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Mereth of Ferndale — her private journal during the voyage to Estcarp (Dales calendar: Month of the Fire Thorn, Year of the Horned Hunter)
My valiant Doubt — if you could see me writing this journal, you would smile. No, not merely smile; I am certain that you would laugh to behold this aged Daleswoman wedged below decks at the height of a winter storm, striving to impose some order upon what the Sulcar fondly term their cargo accounts.
I should have been reduced to fingering my tally sticks in the dark had I not recalled the clever bracket you crafted to steady a lamp no matter how violent the motion of a ship. Persuaded of its virtue by my sketches, Captain Halbec ordered his carpenter to construct several brackets for our cabins. Expecting the winter drafts that surge through every passageway, he had prudently stocked ample numbers of horn-shielded lamps.
While my lamp light is thus fairly assured, my perch on this writing bench is erratically precarious. I must wield my quill most deliberately to avoid frantic blots and smears. I vow the effort is more frustrating than writing on horseback; at least while riding, I was always able to curb my horse. Would that this heaving ship were governable by bit and bridle! The Dames who taught me in childhood would be sorely disappointed by the appearance of this page. It is fortunate that the secret trade script you and I devised so long ago requires no fine sweeps or flourishes. If I am jarred much more often, not even I shall be able to make sense of these marks.
Oh, Doubt, I miss you. I cannot number the times I have thoughtand written those words these twenty years past. With every new dawning, I long for the sound of your voice, the touch of your sleeve against mine at the work table, the glint of sunlight on your hair.
The way of life we once shared together has been ripped away. What now prevails is beyond any of my earlier imaginings. So much has changed... but not the ache of parting from you. That pain gnaws as if it were only hours ago, not years, that you kissed my hand in farewell. Just as my Clan duty forced me to preserve what I could of our family trading business, so yours drew you to defend your home Dale against Alizon's ravening Hounds. Unlike all of our previous partings, from that final one there was to be no joyful return.
When that unspeakable year broke upon us, we might as well have been stricken by the very scourge of its Year Name: the Fire Troll. Our Dales were seared in spirit as well as flesh when the invading Hounds boiled ashore. I heard accounts of the metal-sheathed man-carriers supplied by their Kolder allies, creeping monsters that spouted liquid fire and battered through gates and walls along our coast. I thank the Amber Lady that your death was clean, by swordblade. Even now, when my dreams are troubled by fragments of remembered battles, I burn with regret that I was not at your side, to live or die together with you.
But I was away, traveling far inland when Vennesport was attacked and our trading storehouses were plundered. Those were times of waking nightmares. As I fled toward the western mountains, a fellow refugee passed me word of your fate. I think if I had been alone, I would have turned back then, to seek my death in the fighting— but I could not ignore my Robnore clan obligations. Uncle Parand was among those killed in the sacking of Vennesport. All of Mother's remaining brothers and most of our coastal trading colleagues were suddenly gone. The surviving remnants of the Clan turned to me for leadership. Grieving and distressed, I felt they were making a hopeless choice, but I could not deny their pleas for direction.
For weeks of torment that stretched into months, I scarcely ate or slept or paused to think. Always, always I longed for you. I stumbled onward, forcing myself to envisage what you would have done to meet each new crisis. Memories of you served as my anchor; without them, I would have been overwhelmed by despair.
Constantly, I reminded myself that we had been separated more often than we had been together. You said once that our letters linking us while apart could comprise an ample chronicle— except no scribe could read our secret script. Despite the turmoil of the war and my travels since, I have preserved some few of your letters, together with the little sketch of you that Halbec made during your long-ago trading voyage aboard his ship. These documents are my most treasured possessions— your lasting legacy to me.
Another very different legacy has driven me to endure this unseasonable voyage. I suspect that you would shake your head ruefully at the surface appearance of my recent behavior. You would ask how, after more than sixty years as a trader, I could turn my back on all that I knew to pursue the flimsiest of hopes? I can hear you say it— chasing moonbeams or catching snowflakes would be more profitable than this journey promises to be. Yet if only I could lay my reasoning before you— of all the people I have ever known, you would be the most likely to understand why I must dare this quest. I believe you would urge me to seize this chance, however slight or foolish it seems.
