to the stony floor.
copyright L. Hunter Cassells 2007