Prologue: The Dragon’s Egg (Rak)
There was no warning.
The dragons burst into the sky just above Rak’s head, their battle screeches shaking his very bones. He caught a glimpse of one scaly leg with claws as long as his arm before shock sent him rolling from his perch.
Half slithering, half falling, heart thundering, he scrambled down to a hollow a few man-lengths below the ridge and threw himself behind the shelter of a large boulder. With luck, the dragons wouldn’t notice him there. All he could hear above the rasping of his own breath was the clanking of the goats’ bells far below. They were panicked, too.
The sky above remained blue, unshadowed by dragon bulk, and he’d heard no more bellows from them. Was he safe? He dared a peek from behind the boulder. They were still there, way below him now, grappling in mid-flight right above the beach. On the grassy slopes, goats ran this way and that in a bleating frenzy. No sign of Dernish. Rak hoped he’d had time to get under a bush, out of sight.
Rak always sat up on the ridge to eat his noon parcel. He loved the height, the windblown freshness of the air, the quiet solitude. The commanding view gave him a chance to see dragons occasionally, too, far out to sea. But never so close! Never right above his head like that, sneaking up from the valley on the far side of the ridge, so that he’d never even seen them coming. What a tale he’d have to tell!
Now they were separating, the two great beasts, but still focused on their battle. A greenish one, and a slightly larger one, mottled brown and gold. Now that he’d caught his breath a bit and was safely hidden away, he was curious. What was it about? He’d heard of dragon fights, but they were just legends. Someone’s great-grandmother had seen one once, or a traveller who’d crossed Dragon’s Point would tell lurid tales of wyrms fighting with such intensity that they tore each other to pieces. He’d never thought to witness one himself.
If he lived to tell of it at all. For now the two were coming back, flying low and fast up the hillside directly towards him, one chasing the other. The leading dragon clutched something in its claws — something round, glimmering.
By the salt, they were getting close! Rak ducked down behind his boulder again and the dragons roared overhead, then shot directly upwards. The leader ducked and wove about to evade its fellow, but the pursuer was bigger and stronger. The green dragon was caught, and then they were spinning downwards again, their roars of anger echoing off the ridge.
Rak could hardly breathe, but he couldn’t draw his eyes away. Down, down they went, tumbling over and over. Surely they must smash into the rocks at the foot of the slope? At the last minute they separated, wings out, straining for height. The smaller dragon turned for the sea, but the larger one snapped at its tail and the smaller one spun round, belching fire at the aggressor, claws out to defend itself.
Something dropped, sparkling as it fell end over end in the sunlight. A splash near the beach. The green dragon realised its error, diving vertically downwards, but the brown one was beside it in moments, nipping its tail again. The fight was on once more, the lost treasure forgotten in the heat of battle. Gradually they edged out over the water, as the green dragon tried to make its escape and the brown pursued. It caught up, they scuffled and split apart, over and over.
Rak watched the dragons until they were no more than specks on the horizon, two specks, then one, then two again. Gradually his hammering heart slowed, and his breath became more even. Only when his eyes couldn’t make them out, no matter how hard he strained, did he feel it was safe to emerge from the security of his boulder, and descend to the strand.
Some of the goats were already ambling back, although not as many as there should be. Rak sighed. They would be all over the dunes by now. It would take him and Dernish all afternoon to collect them together again, and they would be late back to the holding and ma would be so cross. But where was his brother?
Ah, there, at the edge of the sea, up to his knees in water. And carrying something — the dragon’s treasure!
Rak raced down the last stretch of slope to the shore, weaving between the great boulders collected there. Some were taller than he was, testament to the power of the winter storms here, which brought them crashing down from the heights above. Then a short strip of smooth grass, speckled with wind-tossed summer blooms, and up and over the dunes.
“Hoy!” Dernish was walking slowly up the beach. “Look what I’ve found!”
Rak skidded down the last dune, and ran across to him. “What is it?”
“The dragon dropped it.”
Rak gazed at it in awe. It was half his height, at least. Dernish was almost an adult now, but he struggled to carry it. It looked like pale green marble, the narrower end smooth, the wider covered with overlapping scales of the same colour. When he touched it, there was a slight tingle. It felt warm, not cold.
“Will it hatch, do you think?” Dernish said, grinning.
