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At the same time, the good nuns of Lady Moon are waging an epic battle against the onslaught of the evil bearpriests of Lord Ursus, whose powers are fed by blood and carnage. Clovermead and Waxmelt suddenly find themseles thrust into the middle of this war, and Clovermead comes to understand that the clash between good and evil is raging not only on the battlefield but also within herself. The fate of the land and her family hang in the balance and Clovermead must determine which force is strongest within her.
A richly imagined and stunning novel that explores the moral choices we must make as we grow up, Clovermead will resonate in the minds and hearts of readers everywhere.
Clovermead, a twelve-year-old tomboy, learns that her father has been lying about the past and that the truth may be the key to ending the epic battle raging between the followers of Lord Ursus and those of Lady Moon.
Chapter One: The Tansyard Pilgrim
Clovermead Wickward leapt onto the bed, lunged with the sword, and battered a pillow. She laid about her with two-handed swings that sent the dust motes spinning and scratched the oak bed frame's dark polish. She crouched in front of the open window, growled a challenge out to the thick green slopes of Kestrel Hill as the cool and lazy autumn breeze caressed her cheeks, and smiled with unholy glee.
Clovermead's flailing limbs radiated an almost palpable energy as she sprang from pillow to bolster and back again. She was five feet tall -- she had grown three inches in the last year, and her father said the way she ate, she was like to grow another three inches in the year to come. Her long golden hair, fine and soft as silk, billowed down to her shoulder blades in unruly tangles. Between her freckles her skin was white as crystal salt. Her eyes were bright blue. Over her wiry frame she wore an outsize woolen sweater and trousers -- boys' wear in Timothy Vale, but Clovermead vehemently preferred comfort to feminine style. Her trousers were plain brown, but a bold Valeman pattern of interwoven yellow and blue crescents blazed forth on her new wool sweater. Goody Weft had made that sweater for Clovermead and given it to her on her twelfth birthday.
"Bold Lady Clovermead skewers the spider-priest of Great Jaifal," Clovermead announced to the room. The room was small and sparsely decorated, but, Clovermead noted with some pride, clean and comfortable. She had oiled the dresser and made the bed just last night. Clovermead leapt to the floor and rolled in a huddle under the bed. "The priest's servant-spiders skitter after her. She hides beneath the eight-legged altar -- hah! There's a secret entrance to the rear." Clovermead slid out the other side of the bed. A large pile of dust followed after her. "Sweet Lady, I knew I forgot to do something -- silly Clo, you'll have to sweep away this mess. Look! A secret passageway! It leads up -- to daylight? No, that's a gem glittering in torchlight! Clovermead, it's the Spider Ruby itself! You've found it!" She snatched a candle from the dresser and held it aloft in triumph. "Time to escape. Where's that trapdoor I saw? I remember! It was behind the skeletons." She spun around to face the door.
It was open. A young man was watching her from the doorway of the room. A bemused smile flickered on his lips, and Clovermead's cheeks flared strawberry red. It was the owner of the sword.
The man was unmistakably a pilgrim -- pilgrims often sported exotic fashions, but Clovermead had never seen anyone so bizarre. His jerkin and leggings were patchworks of horse skin, beaver fur, and leather ribbons. On his head he wore a fox-fur hat edged by the fox's face, paws, and tail. He had tied his long auburn hair into a thick braid like a horse's tail, and both his cheeks were tattooed from ear to nose with crisscross blue lines. Beneath his strange accouterments the pilgrim's eyes were dark brown. Baby fat still lined his square, sun-darkened face and his short, compact body.
Clovermead put the pilgrim's sword back on the bed and patted flat his rumpled coverlet. "I thought you had gone outdoors," she said.
"Evidently," said the pilgrim.
Clovermead flushed again. "I'm terribly sorry, sir. I know I was wrong to look through the keyhole, I shouldn't have unlocked your door, and I oughtn't to have picked up your sword -- it's very sharp, isn't it? And heavy! I never realized how hard it is to lift one up -- I'm sorry, I'm wandering. Father says I do that too much of the time, and Goody Weft says I do it all the time, but Goody Weft -- "
"Clearly speaks the truth," said the pilgrim. His oddly guttural accent was half music and half braying. "You are a thief, yes? A snoop? How did you get into my room? Ladyrest Inn has a most excellent reputation."
"I'd never steal!" said Clovermead. "We Wickwards don't rob our guests -- I wouldn't even steal a Spider Ruby, not really. Father's always told me never to touch anything that belongs to a guest, or to go into their rooms...." Clovermead turned scarlet. "That came out all wrong. I did go into your room, but I'm not a thief. Don't blame my father, sir, he's always taught me never to lie and never to steal -- "
"The innkeeper's daughter has penetrated my refuge, which I was assured was inviolable," the pilgrim said loudly. Clovermead worriedly eyed the stairway behind him to see if her father was within earshot. "She has made merry with my possessions. Her father's honor as host, so carefully built up and hoarded, so fragile, will be destroyed by his darling's daring pleasantry. When I report the truth to him, what will he say? What will he do? He will cry! Great innkeeperly globules of water will scour his face from eye to mouth. He will be distraught to learn to what depths his daughter has descended. Is it so, little magpie?"
"Not exactly, sir," said Clovermead gravely. "Father will be unhappy, but he's not the sort to cry. Goody Weft might switch me -- she always says Father spoils me rotten and that she has to give me discipline for two. I suppose it won't help Ladyrest if people hear I unlocked a door, but I don't think it'll hurt us so badly. Where else in Timothy Vale are the pilgrims going to sleep? Anyway, sir, I wasn't stealing. I was investigating your effects. I was certain when you arrived this morning that you had a fascinating past. You have that air, you know."
"You cannot trust airs," said the pilgrim, his eyes twinkling. "It means only that my clothes are worn, and that I am no seamster. Little magpie, should I punish you? You do not seem penitent."
