PROLOGUE

Unicorn pressed a hoof into the yielding earth, leaving a moss-lined hollow. Phoenix shook a tiny iridescent feather into the impression. Tortoise spat upon the feather; the droplets dissolved it, swelled, burst their surface tension, and filled the shallow bowl with shimmering liquid. Dragon breathed gently on the water, and a vision appeared.

Two rounded beehives of woven straw – skeps, as the beekeepers call them – one skep painted green and blue, the colors of The House of Onagros. The other is stained with the red and gold of The House of Sarpa. The Sarpan bees grow larger while the Onagrans dwindle. The Sarpans attack the blue/green skep, killing or driving out the Onagrans, piercing brood cells and dragging half-formed bees into the dry and pitiless sunlight, taking the hive and its honey for themselves. But the weave of the assaulted skep still glows blue and green.

Tortoise yawned. “This is pointless. Who cares about their squabbles?”

“I care,” said Dragon.

“Not enough to do anything.”

Dragon did not reply.

“I only watch,” said Unicorn. “It’s all the same to me.”

Tortoise cocked an orange eye at Phoenix. “And you, brother? Does this interest you?”

Phoenix ruffled his wings. Sparks flew, sizzling as they hit the watery vision. “Is there any reason why it should?”

“I think it does,” said Tortoise. “I think it interests all of you. I think you’d like to dabble in this pool.”

“I only watch,” Unicorn repeated.

“As do we all.” Dragon sighed, agitating the liquid, erasing the scene of strife.

Dragon disappeared.

Tortoise grinned maliciously. “Suppose I chose to involve myself?”

“We’re all involved.” Unicorn stirred the water with a horn-tip, leaving a silvery sheen upon the troubled surface. “They involve us, whether we ‘choose’ to act or not. Yet it is all the same.”

Unicorn vanished, as well.

Tortoise took a gray-green step toward Phoenix. “What about you? How about a game?”

“I’ve had enough of your games.” Phoenix lifted his head and gave a ululating cry.

“You won’t interfere with me, then? You promise?”

“Oh, yes. I promise.” Phoenix rose into the air and was gone.

Tortoise gazed a while longer into the pool and then, with a slow blink of his orange eyes, faded away.

So there was no one to see the speck. It represented a man of small character and petty mind, a man of no more importance than a grain of sand. It fell into the silver swirl as a grain of sand might enter the shell of an oyster, and with the same results: irritation and the accrual of superior matter. But first, the speck.

 ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

 The old woman stood in her doorway, one ear cocked toward the sound beneath the trees, and waited.

 CHAPTER 1 – THE ROLL-KEEPER’S TALE

 Dreams of death and the bodies of the dead haunted him for fourteen years. The day he decided to go see the old woman, Darcy rose early, and the spirit of his child rode with him.

Elsie, he thought. “Little” Elsie. These days, Darcy thought often of Elsie. He thought of her as a child, curled up like a hedgehog, sleeping so deeply he wondered if she might never wake; or when she was eight, in her first long gown, charming His Grace’s Chamberlain. And now: fourteen and marriageable; amber hair, brown eyes, pointed chin; spoiled by his own indulgence, trained in the skills of a manor-wife and a public scribe by his wife’s insistence.

Darcy thought of another name now. The name of the old woman he was on his way to see, the one who lived in Fiddlewood. He remembered the first time he had ever heard of her, and the first time he had ever seen her. After Elsie’s coming…. After his promotion and transfer to the capital…. It was ten years ago, but as clear as this morning.

 

Ten years ago, he had been only Deputy Roll-Keeper of the Unified Realm of Layounna. Not yet granted room in the royal stables for his horse, he walked the winding streets from his manor to the castle. It thrilled him, as it always did, to see the wooden palisade at the hub of the city, its gate lowered across the protective ditch, and know that he would enter as a titled official. Inside the wall of massive, sharpened logs, he crossed the bailey to one of the wooden structures which lined the palisade. He looked across at the steep rise of the earthen motte, at the inner palisade atop the rise, and at the wooden tower showing above.

The royal pennants snapped in the wind. Darcy felt his life justified at that moment.

He walked in on his superior’s conversation with the Deputy Roll-Keeper from the Eastern District, walked in as casually as a man might take the first step onto quicksand. The ground seems firm; only after too many subsequent strides is the mis-step clear.

“Who counted her this time?” the Crown Roll-Keeper asked.

“A widow. Burll – her oldest boy – had a horrible wet cough for more than a month, and his mother went to her for a cure.”

“Did it? Cure the boy?”

“Something did. I wouldn’t like to say it wasn’t her.”

Darcy stroked his drooping blond moustache to hide an arch smile. He turned to his superior and winked a blue-gray eye.

The Crown Roll-Keeper either failed to pick up the condescending signals or chose not to return them. “This widow is known to you?” he asked the man. ” Her word can be trusted?”

“Oh, yes, absolutely.”

The Crown Roll-Keeper nodded and dismissed the man, while Darcy frowned and twitched the skirt of his robe to underline his disapproval.

