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I was born in Erondale in the Year of the Pard. It was not a large dale, yet it was prosperous. My father was of the House of Paltendale and of that House men whispered. As well they might. My older brothers told me tales of some of our bloodline who had done monstrous things. But I was a child. Tales such as these were ancient stories told around the fire and their truth could not be easily measured.
When I was old enough to understand, I was told that our wise woman had foretold for me at my birth, and the fate she had given me was strange. She had studied my tiny hands before peering deep into wine in the bottom of a cup. Then she had spoken.
“Three sorrows shall come upon him in this place before he goes from it. Nor shall grief be done with him.” At which point I am told my mother cried out and my father rose to say “enough.”
“For all men there is sorrow,” he said.
“That is the truth, Lord Joros. Yet for this one there shall be more sorrow than comes to many. He shall wander and in that wandering he shall find treasure unlooked for. Gold shall it be, and flowing, heart to his heart. Then shall he cease to wander.”
After which saying she sat silent, and when they saw she would say no more my father gave her a silver coin and the parting cup. I think he believed much of her foretelling as folly since everyone knew Ayneta was more herb woman than woman of Power. But my mother was comforted by the promise I should do well once sorrow had passed.
I knew that my father was a good man, ordering our keep well. He was also a patient man, slow to anger and a good teacher. By the time I was seven summers, my brothers, both some years older than I, were already training to be warriors as was the custom for lads of noble birth. There had been two babes between us but both had died when the coughing sickness came in the Year of the Pronghorn. It was a sweet and peaceful life, but nothing lasts forever, and at the start of the year I would turn eight the bad times began.
“Lorcan, do not be daydreaming. Father says he will take you hunting with us this time.” My brother Anla called up the stairs to where my mother brushed my hair. I squirmed free.
“I must go.”
“At least take a cloak. It will be cold in the hills.”
I caught up a well-worn short-cloak descended to me from Anla. “I’ll bring you back flowers, Mother.”
She laughed. “Bring back meat as well. Although,” her face was wistful, “I would like the scent of hill-roses. Winter was over-long this year.” I smiled at her.
“I’ll bring both.” She was ungainly in late pregnancy and women at such times crave strange things, so my father said. I would bring her hill-roses. The wise woman from the village said that this time the child would be a daughter. That pleased me. I would like to have a small sister. I slipped out to join my father and Anla.
“Slow-poke,” Anla greeted me. “You’ll catch nothing standing about. Let us ride.” Devol brought my pony. I thanked him and he winked as he boosted me to the saddle. I liked Devol. He had always some amusing tale and he made me laugh. He had wandered in from another dale and stayed to work since he did well with horses.
My pony was small but swift on his hooves, fast to turn and twist. I grinned up at my brother. “Beat you to the thicket by the hill path.” Before he could reply I was gone. Drustan laid his hooves down in a soft thunder as we flew up the narrow winding track. It was not until we were almost at the thicket that Anla had room to pass us. He did so in a burst of speed before reining in, laughing at me affectionately.
“A forfeit. I claim forfeit.” His voice was gently teasing.
I nodded It was fair and besides, he was complimenting me by treating me as a man in this and not as a child. “I’ll unsaddle for you, and lay out your bedding if we stay in the hills tonight,” I promised. Anla reached over to pat my shoulder.
“Good lad. You are growing.” He turned back to my father, who had joined us quietly on his big gray. “Where do we ride, Sir?”
“To the valley where Merrion killed the pronghom last Summer.” Merrion was my other brother but just now he was at Paltendale learning from the arms-master there.
We nodded and fell in behind him as he rode. Presently he began to talk politics with Anla. I listened, keeping my tongue between my teeth. It was man’s talk and if I interrupted they might change the subject. Anla was speaking.
“The last time he was home Merrion said that the men of Alizon are causing trouble again.”
My father sighed. “I heard. It is always so. If it is not one who makes trouble it is another. But I think this will come to nothing. Even so, I will have you lads well-trained in war. A man must hold what he has. He must rule himself before he rules others. Next year you go to Paltendale; Lorcan, too, once he is twelve.”
I forgot my resolutions of silence and squealed in excitement. “To Paltendale, to learn the sword?”
My father smiled down. “The sword, and many other things besides. There is more to a keep ruler than the sword. He must be able to tell quality in goods, beasts, and men—he must be able to rule men. To command and be obeyed. He must know tactics in war or skirmish and be able to do all that is needful so he may know if his men do well and aright.”
I made a face. “Why must Lord Hogar teach me such things? You are my father.”