"I don't think Father would want you to do anything to me without his permission," said Clovermead more calmly than she felt inside. She could dive through the pilgrim's legs, scramble down the stairs, and gallop outdoors to the wide pastures and secret hideaways of the Vale -- but she'd have to come home sometime, and then Goody Weft really would switch her. "You should come downstairs with me and tell him what I've done wrong. Oh dear, it's only a week since they caught me taking apple pie from the pantry, and I promised I wouldn't make trouble for a month. I'll give you a penny if you don't tell Father. It's all I have in the world. Except the robin's egg I'm trying to hatch, and my books, and my pony, Cripple Malmsey, but I don't think you'd want any of those, would you?"
"Sweet Lady, girl!" the pilgrim laughed. "Do you always chatter so much?"
"No," said Clovermead with dignified cogency.
"I do not think I believe that claim," said the pilgrim. He walked over to his bed, checked his sword for nicks, and slid it into his scabbard. "You do not know how to fight with swords?"
"No," Clovermead said again -- but then she couldn't bear to stay silent any longer. "I've always wanted to learn! I've heard ever so many stories from pilgrims, about knights who kill dragons and about battles and strange temples and heroes with magic swords. And the nicest old man with red eyebrows stayed here one winter and taught me to read. He gave me the Garum Heptameron when he left. Have you read it? It's all about the adventures of the queens and knights of Queensmart and the Thirty Towns, and there are seven times seven stories in it, which is forty-nine. The next summer a silly lady with a face like a prune let me have The Song of the Siege of the Silver Knight. Sir, I couldn't stay away when I saw your sword -- there aren't any like it in Timothy Vale. All we have is daggers and axes and bows for hunting deer. Sweetroot Miller and I played sword fighting with pieces of wood, but I scraped her arm and the blubberer threw down her stick and ran home. Now none of the girls will play with me. Not sword fighting, anyway. The little ones play with rag dolls, the big ones are mad about dancing with the boys, and now Sweetroot wants to dance too, and she's the only girl near Ladyrest my age. Dancing's all right, but oh, I did want to know what it feels like to hold a real blade! Is it a magic sword like the one the Silver Knight had?"
"Alas, no," said the pilgrim. "Sorcer-swords do not exist outside of books, I think. There are enough odd things in the world, O daughter of an innkeeper, but not enchanted chopping knives." The pilgrim looked slyly down at Clovermead. "You would like to learn to sword-fight?"
Clovermead's eyes shone. "More than anything!"
"Really so? Well, magpie, I have tired myself greatly crossing the Chaffen Hills, and more than anything I would like to rest and recuperate myself for a few days in your father's fine inn. Shall I make a bargain with your father? I will teach you a little fighting, and I will eat and sleep here at his expense while I give you lessons. You will plead my case to him, I will not tell where I found you this afternoon, and in the future locked doors will stay locked, yes? And you will be bruised hard enough while learning to blade-whack, which should be sufficient punishment for you. Is this fair?"
"It is," Clovermead said, and solemnly shook his hand. His fingers were supple and strong as oiled leather. "I'm Clovermead Wickward. What's your name, pilgrim? I think I heard you say it when you came in this morning, but I was rereading the Heptameron and I didn't pay any attention to you till I saw what you looked like. Pardon me, that sounds rude. It is rude, but it wasn't meant rudely, if you see what I mean."
"In my land we have a saying," said the pilgrim. "A man should not care if a bee buzzes in his ear or if a child babbles at his feet."
"I don't think I care for that saying," said Clovermead. "The tone is very superior, very lofty. It sounds very silly coming from a young man who can't be that much older than I am. Did people say that a lot to you when you were younger? It must have been very annoying to hear it from grown-ups on a regular basis."
The pilgrim grinned and the blue crosses on his cheeks crinkled. "It was infuriating. Miss Clovermead, I am Sorrel of the Cyan Cross Horde. I am from the Tansy Steppes, and therefore a Tansyard. I have lived through seventeen winters. Does that answer all your questions?"
"Of course not," said Clovermead. "I have dozens more! But I'll save them until I've gotten Father's permission to sword-fight with you." She dashed out of the room and downstairs. Sorrel blinked and chuckled as she disappeared from sight. Then he took a leisurely minute to check that all his possessions were where he had left them, locked the door, and headed downstairs.
The great dining hall took up more than half the space of Ladyrest's ground floor. Its floor and walls had been carved from sturdy lengths of oak. To the right of the kitchen door sat a huge stone hearth surrounded by four rocking chairs. A dozen long tables, each accompanied by a pair of low benches, occupied the rest of the room. Afternoon light glowed through four huge, square windowpanes that could have come from nowhere nearer than Glaziers' Street in Queensmart and imparted a dark-honey hue to the dining room's polished timbers. Every part of the hall was immaculately clean. A score of iron sconces around the room held torches, ready to be lit when night came.
As his daughter fervidly summarized Sorrel's proposal, Waxmelt Wickward cleared the dirty dishes that a patrician pilgrim had left on the table at the end of his late lunch. Goody Weft cheerfully sang a shearing song in the kitchen as she washed the dozen pots and pans she had used for lunch. Clouds of steam billowed out from the kitchen.
Waxmelt Wickward was a little man -- inches shorter than Sorrel and not much taller than Clovermead. His thin gray hair had receded halfway up the temples of his round face, and he sported a mustache and a small, pointed beard, both neatly trimmed. His face was smooth except for the lines of delighted laughter that had deepened in him as he watched his daughter grow. Faint worry glimmered almost perpetually in his soft eyes. He was stout around the middle, though not quite fat.
He quietly piled the dishes in the crook of one arm, whisked them to the kitchen, and came back into the room drying his hands on his apron. "My daughter says you're the best swordsman north of Queensmart," he said dubiously to Sorrel.
Sorrel shrugged. "Men with swords have chased after me and I have not died. I was a boy not so long ago and I remember how to be gently trained. These are my qualifications, Mr. Wickward. I can add to that only my desire to eat more of your most delicious oatmeal and fried lamb chops, and my rapturous craving to sleep many nights on your soft mattress and pillows. My little money cannot satisfy my desires, so I must hope that you will take my services as payment. I will be most happy if you say yes. I assure you, this Ladyrest is a lovelier inn than any I have seen in all the lands of Linstock."
