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Legends 3 19
* * *
For all the sharpness of their swords and strength of their armor, the Nabbanai treated the Lake People with surprising courtesy, and for the first weeks there was trade and much good fellowship between their camp and our towns. It was only when Lord Sulis announced to the thanes of the Lake People that he meant to settle in the High Keep, the deserted castle on the headlands, that the Erkynlanders became uneasy.
Huge and empty, the domain only of wind and shadows, the High Keep had looked down on our lands since the beginnings of the oldest tales. No one remembered who had built it—some said giants, but some swore the fairy-folk had built it themselves. The Northmen from Rimmersgard were said to have held it for a while, but they were long gone, driven out by a dragon from the fortress the Rimmersmen had stolen from the Peaceful Ones. So many tales surrounded that castle! When I was small, one of my mother’s bondwomen told me that it was now the haunt of frost-witches and restless ghosts. Many a night I had thought of it standing deserted on the windy clifftop, only a half-day’s ride away, and frightened myself so that I could not sleep.
The idea of someone rebuilding the mined fortress made the thanes uneasy, but not only for fear of waking its spirits. The High Keep held a powerful position, perhaps an impregnable one—even in their crumbling condition, the walls would be almost impossible to storm if armed men held them. But the thanes were in a difficult spot. Though the men of the Lake People might outnumber those of Sulis, the heron knights were better armed, and the discipline of Nabbanai fighting men was well known—a half-legion of the Imperator’s Sea Wolves had slaughtered ten times that number of Thrithingsmen in a battle just a few years before. And Osweard, the new Great Thane, was young and untested as a war leader. The lesser thanes asked my grandfather Godric to lend his wisdom, to speak to this Nabbanai lord and see what he could grasp of the man’s true intention.
So it was that Lord Sulis came to my grandfather’s steading, and saw my mother for the first time.
* * *
When I was a little girl, I liked to believe that Sulis fell in love with my mother Cynethrith the moment he saw her, as she stood quietly behind her father-in-law’s chair in Godric’s great hall. She was beautiful, that I know—before my father died, all the people of the household used to call her Ricwald’s Swan, because of her long neck and white shoulders. Her hair was a pale, pale gold, her eyes as green as the summer Kingslake. Any ordinary man would have loved her on sight. But “ordinary” must be the least likely of all the words that could be used to describe my stepfather.
When I was a young woman, and falling in love myself for the first time, I knew for certain that Sulis could not have loved her. How could anyone who loved have been as cold and distant as he was? As heavily polite? Aching then at the mere thought of Tellarin, my secret beloved, I knew that a man who acted as my stepfather had acted toward my mother could not feel anything like love.
Now I am not so sure. So many things are different when I look at them now. In this extremity of age, I am farther away, as though I looked at my own life from a high hilltop, but in some ways it seems I see things much more closely.
* * *
Sulis was a clever man, and could not have failed to notice how my grandfather Godric hated the new Great Thane—it was in everything my grandfather said. He could not speak of the weather without mentioning how the summers had been warmer and the winters shorter in the days when he himself had been Great Thane, and had his son been allowed to succeed him, he as much as declared, every day would have been the first day of Maia-month. Seeing this, Sulis made compact with the bitter old man, first by the gifts and subtle compliments he gave him, but soon in the courting of Godric’s daughter-in-law as well.
While my grandfather became more and more impressed by this foreign nobleman’s good sense, Sulis made his master stroke. Not only did he offer a bride price for my mother—for a widow!—that was greater than would have been paid even for the virgin daughter of a ruling Great Thane, a sizable fortune of swords and proud Nabban horses and gold plate, but Sulis told Godric that he would even leave my brother and myself to be raised in our grandfather’s house.
Godric had still not given up all hope of Aelfric, and this idea delighted him, but he had no particular use for me. My mother would be happier, both men eventually decided, if she were allowed to bring at least one of her children to her new home on the headlands.
Thus it was settled, and the powerful foreign lord married into the household of the old Great Thane. Godric told the rest of the thanes that Sulis meant only good, that by this gesture he had proved his honest wish to live in peace with the Lake People. There were priests in Sulis’ company who would cleanse the High Keep of any unquiet spirits, Godric explained to the thanes—as Sulis himself had assured my grandfather—and thus, he argued, letting Sulis take the ancient keep for his own would bring our folk a double blessing.
What Osweard and the lesser thanes thought of this, I do not know. Faced with Godric’s enthusiasm, with the power of the Nabbanai lord, and perhaps even with their own secret shame in the matter of my father’s death, they chose to give in. Lord Sulis and his new bride were gifted with the deserted High Keep, with its broken walls and its ghosts.
