"[A] fun and fairly light read, a good choice for a fantasy-lover’s beach bag." --The Bookwyrm's Hoard
"[S]olid evidence that the entire series is worth reading." --Macleod Gazette
From a High Tower is the newest adventure in Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series, featuring a retelling of Rapunzel’s not-so-happily-ever-after ending.
"[A] fun and fairly light read, a good choice for a fantasy-lover’s beach bag." --The Bookwyrm's Hoard
"[S]olid evidence that the entire series is worth reading." --Macleod Gazette
THE NOVELS OF VALDEMAR:
THE HERALDS OF VALDEMAR
ARROWS OF THE QUEEN
THE LAST HERALD-MAGE
THE MAGE WINDS
WINDS OF FATE
WINDS OF CHANGE
WINDS OF FURY
THE MAGE STORMS
VOWS AND HONOR
THE COLLEGIUM CHRONICLES
THE HERALD SPY
CLOSER TO HOME
CLOSER TO THE HEART*
BY THE SWORD
TAKE A THIEF
SWORD OF ICE
SUN IN GLORY
CHANGING THE WORLD
FINDING THE WAY
UNDER THE VALE
NO TRUE WAY
Written with LARRY DIXON:
THE MAGE WARS
THE BLACK GRYPHON
THE WHITE GRYPHON
THE SILVER GRYPHON
THE BLACK SWAN
THE DRAGON JOUSTERS
THE ELEMENTAL MASTERS
THE SERPENT’S SHADOW
THE GATES OF SLEEP
PHOENIX AND ASHES
THE WIZARD OF LONDON
RESERVED FOR THE CAT
HOME FROM THE SEA
FROM A HIGH TOWER
*Coming soon from DAW Books
And don’t miss THE VALDEMAR COMPANION edited by John Helfers and Denise Little
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES—MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN U.S.A.
I don’t normally write a foreword for the books in this series, but this time I thought I’d give you all a little warning. In this book, I’m going to be heavily referencing an author utterly unheard of in the US: Karl May. This 19th-century German writer of American Westerns is the bestselling writer of all time in Germany. His books, particularly Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, Old Surehand, and Old Firehand, are still widely in print. Many movies have been made from them (mostly using the Czech Republic as a stand-in for the American Southwest, and Italian actors as Native Americans). There are Karl May Festivals all over Germany every year, where avid fans watch reenactments and plays based on the books and dress as their favorite characters, not unlike Western-themed, outdoor versions of American SF conventions. Karl May mania has created over a century’s worth of fans just as rabid as any would-be Jedi or Trekker.
Karl May’s closest contemporary counterpart is probably J. K. Rowling, but it remains to be seen whether the popularity of Harry Potter will persist for 150 years, as the popularity of Winnetou has in Germany.
I have no explanation for this. We’re not exactly talking Shakespeare, here. Karl May literally writes himself as the hero of the Old Shatterhand series. The books themselves are incredibly self-indulgent; May’s heroes never, ever put a foot wrong. Old Shatterhand is such a powerful puncher that he levels his opponents with a single blow; never having faced a grizzly before, he kills one with a knife; never having seen a buffalo, he takes down an enormous bull with a single shot to the heart! Winnetou is the noblest of “noble savages,” and is so accurate in predicting the movements of his enemies that you’d suspect psychic powers. May strongly encouraged his readers to believe that he, personally, was the hero of his works, despite never once having set foot on US soil, much less gone as far as the West, a fact that is painfully obvious to anyone who reads the original German or the one good translation I was able to find. He wrote in the first person, named his hero “Charlie” (the English version of Karl), then dressed as Charlie and encouraged all his fans to assume Charlie’s adventures were his own. And yet hundreds of thousands of Germans read and reread the books obsessively, and no less a personage than Albert Einstein said that the adventures of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand brightened his childhood.
Perhaps the explanation is the simplest possible: despite the defects (and they are many), and despite an egotistical self-aggrandizement that led him to dress like Old Shatterhand, and even commission a rifle that replicated the “magical” 25-shot carbine the hero carried (although I have no clue whether or not the thing ever actually worked), Karl May wrote a rattling good story. If he was a “hack,” remember that the definition of a “hack” is this: a strong, dependable horse that can always be relied on to get you where you want to go.
There are worse things to be.
BLESSED Mary, it is bitter. Friedrich Schnittel did not take his coat off after closing the door to the single room he and his family inhabited in a ramshackle building on the inaptly named Gartenstrasse in Freiburg. There was no point in taking it off. It was only a little warmer inside than it was outside. The single room, with its peeling wallpaper and single window with rags stuffed in every crevice, was mostly heated by the bodies of his family, when all was said and done.
His eight children crowded around him, waiting to see what he would produce out of his coat, but they knew better than to clamor at him. And they knew better than to grab for the loaf of day-old bread, the head of cabbage, and the little pot of rendered fat that was all he had to show for an entire day of work stacking crates of wine. He passed these treasures over their heads into the hands of his heavily pregnant wife, Maria. Eight pairs of eyes followed the food with longing and hunger. Maria sat down beside the hearth on a tin bucket, and propped a piece of chipped tile on her lap to use as a cutting board. The cabbage wasn’t very good, or very large, but Maria chopped it fine and added every bit, including the stem, to the pot over the tiny hearth. Meanwhile, Friedrich sat down on the bit of ruined masonry that he used for a stool on the side of the hearth opposite her. They didn’t have any furniture to speak of; if they’d had anything, it would have been broken up and added to the fire long ago. The only reason they had anything at all to burn was because three of the four oldest children spent all day scavenging every bit of wood or crumb of coal they could find within walking distance of their home. They were good at it, finding even the smallest scraps and the thinnest twigs, but they were competing with many others in similarly impoverished circumstances.
The eldest boy had a different task: he took whatever jobs people would give a nine-year-old boy, which in the winter, wasn’t much.