"Goody Weft cooked the oatmeal," said Waxmelt modestly, looking pleased in spite of himself. He coughed and tried to look stern. "I've heard that all Tansyards are horse thieves."
"It is the noblest sport," Sorrel acknowledged, humbly dipping his head. "But Clovermead is not a horse, and we do not steal from our hosts. You have heard that, too?"
"Ye-es," Waxmelt reluctantly agreed. "But I hear all sorts of stories about Tansyards. You're the first one I've met. Not many of you come out of your Steppes."
"Of course he's honest!" Clovermead burst in. "And he must be an excellent fighter! I've read the whole story in the Heptameron. The Tansyards were gallant warriors who struggled for their freedom, even after the legions of Queensmart had subjugated the Thirty Towns and Selcouth and the Astrantian Sands and made the Cindertallows of Chandlefort do homage to the Queen. The Tansyards refused to submit to the Empire, and against all odds they annihilated four Imperial legions and captured their banners. Then Queen Aurhelia swallowed a bitter pill to her pride and gave up trying to vanquish the Tansyards. Isn't it true?" she appealed to Sorrel.
"Most certainly, Miss Clovermead, but it was in my great-great-grandfather's time that we sent the legions fleeing back to Queensmart. Great-great-grandfather was an esteemed warrior, of whose glory the Horde sang many songs, but I have no such deeds yet to my name. Mr. Wickward, I can transform your daughter from an untrained girl to a rank novice. Will that be an acceptable trade for your hospitality?"
"It's a foolish idea, Mr. Wickward," Goody Weft bellowed from the kitchen. "Don't encourage that daughter of yours in her mischief. She'll lose an eye."
"You said I'd break my neck if I climbed onto the roof, and I didn't!" Clovermead yelled back.
"Ninny's luck!" Goody Weft retorted. "Mr. Wickward, it's a scandal how you indulge her. Tell her no for once!"
Clovermead gazed imploringly at her father. Waxmelt looked into her face, sighed, and glanced apprehensively at the kitchen door. "The answer is yes, Goody," he called out. He flinched as a pot crashed loudly to the floor. "This isn't just a treat, Clo," he continued softly. "You need to learn how to defend yourself. All the pilgrims say the fighting's terrible in Linstock -- isn't that true, Mr. Sorrel?"
"It is a devastated land," said the Tansyard somberly. "The soldiers of Low Branding raid near Chandlefort, the soldiers of Chandlefort raid near Low Branding, and all of Linstock has become fire and blood. The farmers pray to Our Lady for the Empire to come back and keep the peace, but they know that the legions will never again march north from Queensmart. The Empire is dying, dead, and Chandlefort and Low Branding squabble over Linstock like vultures over its carcass. I hear there are more such wars in Selcouth and the Thirty Towns. You are lucky here in Timothy Vale, with the Chaffen Hills between you and the soldiers."
"I thank Our Lady night and day for their protection," Waxmelt said. "Mr. Sorrel, I think Clo should learn how to defend herself, in case our luck runs out and the soldiers ever do come this way. Clo, you understand you're not playing a game?"
"Yes, Father," Clovermead said. She was a little awed at how serious her father had become. Then she grinned. "You'd better not wait a single minute to start your lessons, Mr. Sorrel. You never can tell when a cruel and bloodstained soldier might decide to wander by."
Waxmelt laughed. "She won't give you any rest till you teach her something, Mr. Sorrel. You may as well start now. I'll come outside and watch." He took off his apron, folded it neatly, and hung it on the back of a chair.
Goody Weft came and looked through the doorway of the kitchen. She was a tall, rangy woman in a black dress whose plain, bony features lit up with a look of indignation as she eyed the apologetic Sorrel, the cringing Waxmelt, and the ecstatic Clovermead. "It's an absolute disgrace," she announced, then wheeled back into her domain. Loud, despairing commentary followed the three outdoors.
Sorrel looked around him. Ladyrest Inn, two stories tall and ten times larger than any other building in the Vale, hulked on the crest of Kestrel Hill. Around the inn were a smokehouse, a barn, a yard piled high with firewood, a small apple orchard, a stable, and a midden where hairy, snuffling pigs rooted at the garbage. East of the inn were the mill, the bake-house, and the handful of steep-roofed log cabins that constituted the hamlet of Grindery, the largest settlement in Timothy Vale. West of Ladyrest were the rough granite flagstones of the Crescent Road, which ran from the Imperial city of Queensmart north through Linstock, the Chaffen Hills, and Timothy Vale, and at last over a winding pass threading the Reliquary Mountains to its terminus at Our Lady's shrine at Snowchapel.
Just north of Ladyrest the Road descended suddenly along the slope of Kestrel Hill to the ford through the cold, swift Goat River, then rose to meander in the middle distance past vast flocks of sheep, thick grass, and very little else. Besides the cabins of Grindery there were no more than sixscore shepherds' huts scattered through Timothy Vale. The Vale itself was an emerald string bean of verdant, hillocky pastures. On either side of the Vale the land rose precipitously toward firs, bare rocks, and finally the savage white tips of the Reliquaries. Except for a few hours around noon, one set of peaks or the other cast jagged shadows across the Vale's precarious aisle of habitation. Year-round, sharp winds plunged from the Reliquaries' heights to chill the Vale.
Sorrel shivered as he led Clovermead and Waxmelt over to where Ladyrest's firewood yard abutted on Kestrel Hill. His tatterdemalion jerkin was far too thin to protect him from the Vale's autumn breezes. Waxmelt blew on his hands and rubbed them briskly together, but Clovermead bounded unheedingly through the cold. Only her red cheeks registered the impact of the chill.
With Waxmelt's permission, Sorrel took the inn's axe and chopped each of two long oak branches roughly into the shape of a sword. He then took out his knife and whittled them till their hilts were easy to grasp and their blade edges thin but not sharp. He gave the lighter sword to Clovermead and walked with her and Waxmelt to the east side of the hill.
