A Necklace of Millstones
Durand Col peered up into the vault of Heaven. At long last, the weather had broken, and now was his chance to escape.
His heart jumping, Durand plunged into the gloom of the old stable. His gelding stood with mud to its belly but still looked fit to travel. He would talk to Coensar. He would bid the others goodbye. And he would go. Beyond the narrow yard of Burrstone Walls, the roads were drying. With a little luck, he could put Deorwen and Lamoric and the whole mess behind him.
He turned back to the castle yard just as the Heavens opened and the rain thundered down.
“Hells,” he said.
Luck and the weather were not on his side, and so this would be another day to avoid Deorwen, and another hour to keep from Lord Lamoric’s hall. He had a winter’s practice at both.
As he stared into the drenching sky, a voice startled him, close and croaking out, “Durand Col, it is the day and hour of the Accounting….”
It might have been the voice of Doom, but it was only Father Odwy, the manor priest. The dour old man scowled up at Durand, rain streaming from a beard long enough to tuck in his belt. He was already turning before Durand could make an excuse. The old devil loved his rituals.
“Father, I am sure that one knight more or less will make no–”
A piping whistle escaped the man’s nose — or ears — and he set a pair of prodigious fists on his hips. “You are the one called ‘Durand,’ yes? You are part of His Lordship’s household. A knight, I’m told. And every man of the lord’s household must attend before we may begin. It is the Custom. Every man if he must be carted or carried. You’re meant to have been at supper. We’ve already prayed the Sunset. You, sir, are wanted in the bloody hall.”
As the fearsome priest spun on his heel, Durand shot a glance toward the castle gates. He could make out a glimpse of light from beyond the walls — and the guard pacing across it.
Burrstone Walls made a man feel small. The locals said there were giants at the founding of the ancient pile: chill kings who slipped off into the Halls of Silence in the days before the High Kings came east. It certainly had the look of a giant’s tomb. Whoever built the place had hollowed a stone hill by the river, and now the gutted heart of the old hill was the castle’s long courtyard — more a quarryman’s pit than a yard. Where Durand stood at the bottom of it all, he might have been a worm on the floor of a stone coffin, squinting up through a crack in the lid.
He had spent the winter Moons sleeping on damp rushes in the manor buildings that huddled at the bottom of this stone tomb: the seat of Sir Lamoric, Lord of Burrstone Walls.
Shaking his head, Durand followed the priest.
The feasting hall of Burrstone Walls was a dank cavern of a place. As Durand stepped in, the assembled household turned his way: This is what had become of the glamorous knights of last autumn’s Red Knight game. Towering Sir Ouen, built like a carthorse with his gilded leer and haystack beard. Stalwart Guthred the shield-bearer, scowling round the thick knuckle of his prodigious nose. One-eyed Sir Berchard, bald and bearded as an innkeeper with tales of a hundred battles. Sneering Badan, a balding wolf in knight’s breeches. And Coensar, Durand’s captain — like a father since Durand left home. These were men who had saved a kingdom and caught a rebel in his own trap. All sitting like owls in this dripping barn of a hall, waiting on Father Odwy’s Accounting.
At the head of the hall, Lord Lamoric fidgeted and Coensar raised an amused eyebrow at Durand’s entrance.
At least, Durand thought, Lady Deorwen was not there.
Odwy had hauled tables into a horseshoe with Lamoric trapped in the lord’s seat at the top and himself standing in the middle of it all. Durand slid onto the heel of one bench by one-eyed Berchard. “Still here, are you?” said the grizzled knight. “Ain’t seen you sit down to supper in a fortnight. You–”
Father Odwy twisted and managed a hard look that clapped the old knight’s jaw shut as surely as a good slap. Again the priest’s nose was whistling. “It is time,” he said, smearing the rain from his face with broad fingers. “The men of the household are gathered. The bailiff and reeves have been feasted, meat and wine.” He turned to three squat men at the opposite table. All three grunted a nod.
For a few moments then, there was silence — and dripping. As the silence stretched, the priest raked his sheep-yellow beard, and, finally, raising a tufted eyebrow at Lamoric.
“Father, don’t wag your bristles at me. I’ve been pacing this old barn since the Paling Moon, and from the first moment–” But Lamoric stopped himself, taking a breath.
“It’s my turn, is it?” he said.
“Lordship,” croaked the priest.
Lamoric covered his face. “How does it run? What am I to say?”
“By the Silent King of far Heaven…” the priest began.
Lamoric raised his hand, and turned to the three villagers. “By the Silent King of Far Heaven, by his Queen, by the Warders at the Bright Gates, by the Champion, by His lance, by the chains of the Chainbreaker, by the Maiden of the Spring this Lambing Moon, reeves and bailiff, you must swear to speak no falsehood.”
The priest nodded, turning to the first of the villagers. “Odred the Miller, bailiff to His Lordship’s manor of Burrstone Walls?”
“Aye,” the man grunted. “I swear.”
“Odric, dock master, reeve of Burrstone Landing?”
“Aye, Father. Lordship,” said the next. “I swear it.”
“Odmund, formerly quarryman, now reeve of Burrstone Pits?”
“As you say,” said the last. “I swear.”
“Odred, Odric, and Odmund, Father?” asked Lamoric.
The priest let Lamoric’s question pass and pressed on. They kissed a massive Book of Moons to seal their oaths, planting their lips on a patch of the heavy cover burnished to a high shine by a thousand Accountings.
And the muttered account began.
It was the Lambing Moon, the eve of First Waning, and so the reeves and the bailiff numbered the spindly additions to Lamoric’s flock and enumerated those that had frozen; they announced that a very few calves were expected; they reported that the winter crop in all fields “twixt Pit and the Burrstone Coppice” had flooded, frozen hard, and would need plowing under for reseeding. It went on.
Durand kneaded his face. All winter, Lamoric had been pacing Burrstone Walls like a dog in a kennel. He was trapped and smothered in the backwater fief. They all were.