Friedrich stuck his feet, shod in his cracked, rag-wrapped, and ill-fitting shoes, so close to the tiny fire that if the flames had been enthusiastic he might have been in danger of scorching them and surveyed his family with the eye of despair. Eight children, six boys and two girls, all of them clad in every scrap of clothing they possessed, all of them staring at his wife with desperate longing as she cut the loaf into ten absolutely equal pieces and scraped a bit of the lard over the surface of each piece. All of them with the pinched, slightly grayish faces of those to whom hunger was ever present, and soap unheard-of. Dear God, Friedrich thought, sadly. Oh, dear God, why did You make Maria so . . . fertile? I know that You have told us to be fruitful and multiply, but surely You meant that for wealthier men than me. . . . The Priest at Saint Martin’s Church said that it was a blessing that they had so many children, and that none of them had died, but Friedrich could not see how it could possibly be a blessing to have so many children when not one of them could get a full belly no matter how hard he worked.
Especially not in the winter, when they needed full bellies the most.
Maria looked up at him sharply, as if she had gotten wind of his thoughts. But then she looked back down at her task, which was no easy one, slicing so carefully through the bread so as not to waste a crumb and carefully apportioning the lard so that everyone got the same tiny amount. When she had finished, she carefully—almost reverently—handed it over, slice by precious slice, into the outstretched hands. Then she protected her hand with her threadbare skirt and lifted the pot off the hook, took her own battered cup, and apportioned one cup of the cabbage soup to each of nine bits of abused tin or chipped pottery that the children passed her. When she had given Friedrich his, she lifted the kettle and poured out the rest—exactly a cupful—into her own vessel.
They all ate slowly, carefully, dipping the bread into the broth and taking tiny bites and then, when the bread was gone, drinking what remained, and chasing the little bits of cabbage remaining with fingers and tongues until the vessels could not have been cleaner had they been scoured. Maria sent Pieter, the oldest, for the bucket of water in the corner, refilled the pot, and hung it back over the fire. They would all drink hot water if they got too cold, and to ease the complaints of still-empty stomachs.
While they were relatively warm, and had something in their bellies, the children all piled together on the heap of rags that they called a bed, made of rags too small to be patched into clothing or too coarse to wear. In moments they were asleep. Maria sighed, and rubbed her belly. “I wish it was summer,” she said, sadly. “I long for green things and vegetables to eat. I feel I will die without them. Ramps! Oh, if only I could have ramps!”
Friedrich winced. Of course she would crave what she couldn’t have. Vegetables in winter? Other than cabbage and potatoes, they were dearer than meat. When she had been pregnant in the summer, she had wanted meat, which they couldn’t afford at any time, and pickles. Now in the winter, she craved green things. But . . . this time was a little different. This time it seemed to him that her face was thinner than before, and more strained, and that there was a feverish, haunted look about her eyes. Was she voicing more than her usual complaints and cravings? Could it be that this time bearing the child would kill her?
And then what would he do? He couldn’t work and watch over the children at the same time! Panic rose in his throat, though he kept his face stoic.
“Rampion,” she said wistfully. “Oh, for a heap of rampion.”
Unable to bear any more of this, or the frightened feeling in his belly, he stood up, abruptly. “I’m going back out,” he said gruffly. “By now everyone has cleared out from the winter market. I might find some cabbage leaves or onion tops, or maybe some spilled oats or barley.” He turned without another word and went out the door. As he closed it, he glanced behind, through the closing door. She was sitting there, still rubbing her swollen belly. He tried not to feel angry with her, but it was hard. What was he supposed to do? Conjure up food out of nothing? It took almost everything he could earn just to keep a roof over their heads!
It was dark now, but that was all the better so far as he was concerned. No one would see him rummaging in the fouled straw left after the farmers at the winter market packed up their remaining wares and beasts and left. He was no longer too proud to hunt for the old discarded cabbage leaves, or even, if the light was good enough, pick through the straw for grain the hens might have left. Thanks be to God, there was a full moon and the snow was thin. That made foraging easier.
But before he reached the market square his attention was diverted.
He thought he saw a flash of light where no light should be, on the other side of a wall that surrounded what had once been a fine old house that was now as rundown as any other place in this slum. No one lived there, to his knowledge, and it had been boarded and locked up for as long as he and Maria had lived in this neighborhood. But behind that wall, it occurred to him, was what was left of a garden. And even a garden long-deserted might have things still growing in it that were worth salvaging. Roses bore hips that made good tea, and might give Maria some strength. There might be herbs. Maybe at one time there had even been vegetables, and some might still be there, half-wild. Perhaps there were withered apples.
The thought was father to the deed. He found a place where he could scale the garden wall, and in a moment, he was over.
He realized as he dropped down the other side that the “light” he had seen must have been the full moon reflecting off a glass witch-globe in the center of the garden. But that was not what caught his attention.
No . . . what caught his attention was that somehow, some way, this garden was not a useless garden full of half-choked flowers and weeds, but—a vegetable garden. And more than that, it was a vegetable garden that was cultivated, and as full of produce as if it was harvest season. By some miracle, there was not so much as a flake of snow on the ground, nor were the plants frost-killed and rotting.
There were squash, kohlrabi, and beans, onions, kale and cabbage, carrots, Brussels sprouts, and beets and turnips. There were peas, potatoes, radishes, leeks, parsnips, and the rampion that Maria craved! He felt nearly faint at the sight of so much food.
There was no sign of life in the house . . . and he did not hesitate for a moment at the theft he was about to perform. My children are starving. And no one has touched this garden. It would be a sin for it to go to waste and freeze and rot.
An hour later, he was over the wall again, wearing his coat and jumper only, with his shirt over his back stuffed full of vegetables and serving as a sack.
Maria wept when he spilled out his bounty on the hearth; wept, and gathered it all in, marveling and looking up as if to say something. But he didn’t stop to answer her questions, for this was an opportunity that might never come again, and while he had moonlight, he was going to steal as much as he could. After all, he had already stolen; the sin was committed, the deed was done, and he thought that how much he took really didn’t matter at this point. How was it the old saying went? Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. By the time the moon went down, the children were awake again, and there were vegetables stacked everywhere in the room, and herbs hanging upside down in bunches from a string knotted between two nails on the wall. The kettle of hot water now held more vegetables stewing away merrily, and potatoes baking in their jackets in the ashes, and they all went to bed again, exhausted, but knowing that, for the first time in more than a year, they would wake up to something to eat.
In his dreams he continued to fill his shirt and bring out more food. But in his dreams, it wasn’t only vegetables he was looting; when he pulled up beet and turnip tops, there were loaves of bread and even a sausage or two attached to the greens.
But then, he almost always dreamed of food. The children probably did, too. At least when he woke to the first light this morning there was something to fill his stomach.