When the man had left, Darcy asked, with a faint snicker, “Local hobgoblin?”

“Who?”

“‘Her.'”

“You can laugh,” the old man answered him sourly. “You haven’t seen her. And I’d advise you not to, if you’ve got something on your conscience.”

“As who has not,” Darcy said weakly. Then: “But we can’t count her like that – by hearsay. One of the Eastern District people must be made to identify her.”

“They can be told to do it, but they can’t be made. They would only count her by hearsay and lie about it. I’d rather take the word of an honest widow than a lying official, wouldn’t you?”

He handed Darcy a sheaf of papers, his fingernail beneath one name.

“‘Salvia Zglaria,'” Darcy read. “‘Called Moder Zglaria.’ – But that’s wrong. No one has a name like that. It should read Salvia beren Moder or Salvia beren Zglaria. If she’s a local matriarch, or very old, or the mistress of a baby farm, I can see her being called Moder Salvia. But Salvia Zglaria or Moder Zglaria – that doesn’t make sense. That’s like saying she was born of no mother, or she’s her own mother, or she’s mother of her own mother.”

The old man shrugged. “There has always been a Moder Zglaria – a Salvia Zglaria – on Wild Ass Island in Fiddlewood River in the Fiddlewood. Always, since records have been kept. Longer, if oral history can be trusted. You’re from Bahari, aren’t you? That’s not far from Fiddlewood – haven’t you ever heard of her?”

Had he? It almost seemed he had, but had dismissed it as servant’s prattle. After a pause, Darcy said, “That isn’t the sort of thing I’d hear of, or take notice of if I heard it. It’s nonsense.”

The old man shook his head and tapped the papers in Darcy’s hands. “Look at the records, back to the oldest. It’s always been listed like that.”

“It’s nonsense,” Darcy repeated. “Someone will go identify her under my administration, if I have to escort one of them myself.”

 

By the next year, Darcy Aminta beren Valda was Chief Roll-Keeper of the realm of Layounna.

He appointed a new District Roll-Keeper in the Eastern District. He requested and received permission to ride with the new man to Pazni, to collect a handful of local villeins and see this “Salvia Zglaria” for himself.

The villeins protested. One offered to turn in her badge of office and find other employment.

“It isn’t safe to work for the crown anymore,” she said. “Why this new District Roll-Keeper? And what’s become of Helena beren Marna?”

“She was inefficient,” Darcy said. “She failed to follow proper counting procedure. She had to be replaced. As to what’s become of her, I suppose she went elsewhere.”

“You do, do you?” asked the woman. “And you suppose counting Moder Zglaria is as easy as counting anyone else.”

“If she exists,” said Darcy. “If she isn’t one of many paper people on your District’s Rolls. Paper people don’t eat their bread allotment, do they? What would that extra bread buy out here near the Kozabir border? Mercenaries, perhaps?”

The villeins didn’t like the way Darcy Aminta’s mind was running. Not that Kozabirian mercenaries were on any of their shopping lists or that their Rolls were full of paper people, but it had been known for a death to go unreported for a month or two or for a still-born child to survive until the next official count.

“I’ll go with you, and gladly,” said the woman who had offered to resign. “I want to see this.”

Others volunteered then. Darcy Aminta left the new District Roll-Keeper to look over the books and followed the villeins, on foot, into Fiddlewood.

The path was narrow and faint. Leaves and twigs crackled under the delegation’s feet. Crows screamed and flapped, and other birds too swift to be seen shot deeper into the woods, making enough noise in their passage for so many bears.

“I always thought the woods were quiet,” said Darcy.

Nobody answered him.

When they reached the river, the woods simply stopped where the land dropped off.

“The tide’s not out yet,” one of the villeins, a man, said. “Should we wait half an hour, or wade?”

Darcy was wearing his riding boots. “Wade,” he said.

“Let him through,” said the man.

The villeins stepped aside.

Darcy Aminta saw that the path didn’t end at the river bank, but continued at a gentle slant into the water. He could see the narrow bridge of land now just under the water’s surface. Twice in twenty-four hours, the bridge would be exposed.

On the other end of the path was Wild Ass Island, about three miles from end to end.

“The maps say it’s a quarter of a mile across at the north,” said the man at Darcy’s elbow. “Tapers to a point at the south like it was pointing at the capital.”

The island was rimmed, at least on this eastern side, with cedar trees and brush.

“It looks uninhabited,” said Darcy.

“She lives there,” one of the villeins said.

“Let’s go see.” When the others hesitated, looking from the watery bridge to their own skirts, hose, and low wooden clogs, he said, “Now.”

Darcy led the way across and into the stand of cedar. There was hardly more than a double line of trees, then a small clearing populated by geese and goats. A covered well stood in the clearing; on the far side was a low stone hut. A cream-colored goat lay in the shade chewing a mouthful of something. Honey bees hovered and darted, ignoring the meaningless humans.

The livestock braced themselves at first sight of the intruders, then the goats bleated in rude chorus. One black and tan let out a “maaaa” like the blast of a horn. The geese spread their wings and hissed, advancing, heads forward, to do bloody battle.