"Try to hit me," said Sorrel.
"Yaah!" screamed Clovermead. She rushed at him with all her might -- and found herself flat on her back, her sword lying some feet away.
"Are you hurt, Clo?" Waxmelt asked, not very anxiously.
Clovermead picked herself up off the grass and patted her arms and legs. "No, Father. My fingers tingle and I'm out of breath, that's all."
"Out of breath and still talking -- only you, Clo," said Waxmelt. He grinned, and Clovermead stuck out her tongue at him. "Mr. Sorrel will think you have no manners. Sir, I don't know fighting, but that looked nicely done. Would you like cabbage stuffed with lamb sausage for dinner?"
"I salivate ecstatically, Mr. Wickward," said Sorrel with a low bow and a lick of his lips. He looked curiously at Waxmelt. "I think your voice reveals that you are not from the Vale. You are from someplace south, yes? I think you are like me, not yet accustomed to this horrid cold?"
"I'm from Linstock," Waxmelt said flatly. "I came to the Vale twelve summers ago, when Clo was just a baby."
"That is so? From where in Linstock do you hail?"
"From where Clovermead's mother lies buried," Waxmelt said. He was scowling now. "There was fever that year, and she was weak after giving birth to Clo. I left her grave behind me and I've never looked back. I don't like to think about Linstock."
"I beg a thousand pardons," said Sorrel. "I sorrow for your sadness and I will ask you no more questions."
"It's nothing," said Waxmelt. "Don't bother yourself further." He nodded a farewell to Sorrel, ruffled Clovermead's hair, and headed back to Ladyrest.
Sorrel turned to more basic lessons once Waxmelt was gone. He had Clovermead hold the sword in her outstretched arm for three minutes, then had her hold tight to the hilt while he slashed furiously at the blade. He made her lunge, duck, jump, and leap backward while holding the sword as a shield in front of her face.
"Let's fight," Clovermead begged. "I can do these exercises later. I want to be in a battle!"
"As you wish, Miss Clovermead," said Sorrel. "We shall have a single combat! We will try to tap at each other's bodies with our blades. Please do not aim for my head, and please do not try to skewer me well and truly. If I hit you ten times, I will win, and if you hit me once, you will win. Yes? Then, we proceed!"
Clovermead immediately leapt at Sorrel and rained down furious blows on him. He parried them patiently and waited for her to exhaust herself. When she was panting, he shifted to the offense. He moved slowly and let Clovermead see exactly how his sword swept and thrust. The oak sword hit Clovermead ten different ways and left behind only light bruises.
Their bout ended as the sun set. Sorrel and Clovermead sat down on the side of Kestrel Hill, near a patch of pine forest that bulged down from the Eastern Reliquaries. Their oak swords lay by their sides in the tall grass. The two of them dripped with sweat.
"I haven't been so tired since Gaffer Miller's ram chased me into Goat River," said Clovermead. She took off her sweater. Her shirt beneath was stinking and damp. "Phew! Fighting's just as much fun as I imagined, but I hadn't realized there was so much hard work to it. It's easier to carry two buckets of well water or bathe a cat. Still, I think I see how it ought to be done. Tomorrow I'll be much better -- don't you agree? I think I'm a natural warrior. I'll be as good as a Tansyard within a week!"
"Miss Clovermead, you are as skilled with the blade as any Tansyard with one afternoon of training," said Sorrel. "In five days you will be as good as any Tansyard with five days of training. No, I do not speak the truth entirely. You are a marvelous quick learner. Your parries improve most rapidly. But do not expect to perform miracles, nor to spit ten champions before sunrise."
"Hmph," said Clovermead. "Father always said I should have high expectations for myself, and high expectations are certainly a lot more fun than low expectations." She sat up, plucked a hayseed, and put it between her teeth. Her eyes widened. "Gracious Lady! What a huge bear. I've never seen one come so close."
Sorrel lifted his head. "Where do you see this bear, Miss Clovermead?" he asked.
Clovermead pointed to the near edge of the pine forest. There a white-furred bear squatted on her hind legs. She was enormous -- sixteen feet high and six feet thick. Her hoar white claws were three inches long. She yawned and revealed teeth even longer than her claws and sharp as razors. She steadily inspected the two of them and sniffed gently at the wind.
"She has found me again," said Sorrel. His teeth began to chatter. He got to his feet. "Miss Clovermead, it is time for you to return to Ladyrest. You will please walk directly to the dining room. I must bid you farewell for a little while."
"I don't understand," said Clovermead. She spat out the hayseed and stumbled to her feet. "I know she's large, but she won't hurt you if you stay out of her way. She's just a bear."
"Times are changing," said Sorrel. Now his hands were shaking. His eyes darted from the bear to the Ladyrest stable. "Miss Clovermead, you should know that I am a coward. I am always fearful and I run very often. Now it is time for me to run from this creature. I will go to my sweet mare, Brown Barley, and I will gallop away from your fine inn, and if Our Lady smiles, I think I can make the bear lose my scent. Please make my excuses to your excellent father. Ask him my most weeping pardon that I must abandon his scrumptious lamb sausage and cabbage, and inform him that I will return when it is dark. And please do not tell your father about the bear. He will worry about your safety and require me to go away. He does not need to worry -- she is only chasing me. Even if she discovers some days from now that I have returned here and she comes back, for now she will only watch." Sorrel fixed his eyes on Clovermead's with wistful urgency. "Please say nothing. In a week I will be gone."
"I wish I could go with you," sighed Clovermead. Her eyes blazed. "Danger in Timothy Vale! How wonderful. Of course I won't say anything, Mr. Sorrel. Father's a fuddy-duddy who raises a ruckus if I'm out of sight for an hour! He's just not reasonable. I wouldn't mind if the bear did come looking for you. I'd fight at your side against her."