“No, it needs dragon fire for that. Beside, what would we do with a live dragon? It would eat us.”
“It might eat you,” Dernish said. “It’s my egg, so it would be my dragon. It would obey me, and I could fly all over the place.”
“Rubbish,” Rak said. “Only the mages could fly them.” Although he wasn’t sure that was true, for who had not heard the legend of Melroor, the fisherman who had enchanted a dragon? “Mages and… and special people.”
“Well, I’m special,” Dernish said, puffing his chest out. “I’m Dernish the Eggfinder now. I’ll be famous in every kyle and holding. People will come from all over to meet me and see my egg.”
“Well, you may be Dernish the Eggfinder, but you’re still Dernish the Goatherd, too, and we have some work to do. I’ll take this side, and you can take the other side.”
Dernish laughed merrily. “Fine. I’ll leave my egg here for now.” He hollowed out a patch of sand, and carefully placed the egg upright. “Right. Let’s get these goats rounded up as quick as we can. I can’t wait to get back to the holding to show them my egg. Won’t everyone be surprised!”
Chapter 1: Cranna’s Holding (Marisa)
SIXTY YEARS LATER
The carter dropped Marisa at the end of the lane. She walked slowly up between the fields, noticing from long habit the grains growing tall and green, and the roots thriving at last after their poor start. The geese round the pond honked as she passed by, and in her mind she picked out a fine, plump one for the pot next rest day. Might as well have a good meal before the journey.
Her hip was aching again. She tried not to limp, but it always bothered her after she’d been down to the kyle. Too much walking. Well, she might as well get used to it. She’d be doing quite a bit these next few quarter moons, unless they got lucky.
Rak was picking berries for their supper. He waved cheerfully at her, holding up the bowl to show her how many he’d found, spilling a few. He wasn’t fit enough for field work any more, but he liked to help out. She smiled affectionately. He was a good man, and he’d stepped in and been a good father to her after the fire. Better than Dernish ever had been, truth to tell.
The holding always looked shabby when she’d been away. The low stone cottages with their scruffy turf roofs, and the peeling paint on the doors and windows were bad enough, but was the goat barn actually leaning? She would have to see about that, when she got back.
Lissanda saw her coming, and emerged from the cookhouse, wiping floury hands on a cloth. “Well, ma?”
“We’ll talk about it after supper, when everyone’s there,” Marisa said. “Where’s Dru?”
“Watching the chickens.” Lissanda sighed with an exaggerated lift of the shoulders.
Marisa laughed. “Well, she can’t come to any harm there.” Then she saw Lissanda’s face. “Can she?”
“She let them out yesterday. They were up in the trees — all over the place.”
“Why ever did she do that? She knows how much work that causes.”
“She said they asked her to.” Lissanda rolled her eyes. “But don’t worry. Mattan’s keeping an eye on her.”
“Great spirits!” Marisa said. “She’s getting worse, I think.”
“But at least she hasn’t set the place on fire again.”
Lissanda went back to her dough, but Marisa dropped her travel bag at her cottage and walked through the orchard to the chicken run. Mattan was in the oldest apple tree, almost at the top. Oh, to be eight years old again, and agile enough to climb trees! Marisa smiled at him, and he waved and pointed to the chicken run just ahead.
Dru was looking through the gap in the gate where the wood had rotted. She was sitting on her heels, hands resting in her lap, motionless. Only her eyes flickered with life, fixed unblinking on the chickens in the pen. And, oddly, they were quiet, not busily scratching and pecking and fussing as usual. It was as if they were staring back at Dru.
“Off talking to the sprites,” Dakkish always said when she got like this. He had no time for her, none at all. Thought they should send her to the kyle, let them deal with her. “She doesn’t even look normal,” he’d say when she did something even stranger than usual.
Well, that was true enough. Dru’s skin was so pale and thin, you could see the blue veins showing through. All those hours in the fields, yet she never went a healthy brown. And her hair as fine and silky as the fur on the barn cats, but it never seemed to grow much.
“Dru? What are you doing, flower?” Marisa used her gentlest voice.
No answer. Not the slightest indication that Dru was even aware of her.
Marisa sighed, and tried again, a little louder. A waste of time, of course. When Dru was lost in her own thoughts like this, she heard nothing. Marisa stretched out a hand, and, with the tip of one finger, touched the girl’s cheek.
