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It was cold and rainy, the sun a chancy and sometime thing. And on the upper ledges before the main entrance to the Caves of Aresada; the wind was definitely chill. But those who passed the young woman huddled in her torn soldier's cloak, her grey-green-eyes fixed on a spot far down-river, felt none of the cold, and little of the hunger that had been theirs for a full month. Ylia—the King's daughter and heir, now their Queen—had returned to them beyond all hope and against impossible odds; the House of Ettel again properly ruled. Things had been bad, since the fall of the Plain. No one doubted that now they would improve.
Ylia for the moment saw none of them, was aware of none of the movement around her: She was concentrating on two widely diverse things. The first, probably more important, was the search she was making of the River, both banks, as far as her sense could reach. All very well for Marhan and Levren to assure her Vess would not return to the Caves! He would not, at the very least, because if he attempted such a thing and she became aware of him, she'd have the breath out of him. Forever.
Vess: Hated cousin, so hungry for Nedao's crown, for its power, he'd dared the return to Teshmor, up-river and North, avoiding the barbarous Tehlatt by staying to the foothills. There he had pledged his aid to the beleagered Corlin of Planthe—aid! A lie, all of it, spoken only so Corry would accept him, so the folk still within Teshmor's walls would. So that he could thereafter slide from the City at the last, reach Aresada and take the ruling he wanted.
He'd planned it well, too, and under extreme pressure of time and circumstance: but he'd known, as any would, that once he'd announced Brandt, his Queen, his daughter all dead—liar, bastard and liar!—that Corry would refuse his aid, force him to leave Teshmor as the last of the House of Ettel, to hasten to the Caves and lead the people. He'd miscalculated his safety, and nearly lost his life. Only chance had spared him death at the hands of the Tehlatt.
Had it been that important to him, Brandt's crown? But she knew the answer to that. Yes. To Vess, any power was preferable to none. Easy to piece together, given enough of the facts and sufficient hindsight: He'd taken the Caves and those within, knowing the King and all those with him must have perished in their desperate last stand before Koderra's gates. Later, he'd seal to him the folk who'd escaped Koderra by Sea. Yes, he'd planned.
And she'd not forgotten the thing her mother told her, that last night in the King's City: Sea-Raiders. Vess had thought to sway Brandt to seek aid from the fierce Southern pirates against the Tehlatt. Doubtless he'd still held to that thought, hoping to retake the Plain. She shook her head. Yet another thing to ask Erken, or another of her council.
The second thing she concentrated on, a thing much more difficult for her, was a determination to stay her ground and neither faint nor become ill, since at the moment she looked down to the River a full ten lengths below. Nearly impossible for one with her irrational terror of heights. To be sure, the ledge wasn't overhung and rock was visible below her all the way down to the bridge. It didn't help.
All right, enough. It was; she'd held to the guard's height a sufficient time to please herself, and hadn't been caught out by Malaeth (who'd fuss or panic), or Nisana (those who said cats had no sense of humor had never been laughed fit by this cat). She stretched warily, dropped back down to solid ground; and turned then to gaze out south.
There, the narrow gorge through which they'd come—Mothers, could it have been only three days before? At the moment, it felt more like three months, with a hard-worked Planting Month in their midst. From this height, she could see the pale greens of the Marshes, and beyond them, near the edge of sight, the dark green Forest of the Folk, a faint line of purple distant mountain capping them.
We did it. She felt a flush of pride, looking back down their trail. Pride and astonishment, that any of them had lived to tell of that month of cold, short commons, terror and loss. Brendan. It smote hard, catching her, once again, by surprise. He hadn't reached Aresada, her brave Brendan.
She fought the sudden grief aside; there was no time for it. Too much to worry. Food. True shelter, for the Caves were scarcely more than very temporary. A pasture for the tattered little herd that was all Nedao's flocks. The goats, of course, could eat anywhere and they were fine among the trees, but the sheep were another matter, as were the horses and the very few remaining cattle. Golsat had been gone since daybreak, searching for grassland near the Caves, that for the safety of the orphaned children who'd been given the task of keeping the animals.
Nisana was gone, too. The cat had located a few cattle and sheep abandoned just within the mountains, had taken Lisabetha—who could still, with the senses she gained on their journey, sense if faintly what the cat wanted—and Lus, the woman they'd rescued in the Foessa, for she had been raised in a herder's village. Ylia worried, but finally let them go. No choice. There wasn't. They needed any animals they could find, short of raiding the Plain and taking their own back from the Tehlatt. But to send Lord Corry's daughter afoot into these mountains after a lost cow ... it didn't bear thinking about. Nisana, she reminded herself tartly, can bridge them out of any trouble they might step into.
