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Legends 3 18
“It does not know death,” he said, but he spoke in his own language, and they did not understand him. He drew closer to Irian. He felt the warmth of her body. She stood staring, in that animal silence, as if she did not understand any of them.
“Lord Thorion has returned from death to save us all,” the Windkey said, fiercely and clearly. “He will be Archmage. Under his rule Roke will be as it was. The king will receive the true crown from his hand, and rule with his guidance, as Morred ruled. No witches will defile sacred ground. No dragons will threaten the Inmost Sea. There will be order, safety, and peace.”
None of the mages answered him. In the silence, the men with him murmured, and a voice among them said, “Let us have the witch.”
“No,” Azver said, but could say nothing else. He held his staff of willow, but it was only wood in his hand. Of the four of them, only the Doorkeeper moved and spoke. He took a step forward, looking from one young man to the next and the next. He said, “You trusted me, giving me your names. Will you trust me now?”
“My lord,” said one of them with a fine, dark face and a wizard’s oaken staff, “we do trust you, and therefore ask you to let the witch go, and peace return.”
Irian stepped forward before the Doorkeeper could answer.
“I am not a witch,” she said. Her voice sounded high, metallic, after the men’s deep voices. “I have no art. No knowledge. I came to learn.”
“We do not teach women here,” said the Windkey. “You know that.”
“I know nothing,” Irian said. She stepped forward again, facing the mage directly. “Tell me who I am.”
“Learn your place, woman,” the mage said with cold passion.
“My place,” she said, slowly, the words dragging—“my place is on the hill. Where things are what they are. Tell the dead man I will meet him there.”
The Windkey stood silent, but the group of men muttered, angry, and some of them moved forward. Azver came between her and them, her words releasing him from the paralysis of mind and body that had held him. “Tell Thorion we will meet him on Roke Knoll,” he said. “When he comes, we will be there. Now come with me,” he said to Irian. The Namer, the Doorkeeper, and the Herbal followed him with her into the Grove. There was a path for them. But when some of the young men started after them, there was no path.
“Come back,” the Windkey said to the men.
They turned back, uncertain. The low sun was still bright on the fields and the roofs of the Great House, but inside the wood it was all shadows.
“Witchery,” they said, “sacrilege, defilement.”
“Best come away,” said the Master Windkey, his face set and somber, his keen eyes troubled. He set off back to the School, and they straggled after him, arguing and debating in frustration and anger.
* * *
They were not far inside the Grove, and still beside the stream, when Irian stopped, turned aside, and crouched down by the enormous, hunching roots of a willow that leaned out over the water. The four mages stood on the path.
“She spoke with the other breath,” Azver said.
The Namer nodded.
“So we must follow her?” the Herbal asked.
This time the Doorkeeper nodded. He smiled faintly and said, “So it would seem.”
“Very well,” said the Herbal, with his patient, troubled look; and he went aside a little, and knelt to look at some small plant or fungus on the forest floor.
Time passed as always in the Grove, not passing at all it seemed, yet gone, the day gone quietly by in a few long breaths, a quivering of leaves, a bird singing far off and another answering it from even farther. Irian stood up slowly. She did not speak, but looked down the path, and then walked down it. The four men followed her.
They came out into the calm, open evening air. The west still held some brightness as they crossed the Thwilburn and walked across the fields to Roke Knoll, which stood up before them in a high dark curve against the sky.
“They’re coming,” the Doorkeeper said. Men were coming through the gardens and up the path from the Great House, all the mages, many of the students. Leading them was Thorion the Summoner, tall in his grey cloak, carrying his tall staff of bone-white wood, about which a faint gleam of werelight hovered.
Where the two paths met and joined to wind up to the heights of the Knoll, Thorion stopped and stood waiting for them. Irian strode forward to face him.
“Irian of Way,” the Summoner said in his deep, clear voice, “that there may be peace and order, and for the sake of the balance of all things, I bid you now leave this island. We cannot give you what you ask, and for that we ask your forgiveness. But if you seek to stay here you forfeit forgiveness, and must learn what follows on transgression.”
She stood up, almost as tall as he, and as straight. She said nothing for a minute and then spoke out in a high, harsh voice. “Come up onto the hill, Thorion,” she said.
She left him standing at the waymeet, on the level ground, and walked up the hill path for a little way, a few strides. She turned and looked back down at him. “What keeps you from the hill?” she said.
The air was darkening around them. The west was only a dull red line, the eastern sky was shadowy above the sea.
The Summoner looked up at Irian. Slowly he raised his arms and the white staff in the invocation of a spell, speaking in the tongue that all the wizards and mages of Roke had learned, the language of their art, the Language of the Making: “Irian, by your name I summon you and bind you to obey me!”
She hesitated, seeming for a moment to yield, to come to him, and then cried out, “I am not only Irian!”
At that the Summoner ran up toward her, reaching out, lunging at her as if to seize and hold her. They were both on the hill now. She towered above him impossibly, fire breaking forth between them, a flare of red flame in the dusk air, a gleam of red-gold scales, of vast wings—then that was gone, and there was nothing there but the woman standing on the hill path and the tall man bowing down before her, bowing slowly down to earth, and lying on it.
