The Dancers of Arun [Book 2 of the Tornor Trilogy]
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by Elizabeth Lynn
Description: As the scholar and scribe of Tornor, Kerris has been in training for the past seventeen years. But its not until his brother Kel of the Cheari culture teaches him the psychic art of patterning, that the city of Elath comes under attack and Kerris must draw upon these new talents to fight the dangers of psychic warfare. It is in these battles that he learns what a warriors life is like, and discovers what wasn't taught to him in his studies--perhaps the most important element of all--love.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1979
eBookwise Release Date: January 2002
29 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [391 KB]
Reading time: 261-366 min.
"A marvelous blend of fantasy... and realism in the characters and the social interactions." MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY
"Astonishing." THEDORE STURGEON
"A fine ear for the right word and a fine eye for action." VONDA MCINTYRE
"An unusual, powerful and beautiful book." JOHN VARLEY
"A book of depth and vigor and surprises." ROBERT SILVERBERG
"Her women have dignity and strength." MARGE PIERCY
"An adventure story for humanists and feminists." JOANNA RUSS
He stretched. He was stiff and cold. The pallet under him was thin and prickly; he had slept far from the chimneys, in the place nearest the door. The morning sun came through the high unpaned windows of the barracks, gilding the dirty tapestries into pale color, and the sky, through the narrow slits, was gray, distant, and chilly.
Swallowing, he tasted the salt of last night's pork. Beside him an off-watch guard thrashed, caught in an evil dream. Kerris tugged his boots on. The laces flapped. He tied them. The unyielding strings kept slipping from his hand. His fingers were cold.
He blew on them to warm them. His stump ached and he rubbed it. A dog barked. Someone shouted in the courtyard. Passing his hand through his tangled hair, Kerris rose and picked his way around huddled sleepers to the Keep kitchen.
A leather curtain separated kitchen and barracks, and through it he could hear people talking. He pushed it aside and went in. The room was hot. The oven fires had been lit. An hour-candle burned in a tiled niche. Apprentice cooks, hands covered with grease and flour, hurried past him. An assistant cook wearing a white cloth apron stood over a cutting board, slicing chunks of cold ham onto a silver platter. Paula stood beside the fireplace, holding out her hands to the blaze. Kerris went to her. Bending, he kissed the top of her head. "Good morning." She peered up at him. He was a head taller than she was. She was wearing a thick brown shawl around her shoulders. "Kerris," she said. She turned back to the pot. It held tea, honey, and milk in a great soup mixture. "Have some tea."
He looked through rows of tall glasses for a mug. "Cold this morning," he said.
"Cold every damn morning." She banged the ladle on the rim of the iron pot. "You'd never know it was spring." Leaning by her, Kerris dunked the mug into the pot. He sipped the tea. It was hot and very sweet. "It's nearly summer," he said. "The traders'll be here soon." Her dark eyes glinted. She made a barracks gesture. "Summer," she said, with a southerner's contempt for northern weather. "Those people upstairs awake yet?" She meant the soldiers. She had been a soldier herself once, long ago, on the southern border. Kerris shook his head. "Just me." A fair-haired kitchenmaid in a long linen skirt came from the storeroom. She was carrying a round of cheese. She smiled politely at Paula and with more warmth at the young cook. His hands at the board moved even faster. She did not look at Kerris. He had not expected her to. For all that he was of Tornor's ruling line, he was a scribe, a fit-taker, and a cripple, less important to the Keep than the least of its cooks.
Paula scowled. "You want more tea?" she said.
He wanted to tell her that it did not matter to him that the woman of the Keep ignored him. He was used to it. He preferred it to the ridicule he might have gotten -- had gotten, more than once. To please her, he dipped his mug again in the amber syrup. An apprentice opened an oven door. The smell of baking bread filled the room.
The leather curtain flapped. The chief cook strutted in. He had great hairy arms like a smith, and no hair at all on his skull. The scullions (behind his back) called him the Egg. He was a superb cook and had a temper like a fox-bitch in heat, and he hated intruders in his kitchen. He glared at Kerris. "Out," he said, fingering his square-bladed cleaver. The gesture was for show, but Kerris had no intention of challenging it. He rubbed Paula's shoulder.
"I'll see you later," he said. He turned to go.