With a gasp, Dru jumped as if stung. For a moment, her eyes darkened, then slowly she settled back down on her heels, looking through the gap at the chickens. Motionless, not even blinking. Such a strange child. Although she wasn’t really a child, despite the rounded face and flat chest. She was thirty and more, now, although how much more was anyone’s guess.
This time she turned her head. Eyes flickering. Then, a blink. “Ma. You’re back.” That flat tone.
“Aye. Just arrived. How are you?”
“What are you doing, Dru?”
“Listening to the chickens, ma.”
“Are they saying much?”
“Not much, not today.”
“Will you come inside, flower? Lissanda will need you for the supper.”
“Supper…” After a moment she pushed herself to her feet. “I’ll help Lissanda with the supper.”
And she walked off without a backward glance.
Supper was an awkward affair. Everyone wanted to hear Marisa’s news, but the proper time was after the meat, while the pie was being handed round. The pies were always good at this time of year, rich with juicy fruit. Rak had done well. Marisa took a good slice, and handed the dish to Lissanda. Once the dishes had been passed all the way to the bottom of both long tables, Marisa stood and limped up to the head of the room.
“The newsteller has not been through recently, so there is no news from up the coast. At the kyle, Dorrom the Roper has finally died, and his place on the kylerand has gone to his youngest son, Hibbin. There was a small fire at the women’s house, but there was no damage, and the women were not hurt.” That brought some smiles. Several of the men had favoured women there. “The herrings are coming in, and the catch is better this year.”
There were a few nods of interest, but most people were waiting for Marisa’s most important news.
She hesitated, pondering her words carefully, trying to soften the blow. Dru had no idea, none at all. But there was no avoiding it. Best get it over with.
“I talked to the kylerand about Dru,” she said. “They agreed that… something needs to be done, but there is no place suitable at the kyle for Dru’s particular circumstances. They suggested that I take her to the Guardian. She will know what to do.”
A buzz of chatter, everyone surprised — no, shocked. No one had expected it. Only one person showed no reaction — Dru herself.
“How are you to get to the Keep?” Dakkish said. Dru’s head came up, as Marisa had known it would. “It’s a terrible long step, that is.”
“The kylerand has given me tokens for the journey. Cart to Hammer Rock, then by ship.”
The discussion dissolved into twenty separate strands, working out the practicalities of such a long journey. Marisa retrieved her slice of pie, and carried the plate down the table to squeeze in beside Dru near the end of the women’s table.
“Did you understand that, flower? I’m to take you to the Guardian. She’s a wise lady, a book-reader. She’ll know how best to help you. But it will be a long journey for us, all the way up the coast to the Keep, where she lives.”
Dru’s eyes flickered. “Where is my keeper?”
“Sweetie, I don’t know,” she replied, as she had a hundred times before. “I have no idea what you mean by that. But if anyone can answer you, it will be the Guardian.”
Later, Marisa went in search of Rak. He was up on the roof of one of the cottages, stretched out on the turf, chewing his leaf thoughtfully. The other men were clustered under the big old pear tree, laughing and pretend-arguing and teasing any of the young women who came too close. But Rak liked to get up high, away from the rabble.
There was a time when he could run up any of the cottage roofs, and the barns, too, but nowadays he confined himself to the ones that huddled low to the sloping ground at the back, so it was no more than a step or two up. Marisa was able to reach his perch quite easily.
“So,” she said, plopping down beside him. “Tell me again the story of the dragon’s egg.”
He sat up, eyes twinkling. “I think you know it as well as I do, niece. Nothing to add to the tale now.”
“Uncle, I’m serious. I need to know for sure. If it’s true, I mean. I’ll have to tell the Guardian, and I don’t want to be repeating lies to her.”
“Don’t you believe it?”
She hesitated a moment too long. “Of course, but…”
“It all came from Dernish,” she burst out. “Every word of it. You never talked about it, not once in all these years. So naturally I wondered and… and I don’t like to speak so of my own father, but he was not the most reliable of men.”
“Aye, that’s true enough,” Rak said. He spat noisily from the roof, pinging something metal below. “Do you remember the time he went to Hammer Rock? Just for the adventure of it, he said. And when he came back — when he eventually came back, a great deal poorer than he went, it took quarter moons to weasel out of him what had happened. And do you remember the story he told?”
