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Legends 3

Legends 3

Legends 3 21


  Everything about him made me uneasy. As I backed away, I felt compelled to say, “Good night, sire, and God bless you.”

  He shook his head—it almost seemed a shudder—then turned and padded away.

  A few days later the witch was brought to the High Keep in chains.

  * * *

  I only learned the woman had been brought to the castle when Tellarin told me. As we lay curled in my bed after lovemaking, he suddenly announced, “Lord Sulis has captured a witch.”

  I was startled. Even with my small experience, I knew this was not the general run of pillow talk. “What do you mean?”

  “She is a woman who lives in the Aldheorte forest,” he said, pronouncing the Erkylandish name with his usual charming clumsiness. “She comes often to the market in a town down the Ymstrecca, east of here. She is well known there—she makes herbal cures, I think, charms away warts, nonsense such as that. That is what Avalles said, anyway.”

  I remembered the message that the once-whore Xanippa had bade me give my stepfather on the night my mother died. Despite the warm night, I pulled the blanket up over our damp bodies. “Why should Lord Sulis want her?” I asked.

  Tellarin shook his head, unconcerned. “Because she is a witch, I suppose, and so she is against God. Avalles and some of the other soldiers arrested her and brought her in this evening.”

  “But there are dozens of root peddlers and conjure-women in the town on the lakeshore where I grew up, and more living outside the castle walls. What does he want with her?”

  “My lord does not think she is any old harmless conjure-woman,” Tellarin said. “He has put her in one of the deep cells underneath the throne room, with chains on her arms and legs.”

  * * *

  I had to see, of course, as much out of curiosity as out of worry about what seemed my stepfather’s growing madness.

  In the morning, while Lord Sulis was still abed, I went down to the cells. The woman was the only prisoner—the deep cells were seldom used, since those kept in them were likely to die from the chill and damp before they had served a length of term instructive to others—and the guard on duty there was perfectly willing to let the stepdaughter of the castle’s master gawk at the witch. He pointed me to the last cell door in the underground chamber.

  I had to stand on my toes to see through the barred slot in the door. The only light was a single torch burning on the wall behind me, so the witch was mostly hidden in shadows. She wore chains on wrists and ankles, just as Tellarin had said, and sat on the floor near the back of the windowless cell, her hunched shoulders giving her the shape of a rain-soaked hawk.

  As I stared, the chains rattled ever so slightly, although she did not look up. “What do you want, little daughter?” Her voice was surprisingly deep.

  “Lord … Lord Sulis is my stepfather,” I said at last, as if it explained something.

  Her eyes snapped open, huge and yellow. I had already thought her shaped like a hunting bird—now I almost feared she would fly at me and tear me with sharp talons. “Do you come to plead his case?” she demanded. “I tell you the same thing I told him—there is no answer to his question. None that I can give, anyway.”

  “What question?” I asked, hardly able to breathe.

  The witch peered at me in silence for a moment, then clambered to her feet. I could see that it was a struggle for her to lift the chains. She shuffled forward until the light from the door slot fell on her squarely. Her dark hair was cut short as a man’s. She was neither pretty nor ugly, neither tall nor short, but there was a power about her, and especially in the unblinking yellow lamps of her eyes, that drew my gaze and held it. She was something I had not seen before and did not at all understand. She spoke like an ordinary woman, but she had wildness in her like the crack of distant thunder, like the flash of a deer in flight. I felt so helpless to turn away that I feared she had cast a spell upon me.

  At last she shook her head. “I will not involve you in your father’s madness, child.”

  “He is not my father. He married my mother.”

  Her laugh was almost a bark. “I see.”

  I moved uneasily from foot to foot, face still pressed against the bars. I did not know why I spoke to the woman at all, or what I wanted from her. “Why are you chained?”

  “Because they fear me.”

  “What is your name?” She frowned but said nothing, so I tried another. “Are you really a witch?”

