Watchtower [Book 1 of the Tornor Trilogy]
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by Elizabeth Lynn
Description: In a land brought to life by warriors and lovers, war and honor, the legendary tower, Tornor Keep, is invaded by raiders. No longer the watchtower at the winter end of a summer land, Tornor turns to a young prince with the hopes that he might protect the future of the enchanting land.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1979
eBookwise Release Date: January 2002
29 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [306 KB]
Reading time: 209-292 min.
"A marvelous blend of fantasy... and realism in the characters and the social interactions." MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY
"Astonishing." THEODORE 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
Tornor Keep was dead and burning.
Ryke's face was soot-stained, and his wrists were skinned raw where he had torn them twisting in his chains. His head ached. He was not sure of what he'd seen and not seen happen. He lay in the inner courtyard. He could see a plume of smoke from the outer wall, where Col Istor's sappers had breached it and pulled it down. He smelled the smoke of a nearer burning. Behind him, in the great hall, something was in flames.
Athor, lord of the Keep, was dead, long beard bloody from the wounds he'd taken. Ryke had seen him fall, and in the haze of the fight had expected Tornor castle and tower and walls to waver and fall with him in the shock ... But it had not happened. The walls were still there. All the men of Ryke's watch were dead. They lay outside the gates they had died defending, frozen into the uncaring snow. Ryke pictured the women from the village coming in spring to dig the bodies of their husbands and sons from the loosening ground.
He was light-headed. He curled into the stone, wondering how many other men of Tornor were still alive, and what Col Istor planned to do with them--with him. He had expected to die with the men of his watch. He still expected to die. He did not want to, but it was hard to summon up a will to live with Athor dead, with the balance broken, the order of things spoiled. He wondered if Col Istor had had him dragged inside and chained in order to make an example of him. The stone was rough beneath his cheek. He shivered. From somewhere in the great square Keep he heard the sound of chickens cackling, and the voices of the women rounding them up. The winter had just begun, two weeks back, and he was not yet cold-hardened. The second big snow had ceased that night. No, he thought muzzily, the snow stopped two nights ago...
Fitfully, between shivers, he slept. He woke trying to roll away. Someone had kicked him in the side.
He looked up. Framed against the blue winter sky, Col Istor stood over him: black hair, black beard, a fat swarthy southerner's face.
"We just got the fire out," he said to Ryke casually, as if he were talking to a friend, not a chained and defeated enemy. "Those crazed people set the kitchen on fire rather than surrender." He squatted. He wore mail and a long-sword. His iron helmet looked like an old pot. He smelled of ash. "You warm enough?"
"Too close!" said someone sharply from behind him.
"Shut up." He was thick-shouldered, a bulky man. His dark eyes inspected Ryke as if the watch commander were a goat marked for slaughter. "You fight well," he said. "You're not really hurt, are you? No wounds except that head knock. It saved your life. No broken bones. You're young. You're better off than your lord."
Slowly Ryke sat up. He considered hitting the man with the chain around his hands, but he did not have the strength left in his arms to swing the heavy iron cuffs. "Athor's dead."
Col Istor chuckled. "I don't mean the old one," he said. "I mean the young one, the prince."
"Errel?" Ryke blinked. The smoke stung his eyes. He had not slept in two days, his head was thick. He scooped up a handful of snow and rubbed his face, trying to think. Errel, Athor's only son and heir, had been out hunting when Col and his soldiers appeared at the Keep five days ago. He had not come back. Athor and the commanders had assumed him safe. Ryke had hoped so, very much. "He's out of your reach."
"He's among us," said Col Istor. Standing, he beckoned to the man at his back. "Get him on his feet."
That man stepped forward and dragged Ryke up. He had big ungentle hands. Ryke leaned against the wall until his legs stopped shaking. Col watched him with detached interest. The man did not look like a warlord. Everyone knew that war came from the north. It was born in rock, and it toughened in the constant strife, now at truce, between Arun and the country yet farther north, Anhard-over-mountain. Athor of Tornor, watchful for signs of the Anhard raiders, had paid no heed to the rumors that reached the Keep through the southern traders, about a mercenary chieftain rising out of the peaceful farms of Arun, the shining golden grainfields, the Galbareth. Yet this man had warred on wartrained Tornor in winter, and won.
"Bring him," Col ordered.