“Which one? There were so many… oh.”
Rak smirked at her, point made.
“Aye, I see.” She nodded, lips lifting into a smile. “He always told the same story of the dragon’s egg.”
Rak stretched out on the turf again. “Good night, niece.”
Marisa quickly tired of the cart. The ironmonger had agreed to take them for nothing but the pleasure of her company, he’d said. Since he was going all the way to Hammer Rock eventually, it had seemed like a good arrangement. Better than walking. But all his pots and tools rattled and clanged about until her head throbbed. And then he stopped at every holding along the way, and it seemed that there was always some work for him to do, so they had to wait until the bucket was mended or a new cooking chain made up.
He joked and flirted with her, of course, but he’d done that since she’d first braided her hair. He was handsome enough in those days, and she’d even had a little business going on with him for a while. But then she’d met her fine young fisherman, tall and fair, with those twinkling eyes, as blue and deep as the sea, and that was that. Even though she’d been tied to Henyon when she became Holder, she’d only ever had one true love.
Dru seemed to enjoy the journey, as far as anyone could tell with her. She looked about, eyes flickering this way and that, with apparent interest. Marisa had pointed out landmarks at first, and Dru had nodded solemnly. They’d soon gone beyond Marisa’s knowledge, though, and the ironmonger knew little more, even though he passed that way several times a year.
The road changed as they drew near to Hammer Rock. The rutted dirt tracks became smooth stones, so that the cart jolted less and the clanking diminished. So many people! The fields crowded close to the road, and stretched away into the distance, nothing but ripening grain and fat cattle as far as the eye could see. And the holdings so neat and tidy, with tiles on their roofs, and some of the cottages as tall as a kyle house.
Hammer Rock was everything people said about it: noisy, dirty, smelly, busy and, most of all, tall. Marisa was used to cottages that crouched low to the ground, huddling out of the ever-present wind. Here, the buildings stretched up to the sky itself, so that walking amongst them was like being in a deep ditch, with the sunlight and air far above, out of reach. It was stifling.
For five days they squatted in a cheap inn by the harbour, avoiding the drunks and the rowdy inhabitants of the women’s house next door, while they waited for a ship to take them north. They had to work their passage, since only the wealthy could travel at leisure, but Marisa was glad to have something to keep her hands busy, and to keep Dru out of the way of other folk. A few hours in the galley each morning earned them their food, and, knowing something of the reputation of seafaring folk, she’d brought some hard-earned silver to pay for a tiny cabin for the two of them.
She needn’t have worried. On the first day aboard, the sailors made their customary offerings of food and small coins to the Goddess and the sprites to ensure a safe journey. Fascinated, Dru had gone close to watch. When they leaned over the rail to throw their gifts into the waves, she tore the beads from her hair and tossed them overboard too.
The sailors were delighted. “Ah, the sprites will be pleased with those, little lady,” one said.
“Aye, they are,” she replied. “They like the pretty colours and the way they sparkle. But they like the food best. They thank you for that.”
After that, she was revered like a minor deity. Talking to sprites was very lucky on a ship, it seemed. Although, when they asked her later what the sprites thought about some matter, she’d said, “No sprites here.” That had puzzled them greatly.
There were only a few other passengers. A wealthy merchant family was taking a son to be married at a town in the far north. A few people in worker’s clothing got on at one port and off at the next. A widow was going to live with a niece. None of them took any notice of Marisa or Dru. The sailors, by contrast, were inclined to be too friendly, but Marisa knew how to deal with that.
One passenger was different, with a knowing smile and a greeting whenever he met them. He looked to be in his thirties, short for a man, but with the sort of muscles that came from a sword or bow. Although he was plainly dressed, he did no work on the ship, so Marisa marked him as wealthy. Perhaps he was just being friendly, but there was a roguish look in his eye that warned her off. With anyone from a neighbouring holding or the kyle she’d have understood him at once, but a stranger’s ways could mean anything. Just as well to be cautious. So she nodded politely when he spoke, but avoided conversation. It was rude, perhaps, but in a matter of days they would be ashore, and never see him again.