He would have very much liked to have lingered over his breakfast of roasted potato the way the children did, but he was well aware last night might have been a fluke. Surely, whoever had planted that garden was going to notice and take measures to protect it. So when he went out in the thin morning light to see if there was work again at the vintner, he detoured by the old house, fully expecting to find that he had been mistaken—that it was inhabited, and the occupants were now incensed over his raid on their garden.
But the shutters on the street side were all closed and locked, and it was silent as only an empty house could be.
He still didn’t believe in his luck. Perhaps they didn’t awaken in the morning as poor people had to. He passed on; he could not count on a second night of raiding. This was only a brief moment of luck, surely.
He did find work that day, though not at the vintner, but turning a manure pile at the stable. It was filthy, stinking work, but he didn’t care; besides his pay, he managed to get his hands on some coarse burlap grain sacks that had the seams ripped open. Truth to tell . . . he hid them under his coat to sneak them out, since even a sack that could no longer hold anything was worth something, but he doubted that anyone would miss them in time to connect their disappearance with him. He had also taken the time to chip some salt from the block that the horses licked and fill his pockets with it. Salt was salt, the vegetables would be even better with salt and herbs, and he had eaten worse than horse saliva.
He tried not to think about how easy stealing had suddenly become . . . then resolved to repent of it as soon as he could. But right now . . . well . . .
I have starving children and a wife who may not live to give birth unless I do something.
He arrived home with his burden of burlap, bread and little pot of lard to open the door to the unaccustomed aroma of cooking. Instead of sending him out to look for an odd job, Maria had sent Jakob, the eldest boy, out farther afield to find wood. Once again, potatoes roasted in their jackets beside the fire, and the kettle was full of chopped vegetables. His children looked at him with hope instead of desperation, and there was a little color in Maria’s cheeks.
He had made another detour past the house and its walled garden—and there was still no sign of life. He resolved to loot as much as he could tonight.
When he went out at moonrise, he had with him real sacks now, since Maria had managed to sew them up again, and Maria had come up with clever ways to store the rest of the bounty during the day, sending the three eldest besides Jakob out to forage in the rubbish. Baskets with broken bottoms could still be filled as long as you didn’t move them. Pots broken in half could be tied up with foraged twine to hold peas and beans. Since he had pulled things like onions and beets up whole, she had used an old country trick and braided the tops together so they could be hung on the wall, on bent nails painstakingly straightened with a stone and a brick.
When he returned that night, it was with even more of the garden’s bounty. And any regret he was feeling died when he returned to see his children sleeping peacefully, not whimpering with hunger in their dreams.
It was the third night of his raids on the walled garden, and he had lost some of his caution. There still was no sign, none whatsoever, that there was anyone living here to notice his depredations. He had stopped watching over his shoulder, or even paying attention to anything other than pulling up root vegetables without damaging them. It was hard, cold work, even though the soil in this garden was somehow soft and unfrozen. And he didn’t want to break even the tiniest bit of root off his prizes.
So when he heard a low, rumbling growl at his shoulder, it came as a complete and utter shock.
It came again: a feral, warning growl that made every hair on his body stand on end.
He froze, his heart in his mouth.
He didn’t dare look. His breath puffed out in the frosty air, reflecting the moonlight, and he stared down at his grimy hands, at the enormous turnip that was half-dug from the cold, soft soil.
The growl came again, louder.
Overwhelmed with panic, he slowly turned his head and looked up from the turnip he had almost unearthed to find himself surrounded by three huge black dogs, two on one side, one on the other. They eyed him menacingly, and the one at his left who had alerted him with its sinister growl uttered yet another terrifying rumble.
“I should be very interested to hear whatever excuse you have for robbing my garden,” said a cold female voice behind him. “I might even let you stammer it out before I give my dogs the order to deal with you. Turn around. Let me look you in the eyes.”
Still on his knees in the cold earth, he slowly turned.
Behind him, her face clear in the moonlight, was a tall, hawk-faced woman in a long black cloak, her dark hair severely braided and pinned tightly around her face. She had her arms crossed over her chest and stared down at him icily. “Well?” she prompted. “What sort of fairy tale have you to tell me?”
He opened and shut his mouth several times without any words coming out. But then . . . his panic got the better of him, and he fell apart.
He groveled. He babbled. He wept without hope that he would get even a crumb of pity from her. He really didn’t know what he was saying, although he certainly went on at length about Maria and the children. He begged and pleaded, he cried shamelessly until he was hoarse. She said nothing. And finally, when he had repeated himself far too many times and ran out of words, she stared down at him in the silence while he waited helplessly for her to set the dogs on him, call for the police, or both.
I am going to be savaged. Then I am going to prison. Maria will die, and the children will starve.
“Well,” she said at last. “I am actually inclined to believe you.” She looked down at him for another long, cold moment. “And I am not an unreasonable woman, nor am I inclined to make your children suffer for your sins. It is clear that they will probably all starve without you to provide for them. I would not care to have the deaths of children on my conscience. Perhaps I can think of some way you can repay what you stole.”
He began to have faint hope. Perhaps . . . perhaps she would let him go? He looked up at her and clasped his hands under his chin, trying to look as prayerful and repentant as possible. “Anything!” he blurted.
But she was not finished. “A bargain, then. You owe me, Friedrich Schnittel. You owe me a very great deal. But I won’t have you thrown in prison. In fact, you can come here and gather what you need for your family every day, on condition that you repay me.”
“H—” he did not even manage to get all of the word how out before she interrupted him.
“You have—or will have—something I want, just as I have something you want. So, this is the bargain: you may continue to help yourself to this garden. I would prefer that you come at night, so that I don’t have other thieves coming to steal from me, and you might as well keep coming over the wall as well, since you are so good at it. Then, when your wife gives birth to this new child, you will give her to me.” He opened his mouth to object. She stared at him with her lips compressed into a thin line. “Don’t try to barter with me. It is this, or I set the dogs on you and have the police take what is left of you to prison. What will it be? Will you feed your eight children and your wife for the trivial price of a baby that is likely to die anyway?”
Well, what could he say? If he refused, what would Maria and the children do but starve? What good would it do him or them if he suddenly decided that selling the baby was wrong? “Very well . . .” he said, slowly.