His eyes grew serious. “I am indeed. But already you have learned some of what I can teach, and in the bearing of arms a boy learns better from one who is not of his close family. That is why we foster each others’ sons, as we did Hogeth for three seasons.”
I fell silent. I had not liked Hogeth. He was a third son even as I was, though he was more than twice my age. He had left our home only the previous Fall and I had been glad to see him go. He was a bully. One who was always just that much too rough—though he called it play. Horses and hounds tended to move away when he was near. My father saw this, I knew, but he said nothing. Hogeth was son to Paltendale. Erondale was a cadet branch and we owed fealty to the older, larger dale.
We rode on at a steady pace for much of the day. I was weary when at last we made camp but I paid my forfeit honorably. The next day we hunted. It was a good hunt. Two pronghorns fell to my father and Anla. I had only a sling, but when a pheasant rose whirring I cast my stone and the bird fell. I took up another stone and waited. A rabbit, disturbed by the horses’ hooves, hopped to one side and again my stone struck squarely. After that I missed my shot at another rabbit. Still, my father was pleased as we took up our game.
“It is well. A barren hind and a spiker buck. The rabbit we shall eat for breakfast. We shall have grilled deer’s liver tonight and the pheasant shall be roasted once we are back.” I licked my lips. Roast pheasant as our cook prepared it would be a treat at the high table. My mother would be pleased. I must remember to gather hill-roses for her before we were down from the hills.
The camp that night was joyful. My father laughed and told old tales, Anla carved a whistle from a twig and played. I sang the song which went with it, a Dales march called “Pick up Your Feet.” It was sweet that evening. I slept well and rose early to build up the fire so that we might eat my rabbit before we rode home. I rode ahead after a while and found a patch of the hill-roses. They were starting to bloom so that the pink and white petals scented the air. I picked buds just beginning to open, bedding them in damp grass before placing them in my saddle-bag. They would do well enough until I could give them to my mother.
We returned to a bustle in the stables as the deer were carried away. I carried the pheasant myself. It was my quarry and none should bear it but me. Cook received it from me in true appreciation.
“Good lad. A fine bird, and it will make a good meal. I’ll roast it as you like.”
“With glazing of honey and pork fat?” I licked my lips as he nodded. “Mother likes it that way, too.”
“True, now, here’s a slice of fresh bread. Take yourself out of the kitchen. We’ll be busy from now on.”
I accepted the bread, sprinkled lightly with honey crystals, and departed. I ate it on the way to my mother’s solar. There I opened the saddle-bag and presented the roses. Mother caught them to her with a cry of pleasure.
“Oh, Lorcan. They smell so sweet. Talsa, a vase.” Her elderly maid brought it and my mother busied herself arranging the roses. “There, place them on the shelf by the window.” I was pleased to see her joy in them and bethought me of my pheasant.
“I brought you something else.”
“And what was that, I see nothing more you carry. Is it hidden? Do you have it under your cloak?” She pretended to look for it, tickling me so that I squirmed and giggled.
“A pheasant, it’s a pheasant. I brought it down with my sling. Cook has it. He’s roasting it the way we like.” I spluttered out the information through laughter as I dodged her tickling hands.
My mother sat back. “So, that was a good hunt. I shall eat roast pheasant and praise the hunter.” I felt pride in her words. We talked a while longer before I left. The food that night was good. The pheasant was all I could have wished and cook had made a pastry case around a haunch of venison stewed in its own gravy. I ate heartily of both and slept so soundly I was late rising.
All was pleasant for two days, then I came inside to find a commotion. Mother’s maid was speaking earnestly to my father as he stood looking worried. He waved me away angrily when I would have stopped to listen. Yet I caught a little of their words.
“I fear … not well.”
My father nodded. “Call Ayneta.” He stared around before his eyes fell on me again. “Lorcan. Go to Ayneta and say she is needed here.”
“I have no time to answer questions. Get Ayneta, hurry.”
I always obeyed my father, but this time there was something in his voice which made me run desperately, almost panicked by that tone. It could not have been fear. My father was a brave man. But I felt my own heart pounding as I bolted for the wise woman’s cottage. Once there I pounded on the door calling her name. She opened it and recognized me in an instant.
“Come quickly. Father says you must come.”
She asked no questions but turned on her heel, snatched up a padded carrysack, and ran heavily towards the keep. I pelted alongside. Once at the keep Ayneta swept up the stairs to my mother’s rooms. I would have followed but Anla held me back.
“Come and help me in the stables.” I’d seen the look my father gave him. I was afraid.