* * *
Did my mother love her second husband? I cannot answer that any better than I can say what Sulis felt, and they are both so long dead that I am now the only living person who knew them both. When she first saw him in the doorway at Godric’s house, he would certainly have been the light of every eye. He was not young—like my mother, he had already lost a spouse, although a decade had passed since his widowing, while hers was still fresh—but he was a great man from the greatest city of all. He wore a mantle of pure white over his armor, held at the shoulder by a lapis badge of his family’s heron crest. He had tucked his helmet under his arm when he entered the hall and my mother could see that he had very little hair, only a fringe of curls at the back of his head and over his ears, so that his forehead gleamed in the firelight. He was tall and strongly made, his unwhiskered jaw square, his nose wide and prominent. His strong, heavy features had a deep and contemplative look, but also a trace of sadness—almost, my mother once told me, the sort of face she thought God Himself might show on the Day of Weighing-Out.
He frightened her and he excited her—both of these things I know from the way she spoke of that first meeting. But did she love him, then or in the days to come? I cannot say. Does it matter? So many years later, it is hard to believe that it does.
Her time in her father-in-law’s house had been hard, though. Whatever her deepest feelings about him, I do not doubt that she was happy to wed Sulis.
* * *
In the month that my mother died, when I was in my thirteenth year, she told me that she believed Sulis had been afraid to love her. She never explained this—she was in her final weakness, and it was difficult for her to speak—and I still do not know what she meant.
The next to the last thing she ever said to me made even less sense. When the weakness in her chest was so terrible that she would lose the strength to breathe for long moments, she still summoned the strength to declare, “I am a ghost.”
She may have spoken of her suffering—that she felt she only clung to the world, like a timid spirit that will not take the road to Heaven, but lingers ever near the places it knew. Certainly her last request made it clear that she had grown weary of the circles of this world. But I have wondered since if there might be some other meaning to her words. Did she mean that her own life after my father’s death had been nothing more than a ghost-life? Or did she perhaps intend to say that she had become a shade in her own house, something that waited in the dark, haunted corridors of the High Keep for her second husband’s regard to give it true life—a regard that would never come from that silent, secret-burdened man?
My poor mother. Our poor, haunted family!
* * *
I remember little of the first year of my mother’s m
arriage to Lord Sulis, but I cannot forget the day we took possession of our new home. Others had gone before us to make our arrival as easeful as possible—I know they had, because a great tent had already been erected on the green in the Inner Bailey, which was where we slept for the first months—but to the child I was, it seemed we were riding into a place where no mortals had ever gone. I expected witches or ogres around every corner.
We came up the cliff road beside the Kingslake until we reached the curtain wall and began to circle the castle itself. Those who had gone before had hacked a crude road in the shadow of the walls, so we had a much easier passage than we would have only days earlier. We rode in a tunnel cut between the wall and forest. Where the trees and brush had not been chopped away, the Kingswood grew right to the castle’s edge, striving with root and tendril to breach the great stones of the wall.
At the castle’s northern gate we found nothing but a cleared place on the hillside, a desolation of tree stumps and burn-blackened grass—the thriving town of Erkynchester that today sprawls all around the castle’s feet had not even been imagined. Not all the forest growth had been cleared. Vines still clung to the pillars of the shattered gatehouse, rooted in the cracks of the odd, shiny stone which was all that remained of the original gateway, hanging in great braids across the opening to make a tangled, living arbor.
“Do you see?” Lord Sulis spread his strong arms as if he had designed and crafted the wilderness himself. “We will make our home in the greatest and oldest of all houses.”
As he led her across that threshold and into the ruins of the ancient castle, my mother made the sign of the Tree upon her breast.
* * *
I know many things now that I did not know on the first day we came to the High Keep. Of all the many tales about the place, some I now can say are false, but others I am now certain are true, For one thing, there is no question that the Northmen lived here. Over the years I have I found many of their coins, struck with the crude “F” rune of their King Fingil, and they also left the rotted remains of their wooden longhouses in the Outer Bailey, which my stepfather’s workmen found during the course of other diggings. So I came to realize that if the story of the Northmen living here was a true one, it stood to reason that the legend of the dragon might also be true, as well as the terrible tale of how the Northmen slaughtered the castle’s immortal inhabitants.
But I did not need such workaday proofs as coins or ruins to show me that our home was full of unquiet ghosts. That I learned for myself beyond all dispute, on the night I saw the burning man.
* * *
Perhaps someone who had grown up in Nabban or one of the other large cities of the south would not have been so astonished by their first sight of the High Keep, but I was a child of the Lake People. Before that day, the largest building I had ever approached was the great hall of our town, where the thanes met every spring—a building that could easily have been hidden in any of several parts of the High Keep and then never discovered again. On that first day, it was clear to me that the mighty castle could only have been built by giants.
The curtain wall was impressive enough to a small girl—ten times my own height and made of huge, rough stones that I could not imagine being hauled into place by anything smaller than the grandest of ogres—but the inner walls, in the places where they still stood, were not just vast but also beautiful. They were shaped of shining white stone that had been polished like jewelry, the blocks of equal size to those of the outer wall but with every join so seamless that from a distance each wall appeared to be a single thing, a curving piece of ivory or bone erupting from the hillside.
Many of the keep’s original buildings had been burned or torn down, some so that the men from Rimmersgard could pillage the stones to build their own tower, squat as a barrel but very tall. In any other place the Northmen’s huge construction would have loomed over the whole landscape and would certainly have been the focus of my amazement. But in any other place, there would not have been the Angel Tower.