Darcy led his troupe no further; he nearly stepped on them, backing up.

Then the door opened and the old woman stood in the doorway.

“Moder Zglaria,” said the woman who had threatened to resign.

Moder Zglaria was draped and swaddled in shapeless black clothing. Her hair was twisted up in a black and white scarf tied in a knot over her forehead. She held a blackthorn stick in one hand, leaning on it, and a long-stemmed clay pipe in the other. She was white, whiter than Darcy, a colorless white, like an albino. But she wasn’t an albino; even from across the clearing, Darcy could see the shocking blue of her eyes. This blue, with a tinge of green…. It was like a candle burning behind aqua glass; alive and clear and fiery. And it focused on him.

The old woman spread her pale lips, showing teeth so broad and blunt Darcy couldn’t tell her canines from her incisors. She made a sound, and the livestock wavered and relaxed. The geese gave final honks and shuffled their feathers back into peaceful alignment. The goats resumed feeding.

“There’s a lot of you,” she said, in a voice like sand over stone. “Come in.”

The others waited for Darcy to move first. “Geese can bite,” he said, to cover his hesitation. His heart thudded, and his palms were wet. They prickled, and so did his scalp and his armpits; they prickled to the point of pain.

He forced down his reaction. He had forced down worse.

The inside of the hut was surprisingly bright. There were windows in two of the walls, covered in oiled skins that were worn to near transparency with age.

Moder Zglaria sat on a stool near the smoldering hearth. She pointed with the stem of her pipe to a stone bench that ran between the hearth wall and the door.

“Room for all of you there,” she rasped, “if you’re friendly.”

The villeins sat. Darcy looked down at her, his long white-blond hair falling around his bony face. “I am Darcy Aminta beren Valda,” he said. “Chief Roll-Keeper of the realm of Layounna, by the authority of His Grace, Landry Oliva beren Ada. Your name?”

“Salvia Zglaria,” the old woman said.

“What sort of a name is that? That’s no proper name.” Darcy heard the villeins protesting his tone, his words.

“It’s no sort of a name,” said the old woman. “It’s mine. And, as for proper, at least I’m entitled to it, which is more than I could say for some.”

“What do you mean?”

The old woman drew on her pipe and let out a cloud of aromatic smoke along with the word, “Nothing.”

“I’ll mark you down by the name you’ve given me. You’ll be counted every year after this, personally, by one of the local Roll-Keepers. Do you understand?”

Moder Zglaria flicked her gaze down the row on the stone bench, and back up the row of puddles around their wet underpinnings. “I do.”

“If they fail His Grace the Kinninger, I’ll be back. Do you understand that?”

“You’ll be back,” said Moder Zglaria.

“These locals may be afraid of you, but I am not.”

Moder Zglaria took another draw on her pipe and said, through the smoke, “Afraid of me? You’re afraid of my geese.”

The villeins coughed and tucked their mouths into their collars.

Darcy decided it was time to go.

His exit was spoiled by the villeins, who rose and filed out the door ahead of him, leaving him the sole object of Moder Zglaria’s attention.

“Now you know my name, Darcy Aminta beren Valda,” the old woman said. “And I know yours.”

* * *

She knew his name: born Darcy beren Aminta, married to Devona beren Valda, now called Darcy Aminta beren Valda. Heartily and often, he wished he had left the old woman a disembodied name in the Rolls.

Many times, after that meeting, he woke from a nightmare to find her name on his lips. Sometimes he came across it while hunting for another. Then a picture of the old woman would rise in vision before him – tall, stout-boned, thick-skinned, raspy-voiced, with eyes like azure scorpions and a tongue like a rawhide whip, always thrusting at him with the knot of her turban or her blackthorn cane or the stem of her clay pipe. She would rise, fixing him with a glare of savage understanding, leaving him drenched in salt sweat, leaving him weak and with all his sins scoured off him. He could almost sense the mind of her out in the woods, knowing his knowing her name, and he’d have tricked himself into forgetting it, but he clutched it as a man adrift would clutch a floating coffin.

* * *

And now, ten years after that first visit, he stood once more on the bank of Fiddlewood River, telling himself he was waiting for the tide to go out, although he wore his riding boots again.

He was alone, this time; what he had to say must have no witnesses.

The tide went out, and Darcy crossed to the island. The trees were the same, the clearing was the same, the bees hummed and buzzed as before; a different goat lay in the shade, that was all.

Moder Zglaria stood at the well, drawing water.

“You’re just in time to be useful, Darcy Aminta beren Valda,” she said. “Here’s something to prove your worth.”

Darcy flinched.

“The water, Darcy Aminta,” said the old woman.

“The water?”

“Fetch in my water.”

Darcy took the well’s bucket and emptied it into two earthenware jugs. Moder Zglaria plugged them with rags and cinched the bucket up close to the crossbar.

“Carry those in, if you please, My Lord Roll-Keeper.”

Darcy followed with the jugs and held them until she came and put them on the table.

He said nothing. He stood under the old woman’s gaze as a man with no shelter might stand under a stinging rain, and clung to his dignity as such a man might cling to a sodden cloak.