The year before, the young lord had planned to show the great ones of the kingdom that he was more than the spoiled second son of the Duke of Gireth. Fighting as the nameless “Red Knight,” he’d led his picked band of men from tilt to tilt until they were fighting before the king at the cliffs of Tern Gyre. But, at Tern Gyre, there was more at stake than one man’s reputation. In the end, Lamoric and Durand and the others managed to scotch a rebellion. The king kept his crown and the rebel duke — Radomor of Yrlac — was left to slink home looking like a fool.
The whole adventure ought to have made their fortunes, but times were hard for kings in Errest and Lamoric had only kept the Burrstones through weighty loans from his elder brother in Acconel. And with grim winters like these, a hundred years must pass before Lamoric could repay the debt for a hundred years.
The game was over. A pauper lord could not keep a troop of knights. The men must spring from him like fleas from a dead hound.
“And last night,” mumbled Odred Miller, bailiff to Burrstone Walls, “Odwin’s lad Gil saw the frogspawn in the quarry at Burrstone Pit.
Lamoric twisted in his chair. “Frogspawn?”
Odred Miller grunted affirmation.
Lamoric turned to the priest. “Why in Heaven’s name would this man — Odmund Miller? — report the carnal activities of these creatures to me?” They had ridden to Tern Gyre. They had fought the Duke of Yrlac and saved the Evenstar Crown for the king anointed by the patriarchs. “Are we keeping a flock of amphibians for–”
“Frogspawn is the customary sign, Lordship. In the pit. Frogspawn being seen, the villagers will make the teams ready for the Plough Chase. The children climb down to look for it. This year, the Chase comes later than most, but tomorrow Walls, Pits, and Landing will set their best teams against each other to–”
“And this is Miller Odred. Miller Odmund died in my father’s day, buried with his quern and apron in the last years of old King Carondas.”
Lamoric mashed his hands over his eyes. “A man to be envied, that Odmund Miller.” The reeves and bailiff exchanged glances: a slow matter involving much blinking of dark eyes.
The list went on. “The damp spoiled the seed rye in Burrstone Walls, the great quarry at Burrstone Pits has flooded to one fathom’s depth at the place of deepest delving,” said one reeve.
“I find that I cannot breathe some days,” said Lamoric. “We dined with princes and patriarchs. It is like the bottom of a well.”
But the Burrstone men did not hear him. They pressed on with ploughshares bought, dung carted, millstones to be cut, iron bought for mallets and chisels, and willows felled.
“I find that I cannot breathe some days,” Lamoric said. “We dined with princes and patriarchs. It is like the bottom of the well.”
The list went on. “The damp spoiled the seed rye in Burrstone Walls, the great quarry at Burrstone Pits has flooded to one fathom’s depth at the place of deepest delving,” said one reeve.
Old Berchard raised his good eyebrow. “I’d talk to those frogs of yours if I were you.” But no barb could check the Burrstone men who pressed on with ploughshares bought, dung carted, millstones to be cut, iron bought for mallets and chisels, and willows felled.
“And,” said Odwy, “there is the matter of the King’s Writ, just arrived today.”
Lamoric shot upright. “You’ve had a king’s writ waiting on bloody frogspawn?”
Just then something creaked on the landing high over Lamoric’s shoulder. Durand glanced and felt his heart stumble, for Deorwen had stepped from her chambers and stood now above the hall: Deorwen with her dark eyes, her petal lips. Pale as an idol above its shrine, she stood. All thought of king’s writs flew from Durand’s mind as he spun in the flicker of her glance.
Her hair — the gleaming red weight of it — was smothered in a married woman’s veil. And Durand knew that he was mad, for who but a madman would linger so near his master’s wife and hope to be loyal? Every glimpse of her was treason. He could not breathe.
When Durand managed to look away, he found Berchard and Ouen peering at him, gauging his mood for signs of past troubles returning.
“The Writ of the Beacons,” the priest was saying. He fumbled among scrolls and catch-pots, finding a scroll. “Here,” he said. A red gobbet of sealing wax spun on a bit of ribbon.
Deorwen was about to slip back through the chamber door, vanishing.
“By the Lord of Dooms, man, what are you waiting for?” Lamoric followed the priest’s glance to his wife. “Deorwen!”
She stopped. “I thought I’d–”
“You’re better are you?” She must have come up with some excuse to avoid the feast. “Well come and hear! It seems the king knows where we are, after all. The good father is just telling us what orders have come from the palace. And then, Heaven willing, we will learn more about the matter of the frogspawn.”
Reluctantly, Deorwen descended into the hall, while Durand kept his eyes from the twitch of her skirts.
“Ladyship,” said the priest, bobbing.
“Go on, father. Let’s hear it,” said Lamoric.
The priest scratched, and then read. “‘To celebrate the anniversary of his coronation, Ragnal, King of Errest, Bearer of the Evenstar Crown, Heir of the Hazelwood Throne, commands that every beacon from the Blackroot Mountains to the Westering Sea, from the Winter Sea to the Bourne of Jade be lit so that this good news can march from the Mount of Eagles in Eldinor to every corner of the realm, every prominence crowned with fire, the whole kingdom shining like the stars in the Vault of Heaven.'”
Deorwen took up her place at her husband’s side, a red wisp curled against the pale skin of her neck.
And Durand shut his eyes. With better weather, he would have been on the road and gone by now. A stronger man might have dared mud and cold nights.
“Father,” said Lamoric straightening, “what do those in the Mount of Eagles wish from us here in the damp of Burrstone Walls?”
“Every beacon in the kingdom must be put in order for First Sight of the Sowing Moon.”
Lamoric dropped into his seat. “Beacon?”
“Should Errest be attacked, a message of fire can stride the high places of the kingdom from the Mount of Eagles to every corner of the realm.”
“And so Burrstones is counted among the high places of the kingdom. I confess surprise.”
“White Osbald is Watcher of the Beacon Tower,” said the priest.
“The pale fellow with the pink eyes? I’d no idea Burrstone even had a beacon.”
“Ten generations have passed since the last invader threatened.” The priest scratched his beard with another faint whistle. “It may need seeing to.”
Durand opened his eyes — and found Deorwen looking back at him. Her eyes trembled, brown and shadowed.