One morning, the cabin girl woke them early. “Cap’n’s respects, Mis’ess, but Keep’s in sight.”
They dressed quickly and hurried up to the deck.
“There,” the captain said, pointing. “Can ye see it?”
Far away, a dark shape jutting into the sea. Hard to tell from that distance what was rock and what was building.
“Aye. I see something, at any rate.”
He laughed, beard rocking in rhythm. “’T’is far off still. We’ll not be there before noon, I reckon.”
He went off to see about ship matters, but Marisa stayed on deck, as the dark shape grew larger by imperceptible stages, and resolved itself into a promontory, several rocky outcrops, and a squat black shape on one of them.
“See that, flower?” Marisa said. “That’s where we’re going. The Keep. Where the Guardian lives.”
Dru turned darkening eyes on her. “Where is my keeper?”
Marisa had never had an answer to that question, no matter how many times it was asked. “It’s a big place, isn’t it? Do you see it?”
“I see it,” Dru said, in her flat voice.
As they drew close, the size of the promontory and the Keep itself became apparent. It loomed over the harbour in the little bay below, a mass of towers and turrets and spires. Its black stone glistened in the summer sunshine as if it was frosted, and glass shone in hundreds of windows. Marisa had never seen any building so big.
The sun was beginning its fall when they docked at the Keep’s small harbour. This was a very different place from Hammer Rock, with its warehouses and taverns and women’s houses jostling along the wharves, and fishing boats tied up five deep at every pontoon. The Guardian’s harbour was a neat square of jetties with cranes for unloading, and a single large warehouse to one side. Uniformed workers moved about purposefully, unloading goods from a handful of ships onto lines of identically painted wagons.
They waited with their small travel bags, watching the ropes being thrown and the agile sailors clambering along the side of the ship. They were not the only ones waiting to disembark. The friendly young man emerged on deck carrying a pair of travel rolls, and something that looked suspiciously like a sword, neatly parcelled up. So he was going to the Keep, too. He saw Marisa looking and waved, a broad grin on his face.
She hesitated. Well, if he was a visitor to the Keep as well, it would be churlish to ignore him. She couldn’t quite bring herself to smile, but she nodded acknowledgement. Annoyingly, his grin widened.
Fortunately, the captain appeared to bid them farewell.
“You’ll be able to get a ride to the Keep on one of the wagons.”
“Is there an inn nearby?” Marisa said.
“Nay, the Guardian keeps a guest hall. You’ll get a room there. The wagoners will show you where to go.”
A guest hall? That sounded very grand. She said nothing, her heart slowly sinking. It was all so different from home, whether holding or kyle. Different even from Hammer Rock. Now that the moment had come, it was a dreadfully daunting prospect. Why had she ever thought she could do this alone?
Still, it must be done, for Dru’s sake. She lifted her chin. “Thank you for the information, Captain, and for your kindness to us, being strangers to you. Dru, say farewell to the captain.”
“May the Goddess smile on you, child. And perhaps you’ll ask the sprites for good winds for us, next time you talk to them, eh?”
“I will. Next time.”
Two sailors carried their bags to the waiting wagons. Marisa stepped ashore, holding Dru’s hand tightly. Now for the difficult part.
She could only hope that the Guardian believed her story.
Chapter 2: The Keep (Garrett)
“Up, up, up!” I yelled. “Good, much better. Light feet, remember. Keep moving, and keep those arms up. Oh, nice one, now in again… but I saw that one coming. Try to take me by surprise, otherwise I’ll just keep pushing… like this…”
At which point the hapless boy stumbled backwards over his own feet, landed hard on his rear and the sword flew out of his hand.
“Sorry, Captain, sorry. I almost got it that time. Can I try again?”
I had to laugh at his enthusiasm. “Maybe tomorrow, Mikah, but I can see your archery instructor waiting to reclaim you. Off you go now.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” He raced off across the training court, weaving between pairs of grunting, sword-waving men with the ease of one born to it. Such a pity he was less adept with his hands. The boy would perhaps do better with a bow, short as he was, but I admired his perseverance. As a youth myself, I’d struggled every day to overcome my own lack of height, so it was only fair to help the boy do the same.