  She sighed. “Little daughter, go away. If you have nothing to do with your stepfather’s foolish ideas, then the best you can do is stay far from all this. It does not take a sorceress to see that it will not end happily.”

  Her words frightened me, but I still could not pull myself away from the cell door. “Is there something you want? Food? Drink?”

  She eyed me again, the large eyes almost fever-bright. “This is an even stranger household than I guessed. No, child. What I want is the open sky and my forest, but that is what I will not get from you or anyone. But your father says he has need of me—he will not starve me.”

  The witch turned her back on me then and shuffled to the rear of the cell, dragging her chains across the stone. I climbed the stairs with my head full to aching—excited thoughts, sorrowful thoughts, frightened thoughts, all were mixed together and full of fluttering confusion, like birds in a sealed room.

  * * *

  My stepfather kept the witch prisoned as Marrismonth turned into Avrel and the days of spring paced by. Whatever he wished from her, she would not give it. I visited her many times, but although she was kind enough in her way, she would speak to me only of meaningless things. Often she asked me to describe how the frost on the ground had looked that morning, or what birds were in the trees and what they sang, since in that deep, windowless cell carved into the stone of the headland, she could see and hear nothing of the world outside.

  I do not know why I was so drawn to her. Somehow she seemed to hold the key to many mysteries—my stepfather’s madness, my mother’s sorrow, my own growing fears that the foundations beneath my new happiness were unsolid.

  Although my stepfather did feed her, as she had promised he would, and did not allow her to be mistreated in anything beyond the fact of her imprisonment, the witch woman still grew markedly thinner by the day, and dark circles formed like bruises beneath her eyes. She was pining for freedom, and like a wild animal kept in a pen, she was sickening from her unhappiness. It hurt me to see her, as though my own liberty had been stolen. Each time I found her more drawn and weak than the time before, it brought back to me the agony and shame of my mother’s last, horrible days. Each time I left the cells, I went to a spot where I could be alone and I wept. Even my stolen hours with Tellarin could not ease the sadness I felt.

  I would have hated my stepfather for what he was doing to her, but he too was growing more sickly with each day, as though he were trapped in some mirror version of her dank cell. Whatever the question was that she had spoken of, it plagued Sulis so terribly that he, a decent man, had stolen her freedom—so terribly that he scarcely slept in the nights at all, but sat up until dawn’s first light reading and writing and mumbling to himself in a kind of ecstasy. Whatever the question, I began to fear that both he and the witch would die because of it.

  The one time that I worked up the courage to ask my stepfather why he had imprisoned her, he stared over my head at the sky, as though it had turned an entirely new color, and told me, “This place has too many doors, girl. You open one, then another, and you find yourself back where you began. I cannot find my way.”

  If that was an answer, I could make no sense of it.

  * * *

  I offered the witch death and she gave me a prophecy in return.

  * * *

  The sentries on the wall of the Inner Bailey were calling the midnight watch when I arose. I had been in my bed for hours, but sleep had never once come near. I wrapped myself in my heaviest cloak and slipped into the hallway. I could hear my step
father through his door, talking as though to a visitor. It hurt to hear his voice, because I knew he was alone.

  At this hour, the only guard in the cells was a crippled old soldier who did not even stir in his sleep when I walked past him. The torch in the wall sconce had burned very low, and at first I could not see the witch’s shape in the shadows. I wanted to call to her, but I did not know what to say. The bulk of the great, sleeping castle seemed to press down on me.

  At last the heavy chains clinked. “Is that you, little daughter?” Her voice was weary. After a while she stood and shuffled forward. Even in the faint light, she had a terrible, dying look. My hand stole to the purse that hung around my neck. I touched my golden Tree as I said a silent prayer, then felt the curve of that other thing, which I had carried with me since the night of my mother’s death. In a moment that seemed to have its own light, quite separate from the flickering glow of the torch, I pulled out the dragon’s claw and extended it to her through the bars.

