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Copyright 2002 by Pauline Alama
I little thought, when I begged shelter at Kelgarran Hall one rainy night, that I should take part in its downfall.
It happened the night of St. Bridwen's Day, in the year of my pilgrimage. I had left the Tarvon Order and taken my troubles to the Lake-Shrine of St. Fiern, as so many god-haunted wanderers do. I was traveling back toward what I could no longer call my home when I came, a disappointed pilgrim, to Kelgarran Hall.
It was a generous hearth in those days, the grand days of Lord Dannoth Kelgarran: Dannoth the Mighty, Dannoth the Bountiful. Some lords honor St. Bridwen's Day by doling out bread at the gate, but Lord Dannoth opened his doors and larder to all travelers, high- or lowborn. I was abjectly grateful; it was the first thing I'd found to praise that whole unfruitful year.
A sorry pilgrimage that had been! I'd seen nothing in the still pool they call the Mirror of St. Fiern, nothing: not even my own reflection, for rainstorms had drowned the pool in dull, blackish mud. That featureless blackness, more than any evil vision I might have seen, seemed to pass a death sentence over me: my life was a void, a starless night. For a moment, I felt I must cast myself into the depths and drown, as though the saint herself had urged it. I'd never felt less inclined to return to the Order, but neither had I any glimmer of a new life outside it.
I arrived at Kelgarran Hall a lost man, and they welcomed me. Whatever has been said of them since thenwhatever I myself am compelled to saylet this kindness be set in the balance.
The holiday took me by surprise. I had lost count of days in the longfootsore passage from St. Fiern's Town eastward to Lake Garran, with an anxious detour into the marshy wastes to avoid a small war between two of the cities of the plain. Even when I'd passed the marshes, the damp clung to me. It was late spring, but a spring almost stillborn, cold and meagera sign of the Troubles, people said. When I slogged through the mud to the gates of Kelgarran City one rainy afternoon, it puzzled me to see festal banners of green and gold exposed to the rain, and the populace in a chilled and damp procession toward the town square for the St. Bridwen's Day pageant. Only by counting days on my fingers could I convince myself that it was, indeed, the saint's day, with summer and the Feast of the Bright Goddess close at hand.
Under the pavilions hastily set up in the town square against the weather, I watched the pageant with only half an eye for it. St. Bridwen's legendary openhandedness was all very well in ancient days, but I'd found precious little of it among the people I met along the road from St. Fiern's Town to Kelgarran. The little money I had been granted for the pilgrimage was spent, and I had been sleeping in the temple courts with other travelers and beggars, eating whatever crust would be spared to me. Like many in the crowd, I looked forward to the culmination of the pageant, when St. Bridwen's mysterious well gives ale and bowls are handed round to the populace. I was hungry, and even a mouthful of ale is at least something in the belly.
But the man who passed me the bowl, a thin blond youth with a Kettran accent and the white robes of the Order of St. Rann, laughed at my eagerness. "This is breakfast for you, too?" he said.
I grimaced. "It's been a hard pilgrimage."
"Mine, too," he said. "But they say that travelers are welcome at the lord's table tonight. I am Brother Ennes, priest of the Order of St. Rann. Pass the bowl and come with me; we'll see if it's true."
"I'm Jereth," I told him, and added no more, unsure whether I dared any longer to add any suffix to my bare given name. Order, profession, patronym, hometownany of these seemingly innocent additions might drag along in their train the whole story of my failed priesthood and failed pilgrimage. My very appearance must have told part of that story: I looked scarcely more than a common beggar, my hair grown out of tonsure. A travel-worn cassock belted in rope was the only remaining mark of my abandoned order. The wooden emblem of a key that hung from my belt was scarcely recognizable, half broken the night before when I'd had to scramble under a hedge, driven from my sleeping place by a guard dog. It had been a hard pilgrimage indeed.