Of them all it was the Herbal, the healer, who was the first to move. He went up the path and knelt down by Thorion. “My lord,” he said, “my friend.”
Under the huddle of the grey cloak his hands found only a huddle of clothes and dry bones and a broken staff.
“This is better, Thorion,” he said, but he was weeping.
The old Namer came forward and said to the woman on the hill, “Who are you?”
“I do not know my other name,” she said. She spoke as he had spoken, as she had spoken to the Summoner, in the Language of the Making, the tongue the dragons speak.
She turned away and began to walk on up the hill.
“Irian,” said Azver the Patterner, “will you come back to us?”
She halted and let him come up to her. “I will, if you call me,” she said.
She reached out and touched his hand. He drew his breath sharply.
“Where will you go?” he said.
“To those who will give me my name. In fire not water. My people.”
“In the west,” he said.
She said, “Beyond the west.”
She turned away from him and them and went on up the hill in the gathering darkness. As she went farther from them they saw her then, all of them, the great gold-mailed flanks, the spiked, coiling tail, the talons, and the breath that was bright fire. On the crest of the knoll she paused awhile, her long head turning to look slowly round the Isle of Roke, gazing longest at the Grove, only a blur of darkness in darkness now. Then with a rattle like the shaking of sheets of brass the wide, vaned wings opened and the dragon sprang up into the air, circled Roke Knoll once, and flew.
A curl of fire, a wisp of smoke drifted down through the dark air.
Azver the Patterner stood with his left hand holding his right hand, which her touch had burnt. He looked down at the men who stood silent at the foot of the hill, staring after the dragon. “Well, my friends,
” he said, “what now?”
Only the Doorkeeper answered. He said, “I think we should go to our house, and open its doors.”
MEMORY, SORROW AND THORN
THE DRAGONBONE CHAIR (1988)
STONE OF FAREWELL (1990)
TO GREEN ANGEL TOWER (1993)
Tad Williams’ trilogy takes place all across the lands of Osten Ard, from the marshes of the southern Wran to Yiqanuc, the icy northern home of the trolls, but its heart is in the great high keep known as the Hayholt.
The story begins when the death of Prester John, the powerful human king who has been the castle’s master for many years, and who has extended his empire out from Erkynland to rule nearly all the nations of Osten Ard, sets in motion a falling-out between his royal sons—a war that eventually brings the entire world to the edge of actual extinction as the undead immortal Ineluki exploits the conflict for his own purposes. Among those caught up in this vast apocalyptic struggle are the scullion Simon Snowlock; Miriamele, the daughter of one of the royal brothers; Binabik the troll; the mysterious witch woman known as Geloë; and several members of Ineluki’s own Sithi—the near-immortal people he once gave his life to protect.
Five centuries before Prester John’s era, in the failing days of his race’s multimillennial empire, Ineluki had been the lord of the Hayholt, known then by its ancient name of Asu’a. As mortals besieged his castle, he had cast a terrible spell, a final and suicidal attempt to defeat the human upstarts. Ineluki and his followers had died in the conflagration, and Asu’a had been largely destroyed, but the mortals who survived merely rebuilt on the ruins of the Sithi’s great keep, making it their own. Several mortal kings of different lands claimed the castle over the centuries, among them the Heron King, Holly King, and Fisher King of Osten Ard’s legends, but none ever held it long until Prester John began his storied reign.
THE BURNING MAN
Years and years later, I still start up in the deepest part of night with his agonized face before me. And always, in these terrible dreams, I am helpless to ease his suffering.
I will tell the tale then, in hope the last ghosts may be put to rest, if such a thing can even happen in this place where there are more ghosts than living souls. But you will have to listen closely—this is a tale that the teller herself does not fully understand.
I will tell you of Lord Sulis, my famous stepfather.
I will tell you what the witch foretold to me.
I will tell you of the love that I had and I lost.
I will tell you of the night I saw the burning man.
* * *
Tellarin gifted me with small things, but they were not small to me. My lover brought me sweetmeats, and laughed to see me eat them so greedily.
“Ah, little Breda,” he told me. “It is strange and wonderful that a mere soldier should have to smuggle honeyed figs to a king’s daughter.” And then he kissed me, put his rough face against me and kissed me, and that was a sweeter thing than any fig that God ever made.
But Sulis was not truly a king, nor was I his true daughter.
Tellarin was not wrong about everything. The gladness I felt when I saw my soldier or heard him whistling below the window was strange and wonderful indeed.
* * *
My true father, the man from whose loins I sprang, died in the cold waters of the Kingslake when I was very small. His companions said that a great pikefish became caught in the nets and dragged my father Ricwald to a drowning death, but others whispered that it was his companions themselves who murdered him, then weighted his body with stones.
Everyone knew that my father would have been gifted with the standard and spear of Great Thane when all the thanes of the Lake People next met. His father and uncle had both been Great Thane before him, so some whispered that God had struck down my poor father because one family should not hold power so long. Others believed that my father’s companions on the boat had simply been paid shame-gold to drown him, to satisfy the ambition of one of the other families.