“I’ll go,” said Durand.
Curious faces turned his direction.
“I’ll see how this beacon looks.”
As he made to step from the hall, conscious of what a fool he looked, a crash echoed in the courtyard: a sound full of iron rings and the clatter of an axe handle. Down the long yard, he saw the castle’s gatekeeper land on his armored shoulders. Someone was coming.
Durand closed a hand on his sword’s grip, and — along with every armed man in the hall — braced himself.
“And,” conceded the priest, “there is a messenger.”
“Lord of Dooms…” Lamoric said. A blade in his hand, he looked to tall Coensar, his captain.
The priest said, “We could not delay the Accounting any further just because some errand boy–”
“Are you mad, priest? You’ve left him out in this rain? Who is it?”
“He has had the gatehouse for shelter. But there was no time to ask his name. The Accounting was already–”
A tall figure stalked toward them down the courtyard.More…
The Eagle Summons
Lamoric tumbled from his seat while Durand planted himself in the doorway; the stranger could swat village gatekeepers aside, but Durand planned to be a little more stubborn.
The towering man stepped over the threshold, the sopping weight of cloak and hood outlining a broad, straight frame. A big, black gauntlet pulled his hood aside. And the man gave his head an absent scrub that set gray hair standing like a fallow crop.
Over Durand’s shoulder, Lamoric gasped. “Geridon?”
Gray eyes glinted like ice above a wry smile. “Lordship.” He gave a nod to Lamoric’s captain. “Sir Coensar. Beg pardon for any hurt I’ve caused your man at the gate, but I’d had enough of waiting.”
Before them stood Sir Geridon, Champion of Gireth: a man who had laid out some of the best men in the Atthias. Durand had seen him a thousand times in the hall at Acconel. The man had spent a generation keeping drunkards and hotheads in line in the old duke’s hall.
Durand stepped aside as Geridon lowered himself to one knee, a grimace flickering.
“What does father want of me, Sir Geridon?” Lamoric asked.
“Lordship, it’s your brother I’m speaking for.”
“Landast.” Lamoric blinked. “Yes. I suppose that is always more likely. I hope he does not expect repayment of his loans to me.” He glanced to Coensar. “If the reports of these Burrstone men are any guide, we shall both be old men before I can free myself of his kindness.”
Geridon frowned briefly. “No, Lordship. Your brother’s spoken of none of this in my hearing. Keeping it quiet, is my guess. It’s other business I’m on. The king’s asked that your father and all the Great Council ride up to Eldinor to feast his anniversary. It’s been five years since he was crowned. Did the writ find you here? Burrstone Walls is on the Beacon Roll….” He saw the paper dangling in Odwy’s hand. “His Highness asks that, in honor of the day, these great men come, either in person, or through someone who represents their blood, to renew their homage oaths, and ‘reaffirm’ that our Ragnal is king in Errest and liege lord of them all.”
“And my father is not fit to travel to Eldinor?”
“Not no more, really. And your brother’s picked up where the old man left off, running this and that. All of these responsibilities? He reckons he cannot leave them unattended.”
As the facts took shape in Lamoric’s mind, the tendons stood in his neck. “Let me see if I have you, Sir Geridon. Brother says that I must — must mind you — travel to Eldinor to stand before King Ragnal and his entire court?”
A crooked grin spread on Lamoric’s face.
“He’s asking, Lordship,” said Geridon.
Father Odwy had both fists in his beard, and looked ready to do himself some injury. “Lordship. The Accounting. We must finish.”
“Aye, best get on with it,” said Geridon, standing. “I return to Acconel with your answer.” He pulled a scroll from his surcoat. “You’ll find here some words for the king and council, Your Lordship. From your father.”
Lamoric nodded. “We must be quick,” he reasoned. “A boat is the only way, so a small party. No horses. I tell you this will make us once more! The heroes of Tern Gyre: Coensar, Ouen, Sir Durand.” An involuntary gasp escaped Deorwen’s lips. Lamoric caught her arm, giving it a shake. “And His Highness will meet my wife as well. We sail for Eldinor tomorrow after First Twilight!”
Durand found the mirror of his own horror in Deorwen’s face. The Burrstones would seem like oceans and continents compared to a tiny boat. They would be side by side for weeks.
As Durand stared up at Deorwen, he found that Geridon had ducked close by his ear. “Don’t think I didn’t see you there, boy. I heard what happened last year with that land your father meant for you. Still, maybe this jaunt’ll sort something out for you, eh?” He winked and tugged his sopping hood back in place. “Don’t like to be away. It’s dark times. Keep your eyes wide, and stick by old Coensar. He’s been fighting ages. Knows what he’s about.”More…
Signs Before Sailing
Durand climbed a greasy stair into a tower some long-dead lord of the Burrstones had cobbled onto the giants’ old walls. The best way into the old beacon tower was a half-hidden door near Lamoric’s own chamber, far easier to reach from inside than out.
The old tower was black as a barrel, and Durand could only grope his way upward, climbing like a child while a stream of rainwater made a cataract of the stairs.
Around one turning, he found a landing and a crumbling door. A glance through the solitary arrow slit showed him the courtyard a dozen fathoms below the rickety tower. Servants darted through the rain, brown as mice. If a man stoppered the gatehouse, it looked as though the great courtyard would fill like a horse trough — a good place for drowning.
Durand shook his head. It had been a long winter. Their glamorous brawling under the Blood Moon had left Lamoric a lord of pits and hovels, destitute but for his brother’s charity. All winter, the young lord had walked the halls of Burrstone Walls unable to sit or sleep, Deorwen looking half-mad. His coffers were empty, his knights must leave him, hope was gone, and the rain and snow had kept the whole lot of them mewed up in a few damp rooms with men like Odwy and the Custom of the manor.
Durand thought back to the night when he first set out on his own, and the promises that had been to him. He’d heard rapping in the dark, and, in a well in the midst of the castle yard, he’d found one of the Powers of Heaven waiting for him: the Traveler. A giant in rags with silver-penny eyes and a forked staff that shook the world. As Durand left his father’s hall, that Power had foreseen love, glory, and a place in the world for him. The winter had got him wondering.