She smiled, as if she had already known he would say as much. “Take what you have. Come back tomorrow night. I’ll even leave sacks for you.”
And with that, she turned on her heel and stalked back into the house, her dogs preceding her. They all went in via the kitchen door—which showed not so much as a hint of light—and she closed the door behind her, leaving him chilled and drenched with sweat on the cold earth of the garden.
It was not an easy birth.
When it was over, Maria lay too exhausted to even move beneath a heap of every scrap of fabric that could be spared to keep her warm, and the new baby girl had been tightly wrapped and was being held by Jakob near to the fire. Friedrich was just glad Maria had had three weeks of good food before the birth; he really didn’t think she would have survived this one without the extra nourishment. She’d gone into labor the previous afternoon, and it had gone on until well after sunrise.
He was just as tired, since he had served as midwife. He was slowly eating vegetable soup and drinking herb tea, his first meal since she had gone into labor. And he really wasn’t thinking of anything else when the knock came at the door. Before he could say anything, his second oldest, Johann, jumped up to answer it.
And fell back again, in astonishment and fear, as the terrible woman in black and one of her dogs pushed their way in.
She closed the door behind her and surveyed them all with an icy glare.
The children all froze in terror; the tall woman was no less forbidding and formidable in broad daylight than she had been by night. The dog didn’t growl, but he didn’t have to; he looked like a black wolf, which was more than enough to make the children try to inch back until they were squeezed into the corner farthest from her.
All but Jakob, who remained where he was, by the fire, the baby clutched in his nerveless hands.
Before Friedrich could utter a word, the woman looked around the room and spotted Jakob and the baby. In four strides she had crossed the room, then bent and snatched the baby out of Jakob’s arms.
“I’ve come for your part of the bargain, Friedrich Schnittel,” she said. “And now I’ll be gone.”
And with that, she turned, stalked out the door, and left.
Maria fell into hysterics, of course—he hadn’t told her about the bargain. When he explained, she only became more hysterical, weeping and pushing him away until he just gave up trying to reason with her, and, for lack of anything else to do, made sure the children were all fed. As they all ate, she cried herself into a sleep that was less sleep than collapse, and he stared at her white, tear-streaked face and wondered where the girl he had fallen in love with had gone.
When Maria awoke, she refused to speak to him. After a while, he got tired of the silence and decided to make another visit to the garden. The terrible woman had not put an end-date on her part of the bargain, and he was determined to get as much out of it as he could.
He was beginning to resent Maria’s attitude. The woman had been right, after all. If not for the food, Maria, the baby, or both probably would have died. And what about the eight other children? Didn’t they warrant some consideration too? Didn’t they deserve to have full bellies for once? Wasn’t one baby likely to die anyway worth bartering away to save the lives of his living children?
At this point, he was a little drunk on exhaustion himself, and a little reckless. And he went in—if not broad daylight, certainly just before sundown. By the time he got over the wall, he was . . . not exactly seething, but feeling far more the victim than the victimizer. And it occurred to him that if he could just get a glimpse inside that house, perhaps he could see that the baby was being treated in a manner far better than he and Maria could ever afford, and perhaps that might make the foolish woman see reason.
But as he approached the house—he noticed that the kitchen door was slightly ajar.
That’s . . . odd.
He made his way carefully to the door, and when nothing came out of it—especially not an enormous, possibly vicious dog—he pushed it all the way open.
Nothing. And there was no sound in the house, at all.
He ventured inside.
The kitchen was utterly empty. And so was the next room. And the next.
The caution ebbed out of him, and he began to prowl the entire house while the light lasted: all the rooms, downstairs and the two stories above. No furnishings, only a piece or two, like the great bed in one of the bedchambers, which would have been impossible to move. No sign that anyone had lived here, except for the absence of dust.
As he stood there in the empty house . . . a plan formed in his mind.
There was a gate to the garden; he had always come and gone over the wall, but now, he ran to it and forced the rusty lock and latch open. Then he ran back to his little room.
By this time, he was somewhat incoherent, probably wild-eyed, and talking like a madman. But that was no bad thing . . . the children looked at him with bewilderment and fear and did not ask him questions. With words and a few blows for those too stubborn to obey immediately, he gathered up the children and all of their meager possessions, forced Maria to her feet, and drove them out the door, down the street, and in through the gate.
At this point even Maria looked afraid of him and kept any objections to herself.
He locked the gate behind them all and herded them in through the kitchen door. “This is our home, now,” he said sternly. “At least it is until someone comes to tell us differently.”
The children made up the bed of rags and straw for Maria again, and she crept into it, shivering.
Once the family was installed in the kitchen—which alone was three or four times the size of the room they had been living in—he left them there, instructing Jakob to make up a fire with the plentiful firewood that was already there. Then he ran back and forth until he had brought all of the food that they had cached, and their old room was scoured bare of anything remotely useful, down to the smallest of rags.
Then he returned to the deserted house, locked the gate behind him, and joined the rest of his family in their new home.
Yes. Their home. For it had come to him, as he had seen this empty, echoing house, why should it go to waste? It had been untenanted for as long as he could remember. If that woman came back she could easily evict him and his family, but in the meantime, why should they not save the rent money and live here, where the garden and its bounty were easily accessible? Why not?
Maria was terrified at this new version of her husband, who had gone from stealing turnips to “stealing” an entire house . . . and truth to tell, he was not displeased with this. At least it stopped her from reproaching him.
The strange woman never returned to her house.
And Maria never forgave him.
GISELLE leaned out of the window of her room at the top of the tower and drank in all the spring fragrances being carried up to her on the breeze. Her room had the best view of any in the former abbey, and she often wondered who had been the tenant back when the complex had been inhabited by the Sisters of Saint Benedict. The abbess herself? Or perhaps it had been a room devoted to communal prayer?
Probably the abbess, she decided. It would have been a good place from which to keep an eye on the entire abbey. Mother said she had no idea why the abbey had been abandoned for so long, to the point where only the tower had been inhabitable when she had first taken it over, and only because the entire tower was built of stout stone. That had been long before Giselle had been born. By the time Mother brought her here as an infant, the tower had been completely renovated, all the other buildings had been reroofed with proper, strong tile, and the building attached to the tower itself, which had probably housed the nuns in their little cells, had been converted into spacious living quarters for Mother. Only the chapel remained in ruins. Mother never explained why she had not rebuilt the chapel, but then, why should she have? It wasn’t as if she and Giselle needed a church.