“It’s Mother, what’s wrong with her?”
In his own way my brother did his best. “She’s just bearing. It takes time. Come and help me school the new horse. I need someone light to back him.” I hesitated, torn. I loved my mother, but if it was just a baby there was no need to worry. She’d had five safely. In the end, the delight of helping Anla at his own request outweighed my anxiety. But when we returned to the keep my worry rose again. My father was not in his seat. There was no sign of my mother, her maid, or Ayneta either.
I asked questions which were ignored. I would have gone to my mother but the way was barred by a shut door. Those inside would not open to me. At last Anla was able to pull me away and get me to bed. I slept uneasily, fearing I knew not what. I woke early and crept out towards the stairs. Slowly I ascended them to the tower where my parents had their own private rooms. Then I sat on the steps and waited. Sooner or later the door would open. I was hungry but I remained.
Towards mid-morning it did open. Talsa came out bearing a small wailing bundle. She saw me and stopped.
“Lorcan, how long have you been here?”
“I woke at dawn.”
“Well, this is your new sister, Meera.” I moved up a step to gaze on a small pink face. Huge unfocused blue eyes gazed up. I had a sister. The door was open behind Talsa and I looked past her. My mother lay white-faced upon the bed. Her eyes were shadowed and her face was drawn, the skin tight upon the bones. Her eyes met mine and she spoke, but so weakly I could not hear. My father appeared and beckoned me. I walked past, trying to keep myself from showing my fear for her; I could smell blood, and within me I knew what I would not allow myself to believe.
“Lorcan, listen to me. I love you, my son. Look after your sister. Obey your father. Remember me.” Her voice failed and Father took me by the shoulders.
“Where is Anla?”
“Working with the new horse again, I think.”
“Bring him, quickly, Lorcan.”
I ran again, trying to outrun my own fear. I burst into the yard, frightening the horse so that Anla dodged plunging hooves and swore.
“Lorcan! What do you think you are doing.”
“It’s Mother. Father says to come at once.” He stared at me so that I blurted out what I feared. “Anla, I think she’s dying.”
He said nothing, but loosed the horse and bolted. I followed him, knowing nowhere else to go. I heard his boots clatter ahead on the stairs. I walked more slowly then, step by step, until I was at the door again. Inside, Anla was speaking in a small choked voice. I entered in silence, watching as he held my mother’s hand. Her voice was soft, gentle, and full of love as always. My throat closed until I could hardly breathe.
She beckoned me to her, then. I came to take her other hand and hold it. She smiled at me, a tiny, weary smile.
“Lorcan, I did love the roses.” My father stood then, from the seat nearby. He took us by the shoulders and led us out of the room. Talsa followed, leaving our sister in a cradle by the bed.
“Talsa, take the boys down to eat. Stay until I come for them.”
We went with dragging steps. It was no time to beg or argue. Behind us we heard the door shut, then strange faint sounds like a man weeping. Not the crying a boy might make, but the harsh tearing groans wrenched from a strong man who feels agony and can no longer keep silent.
My mother died before sunset. In her room the hill-roses I had brought her four days ago still filled the air with their sweet smell. They lived, but my mother did not. My first sorrow had come to Erondale.
After that things did not change greatly in outward appearance. My father still ruled kindly, still spent time with us all, but it was as if a light had gone out behind his eyes. My brothers and I knew the story. His had been no match made by bargaining parents. He’d met my mother when he rode to a nearby fair. One look, as they had both told us, and they had known. After that, parents became involved as they must, yet to the two in love such matters had no place in their hearts.
My father, Joros, had been twenty, oldest son of Erondale. Ashera, my mother, was fifteen, with a fair dowry, and well educated by the Dames. They were a good match from a financial point of view and their parents had no objections. They wedded a year later. For more than twenty years the only nights they spent apart were when my father hunted. In early days my mother had often ridden with him on those excursions. Together, too, they had ridden amongst men-at-arms to visit Paltendale, or the Spring fairs. Now my father rode alone.
We laid my mother to rest in the family cemetery, and after the rites were completed I took my pony and rode out alone. Deep in the hills I found a small bush of the hill-roses and brought it back. My father found me planting it at the head of the narrow turned-earth strip. I think at first he was angry that I had gone riding without leaving word—until he saw what I was doing. Then he helped me to plant the thorny bush. When we were done he touched a bloom lightly.
“She loved them. It was well done. Come now and eat. Remember my words, Lorcan. Even in fear, sorrow, or danger a man must eat and stay strong.” In a time to come it would be this simple battle-wisdom he said to me that I would remember and which would aid me to survive.