There was smoke in his eyes and a knife in his hand. He smelled scorched food and the heavy scent of new wine. He thought, End it quickly. He faked a stumble on a stool. His opponent grinned and stepped in for a killing thrust. Catching the thrusting arm, he looped the man's neck with his other arm and drew him helpless to the floor. A knife clattered down. Disdainfully a booted foot kicked it away. A woman screamed softly.
He stared into the man's red and terrified face. "I could break your neck," he said. "Don't you know better than to fight a cheari?" Ilene said, at his back, "They've burned our breakfast, Kel. Let's leave."
His vision blurred. He smelled bread. He was back. Paula stood in front of him, bristling like a mother cat protecting a kitten. The scullions were all watching. The chief cook was sputtering at the old woman. "I'll have no fits taken in my kitchen!" Kerris said, "I'm all right." Paula turned. Her eyes searched his face. He was sorry she had seen it. "It's nothing," he said. He walked toward the entrance to the hall. The scullions murmured, clumped together like puppies. The Egg swore at them, and they hopped out of his way.
The great hall of Tornor was big enough to hold six hundred men without crowding. Kerris rested against a wall of it for a moment. As always after a fit, he felt just slightly disoriented. He leaned on a tapestry. It showed a scene from some old battle. Josen would know which one. Kerris did not.
The doors to the hall were open. Men from the barracks, rubbing sleep from their eyes, and men just off watch, bulky in their layers of wool and leather, were coming in. Dogs with sleek fur and pale narrow heads ran about and around them -- wolfhounds, they were, though there were few wolves left on the steppe. A hunting party last fall had brought in one mangy yearling. They had hung the skin from the castle wall and all the small boys from Tornor village had come to stare at it.
Someone opened the leather curtain. The smell of fresh bread drifted into the hall. The men elbowed each other. Kerris' appetite had gone. He walked down the lane beside one of the long tables and came face to face with the lord of the Keep.
He bowed. "Good morning, uncle," he said.
Morven, the nineteenth lord of Tornor Keep, was brisk and stocky, with the bright yellow hair and pale complexion of his line. Kerris had not inherited it. "Good morning, nephew," he said. "Did you wake as the watch changed?" Kerris nodded. Morven did not know (or pretended that he did not know) that Kerris sometimes slept in the barracks. "I wish my soldiers were as dedicated." It was meant to be praise.
"Thank you." Ousel, the second watch commander, strode up. Immediately Morven turned to speak with him. Kerris, dismissed, went on out of the hall. He thought, At least he has the decency not to laugh in my face.
Crossing the inner ward to the stair to the Recorder's Tower, he felt inside his skull for the skill that linked him with his brother. As ever, it eluded him. He could not make it work, any more than he could stop it.
In the shadow of the sundial a trio of children played the paper-scissors-rock game. Kerris slowed as he passed them. It was one of the few games he, the one-armed child, had been able to play, and he had gotten so adept at knowing what the others would choose that they had soon refused to play with him. The game dissolved into wrestling, with the biggest child, Morven's daughter Aret, on top. Kerris went on. He had never been very good at wrestling.
A girl stood at the foot of the tower stair, her arms filled with laundry. She wore a red gown and a brown overtunic. Her cheeks were pocked with little scars. Her hair fell down her back. Kerris felt the nape of his neck redden. "Hello, Kili," he said.
Two years ago she had approached him in the hall, brushing her breasts against him with a smile and a whispered question. "Would you like to . . . ?" No one had asked him before. He went with her to the laundry, clumsy and eager. They lay between the long wet wash-tubs, on the dirty sheets from the apartments. He was deeply grateful to her. Only one other person had ever touched him in that way. She had even pretended to be pleased with his efforts. Some weeks afterward he overheard her laughing about it with another girl, equating his lost limb and his sexual ability.
She thrust her hip against him. "How come I don't see you anymore?" "I have work to do." "That's too bad." She strolled across the ward, hips swaying. The guards on the inner wall yipped appreciatively.
Kerris thought of Kel. He wondered where the chearas was, and what had happened to the red-faced man. No doubt the chearis were saddled and gone from the place. He could see them -- tall Arillard, redheaded Riniard the newcomer, Jensie with the tri-colored hair. . . .He swore under his breath and pushed the thoughts away. They only made him unhappy.
He glanced across the courtyard. Kili had gone. The guards had turned back to their vigil. Kerris pictured a caravan bumping along the eastern road, blue flags flying, laden with silks and spices and wood and metal goods. The whole Keep was restless, waiting for the traders. The children played at caravans in their games.
