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The sky was a spring-blue bowl arched over gently rolling plains. It caught to the west at enormous white-capped, harshly jagged mountains, faded pale eastward to even flatter ground, South, the River Torth faded into distance, edged by the yellow-green grasses of the great marshes.
North: there was, on such a clear day, normally the faintest hint of purple across the horizon to mark the distant bluffs across the River Planthe.
Today, there was nothing save a smoke haze.
Tehlatt. The Northern barbarians rode from their strongholds in Anasela, burning and slaying as they came.
The King's City was a broken beehive, people running wildly through the streets, flying in a disordered mass down the close-paved road that led to the harbor. The double gates were flung wide to accommodate that hysterical traffic and the King's own household, men stood at the gates, arbitrating sudden disputes, helping parents locate children—aiding the old and ill to conveyance.
The lone horseman lay across his mount's neck, hands wrapped around her, caught at each other by the wrists. His eyes were pain-narrowed, exhausted slits. The horse limped.
They went unnoted at first in the crush and panic. But then, his ancient charge and her meager bundle of possessions safely loaded onto a cart bound for the harbor. Narsid, a swordsman of one of the minor barons, turned to search out others in need of his aid. The horse staggered; Narsid called for aid and sprinted across the crowded gateway.
"There man, we've got you, you're safe." What, in Koderra? his thought mocked. A hasty glance back out the gates and northward assured him the line of burnings had come no closer.
A swollen hand, the nails black with half-dried blood, waved feebly. The rider coughed. "I am Gors—Corlinson. I—message for—the King."
"Gors," the swordsman whispered to himself. Hard to tell, under all that dirt, the blood-stiffened hair, but he spoke truly. It was Lord Corry's son, but by all the Mothers at once, here? He glanced up as shadow crossed them.
His baron and his captain stood there. "M'Lord Grawn, it's Lord Corwin's son, he's hurt."
"Can see that, boy. Get him a healer!"
"He has messages for the King, sir."
"Messages." The wounded boy was reviving, a little. The captain knelt with water, then caught at his waist to help him up. Narsid ran ahead with word as Grawn came to the other side.
Brandt's Grand Reception was light but cold. No fires had been lit. The hall was filled nearly to capacity, crowded with nearby Lords Holder and their armsmen, a few of the household women and servants who had not yet been put aboard ships and sent downriver, and half the King's Council. The elders were already gone.
Tehlatt. The name was in every thought, if not upon every tongue. The Tehlatt rode south, vanquishing Nedao a horse-length at a time. This was no simple spring raid, such as had plagued the farmers and herders near the Planthe, such as that which had netted the barbarians the whole province of Anasela.
But there was another name on the tongues of those in the Reception at the moment: Ylia. Brandt had just, again, publicly named his daughter and only child his heir and extracted Heir's Oath from them all. The girl—she was scarce of age and still wore her bright coppery hair plaited—had taken her vows to the King gravely; taken the oath of the Lords Holder and the Council with the same aloof gravity that was clearly as much fright as training.
Nervous whispers echoed across the chamber. It was bad, serious, if he'd swear them to his chosen heir again. As though he didn't expect to survive.
His choice; in Nedao it had always been King's choice who might be his heir. But Ylia—not all those present swore to her with good grace. Her father was Nedao's King; one had only to look at her face to see the young Brandt there. But her mother was an AEldran noblewoman, a member of their Second House. Sorceress. And while not all Nedao felt as the Chosen's new religion prated, that witches were a black evil, few of the Plainsfolk were comfortable with Scythia's Powers. Though, most admitted, she never flaunted them, and indeed used little in public save her healing.
In her favor, the girl had little of the look of her mother's kind, beyond the lighter coloring, the red-gold hair and the hazel eyes in place of the Nedaoan olive skin and brown hair. She was tall, but not as tall as the AEldra. And as to the Power, well, she had some of it, she was after all half AEldra. Fortunately, she seemed to have little skill and to take no interest in the witchery, though most of the Cityfolk were not certain her interest in weaponry was much improvement.
But if she ruled after Brandt, the first woman to do so since Leffna, 500 or more years before, she would need weaponry and battle knowledge. That was law, and had been inflexibly held to even during the Long Peace, 200 years before.
The swearing completed, most of those standing around the chill room went back to their own nervous conversations. The girl on the dais rubbed slender, capable hands down her dark robes, laid them across the King's shoulders. He then laid his own over them, smiled at her.
"Necessary, the swearing. You don't doubt that?"
"No." She didn't; Brandt knew his people well, and even though she'd spent long hours at his side, she still had much to learn before she could understand and act as well as her father did. "But that wasn't what I was going to say."
Brandt laughed briefly. "That again? We will not argue, Ylia. You are safest away from Koderra, and the only way to manage that is to put you on the Narran ship, Merman."