A year passed slowly. Anla was fourteen that Spring, and once the deep snow had cleared from the mountain passes he rode to Paltendale to begin his training. Merrion came home in exchange, seventeen and a man. He took after our father, being tall and broad, whereas I took more after our mother. At eight I was strong enough, but it was a wiry strength, I would be of medium height, so Talsa said. But my reactions were very fast. It had amused Berond, our master-at-arms, to begin teaching me the previous Spring. I think he began it as a way of occupying my mind, of diverting my grief for my mother. But then he became interested.
“You may never have the muscle for an ax or mace, lad. But a sword, one of the lighter kind with point and edge, with that in time you may do very well. Look now.” He hailed one of the guards, Harkon, who used an ax, and demonstrated. “See you. I parry his weapon with little power. His own strike takes him off-balance.”
I saw. After that, and for the next two years after my mother’s death, I practiced. Nothing too onerous, mainly exercises to strengthen my arm and the basics of sword-drill. But I practiced hard, since it did indeed take my mind from grief. I learned well, so Berond’s measured praises were no empty words. My small sister Meera grew, toddling about the keep. I was her beloved brother; she followed where I went, a joy to me and a pleasure.
Some time around then, Devol left Erondale while I was away hunting for two days with Anla. No one would talk of it on our return. I missed his humor and jests but something took him from my mind soon thereafter, for my second sorrow came to Erondale. That third Winter in her life, Meera took a chill. In less than twenty-four hours her life went out as a candle blown in a breeze and dark closed in. We buried her beside our mother and I did not think it unmanly to weep.
After her death, though, I needed no distraction. Word was of war and our father rode out often. Sometimes to Paltendale, or other dales, sometimes to the coast to talk with the Sulcar and learn what they might have heard. Oft he took me with him, teaching me the ways of a riding warrior: how to ride hard yet make the journey lighter on my mount; how to scout, to make smokeless fires or a cold camp. I was ten that year and believed myself almost a man.
There was unease amongst the lords in the dales at this time. There had been word of spies during the past year. There were strangers riding the dales asking questions, and more disturbingly, some appeared to be studying keep defenses. Such a man came to Erondale claiming the hospitality due a man of good birth. My father feasted him with Ayneta at the high table, but before the meal was over the man’s head was in his plate. He snored mightily as my father and the wise woman smiled knowingly at each other. When the stranger rode on next morning he had a sour look. I think that his head ached and he had found out little.
We harvested hard that Fall. My father had a store of food and weapons in a small cave high on the trail over the hills. An alternate way to Paltendale, it could be used only by those on foot or riding experienced horses or the hill ponies, sure of foot and slow to panic.
Merrion returned to share Winter with us at Erondale. The Year of the Moss Wife ended. And the time of the third sorrow came upon us. Rishdale lay near to our own small dale. The keep lord was a grim man, impatient and hard. He had wed again recently and the gossip was that his new wife was only a girl, spoiled and lazy, and they did not do well together.
But because both dales were smaller than many, the invaders split their forces. One machine of the kind the invaders used came to each; the one that would attack our dale appeared towards dusk as we were that much further from Rishdale. I was in the keep stables with Anla and Berond talking of my new pony. He was only five and of good blood. I had named him Drustan also, after my older mount, now relegated to bearing game when we hunted. Suddenly the keep shuddered, and I heard cries of alarm all about me. I could hear stones fall, as the shuddering came again. My father came running.
“There is no hope. The machine they have will batter down the walls and have us out as a sea-dog takes a hermit crab from its shell. Berond, gather the guard. We will use the old escape tunnel. Let Harkon and one of his choosing go first. Then the women. The guard last.”
Berond looked grave. “The tunnel is too small to let warhorses pass.”
“I know. Take ponies. Let the larger horses flee through the postern gate once most of my people are gone. The beasts are valuable and may distract the invaders if they seek to capture them. It is close to dusk. If we have an hour or two we may escape notice in the hills and win safe to Paltendale.”
Up the stairs I could hear old Talsa organizing the women. I wondered what had become of the village. Had Ayneta warned them? Faint cries came from outside the keep walls. I would be able to see from my mother’s tower room.
I slipped away and climbed the stairs. The tower was to one side, while it was at the main gates the invaders labored to break through. In the last light I could see below. Great swathes of the land were blackened, the village burned. Directly below me a knot of the invaders swirled about a pale figure upon the ground. Flames shot up and I saw her face: Lisia, the weaver’s daughter, two years older than me and pretty. At first I did not understand what it was the invaders did. Then I heard her screams. I staggered back from the window. Blackness swirled around me as my father came running, bow in hand.