“Thirsty?” the old woman asked. “Throat a little dry?”

“No. Yes. Yes.”

The old woman took two wooden tumblers from a shelf and brought them, both in one big hand, to the table.

“You pour,” she said. “Then sit.”

Darcy poured carefully, but he spilled some despite himself.

He took a stool across from Moder Zglaria. She dragged her hearth stool up by the toe of one black leather half-boot, sat, and lit her pipe.

“Ten years ago,” he said, then stopped.

“Ten years ago,” the old woman said, “something happened.”

Darcy’s blood rushed from his face to his heart. His very hands felt numb. “How did you know?”

“All I know is that you have something you want to tell.”

“Why would I want to tell you anything?”

Moder Zglaria shrugged. “People do,” she said. “Don’t, if you’ve changed your mind. It isn’t as if I’m interested. You came to me.”

She started to rise.

“Wait,” said Darcy, almost touching her wrist to keep her. “Ten years ago….”

Moder Zglaria sat back down and leaned her elbows on the table. Darcy could see some of her hair, escaped from the turban. It was red – dark red, almost black.

“A terrible thing happened…,” Moder prompted.

“A terrible thing,” said Darcy. “Our child, Elsie, took a sudden fever. She convulsed. She died. She was only four.” Hot tears ran from Darcy’s eyes; he let them fall, scarcely noticing that he wept. He took no shuddering breaths and gave no sobs; all his effort went into his speaking. “I hardly knew her. …I was busy. I was only a District Roll-Keeper then, but I meant to do better for myself. I didn’t have time for the child; that was her mother’s job. That same night…. The same night she died….”

Moder Zglaria smoked in silence.

Darcy took a gulp of the well-cold water. “A man came to the house. One of the Kinninger’s Swords. He was hooded; his face was deep in shadow. ‘It’s time to make yourself useful, Darcy Aminta,’ was what he said. ‘Come prove your worth.’ The words you spoke to me outside, just now….”

Darcy raised his eyes from the table to Moder Zglaria’s face. Her gaze followed the curl of smoke from her pipe; she seemed unimpressed by the echo.

“So,” Darcy went on, after a heartbeat, “I saddled my horse and rode with him, out of town, toward the Inland Sea.”

“Leaving your wife….”

“Alone, with the corpse of our daughter, with the heat of the fever still in it.”

“You’ll go far under Landry Oliva,” said Moder. “You were made to serve the House of Sarpa.” She ignored his clenched fists and prompted him, “And then….”

“We rode till we came to a horse-drawn wagon, half-hidden by the side of the road.

“‘There’s cargo in the back,'” the Sword said. “‘Drive it to Lands End Point and throw it over. Keep the cart and horse. You’ll need them, when your transfer comes through. Your promotion, I should say. Kinninger Landry Oliva beren Ada forgets no one, neither friend nor enemy.’

“The man turned his horse and galloped away. I tied my horse to the rear of the wagon. I drove to the Point, above the Inland Sea. The light was dim, but I saw that the wagon was filled with wooden barrels; thirty-six in all.”

“You didn’t wonder what was in them?”

“Of course I did, but it was none of my business. I wouldn’t have been asked to dispose of them this way, in the middle of the night….”

“If there hadn’t been something wrong about it?”

“If my Kinninger hadn’t trusted my discretion,” Darcy said stiffly.

“Discretion,” the old woman muttered, and watched another curl of smoke.

Darcy watched it, too. When it had disappeared, he went on.

“I expected the barrels to be heavy, but they weren’t. They felt nearly empty. When I rapped them, they even sounded nearly empty. There was something in each of them, though; I could feel the weight shift as I rolled them out of the wagon and off the Point. They were old – still strong, but with pin holes and hairline cracks. They smelled…sweet and bitter at once, and some…of urine and…body soil.”

Darcy fell silent.

“You weren’t tempted to open one? What would make such a smell, do you think?”

Darcy was still. When he spoke, he said, “Finally, there were only two. The moon was still up, though it was low in the sky. The sun was just below the horizon, there was a mist rising from the sea, and the air glowed pearl gray. I tripped on my way back from the edge and fell, with my hand on a pointed stone.”

“Lucky you didn’t trip on the way,” said Moder Zglaria. “You might have gone over, yourself.”

“There was nothing to trip me on the way. A big tortoise had crawled into my path; that’s what I tripped on.”

The corners of Moder’s mouth turned up, her eyes narrowed, and she grunted what seemed to be a laugh.

“Why is that funny?” Darcy asked.

“To think how something so slow could be so troublesome,” she said. “Go on.”

Darcy took another drink of water. He would rather not go on. He would rather forget the rest. But the rest was what he had come to tell.

“I picked up the pointed stone and broke into one of the barrels.”

The cottage was silent, except for the crackle of the hearth-fire.

“He was dead,” said Darcy Aminta, staring across Moder’s room into the flames. “There was a bit of rag tied around his face. That was what I had smelled: something on the rag and his – what he couldn’t hold in. I untied the rag, but he was dead. He was blue.”