"I will remember your kind offer," said Sorrel. He bowed to Clovermead with the utmost dignity. His eyes skittered back to the bear and his Adam's apple jerked. "But please, miss, now go."
"I won't tell Father," said Clovermead as she left. Then she ran as if a pack of wolves were yipping at her feet. Partly she ran for the pleasure of running and partly with a prickle of real fear to speed her on her way.
She slammed the dining-room door shut behind her and scampered to press her nose to the window. She watched Sorrel jog to the stable, and a minute later she saw him on Brown Barley, cantering north on the Road. The bear got to her feet and padded after him. She was an avalanche in fur.
"This is my first real adventure," Clovermead told herself solemnly. "I must treasure it. Funny, I always thought bears seemed nice. I wonder what that one's name was?"
Something roared in her mind and Clovermead suddenly knew the answer to her question. "Boulderbash?" Clovermead asked herself curiously. "Of course, Boulderbash. It suits her perfectly. How perfectly gargantuan she was!"
Text copyright 2004 by David Randall
Chapter Two: The Vision in the Puddle
Sorrel stole back into Ladyrest after midnight. His clothes had been spattered with mud and Brown Barley panted with weariness. Clovermead met him at the stable. She put the mare in the stall next to Waxmelt's pony, Nubble, and helped Sorrel rub her down. Then she covered her with a quilted blanket and brought her honeyed oats. Brown Barley whinnied appreciatively and stamped her feet. Clovermead led Sorrel back to the inn and had him sit in the chair nearest the dining-room fire. She gave him a bowl of hot oatmeal.
"Father said to give you this first. There's cabbage and sausage waiting on the stove, and I can make you mint tea. Goody Weft and I plucked the mint leaves just last week and they're almost fresh. It's the best tea in Timothy Vale. Would you like some?"
"I cannot refuse so well-omened a brew," Sorrel said with a tired grin. Clovermead bounced into the kitchen and came back with a hot mug. Sorrel's teeth began to chatter as he held his face over the rising steam. "Now that I am warming, I realize what an icicle I had become. Eeyah. You have my profound gratitude, Miss Clovermead. Where is Mr. Wickward? I should also thank him for leaving me dinner."
"He's asleep -- I told him I'd wait up for you." Clovermead peeked conspiratorially up the empty stairs and shuffled closer to Sorrel. "He's entirely in the dark about the strange event," she whispered into his ear. "So am I. Will you tell me about the bear, please? I think you owe it to me, and I don't care how long the story is. I don't mind staying up."
Sorrel thoughtfully sipped at his tea -- then shook his head. "I think my guest-duty is to disappoint you, Miss Clovermead, and to be mouth-buttoned. You are safer knowing nothing. Alas, I give you poor recompense for your aid, and I am abashed, chagrined, ashamed, and contrite. In Tansyard we have seventy-three words to express these emotions, or maybe seventy-four, and I assure you from the bottom of my heart that I feel all of them."
"You rat," said Clovermead in amazement. "I even made you mint tea."
"I abominate myself," Sorrel said. He slapped himself on the left wrist. "Now, there is a dinner in the kitchen?"
And for all Clovermead's entreaties, he told her nothing more.
"I suppose he should not speak casually of great matters," Clovermead said to herself when she woke the next morning. "Still, it rankles to know that an adventure is finally happening in Timothy Vale, but not for me. It's like having your arm in a splint with an itch on your elbow. Ah, poor, deprived me. Clovermead, you must learn to fight well enough to whack that hoity-toity Tansyard once on the ribs before he leaves."
With that goal to inspire her, Clovermead kept rigorously to the fierce regimen of exercise Sorrel made her undergo. She ran up and down Kestrel Hill a dozen times, hung by her arms from an apple tree branch, and held her arms extended with a ten-pound piece of firewood in each hand. She lunged and parried for hours at a time, and after two days Sorrel taught Clovermead how to fight a formal duel. He also threw dirt in her face and kicked her legs out from under her in a desperate skirmish all over Kestrel Hill, and he stood at her side to show her how infantry fight together. The Tansyard mounted Brown Barley, charged Clovermead, and showed her how to sidestep a horse's hooves and slash at its belly.
Clovermead threw herself into the bouts with fierce devotion and slapdash style. Her lightning-quick assaults forced Sorrel into a desperate defense, but she was unable to sustain them. She would falter at last and Sorrel would press her back with a slow, methodical counterattack. Clovermead's parries would become slower, her sword would barely rise, and Sorrel would whack her stomach or her armpit with his blade.
"That signifies death," Sorrel said. "I think that this fighting is a game to you, Miss Clovermead -- you want to razzle-dazzle, but you will not slow-and-steady. Slow and steady will keep you alive and make your opponent dead. Dead-making is the point of fighting -- not to flash metal in air."
Clovermead laughed gaily. "I wager my razzle-dazzle will kill you a few times before the week's out, Mr. Sorrel."
It did. On the fourth day Clovermead's wooden blade rapped Sorrel's chest for the first time. On the fifth day she tapped him twice, and on the sixth she knocked him off his feet with a sudden whack to the ribs. Clovermead crowed with delight and danced jubilantly around the prone Tansyard.
Waxmelt and Goody Weft had been watching. Goody Weft barked with laughter at the Tansyard's sudden fall. "Teaching Clovermead how to fall down, is he? It's money well spent, Mr. Wickward, I see it now." She guffawed all the way back to Ladyrest. Sorrel blushed furiously as he picked himself up.
"Usually this does not happen so," he said to Waxmelt.
"I'm glad to see you've taught Clovermead well," said Waxmelt with a smile.
"I had not expected her to learn so quickly," Sorrel said, rubbing his ribs.
"I got him! I got him!" Clovermead caroled, stabbing her sword to the sky. "Ooh, I'm a dauntless warrior! And I'll get him again!"
"It must be very rewarding to have so enthusiastic a student," said Waxmelt.
Sorrel groaned. "Deep, deep down beneath the pain I feel great teacherly pride. Ouch."
Clovermead spent the next morning doing chin-ups from a branch of a poplar tree near the top of Kestrel Hill.
