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Chapter 1: A Death (Mia)
The hour bells sounded, reverberating through the tower, then faded to silence. Mia and both her husbands were on time. Tella, her co-wife and sister, was late.
Hands folded in her lap, Mia sat perfectly still.
Across the table, Hurst tapped his fingers on the polished wood. Jonnor rose, paced twice round the room, pausing to look through the tower window at the everyday life of the Karning below, then took his seat again. Although they were cousins, the two men were not alike. Hurst’s rough features and plain brown jacket made him look like an ordinary Skirmisher, rather than a Karningholder. Beside him, Jonnor looked like a prince from the old stories, his blue woollen coat enhancing his figure.
Mia forced herself to take her eyes off him. She smoothed away a crease in her russet tunic, then stilled her hands.
“Do you think perhaps we should begin without Tella?” she said.
“Let’s wait a little longer,” Jonnor said. “She’s only just back from the Ring, so she’s bound to be a bit unsettled today.”
“Did she tell you what the Voices wanted?” Hurst asked.
Jonnor’s hands clenched for a moment. “We… discussed it.” Discussed! That was a mild word for the shouting Mia had tried very hard not to listen to. “She wasn’t very forthcoming.”
“I imagine it was just the usual,” Mia said quickly. “She missed her interview last winter, because of the baby.”
“The usual interference, you mean,” Hurst said, one eyebrow raised.
Mia clucked at him, scandalised. “The Voices are there to help us. They have to ask searching questions.”
Hurst grunted, shifting his bad leg to a more comfortable position. “If you say so. I’d just like to know if anything out of the ordinary came up.”
“Gods, Hurst! You do go on. She’d tell us if there was anything to worry about,” Jonnor said, rubbing his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept well, but then he was just back from a difficult skirmish, and that always made him a little tetchy.
Mia wished she could soothe him, but he rarely accepted her help. Still, she knew countless little ways to increase his comfort. She would order his favourite dishes for meat that evening, and have plenty of good northern wine to hand. That always helped him to relax and return to his affable self. ‘Ah, there’s nothing finer life can offer than red meat, red wine and the company of both my wives.’ How often had she heard him say so?
The small bells sounded, and they too faded to silence.
The door flew open, and Mia’s co-wife stood framed in the doorway, her curves clad in shimmering green silk.
“Hello, little sister,” she said languidly, nodding to the two men. “Husband. Husband.” She crossed the room to a window, skirts swishing. A faint haze of perfume drifted after her.
Hurst leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “Right, now that we’re all here, let’s talk about Tella’s interview.”
Mia opened her mouth, then thought better of it. She’d seen that determined look on Hurst’s face before.
Jonnor shook his head, his lips pressed together.
Swirling to face them, Tella sighed. “What is there to talk about?”
Mia looked from one to the other, pressing her hands together. If only they could pretend nothing had happened, then they could all be easy.
Hurst pressed on, his tone even. “Why you were summoned to the Ring at mid-summer, for one thing. What was so urgent it couldn’t wait for the winter quiet?”
She hesitated. “Nothing that need concern any of you.”
“They’re not going to break the marriage, then?” Hurst asked. “Or change the skirmish schedule?”
Mia’s heart fluttered in alarm. Break them? Split them apart and give their Karning to another set of Karningholders? That dreadful possibility had never occurred to her. She shivered.
Tella laughed, a dry, brittle sound. “Oh no, you’re quite safe. The marriage will go on. You can carry on with your precious skirmishes and… Oh, who cares anyway?”
Jonnor got up, and walked across to Tella, putting his arms round her. “Dearest, we only want to help.”
She pushed him away and folded her arms, her gaze sweeping the room. “You can’t help! It’s done with, finished, you understand? Interviews are always evil, but whatever went on, it’s my business, not yours, and I’ve dealt with it. None of you can help, so you can just stay out of my affairs. All of you.”
“Of course,” Mia put in quickly. “Interviews are a private matter.”
No one spoke. Mia held her breath, blinking hard to keep the tears at bay. They mustn’t quarrel, not today, not when the other three had only returned the day before. Surely they could have a few days of calm?
It was Hurst who broke the silence. “I’m sorry, Mia. We’re upsetting you. Shall we deal with other matters?”
She breathed out. When she looked at Hurst again, he was smiling at her, his harsh features softened.
They worked methodically through the list of items prepared by the secretaries for their attention. Food shortages, servants employed, dismissed or sick, taxes received, charity to be disbursed, petitions allowed or refused. Mia read out each item, she and Hurst agreed what was to be done, and she noted it down. Then on to the next. The repetition soothed her, and gradually she calmed down. This would all blow over, and they would be peaceful again.
All the while, Tella paced silently from one window to the other. Back and forth, back and forth, never still.
Jonnor sat at the table watching her every move, turning his head to follow her. He contributed little to the discussion until a problem concerning the roof of the great hall was mentioned.
“That sounds like fun,” he said, brightening. “I’ll talk to the builders, shall I?”
“If you’re sure it won’t be too unpleasant for you,” Mia said. “You’re only just back from the skirmishes. You should be resting, not clambering about on roofs.”
“Oh, I like to help out when I can. You have enough to do, little Mia.” He gave her a beaming smile which made her warm inside.
“Well, that’s the last of the Karninghold business,” Mia said. “Just the villages now, and only one for a change. Village Twelve Fifty-Six Eighteen has swamp encroachment again.”
“Twelve Fifty-Six Eighteen?” Hurst asked. “Remind me?”
“The locals call it Red Bear. It’s about half a day’s ride south of here, just west of the road.”
Tella stopped pacing. She stared out of the window, although there was nothing visible from there except the golden dome of the Karninghold temple. “So small,” she said in a quiet voice.
Mystified, Mia glanced across at Hurst, who gave the tiniest of shrugs.
“Dearest?” Jonnor said, frowning.
“From here, they look so small,” she whispered. “The Slaves, scurrying about down below like so many tiny grey mice. Rushing here and there, into the temple and out again, so busy. Busy little mice. So small, so insignificant.”
They were all silent. Mia’s head spun at the abrupt change in mood.
Tella swung round to face them. “This village – I’ll go.”
Mia’s eyebrows flew upwards. “You? But why?”
Tella lifted a languid shoulder. “Why not? I’m bored, I could do with a decent long ride.”
“My love, you’ve only just returned from the Ring.” Jonnor jumped up and strode across to her. “You’ll be exhausted… and it’s too far…”
“Don’t fuss!” She raised her hands and slipped out of his grasp. “I need to get away from this place, and a swampy village is as good an excuse as any other. Are we finished? Can I sign now?” She strode to the table and picked up Mia’s pen.
In silence Mia slid the paper to her. Tella scrawled her signature, and with quick steps left the room, her embroidered slippers making no sound, only a thread of perfume trailing behind.
Jonnor scribbled his name and skidded out of the room after her, his long coat flying, boots echoing on the stair.
“What was that all about?” Hurst raised his hands in entreaty. “When did Tella ever take an interest in village affairs?”
Mia could only shrug.
“She’s very secretive about this interview,” Hurst went on.
“Are you really concerned about it?”
“A little. Our skirmish results have been so poor lately. The Voices are bound to wonder why. Then there’s the two of us – still downstairs, still no more than glorified servants.”
Mia concentrated on straightening her sleeves. “That’s not so unusual. Some second husbands and wives never move upstairs.”
“True enough. Although now that Tella’s got her three children, I’ve been half-expecting things to change. But so long as everyone’s happy with it.” He paused, watching her.
Happy? After ten years of marriage, they were all contented enough, weren’t they? Tella and Jonnor had their quarrels, but they’d had three children together, and they got along pretty well as lead husband and wife. Better than many Karningholders, anyway. It wasn’t easy to marry someone chosen for you.
As for Mia herself, she had no particular expectations of happiness. There were the quiet satisfactions of her life to sustain her, like watching the children grow, the company of her Companions, the temple rituals and the daily round of her Karninghold duties. Whatever hopes she had, she kept to herself. So she made no answer to Hurst’s gentle probing.
“I’d just like to know what that interview was for,” he went on.
“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. Sometimes what happens at the Ring… what the Servants of the Gods and their Voices do… it seems very strange to us, but it comes direct from the Word of the Gods.”
She pushed the paper across the table to him. “There. Sign your name, and then I can tell you about one of the petitions I heard yesterday while you were riding back from the lines.”
He drew his chair closer to hers, bending his head to listen with a little smile, and his face softened. Hurst was not a good-looking man, and had none of Jonnor’s style or grace. He wore Skirmisher’s uniform whenever he could, but even in formal dress he looked rumpled, as if he’d just come from the training yard. He was a good man, though, and never complained about his withered leg, although Mia knew how much pain it gave him. A good man, and a good friend, too. No more than that, but then she had never wanted more from him. Friends they remained, helping to rule the Karninghold, but not quite a full part of this marriage.
She moved nearer to Hurst, and leaned forward. “This petition – I wasn’t sure what to do, but you always say that I should trust my intuition, so I did.”
He nodded, listening intently, and slowly she relaxed. Hurst was such a comfort to her.
That afternoon, Mia was in the family hall, reading to the older children, the hum of conversation around her. A gaggle of servants murmured over their stitch-work, two of the younger children chased each other squealing around the work table, some of the Companions giggled together. The afternoon sun radiated through high windows, painting blocks of colour over the stone floor and reflecting from polished wood and mirrors.
Then the afternoon peace was shattered like glass.
The death alarm sounded. It rumbled, low and sonorous, through the Karninghold, the tone so deep that even the stone walls seemed to shudder.
Mia froze, the book sliding from her fingers, fear clutching her heart. How she hated that sound! Unlike the welcoming chime of the arrival bells, or the frantic wail signalling a fire, the death alarm was slow, deep and dreadful.
It could only be tolling for one of the family. Yet who? And how could the Gods take one of them, who had all woken that morning young, well and filled with life?
She spun, scanning the room, her eyes flitting from face to face, counting. All around her, activity had ceased. Mouths gaped, eyes widened, hands clutched throats. White-faced servants turned to face her, waiting for orders. Her three Companions moved protectively around her. The children looked from one adult to another, puzzled. She tried to count them, her numb mind struggling. One, two, three… where was the baby? There! Thank the Gods, they were all in view.
Who else? Tella had ridden off to that village to the south, and must be far away by now. So it couldn’t be her.
It must be one of the two men. Something must have happened in the training yard, some accident – a wayward arrow, perhaps, or a badly wielded sword.
She turned and ran.
Jonnor! Sweet Gods, let it not be Jonnor! But it would be just as bad if it were Hurst. She didn’t want to lose either of her husbands. By the grace of the Nine, preserve us all from harm this day. Too late for that. On and on the alarm tolled, the slow beat of death.
Through the guest hall she ran, gasping for breath. On to the inner and middle halls. Servants jumped aside for her, white-eyed. Guards snapped to attention.
She had just reached the great hall when Hurst entered at a run through the opposite door, dishevelled and sweating. His limp gave him a strange rolling gait, but it didn’t slow him down. He crossed the room in great strides, and swept her into his arms.
“Thank the Gods!” he whispered. “I was so afraid…” Then, just as abruptly, he released her. “The children?”
“All fine. Is it Jonnor?”
“No. No…” His voice became puzzled. “It can’t be Tella, surely?”
But it was.
The Karninghold Slave, the most senior of the Slaves to the Gods at the Karninghold, came to tell them. His deep set eyes glinted unfathomably above the hooked nose, grey hood pushed back to expose his shaven head. Mia still retained a trace of her childhood fear of the Slaves and their sinister tattooed skulls, and this one was more macabre than most, despite the comforting tang of incense clinging to his grey robes.
“Some children collecting berries found her,” the Karninghold Slave said, his voice deep and placid. “Most High Tella was lying at the edge of woodland an hour’s ride north of here, her horse grazing loose. They thought she was asleep at first, she was so peaceful. When they realised, they ran back to their village to fetch help. The elders recognised the torc of her rank, and sent a rider to the Karninghold. The Silent Guards have gone to bring her back to the temple in proper state.”
“But it’s not even the right direction,” Mia wailed, unable to comprehend anything about it. “She should have been riding south.”
“Who knows why Tella does anything?” Hurst said, shaking his head. “…did anything. Gods, this is bad.”