And—poor Lisabetha. There was a wonder all its own, one Ylia would never have believed possible: Lisabetha had begun the journey from Koderra in terror of the mountains and a worse fear of the magic of her AEldra companions, a fear still worse of her own ability to dream tree. She'd grown, Lisabetha, over that journey. So much so that when she gained fleeting ability to hear AEldra mind-speech, she'd taken her ability to hear Ylia and the cat with honest pleasure, had grieved at its rapid loss.
Ylia shivered. The sun was gone again, lost behind dark, ragged-edged clouds. The ledges were deserted, except for herself and the guard. By her stomach, it was past noon-hour, there'd be a thin soup which would at least be hot. And after that, yet another meeting.
She strode into the darkness of the outer chambers. No warmer here, but at least the wind was gone. And down in the Great Temple, on past and through two wide corridors of stone to the Vast Hall, the temperature remained constant. In the chambers where the people gathered, it was actually warm, a combination of so many bodies and the cook fires. Fortunately there were enough openings in the limestone overhead that it wasn't particularly stuffy.
The food was indeed, as she'd suspected, thin soup, bland enough that it had to be rabbit again. There was also a flat rolled up pancake of sour cattail meal. Dipped in the soup, it lost some of its unpleasant flavor, and it was more filling than only the soup. With luck, Marhan and Levren, and Erken's lads they'd taken with them, would come up with deer, or enough of something for stew. They didn't dare sacrifice any of the sheep or goats to the pot: There simply weren't enough of them to spare.
She ate quickly, aware of the eyes on her, the undercurrent of approval. She'd needed no one to tell her Vess had not eaten with her folk. She turned a little aside, though, when she caught whispers she wasn't intended to hear: the women were talking about her scar again. It barely shows! She kept her fingers away from her cheek by main determination. The fact was, it did show, if only as a thin white line against a tanned face. It ran from temple to chin in a straight line. It had mates; too, though none but her companions on the northward journey knew of the cross between her breasts, the short mark below her belt that looked like a scratch and had been the worst of them all, or the ragged cut—from elbow to wrist. Likely, there wouldn't have been fuss about those anyway, it was the mark on her face that upset them. I don't care, she told herself. Alive matters more. I'm alive. But she turned her face aside when the older women looked at her too closely.
Erken had managed to put together a rough council chamber not far from the main entrance to the Caves, in a small room originally cut from the rock as a storehouse. It adjoined the natural pocket that had served Vess as a bedroom, and now served Ylia. From somewhere, the Duke of Anasela had garnered a trestle, two short benches and a number of sawn logs for seats, and had raided the household goods of Nedao's remaining northern Baron for pens, ink and a flat packet of thick Narran paper. Her candles came from the main store.
The little room was only half-filled: Levren, Marhan and Golsat were hunting; Lisabetha away with Nisana. Those five she'd included in her council, half expecting argument from the others, somewhat surprised when she got none. For the rest: two minor lords of the sort who served under the Baronry, one to every four or five villages; Bnorn, a Baron who'd been traveling with his family from Teshmor to his manor in the western foothills when the Tehlatt struck. He had thereby brought in his wife and son, his grandson, household men and many of his servants.
And Erken, Duke of Anasela. Exiled, it was true; Erken had ruled no land since he'd lost his eastern holdings to the barbarians ten years before, keeping instead his title and pledging himself and his following to Corlin of Planthe, father to Lisabetha. He had fought at Corlin's side until the outer gates of Teshmor fell, and only at Corlin's order had he and his remaining men fled through one of the City's tunnels.
Ifney of Sern and Marckl of Broad Heath, the Lords Holder, had been difficult for Ylia to tell apart at first. They were short, even for Nedaoans, and she stood on eye level with both of them; they were plainly clad, as simply dressed as the peasants who'd worked their lands. But she was learning to distinguish them finally: Marckl was darker and clean-shaven. Ifney wore a touch of moustache across his lip, a faint brownness against a dark face. There was more grey in his hair, more snap to his speech.
The Baron Bnorn was elderly, as old as Malaeth, Ylia's childhood nurse, and she was rapidly nearing 80. But he carried his winters well. His hair and beard were white shocks against a skin darkened by sun and wind, his eyes weather-narrowed. He sat to one side and at first made no contributions, so abashed was he by his presence at the Queen's Council.
Ylia inclined her head gravely as her young door-warder announced her. Erken had been busy with that sort of thing, too. And though she still found it a bit disconcerting after so long in the mountains as simply one of an armed company to have attendants everywhere, she had to admit the Duke had the right of such things: her Nedaoans wanted and expected her to be properly surrounded and were proud that they could at least provide that much for her. And it gave purpose to such as young Merreven, who had lost all his family when his village was razed, but who now had a task—and an important one—he could accomplish.