Dear Doubt... you were always an eminently cautious, deliberate man. Uncle Parand once said you were the most prudent risk-taker he knew, for you constantly weighed every possible gain against any potential loss before you committed yourself. No matter what later obstacles arose, you would press on until you accomplished your task.
I had observed a similar strain of persistence in my mother. It was her force of will that converted Father's improved breed of sheep into the foundation of our trading success. I have been told that I am as obstinate as she was, so the three of us shared the trait, for I recall times when each of us accused the others of excessive willfulness.
Habits honed in one's work, especially when rewarded, often spill over into other aspects of life. I think of the hours you and I spent together compiling kinship lists. How excited you were to discover that one of your forebears claimed blood-ties to our Robnore Clan. You rode leagues to search for verifying documents, and brought half the dust from an abbey's archives back with you. We pored over lists for so many families. I shall never forget those parchments stored in the wax-lined sea chest from Wark. You said there could be no doubt of that clan's devotion to their trade, since every bundle of records for generations reeked of fish!
Here am I, all these years later, still asking questions about kinship. But these particular questions do not concern missing names from the kin lists of other folk; these questions concern my own kin, and the farther I pursue them, the more my disquiet grows. I cannot rest until I find answers. For years, I did not know where to search. I had only guesses, suspicions, fragments that made scant sense by themselves. It was as if I sought to plan a trading journey without knowing where I was to ride, or what goods I should take.
Then, nearly two months ago, in the Month of the Shredbark Tree, Dame Gwersa's letter reached me at Vennesport. I am certain she did not intend it so, but her news was the firebrand that ignited my accumulated store of worries. From your visits to Rishdale Abbey, you would recall the Dame's special devotion to the preservation of old records. Since the war, she has endeavored to restore the archives at her own abbey as well as several others tragically damaged in the fighting. Dame Gwersa is now very old and blind, but she dictates occasional letters to me, her student from almost seventy years ago.
A visitor to Rishdale Abbey this past summer had brought her word of an amazing discovery across the sea in Estcarp. Two years before, in the Year of the Kobold, an unprecedented quaking of the earth was wrought by Estcarp's Witches to halt an invasion across their southern border from Karsten. One of the subsidiary results was the destruction of parts of the walls and towers at Lormt, the ancient citadel famed for its archives. Previously unknown storage rooms and cellars were exposed beneath the rubble, adding an untold wealth of documents to those already prized by kinship scholars.
The moment I read Dame Gwersa's account, I knew that I must journey to Lormt. Until then, I had felt like a jeweler attempting to assemble a chaplet of Ithdale pearls, but lacking most of the significant gems needed to complete my pattern. My missing pearls were of two sorts: kin-facts, and knowledge about a very different kind of jewel. What better place could I seek both than Lormt?
Two primary questions had been — and still are — hammering in my mind: who was my true father, and whence came my mother's chief legacy to me, that curious jewel she termed my betrothal gift?
From childhood, I had always assumed that I knew who I was. On the day I first met you, I identified myself on my writing slate— Mereth of far Ferndale, speechless since my birth in the Year of the Blue-homed Ram. You said that was an appropriate Year Name for one engaged in the wool trade, and a script as clear as mine should be as useful to a trader as a voice, yet far less likely to be misunderstood. I was seventeen then, and grateful for your kindness. Not many busy traders would pause to read my slate, or have the time or patience to answer my questions.
From that initial meeting, you were distinctively different from all the other traders, and not just because of your singular courtesy. I was bemused when you confided that you had two names: Lundor, given you by your parents, and Doubt, bestowed on you by the trading community. I recall thinking what a strange name Doubt was, so I wrote on my slate, "Why 'Doubt'?"
You smiled, and replied that it was due to your deplorable habit of foreseeing all the possible objections to proposals— all the reasons why suggested plans might not work.