They had retreated to the family hall. The servants were gone, the children gathered up and taken off somewhere. Hurst and Jonnor were still in their mail, hair matted with sweat, having come straight from the training yard. Jonnor sat, head in hands, white faced. The men’s Companions stood in an awkward semi-circle, faces serious.
Nearby, Tella’s Companions were sobbing, while her own comforted them as best they could. It was a terrible business for them, so sudden, so hard to accept, so young. It was an honour to be a Companion, of course, to become part of a Karningholder family, knowing that you would always be together, even in the Life Beyond Death. But at such a moment it felt like a terrible price to pay for that glory.
“Why would the Gods take her? She’s too young for them,” Mia said, forcing herself to speak calmly.
“We may not question the will of the Nine,” the Karninghold Slave said, touching his forehead in the ritual gesture, which Mia repeated reflexively.
“I have never understood why they take anyone, Mia,” Hurst said slowly. “If I had the ordering of the world, everyone would die in their beds, fast asleep and unknowing. But accidents will happen, you can’t avoid them altogether. I suppose she was just riding fast, as she so often does – did, and her horse missed his footing.”
“I suppose so,” Mia said. “She was such a good rider, though… It’s surprising.” She turned to the Slave. “The Healers will be able to tell, won’t they, Most Humble? When they examine her? So we will find out what happened to her?”
“Undoubtedly, Most High.”
“May I go to the temple? To see her?”
It was Hurst who answered, one hand resting on her shoulder. “Let the Slaves do their work, Mia. They have to… prepare her. You can see her later, at the proper time.”
The Karninghold Slave nodded, tucking his hands into his sleeves. “The dead await their journey to the Life Beyond Death away from all eyes. However, the rituals of the temple may comfort you in this most difficult time. You may ask the Nine for an easy passage for your sister.”
Hurst made a tutting sound. “There will be time enough for that. Let’s take care of the living first. Mia, do you think you could look after Jonnor? He’s struggling with this. Will you get him to the high tower and get a drink inside him?”
“Of course.” Something useful to do. “What about you?”
“There are things to do, announcements to make, messages to send.”
So practical; she should have thought of that herself. Such a relief to leave such matters in Hurst’s capable hands. She was lucky in both her husbands, she reminded herself, as she guided Jonnor up the stairs to the high tower.
Poor Jonnor. He had been so in love with Tella, and who could blame him? With her pale skin, voluptuous curves and dark hair, Tella had always reminded Mia of a ravishing sword-maiden of the old stories. But then Jonnor looked like a warlord himself, so they were well matched.
Now his handsome features were marred by trickling tears, his face blotched. He allowed Mia to lead him to an armchair without protest. She pushed a goblet of wine into his hand.
He lifted it to his lips at once and took a deep draught.
“How could this happen?” His voice was high, cracking. “She was so full of life! She can’t be dead!”
Another mouthful of wine. “It’s impossible! There must have been a mistake. That’s it! It’s a mistake! She’ll come galloping into the yard, and laugh at all this fuss.”
He raised the goblet again. “How she’ll tease us about this! Is there more wine?”
In silence she poured. She didn’t like to contradict him, but this line of thought was unwise.
Taking a deep breath, she said, “I think we must accept that – that she is gone. It does no good to pretend.” Tears prickled, but she forced them away. She had to be strong now, to support Jonnor.
He grabbed her hand so hard she winced. “How can I go on without her?” More tears trickled down, running unheeded over his full lips and down his chin.
“You must.” She knelt down beside him, lifting a drooping curl of hair away from his face. “Remember that she will be in the Life Beyond Death with her Companions and the Nine. That is such a comfort, isn’t it?” Her voice shook a little.
“It doesn’t comfort me!” He thrust her hand away and gave a great sob.
She wasn’t sure what to do for him. Such an agony to stand and watch, helpless to relieve his suffering. She wanted to hold him in her arms, but probably he would rebuff her. Even Tella was repulsed when he was out of sorts.
“Do you want anything to eat?” she suggested. That brought a shake of the head.
What else? He was still sweaty and dishevelled from the training yard.
“Shall I run you a bath?” A hesitation, then a tentative nod.
She ascended the stairs to the bedroom floor. At last, something practical she could do for him. Her own tears stung her eyes, but the need to help Jonnor kept them at bay.
The upper floor of the high tower was divided into four bedroom suites around an atrium. Out in the border Karnings, where the unending war against the barbarians was waged and more Skirmishers were needed, there were three floors of bedrooms to accommodate marriages of up to twelve, but their inner Karning only needed the four of them. Three, she corrected herself, her stomach twisting at the thought. Only three now.
She went into Jonnor’s bedroom, through the dressing room and into the water room, opening valves to draw water from the boilers several floors below and lighting burners to keep it hot. While she waited for the water to rise, she crept back to his bedroom.
A strongly masculine room, she thought it, with its dark walls and only two wardrobes – one for his combat gear and the other for ordinary clothes. There was little furniture, and no wall hangings or paintings on the wooden panels. No books, either; Jonnor was a man of action, not contemplation. The room was tidy, for she and the Companions had been through only that morning, sweeping, dusting and straightening; the servants were not allowed in the high tower. The only smell in the room was wax polish.
On impulse she tiptoed through to Tella’s room. It was crammed with little tables and decorative dressers, several wardrobes along one white-painted wall, their doors ajar, and mirrors everywhere. Discarded tunics, trousers, coats and scarves lay over chairs, and every surface was littered with the various jars of cream with which her sister had hoped to stave off any sign of advancing age. Tella’s favourite perfume lingered in the air, as if she had just that moment left the room. It was hard to believe she was gone for ever.
She picked up a gown from the floor, the silk ordered specially from the northern coast, she recalled, a vivid purple she would never wear herself. Mia held the fabric, as soft and delicate as petals, against her cheek. When she closed her eyes and breathed in the scent, she could see Tella wearing it, her curves filling the bodice, her dark hair falling loose almost to her waist at the back, the skirts swirling round her long legs. She was laughing, her brilliant eyes sparkling; in memory Tella was always laughing, although less so in life, at least lately.
Mia held the gown against her, the skirts trailing along the floor at her feet, and stared at her reflection in one of the mirrors. She looked like an ashen-faced stranger, not herself at all. She had none of Tella’s beauty or liveliness or allure, yet at the end of the month of mourning she would move upstairs into this room and become the lead wife in the marriage.
The only wife from now on.
But such thoughts were unseemly. She tidied away the gown into one of the wardrobes and shut the door with a snap.
She ran Jonnor’s bath and went back down to the living floor. He was sprawled in the armchair, his leather combat gear and chain mail in a heap on the floor. One hand held the goblet and the other clutched the nearly empty wine decanter resting on his stomach.
“I heard you.” His voice was flat, devoid of emotion. He sat immobile, not looking at her. “Creeping around in her room. She’s barely cold and you’re already taking over.”
She couldn’t breathe, blinking away tears. His grief was so deep, and she was increasing his misery with her thoughtlessness. Everything would remind him of Tella for a while, but if she was careful and bided her time, surely one day he would turn to her? Surely they could comfort each other in their sorrow?
He stood up, slamming goblet and decanter down onto a table, sloshing a little wine over the side.
“Do what you like, I don’t care,” he spat. “But don’t imagine for one instant that you can ever replace her.”
He turned towards the stairs.
Mia crumpled into the chair and wept, for Tella, for Jonnor and for herself.
Chapter 2: Funeral (Hurst)
“Can you believe it, there’s a crowd outside the gate already,” Hurst said, dropping onto a sofa, legs stretched out. “How do they know?”
Gantor, his senior Companion, shrugged. “Same way vultures gather over a battlefield. Here, have some wine. Did you get your messages sent?”
Hurst took the glass from Gantor’s hand. “The secretaries are taking care of it. They know the proper form better than I do.”
They were in Gantor’s sitting room, called a library in honour of its few rows of books. Hurst had chosen Walst and Trimon, his two younger Companions, for their ability with sword and bow. Gantor was quite different, closer to Hurst in both age and temperament. He came from a family of scholars, which made him an improbable Skirmisher, but perfectly suited to the role of Companion and advisor to a Karningholder.
“Did you ask at the temple about Tella? How she died?”
“Yes. Probably a fall from her horse, the Healers think.”
“Probably? Broken neck, then? Head smashed in?”
“Didn’t mention anything like that. You know what they’re like. It was the will of the Gods, and so on. Mustn’t question the will of the Gods.” Hurst ran his fingers through his hair. “But it must have been a fall. What else could it have been?”
“Hmm. So now what?” Gantor asked, leaning against the fireplace, one arm resting on the mantle.
“A funeral at dusk and…”
“Tsk. After that.”
“A burning at dawn, and a month of mourning.”
Hurst leaned back and closed his eyes. He had bathed and changed, but it felt odd to be sitting around in the afternoon, instead of tearing about the training yard with sword or spear.
“What?” He sat up and sipped the wine, avoiding Gantor’s gaze. “This is good stuff. Vilkorani?”
“It’s Trellian, and don’t change the subject. Be serious, will you. You have to face up to it sooner or later. Everything will change now. Mia will be lead wife and she could be with either you or Jonnor. Or both, come to that. Any arrangement is possible, but Mia won’t say a word and Jonnor will get the final say if you don’t assert yourself.” He strode across the room, whisking the wine from Hurst’s hand. “Listen to me! Are you going to sit tamely on your backside and let Jonnor walk off with the woman you love?”
Hurst’s stomach twisted, but he tried to keep his tone light. “He’s the lead husband, and she’ll be lead wife. Seems logical to me.” He snatched the wine back and took another mouthful, allowing it to trickle down his throat. That was it, focus on the wine, don’t think about Mia. Such excellent wine. Gantor always had the best northern vintages.
“It’s not right,” Gantor persisted, hauling a chair across the rug and sitting a sword’s length from Hurst. “Ten years you’ve played the dutiful second husband, letting Jonnor do what he likes. Look where that’s got us – stuck on the third line, pretending to smile while younger marriages thrash us in the skirmishes and gallop past us towards border Karnings. You’re older than him, far more experienced – you’ve had battle experience, by the Nine! You’ve washed barbarian blood from your sword. You should be in charge of the skirmishes, and as for Mia…”
Hurst shifted restlessly, but said nothing. What was there to say? His throat constricted at the thought of her. She was so dainty, so precise, her birdlike movements always a pleasure to observe. And her hair, he loved her hair. Usually she tucked it neatly under entwined head-scarves, but sometimes he’d seen it loose, falling across her face like a cowl the colour of a harvest mouse.
He swirled the wine round in his glass, watching it spin and churn. “It’s too soon to talk about this,” he said at last, sombrely. “Tella – I had no great love for her, you know that, but let’s mourn her before we worry about the future.”
“You’re a Karningholder,” Gantor said briskly, “you’re not expected to love your wives. What you are expected to do, though, is show some planning ability. And what I’m expected to do is advise you. Which I’m doing. You have a month to reach an arrangement between the three of you. If you don’t, the Voices will break the marriage.” Gantor stabbed a finger in the air. “Do you want Jonnor to have her?”
Hurst sighed, running a hand through tousled hair. “Mia would be happy with that.” Was his voice steady? He thought it was.
“Why would she be?”
Hurst grunted. “He’s better looking than me.”
“Hurst, everyone’s better looking than you. Even I have a certain rugged attraction…”
That made him smile. Women fluttered round Gantor like moths.
“…but that’s hardly the point,” Gantor went on. “You’re worth ten of that snivelling waster, and Mia’s a fool if she doesn’t realise that.”
“Don’t ever call her a fool!” he snapped, leaning forward so he was inches from Gantor’s nose. “She’s an innocent who thinks the best of everyone. Honestly, look at me. I have a face like the back end of a donkey, and a deformed leg. She’s as delicate and exquisite as a butterfly. She’s never seen me as more than a friend, and why would she? So I’m not going to force myself on her. If Jonnor chooses to have her, I can live with that. She’ll make him happy, you know, which Tella, for all her charms, never did, not truly.”
“Ah, but will he make her happy?”
Hurst chewed his lip. “Look, she’s waited ten years for him to notice her. Ten years of running round after the pair of them, carrying the burden of the Karninghold almost single-handed, not even having children of her own. Now she’ll have that possibility, at least.”