There were four windows in Giselle’s tower room, facing precisely in the four directions of the compass. Giselle preferred the view from the east window, which looked out over the valley meadow to the forest beyond, and to the mountains beyond that. Probably, back when the abbess had lived here, there had been nothing to keep out the winter winds but simple wooden shutters, and only a charcoal brazier to huddle over to keep out the cold. Mother had changed all that. There were proper glass windows and shutters in all the windows now, and a good fireplace on each floor of the tower.
Giselle wondered if dwarves had done the work. She’d never seen any here, but then, the work had been completed before she ever got here. Since it had all been stonework, it would have been logical for Mother to have made a bargain with dwarves to accomplish it. Mother was an Earth Master, after all, and dwarves were Earth Elementals.
I certainly can’t imagine her allowing ordinary stonemasons here.
The nearest village—and it was a very small one—was over two days’ ride away, in the next valley over from the abbey. You couldn’t even see it from the top room of the tower. Giselle had never been there herself, only Mother, driving the cart out to get the things they could not produce for themselves and coming back again days later. Still, it wasn’t as if she could be lonely. Not when she was surrounded by all the Elementals of her own Element, Air.
There were three of them here in the tower room with her, since she had flung open all four windows to the winds. Sylphs, who generally looked—at least to Giselle—like lovely, mostly naked women with wings. These three were all longtime friends of hers. One had the wings of a moth, one of a dragonfly, and one of a bird. They wouldn’t give her their “true” names, of course, even though they trusted her, so she called them Luna, Damozel, and Linnet. Linnet was perched on the lantern hung from the peak of the roof, Luna was in the west window, and Damozel dozed on the mantelpiece. Generally when Mother was gone, she had one or more of the sylphs with her at all times, which was a great comfort. When she had been very little, there had been one of the Earth Elementals, a brownie, who had acted as a kind of nursemaid when Mother had to leave, but she had not seen old Griselda for many years now. It wouldn’t have been wise to entrust the safety of a baby or a young child to the sylphs; they were well intentioned, but easily distracted. Even now, there was some sort of Earth Elemental who tended the chickens, the cow and the goats when Mother was gone, but Giselle had never seen it. It might have been a gnome; they were very shy. Eggs and milk simply appeared in Giselle’s kitchen while Mother was away.
There were other sorts of Air Elementals than the sylphs, of course. There were great ones, like the Four Winds, dragons of the Air, and Storm Elementals, and according to the books she had studied, there were djinns of the Air and tiny pixies, and all manner of bird spirits. Giselle had more than once, especially in winter, watched the great Storm Elementals playing in the clouds. Sometimes in vaguely human shape, and sometimes as powerful vortices of wind and cloud, she had marveled at them until Mother had made her close the windows and the shutters. “Don’t attract their attention yet, my little rampion,” she would murmur kindly. “They do not know how to play gently.”
Mother was right, of course. Elementals were not all as trustworthy as brownies or as fragile as sylphs. You had to know your magic, had to be a Master, before you dared have dealings with the Greater Elementals. At fourteen, Giselle was only just beginning her serious studies. It would be years, maybe decades, before she dared to make contact with one of the Greater Powers of Air. If she ever did.
“Why would you want to dance with the Great Ones?” asked Luna, lazily. Giselle turned away from the window to meet the eyes of her ethereal companion. “They are too serious. They do not know how to have fun.”
She had to giggle at that. The sylphs didn’t seem to know how to do anything but have fun.
Luna’s wings waved lazily back and forth as she smiled at Giselle. She had lovely white moth wings that glowed as if they were made of moonlight—the reason that Giselle had named her “Luna” in the first place. “I hope you never forget how to have fun. So many magicians are always dour and serious. So tiresome.”
“I’ll try not to, Luna,” Giselle replied. With a glance backward at the vista from the window, she left the three Elementals lazing about her room and went down the stairs to the lower levels of the tower. Unlike the sylphs, she couldn’t live on air alone, it was past breakfast time, and she was hungry.
Mother always had meals precisely on time, but when she was away, Giselle tended to eat irregularly. There was a tiny little kitchen on the bottom floor of the tower, a miniature version of the bigger one that Mother used. Mother said the big one had been the “refectory kitchen”—Giselle guessed that was where the sisters of the abbey had done all their cooking. It was certainly huge, but Mother said she liked lots of room when she cooked. And, indeed, perhaps that was because in the fall and winter, she often cooked large batches of things that could be kept in the freezing cold of the cold-pantry and would not spoil, and in the summer and a little in the spring, she put up huge batches of jams and jellies, preserved fruits and vegetables. She even cured whole hams of boar and venison!
Even when it would have been convenient, Mother did not seem to use her magic very much, at least not when Giselle was around.
Luna left her window and followed Giselle all the way down into the kitchen, which was unusual. The sylphs didn’t care for the enclosed room, which was only illuminated by lanterns and high slit windows at the ceiling. But it seemed that Luna’s curiosity was overcoming her distaste for walls this evening. She perched out of the way while Giselle cut herself some bread and cheese and filled a little bowl with pickles. “Where is the Mother?” Luna asked, as Giselle poked up the fire in the little hearth and held the bread and cheese on a toasting fork over the coals to melt.
“She went to Fredericksburg,” Giselle said, keeping a careful eye on her food.
Being with the sylphs, Mother said, sometimes with exasperation, was like being with a little child. Once they decided to converse, they often had never-ending questions, and often questions they had asked before, since it was hard to keep their attention on anything for long. Giselle didn’t mind.
“There are things that we need that we do not have and cannot get from the forest or our garden, our chickens, our bees, our little cow, or our goats,” she explained patiently. “Flour and salt and spices and sugar. Books. Cloth. Needles and thread.”
“You could get them from the villages.”
“Mother doesn’t want to do that. She’d really rather the villages around didn’t know we were here. She says it’s dangerous.” Mother had explained some of the dangers; it seemed that the villagers hereabouts were not as accepting of magic as in other places in the Black Forest, perhaps because there were no members of the Bruderschaft der Förster—the Brotherhood of the Foresters—nearby. And truly, given some of the dangerous, even evil things that Giselle had seen in the forest while roaming there under Mother’s protection, she could understand why they would fear magic. “Besides, she wants to make sure my father and mother and siblings are still all right.”