"But I can be of use—"
"None to Nedao or to me if you die here." That silenced her, briefly, though her eyes were still rebellious. "You are my only child, Ylia." A shadow darkened his eyes momentarily: Beredan. A man's sons were meant to survive him. I cannot let this child die as foolishly as Beredan did.
"If I were to command you—I seldom do that, daughter. But in this matter—" He paused. "It is that important to me, Ylia. Believe me. What we do here, I will do better if I know you are safe." His grip tightened on her hands. "Promise me." Silence. "Promise?" She closed her eyes, sighed in resignation.
"All right, Father. I swear," she said evenly, "to take great care, that no harm come to me, that I may have the ruling after you. A great," she added with a smile of her own, "many years hence."
The King wrapped an arm around her and caught her close. "I don't like the sound of that, my girl. You're too much like your mother, you trap me with words." He sighed. "But so long as you board the Merman this afternoon—swear you will, daughter."
"I swear," she whispered. And debark before she leaves harbor, she added firmly to herself. Brandt, she knew, had no inner skill to hear her; the only Power of any kind he had was a sense of when her mother was near, and that was love, not AEldra. She tamped carefully at the inner voice—Scythia could hear her, and she had been as determined as Brandt that their daughter flee with the Cityfolk. And then there was Nisana. But the cat was on her own errands at the moment and unlikely to have an inner ear to her thoughts.
But it was as though a command were laid upon her, as though the Mothers had set a new pattern in her weaving, that she must stay. She must!
Conversation ceased; a pathway opened as Grawn and his captain brought the Lord of Teshmor's son slowly toward the dais. "Oh, gods," Ylia whispered. "Father, it's Corry's son." She caught at cushions and a thick fur robe; Brandt was at his side as they lowered the boy gently onto the soft pile. Gors opened his eyes briefly, winced and cried out faintly as someone raised him sufficiently to help him swallow a little wine.
"Sire. Father—sends word. The Tehlatt have—our walls—have them surrounded." He frowned; hard to remember anything. He hurt, but that took no memory, that just was.
"If he asks aid—" Brandt began unhappily. Gors shook his head once, stopped abruptly as pain knifed through him, swallowed hard.
"No. No aid. Too late—and—not enough. He knows you've—no one—to spare. He said—" The boy swallowed again and was silent for so long they thought he had fainted.
"Get my Lady, find her," Brandt hissed to those behind him. My Scythia, the boy can't be beyond your skill. It seemed moments, it seemed hours, and the only sound, torn, pained breathing, too shallow to hold for long. And then a warmth ran across his inner being: Beloved. He knew, always, when she was near.
"—he said," Gors whispered, sharply catching at the King's attention again, "to tell you that. And—that he was sorry—" he gasped for air. Brandt brought him a little more upright. Scythia came across to the boy's other side. "—he couldn't be of—more aid."
"Sorry," Brandt whispered. Tears blurred his vision; he blinked them away. Boyhood friend. Corlin, how like you. But Gors—the boy sagged, closed his eyes. Scythia's pale, slender fingers stroked the hair back from his brow, baring an ugly cut that ran above his left ear, a blackened and swollen bruise over his left temple. "Rest, boy." Concerned, near-black eyes caught at and held his wife's. Scythia shook her head faintly, shrugged. Uncertain.
"I will try. But Nisana—I've sent for her. She's—We'll try." She glanced around the full chamber. "My Lords! I need quiet, either keep it or leave, I beg you. Lord Corlin's son is gravely injured." A strangled outcry from near the center of the dais. Scythia caught at it, pinned down the source with her wide-set dark-blue eyes. Her mental voice stabbed into her daughter's thought. 'Oh, no. Ylia, it's Lisabetha. By all the Nasath, why did no one think to remove her?'
'I—I didn't see her, Mother.' But as she stood, started toward the shaking girl, Ylia's youngest honor maiden, Gors' sister, fell senseless to the floor. The Queen's old nurse, Malaeth, dropped heavily to the girl's side. Scythia turned her full attention back to Gors.
Bad. A Nedaoan healer wouldn't waste his herbs and poultices on one so far gone; most AEldran healers wouldn't even attempt the task. The Nasath alone knew how he'd reached the City with such a blow to the head. And he'd lost blood—there were slashes through both sleeves, a deep cut in his right calf. She cast a swift, sidelong glance at her husband. His best friend's son, she couldn't let him die.
'Ylia.' The girl stirred as the inner speech once again touched her.
'He'll die if I wait for Nisana, you're the best I have. Join.' Color burned in the girl's face; she knelt reluctantly. 'But—Mother, I can't! Before all these people? And, you know how little aid I can be, he'll die anyway, if you—'
Scythia's mouth set in a hard line. 'He won't die, if we can help it! This is no time for argument, there's enough in you to back me, and there's no time to move him. Join!'