"They are very good exercise," said Sorrel. "Besides, I have been tossing and turning half the night. Bad dreams of bears afflict me, brrr! I will rest and you will bemuscle yourself, yes?"
"You don't feel well because you ate too much of Father's stew last night," said Clovermead as she chinned. "You are a lazy glutton who is pompous about being grown up, which you hardly are. You're a bad example to a tender maiden, and I disapprove of you. Who's in the right in this war between Low Branding and Chandlefort?"
"Like a butterfly, you flutter from topic to topic in your conversation," observed Sorrel. "It is hard to answer you. First I will say that I possess many faults, but I cannot be a bad example to a scamp like you. Second I will say that the answer to your last question is high politics and beyond the judgment of simple folks like us." He hesitated a moment. "It is often said in Linstock that the Mayor of Low Branding had much justice on his side when he began the war. It is also said that he has fought the war most savagely, most cruelly. There are few who think the freedom of Low Branding is worth the butcheries the Mayor has dealt out to achieve it."
"What butcheries?" asked Clovermead curiously. "The pilgrims don't talk much about the war when I'm around."
"They are kind to spare you that knowledge," said Sorrel shortly. "More chinning, less jawing." He settled down on the grass with a rock for his pillow.
"Still, I'd like to know." There was no response from Sorrel. Clovermead sighed and looked north, down Kestrel Hill to the Goat River ford and up to the north pastures of the Vale. Just across the river Gaffer Merrin and an assortment of his sons and dogs led their flock from the Vale Commons to the Merrin Paddock. The Gaffer's curly white beard made him look like a particularly large ram that had learned to wear clothes, stand on its hind feet, and wield a yew crook. His ruddy-blond sons were more like the Merrin dogs -- hairy, dirty, cheerful, and forever on the run after a stray lamb. They halloed to one another, and the echoes floated over the grass stubble of the Commons, the rippling river, and the swell of Kestrel Hill to Clovermead's ears.
Clovermead let herself hang down. Her feet dangled half a foot off the ground. "Card Merrin over there wants to marry me," she said to Sorrel, nodding at the smallest figure. "He comes to Ladyrest and he stares at me. He's thirteen and I hate him. He gets all flustered and boring when he talks to me. He doesn't read and he doesn't hunt and he doesn't do anything exciting. He just likes wrestling with his older brothers and drinking beer when Gaffer Merrin lets him. If I had to marry him, I'd pinch him every day."
"Pinching and conjugal harmony go very badly together," said Sorrel. "That was not a saying of the Cyan Cross Horde, but it should have been. It is a wise saying and full of truth. Miss Clovermead, please return to your exercises. They are to your inestimable benefit."
"Phooey to my inestimable benefit," said Clovermead, chinning herself over the branch once more.
Now she saw a lone woman in a gray dress walking south on the Road, eating up the distance with a steady gait. She stopped while the Merrin flock eddied in front of her, and waved her thanks to the Merrin sons when they had pushed their bleating charges out of the way. They bowed respectfully.
"Someone important is walking this way," said Clovermead.
"Impossible. You must have a horse to be important. Any Tansyard will tell you that." Sorrel sat up and looked north. "A woman traveling by herself? That is most rare."
The woman crossed the Ford. She slogged through knee-high water -- and slipped, falling headlong. Dripping, she got to her feet and disconsolately shook her sleeves.
Clovermead dropped to the ground. "Perhaps nefarious and cruel bandits have stolen her beast and murdered her companions. Not that I've ever heard of bandits between here and Snowchapel. If there are any, they would have to be nefarious indeed to rob a poor pilgrim. She must be awfully cold. I think we should do a kind deed."
"What did you have in mind?"
"Drying her off." Clovermead jogged up the hill to Ladyrest. Sorrel yawned, sprang to his feet, and loped after Clovermead. He caught up with her in the yard behind the kitchen. Clovermead plucked two fluffy towels from the laundry-line and tossed one to him. "Simple hospitality," she said, and galloped off toward the ford with the towel flapping loosely from her hand. Sorrel folded the second towel over his arm and followed after her.
They came to the woman at the bottom of Kestrel Hill. Clovermead skidded to a halt and thrust forth her towel. "Unknown lady, please use this to dry yourself, courtesy of Ladyrest Inn. Sorrel has one too. You have fought with Goat River, and Goat River has won. I know how you must feel. Once I dove into Bluehorn Lake to see if it was as cold as everyone said. It was. You're not a pilgrim, are you? I'd remember your face if you'd come north this summer."
"I am not responsible for Clovermead, madam," said Sorrel, stepping up behind her. He unfolded his towel, bowed, and proffered it as well. "This cloth has been provided by Ladyrest Inn and Tansyard Portaging Services."
The woman stared at them bemusedly, made the crescent sign, and bowed. "Thank you very much," she said. She took their towels and vigorously rubbed her sopping clothes.
Her thick gray dress clung to her from her shoulders to her feet. A white head scarf covered up her hair, her ears, and her neck. She wore a silver pendant of Our Lady at her throat and carried a drenched pack on her shoulders. She was a tall woman whose age-thickened face retained much of its youthful beauty. Raven black and cloud white wisps of hair danced at the edge of her scarf. She had a dreamy look to her that made Clovermead think that this was not the first time she had fallen into a river, or likely to be the last.
"There's no reason for you to remember my face," the woman said. She sat down on a granite boulder by the side of the Road and began to squeeze water from her dress. "I came on pilgrimage twelve years ago. I stayed the night at Ladyrest then, but I've been a nun at Snowchapel ever since."
Clovermead's eyes widened. "Heavens above! Though I suppose you know more about them than I do -- professionally, I mean. I've never seen a nun before. I thought nuns never left the Chapel. What do you actually do there? What's your name? Are those a nun's robes you're wearing? Does everyone in the order wear that sort of pendant? Where are you going? Do you want to stop at the Ladyrest and have a meal or stay for the night?"