Darcy looked at the old woman, as if his pain made her eyes safe to meet. “He was only a baby. Less than a year, I’d say. Naked, and dead.”

“Strangled? Cut?”

“No, nothing. I think it was the rag that killed him. Something on it to make him sleep, I think, to keep him quiet until it was too late. So I wouldn’t hear him cry. So I’d throw him off the Point for them, and never know what I’d done.”

Moder Zglaria blew a mouthful of smoke toward the ceiling. “Him?” she said.

Darcy took more water. “Or them. There may have been a child in each of those containers. Thirty-six of them. And some of them may have been alive. I threw them into the sea.” He gasped as if he were about to sob, but mastered his breathing. “There may have been only the two, and the boy was dead when I found him.”

“Yes, there were two. Go on.”

“I was afraid of the other, but I opened it. There was a girl in it, huddled in a ball. She had torn the rag away, but she was deep in sleep. Naked, like the boy. Older.”

“About four? The age of your daughter?”

“…They were right about you.”

“Everybody’s right about something. Go on.”

“I left the boy’s body in the barrel. I took the girl out, and threw those last two containers over the Point. I wrapped the girl in my cloak and put her in the cart and took her home.”

“And gave her to your wife. She was delighted, of course. She forgot all about the dead child you’d left her to mourn alone, and blessed you for this one.”

Darcy didn’t bother to contradict such ponderous sarcasm.

“We buried our little Elsie in the garden, before the sun was well up. I never told Devona where I’d been, or where the child had come from. I only told her we had it in our power to save a life that had been lost, that we owed it to our Elsie. She agreed. We called the child Elsie beren Devona. We kept her ‘in quarantine’ until my promotion came through: I was promoted to Deputy Crown Roll-Keeper, transferred to Kudasad, with a house in the very shadow of the Kinninger’s castle.”

“That must have given you a nasty shock,” said the old woman.

“It was a shock,” he said. “At first, I didn’t see what was to be done. I almost told Devona – my wife – everything.”

“But you did not.”

“No.”

“Not surprising. A woman who would hide the death of her baby for the sake of another woman’s child, simply because it lived…. She’d think nothing of expecting a man to throw over a choice promotion to keep that child safe. No point in even asking her.”

Darcy scanned Moder’s face for a trace of understanding or scorn, but found only blandness wreathed in smoke.

“By the time we received notice to relocate,” said Darcy, warily, as a dog approaches a bone in the presence of a man with a stick, “I was clearer in my mind. I keep my own counsel, and make my own decisions.”

Moder only nodded.

“The child’s memories – which we told her were fever dreams – didn’t indicate contact with royalty. I decided she and… and the others… were the children of rebellious serfs or… disloyal….”

Not even Darcy could go on.

“In short,” said Moder Zglaria, “you decided the reward was worth the risk and took the transfer. The child could always be jettisoned if necessary. She’d be no worse off, in that case, than she would have been if you hadn’t opened the cask.”

“…True.” The word was barely audible, as if it had been dragged through Darcy’s lips by a power just barely stronger than his will to keep it back. This was his greatest torment. This was the blackest spot in his soul: that he had saved and raised and cosseted the child, all the while willing to sacrifice her to his own safety whenever that seemed necessary.

“And you’ve lived in the shadow of the castle for ten years,” Moder said at last. “The girl is fourteen, and marriageable, and within the Kinninger’s notice, and he’s done ten years of mourning – if you want to call it that – mourning the loss of Kinninger Karol beren Ada. He feels secure on the throne, now, and he’s ready to remarry.”

In defense of his liege, Darcy said, “Karol beren Ada is dead. She left no heirs.”

“You should know,” said Moder. “But you were saying –”

“What do you mean, I should know?” Darcy’s voice grew shrill.

“You’re the Crown Roll-Keeper. There should be thirty-six children missing from your books – or two, if it pleases you to think so. Were you too loyal to see what children had disappeared from the roll-books?”

“There were none.”

“Ah,” said Moder. “Go on.”

“His Grace does wish to remarry. He doesn’t want a Thane, or a Thane’s daughter –”

“Can’t say I blame him: He’s a Thane’s son, and he knows what came of Karol’s marrying him.”

“– and he doesn’t want to ally himself with a foreign throne –”

“Because this time he wants control of his wife and her offspring.”

“How can you say these things?” said Darcy Aminta. “How can you know these things?”

“I’m old,” said Moder Zglaria. “Not stupid. So Landry Oliva beren Ada looks to you to make yourself useful again.”

Darcy dropped his gaze. “He wants to marry Elsie.”

Moder lowered her pipe to the table between them. Smoke rose in curls and tendrils, blown like the mane of a running horse up and across the divide, from her hand to Darcy’s head. She said, “He wants to marry a girl he hired you to kill. The girl is probably the child of an enemy. She could even be an heir of his wife’s body. An heir of…?”