Her face a hot red, Ylia caught at her mother's free hand, closed her eyes, joined. Silence. She tried to concentrate on the healing itself, on Gors—on anything but the anxious, curious, staring people behind her, her own sense of inadequacy. That never helped, her mother told her so, often enough.
Warmth—she could sense the warmth surrounding her mother's hand, the chill of her own fingers as Scythia drew from her. And Gors—she could sense him, too. Odd. Most times she could not feel beyond the physical contact with her mother. Oh, Mothers, pain: it knifed at her; frantically, she tried to pull her thought away. But it was fading, already fading. The room blurred around her as Scythia dragged ruthlessly at her remaining strength. The boy sagged between them. Ylia felt herself toppling over the edge of a black pit and cried out. Hands caught at her shoulders, bit into muscle, dragged her back to the moment.
'M—mother?' Her vision was blurred. Mothers, I nearly followed him into death! Her mother's face swam before her; tears ran, unheeded, down both faces.
'Gone. I—there was nothing we could have done. We tried.' She shook herself, willed her daughter a burst of strength. 'No, I follow your thought—even if Nisana and my own father had been to my aid, he would have died.' "I am sorry, beloved," she added aloud as Brandt wrapped her fingers around a warmed wine cup. "He was beyond my reach."
"I—it's all right." He blinked tears away. "Ylia."
"Father?" Up. She was exhausted beyond bearing, but she had trained her body hard; it knew how to go on when the mind denied she could. One of the King's housemen steadied her, gave her wine. She sipped gratefully, dispelling the chill that still shrouded her thought.
"Go, finish your packing. The Narrans wait only for you and your ladies."
"I—yes. All right." She cast an unhappy glance at the still form on the fur, his face mercifully covered over, strode from the Reception, oblivious to the still-staring nobility who parted to let her through.
Scythia ran a tired hand across her brow. "She is still displeased, isn't she?"
"Yes." Brandt's arm tightened around her shoulders as she stood. "But she swore she would leave."
"Well, then." Scythia shook her head. "Something's wrong. But then, everything is, just now."
"If you would leave with her?"
"No, Brandt. We agreed not to speak of that further. I do not leave you, not in this life. Nor in any that may follow."
Brandt sighed, but let it rest. Impossible to argue with his AEldra wife when the matter was so important to her as this. And, in truth, he knew he felt exactly the same.
The child is a good child, for one human: brave like her father and as skilled, I swear by the One, as her mother, though she chooses as stubbornly as one of my kind to disbelieve. Half-blood! I, Nisana, am among the great wielders of the AEldra power, though my own blood has been cut more times than I can count. The Power is, that is all. And so she will learn.
The last boat sailed at dusk, oars splashing softly to guide it into the current. A triangular orange sail was hoisted awkwardly and the long pleasure craft, floating low in the water with its unaccustomed cargo, gathered speed and was gone. The Merman had left a long time since.
Ylia watched the River from a deserted upper chamber, a small black and orange cat against her arm. Nisana: Queen Scythia's cat. But also AEldra, and so more than simply cat.
"I will keep my promise." Ylia spoke softly, though the rooms had been deserted for nearly a hundred years; not even servants came to this particular tower, and most of them were hours since fled down-River, anyway.
'Hah. You promised to board the Narran ship and seek safety in Yls,' the cat's tart reply filled her mind, continued an argument started over an hour before when Nisana, alerted to the girl's presence, had come in search of her.
"I did not, most carefully," Ylia retorted. "Father named me heir, I accepted that as I must. Because Beredan gainsaid it by his death, five years ago." She swallowed; her brother's death had been so stupid! Useless, foolish and stupid! And it still hurt, even after so long a time. "I promised to use full safeguards. But I made no promise to remain on that ship!" She stared out the window. "You did not go, cat," she added pointedly.
'Because your mother did not,' Nisana replied. 'I do not leave Scythia ever, unless I must. I have not, since her mother commended her to me at her birth. I intend at the last to lead her from the City by the tunnel.' Her head moved against pliant fingers. 'Two would be better at that. If your father dies,' she added, with a cat's blunt lack of tact, 'she will not wish to leave.' Ylia closed her eyes, swallowed dread. 'I must go to learn what I can of the defenses,' Nisana added, 'and to see what aid I can give. Stay here.' She dropped lightly to the floor. 'Unlikely, with all that passes at present, Scythia will be aware of your presence.'
"No. I remained to aid also. And I will not hide behind what I have done; I am not ashamed of it."
Excerpted from To the Haunted Mountains by Ru Emerson. Copyright © 1987 Ru Emerson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 13, 2010
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