They walked across the inner ward to the gate. Ryke had trouble in the slippery snow. The cold wind half revived him. Col's army was all around in the bright sunlight, cleaning up the castle. There was a line of corpses stacked against a wall. Most wore battle gear, but one still wore a leather cook's apron. There was no way to tell which of the cooks it was.
Once Ryke fell. They waited until he struggled up, and went on.
They went through the inner gatehouse, under the iron teeth of the portcullis. Guards stood at attention. Several of them wore spoil marked with the fire-emblem of Zilia Keep, the easternmost of the Keeps, three days ride from Tornor. Ryke did not know what had happened to Ocel, lord of that castle, and to his family. He had a big family. Probably they were dead. More guards swarmed in the outer ward, between the walls. One carried an armful of spent arrows. He held them by the quill end, spoiling the set of the fletch. Southerners knew naught of shooting. Ryke wondered if the Keep could have held out longer with more arrows. The Keep's fletchers had kept the castle supplied with hunting shafts. But since the making of the truce they had more or less ceased crafting war arrows.
He decided it would not have mattered.
Over the wall, Athor's banners snapped in the wind, a red eight-pointed star on a white-field. As Ryke watched, a small dark figure wormed up the pole and cut the banner down. Ryke looked away, aware that Col was watching him. The cuffs dragged painfully at his wrists. They walked along the south wall. The dog cage sat in the sun at the foot of the watchtower. It was a small stockade with a linen awning shading it. Athor had built it for his wolfhound bitch and her pups. There were no dogs in it now. Errel lay sprawled across the dung-spattered stone, covered by a filthy blanket. His face was blue with cold and cut up about the mouth. His eyes were closed. Only the steady rise and fall of his chest told Ryke that he was living.
"He doesn't look like much," said the man whose name Ryke didn't know.
Col Istor said, "My men found him on the west road, heading toward Cloud Keep. He killed four of them with that long bow of his. But he's whipped now."
Ryke wanted to wrap both hands around Col's thick neck. "What do you want?" he asked.
Col Istor teetered, heel to toe, smiling, cheerful. He wore patterned leather and over it a linked mail vest. Beneath the leather the linen tails of his tunic flapped. The mail looked light and strong, as good as anything made by a northern smith. "I could kill him," he said. "Or make him a servant. A pigherd. Or I could keep him alive in chains."
"What do you want, thief?" Ryke said.
The other man backhanded him across the face. The blow sent Ryke into the wall. His head spun, shot through with lights like arrows. He swallowed back sickness and stayed on his feet.
"Held, let be," said Col Istor. The man so named stepped back obediently. Col glanced at the sky. "It's clear now," he said. "Is it going to snow later?"
First they had been talking about Errel, now they were talking about the weather: it made no sense. "What--"
"Just answer me," said the war chief. He laid his left hand on his scabbard, not in threat, but lightly, as if the feel of the sword in its sheath gave him comfort. The leather scabbard was metal-worked. The sword was probably of Tezeran steel, the best there was.
"In another four or five days. Sooner if the wind veers east."
"We'll have to get food from the village, but I don't want to starve people to feed the army. What kind of stores did Athor keep?"
"The storerooms are filled with grain and salted beef," said Ryke. He sucked at his cheek, tasting blood. Held's blow had cut it. "It may not be sufficient. Athor counted on being able to feed two hundred men, plus staff. There are more of you." He tried to keep his tone expressionless but did not quite succeed.
"It galls, doesn't it," said Col. On the wall, the men were raising his standard: a red sword on black. Held wore the device on the right breast of his outershirt. "Look at me, Ryke."
Ryke met his eyes. The man had force.
"That's better. The army can eat light if it has to. How good is the river water?" He referred to the Rurian, the river that fell down the mountains west of the Keep. Joined by smaller streams, it broadened as it hurried south, and Ryke had heard that it flowed unbroken to the sea. It curved by Tornor almost close enough to brush the castle wall: it was the Keep's principal water source.
"It's snow water; it's pure," Ryke said. "What is this?"
"You asked me what I wanted," said Col Istor. "I want you. You know the Keep, the villages, the weather, the needs of the country. I want your service. In exchange for your loyalty, your princeling there stays alive and fed." Both men turned to look at Errel through the spacing of the wooden palisade.