“Landry’s?” Darcy shook his head. This interchange – this impossible interchange – came to his ears as if from a distance. Neither he nor the old woman was actually, audibly suggesting that Landry Oliva had murdered the heirs to the throne. It wasn’t possible that such a thing had been done. It wasn’t possible he, himself, had connived in it, and it was utterly impossible to speak of it. Still, from that distance, he heard his voice say, “If Karol had a child-sire, it wasn’t Landry Oliva beren Ada. Those at the court during Karol’s time concur on that, in their gossip and in their insinuations.”

The old woman raised her pipe to her mouth and blew smoke toward the hearth. “So the Kinninger wants to marry your so-called daughter. And you object? Darcy Aminta, you surprise me.”

Darcy drew a deep breath and sighed it out. “She no longer remembers anything before she woke with us. As I said, we’ve always told her it was the fever, that sometimes people can’t remember afterwards, or they remember their fever dreams as if they were real.”

“A clever use of one tragedy to mask another. But, if she married the Kinninger….”

“She might hear something, or see something, or meet someone who would bring it all back. She might remember at last what happened before she lost consciousness.”

“And she might suffer?”

“She might tell.”

“Ah, well, there would go your promotion, I’m afraid.”

“How can you make light of this?”

“It isn’t my problem, you see. What does your wife think?”

“I haven’t asked her. She still knows nothing about that night, or where Elsie came from. She… hardly speaks to me anymore.”

“Has she a business? Or is being wife of His Grace’s Roll-Keeper enough for her?”

“She’s a scribe. A public scrivener. Copies documents, writes and reads letters for those who can’t, copies books, sometimes.”

“A clever woman. But she pays you no attention?”

“I didn’t say that. She pays me great attention. She wears these spectacles. She’s little, with brown hair and large brown eyes, and these spectacles, and she’s always watching, always listening. It’s like living with an owl.”

Moder rose and went to the hearth, knocked her pipe out into her hand, and threw the dottle into the fire. She packed her pipe with a fresh load of tobacco.

“Why did you come here, Darcy Aminta? What do you want?”

“I want you to help me. Stop the marriage, with no danger to me or my career.”

“Or your wife or your child?”

Darcy fluttered an impatient hand. “Yes, of course.”

“What makes you think I can help?” the old woman asked.

Darcy had no answer. “You can,” he said.

Moder Zglaria stuck the end of a straw twist into the fire and lit her pipe with it. “Let me think,” she said. She sat again, and smoked, while Darcy Aminta turned his tumbler in his hands.

“You wouldn’t consider throwing it all away – tell your wife everything, take your family and leave Layounna altogether?”

Darcy blinked slowly, at a momentary loss. “Of course not.”

Moder nodded.

“Do you have a garden?” she asked at last.

“Yes, several: a kitchen garden, a flower garden, and an herbal.”

Moder nodded again. “Are any of them walled?”

Puzzled, Darcy said, “They’re divided by low walls, yes; walls about as high as my chest. There’s a high wall around the manor – Why?”

“Privacy. Here’s what you must do: Pick a garden, any one will do. Go into it – the same one – just at sunset, every day for a week, and tell what you’ve just told me.”

“Tell it to Devona?”

“If you choose; that would be best, but tell it to the air, if you won’t tell her. – Do you keep bees?”

“…Yes. My wife does.”

“Then tell the bees. The bees will hear you. Listen to them hum. You’ll hear your answer in your heart.”

After a moment of silence, Darcy thrust himself out of his seat, kicked away his stool and threw his tumbler toward the fire. He missed, and it bounced back to roll at his feet.

“You fraud!” he shouted. “I came to you for help!”

“Uninvited,” said the old woman. “Do it or don’t, it’s up to you.”

“Folk tales! Children’s fancies!”

“What did you expect – magic? You should have gone to a Tarkastrian adept, if you wanted that.”

Darcy left without another word or backward look. Fuming, he waded across the causeway. Fuming, he claimed his horse from the District Roll-Keeper in Pazni, thundered south, and reached home about sundown two days later. He would have ridden through day and night, but thrift dictated he rest his only horse.

Both Devona and Elsie rushed out to meet him when he clattered into the manor court.

Elsie threw her arms around Darcy’s neck. “I’m glad you’re back. What did you bring me?”

Distracted, eyes on the low wall and the arch which led to the gardens, Darcy patted Elsie’s head.

“Nothing this trip, my pet.” Responding to the pout he didn’t have to see to know was there, he went on, “But you shall have a new ribbon, as long and fine as this will buy,” and drew a coin from the purse at his waist.

Elsie squealed and hugged him again, showed the coin to her mother, and ran into the manor.

“Dinner –” Devona began, but Darcy motioned the talk away.

“Begin without me, if it’s ready. I’ll be in…later.”

“I’ll see Jehan’s made comfortable.”

Darcy nodded. He felt Devona’s stare, felt it leave him as he heard Jehan’s weary hoofs strike the court’s paving.

Tell it out again. He had hardly been able to tell it once. Listen to the bees. What a stupid idea! A rustic notion his family had scorned and mocked, even in the provinces. Yet the gardens drew him.