He took a sip of wine, before forcing himself to say the words. “Yes, he’ll make her happy.”
They gathered at day’s end, the fiery sun painting half the courtyard in brilliant gold. Hurst, Mia and Jonnor stood in a little cluster, their Companions behind them. They were all in white, the colour of the Gods, the colour the dead wore when they went to meet them.
Hurst hated the funeral robes. The stiffness, the constricting length, the vast amount of material wrapped around him, so that he felt he couldn’t breathe. Just getting up and down stairs was a ridiculous effort. How women managed their gowns so effortlessly he couldn’t imagine.
Mia usually chose practical trousers and tunic, but she wore gown or robe with equal grace. For a Skirmisher, though, robes were too effeminate. It was all very well for the male Slaves, who gave up their masculinity with their names when they took their vows, but he found it very trying.
Across the yard in the shadow cast by the high walls, the servants and guards and Skirmishers stood, still and quiet. A few women sniffled. Tella’s three Companions huddled at the funeral gate, heads down, sobbing quietly. Hurst could see Mia watching them, her hands clenching and unclenching, but unable to comfort them. What comfort could anyone offer?
He inched closer, and wrapped his hand around hers, as fragile as a child’s in his giant bear’s-paw. She didn’t acknowledge him, but her hands relaxed.
The torch-lit procession emerged from the temple, the Karninghold Slave leading the Silent Guards carrying the bier, and a long line of other Slaves following. The grey of the Slaves’ robes blended into the gloom, but the Silent Guards’ golden armour reflected and magnified the flickering torchlight. Odd to see them out in the open, the courtyard and the crowds making them seem smaller, more fragile, the gleaming armour as delicate as a buttercup. In their usual role in the temple, standing watchful and immobile around the perimeter, they were as solid as stone pillars. Here, pacing slowly across the courtyard in perfect synchrony, their faces expressionless beneath their helms, there was something light and insubstantial about them, as if they could transform themselves into golden birds and fly into the setting sun.
They were an odd group altogether, though. Sinister, even, although perhaps that was to be expected when they were secreted away at the age of five and trained relentlessly to this passionless discipline. How was it achieved, that silent perfection? Hurst was familiar with Skirmishers and household guards, and knew them to be normal men and women, with the same range of faults and strengths as any group of people. But the Silent Guards showed no weaknesses, never spoke or trained or made a misstep in public, revealed nothing of themselves. It was said that they had their own secret language, their own beliefs, their own plans but who could tell? They were a mystery.
The column stopped in front of the three Karningholders, and the bier-carriers set down their burden. Jonnor made a convulsive noise at the sight of the shrouded figure. Mia lowered her head, and clutched Hurst’s hand tightly.
Hurst wished there was more he could do to offer her solace. Jonnor, too. It was dreadful to see him so consumed by grief. If only they could share the burden, the three of them. A touch here, an embrace there; surely after ten years they could manage that, at such a dreadful moment for all of them? Yet he hesitated to make the first move. Jonnor was still angry about the outcome of the last skirmish. As for Mia… he contented himself with the warmth of her little hand in his, a small consolation for his own sorrow.
The Karninghold Slave was smiling. “I bring comfort in your grief. The Gods have chosen Most High Tella for a special purpose. She will be esteemed above all others in the Life Beyond Death, for the Nine have marked her.”
Mia’s stricken face lit up. “Oh! How wonderful,” she whispered. She stepped forward eagerly, releasing his hand, but Hurst followed.
The Karninghold Slave drew back the shroud for them to see the dead woman’s face, just as lovely in death as in life, but stiller, frozen in a moment of tranquillity.
Beside him, Mia swayed as if she might fall, and Hurst put out his arm, steadying her.
“Are you all right? Do you want to sit down?”
“No. No, it’s just… I’ve never seen her immobile like this. She was always such an active soul, even as a child… Like a blur of motion, never quiet. Now there’s nothing.”
Hurst gazed down at Tella, his throat tight. He had seen it before, this stillness of death, with not the flicker of an eyelash, not a breath, not the slightest movement of hand or chest or lips. Many good men died in battle, but it was especially tragic in a beautiful young woman. He had to blink back tears.
“Look,” the Karninghold Slave said softly, bending his head down to catch Mia’s eye. “See the mark of the Gods.” He pushed the shroud further down and pointed.
There on Tella’s upper arm was the mark, an irregular star shape, deep blue. In the centre was a tiny point of some darker colour.
“Touch it,” said the Karninghold Slave.
Obediently Mia put a finger to it.
“Your whole hand,” he insisted. “Cover it. Take succour from the power of the Nine.”
So she did, and Hurst followed her lead, although he thought it odd. Tella’s skin was soft and smooth; warm, too, although the air was cool and the sun almost gone. Hurst took a deep breath; such an intimate moment, that touch.
After them came Jonnor, his face creased with grief, hesitant and uncertain. When he rested his hand on his dead wife’s arm, he crumpled and fell to his knees, crying out “No! No! No!” over and over, tears rolling unheeded down his cheeks. Hurst and Mia had to coax him away, one on either side to support him.
After that, many others came to gaze at Tella’s pale face and touch the mark in awe. It was a rare thing for a woman to be chosen, and something to be remembered.
“Such a comfort,” Mia murmured.
“Is it?” Hurst said, without conviction.
“Of course! She has been chosen by the Gods. There is some reason for her death, it wasn’t just an accident. And it means she was not alone. If no one else is there, one of the Servants to the Gods will be present, to offer comfort and ensure a glorious and painless death. Those who are chosen never die alone.”
Hurst said nothing. He had seen men marked by the Gods before, after skirmishes and once after a battle. A man would fall with some trivial injury, and by the time the Slave Healers got to him, he’d be dead, with the mark somewhere on neck or shoulder or arm. Chosen by the Gods, the Slaves said.
Sometimes the Gods’ choices were puzzling.
Once they chose one of his most inept Skirmishers, a man without skill or strength, or the wit to improve either. When he wondered aloud why, the Slave Healer had frowned. “Who dares to question the Gods on such a matter? They have their own reasons, and choose who they wish, not always the best or cleverest or most beautiful, but needed by the Gods for some ineffable purpose in the Life Beyond Death.”
Hurst kept his thoughts to himself after that. Whatever his own doubts, Mia believed it all and drew comfort from it, and he was content with that.
Eventually, the Karninghold Slave murmured, “It is time.”
Jonnor was still lost in his grief, so it was Hurst who nodded acknowledgement, and the Silent Guards lifted the bier. The courtyard was in darkness now, the sun lower than the surrounding walls. The narrow funeral gate opened, casting a shaft of golden light across the yard.
The Karninghold Slave took a torch from one of his acolytes and led the way through the gate. The bier followed, then Tella’s three Companions, clinging to each other, and another Slave with a torch. A sad procession they made, Hurst thought, the Slaves in their grey robes, the Silent Guards in gold, and Tella and her three Companions in the white robes of death. The gate clanged shut behind them, shrouding the yard in gloom again.
Hurst, Mia, Jonnor and their Companions climbed a narrow stair set into the wall beside the gate, emerging onto a covered balcony overlooking the meadow and fields beyond it. At first the low sun set the Silent Guards’ armour aflame and the group was easy to follow, but then they passed into shadow. Soon only the flickering torches were visible, passing into the funeral tower on its small knoll, and climbing the stairs inside.
When the torches reached the top of the funeral tower, the blue lights were lit inside, strange ethereal shimmers in the darkness, bright enough to see shadows moving here and there behind. There was such finality in those blue lights.
The family was expected to stand vigil for a while, and braziers had been lit, cloaks and blankets brought, and food and wine provided. Jonnor sat on a stone bench, head down, wrapped in his own arms. Mia brought a cushion to sit on, watching the blue lamps in the distance. Hurst poured wine for them all, and silently stood beside her.
He ached to take her in his arms, to let her weep on his shoulder, to cry himself – for Tella and for all of them. Yet he dared not. Mia would be Jonnor’s now, and that was the end of it. Unless… but it was better not to think about that, not to create any impossible hope in his mind. So he stood beside her, so close he could smell the herbal scent of the soap she used.
The Karninghold Slave returned from the funeral tower, and acolytes lit incense sticks around the balcony, chanting. Mia joined in at the appropriate points, sitting passively, her hands still. Even Jonnor drank some wine and asked for a little fruit. Then all the Slaves withdrew, and one by one the Companions left too, until only the three of them were left on the chill stone balcony. Together they sat, looking out into the darkness at the otherworldly blue lights hovering.
Mia stared mesmerised at those glowing lamps. Hurst left her to the cushions and withdrew to the bench with his wine. How grieved was she? Tella was her sister, but they had never been close. In the early days of the marriage, it was clear they knew very little about each other, and Tella had never made much effort to change that, focusing on Jonnor. When she tired of him, she grew restless and unsettled, disappearing for days at a time.
In some ways, they would all miss Tella’s Companions more than Tella herself. Well, not Jonnor perhaps, but the rest of them. They were friends for Mia and her own Companions, and to the men, something more than friends. Unlike Tella, they had always been around the Karninghold, working with Mia and her own Companions, dealing with the domestic matters, helping with the children.
Gods, the children! That was a bad business. Of the nine children, seven would lose their mothers with the dawn and the flames in the funeral tower.
“It’s getting late,” Hurst whispered in Mia’s ear. “You will be exhausted. Why not go to bed for a while? We will be awakened well before dawn.”
“If Jonnor will go, then I will too,” she said, moving to the bench and sitting next to him.
“She was my wife,” Jonnor said tearfully. “My beloved wife. I’ll not leave her. I’ll stay here and watch over her. I couldn’t sleep anyway.”
Mia put an arm round his shoulders, and he sat, hunched in misery, beside her. “I’ll wait with him,” Mia whispered. “But there’s no need for all of us to stay. You go and get some sleep, Hurst. You were so late back last night, you must be tired.”
“I’ll keep you company if you wish.”
She shook her head. “There’s no need. I can look after Jonnor.”
It was true, he realised in sudden anguish. That was her role now, to take care of Jonnor, to be the wife he needed, even if he didn’t appreciate his good fortune. There was no place for Hurst in this new arrangement, and if he hovered round the two of them, it would only confuse things.
Brushing the tips of his fingers gently across her arm, he crept away.
With the first faint hint of dawn, Hurst returned. Jonnor had fallen into a restless sleep, but Mia stood, gazing towards the funeral tower.
“How are you?” Hurst asked, placing a hand in the small of her back. “Have you had any rest at all?”
She stood unmoving under his touch. “Do they come themselves? The Gods – do they come for the dead?”
Strange question. What had been going through her mind while she stood vigil through the long, dark hours?
“I don’t think so. I never heard of anything like that. The Gods are never seen, they never intervene, that’s why they have their Servants, and the Voices of the Servants and their Slaves, to carry out their wishes.”
“That’s what I thought too. But…” She hesitated. “You’ll think me insane, I daresay.”
“I saw… something. People. At the top of the tower, not long ago. Several of them, moving about.”
“That would be the Companions, I expect. They… the Slaves give them poison, you know, so they don’t need to be awake for the flames, but they don’t have to take it.”
“Five of them. I saw five.”
“That’s… Mia, that’s not possible. There couldn’t be more than three, just the Companions. No one else is there.”
“Could anyone get in?”
“No, the doors are locked and the Silent Guards stand vigil around the outside of the tower. No one could get in. Besides, you can’t see anything for certain from here. In this half-light, it’s easy for the eyes to be tricked.”
“I expect you’re right,” she said, her voice tired and dull.
The sky was soon a blaze of angry reds and golds and washed out blues. The funeral tower stood out stark and clear, rising like a slender finger from the morning mist below. In the room at the top, the blue lamps were dim against the strength of the rising sun.
The Companions returned one by one to the stone balcony, and then the Slaves, the acolytes lighting scented oil burners and positioning the great brass gong. The Karninghold Slave began to chant, but almost at once a bulky acolyte swung his hammer against the gong. The sound echoed through their heads and reverberated off the walls, making them all jump.
Across the meadow, the upper floor of the funeral tower was engulfed by vivid blue flames, so that for an instant a brilliant pulsing globe sat atop a thin stone pillar.