Grateful for any slim chance of shelter, I followed Ennes through the stone streets of Kelgarran, past shops decked in gold and green for the holiday, past the tall houses of the wealthy citizens, on an ever-climbing road to the castle door. I was surprised by the beauty of the structure: having heard of the might of the House of Kelgarran, I had expected a stark fortress, blank-faced and harsh as a cliff; but here was a many-towered cloud-castle of silvery-pale stone that gleamed even in the dull light of a rain-drenched day.
I shook my head as Ennes strode boldly to the door, answering the sentry's cry with a few words, "In St. Bridwen's Name." But little as they seemed, those words gained us entry. At the guard's request, Ennes left his sword and bow at the door; having no weapon to leave, I entered freely as the flies that had taken refuge from the rain.
I could scarcely believe our good fortune when Lord Dannoth's servant led us, not to some nook of the scullery to gnaw crust amid the noise of pot-scraping, but to the lord's feast-hall, to share in the plenty among his own kindred and retainers, mingling among them as if St. Bridwen's name obliterated all distinction of rank.
Dazed as sleepwalkers, Ennes and I made our way to the purple-draped dais at the head of the hall to bow before our host, Lord Dannoth Kelgarran, a broad-shouldered man dressed in the colors of the holiday with a robe of grass-green and a close-fitting jacket of gold brocade, a crown of new leaves pressing down the iron-gray hair that still curled thickly down to his collar. I had expected him to look older; my father, sixty when he died, had been young when Dannoth was crowned.
His lady sat by his side, also decked out in the green and gold of approaching summer, a crown of flowers in her butter-blond hair. She looked young and fresh, but that is no rare thing in the wife of a prosperous man. They bid us welcome, and a liveried servant ushered us to seats at a huge table that was fast filling with people of every station: Lord Dannoth's own kin in silks, merchants in velvet caps, laborers in homespun, priests and priestesses of all four Great Ones wearing the garb of some dozen different orders.
The warmth and brightness of the feast-hall seemed to me to hold all the delights of the fabled womb of the world. I had been shivering ever since I woke, but here was a hearty fire; here were walls warm and festive with tapestries, red and gold; here were folk at ease around an oak table broad as the deck of a trading ship, laden with enough food to provision a journey to the world's end. The scents made me dizzy: thick stew steamed in wooden bowls, roast meats smoked on silver plates, and spiced wine raised its languid perfume from gilded flagons. And the sounds intoxicated me: the sound of laughter around the table, like a music I had half forgotten, heard long ago in a life I could scarcely call mine.
I spoke little, but listened to Ennes chatter with the merchant and scholar on his other side. He said he'd been sent from Kettra by the Order of St. Rann to guard the great trading road of northern Swevnalond. Now he was returning to his homeland, for with the Troubles in the North, no one went that way anymore. "Even if the traders came north again, what could I do for them? Guard them against ghosts, and wave my sword at apparitions? It's no place for a living man anymore," he said. "I believe the gods themselves have condemned it."
It was only later that I noticed the discrepancy in his story: earlier, he had as good as told me he was on a pilgrimage, like me. I had been startled by the habit of St. Rann; my father once employed a guard from that notorious band of Kettran warrior-priests, as strong as a blacksmith and about as scrupulous as an assassin. Ennes looked at once too slight and too innocent for the robes he wore. Now, looking back, I wonder if he was lying, wearing a dead man's habit and name to deter highwaymen and overawe chance acquaintances on the road home. Perhaps I was the innocent, to accept without question the face each passerby chose to wear. More likely I never had time to consider Ennes's story, for the last guest to arrive that evening put him clean out of my mind.
The meal had begun already when the carved oaken doors of the hall opened to the Lady Trenara. There was a little servant with hernot a child, I mean, but a woman shorter than many of the children about the table. The maidservant wore the bewildered expression of a simpleton in a face oddly lopsided, like an image in troubled water. As they passed the foot of the great table, she looked wildly about, stammering, "Beg of your kindness, please sir, some shelter, for my lady's sake, kind sir," to no one in particular, unable to tell who was the lord of the hall or whom she should ask. The lady placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, calming her confusion, and together they walked to the head of the hall to bow deeply before Lord Dannoth.