The kitchen garden? No, cabbages and turnips were too common for Darcy’s trouble. The flowers? Prettiness was offensive, with such a story to relate. That left the herbs. The herbs; curative, wholesome, pungent…. That seemed right.

He threaded the paths and archways to the herbal garden. Then he sank to his knees on the gravel path, clenched his hands in his lap, averted his face, and talked. He told the tale straight through, with none of the interruptions and side-trackings that had so disturbed him when he’d told the old woman. Around him rose the odors of sage and rosemary, of the creeping thyme he’d crushed in kneeling. Around him, leaves and stems whispered against each other, stirred by a soft breeze. A bee buzzed over the daisy-like chamomile and a hummingbird hovered among the scarlet spikes of bergamot. Below the bushes, Elsie’s tortoiseshell cat stretched and purred. A blue-tailed lizard basked in the last rays of the sun. And Darcy talked.

When he was done, he listened. He could hear nothing – no sound of bees. He raised his eyes to the straw hives, ten of them in niches built into the back wall of the manor house. A straggler flew into one, another into another. Of course…they would be homing at sunset. He listened harder and heard – or thought he heard – the communal buzz of swarms gathering themselves in the darkness.

He felt light; lighter than he had for years. Perhaps this had been good advice, after all. Perhaps nothing could stop the marriage; still, with a clear head, perhaps he could see himself through.

He could hold to the “fever” explanation. Any memories the new “Elsie” might bring up were certain to be muddled; he would explain them away somehow. If Devona told the truth? She would not. She would stand by him. This recognition of her loyalty twinged his conscience.

In the night, he woke to doubt. He couldn’t sleep again; the next day, he couldn’t attend properly to his work. He stayed late in the bailey to catch up, and came home as the sun touched the horizon.

Elsie rushed out to show him what she had bought with his coin.

He hardly saw her, barely heard her. “Later,” he said, and went to the garden like a young man to a lover, to kneel among the plants and spicy odors.

The next day was better, but the fourth, when he was kept till sunset looking up information for Rhu beren Robia, Landry Oliva’s Chamberlain, he thought he would go mad. Whenever he was in Devona’s presence, Darcy felt her eyes on him, peering at him through her round spectacles as if the words he spoke in the garden lingered around him, as if they were a scent she could see and read.

On the eighth day, he received a notice summoning him to present his daughter, Elsie, to the castle. The date named was less than a week away.

Devona beren Valda took the note and double-checked the address. When the Kinninger had first broached the match to Darcy, Devona had sniffed and said, “When did it become proper to propose to a woman’s father, not to the woman or her mother?” Now, she said, “Directed to you, indeed. Our new Kinninger does things differently.”

“Careful, woman,” said Darcy. “The Kinninger may do as he pleases.”

“Yes, of course,” said Devona, and closed her mouth very tightly. Then she said, “I’ll be the one to tell her, at least. The Kinninger doesn’t dictate what’s proper in our private house, as yet.”

“Yes, all right.” Darcy felt once more out of his depth and short of control.

 

Suddenly, his pampered daughter was as removed from him as his wife had long been. Elsie, having been informed of the Kinninger’s intentions toward her, took to her room, and would see no one but her mother.

When he asked if the girl objected to the marriage, Devona said, “On the contrary. The honor overwhelms her. She’s eager to be off.”

On the morning Elsie was to be presented to His Grace, Darcy was kept waiting while Devona closeted herself with the girl. Below, in the sitting room, Darcy’s fatherly advice fermented within him until he was dizzy with it. At last Devona led the bride out of her chamber and down the stairs, just as the time came to leave.

Elsie was lovely. Her rippling amber hair was too coarse to stay neatly in a formal dressing, but a silver net held it scooped away from her long brown face. Her lips were unnaturally red; Devona must have stained them somehow. She wore a gown of black, covered with a tunic of white interwoven with silver, bound in at her waist with a sash of black silk.

“Black!” Darcy cried. “You’ve dressed the child in black! It isn’t a funeral she’s going to, it’s a bridal!”

“It’s her richest gown,” said Devona. “When did you ever see a funeral gown covered with a tunic of silver? When did anyone go to a funeral with a net of silver filigree on her hair? Besides, black suits her.”

Elsie beren Devona fluttered long eyelashes, making Darcy laugh.

“Well, so it does,” Darcy agreed.

Devona and Elsie embraced with nervous smiles. Devona pressed the girl’s hand.

“I wish you well,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Very soon,” said Elsie. She turned to Darcy. “Shall we go?”

A hired chair – open, so all of Kudasad could see the Chief Roll-Keeper taking his daughter to be the Kinninger’s bride – took them to the castle. On the way, Darcy held Elsie’s hand, which lay unresponsively in his, and uncorked the platitudes he’d bottled up all morning.

The palisade gate was down for the day, bridging the ditch around the castle grounds. Darcy and his “daughter” were carried across into the bailey. There they left the chair and were greeted by Rhu beren Robia, the Kinninger’s Chamberlain.