Durand shoved the crumbling little door wide —
— And got a face full of furious, smothering confusion.
Dark shapes beat his head and warding arms. Hard hooks and needles shot past him and gushed from the arrow loop behind. He pitched on his shoulder, half-falling from the landing – countless birds stormed between the battlements of Burrstone Walls. Starlings.
And he was left, sitting on the stairs as feathers fluttered down around him like snow.
“Hells,” he snarled. It seemed that the tower was a coop for every starling for ten leagues and they’d all been inside to wait out the rain. Durand pushed his way into a white-crusted room whose every crevice was chinked with straw and feathers, and followed a caked ladder to a trap door among the ceiling beams.
In the rainy gloom above, dim trees bristled for acres beyond the walls. He had just made out the dark silence of the Maidensbier flowing below when something far too near shrieked to life.
Durand tottered on the edge of the trapdoor, fighting his blade into the darkness. Right by the door, a man of some sort screamed like mad, all white forearms, knees, and elbows. It was all Durand could do to stop himself falling down another set of stairs.
“Host of Hell!” Durand snarled. But it seemed that Durand’s words — and the hulking shape of Durand atop the dark tower — were too much for the cowering creature. The pale man scrambled for the battlements, looking as if he meant to throw himself over the brink.
“What are you doing?” said Durand.
“I’m Osbald. I’m Watcher!”
It took him a moment to remember. “Aye. Osbald. Right.” He held out a calming hand — in part to catch his balance.
“You aren’t to come up here,” said White Osbald.
“Too late for that.” Durand scrubbed his neck. “How do you get past the bloody birds?”
White Osbald grimaced in extreme discomfort. “I’m Watcher.”
“You don’t go down?”
“Right. Daft of me to forget.” He spread his hands and sat on the floor while his heart’s wild pounding slowed. “You think you could leave me for a while? I’m to check the beacon. Have you got firewood?”
Beyond the trap door, the rooftop was empty except for a massive iron fire basket. The pale man had half-curled himself round one of its iron legs. From the position, the Watcher pointed up at fagots so rotten they looked like rolls of shaggy, gray carpet. This was the firewood.
“Right, Osbald. Why don’t you go down and see if you can find us some dry wood? I’ll bet that’s meant to be a storeroom downstairs. We’ll get some dry stuff up here, and it’ll be right as rain.”
Osbald had uncoiled a degree or two here and there.
“Go on,” Durand said. “Firewood. This here’s older than the Cradle. And we haven’t got much of a beacon without a fire. The King says we’re to light it.”
“And this old stuff won’t burn.”
White Osbald bobbed his head and, with a last, wary glance at Durand, swarmed down the ladder.
Durand hauled another deep breath, looking out over the Maidensbier. A stick of the firewood in Osbald’s fire basket — when examined — turned out to be little more than slime and scabs.
“I should never have set foot in the Burrstone,” he muttered. After Tern Gyre, he should have put a hundred leagues between himself and Lord Lamoric’s wife. Instead, he filled the dark days riding the hog-wallow tracks around the manor, keeping himself from the temptation of stray glances and chance touches in the narrow passages of Burrstone Walls. A stronger man would have said farewell to Lamoric and Deorwen and the rest back at Tern Gyre and never set foot in the Burrstones. Instead, he would now be trapped in a boat with them all and nowhere to hide.
“Damn me for a fool.” He’d thought of talking with Coensar. A man like the captain would have found somewhere to sell his sword as soon as the roads were dry; he’d been fighting in the tourneys of Errest since most knights were boys, and a man felt better riding with a man he could trust.
Now, though, it was too late for any of that, and he had to wonder if he’d ever really meant to go, if he’d planned to stay here by Deorwen forever, pining like some love struck fool till the dripping Burrstones rotted him away.
White Osbald appeared in the hatchway, his pasty face twitching with the effort of hauling a bushel basket of firewood through the trapdoor. Durand took the basket. “Here. For Heaven’s sake.”
The beacon’s fire-basket would take another five loads. Osbald’s hands, wide as baker’s paddles, were already shaking.
“We’ll get the next ones together, eh? We’ll need you in shape to light the thing when the time comes, right?”
When they had finished lugging their baskets to the tower, the hour was late. Durand ordered White Osbald down to warm himself by the fires: he had had some of the kitchen boys start some tallow melting. A little fresh grease would make sure the old wood lit. They would lug it up and get some sleep.
Tonight, he was hauling wood and melting grease. Tomorrow, they were heading for the heart of Errest the Old. He pictured King Ragnal, a caged lion of a man, in robes as heavy with gold and jewels as a patriarch’s Book of Moons. He remembered the hop and cackle of his functionary train. He remembered the Lady of Hesperand appearing like a Power to set the Great Council right. He remembered the fury of Radomor, the Hero of Hallow Down and usurper Duke of Yrlac.
There might still be gratitude in Eldinor if they searched for it. The winter’s snows had fallen before Lamoric’s men could catch the king and bow before his benevolence. There might be lands and titles waiting. But he wondered: they had handed Radomor a defeat, but he was not dead — and neither were those two black-robed Rooks of his.
Durand eyed the deepening gloom. River, bare trees, and naked fields crumbled like a landscape of cinders under the drizzle. Somewhere in the wet Heavens, thunder rumbled. He pulled his cloak tighter. He had only small problems: one fool and one heart. Under the Blood Moon, half the king’s Great Council had cast their votes for Radomor of Yrlac — the kingdom’s troubles might be large.
In the trapdoor, something shuffled. Durand glanced, but White Oswald hadn’t poked his head up.
Durand wondered what the king meant to prove with this little party and its hilltop candles. It seemed an empty sort of gesture.
Now, light rose from the starling chamber. Durand would have to get poor Oswald started down there with a broom: a task that might take the Lambing Moon and the Sowing Moon beyond it.
The light moved, and, all at once, Durand pictured White Oswald — with a candle and a sloshing kettle of running grease with all the clutter in that room. The mooncalf would burn the tower. Durand shoved his head into the trap.