Retrieving the practice sword, I headed back to the armoury, but the garrison commander waved me over before I got there. Actually, not waved, no. The man would never exert himself so much. A raised eyebrow and a slight shift of the head, no more than that, but it was enough. Instantly I was wary. I wasn’t part of the garrison, so the commander couldn’t give me orders, but he could still make life difficult for me if he chose. I wasn’t quite sure why the commander disliked me so much — there were several possible reasons, all equally plausible — but there wasn’t much I could do about any of them.
The commander looked up and down at my no doubt dishevelled, sweaty appearance, before smoothing an imaginary crease from his own perfectly pressed trousers. He was a head taller than I was, with an angular face, the nose thin and sharp like the prow of a ship. “Garrett. It is your lucky day. She wishes to see you at three bells falling.” He flicked the piece of paper in his hand.
“May I?” I said, holding out my hand for the order.
“No need. I have informed you of the salient point. Another trip for you, doubtless.”
I hated that false tone of voice, so irritatingly amicable, almost jovial, but the effect was spoilt by the way he looked down his nose at me. Oh, for another handspan or three in height, to be able to look the irritating bastard in the eye.
“Really? So soon? I only got back yesterday.”
“And now perhaps you will be leaving us once more. Such a shame.”
“It is indeed.” It was a blow. I’d hoped for a moon or two to rest before setting off again. “But I have to do what I’m told, and go where I’m sent.”
“If you say so,” the commander said. “I daresay someone has to do such work, but I do not think I would care much for it myself.”
I ignored the taunt. The sneers about my work were rather amusing. “Remind me — was it two bells falling or three?”
As I’d hoped, he glanced down at the paper in his hand. In a heartbeat I shifted my perspective to see through his eyes. Such a useful talent to have, the ability to see another person’s view of the world. I’d used it to find out all sorts of secrets, which was handy in any number of ways. And it was profitable, too, in the gaming houses. It had got me into trouble more than once, though, when I was accused of cheating. I didn’t think of it as cheating, really, just a tilting of the odds in my favour. But some folk take exception to that, and so my life had turned out a little differently from how I’d expected.
I rarely used my ability for profit nowadays, but there were still times when I needed to see through another man’s eyes, and this was one of them. The commander had caught me out once before by giving me the wrong time for a meeting. I’d been late and the Lady had not been pleased, not at all. So now I looked through his eyes, and scanned the order he held. I wasn’t a fast reader, but such orders were made to a standard format and I knew where to look for the time. Three bells. Astonishingly, he’d told me the truth for a change.
“Your mind is weak, Garrett. Three bells falling. Do not be late.”
I made a small bowing motion — not enough to be mistaken for genuine respect, but enough to forestall any complaints about rudeness — and made my escape.
Straight after second table, I went to my rooms. Rummaging about in boxes and closets produced my set of decent clothes, and then it was down to the bathing pool for a good scrub with scented soap. It wouldn’t do to be less than immaculate when entering the Lady’s presence.
The ritual — washing, and then dressing in my best clothes — helped me prepare my mind for the encounter, too. With anyone else, I needn’t worry too much about my accent, or whether I’d got the right amount of formality when talking to people. But the Lady demanded more of me. For her, I made the effort to look and speak like a noble, even though she knew exactly where I came from.
The entrance to the Great Tower was behind a vast circular waiting room, with polished floor and pillars, and long marble seats arranged in curving rows. Two hundred people could wait there without crowding, although they wouldn’t have been very comfortable, since there were no cushions. However, there were no crowds to suffer the inconveniences of the room. It was empty, as usual, apart from the secretary waiting at a small wooden desk at the far side.
I marched across the expanse of marble, the heels of my best boots clicking, and strode up to the desk. I didn’t even need to speak. I was recognised, my name was checked on the list, I was waved onwards, through an archway and into the lifting device. Chains clanked, the device swayed a little and up I went. I had no idea how it worked, but if it saved the effort of climbing endless flights of stairs, I was glad of it.
The device carried me almost to the top of the tower. Only the Lady’s private apartments were higher than this level. The lifting device opened directly into the real waiting room, a much more comfortable place, with thick rugs and draperies, padded chairs and numerous wall-hangings depicting far-flung parts of the world. One was new since my last visit.