That question made Giselle pull a face, for she didn’t really understand it herself. “She says it’s an obligation. That once a magician interferes in the lives of people, the magician has to make sure her meddling wasn’t for the worse.”
“Is it? The meddling.”
The cheese was just melting and Giselle pulled the bread back, noting that it was nicely toasted on the underside. “I suppose not. She says he’s still living in the old house she bought. He’s got a job as an under-gardener for rich people somewhere in the city, so he gets the vegetable and herb seedlings when the rich garden gets thinned out. So he’s keeping her garden producing and feeding the family.” She made another face. “All those children! I think it would be horrid to be one of nine. Nine! You’d never get any attention! And before Mother took me from him, they hardly ever got food. Now at least they can eat.”
Luna nodded wisely. “Because he is making the garden of the house grow.”
“Not as well as Mother did, of course, but he’s not an Earth Magician. He can’t grow vegetables in midwinter.” Mother did that even here, though she was discreet about using her power and kept the interference with nature to a minimum. Giselle knew why, of course. When you used power, there was always the chance that you would attract things, and those things weren’t always—or even often—friendly. The sylphs were here because she had invited them. There were other things that could, and would, come uninvited. Mother had been freer to use her power in the city, because most of those things avoided cities and their high concentrations of people and poison, iron and steel.
“So you would never go back—”
“Ugh! Never,” she said emphatically. “Mother loves me.” Of that, she was absolutely sure. “That . . . man that was my father, he couldn’t possibly have loved me if he just gave me away like that!”
Luna was silent for a long while as Giselle savored her cheese-and-toast. And then, she said, “Hunger makes desperate choices. You have never gone hungry.”
Where did that come from? Giselle wondered. She didn’t even know if sylphs could hunger.
“That may be so,” she said, feeling stubborn. “And it is true I have never known want. But I do not think that a man who loved his child would give it away for the sake of a wagonload of vegetables, and I don’t really understand why Mother feels obligated to him.”
Luna only smiled. “When will she return?”
Giselle consulted the calendar. “At any hour from today on,” she said, feeling a happy thrill of excitement—for there would certainly be new books, and perhaps some beautiful new fabric to make into new clothing, and the treats that Mother always brought back from the city. Mother’s Earth Mastery could allow her to grow amazing things, but she could not grow exotic spices, and she could not grow chocolate. Giselle’s mouth watered at the thought of chocolate.
They could have done without the fabric, Giselle supposed. Mother was very patient, but she said herself that she was not patient enough to spin her own thread and weave her own cloth. She had taught Giselle how to do both, but . . . Giselle was not very patient at all. To be honest, it was very hard for her to just sit and do handwork; she found it terribly tedious.
But—books! She hoped there would be a new Karl May book! The ones set in the Orient were very, very good, but the ones set in America, in the Wild West, were superb! Old Surehand, Old Firehand, and especially Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. She could not get enough of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Especially Winnetou and the other Indians. She wondered what it would be like, to be an Elemental Master on the plains. What the Elementals would look like. They were different in other places, she knew from her studies. And what would it be like to stand in a place where the horizon was flat, where the land was flat for as far as you could see, and not hemmed in by mountains?
Luna brightened. “Will there be new ribbons?” she asked. Giselle smiled. The sylphs loved to play with ribbons, and would wear them to shredded tatters, twirling them about and using them in games of tag. Mother always made a point of bringing bolts of ribbon back from her trips to the city.
“Of course there will be new ribbons,” Giselle promised. “Mother would never forget you.” Luna clapped her hands in glee.
Giselle finished her meal and went back upstairs. She didn’t much care for the kitchen either, it was so dark, and so close. But she had to cook her food somewhere, and when Mother was gone, she was locked into the tower.
She took the stone stairs that spiraled up the tower wall two at a time; there was nothing like a handrail, but she had been scampering up and down these stairs since she was old enough to toddle, and it never occurred to her to feel fear.
This tower had four levels. The bottom was the kitchen, and had been her bedroom as well until she was old enough to safely navigate the stairs. The next level was the library and workroom, where she took her lessons and learned her magic. The third level was the storeroom, where everything was kept that wasn’t a book, and the final, top story was her bedroom. Besides her bedroom, none of the rooms had anything but slits for windows.
She breathed a sigh as she got to her own room and the wide-open windows again. So did Luna. The sun was just setting, and the view from the tower was particularly glorious tonight. The very air seemed full of golden light, and the long shadows cast by the trees across the meadow were a deep, deep amber.
Damozel woke up, stretched and yawned. Linnet flitted down from the lantern and landed beside the west window. Her fellow sylphs joined her.
“We will see you at dawn, magician,” Luna said, as the other two took turns balancing on the windowsill before launching themselves out onto the evening breeze. She did not wait for an answer; sylphs lived very much in the moment, and seldom waited on human politeness.
Sylphs could flit about at night, of course, but the ones that did tended to be shy and secretive and seldom visited Giselle. Giselle leaned out of the window to watch her friends soar up into the clouds. She often wondered if they slept up there, and if the clouds were as comfortable as they looked.
She remained leaning out of the window, dreamily watching the sunset and twilight stealing over the forest. From here, it looked so peaceful, and near the abbey, it actually was, but all sorts of things could be lurking deeper into the trees—
“Hello up there!”
A deep voice called from just beneath her, startling her and making her jump, yelp and nearly hit her head on the top of the window frame. Her heart beating wildly, she looked down to see that there was a man standing just beneath the window. A man . . .
She knew what a man was, she’d met at least three when members of the Bruderschaft came to consult with Mother. But none of them had been nearly this handsome. Or young.
Because he certainly was younger than any man she had seen before. She wasn’t very good at estimating ages, but she didn’t think he could be more than a few years older than she. He was blond, his hair pale in the twilight, with a wonderful face, like a warrior in one of her books: clean-shaven, square jawed, with a fine brow and clear eyes. She couldn’t tell what color they were in this light but she thought, given that he was blond, that they were probably blue.
“I’m very sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you!” the man said, pulling his hunter’s hat off and clutching it at his chest.
“How did you get down there?” she asked, telling her heart to calm down. It didn’t, but at this point she suspected that had more to do with the man’s handsome features than the fact that he had startled her.
