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He stretched. He was stiff and cold. The pallet under him was thin and prickly; he had slept far from the chimneys, in the place nearest the door. The morning sun came through the high unpaned windows of the barracks, gilding the dirty tapestries into pale color, and the sky, through the narrow slits, was gray, distant, and chilly.
Swallowing, he tasted the salt of last night's pork. Beside him an off-watch guard thrashed, caught in an evil dream. Kerris tugged his boots on. The laces flapped. He tied them. The unyielding strings kept slipping from his hand. His fingers were cold.
He blew on them to warm them. His stump ached and he rubbed it. A dog barked. Someone shouted in the courtyard. Passing his hand through his tangled hair, Kerris rose and picked his way around huddled sleepers to the Keep kitchen.
A leather curtain separated kitchen and barracks, and through it he could hear people talking. He pushed it aside and went in. The room was hot. The oven fires had been lit. An hour-candle burned in a tiled niche. Apprentice cooks, hands covered with grease and flour, hurried past him. An assistant cook wearing a white cloth apron stood over a cutting board, slicing chunks of cold ham onto a silver platter. Paula stood beside the fireplace, holding out her hands to the blaze. Kerris went to her. Bending, he kissed the top of her head. "Good morning."
She peered up at him. He was a head taller than she was. She was wearing a thick brown shawl around her shoulders. "Kerris," she said. She turned back to the pot. It held tea, honey, and milk in a great soup mixture. "Have some tea."
He looked through rows of tall glasses for a mug. "Cold this morning," he said.
"Cold every damn morning." She banged the ladle on the rim of the iron pot. "You'd never know it was spring."
Leaning by her, Kerris dunked the mug into the pot. He sipped the tea. It was hot and very sweet. "It's nearly summer," he said. "The traders'll be here soon."
Her dark eyes glinted. She made a barracks gesture. "Summer," she said, with a southerner's contempt for northern weather. "Those people upstairs awake yet?"
She meant the soldiers. She had been a soldier herself once, long ago, on the southern border. Kerris shook his head. "Just me."
A fair-haired kitchenmaid in a long linen skirt came from the storeroom. She was carrying a round of cheese. She smiled politely at Paula and with more warmth at the young cook. His hands at the board moved even faster. She did not look at Kerris. He had not expected her to. For all that he was of Tornor's ruling line, he was a scribe, a fit-taker, and a cripple, less important to the Keep than the least of its cooks.
Paula scowled. "You want more tea?" she said.
He wanted to tell her that it did not matter to him that the woman of the Keep ignored him. He was used to it. He preferred it to the ridicule he might have gotten-had gotten, more than once. To please her, he dipped his mug again in the amber syrup. An apprentice opened an oven door. The smell of baking bread filled the room.
The leather curtain flapped. The chief cook strutted in. He had great hairy arms like a smith, and no hair at all on his skull. The scullions (behind his back) called him the Egg. He was a superb cook and had a temper like a fox-bitch in heat, and he hated intruders in his kitchen. He glared at Kerris. "Out," he said, fingering his square-bladed cleaver. The gesture was for show, but Kerris had no intention of challenging it. He rubbed Paula's shoulder.
"I'll see you later," he said. He turned to go.
There was smoke in his eyes and a knife in his hand. He smelled scorched food and the heavy scent of new wine. He thought, End it quickly. He faked a stumble on a stool. His opponent grinned and stepped in for a killing thrust. Catching the thrusting arm, he looped the man's neck with his other arm and drew him helpless to the floor. A knife clattered down. Disdainfully a booted foot kicked it away. A woman screamed softly.
He stared into the man's red and terrified face. "I could break your neck," he said. "Don't you know better than to fight a cheari?"
Ilene said, at his back, "They've burned our breakfast, Kel. Let's leave."
His vision blurred. He smelled bread. He was back. Paula stood in front of him, bristling like a mother cat protecting a kitten. The scullions were all watching. The chief cook was sputtering at the old woman. "I'll have no fits taken in my kitchen!"
Kerris said, "I'm all right."
Paula turned. Her eyes searched his face. He was sorry she had seen it. "It's nothing," he said. He walked toward the entrance to the hall. The scullions murmured, clumped together like puppies. The Egg swore at them, and they hopped out of his way.
The great hall of Tornor was big enough to hold six hundred men without crowding. Kerris rested against a wall of it for a moment. As always after a fit, he felt just slightly disoriented. He leaned on a tapestry. It showed a scene from some old battle. Josen would know which one. Kerris did not.
The doors to the hall were open. Men from the barracks, rubbing sleep from their eyes, and men just off watch, bulky in their layers of wool and leather, were coming in. Dogs with sleek fur and pale narrow heads ran about and around them-wolfhounds, they were, though there were few wolves left on the steppe. A hunting party last fall had brought in one mangy yearling. They had hung the skin from the castle wall and all the small boys from Tornor village had come to stare at it.