Then the blaze was gone, and Tella and her Companions with it.
Chapter 3: Mourning (Mia)
An acolyte ignited the ornate brass brazier with a torch lit from the temple fire. Thick stone walls and high south-facing windows kept the temple’s side-chamber cool despite the summer warmth outside. A gong tolled, and Mia took her place on one of the cushions around the brazier. Jonnor, grey-faced, sat to one side of her with Hurst on the other, and she reached to clasp their hands. Just three of them, now, and a little further for their arms to stretch to circle the fire. Their first family communion since the funeral burning, and it didn’t even feel strange, since Tella had been away so often lately. It was almost normal, a return to the comforting daily rituals of the Karninghold.
Mia always liked family communion, with the joined hands, the fire, the incense, the chanting of the Slaves. Around them, the Companions stood in a ring with the children. One held the baby asleep in her arms, tufts of white hair peeking out from her shawl. The two oldest boys stood together solemn-faced, their dark curls mingling, heads bowed, eyes closed. Two of the girls quietly held hands, but the younger ones were restless. Nine children in the family, and seven of them had lost their mothers in the funeral burning, she thought with a tremor; Tella’s three, and her Companions’ four. The children would barely notice Tella’s absence, perhaps, but her Companions had helped to take care of all the little ones, not just their own. Already Tersia’s eldest was asking where she was. Now Mia and her own Companions would have to be enough for them.
She bowed her head, breathing deeply to inhale the fragrant smoke of the brazier and the heady musk of the incense. Then she allowed her mind to float free.
It was Jonnor who filled her thoughts. Not today’s Jonnor, a silent ghost of himself, creeping about in the shadows, wild-eyed, or masking his despair with wine. She remembered the month of discovery, that time when they got to know each other before they married, the mornings riding out together, all four of them, the long walks through her mother’s perfumed gardens, the evenings of laughter and promise. For a very short time, Jonnor had been hers, had looked at her in a way that made her warm inside, a time when he had brought her the prettiest flower, or the choicest sweetmeat. Hurst and Tella were to be lead husband and wife, and she and Jonnor were to be a couple, too. But then Jonnor’s father had intervened, and turned everything upside down. Her own father had agreed to the change, and Hurst’s too, so there must have been good reason for it, but she didn’t know what. So Tella got Jonnor, and she and Hurst got nothing.
The final gong jolted her back to awareness. Jonnor leapt up and strode off. Everyone else began to drift away to their morning duties. Mia took a deep breath, trying to focus her mind again.
“Shall we check the accounting,” Hurst said gently, as he appeared at her side, “or would you rather start on some letters?”
She sighed. “One day. That’s all the time we’ve had to grieve.”
“It’s probably better to be busy. Less time to think.”
She bowed her head in acceptance, too weary to argue. “Accounting, then.”
They moved from the side-chamber into the temple. The line of Slaves passed by on one of their circuits, one in front jingling the bells, another at the rear waving the censer, and the third in the centre holding the book of hours, reciting the familiar lines. It was Gaminor just now, the seventh day and the third hour. Mia murmured the words under her breath as they walked towards the exit.
Hurst stopped beside the great wooden doors, which stood open to the warmth outside. Turning to face her, he wrapped one of her hands in both of his. “This is hard for you, I know,” he said. “Would you like to stay here for a while? I’ll deal with the accounting.”
So tempting, to lose herself in the words of the Nine. The temple soothed her spirits, with its constant incantations and tinkling bells, incense heavy in the air, and the Silent Guards in their protective circle around the perimeter. But she couldn’t give way to her grief. It was bad enough to have Jonnor distraught; she had to be brave for his sake, for the children, for the Karning. She took a deep breath. “No, you’re right, as usual. Better to have plenty to do than to brood. Let’s go.”
Jonnor’s father was the first of the official mourners to arrive, for his Karning was no more than a few days away. He was only forty-four, since Jonnor had been born when he was just sixteen. If anything he was even more handsome than his son, tall and fit, with a full head of dark hair. He had a certain charm which reminded Mia of thieves and rogues in the old stories who managed to talk themselves out of every difficulty.
“How you must miss dear Tella!” he said. “Such a wonderful woman she was. And such a fine horsewoman. I remember a particularly spirited grey she had at one time, and she rode with such style! I could barely keep up with her. There was one occasion when we went east, and…”
Mia recalled that he had always got on well with Tella, although they met rarely. They had certainly had a rapport, both of them being lively, physical people. Since he was a strong horseman, they had often ridden out together when he visited the Karning. Such memories were too much for Jonnor, who leapt up and dashed out of the room.
“He was fond of her, then?” his father remarked, one eyebrow raised. “But then she was so captivating, everyone must have loved her.”
Jonnor’s mother was very different, plain-faced and as thin as a stick, who sat in pinched silence during the mourners’ official ceremonies. Mia was surprised when she asked to walk round the ladies’ garden.
“Now, my dear,” she said, wrapping Mia’s hand around her bony arm. “We must have a chat, for you will be lead wife now, you know.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose I will be.” Of course she had thought about it. How could she not? At last she would move upstairs, and perhaps Jonnor… She was annoyed with herself for blushing.
“Why, my dear, you look…! Surely you have…? You mean you are still not active? Well! How old are you now? Twenty-one? Twenty-two?”
“My dear! But you know, it was only supposed to be three years that you were downstairs. Such a child you were then, everyone thought it was for the best. But we never intended… We’re not living under the Petty Kings, you know, there’s no need to lock yourself away from men altogether. Oh, such pretty leaves, such an unusual colour!” She stopped, fingering a small bush beside the path. Mia stood in silence until she moved on.
“I suppose none of the Companions appealed to you? No? Well, perhaps you’re right. These Skirmishers, they’re built like trees and with brains to match, most of them.”
Mia tried to keep her expression blank, but it was hard not to be insulted. She was a Karningholder and a Higher, her role to be a wife to her two husbands, not to amuse herself with the Lower-born Companions. It was permitted, for they were a part of the marriage too, but such dalliances held no attraction for her.
Jonnor’s mother rattled on, without waiting for an answer. “And Jonnor never wanted to change things? But I suppose he had his reasons.”
“He was always very content with Tella,” she murmured.
“Indeed, indeed. And so he kept you downstairs. Oh goodness, is that a moonrose?” She dived abruptly off the path into a weedy area of shrubs. “I’ve never been able to grow them, you know. How did you do it?”
“It just appeared,” Mia said. “This garden does whatever it wishes.”
“Oh, mine’s the same,” Jonnor’s mother said. “It’s hopeless, nothing but root vegetables grow so far south. Even so – a moonrose! A pity I won’t be here to see it flower. Where were we? Oh, yes. So – you never wanted to be made active? You could have asked any time after the three years. You never thought of that?”
How could she possibly explain it? The waiting, hoping that Jonnor would tire of Tella, or at least hunger for some variety. Then Tella’s increasing volatility, and the fear that a change would be too disruptive. They’d had such a fragile arrangement, Tella and Jonnor, but it worked, if they were left to themselves.
Then there was Hurst, who had never shown any signs of wanting to move upstairs. Well, he had other outlets, he didn’t need a wife in his bed. And if they were all upstairs, there was no knowing how things might end up. Not that she would mind being with Hurst, if that was asked of her, he was a sweet man, but she’d always hoped it would be Jonnor, or at least that she would have a choice. But she couldn’t begin to explain any of that.
Instead, looking at the ground, Mia said, “We were all quite content.”
“My dear child! What a timid little mouse you are. Well, perhaps it’s for the best.” She paused, then took Mia’s arm again, patting her hand. “Yes, indeed. But now things will be different. Such a change for you! But you must be careful, and not allow too many liberties, if you understand me. Oh, you’re such an innocent child, aren’t you? I mean, of course, that you must keep to Jonnor, and not allow… well, I know it’s for all three of you to decide, of course, but you must make your voice heard. You must convince Jonnor not to allow the other one near you.”
“The other one? Do you mean Hurst?”
“Hurst, that’s it. Better not to, you know.”
“But… Hurst is my husband, too.”
“Well, of course, of course, but… my dear, since we’re alone let’s speak frankly. You wouldn’t want a child like that, would you?”
“Like… like Hurst? Why ever not?”
“Oh, but…” She tittered. “I suppose you don’t see it, but… so ugly, and that leg…”
Had Mia ever thought him ugly? He wasn’t handsome like Jonnor, certainly, but he wasn’t so bad looking. When she’d first met Hurst, she’d thought him an intimidating man, the limp rather disconcerting. Probably that was just his age, for he was twenty-six to her fifteen, a Skirmisher with battle experience against the Vahsi. Once she got to know him better, she stopped noticing his looks, especially when he smiled and the corners of his eyes crinkled pleasingly. The limp was just part of him, and she never thought about it.
“The leg was a childhood illness,” she said eventually.
“But there must be a susceptibility, a weakness. Take my advice, dear, stick to Jonnor. Much better babies.”
Brothers and sisters were not obliged to visit after a death, but many of them did so anyway. Two of Hurst’s older brothers came from a nearby Karning, slapping the men vigorously on the back, and drinking vast amounts of wine. Mia’s sisters came in twos and threes, wearing the white sash of mourning, accompanied by all their Companions, who filled the guest hall with tears and reminiscences and emotional hugs, clustering in big gossipy groups. It cheered Mia hugely, and only partly because of the constant bustle and activity.
Later came Mia’s own parents from the northern border, a tiring journey, which left them exhausted. Mia noticed for the first time that they looked almost old – her vigorous father, always riding off somewhere at speed, and her energetic mother, never still, suddenly had grey hair and wrinkles. How had she never seen that before? Mia hugged them both, and cried a little, not for Tella this time, but for her own happy childhood and the sheer pleasure of seeing them again.
“Goodness, but it’s cold here,” Bellissa said. “Have you anywhere we can warm ourselves?”
There were few places in the stone-built Karninghold free from chills and drafts, even in high summer. Mia had grown used to the damp southern air, but for her parents, newly arrived from the warm north, it was torture. Mia took them through to the inner hall, where a fire burned year-round, and rugs and wall hangings kept the heat in. She arranged chairs close to the fire and wrapped them in shawls.
“Tell me everything that’s been happening,” Mia said eagerly.
“Oh, the usual,” Kendron said. “The Vahsi have been quite active this year, but they haven’t caught us at a disadvantage yet.” He gazed around the room at the many large wall hangings, pocked with moth holes and faded with age, depicting great victories against the plains barbarians. “These are strange images of them.”
A savage race they looked, with their antlered helmets and painted faces, wrapped in furs and waving their curved blades. Mia loved to read stories about them, thrilling tales of their brutality which had her shivering in delicious fear, while knowing herself to be quite safe. The barbarians were always defeated, in the legends just as in the real battles along the border.
“They’re a strange race, though, aren’t they?” Mia said. “They must be, to fight a perpetual war they can never win.”
“Perhaps,” Kendron said. “I certainly don’t understand them. But it’s the depiction of them that’s strange. The Vahsi I’ve fought against weren’t like this at all. They looked just like scruffy, bearded Skirmishers, only more disorganised. But enough of the barbarians. We have news for you, child. We’ve decided… we will be breaking this winter.”
“Breaking? No! Not you!” Mia stared at them, her hands covering her mouth. It happened to every Karningholder marriage eventually. Still, it was hard to think of her own parents and all their husbands and wives scattering to different Karnings, broken apart just because they became too old to rule.
“I know, I always thought I would die with a sword in my hand, too,” Kendron smiled, one eyebrow jinking upwards. “But it hasn’t happened, and we’re getting too decrepit for the border. And I’ll be honest with you, child, I’m tired of it. More than twenty years we’ve been on the northern border, and we’ve made a good job of it, on the whole, but these last two or three years… Time to let someone else have a stab at the barbarians.”
“But where will you go? I don’t see you at the Ring, somehow.”
“No, not there. We will never have to go there again, I hope. But there are some of your brothers we could go and annoy, and two of them are far enough north to be warm.”
“I wish you could come here,” she said. But the remnants of broken marriages never went to daughters, only to sons or to the Ring, living out a twilight life with no proper role, dwindling towards death.
They had little to say about Tella.