That night, I wrote queries to Mother about you. She laughed aloud, and said you also peppered your speech with frequent doubts. Assuming a severe expression, she imitated your deep voice, "Oh, I doubt we shall acquire any usable wool from that Dale this season — excessive rains spoiled their grazing land. Besides, I doubt they've yet repaired the only bridge allowing access by our wagons. This venture you propose will go ill, I've no doubt." For all your gloom, she added, you were a very keen trader, and the Clan was fortunate to secure your service.
By the time two years later when Mother's own trading wagon was swept away in the mountain landslide, my acquaintance with you had expanded from chance encounters to joint ventures. When I discovered that you shared my interest in kinship tracing, it was a pleasure to pass on to you some of the requests for kin lists from the merchants and landholders we met in the course of our regular trading work. Soon we were helping each other trace our own family histories. Your folk had clustered for generations in the coastal Dales near Seakeep, while Mother's Robnore Clan had traveled from town to market to trading fair.
Mother first met Father at Twyford, whence both were drawn by the great annual wool fair. From her few remarks years later, I judged that she had been immediately impressed by his knowledge of the finest wool bearers. He confided to her his desire to locate the fabled blue-horned sheep of the western crags, for he was convinced that he could use them to improve the quality of the Dales' wool. Knowing Mother, I expect she gave deep thought to his likelihood for success before she consented to wed him and accompany him on his search inland well past Uppdale and Paltendale.
Mother said to me once, with a fond but exasperated sigh, "Your father was a good man, but too enwrapped by his dreams of breeding the perfect sheep. To be fair to him, I must say I never met his equal for tracking and caring for sheep. Still, he needed to attend more to the trading side of the matter. Not my Dwyn — always off over the next ridge to snare yet one more wildling to add to his flock. Would that he had possessed more of the trading blood of his forebear Rodwyn of Ekkor! Yet each man must weigh what wool he can shear, and tally his own accounts."
Father (as I then believed him to be) was a third son and distant lord-kin to the House of Ekkor. I remember him only dimly, since I was scarcely four when he set out during a storm to search for a lamb and never returned.
After his death, Mother placed me with the Dames of Rishdale Abbey to see if they might cure my muteness. They could not, but Dame Gwersa taught me diligently for six years. Mother came for me when I was twelve. Although the Dames offered to accept me for training as a religious scribe, Mother said that my writing skill would be of more use to her in trade. When the Dames objected that my muteness would be a disadvantage beyond the shelter of their cloisters, Mother asserted that on the contrary, it would be a positive trading advantage, since I could neither tattle secrets nor offend customers with unwise chatter.
I soon found that in Mother's trading business, I had a talent for handling accounts, determining values, and locating goods. A far rarer talent— uncommon among Dalesfolk — was my ability to find lost articles, especially if I could touch some other object belonging to the owner.
In those days, too, I experienced occasional vivid dreams. All I could recall upon waking were flashes of bright colors and snatches of strange music. When I was about fifteen, I wrote haltingly about my dreams one day when I was alone with Mother. She was always occupied; her hands were never idle longer than it took for her to snatch up a new hank of wool or the next bundle of tally sticks. That day, when she read my slate, she actually dropped her knitting in her lap and sat rigidly still. I vow her face paled beneath its ruddy sun-warmed hue.
In a manner quite unlike her usually brisk speech, she said slowly, "I once had peculiar dreams for a time... before you were born. After your birth, they stopped. I had not thought of them for years." She shook her head, and resumed her knitting. "Such things are mere night vapors, banished by the light of day. Put them from your mind."
It wasn't long after that incident that Mother first mentioned my betrothal gift. I had found for her a missing bracelet, one of a pair she prized, for she loved fine jewelry. In her pleasure at the recovery, she told me that there was one very special piece — a gift — put away for my betrothal.