Ryke tried to ask himself what Athor would do. But Athor was dead as mutton and could not speak. "Suppose I say no," he said.
Col Istor smiled. "You can watch while Held breaks his hands."
He said it in a normal tone, loud enough for Errel to hear if he could hear at all. The prince did not move. Ryke watched the lift and fall of his chest. He too must have been hit on the head. A man can die from a head blow. A man can die from cold. "How many watch commanders do you have?" be asked.
"Three," said Col.
"Make it four."
Col tugged at his beard. "Four," he said slowly. Beside him, Held stirred but did not speak.
Ryke said, "Get Errel out of the cage."
Col nodded at Held. The man unfastened the cage door. Seizing Errel by the feet, he dragged the long body out. Ryke went down on one knee. He almost fell; he steadied himself and held out both hands. A few soldiers, black-bearded, curious, stopped their work to watch. Col reached out and enclosed Ryke's hands in his own. Ryke licked his lips. He would not swear to Col Istor the oath he had sown at fifteen to Tornor's rightful lord. "I'll serve you," he said, "with loyalty, as long as Errel's left alone and unharmed."
It sufficed. Col stepped back to let him stand. "Good," he said. He swung toward Held. "Have him carried to the surgeon." Held pointed at two of the watching soldiers. They came forward: one took Errel's shoulders, the other his limp feet. "Tell Gam and Onran to choose out men to make a fourth watch. You too." Held nodded with reluctance. Col ignored it. He turned back to Ryke. "Come on," he said. "We'll get the smith to strike those chains." * * * *
When Ryke walked out of the smithy. Col was waiting for him. They strolled toward the barracks. Col said, "Your watch is like the other: that'll bring all of them down to just under a hundred men."
"How many did you come with?"
"Five hundred. We left fifty to hold Zilia Keep, and lost fifty in the fight." Ryke stifled his pleasure at the news that Tornor had accounted for the loss of fifty of Col's men. He would have to keep such thoughts from his mind: he was Col's man now. "I'll announce a new guard schedule tonight at dinner. You'll have to keep the men working and in trim. In one or two months, after the worst of the snows, we'll send out parties to harass Cloud Keep. It won't stand when the time comes to fight."
Cloud Keep was ruled by Berent One-Eye, who'd lost his eye to a stone kicked up by a running horse in the last of the Anhard wars, nine years ago. Ryke wondered how Col knew that Cloud Keep was weak. He might have northerners--traitors, said his mind, and he forced the thought back--among his troops who would be able to tell him such things.
"And after Cloud Keep, Pel Keep?" he asked.
"Yes. That will be hardest. Harder than this was. Sironen's no fool. He'll be expecting me."
They passed the Yard. Despite the snow, there were men practicing, with knives and swords and axes: Col's men now. Every Keep on the mountain passes, every large village, every southern city down the Rurian to Kendra-on-the-Delta had a Yard. Every boy, from the time he reached thirteen, went through its gates each day to practice. Without this training Arun would long ago have been overrun by Anhard. Since the truce, Ryke had heard, the training in the southern Yards had grown lax. It was easy for the farmers to slacken. It was the Keeps that took the brunt of war.
They slowed to watch the men circling in combat. Once every Yard had had a Yardmaster, a man whose skill at war was unquestioned, whose responsibility it was to teach the boys and oversee practice. The custom had lapsed in Tornor. Col scanned the Yard from one side to the other. His bright eyes missed nothing. The two men nearest them swung at each other with wooden swords. "His guard's clumsy," Col muttered. He shouted at the nearer man, who yelled back without turning and held his shield higher.
Col glanced back at the smith. "I did that," he said.
"You were smith?"
"Yes. So was my father, and his father before him. We lived in Iste village. Have you heard of it?" Ryke shook his head. "It's a pinprick, near Lake Aruna on the Great South Road. I used to watch the lords of the Keeps ride back and forth between the mountains and Kendra-on-the-Delta, wanting to be with them, jealous of every horseboy on the line. I borrowed my name from it. That and my father's old battle-axe were the two things I took when I left home." He stuck his thumbs in his belt. "The men may give you trouble, you being a northerner, and so late an enemy. Do what you must to keep them in order." And I'll be watching to see how you handle them, his tone implied. He sauntered toward the great stone barracks. "They should be gathered by now." Ryke, who had lived ten years in the building and knew every crack in its walls, followed.