“I remember her, of course,” Kendron said. “An active child, always flitting here and there, never still, and such a beauty as she grew up. But there were so many children, over the years, and she was never close to either of us. Who was her mother, do you remember, my dear?”
Bellissa shrugged. “I’m not sure. She might have been the third wife’s, the one who died. She was a good looking woman, too. Or one of the Companions.”
Kendron turned to Mia with a smile. “We remember our own much better.” He put an arm round her, and she snuggled contentedly against him.
“Now,” he went on, “you must understand, child, that you are in a very dangerous situation with Tella gone. With four, a marriage falls naturally into two couples, or else there is just one couple and the others help out, as you have done. Or… well, there are other arrangements, of course. But three – that is more problematic. If a husband dies, the Voices have to replace him for the skirmishes. But a wife… It is not so easy.”
Mia said nothing, puzzled. She already knew that Tella would not be replaced, so she would be lead wife. What would happen after that… well, they would settle it after the month of mourning. She would be upstairs and sleeping with one or other of her husbands, that was certain. Or perhaps they would share her. That wasn’t uncommon. She would accept whatever the men decided. But what could be dangerous about it?
“What will most likely happen, you see,” Bellissa said, leaning forwards, “is that you and Jonnor will become a couple and Hurst…” She glanced at her husband.
“If Hurst feels excluded, he may take it badly,” Kendron said.
“Hurst…? I don’t think you know him very well,” Mia said, floundering a little, not sure where this train of thought was leading.
“I know his reputation,” he said. “I know he’s clever and ambitious. It’s been a concern to us right from the start. Jonnor should watch out for him, that’s all I say. He should watch out for blue arrows.”
Mia shivered, her stomach churning. “No,” she whispered. “He wouldn’t. Would he?”
“Maybe not, but he has the right. If he feels slighted, he might ask for the blue arrows, and then you’ll lose one of your husbands to the funeral flames as well.”
4: Upstairs (Hurst)
Whenever Hurst wanted to hide away from the world, he retreated to his senior Companion’s small library. Gantor was the son of scholars, and a great reader. He had books hanging on his wall that had nothing to do with skirmishes or battles or strategy or swordwork, and didn’t even have pictures in them. The room was also provided with maps and models for skirmish strategy planning, and was kept well stocked with cakes and wine.
Hurst usually hid to avoid the Slaves trying to drag him to the temple for some ceremony or other, but this time the cause was his own father. Tanist was the last of the official mourners to arrive, after a long and arduous journey from the far western border, beyond the reach of the sky ship way. He was something of a hero nowadays, having scored a famous victory over the Vahsi barbarians only two years earlier.
“I love my father dearly,” Hurst said to Gantor. “He taught me everything I know about skirmishing, and the barbarians too, but I wish he’d remember that I’m not a child any more. Improve your skirmish results, Hurst. Stand up to Jonnor, Hurst. Look at your younger brothers, Hurst, already promoted to the fourth line. Trouble is, ever since he got rid of the Vahsi in his patch, he’s had too much time on his hands. He has nothing to do now except hand out unwanted advice.”
Gantor snorted. “And what part of that advice would you argue with? You’re only cross because he’s right.”
“Of course he’s right. We should be further than the third line by now, maybe even at the border. I know that as well as anyone. After all, you’ve been saying it for years.”
“You’re not jealous of Klemmast and Jallinast? Making the fourth line before you?”
“Gods, no! They deserve it. I’m really pleased for them.”
“It will be interesting to see how things work out, with a third couple in the marriage,” Gantor said, his face thoughtful. “They’re so close, those two, they’ll find it unsettling.”
“It’ll be fine,” Hurst said breezily. “You always anticipate the worst, my friend. Mind you, I didn’t expect Roonast to be the new husband. Fifteen! That makes me feel so old. I remember him being born. But he’s easy going, he’ll fit right in.”
“Do you ever think about it? Moving to the fourth line? Getting a third couple?”
Hurst shrugged uneasily. Of course he’d thought about it, about the way it would change things, how could he not? But he’d grown up in a border Karning, the eighth line to start with and later the ninth, with the full complement of six couples in the marriage, and everything relatively stable. Early marriages, with only two or three couples, were much more fluid. Less predictable. He’d worry about it when it happened.
“Or you could get another couple now,” Gantor went on. “If you ask for the blue arrows.”
“Oh, don’t you start! You’re as bad as Tanist. Take the blue arrows, Hurst. Get rid of Jonnor, then you’ll be lead, Hurst.”
“Mia was asking, you know,” Gantor said, staring into the distance. “About the blue arrows.”
“What did you tell her?”
“That you had not divulged your thoughts on the subject to me. Which is the truth.”
“You’ll be the first to know, I assure you.”
Gantor folded his arms, and scowled at Hurst. “We do have an interest in the matter. If we’re to be incinerated in the near future, we’d like a chance to get our affairs in order.”
Hurst laughed and shook his head. “If it comes to that, I don’t think we are at any risk.”
“Don’t make assumptions,” Gantor said seriously. “Once the arrows start flying, who knows how things might turn out. And even if you don’t ask for the blue arrows, Jonnor might. Or the Voices might send an agent to sort things out.”
“An agent? Not likely,” Hurst said at once. “Jonnor or I can ask at any time, but the Voices try not to interfere.”
“Ah. You’ve been looking up the rules about all this. That’s interesting.”
“Yes, I have, of course I have. But there are very few absolutes about it – it’s all ‘may’ and ‘could’ and such like. As for Jonnor – why would he want me out of the way? He’s the lead – he does what he wants, and I tidy up after him.” He couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of his voice.
“Tanist’s right, you know,” Gantor said, watching him. “This is an opportunity to take charge. I don’t want to influence you either way, but it would solve all the problems. Take the blue arrows, remove Jonnor – you would have everything you want.”
“It’s not about what I want! Well… not just that, it’s about the family, about stability. We’ve gone on fine for ten years, because nobody got confrontational. I have nothing against Jonnor, you know that. I’d like a more equal part in this marriage, but I don’t want him dead. I’ll kill barbarians if need be, but not my own kin. And another death so soon after Tella…”
“It doesn’t have to be soon. You have three years to ask for the blue arrows, don’t you? Well, then. You could wait. But if Mia and Jonnor…”
Hurst stood. He was weary, he realised, weary of these same arguments revolving without resolution in his own head. Of course he wanted Jonnor out of the way, then he could make his own decisions on the skirmishes, he could play his own strategies. He could mark up some successes, as he had for the first three or four years of the marriage, when Jonnor lacked confidence and took his advice. Those had been good years. And Mia… Mia would be his. And yet… Always he hesitated, knowing how it would affect Mia. Or rather, not knowing at all.
Gantor grunted and tilted his head to the side, looking up at him. “You know what the men say of you? That you’re a lion on the line, but you’re a mouse in your own home. It may be time to roar, Hurst.”
The month of mourning had its trials, but to Hurst it was a time of unexpected solace. The days were full of dull ritual, but they were shared with Mia, which made them bearable, and the tedium was broken by the afternoon stillness. The custom was a throwback to a hotter climate when everyone rested from the sun, but now it was an hour of freedom from duty, an hour with Mia. Often they sat companionably opposite each other with their books spread out. He liked skirmish strategies or battle histories, while she would read some romantic tale or a melodramatic adventure from the Petty Kingdoms.
Then each evening he, Jonnor and Mia retired to the high tower for their meat, just the three of them. Jonnor was no company. He toyed with his food for a while, saying almost nothing, and then took a full decanter of wine upstairs to drink himself to sleep. After that, Hurst sat with Mia, and they talked, or read, or played crowns, as they felt inclined, and these quiet hours brought him an indescribable deep pleasure.
Sometimes they would talk over the day’s events, or perhaps it would be the children and how they were coping with the changes, and then the conversation would get round to Tella and her Companions. Tessa, Tenya and Tersia. Such stupid names, he thought them. He had never liked the women’s habit of renaming their Companions to match their own name.
One evening Mia said to him, “You must miss Tersia, Hurst. You and she were… close, weren’t you?”
“Close? Well, she was an affectionate woman,” he said, uncomfortably. “She was… very obliging. But there was nothing more to it than that.”
All Tella’s Companions had been very obliging, and had entered enthusiastically into certain aspects of their duties. All six of the male Companions, and Hurst too, had cause to mourn their loss. Walst and Tenya had been lovers almost from the start of the marriage, and Tersia had been particularly accommodating to Hurst himself. In fact, he had good reason to wonder whether her first two children looked anything like him.
Mia was a romantic soul, though. She probably imagined that his willingness to sleep with Tersia implied some great passion, rather than a simple need for sex. He would miss Tersia, naturally, and all of the Companions. But his heart had always been elsewhere, even if Mia herself was quite unaware of it. Perhaps it was better that way. Her pity would be unbearable.
One evening, as soon as Jonnor had gone up to his room, she came and sat next to Hurst, her face anxious.
“May I ask your advice about something?”
“Well, of course,” he said, folding his book away.
“I found something. In Tella’s room.” Her hands moved restlessly. “I was going through her things, her clothes and so on, sorting everything out. Deciding what to keep and what to take to the Ring to be passed on.” She stopped, pressing a hand against her mouth.
“And you found something?”
She nodded, raising big eyes to his face. “A letter. Will you… will you read it? Tell me what you think?” She pulled a folded paper from her sleeve, smoothing it before handing it to him.
He frowned. “If it’s something private…” A love letter, perhaps? Tella had always had admirers, before and after she married. He wasn’t sure he wanted to read such a thing.
“No, nothing like that.” She twisted her hands again. “It’s to me, from Tella. But… I don’t know what to make of it.”
He looked down at the crumpled papers, two folded sheets, with the broken seal still visible. On the outside, in Tella’s sprawling hand was written ‘Mia’.
“Why would Tella write to you?”
“That’s what’s so odd. She could have talked to me any time she wanted. And I don’t understand what she’s trying to say. Please. Will you read it?”
Without a word he unfolded the papers, and began to read.
“My dear sister,” he read, “I suppose you will be surprised to find this. I hope you will find it, and not toss everything straight out for burning! That would be just my luck! Little Mia, are you wondering what this is about? Don’t worry, I’m not about to confess to some dreadful crime. Whatever I may have done is finished with now, gone beyond repairing and cannot be changed so there’s not much point in regret, is there? Sweet sister, you think me a terrible mother, I know, but be assured that I do love my children, all of them. But I know my limitations, too, and I know that sitting around day after day with a drooling infant in my lap, changing soiled cloths and mopping up vomit are not my strengths. Being at home at all, being faithful and sensible and domesticated, all those things you do so effortlessly, little sister, these I cannot do. So I want”
The first sheet ended, and Hurst tossed it aside impatiently. The next sheet was less neatly written, and blotched, as if… but surely Tella could not have been crying as she wrote? Hurst had never seen her cry, except once when a favourite horse fell and broke its neck.
“you to know that I am very happy for you to … charge of the domestic sphere. You are … better than me in every way, my dearest, so much more fitted to this life of ours, that it is … proper for you to have all the rights and privileges that are your due. You are so patient, so good, you deserve everything. I know you will always … care of everyone in the family, won’t you? You will continue to look after Jonnor and Hurst, … nurture Tellon and Jaslia and poor little Jinnia – especially Jinnia – just as you have for years, without complaint. It is … one comfort. Your loving sister, Tella.”
Hurst frowned, and read both pages again. “What do you make of this?” he asked her.
“Nothing! I can’t understand it at all! What does it mean? What does ‘especially Jinnia’ mean? Have you any idea?”
“Did you notice the date?” He showed her the symbols scrawled in one corner, half overwritten by a line of writing. “It looks to me like the day before she died.”
“But – that’s such a coincidence. Isn’t it?” She got up, paced about the room a few times, then sat again, her eyes on his face.
He shook his head a little, lost in thought. He folded the pages up, and set them down on the table. Then he got up and poured himself some wine, and stood beside the window, looking out absently.