I know these things only from my mother Cynethrith’s stories. She was young when my father died, and had two small children—me, not yet five years old, and my brother Aelfric, two years my elder. Together we went to live in the house of my father’s father because we were the last of his line, and among the Lake People of Erkynland it was blood of high renown. But it was not a happy house. Godric, my grandfather, had himself been Great Thane for twice ten years before illness ended his rule, and he had high hopes that my father would follow him, but after my father died, Godric had to watch a man from one of the other families chosen to carry the spear and standard instead. From that moment, everything that happened in the world only seemed to prove to my grandfather that the best days of Erkynland and the Lake People had passed.
Godric died before I reached seven years, but he made those years between my father’s death and his own very unhappy ones for my mother, with many complaints and sharp rebukes at how she managed the household and how she raised Aelfric and me, his dead son’s only children. My grandfather spent much time with Aelfric, trying to make him the kind of man who would bring the spear and standard back to our family, but my brother was small and timid—it must have been clear he would never rule more than his own household. This Godric blamed on my mother, saying she had taught the boy womanish ways.
Grandfather was less interested in me. He was never cruel to me, only fierce and short-spoken, but he was such a frightening figure, with bristling white beard, growling voice, and several missing fingers, that I could never do anything but shrink from him. If that was another reason he found little savor in life, then I am sorry for it now.
In any case, my mother’s widowhood was a sad, bitter time for her. From mistress of her own house, and wife of the Great Thane, she now became only one of three grown daughters in the house of a sour old man, for one of my father’s sisters had also lost her husband, and the youngest had been kept at home, unmarried, to care for her father in his dotage.
I believe that had even the humblest of fishermen courted my mother, she would have looked upon him kindly, as long as he had a house of his own and no living relatives. But instead a man who has made the entire age tremble came to call.
* * *
“What is he like?” Tellarin once asked me. “Tell me about your stepfather.”
“He is your lord and commander.” I smiled. “What can I tell you that you do not know?”
“Tell me what he says when he is in his house, at his table, what he does.” Tellarin looked at me then, his long face suddenly boyish and surprised. “Hah! It feels like sacrilege even to wonder!”
“He is just a man,” I told him, and rolled my eyes. Such silly things men feel about other men—that this one is so large and important, while they themselves are so small! “He eats, he sleeps, he breaks wind. When my mother was alive, she used to say that he took up more room in a bed than any three others might, because he thrashed so, and talked aloud in his sleep.” I made my stepfather sound ordinary on purpose, because I did not like it when Tellarin seemed as interested in him as he was in me.
My Nabbanai soldier became serious then. “How it must have grieved him when your mother died. He must have loved her very much.”
As if it had not grieved me! I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes again, and instead told him, with all the certainty of youth, “I do not think he loved her at all.”
* * *
My mother once said that when my stepfather and his household first appeared across the meadow-lands, riding north toward the Kingslake, it was as though the heavenly host itself had descended to earth. Trumpets heralded their approach, drawing people from every town as though to witness a pilgrimage passing, or the procession of a saint’s relic. The knights’ armor and lances were polished to a sparkle, and their lord’s heron crest gleamed in gold thread on all the tall banners. Even the horses of the Nabban-men were larger and proude
r than our poor Erkynlandish ponies. The small army was followed by sheep and cattle in herds, and by dozens and dozens of wagons and oxcarts, a train so vast that their rutted path is still visible on the face of the land three score years later.
I was a child, though, and saw none of it—not then. Within my grandfather’s hall, I heard only rumors, things whispered by my aunts and my mother over their sewing. The powerful lord who had come was a Nabbanai nobleman, they reported, called by many Sulis the Apostate. He claimed that he came in peace, and wanted only to make a home for himself here beside the Kingslake. He was an exile from his own country—a heretic, some claimed, driven forth by the Lector under threat of excommunication because of his impertinent questions about the life of Usires Aedon, our blessed Ransomer. No, he had been forced from his home by the conniving of the escritors, said others. Angering a churchman is like treading on a serpent, they said.
Mother Church still had an unsolid grip on Erkynland in those days, and even though most had been baptized into the Aedonite faith, very few of the Lake People trusted the Sancellan Aedonitis. Many called it “that hive of priests,” and said that its chief aim was not God’s work, but increasing its own power.
Many still think so, but they no longer speak ill of the church where strangers can hear them.
I know far more of these things today than I did when they happened. I understand much and much, now that I am old and everyone in my story is dead. Of course, I am not the first to have traveled this particular sad path. Understanding always comes too late, I think.
Lord Sulis had indeed fallen out with the Church, and in Nabban the Church and the state were so closely tied, he had made an enemy of the Imperator in the Sancellan Mahistrevis as well, but so powerful and important was the family of my stepfather-to-be that he was not imprisoned or executed, but instead strongly encouraged to leave Nabban. His countrymen thought he took his household to Erkynland because any nobleman could be king in that backward country—my country—but Sulis had his own reasons, darker and stranger than anyone could guess. So it was that he had brought his entire household, his knights and kerns and all their women and children, a small city’s worth of folk, the shores of the Kingslake.