And found himself staring down upon a slender young woman.
The woman had a candle in her hand, but the flame burned in slow tendrils that clung and swirled as she moved. The light it shed was the murky glow of a pond’s depths. Shadows lapped. At the touch of it, Durand’s nose and mouth were stopped with a stench of stagnant weeds.
And the room around her — in the wavering green light — was not the crusted old storeroom. Neat stacks of wood shivered in alcoves where the green shafts touched. Someone had brought a rumpled pallet: the padded canvas rippled in the undulating shadow. There was a wine pot.
He could not breathe. He might as well have had his head in the river.
He must have made some sound then, for the maiden turned, her hair rippling like a slow streamer in the green light. Her neck was pale as a fish’s flesh. He saw the shape of her jaw. But, before her eyes could fall upon him, Durand flinched from the trapdoor.
There was no air in the green light of the maiden’s candle. And, Durand was glad he had not seen her eyes.
It took only instants for him to realize that he was not safe, even on the rooftop. The green shafts of Otherworldly light swelled between the floorboards. Heaven was a black well above him as the light reached higher and higher. In his mind’s eye, the strange woman mounted the ladder and rose in the hatchway. But then the light ebbed away, leaving him in the darkness.
For a moment, he breathed in relief, then he remembered where the stairway went: to his master’s chamber. To Deorwen’s door. There was only one stairway down.
Mastering himself, Durand dropped into what was now, once again, an empty storeroom. Bird-shit crunched under his soles, its acid stink in his nostrils. But the greenish light still brimmed in the stairwell. And Deorwen was down below — and Lamoric and others — all a whisper from that tower door. He followed, finding the stairwell air thick with cool reeds and slime.
He chased a long tendril of the woman’s hair as it slithered upon the green air and vanished into the passage before Deorwen’s door. The woman’s tresses rippled before him, alive. And the her handed rested on the black face of Deorwen’s door. Durand could neither move nor breathe. The pale dome of the maiden’s forehead dropped against the wood, her eyes closed and streaming tears.
Durand had no power to change a gesture.
But the maiden seemed to master herself. She turned from the door.
Durand shrank away, gulping air in the clammy dark of the stairs. If she returned to the stairwell, the Hells would have him in a heartbeat.
But it seemed that she pressed on elsewhere, for the light in the chamber passage ebbed away.
Durand followed it onto the landing high above the feasting hall. His mouth opened, and he nearly dropped his blade. The feasting hall of Burrstone Walls brimmed with visions. Long shields and rippling tapestries hung over the bare walls he knew. Familiar men lay on strange floors; wolfhounds curled where catch-pots had stood. Spears leaned in bundles, and Durand knew it all for the dreams or memories of the spectral woman who drifted through. Her candle was the only light.
Durand saw her falter at the distant end of the hall, her eerie candle held high at the courtyard door. And he stole after her as she stepped into the courtyard and out through the gates of Burrstone Walls. He had to know where she was going.
Soon, he was following the flickering image down through the slabs and sagging earth of the Burrstones until the river moved in the dark. Durand made out a new light between stones and willows to match the candle in the woman’s hand: a slender craft along the bank.
Durand opened his mouth. He knew this scene. He knew the boat: a pale thing that might have been carved by a harp-maker. He had dreamt it under the Blood Moon.
Before him, the maiden caught hold of a willow, a wobble in the candle’s flame sending ripples high into the bare tendrils of the willow branches. They might all have been on the floor of the Silvermere.
The woman stepped into the slim craft and sagged back. Her black curls tumbled into the water.
Durand knew the tale. On the Maidensbier — then known by some forgotten name — an ancient duke’s young wife, her secret love witnessed by one of the duke’s loyal men. The young bride who drank foxglove and set herself adrift upon the river.
She settled, the candle balanced on her chest. One long sleeve dangled in the water. He heard a sigh: the only sound in a mute Creation. He saw her fingers open, and knew, even as the night breezes tugged the craft into the current, that it was finished.
It was just as he had seen it when Radomor or his Rooks had set Lamoric’s sister adrift — sending another adulteress to pass her family’s city in parody of this night.
Boat and bride drifted downstream, light as a curl of dry leaf. Durand shook his head.
Something moved behind him.
On the stony bank all around, people had gathered: villagers by the dozen wrapped in hairy blankets. Most were women: mothers and daughters. To his astonishment, Deorwen stood closest of all. She wore only a linen shift, the touch of night breezes pressing the pale fabric close.
“What are you doing here?” Durand managed.
“You see her so clearly,” said Deorwen. “This was Vigand’s hall. The Duke went off to attend old King Saerdan. He left his bride with one of his men: Baron Vigand. They’d been close. They were meant to have won half of Gireth together. It all happened here. They say Duke Gunderic’s ship pulled into the Handglass in time to see her pass — he among all his men, she laid out as if in a coffin.”
Durand looked past Deorwen into the shadowed faces of a half a village: squat and stolid women to match men like Odwy and Odmund. Deorwen glowed like a lily among the nettles. The darkness was closing thick around them.
“They see the old duke’s bride whenever there is danger for Gireth — And she’s come to our door every night since the Wandering Moon in deep winter. There is little to do but watch. Lamoric won’t listen, but neither can he sleep.” He closed her mouth a moment. “Most do not see what is right before them.”
“What was her name?” Durand asked.
“Aralind, she was called,” she said, wavering where she stood. The winter had been hard.
Durand nodded. “Aralind.” The village women were looking one to another.
“I must get back,” Durand managed.
Deorwen looked down.More…More…
The Bittern and the Bier
When Lamoric tramped from the gates of Burrstone Walls, the sopping earth was frozen. His knot of household knights yawned and stumbled after him, frost crunching under their boots. In Lamoric’s haste, Poor Odwy had been made to pray First Twilight before he had seen even a trace of light in the mist. Every blade and twig bristled with needles of ice.
“I love a misty morning,” said Lamoric in a puff of fog. “It’s like Creation’s ours: a toy in our hands. We could be on islands with the rest of old Errest fallen away.”