He went up the spiral stair to the chamber at the tower's top. The octagonal room was very old. It had been variously used: for storage, for defense, even for a council chamber when there was war in the north. It smelled of pine logs and ink. There were tapestries on its walls like the ones in the hall. The room held a clutter of furniture: two sleeping pallets, a big worktable, some stools, Josen's chair, and six cedar chests. Two of the chests held clothes. Four of them were brimful of old records.
A tall crock of choba oil stood in one corner. The rest of the Keep, even the lord's apartments, was lit by different kinds of candles, and the merchants did not bother to bring the heavy oil with them from the south. But Josen had ordered, and bought, on his own, the one crock. On dark winter days he poured oil into dishes, and fashioned wicks for them with wool yarn. He claimed the light from the oil was clearer and less smoky than the light from animal-fat candles. Kerris teased him with it, gently, in the evenings. "With the lamps lit, you can pretend, like Paula, that you're not really here." "Unlike Paula," the old man would answer, "I like it here." Kerris pushed open the door with his shoulder. Josen stood at the window, sniffing the air. He had opened one of the windows and stood looking out the crack at the view. Kerris joined him. The watch-tower had been built three hundred years back by Torrel, fourth lord of Tornor Keep, "so that he might see the Anhard raiders before their kings gave the order to attack." There was no military use for a tower anymore; there had been peace between Arun and Anhard for a hundred years. But the windows had never been touched, except to have new glass placed in the frames. They still looked only north.
The mountains' gray bulk dominated the landscape. The lower terraces of the peaks were stippled with green. Kerris had heard (from the merchants, who went everywhere) that in the west there were taller mountains, and that they were red, not gray. He doubted he would get to see them. The farthest he'd ever been across the steppe was half the distance to Cloud Keep.
He had been born in the south, in a small village south of the lower edge of Galbareth. Paula had told him that often enough. But he did not remember the south, nor the ride north, nor the raid on the caravan in which his mother had been killed. It was in that raid that the blow of a curved Asech blade had taken off his right arm just below the shoulder.
Josen's voice interrupted his reverie. "Summer's coming."
Kerris dragged his thoughts away from his lost past. "Paula doesn't think so," he said.
"She's a southerner," said Josen. "It's never hot enough here for them." He was a northerner, but he knew the south well, having lived there many years. He glanced at Kerris. He was tall, but stoop-shouldered. His pale eyes were deep-set and very keen. He wore the clothes of his clan: a black robe of soft wool, with a hood that fell down his back. On his left fourth finger he wore a gold ring with an ebony stone. Only scholars and lords of households wore rings: lords to indicate their rulership, scholars to show that they carried no weapons. Josen was a member of the Scholars' Guild. He had been sent to study in Kendra-on-the-Delta by Athor, Morven's father, and had returned to the Keep twenty-five years ago. "The traders are not here yet, I suppose." "No." Josen said something in the southern tongue.
"What is that?" inquired Kerris. He had been Josen's apprentice for five years, but he knew only a little of the old southern language.
"May they suffer seven years from piles," said the old man. "I need ink!" Kerris grinned. He and Josen shared working and sleeping space in the tower, and as much as the disparity of age and temperament allowed (Josen and Paula were about the same age) they were friends. "May they suffer from piles after they get here," he suggested.
"Yes," Josen agreed, "that's better."
He coughed, and pulled his wide sash more tightly around his waist. He said, "I didn't hear you come in at all, last night." Kerris' stump throbbed. "I slept in the barracks," he said.
"In case the raiders come?" said Josen, voice tinged with gentle mockery. "Even were it to happen, Morven would not let you fight. You'd be sent to shelter in the storerooms with the old, the sick, and the children. Why bother?"
"I need to," Kerris said. "I don't care what Morven thinks." He walked to the oaken worktable. Josen had already laid out on it their day's work: a pile of ancient scrolls for himself, the monthly accounts for Kerris. The scrolls smelled musty. He pulled back the chair. "Shall we get to work?" Josen shrugged. "As you wish," he said. He crossed the little octagonal room. Kerris felt a twinge of remorse. He hadn't meant to put the old man off so harshly. He pulled Josen's cushioned chair out for him. Once -- before he had Kerris to help him -- Josen had done the day-to-day work, tallying accounts, keeping records. But Kerris did this now, and freed from those tasks the old scholar had chosen to set about a work more interesting: recopying the histories of Tornor off the ancient scrolls. Morven had no objections. He was even willing to pay for the fine-haired brushes and the expensive ink Josen required. (The ink Kerris used faded fast, but cost nothing. Kerris made it himself out of the ink sacs of the local river eels. Josen had taught him how to do that.) He glanced at the topmost scroll as Josen unrolled it. It glinted, here and there. Some of the letters had been painted with gold, and they shone through the dust.