The lord smiled down from his oaken throne. "All travelers are welcome in St. Bridwen's name," he said. "What is your name, good gentlewoman?"
"I am the Lady Trenara of Larioneth. My family was scattered by the Troubles in the North."
"I'm Hwyn," the servant said, squinting up from the floor where she still knelt.
"Larioneth!" exclaimed Lord Dannoth Kelgarran. "I had not thought any still lived of that land's best blood. Is it true what they saythat even the dead are cast out of their graves and walk the earth?"
Trenara nodded gravely.
"I heard the King of Larioneth tore his own eyes out, ghost-ridden, years ago," Ennes muttered to the scholar.
Lord Kelgarran frowned. "These days I even fear for my own land. The Troubles are reaching farther and farther; as Larioneth is today, all Swevnalond may be tomorrowgods defend us! A madness is sweeping down over the land. They say a rioting crowd in Helmstrang slew their Count and all his family; that the Crown Prince of Adelwic killed his own kin and himself. But enough of these forebodings. My home is yours for as long as you need it, noble cousinfor a cousin you must be at long remove, like all the house of Larioneth. Have a seat: my people will serve you, and you'll lack nothing.
"I serve Trenara," the little servant grumbled, and without waiting for the household people to set a place for them at table, began helping the lady out of her long cloak and traveling boots, unveiling a little more of the beauty that held every eye in the hall.
How shall I begin to describe Trenara? She was majestic. Her deep-dyed violet surcoat and indigo gown were a little worse for the journey, frayed at the cuffs and trodden on at the hem; but a little outward shabbiness could not trouble the serenity of her splendor. Her servant was sodden and bedraggled from the stormy night, but the Lady Trenara seemed not to have walked under the same rain. She was a vision, a dream, too perfect for this heavy world of mud and work and loss. Her knowing dark eyes were measureless as the star-filled ocean of the night sky, her smile as mysterious as the Hidden Goddess, her high forehead unmarred by a wrinkle of earthly care. Her glossy black hair was wet, but no less lovely for that, falling in loose curls over her perfect shoulder and breast. Tall and slim as a young tree, she might be a sylph, a spirit of the wood. But more than that, she seemed to me a spirit of pure air, for she moved with a fluid, effortless grace as though there were no weight of earth in her whole body.
They set a place for heroh unmerited gift of the gods!beside me. Ennes kept leaning over me to look at her, and I suppose I must have looked equally silly to other eyes, but she did not laugh at us.
"Have you had a long journey?" I asked, trying to draw her out.
"Ah, yes. Very long." She paused, black lashes drooping on her fair cheek, as though these words stirred some secret thought in her, before returning to the conversation. "Have you?"
"From the Abbey of St. Tarvi in Annelon to the Lake-Shrine of St. Fiern, and halfway back. Long enough, I think."
"Long enough," she sighed. She looked as though she'd have spoken more, but the servant Hwyn returned then with food for her and distracted us by waiting on Trenara with great energy and little direction, cutting meat on her plate, buttering bread, jostling me and her lady, arranging the food fussily on the plate. She rarely seemed to look at her work, and spilled a good deal. Trenara took it in good part, smiling her thanks, ignoring the grubby fingers on her meat and the crumbs in her servant's hair, waiting patiently till Hwyn had finished fussing before beginning her meal, as serene as a painted image on a temple wall. I was half surprised to see that she did eat, nibbling delicately at a pale half-moon of fine white bread.
"Why did you leave home?" Trenara asked me.
"You mean the monastery?" I asked, and she nodded. "It's not really home anymore," I said. "I've left the Order for life. I went to the Mirror of St. Fiern in hope of finding a new calling. Have you ever been to the Lake-Shrine?"
She shook her head.
"They say some have wept for joy at what they saw in the waters, and others laughed aloud. One merchant gave away his fortune because of a vision in St. Fiern's Mirror. A knight-at-arms cast his sword into the waters, never to fight again. Only last year a woman left her husband at the Mirror's bidding, and even the priests dared not call it sin. They say there that children have looked into the waters and walked away strangely grown; that the old and hardened have come away childlike."