It was annoying to find Shakara waiting there too, smirking at me. I couldn’t think of a single reason for her presence. She was a steward, concerned only with domestic matters. It was impossible to imagine her having anything to do with one of my projects. A dreadful thought: perhaps I was to be dragged into her work. But surely not. I couldn’t think of anything I was less suited for. Was I to be penned down in the cellar, counting flasks of oil or sacks of flour? Impossible.
To avoid having to look at her, I stood before the new hanging, studying the detail. It showed a rocky shore with a long promontory stretching out into stormy seas, and the tip of a tower part way along it. In the foreground, a harbour was full of ships of various shapes and sizes.
The hour bells were just sounding when the two of us were called in. My spirits lifted, as they always did in her presence. The Guardian was her official title, but everyone called her the Lady. There was something magical about her, something that drew the eye and commanded respect. She wasn’t beautiful, not in the conventional way, but she had a certain majesty about her. Her bearing, perhaps, or her penetrating intelligence, or maybe it was merely the aura of power.
The room was perfectly designed for her. The wooden wall panels painted in soft colours, the light furniture, simple but elegant, the splashes of vibrant colour in a rug or a vase or a screen. At one end, a pair of large desks where she and a secretary dealt with each day’s papers. To one side, low tables and dainty chairs for informal meetings. And at the far end, floor to ceiling windows set into the curve of the tower wall, with that glorious view of coast and sea.
The best part of the view was perched on the end of the promontory, the reason for the Keep and the Guardian and all of us to be here: a slender tower, without windows or doors, which glowed with its own mysterious power. For hundreds of years the Guardian — a succession of Guardians — had sat in this greater tower, watching the smaller one no more than a thousand paces away, and waiting. Waiting for someone to arrive who could unlock the mystery and open the tower, revealing the treasures within. But no one had come.
The Lady always stood before the massive windows to receive guests, so that she was lit from behind by the westering light. On a grey winter’s day she would appear in striking silhouette, but today, with the sun falling in a clear sky, a shining halo gave her the appearance of a Goddess.
“Ah, Steward Shakara. And Master Garrett. Do come in.” She said it as if it was a surprise to see us there, as if she hadn’t commanded our attendance. She wore blue today, a gently muted colour, the gown plain silk, a delicate lace cap over her soft brown curls, and a single silver chain glinting around her neck, with no other ornamentation or jewels. But then she needed none.
Shakara bowed in her northern way, straight-backed, bending only the knees and head. She was getting a little stiff about it these days. That would have amused me, except that she was only six years older than I was. I executed my preferred wide sweep of the arms, bending at the waist.
When we rose, the Lady waved us to chairs already arranged within the curve of the windows, she to one side, the two of us facing her. I had that magnificent view to my left, but I wasn’t tempted to look at it. I didn’t want her to think I allowed my attention to wander in her presence.
There were no pleasantries, that wasn’t her way. “I have two people in my guest hall requesting an audience, an older woman and a younger. However, they will tell the Hallmaster nothing of the reason, except that the younger woman is special in some way. There is a long story behind it, apparently, and the older woman says that she will only tell the story to me, because it might not be conveyed truly. The younger woman says nothing at all.”
She spoke quietly, but then she’d never needed to raise her voice in her life.
“Master Garrett,” she went on, her eyes turned fully on me, making me sit a little straighter. She was so respectful, always calling me Master, as if I were someone of importance. Not like the commander, who treated me like something nasty he’d stepped in. “You arrived on the same ship with them. Did you talk to them?”
Since yesterday, I’d not thought of them at all. A strange pair, the woman who’d snubbed me and the girl with eyes too big for her face. I’d come up in the wagons with them, we’d stopped in the outer yard, the two of them had clambered down from their perch and vanished into the guest hall without a backward glance. And they were gone from my mind just as quickly.
“No, they spoke to no one, apart from the captain, and their cabin girl. They kept to themselves.”
“The older woman is middle-aged, more than fifty summers—”
I raised an eyebrow. “Really? Well, these outdoors women wear out quickly. A suspicious nature, not open. Not terrified to be on a long journey, so I would say she is used to a position of authority. A kylerander or holder, perhaps, or a craft leader. The girl… odd looking. Very pale, even paler than Shakara, and huge eyes. I would guess ten or twelve by the face, but she is over tall for a child. Taller than me.”