The old northern runes (which were really a corruption of the southern runes, Josen said) went up and down on the scrolls. Kerris could not read them. Josen had taught him only the southern script. Everyone used it now. The old records in the Keeps were the only examples left of the northern script, and when these were all copied into the southern script then no one would remember that there even had been another way to write, except a few scholars like Josen.
Pretending that nothing had happened, Josen took his brushes from their wooden, felt-lined case.
Kerris cast about for a means to mend the breach. "Josen?" "Hmm?" said the old man.
"What history do you copy today?"
Josen looked pleased. The hurt left his face. He loved to talk about the histories. "The history of the eleventh lord of Tornor." "Who was he?" "His name was Kerwin," Josen said, "like your father." He closed the brush case and put it to one side. "Most of the record is taken up with accounts of battles with Anhard. Kerwin was killed in battle. It was a common death. The Truce wasn't signed until the reign of Athor, Kerwin's grandson." Kerris said, "Was there ever a time when there were no battles?" Josen frowned. "Tornor was built to be a fortress. But from Kerwin's reign to the reign of the Lady Sorren there is a gap in the scrolls." Once Kerris had been under the illusion that it would be exciting to be in a war. He no longer thought so. "Was that the Lady Sorren who brought the chearis to Tornor?" "There has been only one Sorren of Tornor," Josen said.
Kerris nodded. He remembered. Josen had read him the history from the scroll. Sorren of Tornor had named a cheari as Yardmaster, and during her reign (and after it, during the reign of her daughter Norres), Tornor had been a gathering-place for chearis.
"Where did they come from?" he asked.
Josen scowled. "You know the legend. The chearis came from the west, from Vanima, the land of always summer." "How did the Lady Sorren get them to Tornor?" "It's not in the record," said Josen. He snorted. "All the historians agree that the earliest chearis were southerners. Yet the legend of Vanima persists. Even now the chearis speak of it as if it were a real place." He picked up his brush and pointed it at Kerris like a dagger. "It's very frustrating." "What is?" "That the records should be incomplete." Kerris took a piece of paper from his own stack. The sheets were heavy and coarse, made of pressed linen scraps and river reeds. The gray tinge of it made him think of Paula. She was getting old. He hoped the incident in the kitchen had not troubled her too much. She worried about him. . . She had brought him north after his mother's death, and though she never said it, he knew she had stayed in Tornor for his sake.
"Who was the first cheari?" he said.
Josen scratched his nose with the wooden end of his brush. "We don't know," he said. "The chearis may -- but they don't talk to scholars." He grew severe. "Records that are not written are not to be trusted. Spoken histories are too easily distorted into legend and myth." Kerris smiled. He had heard this lecture before.
"For example," Josen said, "there is a passage in the history of the reign of the Lady Sorren that suggests she was a cheari. Later in the same scroll it also states she was a messenger, a member of the green clan." "Couldn't she be both?" Kerris said.
"It's very unlikely." Josen was stern. "Why should an heir of Tornor join the messenger clan? Some scribe was careless, and now we'll never know the truth of it -- because an inattentive apprentice wrote a word wrong." Kerris grinned at him. "If the black clan had its way, no one would do anything without writing it down." "History is important," the old man said.
"Yes," Kerris agreed. Privately he wondered if anything would be done if the world worked Josen's way.
You will never make a scholar, said his inner voice.
Stubbornly he banished it. He would be a scribe, not a scholar, and keep the records when Josen could no longer see to keep them. He turned the tallies so that the signs all faced out. They were marked with the ancient signs: a sickle for grain, a horn for goats, a triple slash (signifying the three spikelets of the ear) for barley. The middle slash was longest. Picking up his pen, he drew a line down the center of the page. The familiar work absorbed him. The trouble smoothed from his face, and the ache drained from his stump.