“Welcome, Elsie beren Devona.” He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, with high cheekbones and hollowed cheeks, as dark as Darcy was light, as taciturn as Darcy was eloquent. His crooked smile was obviously forced, on this supposedly festive occasion, and even Darcy noticed that he didn’t look straight at Elsie when he spoke to her. “Our castle will be sweetened by your presence in it.”

“Thank you, Rhu beren Robia,” said Elsie. “I hope so, although my presence will be brief.”

Rhu beren Robia cast a sharp look at Darcy.

“I thought it best not to tell her,” Darcy said.

“You did?” The Chamberlain’s smooth, rich voice sounded diplomatically bland, his face looked diplomatically blank.

Darcy felt his moustache tickle as a faint sweat broke out on his upper lip.

“Tell me what, Father?”

Rhu beren Robia answered. “First, let me say that the death of Karol beren Ada was a terrible blow to His Grace. If she had kept to the castle – been kept to it, if necessary, she might be alive today. If she had taken her Consort, Landry Oliva, for her child-sire – been made to take him, if need be, there would be an heir on the throne today.”

“So I may not return to my home after the bridal,” said Elsie. “I may not return to my home…ever?”

Darcy Aminta put an arm around the girl’s slender shoulders and squeezed a bit. “For a visit, someday, surely. When the throne is secured for His Grace’s line – and yours. You’ll have a House, too, my dear; as Kinninger’s Consort, you’ll surely be given a Household.”

He looked at the Chamberlain, hoping to hear that, in fact, he, Darcy, would be given the Household, with Elsie descending from it. No such promise came forth. No promise came forth at all. The Chamberlain’s face remained impassive.

“My mother was afraid of this,” said Elsie. “She said there was no other reason for the Kinninger to marry the child of a minor official.”

Darcy didn’t like that “minor,” still less the emphasis with which Elsie had said it.

“She was wrong, there,” said Rhu, looking at her directly for the first time. “Your beauty would be reason enough.”

Elsie smiled and fluttered her eyelashes at him.

“Shall we proceed?” said Darcy.

They walked up the steep incline of the earthen motte, through the lowered gate of the tower palisade, and up the stairs into the great hall of the tower itself.

There, they were met by the Chief Sword, Guthrie beren Melanell. Four of his men stood behind him; they were all dressed in black boots, hose, and tunics, shirts of polished mail and sword belts of black leather.

“Welcome, Elsie beren Devona,” said Guthrie. “My honor guard will escort you to your chamber.”

“Where is His Grace?” Darcy asked. “The bridal….”

“The woman will wait on His Grace’s convenience. You may go.”

“But –”

“His Grace’s orders. Leave her and go.” The Chief Sword turned to Elsie and motioned toward a door in the corner of the room. “Up those stairs. All the way.”

There was a sheen of moisture on Elsie’s face, but she kissed her father’s cheek and nodded to Rhu beren Robia. With the four armed Swords behind her, she passed through the door in the corner of the room and up the tightly spiraling staircase beyond.

Darcy wondered if he had seen the last of his foster daughter. He was surprised at the pang the thought caused him.

“You have His Grace’s thanks, Darcy Aminta beren Valda,” said Guthrie. “Your obedience will not go unrewarded.”

“No reward was thought of,” said Darcy. “And none is required.”

Rhu beren Robia’s lips twitched. “Your selflessness on His Grace’s behalf is inspiring,” he said.

A shout from the staircase stopped all talk. Five Swords – and no Elsie – burst into the hall.

One of them made himself heard above the babble: “She’s gone!”

“Gone!” said the Chief Sword. “Gone where?”

“Disappeared! Vanished, with a flash!”

“It’s true!” said another Sword, an older man with streaks of silver in his hair. “I was coming down the stairs as they were coming up. Just as the girl turned into my sight – flash!”

Rhu beren Robia turned to the castle steward, who stood near the door to the first-floor storeroom.

“Round up as many villeins as you can quickly,” he said. “Search this tower from turret to cellar. Let no Sword interfere with you.”

The Swords looked to their Chief, who nodded.

“This is none of my men’s doing,” he said. “This is some sorcery.”

The older Sword stepped forward. “Shall I search the girl’s home?” he asked.

“You are…?” asked Guthrie.

“Jehan beren Marcia,” said the Sword, with a slight lift to an eyebrow, as if to say, don’t you remember? “Promotion and transfer from the Southern district.”

“Ah, yes.”

“Shall I go, sir?”

The Chamberlain nodded.

“Good man,” said the Chief Sword. “Yes, go.”

The Sword left at a trot.

“This is impossible!” said Darcy, his voice rising to a shout. “They’ve killed her! My innocent child!” Then his mouth clamped shut.

For she wasn’t his innocent child. What did he know of her, after all, but that His Grace had wanted her dead? Perhaps those hadn’t been children he’d thrown into the sea but Creatures of Power. Perhaps he hadn’t murdered….

Darcy breathed thanks he had shared his secret with no one. No one but the old woman of Fiddlewood.

A honey bee buzzed through the hall, circled Darcy’s head, and flew away to the north.

The Fall Of Onagros

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SAGE, Book 1 – The Fall of Onagros – Prologue and Chapter 1 — No Comments

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