Excited, I wrote on my slate, "Whose gift? See it now?" but she only paused at the door on her way out. "No," she said firmly, "you may not see it until you are promised to be wed. It is an old and valuable gift from a... secret source that I cannot name." I was disappointed at the time, but in the subsequent press of work, I gradually forgot about the gift until the accident in the mountains reft Mother from me.
You were assisting Uncle Herwik then at our base in Ulmsport, while I was in Vennesport, a week's travel to the south. Mother had argued for a second trading base there, and had only just shifted her chief residence to the port — if she could be persuaded to halt in any one place long enough to be said to reside there. I was almost twenty when she died. You and Uncle Herwik's party had been delayed by storms, so I employed the time of waiting by sorting through Mother's possessions, setting aside those items she would have wanted to be given to various relatives and friends.
In the course of my sorting, I chanced upon a parcel tightly wrapped in dark blue leather. The instant I touched it, I knew that my betrothal gift lay within. It had never been listed among the family treasures, and no other person in the family had ever mentioned it. I assumed that Mother must have acquired it in her trading, instead of inheriting it.
Curious to view Mother's secret gift, I pried loose the lacings and uncovered a pendant jewel set in silver. The stone was an unusual blue-gray color, the size of a hen's small egg, cunningly polished to sparkle and flash as the light fell upon it. When I reached to pluck it out of its soft leather nest, my fingers were jolted as if I had plunged them into snow melt. Had I possessed a voice, I am sure I would have cried out. As it was, I snatched back my hand without picking up the stone. After a breathless moment, I folded the leather around the necklace and retied the lacings.
On previous occasions, I had welcomed opportunities to handle fine brooches or belt buckles because I could somehow sense, often in later dreams, images associated with the objects' former owners. On this day, however, I wanted no more contact with Mother's pendant. I remember thinking that if I should hold the jewel in my hand, I would be unbearably reminded of our separation. I did not want to be any more forcefully linked to nightly visions of her than I already was in unguarded waking moments. In haste, I packed the leather roll away with other precious items to be stored in our protected treasure room, and fled outside as if pursued by demons.
I never had the opportunity to show you that jewel. You were busily traveling between Ulmsport and Vennesport, and I was frequently away from our main Vennesport storehouse. It never occurred to me to retrieve that particular locked casket until nearly twenty years later when you raised the subject of marriage. You were so deferential, so shy about asserting yourself, that I wonder you managed to utter the word "wedding." Had we been left in peace, I would surely and gladly have shown you the pendant. Any bride would have been proud to bring such a jewel to her lord-to-be. Yet those days were fated to be far from peaceful.
You had been concerned for some time by rumors of trouble stirring across the sea, and tried to convince Mother's brothers that our trade links were being affected. You expressed alarm when strangers from far Alizon arrived at several Dales' ports in the guise of traders, skulking about, asking too many questions. I listened to you, and shared your disquiet. I wrote Uncle Parand several times, warning him of the danger, but in those days of willful blindness, seemingly no words could be found to rouse the Dales.
We suffered sorely from our lack of leadership — the separate Clan lords refused to recognize the threat to all, and would not cooperate or plan together until it was too late. When Alizon's invasion broke upon us from the sea, just as you had warned it would, all that we had built in Vennesport was destroyed. When next I saw our storehouse years later, only a burned-out shell remained. Thus Alizon robbed me of both my betrothal and the gift that should have graced me as a bride. You had been killed, and the jewel — there was no way to discover what fate had befallen it.
The more I thought about the jewel, the more convinced I became that it had to be an object of Power. How else could I explain my immediate aversion to its touch? I thought at the time I was distressed because of its association with Mother, but I was even then touching items she had used regularly — her tally sticks, her hair brush, her favorite writing quills. My dreams were undisturbed by any painful intrusions linked to those objects.
I knew little then about Power, except that Dalesfolk have always been deeply uneasy discussing it, and even more averse to experiencing the use of it. Our Wise Women possess knowledge of the uses of Power, but their own exercise of it is of the personal kind, tending ills or sensing would-be outcomes by consulting their rune-boards. We prize our Wise Women's herb lore and healing skills, but any Dalesman recoils from the thought of the raw Power wielded by the Witches of Estcarp across the sea, or the storied mages of ancient Arvon.