“That would not be difficult,” Shakara murmured, but the Lady quelled her with a look.
I was too used to the insult to take any notice. “Simple-minded. The sailors loved her because she talked to the sprites.”
“Did she indeed? Curious. And apparently she has thirty summers.”
That was a shock. “Thirty? No, surely not. There is nothing womanly about her at all, in shape or ways.”
The Lady nodded. “So the Hallmaster said. Would you say she was special, Master Garrett?”
I took a moment to arrange my answer. “I saw no sign of it, but then I hardly looked at the girl. I only boarded the ship at Greenling Bay, after all. I saw them twice at table, and once on deck. It is not much on which to form an opinion.”
I never knew quite how far I could go with the Lady, even now. She liked my forthrightness, I knew that, right up to the point when she slapped me down.
Today her lips quirked. “True enough. I too need a little more to go on before I talk to them myself. I should like to know more of their true purpose in coming here.”
“Surely it is obvious?” Shakara said. “The mother wants to leave the simple-minded daughter here where she will be safe. But she believes she has to have a reason for you to accept her, so she pretends that she is special in some way.”
I nodded. I hated to agree with Shakara, but usually in such cases the simplest explanation turned out to be the true one. Not special, just different.
“Perhaps. The whole coast knows that I will accept such people, if they are harmless and can be useful. However, after the incident two years ago, we must be circumspect, especially with Sister bringing the babes from the homeland. We cannot take risks, not now. So I should like both of you to get to know them, and see if you can find out more about them. I have chosen you two because you both speak the southern dialect. Steward, since they must stay here for a while, they may wish to be useful, so offer them employment within your domain. You can observe them covertly that way. Master Garrett, you may exert your charms on them, and see if that bears fruit.”
Well, that might be amusing, and liven up an otherwise dull assignment. “How much charm do you wish me to exert, Lady?”
Shakara snorted in derision, but the Lady answered solemnly, “As much as you care to. Steward, you may leave now.”
She swished out, skirts swaying. Probably she imagined it was provocative, but I’d never been tempted. I had plenty of better prospects elsewhere, when I wished, and no need to wake to Shakara’s sour face.
The Lady sat immobile as the door clicked shut, and then the clank of the lifting mechanism sounded. Only then did she rise, and walk across to the window.
“Pour me some of the green.”
I went to the side table where the wine decanters were lined up — three kinds of red, a green and even some amber, although she seldom drank that. I poured some of the green wine into a glass, and carried it across to her.
“I see you have the new wall hanging up,” I said.
She spun round. “Ah, you noticed. I thought you would. I have never seen a representation of the southern coast before, so tell me, is it accurate?”
“Even the ships? They seemed a strange mixture to me, some very large, yet some rather small and slender.”
“The large ones are to catch whales. The small ones are sword ships, as the locals call them. Light and swift and deadly. For defence, since they have no army to speak of.”
She raised an eyebrow at that. “Ships for defence? We could do with some of those further north, to keep the raiders at bay.”
She was right about that. The reports were getting worryingly frequent.
“Now, you are discreet in front of Steward Shakara, but let us talk freely about these women. Is there anything else you observed about them?”
“The only odd thing is that I can’t see through the girl’s eyes. The woman is easy, and there is no sign of magic in her. But the girl — nothing.”
“Curious. She is certainly unusual, and that interests me. But I want you to be careful with these two. I do not want you getting heavy-handed, is that clear?”
An indignant response rose to my lips, but I swallowed it down. I was good at my work, that was beyond doubt, but there had been one or two unfortunate incidents. I nodded my acquiescence.
“You really think she might be special?”
For answer, she strode across to her desk, and unrolled a large map, with the Keep at the top, and every town and kyle marked. “Look, here is Greenling Bay, where you boarded your ship. This port here, Hammer Rock, is where they boarded.” Her finger moved almost to the bottom of the map. “And their kyle is some way beyond that, even.”
I understood at once. “That is practically at Dragon’s Point.”
“So far south!”
She laughed. I’d rarely seen her so excited. “This one has real possibilities. So I do not want you scaring them off, Garrett. On the other hand, sometimes crazy people are just crazy, and dangerous, too, so take it slowly. You are to treat this the same way you would treat any other special investigation. Do you understand?”
I did. Perhaps this one could be the real thing at last.