Bald Badan bared what teeth he had left, silently snarling from within a hairy twist of blanket. He looked like the wolf who had swallowed the old woman in the bedtime story.
Berchard winced with his good eye. “You’ll have to tell us when morning comes so we don’t miss it, eh? Did you sleep?”
Lamoric twitched a smile.
“Did you sleep at all?” Berchard pressed. Coensar’s glance was like a glimpse of blade. None of them were too pleased about Lamoric’s mad rush.
“Lads,” said Lamoric, “this summons couldn’t have come at a better time. When this moon’s waned, the fighting season will be upon us. And you’d have scattered to the four winds, don’t deny it. We’ve got a windfall. It doesn’t pay to complain.”
Big Ouen reached round himself to scrub at fleabites between his shoulder blades, both hands meeting in the middle of his back. He had arms like an ape. The man’s gold teeth glinted. “There’s been little enough that pays lately.”
“We’ll be led before the Hazelwood Throne,” said Lamoric. “I’ll kneel and place my hands between Ragnal’s. There will be a feast. People will remember you. Ouen, Badan, Coensar, Durand. I hope you’ve all got decent surcoats.”
The tottering procession wound its way from the cliff-top of Burrstone Walls to the hovels of Burrstone Landing. The livestock was still indoors, but they passed millstones. Of the thousands cut from the old pits, some slender fraction had fetched up along the roads each year, broken. Now, wheels like moldy cheese were heaped by the hundred. Some were cracked, some split, others were lost under carpets of moss and sod. This was Burrstone.
“The blame for delay will not be laid at my feet. We must have a good look at this boat. This Bittern. Odric? Odmund? He’s told us she’s ready. And the river’s free of ice.”
A few of the men passed an uneasy glace between them. Lamoric seemed more frayed than usual.
Though there were stragglers all the way up the track to Burrstone Walls, Lamoric had reached the pier. A good-sized boat waited there, white and blue on a perfect mirror of still water. Durand guessed it might be forty feet from its high curling stem to the matching stern. The cliffs of Burrstone walls cut a smooth backwater from the Maidensbier, though both cliffs and stronghold were little more than a dark suggestion in the clouds as they reached the pier.
Lamoric strode out, rings shivering across the water from the dock pilings.
“You all know how hard we worked last summer. You know what it cost us. We saved a king of the Atthias.” The men were nodding warily: everyone from steely Coensar to Badan the wolf. A gangplank bridged the gap to the Bittern’s gunnel. Lamoric stepped out. “And now we have a message to put in his own hands.”
He made to step into the boat.
And a storm of birds exploded.
An impossible flock of starlings roared from the hollow belly of the Bittern, filling the sky with wings and shrill cries. Lamoric lurched on the narrow gangplank, and then he was falling into the frigid water.
Like one man, Durand and Coensar sprang onto the pier, reaching into the spray. Panes of ice clattered and smashed. Durand caught a flailing wrist, and with a few firm jerks, he and the captain had their shuddering lord free.
“She’ll be lighter without the passengers,” Lamoric spluttered. He hauled himself up, taking full advantage of hands and shoulders. There was a look in his eye, wary as a wild animal.
“Coen,” said Lamoric, “get things started while I sort out this bloody mess. Find the ship’s master and make sure he’s got oarsmen. The bailiff’s meant to have got us provisions, the Host alone knows what he thinks that means. Frogs, maybe.” Durand tried to swing his cloak around the man’s shoulders. Lamoric scoffed. “Keep it. One of us deserves a dry cloak.”
They turned to find ranks of villagers frozen. Scores and scores of men and women stood with their hands in the fist and spread fingers sign of Heaven’s Eye. They had seen omen heaped on omen. Lamoric stalked through them, giving them a showman’s wave.
Durand watched him go, wondering what was in their master’s mind.
As Durand and the others fetched their gear, the village women set to smuggling iron charms aboard and wordlessly painting grease down the long curve of the stempost. Dockhands swung provisions into the belly of the Bittern.
A Burrstone man with a cap of sweat-burnished sheepskin knotted under his beard played overseer. This was Odemar the ship’s master, and he grumbled as knights looked on. He possessed the same outsized fists and squat frame as all his kin. “It’s early to make the passage,” he grumbled, “and the Maiden’s high.”
“What were they doing at the prow there?” said Lamoric. The village women were just bustling from the dock.
Odemar seemed taken aback that his would-be cargo could speak. “It’s the grease of nine wrens… Lordship.” His voice was like the grinding of stones.
Berchard smiled broadly, scratching his grizzled beard. “Never drown, wrens. So they say, but you’re never meant to cause one harm, unless—“
“Women’s business,” grumbled Odemar.
“I suppose,” said Berchard. “But you don’t normally see them at their b—“
“It’s no good thing to rush a sailing.”
“Host Below! Is the river free of ice?” Lamoric asked. “Was there silver enough in the purse?”
Odemar’s square beard twitched as his lip twisted. “Aye,” he allowed.
Before Lamoric could say more, Coensar spoke up. The captain had a thumb on the pommel of Keening, his High Kingdom blade. “Then your Bittern’s first load will be men, not millstones, Master Odemar. And we will sail for Eldinor and not Yestreen down the river.” He never took his eyes from the boat.
Odemar grunted assent and subsided into silence. And soon four of the men loading baggage abruptly piled into the boat, hunkering down along the gunnels.
“We’re ready?” asked Lamoric.
Odemar’s beard bobbed once. “Just in time, I think.” If the man hadn’t been looking to the sky, Durand would have thought he was talking about Lamoric’s mood. Without a further word, Odemar stalked over the gangplank and benches to the stern of his Bittern. Durand and the others followed warily, catching stays and sheets to keep upright. They had no horses, no serving men, and only Guthred to play shield-bearer to them all. Durand sat down behind Coensar and felt his world contract. As long as the Lambing Moon remained in the Heavens, the whole company must live in an open boat forty feet long and a dozen feet wide.
Durand snugged his traveling chest against the thwarts to make a place for his heels. Lamoric was still pacing and alternately laughing or cursing.