Erken sat at the far end of the table, turning his hat in his hands, eyes fixed on it. She bit back a sudden smile. The folk of Teshmor were known ever as Nedao's dandies. The best Narran silk and Oversea velvet and jeweled satins went always to the northern City and not to the King's halls. But even among Teshmorans, Erken had stood out. And notwithstanding he'd fought a hard siege and that he'd been at Aresada for all of Planting Month, he had managed somehow to keep his garb faultless: the deep blue shirt, the fine-woven Osneran breeches of a matching shade might have just come from his tailor's, if one ignored a little fraying around the hems and at the throat. But the hat which was Erken's mark and his pride had not fared so well: the wide brim was notched and dirty, the jaunty ochre-dyed feathers that trailed from the lace-cut leather band were matted and grey. Erken studied it with evident distaste.
They'd already explained the situation to her, the first night. No worse than she'd expected, who'd not really dared to expect at all. Nearly three thousand had reached Aresada so far; another few hundreds no doubt still wandered the edges of the mountains, afraid to penetrate them or lost, though after so long they could not be certain of finding such folk. But that was Nisana's chore, along with locating scattered cattle and sheep, goats and chickens.
Food was critical. Those who had fled the Plain when the Tehlatt came upon them had for the most part come with only the few things they could grab before they ran, which was seldom much. Particularly among the villages to the east, there had been little warning. Few even had spare clothing or food.
And now three thousand folk lived in the vast caves and sought to hold their lives together, until matters improved. A difficult situation, at best: Nedao's people were settled, farmers and herders, fishermen from the villages along the banks of the Torth. Those who lived such lives had followed in the steps of their parents, and their parents' parents for nearly five hundred years. Hunters—there were some who hunted in the foothills of western Nedao, but not many. There would have been mass starvation already, had the Foessa not been thick with game.
Even so, those who had spent the Planting Month at Aresada had gone hungry most of the time.
"Any word from the hunting parties?" Ifney wanted to know as soon as she settled in. Ylia shook her head.
"They've had to go farther afield, of course. Tonight or tomorrow. We've more beasts coming, though."
"Mmm," Marckl grunted. "Something, that."
"Can't eat them," Ifney reminded him.
"'Course not! But next year—"
"Aye." Ifney sighed heavily, resettled himself on the hard wood. He and Marckl exchanged a brief look. Ylia knew that look, and sighed quietly. Nisana again; it was nearly impossible for these men to accept that a cat could carry the years and hold the Power she did. Lisabetha had helped considerably: the Lords Holder knew her and because of what she'd told them, Marckl had at least quit making horns at the cat.
Fortunately, Nisana preferred to avoid council meetings, saying she had more important matters to deal with and that she had no desire to sit with arguing humans unless urgently necessary. Also fortunately, Nisana was more than used to such treatment and had been merely amused, though not so amused as to have her idea of fun with any of them.
"You"—Ylia gazed down the table—"were going to tell me what chanced when you arrived;" Erken frowned, jolted out of some dark thought. "Vess," she prompted.
"Vess. Mmm." Erken dropped the hat on the table, shoved it over the edge and out of his sight. "If you want to take the time for that now, though."
"After all, he's gone—," Ifney began. Ylia shook her head.
"Gone, yes. But I need to know."
"Well—," Erken began slowly. "With so much else to discuss, are you certain there's point to it?"
"Yes." Ylia nodded. "And we keep pressing it to the end, and then we're one and all too tired to talk about it. Now, Erken. Please."
"Well—," Erken repeated. "These men came before I did."
"Aye." Ifney turned his sharp glance from one to the other of them. "And if you'll not say it, Erken, I will, I never held with Vess nor his ways, ever, and I never swore to him, as you all know!" He recollected himself, swallowed. "Um. I know he's kin of yours, Lady."
"One cannot choose kin," Ylia replied dryly. "You do not upset me by straight speech concerning Vess. And how often must I tell you, I need you to speak freely. What good is a council such as this if you do not council?"
The Northerner considered this. Smiled briefly. "Just so, Lady. Well, then. I got here the middle of the twenty-fifth of First Flowers. There was a fair pack of us. I'd taken my folk, sent my women ahead and gone for Marckl's holdings. He and I roused three villages between Sern and Teshmor. We met up with Bnorn just within the Pass. So we were—what, Marckl?"
"Mmm. Perhaps four hundred, all told."
"Well." Ifney cleared his throat. "We got to Aresada a full day later. The herds held us back and we didn't dare leave the herders and their beasts behind us, even if we'd wanted or if they would have let us. So by the time we reached the bridge, we found Vess in power. There were over a thousand folk here by then, they'd all sworn to him, worse luck!"
Excerpted from In the Caves of Exile by Ru Emerson. Copyright © 1988 Ru Emerson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 13, 2010
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