“Have you ever read about the battles at the border?” he asked at last, turning to her. She shook her head. “There’s nothing for weeks or months, just the empty plains and the wind and sometimes a group of kishorn lumbering by. But then you see the dust, away in the distance, and you start to hear a deep rumbling which gradually gets louder, and there’s singing and pipes playing, and there they are, streaming out of the crevices they hide in. Suddenly there’s a whole sea of them. The Vahsi. As dark falls there are campfires and torches and voices… you can hear snatches of talk or laughter or music. You know, then, there’ll be battle the next day. That’s when men suddenly decide to write messages to wives or lovers or parents. Sometimes it’s practical… tell my brother he can have my clothes, that sort of thing. But often it’s just… those things he always meant to say but never quite managed to find the words for. That’s what this reminds me of.”
“But Tella wasn’t going into battle!”
“No. But she was going to die. And I think she knew that.”
Mia raised her hands helplessly. “How is that possible? She couldn’t have known!”
“She’d just had that interview. Maybe the Voices told her something.”
“Impossible,” Mia said, with a vehement shake of the head. “The Gods never tell anyone when they’re going to die. It’s one of the Fundamental Tenets. No one may know the moment of their own death. Even you must remember being taught that, Hurst.”
“I never listened to all that temple stuff. Well. It can’t be that, then.” Even as he spoke, Hurst realised there were other ways Tella could have known she was about to die. Could she have taken her own life? Or did she know of someone determined to kill her? But he said nothing to Mia. “Put the letter away somewhere safe,” he said. “Don’t let Jonnor see it, it would only upset him.”
As soon as the month of mourning was over, there was a ceremony to raise both Mia and Hurst to active status, and thus make Mia the lead wife. The Karninghold Slave and his most senior acolyte brought their incense and chanting first to the living floor of the high tower, and then to the bedroom floor, after which they bowed low and left in as much haste as was decent. Even Slaves disliked such business, for what went on in a marriage was usually a private matter.
Jonnor immediately withdrew to his own bedroom, whisking behind the privacy screen. Had there been any door fitted, perhaps he would have slammed it. After a moment’s hesitation, Mia, head down, went into her own room. Hurst watched her go, wondering if she’d thought to change the furnishings, or whether everything was exactly as Tella left it.
He went into his own new room, and walked across to the window, gazing down to the training grounds below. How pleasant to have a decent view at last, instead of the narrow windows and drainage spouts at the rear of the family wing. And space, that was a novelty, too, after the tiny room he’d enjoyed downstairs. He looked around at the blank walls, working out where to arrange his pictures. There were already hooks in neat rows waiting for his books. Not that his were works of great learning, like Gantor’s, or sweeping sagas from plains history, like Mia’s, but his collection of illustrated erotica was extensive and much in demand amongst the guards and Skirmishers.
The room might be different, but his situation was just the same. He was still the third person in this marriage. Even if he and Mia had moved upstairs years ago, would it really have been any different? And what if they’d kept to the original arrangement, and he’d been paired with Tella? Could he have kept her happy? She was such a vibrant woman, so full of life, but perhaps he could have loved her, if things had been different. For a while, he had thought himself quite close to her. But she wasn’t made for the domestic life, not like Mia, so perhaps she would always have been restless in time. Perhaps it was just in her nature to wander, to be dissatisfied with life. But Jonnor and Mia… that would have been a good pairing, the right pairing.
No point in thinking about what might have been. Jonnor had got Tella, and although he was overawed by her at first, after Tellon was born he’d grown in confidence and started to assert himself both at home and on the lines. And he had wanted to keep Mia and Hurst downstairs, and they had tamely gone along with his wishes.
But now they were left with this peculiar situation, three of them upstairs and no clear arrangement. Given Jonnor’s grief over Tella, it was logical that Mia should end up with Hurst, but would Jonnor accept it? All was uncertainty, but it had to be settled, and soon.
After a while, Hurst heard Mia’s light feet cross the atrium and patter down the stairs. He walked over to Jonnor’s rooms and knocked on the wooden privacy screen, walking in without waiting for a response. Jonnor was huddled on the window seat, knees pulled up to his chest, head drooping.
“Brother, we have to talk about Mia,” Hurst said briskly. “We have to decide what approach to take.”
Jonnor looked at him bleakly. “Which of us will fuck her, you mean?”
Hurst raised an eyebrow. “Well… if you want to put it that way. Or we could share her. If she is happy with that.”
“Not her decision, cousin,” Jonnor said, turning to gaze out of the window.
Hurst suppressed his irritation. He’d grown used to Jonnor’s refusal to acknowledge him as a brother in marriage, and he was determined not to let it rile him now. “Have you talked to her about it? Asked her what she wants?”
“She’ll do what she’s told.”
Hurst took a deep breath. Getting angry wouldn’t help, and deep down he knew it was true – Mia would accept whatever Jonnor decided. She would never say openly what she wanted. He knew her feelings, though, and he’d already decided he wouldn’t try to come between the two of them. And yet… if Jonnor was reluctant, perhaps Hurst had a chance, after all? His heart turned over in sudden hope.
“Look, I know how you feel about Tella, I understand. I can deal with Mia for you, if you like, it doesn’t have to be you, I can take that responsibility off your hands.” Was that too pleading, too desperate?
Jonnor turned to face him again, and now his expression was icy cold. “You have no idea how I feel, cousin, none at all. And don’t lecture me about responsibility. I’m lead husband, I will deal with Mia tonight, and after that… Well, we’ll see.”
Hurst’s stomach clenched violently, but he tried his best to keep his face under control. Not his voice, however; he didn’t trust himself to speak, so without a word he turned on his heel and stumbled out.
As he left, Jonnor called after him, “You can tell her.”
Chapter 5: Village (Mia)
Mia had prepared a haunch of venison and a pair of ducks for meat. They were laid out on the pan for roasting, waiting for the oven to heat up. Most of the dishes came from the main kitchens below, but she liked to cook for the men. She was stuffing the ducks with herbs when Hurst came down the stairs. He looked very pale, and for a moment she thought perhaps he was ill. But then she remembered that he was grieving for Tersia just as Jonnor was grieving for Tella, and the change in situation must be just as difficult for him. She decided not to mention it.
“The rooms are nice, aren’t they?” she ventured. “What will we do with so much space?”
He gave her a wan smile. Scraping a chair across the bare marble floor, he sat down at the table, but he said nothing, so she chattered on as she worked.
She’d thought it would upset her, seeing Tella’s room again. The perfumes and brushes and pots of this and that were gone, but Tella’s furniture and cupboards still stood exactly where she had placed them – the bed near the fire for warmth, several wardrobes for all her clothes, the large mirrors angled so she could check her rear view when she dressed.
Yet somehow it was comforting to be there, to touch the velvet curtains brought from the Ring, or the little writing table of exotic carved wood Tella had imported so expensively from the northern coast. In the cupboards and drawers, all her clothes, the silks and fine linens she liked to wear, soft rustling trousers and floating tunics, still exuding a drift of her perfume. Mia liked plainer, more practical, clothes but there were a few that might suit her, if she altered them to fit, and perhaps she would wear some of the delicate undergarments.
At length she ran out of tasks to occupy her hands. Hurst still sat, drooped over one end of the table.
“Can I fetch you some wine?” she asked.
He agreed to it, which she recognised as a sign that he was nervous. But when she had placed the goblet before him, he twirled it with unseeing eyes. She sat down opposite him and waited.
“Mia…” he began, and then stopped.
“Jonnor and I have been talking…”
Again he stopped, but at least now she understood his discomfiture. A ripple of anxiety clutched at her. Perhaps Jonnor was not going to… Perhaps it would be Hurst. Part of her had always been prepared for that eventuality, but it was one thing to know it might happen and quite another to face up to the inevitability of it. She tried not to let her disappointment show.
He began once more. “Jonnor…”
“Yes?” she said again, willing him to get it over with, just wanting to know.
“Jonnor will come to your room tonight.”
The relief! It would be Jonnor after all! She could feel her face lighting up with pleasure, and tried as best she could not to insult him by showing it. But he was watching her, his face unreadable. He must see her excitement.
“And what about you?” she murmured, dropping her eyes.
“Jonnor hasn’t decided,” he said. Then he made an excuse and left.
The men were both silent over meat. Jonnor drank more than usual, Hurst nothing at all. Mia drank a whole glass of wine and felt wonderful – vivacious, witty, charming. She knew it wasn’t true, she knew she was babbling inanely, but she couldn’t suppress her emotions. She was the most even-tempered of people as a rule, yet here she was, with everything she had ever wanted finally coming to her. Despite her grief at Tella’s death, she couldn’t hide her joy.
They all lingered at the table, even Mia’s chatter fading to silence, but the time came when the moment could not be put off any longer.
“I’ll tidy up down here,” Hurst said, avoiding their eyes. “There’s some reading I want to do. You two go on up.”
Even in her happiness, she thought it odd that he should be so embarrassed. Surely he could not dislike the change in their relationship? He was her friend. Wasn’t he pleased for her? But she was too excited to dwell on it.
She skipped up the stairs, and into her room. She wasn’t sure how much light there should be, so she lit all the lamps, just in case. Her nightgown was already set out on the bed. She’d chosen one of Tella’s, much finer than anything she owned, to pay the occasion the proper respect. She shrugged out of her tunic and trousers, tossing them over a chair, and pulled the silk gown over her head. It was such a delicate fabric, she almost felt naked. Then she sat on the edge of the bed and waited. She heard Jonnor’s heavy tread on the stairs, crossing the atrium, entering his own room. There was silence for a long time.
After a while, she got up and hung her discarded clothes in one of the wardrobes. She waited again. Eventually, she realised she was shivering so she got into bed.
It must have been the best part of an hour before he came, although the bells had stopped so it was hard to tell. He had a wine goblet in one hand and a half-full decanter in the other. He stopped dead as he came into the room and gazed about, a bewildered expression on his face.
As soon as she went downstairs the next morning, she found Hurst waiting, sitting at the table pretending to read. He realised at once that something was wrong.
“Whatever happened?” he said, leaping up and putting gentle arms about her. To her shame, she wept, pressing her face into his broad shoulder. “Did he hurt you?”
“No, oh no. But… nothing happened. He sat on the window seat for an age, just crying. Then he left.”
“It’s too soon. Too soon after Tella’s death. It’s the room – it’s more or less exactly as she left it, and… and it distresses him, naturally.”
Hurst made soothing noises and stroked her hair, and she was comforted, a little.
“You could use the other bedroom, I suppose,” he said.
“Oh no, that wouldn’t do!” Mia said. “The rooms are marked for the lead and second, it’s tradition. It wouldn’t be right to do things differently.” She sighed. “I can move the furniture round a bit, perhaps.”
Not long afterwards, Jonnor came down, stony-faced. They went downstairs for the communion ceremony, and nothing more was said.
Mia’s distress evaporated sooner than she had expected. Jonnor’s grief gave her an easy explanation for his reluctance. She had bided her time for ten years, and could wait a little longer. She was not lively or beautiful like Tella, so Jonnor was bound to find her less desirable. Each night she hoped he would come to her, and each night she was a little less surprised when he didn’t. Then she had the normal routine of the household to steady her, and wrap her in its familiarity.
With the month of mourning over, the skirmishes resumed, and Hurst and three Hundreds of Skirmishers took off for the northern boundary line. Mia and Jonnor were left to deal with the daily affairs of the Karninghold.
“There’s another message from village Twelve Fifty-Six Eighteen,” she said, as they sat in the watch tower meeting room one morning. “Their swamp problem is getting worse, and they ask if one of us could visit to authorise drainage work.” She tried to keep her tone business-like, and not remind him that this was the village Tella had set out to visit the day she died.
Jonnor gave no sign that he remembered. “I suppose it can’t wait, with winter not far away.” A heavy sigh. “I’m not sure I feel up to it. Besides, we have our own swamp problem here, with those blocked overflow pipes above the family hall. I’ve been keeping an eye on the builders’ work. You won’t mind dealing with the village, will you?”
“Not at all. I’ve been there many times before. It’s a recurring problem.”
“You’re so good with the villagers, too,” he said, with such a charming smile that Mia couldn’t stop herself from blushing.
“I can’t ride as fast as… I mean, I’ll have to stay overnight,” she said, cursing herself for almost mentioning Tella. “Do you mind?”
“No, not at all.” He looked down, straightening the papers on the table. “Just don’t go alone.” A quick glance up at her. “Don’t ever ride alone.”