When Durand looked up, he found Deorwen standing above the cool water, pale and beautiful as the moon. Durand stared, he was sure, like an ox over a fence. She, Father Odwy, and a redheaded sexton had come down from the castle together. Old Guthred put his hands round her waist to lower her into the boat, and she took her place beside Lamoric.
“Just in time, Father,” Master Odemar grunted.
Across the blue Maidensbier, the Eye of Heaven cut a seam above the bank.
“When have I not known my time, Master Odemar?” the priest said and thumped the massive Book of Moons on the sexton’s chest — as though the boy were a lectern — throwing its broad pages wide to find his place.
While the priest started a Dawn Thanksgiving for voyagers under the Lambing Moon, Berchard turned to the ship’s master. “Last sailors I knew didn’t like priests before journeys.”
“Seafaring men they must have been. A river’s another thing. You’ll ask the King of Heaven to keep the river-wights at bay, but there’s no power can check the Lord of the Deep at sea, only rile him. Lordship.”
The priest climbed aboard, tottering stem to stern as the poor sexton struggled to walk backward and hold the great book where his master could read it. A censor slipped its own sanctuary scent into the mist.
When the priest had finished, he handed the rattling censor to his sexton. “Come now, the oil, boy,” he pressed, and the sexton set to juggling hot brass and holy book to dig a glass vessel from under his tabard.
The oarsmen, even the master, slid the caps from their heads.
“And now?” Berchard asked.
“Oil before water, under the Eye, Lordship,” muttered Odemar, and the priest daubed a gleaming Eye of Heaven on each oarsman’s forehead.
Lamoric twisted on his bench. “It is not as though we are sailing for the Dreaming Land.” But Berchard had untied his cap for a dab of his own before the priest was back ashore.
“Are we off?” Lamoric asked.
The master squinted into the dawn.
“Aye. Lordship.” The oarsmen hoisted their sweeps as Master Odemar took hold of the steering oar. “You lot on the pier, cast us off.” When the boat was drifting on the cove, and gaffed out to give the sweeps room, Durand saw Odemar nod to his small audience of oarsmen — all facing the stern while their master and his passengers faced the dawn. “All right.”
And the oarsmen hauled, driving the boat across the cove, faster and faster, and, as they gathered speed, upstream.
“Master Odemar,” said Lamoric, turning. “I thought Eldinor was north. Do you mean to say I’ve been mistaken? Did old Saerdan Voyager beach his ship in the mountains then?”
The ship’s master hardly spared a glance, hauling the tiller in to switch the Bittern’s prow into the current as the big river caught the boat.
“One turn sunwise,” he grunted, “Lordship, to show respect to Him up there.” Odemar jutted his chin for Heaven’s Eye.
But the boat was caught in the fast-moving Maidensbier. They managed a few strokes upstream, and then the master let the bow fall off. The whole vessel weathervaned around the master’s steering oar, and the oarsmen began to pull in the sweeps.
Oars clattered as they slid home along the gunnels. “Now, what is this?” Lamoric demanded.
“We never row downstream, Lordship,” said Odemar.
Lamoric glanced to Coensar before pressing on. “Eldinor is not Yestreen, you realize. It’s some distance.”
“No point rowing downstream, Lordship. Not on Maidensbier.” He had shoved the tiller away from himself, picking a course roughly midway between the stone banks.
“You realize that the offence we might cause by arriving too late would be difficult to–”
As Lamoric settled back onto his bench, his wife’s hand on his arm, Durand took a last glance back: the villagers of the Burrstones looked on like boulders on a hillside. This was the second vessel most had seen leave that day.
When the Eye of Heaven was high, Guthred passed around the bread and cheese, and the men fished for the wine. Master Odemar led his oarsmen, muttering, through the Noontide Lauds. Durand watched the blue and stony banks from his spot on the bench.
“Puts me in mind of my youth, this does,” said Berchard, unwrapping a round, dark loaf. “Up and down the Gray Road we went, just like this — though the Gray Road’s a broader, calmer old river than this. This Maidensbier, she runs quick and cold. Puts me in mind of my poor wife, before she passed.”
Berchard tore the loaf — tough as a knot of rags — while Badan waited.
As Badan reached, Ouen’s long arm slithered the bread from Berchard’s fingers.
“It like guarding a merchant’s asses?” Ouen wondered, grinning with every gold tooth as he tore a bite of bread.
Berchard produced a leather bottle of claret, but stopped to dig in the puckered flesh of his bad eye. “Yes, aye,” he said. “That’s all it is really. Easier. Goggling up at the woods. Past that March of Skulls. Fellwood. Some nights, you hear drumming in the hills. Summers you stew in your hauberk.”
As Berchard made to open the stopper, Badan twisted the bottle from his fingers. “Teach you to keep your good eye open.”
After an hour’s silence, Lamoric spoke: “Host Below, you all put me in mind of dinner round my father’s table.”
Every eye on the Bittern turned his direction, some quick, some slow.
Ouen lifted his thatch-straw beard in the air and again the teeth winked. “Genteel, are we?” he ventured.
“No. Not at all, in fact. It’s my brother you remind me of. Landast always had a longer arm than I. A good man, but I reached for a lot that he got first.”
Durand smiled as the rest chuckled.
“Likely explains more than it should,” Lamoric concluded. “You’re younger as well, aren’t you, Durand?”
Durand nodded. “My brother’s got a head start.”
Berchard pointed with his bit of bread. “You’re both younger brothers then?”
Durand shrugged. “I’d still be in the mountains else.”
“What about you?” Berchard asked Ouen. “You cannot tell me you have a big brother.”
“I do. Eight foot if he’s an inch, the bastard.”
Berchard held his hand up, calling for order. “A moment, please. Everyone before the mast. I ask you. Am I the only one here who’s eldest? Badan?”
Badan scratched the long fringe at the back of his neck. “Aye. I’ve an older brother in Andagis.”
“Host of Heaven, two of them!” Berchard gasped.
“There’s one younger as well.”
Half the men in the crew showed Badan the Eye of Heaven.