“Come on, boy. We must hurry. They’ll be through the gate in a moment more.” I could only point. He looked, swore bitterly, snatched out an arrow and shot once. “The best I can do for the poor lass.” I had a final glimpse of the invaders turning away in anger. Behind them a small white body lay still, the arrow shaft jutting from her breast.
Much of that night is still a blur to me. The invaders did not lose us as we had hoped. They had strange lights which shone out in the dark. With these they followed. My father dropped back with the guard time and time again to hold the enemy back. But always they come on our trail again. Each time they did so more of those I had known all my life fell, and the bodies had to be left behind. At some time during the running battle my father fell. Merrion, trying to save him, died also. So beset were we that their bodies were left behind as they lay. An hour, two, past moonhigh, then towards dawn, Anla died in the next attack and we rode on, praying to lose those who followed like winter-starved wolves.
They found us again. We were a small band now: only Talsa, Harkon of the ax, Berond, and myself. Most of us were mounted on work ponies, though the beast I bestrode was my new Drustan. I knew not what had happened to some few of those who had fled with us. Of many I knew all too well. I had seen them die: my family, guards who had been my friends, maids who had served my mother. I blinked back tears and rode. I was keep lord now. I must be strong. Behind us I heard shouting. Berond slowed, despair in his voice.
“They’re devils. They’ve found the trail again.”
Harkon was dour. “Aye. So we fight again.”
Talsa shook her head. “I’m old and tired. I can ride no further. I’ll stay back. If they find me it may be they’ll delay enough for the rest of you to get to safety.” I remembered Lisia.
“I forbid it.” My voice trembled but I forced it to a steady tone. “I am keep lord. We throw no friend to the wolves.”
How it would have been settled, I do not know. I am thankful I never had to find out for it was then that a handful of the invaders came howling at us out of the dark. Talsa fell to a sword as Harkon fought. One of the invaders fell, too, but four remained. Then three. In my mind’s eye I can still see Hakon’s ax carving arcs in the moonlight, steel gleaming dully as he kept them back. But one must have been cannier than his fellows. He had a bow and used it.
The first arrow took me in the shoulder, so that I yelped in pain and surprise. Berond spurred to my side. With one hand he snapped the shaft at my clothing. With his swordhand he struck a deadly blow at the man who rode up alongside. The invader fell and our ponies trampled him. A third arrow glanced off Berond’s mail. He wasted no more time. In a leap he was behind me in the saddle and, with his own pony running at our knees, he held me upright as he raced our mount for the sheltering dark.
I was near fainting, but as we fled I heard Harkon giving tongue to the hunting call, the notes with which one wishes good hunting to those who go forth. Then it broke off and I knew where the next arrow had gone. I mustered strength to ask.
“Will they pursue?”
Berond was letting the over-burdened pony slow. “I think not. One is wounded.” I must have made a sound, “You saw not? Old Talsa. He slew her, but she fleshed her dagger in his thigh as she fell, and she’d know where to strike. He’s like to bleed out before he can be got back. I think the archer will not follow. He never closed with us hand to hand.” I thought the man a coward but was grateful if it was so.
Perhaps the archer was too busy getting his comrade back, or perhaps he was indeed less eager to fight with steel against steel. For whatever reason it was, none followed. Berond was able to remove the shaft in a cold camp later that day. The point had come through my clothing at the front and he had only to draw it out. After that, he tied me down and poured grain-spirit from a flask through the wound. I screamed, fighting my bonds before I fainted. Once I came around again, he gave me a few mouthfuls of the spirit. That was the soldier’s way.
We made for Paltendale. I had kin-right and they would take us in. It took several weeks to reach them, since the hills were filled with bands of the invader who shot at anything they saw. I was young and healthy and thanks to the grain spirit the wound did not fester. It even healed a little as I rode. Each night I worked on sword drill with Berond until I was exhausted enough to sleep. Many nights I dreamed: of how some in the village must have died. At least my father had given Lisia a clean death. I dreamed of Talsa and Harkon. Of my father and brothers, and when I woke to remember they were no more I wept silently into my bedding.
But at length we came to sanctuary and they opened the keep gates to us. I was now the Keep Lord of Erondale in title, ten years of age, but everything I cared about was gone. I came as a beggar to Paltendale, riding in bitter sorrow.
Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Andre Norton and by Lyn McConchie Excerpt from A Taste of Magic © 2006 by the Estate of Andre Norton and by Jean Rabe