Her heart fluttered. He was concerned for her safety! That was a good sign, surely?
“Oh no, I always take guards with me, I’ll have a couple of engineers, too, and one of my Companions. I’ll take Marna this time, I think. Ever since… I mean, she spends so much time with the children, it will do her good to get away.”
“She’s the only mother left here now,” Jonnor said sombrely. “She feels responsible for all the motherless little ones. But you’ll be a mother one day.” He reached across the table and took her hand, looking into her eyes. “It will happen, you know that, don’t you? I – I’ve needed a little time, but… soon, I promise.”
Warmth flooded her whole body, and she smiled widely at him. “I… I’ll leave for the village today, then.”
Mia was not a fast rider like her sister, but she was competent on horseback, as every Karningholder had to be, since few villages were conveniently situated beside a paved road. Her horse was a placid mare, capable of long journeys at a steady amble, as Mia preferred.
It was unfortunate that every step of the journey south reminded her of Tella, and that dreadful day. She had been found to the north of the Karninghold, so what had happened? Had she changed her mind, or had she never intended to go to the village at all? Why did she write that odd letter the day before? Impossible to know. And then there were the figures Mia had seen in the funeral tower… She shook herself out of her reverie. It was no good brooding. She and Hurst had talked all round the problems many times, without resolution.
It was well into the afternoon before the group reached the village, where Mia spent at least two hours walking around the worst of the bogs, and hopping nimbly from one dry hummock to the next. The whole Karningplain was prone to such swamps, which appeared and disappeared from one season to the next, it seemed at random. A village could be perfectly dry for a generation, and then be swallowed whole within two or three years.
She left her advisors considering options, and rode with her guards and junior Companion, Marna, into the village itself. Like most such places, it was a sprawl of tyholds, their hedge-defined fields tended by a single family group, together with larger communal lands for grain. Dotted about were ramshackle patched wooden cottages and barns, set in a criss-crossing web of muddy dung-spattered lanes. Chickens, sheep and children skittered aside as the group passed by. In a cluster to one side were the stone buildings of stables, smithy, mill, water house and alehouse, and, a little apart, the Slave’s house. The guards went off to the alehouse for the evening, but Mia and Marna were to stay with the Slave.
As a child, Mia had always been terrified of the Karninghold Slave, a very elderly man with a dried-up face. When she read stories of ancient peoples who left their dead out to shrivel in the sun, she had no struggle imagining the result. The swirling robes, the shaven tattooed head, the incense and chanting had given her nightmares. It was only after she began spending half of each year with the scholars at the Ring at the age of ten and understood the ways of the Gods a little better that she began to take comfort from the ritual.
But Mia knew this village Slave well, and found her a much less formidable matter. She only shaved part of her head, for one thing, rarely wore the traditional hooded robes and was much more pragmatic. She had to be, living amongst the relative poverty of the villagers. She was both leader and friend, dispensing advice and instruction, comfort and punishment in equal measure. The Slave was the only literate person in the village, the only one able to summon help from the Karninghold, the only one with any knowledge of history and politics and science and the law, the only one with healing skills. Like all Slaves, she was not allowed to have children or marry, but lovers were tolerated.
Mia had met this particular Slave several times before, and she was the first who had ever explained to her why she had chosen that path, forsaking even her name in submission to the Gods. It was not, she said with her throaty laugh, from any virtue or an excess of devotion. But she had grown up in a village herself, and decided that anything was better than grubbing in the earth for turnips all year round, surrounded by a whining cloud of children.
“Don’t you like children?” Mia had asked, rather shocked.
“I love them,” the Slave had replied, “so long as they belong to someone else.”
At supper, they sat cross-legged on the earth floor, Mia, Marna, the Slave and the two acolytes, who, like all such, were not named, but identified by village and number. They were quiet young men, one tall, one short, both skinny, passing around bowls and spoons and tankards in silence. They all shared a solid stew, mostly vegetables with a little meat, and the dark unleavened bread eaten in most villages. There was no wine, just thick foamy ale which Mia rather liked, although Marna pulled a face.
After the meal Marna went off to the alehouse to be with the guards, and the acolytes disappeared. The Slave watched Mia in silence, her head tilted to one side. She was perhaps in her mid-forties, a well-rounded woman, gentle and sociable, whose ample flesh wobbled when she laughed, which was often.
“You are very quiet, Most High,” the Slave said. “Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it is.”
“Do you want to listen, Most Humble?”
“Always, my friend,” she replied, spreading her hands wide in invitation.
“Well then,” Mia began, shifting so she could lean against the wall, “I will tell you what I saw at the funeral tower after my sister died, and you can tell me that I imagined it.” And so, in simple terms, she described the five figures silhouetted at the windows against the blue glow of the lamps, and although the Slave’s eyebrows rose, she listened without interruption.
Rather to Mia’s surprise, she then said, “And who else have you told about this?”
“Only Hurst. He told me it was impossible, just the light playing tricks on my tired eyes.”
The Slave closed her eyes for a moment, as if considering. “When the dead – and their Companions – are left at the funeral tower, the doors are locked.” She opened her eyes again, looking straight at Mia. “There is no way for anyone to get in from the outside. There is no way for those inside to get back out. That is what the Silent Guards are there for, to prevent it.”
“You think I imagined it, then?”
“I think you saw what you saw, Mia. I just don’t know what that might be. And I’m not sure it is very – helpful, whatever it was.”
Mia laughed. “No, you’re right about that. But it bothers me.”
“Mia…” The Slave watched her intently. “I would never presume to advise a Karningholder, but if I were to do so…” Again she eyed Mia, then sighed. “No, it’s not my place.”
“You may speak freely, my friend.”
“Well then, I will. I think you should forget about this. There is nothing to be gained by worrying over such matters. Life holds many mysteries, and it’s not… not always useful to pursue them. Set it down as a secret of the Gods, and think no more about it.”
The Slave was unusually serious, so Mia nodded. “But this isn’t what you expected me to want to talk about, is it?”
“Not really. After all, there have been some changes at the Karninghold, haven’t there?”
Mia bowed her head a little in acknowledgement, but she was not sure quite what she could say about it. She could hardly tell a village Slave that her husband couldn’t quite bring himself to share her bed. It was too humiliating. Eventually, she said, “Well, things are still… a bit unsettled.” Then she fell into silence.
In the end, it was the Slave who spoke. “There is a lot of chatter in the village about blue arrows. I have told them the Karningholders are too sensible to try that, but the oldest villagers remember the last time Karningholders settled things that way. One of the wives died in childbirth, and within a few weeks the arrows were flying. But there is always a lot of chatter about the Karningholders. I don’t regard it much. The villagers need something to talk about, after all.”
“I have no idea whether it will come to that,” Mia said. She tried to keep her tone light, but she couldn’t help shivering. “I hope not, but – who knows? It’s for the men to decide.”
“It is a strange business,” the Slave said, eyeing Mia. “Karninghold marriages are a mystery to me. Why don’t they send another wife to make up the numbers?”
“It’s not allowed, it has to be pairs, and a new pair has to be earned by promotion to a Karning that needs it.”
“Yes, but why isn’t it allowed?”
Mia chuckled. “One of the scholars once told me that it’s because a woman is not necessary to the marriage, except to have children. If one wife dies, there is still another.”
“Yet having only one wife is regarded as so intolerable that the husbands are allowed to try to kill each other!”
“Well, it isn’t quite like that!” Mia said, with a half-smile. “And you can’t actually kill anyone with a blue arrow – or so I’ve read. You mark them with it, and then the Gods decide.”
“As they decide everything under the sun,” the Slave said piously, touching her forehead in the ritual prayer movement.
Mia bowed her head, and made the same gesture. “Let us hope they have no plans to take Jonnor or Hurst just yet.”
Chapter 6: Skirmishes (Hurst)
Hurst’s horse shifted under him, sensing his excitement. He stroked her neck absently. “Easy, girl. We’ll be moving soon enough.”
Alongside him, Gantor murmured, “Almost time.”
They formed part of a ring of mounted Skirmishers defending their flag hill, rather a grandiose name for such a scuffed and weatherbeaten mound of earth, the summit not much higher than Hurst’s head. In front of them was the skirmish field, a quarter-mile of churned mud. Beyond that a line of battered wooden poles marked the boundary between their own Karning and their northern neighbour, with its matching skirmish field and flag hill. In the distance, Hurst could just make out the coloured tabard of Kelmannor, his opposite number, to one side of his hill.
Gantor’s role was to keep his eyes fixed on a third hill some distance away, positioned directly on the boundary line. It boasted a small wooden hut for the observers, and the clock pole for the flags which marked the hours and sixths. “The last small flag is going up… now. It’s time.”
“Begin,” Hurst said.
Gantor scratched his nose. Further off, a Skirmisher closed his visor with a snap. Hurst dared not turn his head to watch in case it alerted Kelmannor, but he knew his eccentric signals were being conveyed from one group of men to the next. Eventually the message would reach a cluster of riders milling about on the edge of a copse some distance away.
Hurst felt the familiar flutter of excitement. Too late now to wonder whether his strategy would work. As always, his mind cleared and he began to focus on these last, crucial few moments before the end of the flag phase of the skirmish. He waited.
Yes! There he was! A single horseman in Hurst’s colours burst into the open from the copse, his head hunched low over his mount’s neck. He tore across the skirmish field towards the opposition’s flag hill, a brightly coloured flag tied to his saddle. Across the boundary, a group of Kelmannor’s Skirmishers spurred into action, racing to intercept him, but they were sluggish by comparison.
Hurst watched in silence, rather impressed. The rider was Walst, one of his two younger Companions, a skilled swordsman, but not normally noted for his ability on horseback.
Gantor laughed. “Look at him go! He’s across the boundary already. Gods, I think he’s actually going to make it!”
It looked as if Kelmannor’s riders had misjudged Walst’s speed, and sheer momentum would carry him all the way to the flag hill. Hurst heard shouts, and saw arms waved frantically. Then, the moment he’d been waiting for. Kelmannor himself took a group of riders to deal with the intruder. The flag hill was almost undefended, and everyone’s attention was on Walst.
“Your turn,” Gantor said, grinning at him.
Hurst lowered his visor and urged his horse into action. She sprang forward enthusiastically. Then there was nothing but the gallop, the roar of the wind rattling his visor, the rhythm of the horse beneath him, the enemy flag hill directly opposite him. He was vaguely aware of horses moving here and there, of shouts and whinnying, a crashing sound. A rider came into view nearby, then fell behind. Hurst stormed onwards. More riders ahead, and a group on foot, swords out. A quick swerve and he was past. Another group, more determined, forced him off course to the left. He smiled under his helmet. All part of the plan.
Abruptly he was surrounded, his horse rearing, voices yelling, something clanging against his helmet. He held on, his horse dancing to avoid crashing into others, snorting her disgust at the abrupt end to her race. Then a huge weight thumped against his chest and he was falling, curling by instinct into a ball, rolling in the mud, kicked once, twice. He lay still, gasping for breath until it was over.
Before he dared open his eyes, there was a shriek. “Another one! Over there!” Then pandemonium. The sound of many men mounting up, riding off, frantic cries. He smiled. That would be Trimon, another of his Companions, and the final part of his plan. While Walst and Hurst had been showily distracting Kelmannor to one side of his flag hill, Trimon had been sneaking round the back. Moments later, he heard the horns signalling his success. Trimon had set his flag on the summit of their opponents’ flag hill. Hurst laughed out loud.
A hand flipped his visor up, and an amused face peered at him. “You all right? Most of the horses missed you, I think.”
Gingerly, Hurst uncurled himself and the hand hauled him to his feet, making him wince. “Kelmannor?” He pulled his helmet off, and cautiously stretched arms and legs, and wiggled his fingers. “I’m fine. The others? Walst?”
“Everyone else had the common sense to stay on their horses. Gods, Hurst, how do you always put one over on me? Three last minute flag runners? And next time it will be some other new idea. Can I have Jonnor back, please? He’s much easier to deal with.” The younger man laughed and clapped Hurst on the back, making him wince again. “Thank the Nine this is the last skirmish before the quiet. We’ve got so few flags this time that you’ll wipe us out in the melee.”