“And you, Ladyship?” Berchard asked.
Deorwen smiled: a sighing thing. “You’ve met Moryn. I’m eldest daughter, if that discounts me.”
“We shall have to take counsel upon the matter, Ladyship,” Berchard said before turning to Coensar the Captain. “And you, Captain?”
All eyes turned to Coensar, who stood mum for a moment, then confessed. “My brother’s got a fine hall in Lannermoor. He often asks me up there. When I cannot refuse, I sit on a bench by the hearth fire while his wife hides the silver.”
“To those afflicted with older brothers, then, poor bastards all,” Berchard said, snatching Badan’s bottle.
But Lamoric was pointing across the fat, glassy water at the far bank.
“There!” he said. “That’s a sanctuary tower. What village do you think?”
There were shrugs, and a few of the others leaned for the gunnel.
Odemar shot them all a stern look as the Bittern teetered.
Lamoric was still peering. “Could it be Sallow Hythe?”
“A score more towers, Lordship, and upriver,” Guthred corrected carefully.
The rest threw names around.
“Rush Landing,” said Odemar, finally.
There was silence down the length of the boat. “Just down the road?”
“Rush Landing, aye.”
“Then we’ve hardly moved.” Lamoric spread his hands over the speeding river. “How can that be?”
“Maidensbier’s running quick but she bends… Lordship.”
“You realize I’ve no desire to offend the king? That our goal is to do precisely the opposite? A lot of blood went into gaining us the king’s favor.”
The ship’s master was silent.
“Why don’t your oarsmen give a pull or two?”
“Where the Maidensbier’s carrying us, we’d best not come rushing. The river’s as full and fast as I’ve seen her, Lordship.”
Durand heard a strange noise: a moaning over the water. Coensar peered forward.
“They’ll have to row when we reach the Silvermere,” Lamoric was saying.
“Aye, Lordship. But there is little sense in–”
Deorwen was on her feet in the prow, looking around the high curve of the stempost. Durand heard a peculiar sound: a wild chiming through the belly of the boat.
“What is that sound?” said Lamoric.
The oarsmen were unshipping their oars, all at once and without any signal.
“We should not have come,” growled Odemar.
“The Sleepers’ Cave,” Odemar growled.
The Bittern lurched, sliding down a trough. There were high stone walls all around.
“When Maidensbier’s high, she swallows the shrine in the rock at Sleeper’s Cave.”
Now Berchard spoke. “What’re you saying? I’ve seen the Sleepers’. You couldn’t flood–” Sweeping past the gunnels went a row of rock-cut steps that might have led to a shrine’s riverbank door. You could only see the top few. “Host of Heaven,” Berchard said, astonished.
“When the bells ring, the Maid leaves her bed,” said Odemar, “and takes another.”
“I’ve seen those bells,” said Berchard. “They must be, what? Five fathoms from the floor.”
A man at the oars must turn his back on the river and face the ship’s master. Only he can see the course ahead. It is an act of faith. There was an oar for every man, and Durand was not alone as he slid his long sweep out over the water and looked into the master’s face.
“Pull with the others now,” said Odemar. The boat pitched, skidding two fathoms down in a heartbeat. Some of the knights looked round — they flailed with their sweeps — but not one of the oarsmen turned. “Easy,” was Odemar’s grated rebuke.
Durand tried to reach and haul with the Burrstone men as the boat picked up speed, but, half the time, Durand’s oar beat at spray. The river thundered between high stone banks, faster every heartbeat.
“Hold fast, all,” snarled Odemar, fists locked on the tiller as the boat stamped and soared through the rolling explosion of the river.
Then Durand heard a greater roar, and the Bittern plunged.
The master heaved upon the tiller. “Together! Hard and together. All you have. More if you’re on larboard.”
Bittern lurched. Durand’s oar struck some immoveable stone in the spray, kicking Durand’s chest like a horse. But, before he could take a breath, the master was snarling, “Now, for your lives!” And those still with oars in their hands pulled. Durand hauled with the rest. Their blades clattered and failed. “Together!” shouted Odemar, then Durand watched the man’s face twist. His eyes were fixed on something over Durand’s shoulder. “Together!” he screamed.
And they struck.
Timbers snapped with a sound like a thunderclap. Every man was on his knees, howling.
Durand skidded across the plank bottom, as the
Bittern jerked like a fish in a dog’s jaws.
“We must get her off the rock!” strained Odemar.
Strakes and gunnels flexed like a snapped limb. Durand could see new white wood in long cracks. A great stone had pegged them to the riverbed.
Coensar looked straight at him. “Come on!”
Half the men were on their backsides. Water foamed around either side of the great stone. Deorwen had been thrown into the bows. In a moment, the boat would fold around the boulder and they’d be finished.
Durand and the captain fought to push the Bittern free, struggling bare handed, sliding on wet boots till Coensar spotted the long oars floating all around them. “Here!” he said, and, catching up one of the long poles, he rammed it between the gunwale and the stone. Durand grabbed hold and the two heaved.
And Bittern slid — men sprawling — then she stuck fast again. Durand could feel the planks warping as he heaved.
“It must be now,” said Odemar.
Coensar turned on the others. “Every man get an oar. If you aren’t dead yet, get an oar!” And the men, awkward as foals, scrambled to jam their blades against the stone. At Durand’s hip, Deorwen appeared, stabbing an oar down like a whaler’s spear. Durand strained with his jaws locked as white rents opened, and he didn’t know whether Bittern would break or go free.
Then she slipped once more.
“Pull!” Coen roared.
And the boat tumbled off. Every fleck of her winter’s paint was left on the great stone as the Bittern pitched into the current, half-awash and beyond controlling.
Men sprawled into the boat once more, putting the oars to their proper use.
Odemar stood in the stern even still, water sloshing to his thighs.
But the Maidensbier had finished with them. The cliff walls fell away, and, as the channel widened, the river relaxed its grip. They rode, freezing among floating provisions and splinters, until, finally, Durand heard riverbank reeds brush the Bittern’s hull.
Coensar gave Durand a wry grin.