“I came around the east side of your tower,” he said. “I’m a hunter, I’m very quiet. I didn’t even know there was anyone living here until I saw you at your window. I apologize for frightening you!”
She smiled down at him as he peered earnestly up at her. “Apology accepted. It’s all right, really, no harm done.” She felt an odd shyness and found herself tongue-tied. What to say to a handsome young stranger? She had no idea.
He seemed under no such burden. “I thought I would come survey this part of the world before hunting season begins,” he continued, and shrugged. “Too many others in what used to be my forest. Time to move on.”
“Oh,” she managed, resting her chin on her hands so she could look down at him more easily. “I don’t know anything about that.” After all, the men of the Bruderschaft, although they were hunters, were not primarily hunters of game. It was the evil things of the forest that they hunted . . .
“But what are you doing, out here in the middle of the wilderness?” he asked, putting his hat back on his head and tipping it at a jaunty angle.
“I live here, with Mother,” she replied.
He shook his head. “I cannot imagine living alone in such a remote place. What do you do with your time?”
She had to laugh at that. “We work, of course! There are all the animals to tend, the garden to care for, food to make, clothing to sew, cleaning to do—what do you think we do? Gaze out of tower windows all day?”
“And here I thought you were a princess, who only had to do just that!” he replied, with an ingratiating smile. “May I come in to see your tower?”
“When Mother gets home,” she replied truthfully. “She locks the door when she is gone, and she has the only key.”
“Doesn’t she trust you?” He frowned.
“She doesn’t trust the things in the forest,” she corrected him. “I don’t mind.”
“Hmm. Well, there are gypsies in the forest, and tramps. She’s probably wise.” He nodded sagely. She smiled.
“You haven’t told me your name,” she pointed out. “I’m Giselle.”
“And I am Johann Schmidt,” he replied, and swept off his hat in a flourishing bow. “At your service. Shall I tell you all about myself?”
She felt herself coloring all over again. “Oh,” she replied. “Please!”
Johann stayed until moonrise, then bowed again and took his leave, promising to come back on the morrow. Giselle could not remember ever having been so excited at the prospect of something, not even when learning new magic. After all, her magic had been a part of her for as long as she could remember, but handsome young men were things she had only read of in books, and a handsome young man standing beneath her window for hours just to talk to her was something entirely new.
The men of the Bruderschaft that had visited Mother had not had much time for her; she understood that, of course, to come all this way to this remote part of the Black Forest, deep in the mountains, they must have had very urgent business indeed. They certainly had no time to spare for idle chat. To have another person besides Mother interested enough in her to regale her with tales was wonderful.
To have that person be a very handsome young man was intoxicating.
After Johann was gone, she spent a long time just dreamily staring up at the night sky, for once not watching for the shyer and more elusive sylphs and other Air Elementals that only came out at night.
In the morning there was no sign of Johann Schmidt, not from any of the four tower windows, and with a feeling of disappointment, she went about her usual chores. Of her particular sylph friends only Linnet turned up, and she seemed listless, and soon left.
The milk was set out in pans to rise; she skimmed off the cream and put the separated milk and cream in the “special” pantry where things were not allowed to spoil. Giselle made herself something to eat and had her breakfast up in her room with a glass of milk she had set aside. There still was no sign of Johann.
As listless as Linnet had been, Giselle turned over pages in the history books that Mother had left her to study. Truth to tell, she didn’t think she was a very good scholar at the best of times, and right now, with vague discontent standing between her and the pages, she wasn’t making much headway with them.
So she set the books aside and turned to another tedious chore, which at least had the virtue of requiring attention without concentration.
She unwound her braids from her head, unbraided them, and began combing out her hair.
This was a far different task for her than it was for Mother. Giselle’s hair grew at a rather astonishing pace.
Right now, it was roughly twice as long as she was tall, unbraided, and when Mother returned it would be time for her to cut it again. There was an entire chest full of locks of hair as long as Giselle was tall. Mother said this had something to do with her magic; certainly the smaller of the Air Elementals, the pixies and other little things she had no name for, had something to do with it. Mother was no help there, except to call them elber, sort of generally. Some of them looked like very tiny sylphs, some like fantastic winged creatures that were part insect, part human, and part plant. They all liked to play in her hair when she unbound it; she let them, because they untangled it as they went.
The rate at which it grew varied. It could grow as much as a foot in a week, though only rarely. It generally grew about a foot a month, which meant she had to unbraid it, comb it out, and rebraid it at least once a week. Washing it took almost half a day.
Mother used to joke that she should just let it keep growing and never cut it, saying then you could let yourself down out of the window by your own hair. As a child that had always made her giggle.
As usual, as soon as she took her hair down and began to unbraid it, the little Air creatures turned up, showing none of Linnet’s listlessness. She was very glad for their help, because when it got to its current length, it was practically impossible to comb and braid without their help. Today they made a game out of it, as if her locks were the ribbons of a Maypole, and did most of the work for her.
They had gone, and she was pinning up the coiled braids on the top of her head, when she heard a melodious whistle that sounded nothing like a bird just outside the west window.
Hastily she stabbed the last hairpin in place and practically flew to the opening, and laughed with delight to see Johann Schmidt standing there below. He looked even handsomer in the sunlight, and his eyes were, as she had suspected, a vivid blue.
He swept off his hat to her as he had last night, and now she could see he was dressed in hunting gear of loden green wool, just like the men of the Bruderschaft wore. She wondered for a moment if he might be one of their number—
But he wasn’t wearing the silver Saint Hubert badge they all wore on their hats. Instead, it was a fanned cluster of pheasant feathers in a silver holder.
“Good morning, fair maiden!” he said, cheerfully.
“It’s nearly afternoon,” she corrected, perhaps more sharply than she had intended, but she was vexed with him. Hadn’t he promised to be here? And how long had she waited for him? Hours and hours!
“So it is. I don’t suppose you could spare a bite to eat?” he replied, without seeming to take any notice of her temper. “I looked about, but there doesn’t seem to be a friendly inn hereabouts.”
She relented immediately. “We’ve plenty to spare,” she said truthfully. “I shall bring you something.”
He was still calling his thanks as she turned and made for the stairs.