Hurst smiled and said all that was proper. For a while the excitement lifted his spirits, but inside he was empty. He knew as well as Kelmannor that these few small victories came too late to offset the many losses of this year. When the Voices assessed the skirmish results, it would be Kelmannor moving on to the fourth line, and Hurst would be left on the third yet again.
Still, the skirmishes kept him busy, and that was as close to happiness as he could get at the moment. He’d had so little skirmish time the last two or three years, and he was grateful that Jonnor’s low mood kept him at home. Of course, he was careful to ask Jonnor’s advice on strategy and sometimes he even took it, if it matched his own ideas.
It was satisfying to be in control again, but in truth, he found the skirmishes a strange and sterile business. On the border the battles against the barbaric Vahsi were infrequent but bloody, and men learned to fight for their lives or else died in the attempt. The skirmishes along the interior boundary lines were artificial, with their protocols and flags and odd truncated encounters, no more effective a training for the reality of the Vahsi than a game of crowns was a recreation of the Petty Kingdom wars of old. At least they enforced the necessary skills and fitness, and encouraged a degree of strategic thinking.
Autumn was not the best time to be manning the lines, but the grey skies and shortened days suited his mood. He had never been one to direct his men from a distance, and he ended each day as wet and muddy and chilled as anyone. He would tend his horse, just like the rest, rinse his clothes in the same bog, and eat the same half raw, half burned meat. Then he would wrap himself, fully dressed, in cloak and blanket to sleep under a thin skin tent like any other Skirmisher.
Not that he did sleep. Exhaustion would give him two or three hours of oblivion, and then he would wake and lie half dozing until he heard the first movements of the camp and could stop pretending. And when he did manage to sleep, he dreamt of her. Of Mia. Or rather, he dreamt of Jonnor with her, touching her, inside her, his face livid with hatred or crying because she wasn’t Tella, wasn’t the woman he loved, while she gazed at him with rapture. And then he would wake, shaking and anguished, only to find even then his mind filled with her beloved image. It was unbearable.
The skirmishes came to an end, the final prisoners were exchanged, and he had no option but to return to the Karninghold. One glance at Jonnor’s face told him nothing had changed. And there waiting for him were the messages from the Ring; the travel arrangements and appointments for interviews. The winter quiet was upon them and all at once they were out of time. Mia was away, dealing with one village or another, so he determined to resolve matters once and for all.
Tonight, the roast came up in the lifter from the kitchens below with all the other dishes, and their own oven was cold. Maybe it was his imagination, but the meat from the lower kitchen never tasted as good as it did when Mia cooked it. Today it was stringy and flavourless. Jonnor carved and ate in silence, while Hurst gave him all the details of the last few days on the lines. It always took a while to draw Jonnor out of his abstracted state, but wine and some amusing anecdotes had their effect. Hurst was diplomatic about his skirmish successes, ascribing whatever he could to Jonnor’s advice or the idiocy of the opposition, while minimising his own role as best he could. By the time he had exhausted his stock of tales, Jonnor was relaxed and smiling.
Collecting the plates, Hurst reached for his most casual tones. “So how are you getting along with Mia?”
In an instant, Jonnor’s face was wiped of all good humour. “If you are going to offer to help out again, cousin…”
“No,” Hurst said quietly, hoping he didn’t sound too regretful. “But nothing’s changed, has it? We have to talk about it, brother.”
While Jonnor scowled, Hurst moved round the table in silence, carrying dishes to the lifter and sending them down to the servants below. Then he went into the pantry and brought out a full decanter of wine and two of the glasses they kept for celebrations. Sitting down opposite Jonnor he filled the glasses, pushed one across the table, and drank a little from his own.
“Let us put all our crowns on the board.”
For a moment Jonnor just stared at him, then he nodded and took a deep gulp of wine.
“I am thirty-six years old,” Hurst began, “and I’m running out of time to reach the border. My father made it, my younger brothers are well on their way, and I want to get there too. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, my whole life.”
Jonnor was watching him, his face suspicious, not sure where this was going. It was clear that he hadn’t expected this approach.
“I had other marriage possibilities,” Hurst went on. “But this one – I felt straight away that you were my best hope. We’re a good match in the skirmishes, you and I. You’re terrific at defence, and you’ve always managed the negotiations well too. Whereas I… I can move quickly and produce the unexpected attack. We did well when we worked together, as we did when we first came here, and these last few weeks, too.” It was not quite a lie, he felt, more a smudging of the truth. He took another swallow of wine. “I think we can move on to the fourth line quite swiftly if we continue to combine our strengths. Not this year, perhaps, but next year… I believe it would be possible. But let me be honest with you, Jonnor. I won’t stand by and watch it all drift away. You’re not the only one with ability on the line, and I want to do my fair share. Together we can do better than either of us alone.”
Again he drank. Jonnor was drinking steadily as he listened, his face calmer now, and Hurst refilled his own glass and slid the decanter across the table.
“As for Mia…” Another mouthful of wine to steady him. He shifted a little, trying to find a comfortable position for his bad leg. “You know how I feel about her, brother. Gods, the whole world knows how I feel, except for Mia herself. But she’s never looked twice at me. Well, who would? It’s you she’s always wanted.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Didn’t you realise?”
“No, I… Really?” Jonnor looked doubtful. Had he truly never noticed, never looked at Mia and seen the hope in her eyes? Perhaps not. He’d only ever seen Tella, never looked any further, never seen beyond Mia’s apparent contentment with her role. “Are you sure?”
Hurst gave a little laugh. He wondered if Jonnor heard the bitterness in him, or whether he sounded quite normal.
“Yes, I’m sure. And I find I’d rather see her happy than have her myself. So I won’t press you to share her, brother. If she’s happy with you, I can be content. I’ll take my share of the skirmishes and you can have Mia. But you have to do the business with her, and soon. If we go to the Ring without a settled arrangement in place…”
“I know, I know, they’ll break us. Do you think I don’t realise that? Gods, how I hate the interviews!” Jonnor drained his wine again and poured more. “Those pods! I can’t breathe in there, and the globes…”
“There’s nothing to fear from them if we tell the truth,” Hurst said, although his stomach contracted at the thought of it. Everyone hated the interviews. “So it has to be done. You and Mia.”
Jonnor nodded. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? I’ve always envied you, you know, Hurst.”
“You envied me? Handsome, perfectly formed me?” He flapped one hand at his leg and the other towards his face.
Jonnor managed a half-smile. “You have this way with women, somehow, so effortless.”
Now Hurst was astonished. “Me? What under the sun…?”
“Oh, come on, don’t play the innocent! You’ve always had this air of self-assurance.”
“I… Really?” He scratched his nose, frowning. “Well, I like women, naturally. I enjoy being with them, who doesn’t? But I’ve never been particularly confident around them, not like some men. Swordwork – that was different. I’ve been in battle on the border with my father, so I admit to being quite cocky about my fighting skills. But with women – not really.”
“Well, whatever you do, it seems to work. I hear about all these conquests of yours. One of the cooks. That girl from the stables. A couple of Commanders’ daughters.”
Hurst shifted uncomfortably. He never thought of them as conquests, as if he’d fought for them and won, fending off rivals or their own reluctance. Rather they’d come to him. He wasn’t quite sure what they saw in him, but he’d been very happy to oblige them.
“And then there were Tella’s Companions,” Jonnor went on.
“Oh but – it’s part of their job, isn’t it?”
“Even Tersia? Oh. I never thought of that. But the thing is, Hurst…” He gulped down his wine, and refilled his glass again. “The thing is… I’ve never had much luck with women. Not even a bit of fumbling in the stables, and everyone manages that, don’t they? So Tella… well, Tella was…” He broke off, red faced with embarrassment.
“Your first?” Hurst prompted.
He nodded, staring down into his wine. “And actually, I liked the whole arrangement… you know, having exclusive access. She was there whenever I wanted her, mine, no dancing around, no wondering…. And with Mia… I think the same thing would work best, don’t you? Not sharing. It’s… less confusing. And if you’re happy with that too…”
Hurst’s stomach lurched. Happy with it? Could he ever be happy with Jonnor in Mia’s bed? Yes, he told himself firmly, if that made her happy, then yes. So he tried to keep his tone even. “Whatever pleases Mia, and if it works better for you too, brother… But it must be soon.”
“Yes, yes, I know. But…”
“It’s so difficult… being in Tella’s room, in her very bed.” He heaved a sigh.
“Then go somewhere else,” Hurst said, acid-toned. “Take her to your room, or do it on the floor of the atrium. Do it standing up, if you must. I have some books, if it would help. With pictures.”
“Gods, Hurst, are you suggesting…? It’s not that I can’t, you know. You never miss an opportunity to insult me…”
“No, no, no, I didn’t mean…” Hurst ran a hand through his unruly hair. “I’m not your enemy, brother,” he said tiredly, “and I’m not trying to insult you. I understand how painful this must be for you.” Although he didn’t, not entirely. How difficult could it be? “I thought it might help get things moving, that’s all.”
Jonnor looked at him suspiciously. “Hmm. Books, eh? I’ll fetch some more wine and you can show me these books of yours.”
Mia was agitated when she returned, and took the first opportunity to draw Hurst aside.
“Nothing’s happened! I mean, I know he’s grieving, and I’m no match for Tella, but still…”
“It’s all right. We’ve talked about it. He’ll do it.”
“Are you sure? Because he’s had weeks and…”
“It’s all right.”
“It has to be done before we travel…”
“I know. He understands. He’ll do it.” He saw her disbelieving face, and he had his own doubts, but he had to do his best to reassure her. “Look, I’m off the day after tomorrow, and then there’s one night before you leave…”
“He’ll do it, Mia. He knows what’s at stake here.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Yes, but if he doesn’t?”
“Then we’ll find a way at the Ring. It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
“If he can’t do anything here, how is he going to manage at the Ring?”
“If he can’t, I can. I’ve done it before.”
“Really? You’ve had sex at the Ring?” And she smiled, as sudden a radiance as the sun coming out from behind a cloud. “But it’s supposed to be a time of abstinence and spiritual contemplation!”
“What, for two months? That’s an awful lot of spiritual contemplation, and far too much abstinence for any normal man. Besides, I used to regard it as a challenge.”
She giggled, hand over mouth. “But how…? Where…?”
“Well, in the library, one time. There are some very secluded spots, if you know where to look. Up in the poetry section, for example. And in one of the ladies’ gardens another time.”
“Goodness! But how did you get in?”
“Actually, the getting in is considerably easier than the getting out, as I recall, but that’s a long story.” And a dark one, too, he thought uneasily. That was a bad time, not one he wanted to be reminded about.
Mia giggled again. He loved these intimate little moments with her, and the memory of them kept him from too much introspection. Whatever happened, they would always be friends, and perhaps that was enough.
Then she frowned and tipped her head to one side. “Used to? Don’t you do this sort of thing anymore, then?”
“Oh, not so much. When you’re sixteen, the risk is part of the attraction, but at thirty-six… well, I wouldn’t claim greater maturity, but climbing over walls and evading guards is more effort and less fun, and the reward less… enticing. Or perhaps I just prefer the comfort of a bed these days.”
She smiled, but he could see concern in her eyes.
“Hurst, may I ask…?”
“Anything, you know that.”
“What have you and Jonnor decided… about you? And me, I mean.” She flushed a little, but still looked him straight in the eye.
He tried to respond in the same calm way, but his heart was racing. “Jonnor feels it would be better if it were just the two of you. Less confusing.”
She nodded, and he could read nothing in her face. “You’ve always… made your own arrangements, haven’t you?”
“Yes. I have the Companions, after all. And there are… other options.”
“And you’re… comfortable with that?”
“I am.” Was there any hesitation there? He hoped not.
“Because… I wouldn’t want you to think… I mean, I wouldn’t mind, you know… whatever the situation…”
He smiled then, loving her more than ever. He leaned forward and stroked her cheek. “Thank you, Mia. But it’s fine.”
And she beamed back at him. “If all goes well, perhaps I will have a child of my own by this time next year.”
“Hmm. Don’t depend on that. It took Tella a long time.”
“Oh, but that was Tella. No reason I should have the same trouble.”
He hesitated. Should he say anything? But he had no wish to worry her, and after all, it might happen. So he let it pass, smiled and said nothing.