  The witch raised an eyebrow as she took it from me. She carefully turned it over in her palm, then smiled sadly. “A poisoned owl’s claw. Very appropriate. Is this for me to use on my captors? Or on myself?”

  I shrugged helplessly. “You want to be free” was all I could say.

  “Not with this, little daughter,” she said. “At least, not this time. As it happens, I have already surrendered—or, rather, I have bargained. I have agreed to give your stepfather what he thinks he wants in exchange for my freedom. I must see and feel the sky again.” Gently, she handed me back the claw.

  I stared at her, almost sick with the need to know things. “Why won’t you tell me your name?”

  Another sad smile. “Because my true name I give to no one. Because any other name would be a lie.”

  “Tell me a lie, then.”

  “A strange household, indeed! Very well. The people of the north call me Valada.”

  I tried it on my tongue. “Valada. He will set you free now?”

  “Soon, if the bargain is honored on both sides.”

  “What is it, this bargain?”

  “A bad one for everyone.” She saw my look. “You do not want to know, truly. Someone will die because of this madness—I see it as clearly as I see your face peering through the door.”

  My heart was a piece of cold stone in my breast. “Someone will die? Who?”

  Her expression became weary, and I could see that standing with the weight of her shackles was an effort for her. “I do not know. And in my weariness, I have already told you too much, little daughter. These are not matters for you.”

  I was dismissed, even more miserable and confused. The witch would be free, but someone else would die. I could not doubt her word—no one could, who had seen her fierce, sad eyes as she spoke. As I walked back to my bedchamber, the halls of the Inner Bailey seemed a place entirely new, a strange and unfamiliar world.

  * * *

  My feelings for Tellarin were still astonishingly strong, but in the days after the witch’s foretelling I was so beset with unhappiness that our love was more like a fire that made a cold room habitable than a sun which warmed everything, as it had been. If my soldier had not had worries of his own, he would certainly have noticed.

  The cold inside me became a chill like deepest winter when I overheard Tellarin and Avalles speaking about a secret task Lord Sulis had for them, something to do with the witch. It was hard to tell what was intended—my beloved and his friend did not themselves know all that Sulis planned, and they were speaking only to each other, and not for the benefit of their secret listener. I gathered that my stepfather’s books had shown him that the time for some important thing had drawn close. They would build or find some kind of fire. It would take them on a short journey by night, but they did not say—or perhaps did not yet know—on what night. Both my beloved and Avalles were clearly disturbed by the prospect.

  If I had feared before, when I thought the greatest risk was to my poor, addled stepfather, now I was almost ill with terror. I could barely stumble through the remaining hours of the day, so consumed was I with the thought that something might happen to Tellarin. I dropped my beadwork so many times that Ulca took it away from me at last. When dark came, I could not get to sleep for hours, and when I did I woke up panting and shuddering from a dream in which Tellarin had fallen into flames and was burning just beyond my reach.

  I lay tossing in my bed all the night. How could I protect my beloved? Warning him would do no good. He was stubborn, and also saved his deepest beliefs for those things he could grasp and touch, so I knew he would put little stock in the witch’s words. In any case, even if he believed me, what could he do? Refuse an order from Lord Sulis because of a warning from me, his secret lover? No, it would be hopeless to try to persuade Tellarin not to go—he spoke of his loyalty to his master almost as often as he did of his feelings for me.

  I was in an agony of fearful curiosity. What did my stepfather plan? What had he read in those books, that he now would risk not just his own life, but that of my beloved as well?

  Not one of them would tell me anything, I knew. Even the witch had said that the matter was not for me. Whatever I discovered would be by my own hand.

  I resolved to look at my stepfather’s books, those that he kept hidden from me and everyone else. Once it would have been all but impossible, but now—because he sat reading and writing and whispering to himself all the night’s dark hours—I could trust that when Sulis did sleep, he would sleep like the dead.

  * * *

  I stole into my stepfather’s chambers early the next morning. He had sent his servants away weeks before, and the castle-folk no longer dared rap on his doors unless summoned. The rooms were empty but for my stepfather and me.