Someone opened the leather curtain. The smell of fresh bread drifted into the hall. The men elbowed each other. Kerris' appetite had gone. He walked down the lane beside one of the long tables and came face to face with the lord of the Keep.
He bowed. "Good morning, uncle," he said.
Morven, the nineteenth lord of Tornor Keep, was brisk and stocky, with the bright yellow hair and pale complexion of his line. Kerris had not inherited it. "Good morning, nephew," he said. "Did you wake as the watch changed?" Kerris nodded. Morven did not know (or pretended that he did not know) that Kerris sometimes slept in the barracks. "I wish my soldiers were as dedicated." It was meant to be praise.
"Thank you." Ousel, the second watch commander, strode up. Immediately Morven turned to speak with him. Kerris, dismissed, went on out of the hall. He thought, At least he has the decency not to laugh in my face.
Crossing the inner ward to the stair to the Recorder's Tower, he felt inside his skull for the skill that linked him with his brother. As ever, it eluded him. He could not make it work, any more than he could stop it.
In the shadow of the sundial a trio of children played the paper-scissors-rock game. Kerris slowed as he passed them. It was one of the few games he, the one-armed child, had been able to play, and he had gotten so adept at knowing what the others would choose that they had soon refused to play with him. The game dissolved into wrestling, with the biggest child, Morven's daughter Aret, on top. Kerris went on. He had never been very good at wrestling.
A girl stood at the foot of the tower stair, her arms filled with laundry. She wore a red gown and a brown overtunic. Her cheeks were pocked with little scars. Her hair fell down her back. Kerris felt the nape of his neck redden. "Hello, Kili," he said.
Two years ago she had approached him in the hall, brushing her breasts against him with a smile and a whispered question. "Would you like to ...?" No one had asked him before. He went with her to the laundry, clumsy and eager. They lay between the long wet washtubs, on the dirty sheets from the apartments. He was deeply grateful to her. Only one other person had ever touched him in that way. She had even pretended to be pleased with his efforts. Some weeks afterward he overheard her laughing about it with another girl, equating his lost limb and his sexual ability.
She thrust her hip against him. "How come I don't see you anymore?"
"I have work to do."
"That's too bad." She strolled across the ward, hips swaying. The guards on the inner wall yipped appreciatively.
Kerris thought of Kel. He wondered where the chearas was, and what had happened to the red-faced man. No doubt the chearis were saddled and gone from the place. He could see them-tall Arillard, redheaded Riniard the newcomer, Jensie with the tri-colored hair.... He swore under his breath and pushed the thoughts away. They only made him unhappy.
He glanced across the courtyard. Kili had gone. The guards had turned back to their vigil. Kerris pictured a caravan bumping along the eastern road, blue flags flying, laden with silks and spices and wood and metal goods. The whole Keep was restless, waiting for the traders. The children played at caravans in their games.
He went up the spiral stair to the chamber at the tower's top.
The octagonal room was very old. It had been variously used: for storage, for defense, even for a council chamber when there was war in the north. It smelled of pine logs and ink. There were tapestries on its walls like the ones in the hall. The room held a clutter of furniture: two sleeping pallets, a big worktable, some stools, Josen's chair, and six cedar chests. Two of the chests held clothes. Four of them were brimful of old records.
A tall crock of choba oil stood in one corner. The rest of the Keep, even the lord's apartments, was lit by different kinds of candles, and the merchants did not bother to bring the heavy oil with them from the south. But Josen had ordered, and bought, on his own, the one crock. On dark winter days he poured oil into dishes, and fashioned wicks for them with wool yarn. He claimed the light from the oil was clearer and less smoky than the light from animal-fat candles. Kerris teased him with it, gently, in the evenings. "With the lamps lit, you can pretend, like Paula, that you're not really here."
"Unlike Paula," the old man would answer, "I like it here."
Kerris pushed open the door with his shoulder. Josen stood at the window, sniffing the air. He had opened one of the windows and stood looking out the crack at the view. Kerris joined him. The watchtower had been built three hundred years back by Torrel, fourth lord of Tornor Keep, "so that he might see the Anhard raiders before their kings gave the order to attack." There was no military use for a tower anymore; there had been peace between Arun and Anhard for a hundred years. But the windows had never been touched, except to have new glass placed in the frames. They still looked only north.
The mountains' gray bulk dominated the landscape. The lower terraces of the peaks were stippled with green. Kerris had heard (from the merchants, who went everywhere) that in the west there were taller mountains, and that they were red, not gray. He doubted he would get to see them. The farthest he'd ever been across the steppe was half the distance to Cloud Keep.
He had been born in the south, in a small village south of the lower edge of Galbareth. Paula had told him that often enough. But he did not remember the south, nor the ride north, nor the raid on the caravan in which his mother had been killed. It was in that raid that the blow of a curved Asech blade had taken off his right arm just below the shoulder.
Josen's voice interrupted his reverie. "Summer's coming."