* * *
When the ink began to spatter on the page, he halted. He grimaced at the botched sheet with annoyance. It would all have to be done again. He checked the tip of the quill. As he thought, it needed trimming. Laying it down, he stretched his cramped fingers. The room was very light. On the wall opposite him, the tapestry's gold threadwork was just visible. It showed a battle scene: a man with a gilt beard rallied his men. In the crannies of the tower, nesting pigeons called, flapping their wings.
The old man's head lifted. His hair stuck out from his skull like fine silk fringe. "Hmm?" It took a moment for his eyes to lose their glaze.
"Take a rest. My quill needs mending."
The scholar looked at the page he'd been copying. Gently he rolled it up again. He had started with the newest scrolls and was slowly working backwards. Some of the oldest records were so brittle that they fell apart to the touch. "Hmm." He picked up the quill Kerris had been using and looked at the splayed end. "You need a new quill entirely," he commented. He riffled the feathers. "Still, a rest is a good idea." He rose from the chair. "Let's take a walk on the wall to stretch our legs." Like the other Keeps on the northern border, Tornor Keep had been built to withstand attack. It had two walls around it, one inside the other. They were toothy, smoothfaced, and formidable. Inside the inner wall were the buildings of the Keep: the hall, the barracks, the stables and storerooms, the Yard, the smithy and the apartments. The top of it was a stone walkway with room for three men to walk abreast. The outer wall was lower than the inner wall, but it too had a walkway and it was equally thick and crenellated. Both walls were broken, at regular intervals, by arrow slits. The watchtower rose from the southwest corner of the inner wall. Originally it had had only one entrance: the door in the inner ward at the base of the stair. But during the rule of the Lady Sorren a second door, leading to the rampart, had been added. In sunlight or strong torchlight the stone of the arch glittered with mica flecks, and it was evident that the doorway had been built at a later time than either the wall or the stair.
The guard on the stairway lifted a hand as they walked beneath the arch. "Hey, Kerris." "Tryg." Kerris smiled. Tryg was the son of Ousel's watch second. He was lithe and broad and he wore his hair in the old way, shoulder-length and unbound. He and Kerris had been best of friends when they were eight. They had shared a bed, playing at sex, as children do. "I skipped breakfast. Got any cheese?" "Sure." Tryg turned out his pockets. He had cheese, a sour apple, a shard of linty bread. "You can have it all." He was always generous. . . "Thanks," Kerris said. He took the food. Josen was halfway to the guardhouse, his face a mask of abstraction. Kerris followed the old man, eating as he moved.
It was surely spring. The stones beside him were warm in the sunlight. A breeze flapped the banners. They bore the red eight-pointed star on a white field, for three hundred years the crest of the lords of Tornor. Guards leaned on the battlements, facing south, helmets off. The guard was largely ceremonial. There had been no war in the north for a hundred years. Young men from the villages came to the Keeps to learn to handle weapons. Those that liked the work went east or south, to join city guard troops in Tezera or Shanan or Mahita or Kendra-on-the-Delta. Once there, some turned merchant or courier. The remainder went back to their farms and herds. Only the old men stayed at Tornor.
Josen stopped to lean his elbows on the wall. Kerris halted beside him, licking the last bits of cheese from his palm. He heard the river music. Swollen by snow water from the mountains, the Rurian tossed and twisted in its banks. The water mill squatted beside it. Its wheel still turned, but most of the Keep's pressing and milling was done at the windmill, which was a bigger and newer building to the east of the Keep. In the field between the castle and the town, blue daisies trembled like flames.
For a moment Kerris permitted himself to think of Kel. Once, watching the tumble and sweat of practice in the Yard, taunted by some child his own age (it might even have been Tryg, but Kerris did not like to think that), he shouted that it didn't matter that he was one-armed. His brother was a cheari. They teased Kel's name from him and danced about him, mocking and vicious, calling him to fight like Kel, to dance like Kel. Since that afternoon he had coupled their names only in his mind. Paula and Josen knew, of course, and Morven. But Morven never spoke of it. Kerris did not think he cared. Morven had never met Kel, only heard of him. All Arun had heard of him. But the red clan rarely came north. It was a long journey across Galbareth to the Keeps.
Five years back a chearas had stopped at Tornor on its way from the Red Hills to Tezera. Kel had not been a part of it. They had danced in the Yard. Kerris remembered the searing, concentrated grace with which they turned and swayed and leaped. But it was not for another year that he began to experience the sudden, random moments in which he seemed to live in two bodies: his own, and his brother's. At first he had been terrified, understanding nothing, afraid that he was going mad. After a while he learned that the moments of rapport would not hurt him. They did not happen more than once every two to three weeks. When they happened in public he called them his fits.