When Mother died, I still thought of myself as wholly of the Dales — although I had only to glance at my image reflected from burnished metal or water to observe my marked outward variance from my fellow Dalesmen, including my parents. Not for me their red-brown hair that bleached in the sun, or their green or blue-green eyes. From my youth, my hair was dark gray-brown, like rare lamantine wood, you used to say, and my eyes a very pale clear blue. My skin, too, was pale, and refused to darken during the hot summer months. My appearance, as well as my muteness, set me apart as a child.
Some of the Rishdale Dames muttered about me until Dame Gwersa made plain that I was under her special protection. Only once I heard a kitchen maid hiss at me, "Spawn of Arvon," but I had no idea what she meant. When I wrote the evident insult for Dame Gwersa, she pursed her lips and said that some folk preferred to invent troubles when there were quite enough under foot to deal with day to day. I subsequently searched the abbey archives for lore on Arvon, but could find few references to that daunting land beyond the mountains bordering the northernmost Dales. Dame Gwersa would say only that no Dalesmen traveled there because the Arvon folk were close-knit and preferred their own company. She also conceded that there were Powers and Forces in Arvon that were best avoided by prudent men. Many years later, I attempted to trace vague rumors of rare weddings between folk from Arvon and the Dales. The suspected children of such unions were shunned in the Dales, as if they were somehow different from us. I suspect I began then to wonder whether my own strangeness could be ascribed to a blood-tie to Arvon. I had, after all, been born in a remote Dale near the borders of both Arvon and the shunned Waste.
I made a list of my peculiarities: my muteness from birth, my un-Daleslike appearance, my strange dreams (possibly similar to the odd dreams experienced by my mother), my ability to find lost objects. It occurred to me that Mother's betrothal gift might have originated in Arvon. I could no longer ignore the inference that my real father might not have been Dwyn of the House of Ekkor.
One other piece of evidence had to be included in my list. When I was sixteen, Uncle Parand borrowed me from Mother to accompany him on coastal trading voyages. He said I should be able to learn much, while keeping his records for him. After those first short trips, he pronounced me useful and trustworthy (and also happily not subject to illness due to the motion of our trading vessels). He then invited me on the much longer voyage across the sea to the eastern lands, whose great ports I had only heard about — Verlaine, Sulcarkeep, and Estcarp's inland river port, Es City.
While I was walking alone near Es Castle, I encountered a solitary Witch of Estcarp. I was eighteen then; Uncle Parand had warned me to defer to any lady of the Old Race garbed in the distinctive gray robes of the Witches. I drew well to one side of the path to allow her ample room to pass by. She seemed not to have noticed me at all initially, but as soon as she passed me, she stopped abruptly, turned, and made a sign in the air with her right hand. To my amazement, the very lines her moving fingers sketched flared with a blue light (I have since been told that this indicated I was not tainted by the Dark). The Witch shook her head dismissively, and walked away without speaking a word to me. She therefore failed to see the delayed secondary glowing of her sign in the air — first red, then orange, then yellow — before it faded away entirely. I did not report this incident to my uncle, nor did I write any account of it for anyone else until now, as I marshal my arguments to persuade... I suppose I seek to persuade myself. My stalwart Doubt — if you were here, I believe you would accept my reasoning.
When I arrive at Lormt, I intend to request leave to search their archives for any records concerning jewels of Power. Captain Halbec has described for me the appearance of the Witch Jewels of Estcarp; they are cloudy, smooth-cut gems, not at all like my betrothal gift. Surely, however, Power can reside in different kinds of stones. I shall also search for lore about Arvon and whether any other folk like me have been described in kin lists.
If only the winds would rage this forcefully on a steady tack, we should complete our passage in far less than a month. But I must strive to be patient, and hope that the vessel holds together amid the storm waves. It will be good to see the sun again — and to be able to stand still, and get dry!
Posted November 6, 2010
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