Kerris dragged his thoughts away from his lost past. "Paula doesn't think so," he said.
"She's a southerner," said Josen. "It's never hot enough here for them." He was a northerner, but he knew the south well, having lived there many years. He glanced at Kerris. He was tall, but stoop-shouldered. His pale eyes were deep-set and very keen. He wore the clothes of his clan: a black robe of soft wool, with a hood that fell down his back. On his left fourth finger he wore a gold ring with an ebony stone. Only scholars and lords of households wore rings: lords to indicate their rulership, scholars to show that they carried no weapons. Josen was a member of the Scholars' Guild. He had been sent to study in Kendra-on-the-Delta by Athor, Morven's father, and had returned to the Keep twenty-five years ago. "The traders are not here yet, I suppose."
Josen said something in the southern tongue.
"What is that?" inquired Kerris. He had been Josen's apprentice for five years, but he knew only a little of the old southern language.
"May they suffer seven years from piles," said the old man. "I need ink!"
Kerris grinned. He and Josen shared working and sleeping space in the tower, and as much as the disparity of age and temperament allowed (Josen and Paula were about the same age) they were friends. "May they suffer from piles after they get here," he suggested.
"Yes," Josen agreed, "that's better."
He coughed, and pulled his wide sash more tightly around his waist. He said, "I didn't hear you come in at all, last night."
Kerris' stump throbbed. "I slept in the barracks," he said.
"In case the raiders come?" said Josen, voice tinged with gentle mockery. "Even were it to happen, Morven would not let you fight. You'd be sent to shelter in the storerooms with the old, the sick, and the children. Why bother?"
"I need to," Kerris said. "I don't care what Morven thinks." He walked to the oaken worktable. Josen had already laid out on it their day's work: a pile of ancient scrolls for himself, the monthly accounts for Kerris. The scrolls smelled musty. He pulled back the chair. "Shall we get to work?"
Josen shrugged. "As you wish," he said. He crossed the little octagonal room. Kerris felt a twinge of remorse. He hadn't meant to put the old man off so harshly. He pulled Josen's cushioned chair out for him. Once-before he had Kerris to help him-Josen had done the day-to-day work, tallying accounts, keeping records. But Kerris did this now, and freed from those tasks the old scholar had chosen to set about a work more interesting: recopying the histories of Tornor off the ancient scrolls. Morven had no objections. He was even willing to pay for the fine-haired brushes and the expensive ink Josen required. (The ink Kerris used faded fast, but cost nothing. Kerris made it himself out of the ink sacs of the local river eels. Josen had taught him how to do that.) He glanced at the topmost scroll as Josen unrolled it. It glinted, here and there. Some of the letters had been painted with gold, and they shone through the dust.
The old northern runes (which were really a corruption of the southern runes, Josen said) went up and down on the scrolls. Kerris could not read them. Josen had taught him only the southern script. Everyone used it now. The old records in the Keeps were the only examples left of the northern script, and when these were all copied into the southern script then no one would remember that there even had been another way to write, except a few scholars like Josen.
Pretending that nothing had happened, Josen took his brushes from their wooden, felt-lined case.
Kerris cast about for a means to mend the breach.
"Hmm?" said the old man.
"What history do you copy today?"
Josen looked pleased. The hurt left his face. He loved to talk about the histories. "The history of the eleventh lord of Tornor."
"Who was he?"
"His name was Kerwin," Josen said, "like your father." He closed the brush case and put it to one side. "Most of the record is taken up with accounts of battles with Anhard. Kerwin was killed in battle. It was a common death. The Truce wasn't signed until the reign of Athor, Kerwin's grandson."
Kerris said, "Was there ever a time when there were no battles?"
Josen frowned. "Tornor was built to be a fortress. But from Kerwin's reign to the reign of the Lady Sorren there is a gap in the scrolls."
Once Kerris had been under the illusion that it would be exciting to be in a war. He no longer thought so. "Was that the Lady Sorren who brought the chearis to Tornor?"
"There has been only one Sorren of Tornor," Josen said.
Kerris nodded. He remembered. Josen had read him the history from the scroll. Sorren of Tornor had named a cheari as Yardmaster, and during her reign (and after it, during the reign of her daughter Norres), Tornor had been a gathering-place for chearis.
"Where did they come from?" he asked.
Josen scowled. "You know the legend. The chearis came from the west, from Vanima, the land of always summer."
"How did the Lady Sorren get them to Tornor?"
"It's not in the record," said Josen. He snorted. "All the historians agree that the earliest chearis were southerners. Yet the legend of Vanima persists. Even now the chearis speak of it as if it were a real place." He picked up his brush and pointed it at Kerris like a dagger. "It's very frustrating."
"That the records should be incomplete."
Excerpted from The Dancers of Arun by Elizabeth A. Lynn. Copyright © 1979 Elizabeth A. Lynn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 18, 2011
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