When she came back up, she had a small basket with a sausage, some cheese, an onion, and a couple of boiled eggs in it. Bread was something they didn’t have a lot to spare of, since flour was one of those things that Mother had to go a long way to get. And she wasn’t certain how to get milk down to him; they had cups and pitchers of course, but she was going to have to lower the basket down to him from the window, and she was afraid that the cord she had would break, or the milk would spill.
But he didn’t seem to be discontented with her offerings; he took them out of the basket and placed them on his handkerchief, which he spread out on the grass, then sat down and took a flask out of his pocket. She pulled up the basket as he waved at her.
“Shall you dine in your window while I dine below, fair one?” he asked, taking a swig. Since that seemed like a good enough idea to her, she got milk and bread and butter and ate that while he cut off chunks of sausage, cheese and onion and washed them down with whatever was in his flask. As he ate, he regaled her with tales of his hunting, and she listened raptly. The men of the Bruderschaft who had visited had never talked about hunting ordinary creatures, only things like werewolves and other malignant or cursed spirits. Stalking bears, wolves, and stags certainly sounded just as exciting, at least as Johann told it!
They spent the entire afternoon in that way, him telling her story after story of his life—which seemed much more interesting to her than her own was—and her listening. Time seemed to pass far too swiftly, and when he began to hint that his luncheon had been several hours ago, she hurried down to the little kitchen and came back again with a hot dinner of bratwurst and sauerkraut, since that was something she could heat quickly, with strawberries from the garden for dessert. He thanked her handsomely, and when he was finished, sent up the plate and fork in the basket. “And now again, I will take my leave of you, fair Giselle,” he said with a bow. “There are dangers that only come out of the forest by night, and since I am alone and do not have the eyes of a cat, I had best seek the protection of my shelter. It would be different, of course, if you could offer me your roof as well as your food—”
“I can’t,” she interrupted him mournfully, thinking of how pleasant it would be if only he could stay, and continue to regale her with tales at the fireside. “I told you, Mother has locked the doors. I can’t let you in.”
“Then I shall bid you good night, and return on the morrow.” He bowed to her, and strode off around the side of the tower. She ran to the other window, but he must have been walking close to the wall of the abbey where she couldn’t see him. So frustrating!
But it had been a wonderful day, and he had promised to come back. She could hardly wait for morning!
She awoke to the sound of her name being called from below, and flew to the window, her braids nearly tripping her, as she hurried to answer him. She stuck her head out of the window—she had left it open to the evening breeze last night, and one of her braids slithered over the sill and dangled down above his head.
He laughed, and pretended to jump for it. She giggled—he couldn’t reach it, of course. As long as it was, the end was still a good twelve feet above his head, but he looked so funny, like a kitten with a string, trying to snatch the end out of the air.
She pulled it back up and he mock-frowned at her. “Temptress! I hope you are prepared to feed me breakfast in exchange for teasing me with a way to climb up to you!”
“Of course I am!” she promised, and ran down to the kitchen without bothering to change out of her nightdress first.
She wanted to impress him, so she made a real breakfast: sliced ham, beef, tongue, three kinds of cheese, some of the precious bread (toasted over the fire, since it was getting a little stale), and generous dollops of butter and jam in a little bowl. His eyes lit up when he saw the feast in the basket. She tied the string to the shutter hinge so she could leave the basket down there with him until he was finished, and raced off to change and get her own meal.
When she returned to the window, he looked up at her and snapped his fingers as if he had suddenly had an idea. “I know what we can do!” he said, and laughed. “If you cannot come down, I will come up!”
She stared down at him, baffled. “How?” she replied. “The stones of this tower are like glass, they are so smooth. There isn’t enough of a chink between them for a bird to catch his claw.”
“This!” he said, tugging on the string that was tied to the basket he had just put the plates back into. “I shall go back to my shelter and bring my rope. I can tie it to your string and you can pull it up. You needn’t even try to find something to tie it to that will bear my weight—just tie it to the middle of a fireplace poker.”
She laughed at how clever he had been. Of course! The poker was made of stout metal, and was longer than the window was wide. Once his weight was on the rope, the poker and the stone of the tower itself would hold him. “Why didn’t we think of this before?” she said. “Oh, do run back to your things and bring the rope!”
He saluted her and ran off. She pulled up the basket, let down the string again, and took the basket to the kitchen, then waited impatiently at the window for his return.
Mercedes Lackey is a full-time writer and has published numerous novels and works of short fiction, including the best-selling Heralds Of Valdemar series. She is also a professional lyricist and a licensed wild bird rehabilitator. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, artist Larry Dixon, and their flock of parrots. She can be found at mercedeslackey.com.
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Mercedes Lackey is one of my all-time favorite authors. She is incredibly prolific and has a fantastic gift for storytelling. From a High Tower is the latest in Ms. Lackey’s Elemental Masters series. From a High Tower is her twist on the Rapunzel tale and sets it in the world of her Elemental Masters. We also see quite a bit of Rosamund from Blood Red (Elemental Masters #10). These books stand alone. Where the earlier books in this series had a bit of romance in them it is rather lacking in this book. There is some flirting and a hint of perhaps a future but if you are reading this for romance. Don’t. If you are reading this for a damn good story by all means you won’t be disappointed. Complimentary copy provided by author/publisher for an honest review.
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair! NOT! This book was a riff on the classic fairy tale, but it is also original and unexpected. Giselle was taken from her original family, in exchange for their survival in tough times in late 19th century Germany by Mother and raised in the tower of an old former abbey. From there the story diverges and becomes an interesting mix of magic and old west traveling show, like Wild Bill Cody's, with wonderful twists and turns. In this story Mother was good and taught Giselle things her original family never could have. The handsome young man who wanted to get into her tower turns out to be a villain. The good guys are Giselle's friends in the Wild West Show, some of whom also have magic!! I really enjoyed the story and would recommend it for young adults on up!!
The latest installment in her Elemetal Masters story. This one is completely in Bavaria and the Zchwarzwald. A wonderfull retelling of the trabditional Rapunzel folktale.
A long time fan, I adore this series...this book more than lived up to my hopes & expectations.
Fun story with great characters. Not the most exciting of her books, but still a good read.
I normally love her books. This one I cannot say I liked. Nothing happened. She grew up. She braided and cut her hair. Again and again. That's it it until the last 60 pages or so then a very quick and unsatisfying end battle; end credits.