A hundred men lounged in the southwest corner of the barracks: the cold corner, farthest from the kitchen chimneys. They rose as their chief entered. The smell of roast ham filled the room, leaking from the kitchen. Ryke's mouth watered. He felt himself the stranger. Fair-haired, fair-skinned, taller than the men, he stood out among them like a red fox in the snow. They eyed him warily. He wondered what Held had told them.
Col Istor said, "This is Ryke, late a commander of this Keep. He'll command this watch. His authority is equal to that of any other commander's." He teetered, gazing at the silent soldiers. "Is that clear?" There was a grumbling assent. "That's all." He turned toward the stairs. As he left, he flashed a yellow grin at Ryke.
Ryke folded his arms. The men were waiting for him to speak. Sunlight patterned the faded wall hangings. Grease from the sconced candles made the scenes of men at war almost unrecognizable. On the nearest panel, archers aimed their arrows at Anhard raiders. A sword slash marked where, in a silly drunken stupor, some soldier of the Keep had hacked at the Anhard warriors on the wall. Under the peaked shape of their helmets, the faces were pale blobs. Ryke surveyed the living soldiers standing in front of the painted ones. They had so recently been his foes ... Scattered through the swarthy faces he saw northerners. He did not know them: they were, he guessed, men of Zilia Keep who Col had bought or threatened or enticed to his service. No doubt one of them had told Col who Ryke was.
He walked down the row of pallets till he came to the innermost one. "I'll sleep here," he said, and nudged the bundle of gear that lay on it to the floor. A rangy redhead stepped from the ranks. "What's your name?" said Ryke. This was the unofficial leader of the group.
"Vargo," said the redhead. He had freckles on his face and on the backs of his hands. He wore an empty axe sheath on his left hip. He faced Ryke squarely. "That's my bed you took."
Ryke pointed to the pallet next to it. "No, that's yours. You're watch second."
A murmur of interest and surprise came from the observing soldiers. Vargo licked his lips, clearly puzzled, having suddenly been stripped of a cause to fight.
"Col will announce a new watch schedule at dinner. Assemble here before then for weapons inspection. You have the afternoon to polish your gear. I'll see what I can do to get us some extra blankets. Vargo, you stay; the rest of you are dismissed." Slowly they dispersed out the door or to their pallets, moving in clumps to talk. He sat on the pallet. Vargo did the same. "You know them. Tell me about them: which are the slackers, and which cause trouble." * * * *
Before dinner, Ryke had Vargo line the men up outside the barracks, in the courtyard. Scullions peered curiously through the kitchen windows. The men at the inner gatehouse turned to watch. Ryke walked slowly along the column, looking at weapons and at the men's eyes. One man slouched, leathers greasy, sword hilt untouched. His name was Ephrem; Vargo had warned Ryke that he might make trouble. He stared at Ryke. He was broad-shouldered and dark-eyed, squat as an ox. Ryke said, "You were in the barracks with the others. You heard the order."
The man glanced from side to side. "I was busy." His stance challenged Ryke to react.
Ryke took a backward step. Ephrem relaxed. His shoulders slumped. Ryke pivoted and hit him crosswise on the left side of his jaw. Beneath his glove he gripped a smooth iron bolt, taken from the smithy. Ephrem's head snapped back. He slid two arm's lengths and landed, limp as a worm, on the cold courtyard floor.
Ryke went on. It took him a little time to complete his inspection. Ephrem was still out cold. "You and you." Ryke pointed at random. "Take him to a bed." The men jumped to drag Ephrem out of line. The scullions jeered at the unconscious man. The others stood. Ryke let them wait, feeling their temper as a man might feel the temper of a newly broken horse. A few turned to watch Ephrem being lugged into the barracks. He waited for them to face him. It grew very silent. A dog barked somewhere within the walls, a lonely cry. Ryke wondered if it was one of Athor's wolfhounds, looking for its master and not finding him. "Dismissed," he said. * * * *
Col announced the watches before the start of the meal.