"Next she will ask you for lessons in nunnery," said Sorrel. "Miss Clovermead will devour you whole with questions and enthusiasm. You must fly for your life while you still can. For me it is too late; leave me to my doom."
The nun belly-laughed, low and loud. "I'm sure it's a very pleasant doom to have a pretty girl hanging on your every word. Sorrel is your name? I want to hear no more complaints from you! And you're Clovermead, miss? Let me see if I can answer your questions in order. The Sisters of the Holy Order of Our Lady's Sibyls spin wool, grow vegetables, host pilgrims, pray, and watch the Scrying Pool at Snowchapel for glimpses of the future. My name is Sister Rowan. These are my traveling robes, and very itchy linsey-woolsey they are too. The pendant belonged to my dear friend Sister Mendloom, who left the pendant to me when Our Lady took her home." Sister Rowan made the crescent sign again, slowly and sadly. "Poor Mendy, her arthritis hurt her terribly those last few years. Deary me, what were your last questions?"
"Where are you going?" Clovermead repeated. "Will you stop the night at Ladyrest?"
"Oh, yes! My dear, you should address your questions to me one at a time. I have an awful tendency to forget things. I'm traveling to the Royal Abbey in Queensmart -- Our Lady sent me a vision telling me to go. Actually, she sent me visions two nights in a row, but I didn't remember the first one when I woke up. The second time around she was furious! I woke with an awful headache. I don't know why Our Lady wants me to go to Queensmart, but there's no doubt I have to go. I don't think Abbess Medick really believes I've had a vision. I've always been terrible at scrying. I see roasts burning, but it always turns out to be me who forgets to watch the meat. Abbess Medick says it doesn't take prophecy to know I shouldn't be let loose in the kitchen. But she agreed to let me leave Snowchapel! 'So you can stop pestering me, Sister' were her words. But this definitely was a vision! Now, as for your last question..." Sister Rowan suddenly blushed. "What was your last question again?"
"Can you stay the night at Ladyrest?" Clovermead asked.
"I'm afraid not. Our Lady definitely told me to hurry. Dear me, I'm afraid I've disappointed you, miss. I'm disappointed too. I remember my night at Ladyrest very fondly, and I'd much rather be there than in Queensmart. Queensmart is my home, and I left it, which should tell you what I think of the place." Sister Rowan pressed her boots tentatively against the ground. They squished. She pulled them off her feet and water poured out. "I don't think Our Lady will mind if I sit and dry out a few minutes more. If I may ask, what gives you the right to speak for Ladyrest Inn?"
"I am Clovermead Wickward," said Clovermead portentously, "the innkeeper's daughter."
"Are you Mr. Wickward's baby? My dear, how you've grown!" Sister Rowan looked more closely at Clovermead, pinched her cheek, and laughed with delight. "You were just an infant in silk swaddlings when I saw you last. Your hair was as blond then as it is now. I remember running my fingers through it and marveling at how fine it was. Mr. Wickward had just become innkeeper. He hardly knew how to cook -- the woman he hired yelled at him frightfully. He jumped a foot in the air every time a pilgrim knocked on the door, and he twitched if anyone looked your way. I told him I wasn't going to steal you, but he just glowered at me. Is he calmer nowadays?"
"Decidedly," said Clovermead. "He is so calm that a visitation of flower-priests from Hither Jaifal would not perturb him."
"I am Sorrel of the Cyan Cross Horde," Sorrel interjected, thrusting out his chest. "I am a Tansyard vagabond and pilgrim."
"Merely my tutor," said Clovermead. Sister Rowan gave Sorrel a sympathetic look. "Why don't you have a horse?"
A flash of annoyance crossed Sister Rowan's face. "Abbess Medick wouldn't give me one. She said Snowchapel couldn't spare a horse for 'gaddings about.' She was kind enough to give me the fare for the riverboat from High Branding to Queensmart, but I swear by Our Lady, she smirked when she said I'd have to walk to High Branding. She is a -- never mind. It is part of Our Lady's plan, I suppose, to blister, chill, and drench me."
"I have always taken ease to be a sign of Our Lady's favor," said Sorrel. "I avoid discomfort as a sign of evil. Blessed are the lazy, as we say in the Cyan Cross Horde."
"I envy you your theology." Sister Rowan fingered her damp habit, made a moue of distaste, and reluctantly handed the towels back to Clovermead and Sorrel. She put her boots on again and got up with a sigh. Her boots squelched softly.
"Are you leaving already?" Clovermead asked plaintively.
"Duty is duty, as my mother vainly told me in my youth, so onward I must go. Walking will warm me, I suppose. Clovermead Wickward, I am delighted to see you have grown into a lovely young lady. Sorrel of the, um, Cyan Cross Horde, it is a pleasure to meet you. When I hear you profess your beliefs, I sincerely wish you were Abbess at Snowchapel."
"When I am Abbess, no nun will rise before noon," Sorrel devoutly murmured.
Sister Rowan laughed heartily. "I look forward to that day -- I'm afraid we must part company now. I thank you both again for the use of the towels. The blessing of Lady Moon on both of you." Sister Rowan reached down to a nearby puddle, dipped her finger in the water, and anointed their foreheads with a muddy dribble. She muttered a few syllables of the Moontongue and glanced down at the murky water --
She screamed. The nun fell heavily on the rock and clutched at her cheek. Blood streamed down her face. Something had ripped her face from her nose to her ear.
"Ursus clawed me," Sister Rowan moaned. Her eyes were wide with fear. "He saw me and he reached out. Lady preserve me." She shivered, and tears welled out of her eyes. They ran down her bloody cheek. Clovermead looked around wildly to see what had attacked the nun, but she saw nothing. She looked at Sister Rowan's slashed flesh, and her own cheek tingled.
"I saw more in the puddle." Sister Rowan's eyes sought out Sorrel's. Her pupils shone with silver fire. "The bear-priest is coming after you. He brings blood with him. You must ride to Snowchapel this instant. No more delays."
"You have seen truly?" asked Sorrel, his face stark with fear. "This is not the Scrying Pool."