  He lay sprawled across his bed, his head hanging back over the edge of the pallet. Had I not known how moderate most of his habits were, I would have thought from his deep, rough breathing and the way he had disordered the blankets that he had drunk himself stuporous, but Sulis seldom took even a single cup of wine.

  The key to the locked boxes was on a cord around his neck. As I tugged it out of his shirt with as much care as I could, I could not help but see how much happier he appeared with the blankness of sleep on him. The furrows on his brow had loosened, and his jaw was no longer clenched in the grimace of distraction that had become his constant expression. In that moment, although I hated what he had done to the witch Valada, I pitied him. Whatever madness had overtaken him of late, he had been a kind man in his way, in his time.

  He stirred and made an indistinct sound. Heart beating swiftly, I hurried to draw the cord and key over his head.

  When I had found the wooden chests and unlocked them, I began to pull out and examine my stepfather’s forbidden books, leafing quickly and quietly through each in turn, with one ear cocked for changes in his breathing. Most of the plainbound volumes were written in tongues I did not know, two or three in characters I could not even recognize. Those of which I could understand a little seemed to contain either tales of the fairy-folk or stories about the High Keep during the time of the Northmen.

  A good part of an hour had passed when I discovered a loosely bound book titled Writings of Vargellis Sulis, Seventh Lord of Honsa Sulis, Now Master of the Sulean House in Exile. My stepfather’s careful hand filled the first pages densely, then grew larger and more imperfect as it continued, until the final pages seemed almost to have been scribed by a child still learning letters.

  A noise from the bed startled me, but my stepfather had only grunted and turned on his side. I continued through the book as swiftly as I could. It seemed to be only the most recent of a lifetime’s worth of writings—the earliest dates in the volume were from the first year we had lived in the High Keep. The bulk of the pages listed tasks to be performed in the High Keep’s rebuilding, and records of important judgments Sulis had made as lord of the keep and its tenant lands. There were other notations of a more personal nature, but they were bri
ef and unelaborated. For that terrible day almost three years earlier, he had written only “Cynethrith Dead of Chest Fever. She shall be Buried on the Headland.”

  The sole mention of me was a single sentence from several months before—“Breda happy Today.” It was oddly painful to me that my somber stepfather should have noticed that and made a record of it.

  The later pages held almost no mention of the affairs of either home or governance, as in daily life Sulis had also lost interest in both. Instead, there were more and more notes that seemed to be about things he had read in other books—one said “Plesinnen claims that Mortality is consumed in God as a Flame consumes Branch or Bough. How then…” with the rest smudged—one word might have been “nails,” and further on I could make out “Holy Tree.” Another of his notes listed several “Doorways” that had been located by someone named Nisses, with explanations next to each that explained nothing at all—“Shifted,” read my stepfather’s shaky hand beside one, or “from a Time of No Occupation,” or even “Met a Dark Thing.”

  It was only on the last two pages that I found references to the woman in the cell below the throne room.

  “Have at Last rec’d Word of the woman called Valada,” the scrawl stated. “No one else Living North of Perdruin has Knowledge of the Black Fire. She must be Made to Speak what she knows.” Below that, in another day’s even less disciplined hand, was written, “The Witch balks me, but I cannot have another Failure as on the Eve of Elysiamansa. Stoning Night will be next Time of Strong Voices beneath the Keep. Walls will be Thin. She will show me the Way of Black Fire or there is no other Hope. Either she will answer, or Death.”

  I sat back, trying to make sense of it all. Whatever my stepfather planned, it would happen soon—Stoning Night was the last night of Avrel, only a few days away. I could not tell from his writings if the witch was still in danger—did he mean to kill her if she failed, or only if she tried to cheat his bargain with her?—but I had no doubt that this search for the thing called Black Fire would bring danger to everyone else, most importantly and most frighteningly my soldier, Tellarin. Again my stepfather murmured in his sleep, an unhappy sound. I locked his books away and stole out again.