I did not know its name then—in fact, it had no name, since the shape at its very peak could scarcely be seen—but the moment I saw it I knew there could be nothing else like it on earth, and for once childish exaggeration was correct. Its entrance was blocked by piles of rubble the Northmen had never finished clearing, and much of the lower part of its façade had cracked and fallen away in some unimaginable cataclysm, so that its base was raw stone, but it still thrust into the sky like a great white fang, taller than any tree, taller than anything mortals have ever built.
Excited but also frightened, I asked my mother whether the tower might not fall down on us. She tried to reassure me, saying it had stood for a longer time than I could imagine, perhaps since before there had even been people living beside the Kingslake, but that only made me feel other, stranger things.
* * *
The last words my mother ever spoke to me were “Bring me a dragon’s claw.”
I thought at first that in the final hours of her illness she was wandering in her thoughts back to our early days at the castle.
The story of the High Keep’s dragon, the creature who had driven out the last of the Northmen, was so old it had lost much of its power to frighten, but it was still potent to a little girl. The men of my stepfather’s company used to bring me bits of polished stone—I learned after a while that they were shards of crumbled wall carvings from the oldest parts of the castle—and tell me, “See, here is a broken piece of the great red dragon’s claw. He lives down in the caves below the castle, but sometimes at night he comes up to sniff around. He is sniffing for little girls to eat!”
The first few times, I believed them. Then, as I grew older and less susceptible, I learned to scorn the very idea of the dragon. Now that I am an old woman, I am plagued by dreams of it again. Sometimes even when I am awake, I think I can sense it down in the darkness below the castle, feel the moments of restlessness that trouble its long, deep sleep.
So on that night long ago, when my dying mother told me to bring her a dragon’s claw, I thought she was remembering something from our first year in the castle. I was about to go look for one of the old stones, but her bondwoman Ulca—what the Nabbanai called her handmaiden or body servant—told me that was not what my mother wanted. A dragon’s claw, she explained to me, was a charm to help those who suffered find the ease of a swift death. Ulca had tears in her eyes, and I think she was Aedonite enough to be troubled by the idea, but she was a sensible young woman and did not waste time arguing the right or wrong of it. She told me that the only way I could get such a thing swiftly would be from a woman named Xanippa who lived in the settlement that had sprung up just outside the High Keep’s walls.
I was barely into womanhood, but I felt very much a child. The idea of even such a short journey outside the walls after dark frightened me, but my mother had asked, and to refuse a deathbed request was a sin long before Mother Church arrived to parcel up and name the rights and wrongs of life. I left Ulca at my mother’s side and hurried across the rainy, nightbound castle.
The woman Xanippa had once been a whore, but as she had become older and fatter she had decided she needed another profession, and had developed a name as an herbwife. Her tumbledown hut, which stood against the keep’s southeast curtain wall, overlooking the Kingswood, was full of smoke and bad smells. Xanippa had hair like a bird’s nest, tied with what had once been a pretty ribbon. Her face might have been round and comely once, but years and fat had turned it into something that looked as though it had been brought up in a fishing net. She was also so large she did not move from her stool by the fire during the time I was there—or on most other occasions, I guessed.
Xanippa was very suspicious of me at first, but when she found out who I was and what I wanted, and saw my face as proof, she accepted the three small coins I gave her and gestured for me to fetch her splintered wooden chest from the fireplace corner. Like its mistress, the chest had clearly once been in better condi
tion and more prettily painted. She set it on the curve of her belly and began to search through it with a painstaking care that seemed at odds with everything else about her.
“Ah, here,” she said at last. “Dragon’s claw.” She held out her hand to show me the curved, black thing. It was certainly a claw, but far too small to belong to any dragon I could imagine. Xanippa saw my hesitation. “It is an owl’s toe, you silly girl. ‘Dragon’s claw’ is just a name.” She pointed to a tiny ball of glass over the talon’s tip. “Do not pull that off or break it. In fact, do not touch it at all. Do you have a purse?”
I showed her the small bag that hung always on a cord around my neck. Xanippa frowned. “The cloth is very thin.” She found some rags in one of the pockets of her shapeless robe and wrapped the claw, then dropped it into my purse and tucked it back in my bodice. As she did so, she squeezed my breast so hard that I murmured in pain, then patted my head. “Merciful Rhiap,” she growled, “was I ever so young as this? In any case, be careful, my little sweetmeat. This is heartsbane on the tip of this claw, from the marshes of the Wran. If you are careless, this is one prick that will make sure you die a virgin.” She laughed. “You don’t want that, do you?”
I backed to the door. Xanippa grinned to see my fright. “And you had better give your stepfather a message from me. He will not find what he seeks among the womenfolk here or among the herbwives of the Lake People. Tell him he can believe me, because if I could solve his riddle, I would—and, oh, but I would make him pay dearly for it! No, he will have to find the Witch of the Forest and put his questions to her.”
She was laughing again as I got the door open at last and escaped. The rain was even stronger now, and I slipped and fell several times, but still ran all the way back to the Inner Bailey.