He told Josen about them.
The old man listened gravely. "Are they painful?" he had asked. "No." "Unpleasant?" Kerris tried to answer honestly. "N-no. Startling." Josen sighed. "I'm sorry, Kerris," he said. "I don't know what they are." Kerris felt numb. He had always thought that Josen knew everything -- well, nearly everything. Stories flashed through his mind. Perhaps he was being tormented by a ghost or a demon. It would not help to say such things to Josen. The old scholar did not believe in demons.
"What should I do?" he said.
Josen pulled on his sash. It was the gesture he made when he was embarrassed. "You could talk to the village healer." Kerris was surprised. Usually Josen had few good words for the village healer -- an old woman named Tath. She was known to be ill-tempered but herb-wise. No. He knew that Tath could offer him no remedy for what ailed him, and he was afraid of what she might say. She would only feed his fears. "She can cure lung fever," he said, lifting his fore- and little fingers in a gesture he had learned from Paula. "Not this." Josen did not ask him how he knew. (Kerris could not have told him.) He said, "If they don't hurt, don't worry about them. Let them come and let them go. They'll stop. And there is no need to resort to coarseness." He spoke with an authority that Kerris had found very reassuring, at thirteen.
Perhaps he had been wrong, Kerris thought. Perhaps he should have talked to old Tath. He scratched his stump, which had begun to itch.
"What is it?" Josen said.
A child was crying, somewhere in the apartments, and Kerris found his thought checked by that high, angry scream. "I had a fit this morning, in the kitchen," he said.
Josen pursed his lips. "Worrying about it?" Kerris shook his head. "No. Just thinking."
"You know," Josen said, "I know nothing of such things. But there may be people who do, in the cities."
Kerris laughed. "Forget it, Josen. I'm not likely to get to Tezera any time soon. Besides, I'm used to them; they don't trouble me." To himself he said, They wouldn't trouble me if I knew what they were. But he did not want to be without them. In those brief moments of rapport he knew what it felt like to live in a body that had never been maimed.
Five years back, the year he turned twelve, Kerris had been summoned to Morven's rooms. He went eagerly. At twelve a child was counted ready to join the daily practice in the Yard, to begin to learn the skills that made him or her an adult -- even a cheari. Tryg had already made passage to that world: his father had given him, according to tradition, a small but serviceable fighting knife. As Kerris walked into the lord's chamber, he could almost feel on his belt the knife he expected Morven to give him.
But Morven did not give him his knife. Instead, he said, "The Yard is not for you. It would waste the Yardmaster's time to try to teach you fighting skills, let alone make you a cheari. Son to my brother you are, and a home you will always have here, for his sake. But more" -- looking at Kerris' right shoulder, at the empty sleeve -- "is out of your reach." It had been Morven's idea to apprentice Kerris to Josen. It was a good idea, Kerris thought. It let him make a place.
Deep in his head a voice -- his own -- amended the thought. It was as good a place as any would ever be for him. He had learned to love the Keep, and the mountains that rose behind it like the spine of the earth. He loved the land in summer; he loved the steppe, windswept and thick with honey-colored grass. But it was not likely that he would ever get a chance to leave it. It was just as well he was comfortable in it.
He clapped Josen gently on the shoulder. "Come on, old man. Let's get back to work." "Old man, indeed!" Josen pretended outrage. "Is this the respect you show your teacher? Speak well of me, or I shan't mend your quill." Kerris grinned at him. "Yes, sir, beg pardon sir," he gabbled.
"I need more ink, too," said Josen, abandoning the play. "Blast those traders."
* * *
That night, Kerris did not go to the barracks to sleep.
Josen, as usual, avoided the morning meal. In his view food was indecent before noon. Kerris waited until he was sure that the Egg had gone to his apartments before slipping round the kitchen curtain.
Paula sat by the fire. He kissed the top of her head. Her scalp showed pink through sparse gray curls.