"The Moon shines everywhere," said Sister Rowan. The silver fire faded from her and her voice was weak with pain. Clovermead gave her back the towel, and Sister Rowan staunched the wound on her cheek. "The Scrying Pool is crystal clear, but all waters reflect Our Lady's vision a little. I see that you carry a message, Tansyard. I see that the bear-priest wants to intercept it. I see Lord Ursus' teeth and claws. I see you must ride fast, Sorrel of the Cyan Cross Horde." She smiled faintly. "I never saw so much in the Scrying Pool. Our Lady's eyes must be in me."
"Night and stars," Sorrel swore. "Miss Clovermead, I fear our lessons are at an end. You have not done badly, but do not be rash if true-trouble finds you. And keep away from the razzle-dazzle! You are not yet a trained soldier."
"Are you going right now?" asked Clovermead. "It's not fair! I'm never going to know what this is all about. I'm horribly frustrated."
"When everything is settled, I will return and tell all to you," said Sorrel. He flashed her a grin. "Good-bye, Miss Clovermead. You have given me a delightful week. You have my profound thanks." And he was off and running toward the Ladyrest stable, his ragtag clothes flapping behind him.
"His condescension is insufferable," said Clovermead. "Stupid Tansyard. Sister Rowan, who is Lord Ursus?"
"Blood and killing," Sister Rowan said. Clovermead waited for an elaboration, but none came. Sister Rowan frowned and looked in the puddle again. "How do I avoid the bear-priests?" she muttered to herself. "Dear Lady, tell me which way to travel. His shadow is heavy on Linstock. I see him everywhere. Ha!" She grinned suddenly at Clovermead. "Abbess Medick is right -- my visions never are very useful. Our Lady doesn't tell me which way to travel, but she's sent me a vision for you just now. My dear, something that belongs to you lies hidden in a nearby tree."
Clovermead's brow wrinkled. "I haven't lost anything."
"Sometimes the vision is unclear, but the water never lies. Did you misplace a doll when you were an infant?"
"Father says I broke them all."
Sorrel galloped out of the stable on Brown Barley and kicked her north on the Road. He waved farewell, then dwindled and disappeared out of sight.
Sister Rowan nodded approvingly. "Bravo, Sorrel. Too few people pay proper attention to visions. It makes you wonder why they come all the way to Snowchapel to find out their future and then refuse to believe what they've been told. Tell me, who would you expect to see heading south on the Road this time of year?"
"Hyssop Nunsman," Clovermead said instantly. "He always comes down to spend the winter in High Branding."
"Of course!" said Sister Rowan. "How could I forget? Hyssop's always good at sniffing out news for us. In fact, I believe he said he'd accompany me south if I waited a few days. Unfortunately, the vision said I couldn't wait even a minute. Well. Miss Clovermead, for your kindness I will reveal a Mystery to you. If there is great need, we nuns have ways of traveling discreetly." She uttered a few more words of Moontongue and her face began to melt.
"Oh, heavens!" said Clovermead. "Does that hurt? Your nose is getting as big as a Low Branding plum. You look like Hyssop! I'd recognize his squint and his greasy red hair and the wart on his nose anywhere. Your pack looks like his sack full of furs. You're not as big as Hyssop, but I don't suppose most people would notice. If I weren't paying attention, I'd swear you were him. How marvelous!"
"It is fun to sneak up on people unawares," Sister Rowan admitted. She stood up and gave the towel back to Clovermead. "Good-bye, good-bye! I'm sorry I bloodied the cloth. Look in the trees!"
"Good-bye," Clovermead called to the disappearing figure of Hyssop Nunsman. "Good luck! Lady bless you! Oh, it's good-byes all around, excitement's in the air, and here I am stuck in Timothy Vale the same as ever. How perfectly wretched. I suppose I'll have to challenge Gaffer Miller's ram to a duel if I want excitement." Her shoulders slumped and she let the towel fall to the ground.
The puddle lapped against the bloody corner of the cloth. A growl like distant thunder bit into Clovermead's bones as gore seeped into the water. She saw a claw flash in the puddle's muddy scarlet.
Clovermead gulped hastily, made the sign of the crescent, and steadied herself. She looked around, but saw nothing. After a second she whistled nonchalantly. "Frightened of nothing! Just like a child. Silly, silly Clovermead," she told herself disapprovingly. She paused. "But I don't think I'll tell Father about claws in puddles or Lord Ursus or anything like that. He'd worry about me and he'd send me to my room till I was a hundred and twelve and I'd never ever have a chance for another adventure. Did he see Sister Rowan through the window? I'll have to tell him some story about who she was and why Sorrel left so suddenly. But nothing about bears."
Then Clovermead smiled dreamily and flexed her fingers into claws. "Bears! Oh, I could do anything I liked if I were a big, strong bear. That would be fun. Rrargh! I wonder what it's like to bite people?"
Text copyright 2004 by David Randall
Excerpted from Clovermead by David Randall Copyright © 2004 by David Randall.
Excerpted by permission.
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Note The Lands of Lady Moon
Chapter One: The Tansyard Pilgrim
Chapter Two: The Vision in the Puddle
Chapter Three: The Brooch of the Burning Bee
Chapter Four: Lucifer Snuff
Chapter Five: The Golden Cub
Chapter Six: The Chaffen Hills
Chapter Seven: The Tale of the Thieving Servant
Chapter Eight: Ambush
Chapter Nine: In the Mill
Chapter Ten: Horse Thievery
Chapter Eleven: Steppe Tales
Chapter Twelve: The Army of Low Branding
Chapter Thirteen: The Raid on the Prison Carts
Chapter Fourteen: Stalking Dreams
Chapter Fifteen: The Mayor's Interrogation
Chapter Sixteen: The Prophecy of Mrs. Neap
Chapter Seventeen: What Waxmelt Wickward Stole
Chapter Eighteen: The White Doe
Chapter Nineteen: Cerelune Cindertallow
Posted December 12, 2013