Ryke shared the table with Col and the other commanders. Their table sat below the space, now bare, on which Athor's war banner had hung. The men were seated at long tables, three of them, which reached outward from the small head table like the three tines of a kitchen fork. Ryke's men had morning watch, sunrise till noon. The soldiers were hot with victory. Col had said the army could eat lean but he was not making them fast this night, their first in the castle they had labored to take. Kitchenboys staggered from the serving windows under great platters of food: slabs of bacon, goat, two whole sheep taken from the village, bread, cheese, sauces, potatoes, wine. The men toasted Col, the commanders, each other. They drank to their dead. They did not speak of Athor's two hundred dead, buried now in shallow pits outside the outer walls.
Ryke did not drink to the toasts.
The other commanders watched him: Onran stealthily, old Gam, the horse commander, with amusement, Held with grim mistrust. If Col saw it, he said nothing. At the foot of the hall, over the serving windows, hung pikes, axes, javelins, swords, helmets, shields with patterns of silver and gold, spoils taken over the years from the Anhard raiders who had come over the mountains to loot and had found themselves looted. Some of them were dark with rust. Ryke remembered the raid, nine years ago, in which Athor of Tornor had killed the chief of the raiders. It had happened the summer of his eighteenth year. Ryke carried a souvenir of that war, an Anhard skinning-knife. He had taken it off the body of a man he'd killed. He wore it in a sheath in his right boot.
Along the hall's side walls hung tapestries depicting the building of the Keep. They showed masons and master carpenters with their tools, men carting stone from a quarry, workmen digging the foundation pit, yet more stones on a raft floating downriver, down the snow-swollen Rurian. Ryke looked at the faded hangings so that he would not have to watch the southerners in their triumph. The room was hot and smoky. As the platters grew bare, Col rose. The men cheered him. He roared them to silence.
"You fight well and I'm proud of you," he said. They pounded the tables. "Enough! Twenty-five men of each watch will return to Zilia Keep, to hold that Keep against rebellion. You'll leave tomorrow. Take what provisions you need from the kitchens here; you'll leave the villages alone as you travel. Those left here will dig in for the winter. I understand there are two or three months of cold yet due to this misbegotten country. We'll stay warm sweeping out the snow and raiding at Cloud Keep's border." The men shouted. "Shut up. We'll not grow soft because we're stuck indoors. But we'll not grow bored, either. We'll live like lords. We'll bring women from the village." They liked this, too. "They tell me there's a whole set of rooms for women in the apartments in the west wing, so you can stop fighting over the kitchen maids. And, just like the great houses in Kendra-on-the-Delta, Tornor Keep will have a cheari." Ryke frowned. It was a word he did not know, out of the old southern tongue. "He's new to the game but he'll learn fast."
Ryke leaned to Gam. "What's a cheari?"
"It means jester, a fool," said the horsemaster. Ryke nodded. It was southern custom, especially in the great city houses, he had heard, to dress a boy in paint and feathers and set him to tumbling for his supper. He leaned back in his chair. He was very tired, and the smoke and noise were starting to make his head ache. From beneath the table, a warm head pressed against his knee. He felt a sleek coat and silky ears. The dog nosed into his palm. He thought it was one of Athor's wolfhounds. He fed the beast tidbits from his plate.
Preoccupied, he barely noticed when the tumbler came from the kitchen doorway and began to do cartwheels at the foot of the tables. The tumbler was tall for a boy, and clumsy. They had dressed him in leggings trimmed with red velvet, but his chest and feet were bare. Someone tossed him a marrowbone. Pretending to be a dog, he held it in his teeth and ran around on hands and feet. "Good boy!" said Col. The tumbler barked. Laughing, the men tossed scraps. The youth gathered them up. Trotting like an animal, waving a willow switch like a tail, he came toward the high table. Ryke saw that he was no boy, but a man, muscled, lean, and bruised. His face was painted blue. The man passed him at a dogtrot, and Ryke saw that it was Errel. He did not believe it. He looked at Col Istor. The war chief was smiling, as at a well-played jest. Trembling, Ryke rose.
Col stood. So did Held. "Your oath, commander," said Col. "He's alive and unharmed. Sit down." Around them the noise continued unabated. None of the revellers had yet noticed that something was wrong. Col Istor's eyes were hard. "Sit down!" Ryke sat. He could not breathe. His head roiled with pain. He waited for the granite walls to shiver, to crack, but they did not.... Col's lips moved. Ryke stared at the woven figures on the walls. The taste of the food was like ash in his mouth. He heard nothing through the roaring in his skull.