"Huh." Her fingers on the mug were red and swollen. "Good morning." "Is it?" "Warmer today than yesterday," he said. "You should try it." "Huh." The grumpy syllable conveyed her distrust of the north's feeble attempt at spring. "Where are you going?" "The chicken run. I need quills." He waited a bit, to show her that he was well. "See you later." He ducked out through the scullery. As he crossed to the hen run, music came to his ears. He looked up. Idrith was playing his flute. The other guards were still, listening. The soft trills floated across the walls and the ward. Kerris sighed. Once he had thought he would like to learn to make music. But he had no voice to speak of -- and there was no musical instrument he had ever seen or heard of that could be played with one hand.
The run smelled like a pasture. The hens paid no attention to him, but from the end of his tether the rooster watched suspiciously as Kerris hunted for quills.
"Be easy," Kerris told the bright-eyed bird. "I'm not after your wives." He found three white pinion feathers, and a gray goosetail feather that would suit. He brought them to Josen. The old man unearthed his penknife from the pile of papers on the table. It was a small sharp knife with a single edge, the brass handle shaped like a goat's head.
With short deft strokes, the old man shaped the nib. "How's the weather?" he asked.
"Warmer than yesterday." "No sign of the traders?" Kerris shook his head.
Josen muttered. He held the nib up to the light and scowled at it as if it were a trader. "I have been thinking," he said.
"About a letter I might write. To the head of the Scholars' Guild in Kendra-on-the-Delta. It might read something like: Dear Sir, This is to introduce a worthy young clerk, named Kerris, nephew to Morven Lord of Tornor Keep, who was my apprentice and has been my colleague, in a manner of speaking, for two years. And so on." The old man continued to hold the nib up, as if he were speaking to it. "What do you think of that?" "I -- I don't know." "Well, think. And tell me when you have thought." "Would the Scholars' Guild be impressed by a letter like that?" "They would be if I wrote it," said Josen. "They might find a position for the bearer in, say, one of the great city houses, as clerk, or historian." He flicked a look at Kerris. "If the bearer wanted such a position, that is." Kerris' stump ached. He touched the end of it, where the skin was thick and scarred. Paula had told him how they had had to sear it with the flat of a heated knife to stop the bleeding. "What great house would want me?" he said bleakly.
"Don't be a fool," said Josen. "Tornor's not the world. Do you love it so well here that you would be anguished to leave?" Kerris had no answer.
"Consider," said the old man. "If you -- "
From the wall, crisp and clear and light, a horn called.
Josen turned toward the sound. He put the knife and quill aside. Pah-pah-PAH, said the horn. Strangers approaching.
"At last," said the old man. The courtyard echoed with the noise of running feet. The horn blew a second time, vibrant and variant.
Kerris translated the pattern into words automatically. The caller had added a phrase. Strangers on horses approaching from the west road.
"I should have run out of ink in four more days," Josen said. He slipped the little knife into its sheath. "Shall we go out to the wall?" They went to the stair. Tryg's voice floated up to them from the arch. "The caravans don't come on the west road," he said. "It can't be the traders." Morven was standing in the inner ward, frowning at the young guard's words. The ramparts were crowded with soldiers and stable-hands, scullions and chambermaids. Morven looked impatient. Propriety demanded that he wait within the court. It did not befit the lord of the Keep to crane over his own walls.
The horn blew again. "It's a courier from Cloud Keep," said a man's voice.
"Naw. It's a flock of sheep!" said another. Below the wall, the dogs were barking up a storm. "Hey, let someone else get a look, there." Josen said, "Can you see anything?" "Nothing but a lot of backs," Kerris said. He was only a little taller than Josen. The horn blared its message at the day. Kerris took firm hold of a protruding bit of stone and hauled himself up within the nearest embrasure.
"Careful," said Josen.
Kerris braced his feet against the crenel. He looked east. No wagons wallowed along the road. He looked west. He saw riders. He counted. There were seven of them, and one horse without a rider. The foremost rode a ways ahead, and sunlight reflected from his hair, which was thick blond and waist-length, and tied back with the red scarf of a cheari.
"What do you see?"
Josen's voice seemed to come from very far away. The folk on the wall exclaimed to each other. Kerris' legs shook. He knew them: Jensie, Riniard beside her, Elli and Ilene like shadows, Calwin, sturdy and small, Arillard, silent and austere. . . He sat down hard in the gap between the merlons. He knew them all.
"What is it?" said Josen.
"Hey, Kerris, say something," urged Tryg.
They waited for him to answer. He lifted his chin. "It's a chearas." There was no need for him to tell them which.
Copyright © 1979 by Elizabeth A. Lynn