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Margot hated feasts. The laughter was loud. The smoke from the men’s pipes and the hearth’s fire was thick, as was the sweaty smell from all the people pressed together: women in their tight bodices and flared skirts, men in their long tunics and greased boots. She had lords with wind rough, familiar faces, though she couldn’t remember their names, at both elbows. They had to sit too close to her on the bench, and their trenchers touched the sides of hers on the hewn log table.
A summer shower had started as the bell rang the call to sit. She’d rather be out in it, head tilted back. She wanted to feel the raindrops running down her hair and neck. She couldn’t go now, though. Her father would notice.
She didn’t want to give him any reason to watch her more closely, or to suspect she was thinking of running away. Besides that, dark had fallen and demon spirits would be prowling. They came from their secret paths, which led from their kingdom deep underground. Or they emerged from the abandoned buildings they’d taken as their own. The walls around the castle were supposed to protect it, the village, the gardens, and the lake.
People ruined bits of the wall, however, to let demon spirits in and get forbidden magics as payment. Margot watched the broadest holy man; taking care not to drip on his feasting robe, he piled his trencher high. Maybe if he and the others ate a little less, they’d be able to fix the wall more quickly.
One of the lords beside Margot started talking. “Don’t you like this roast? It’s very good.” His sparse beard and mustache framed a smile. He started to pick at his teeth with his knife. He looked like one of the hill lords, that’s why he seemed familiar. “Could I get you some more?” He was probably a younger son who’d never left his family lands before; he didn’t know who she was yet.
Not another one. “I don’t feel hungry,” answered Margot, rudely looking at her cup instead of at him.
“Where do you think King Philip found this fine roast?” asked the lord. On a cow, Margot was tempted to answer but she didn't want to encourage him to say anything else. “So. I bet you have to keep your fair face out of the sun,” the lord went on. He didn’t seem to care if she answered or not. “You must be from the northlands.” He reached in front of her to grab the wine pitcher. “Would you like some more?” Without waiting for a response, he filled her glass.
Margot drummed her fingers on the table. They were as white as goat cheese, like her face and all the rest of her, except her black hair and eyes. Their paleness wasn’t good for much, except maybe driving away annoying lords. “No, my mother was from the Western Isles.” The lord set down the pitcher with a thump but instead of suddenly pretending she didn’t exist, he squinted at her. “You must the oldest daughter. The princess of this land.” Of this land. The words pricked hard and painful into Margot, and she wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
She’d lived here all her fifteen years but she wasn’t really of this land; this land didn’t want her. “I’m the king’s daughter,” she answered in a tone that was meant to end the conversation.
“You mean you didn’t realize you had the pleasure of sitting next to our eldest princess?” asked one of Margot’s cousins, Isabeau, from the lord’s other side. Margot ripped the thick crust from her bread. She pretended not to notice Isabeau or the other cousins, who leaned forward to stare and giggle. She put the bread’s soft center in her mouth. It was dry and tasteless. “No, I didn’t,” said the lord, giving Margot a smirk. “Why not explain, Princess Margot?” Isabeau said, pushing her braid over her shoulder. She smiled like a cat that’s got at the cream. “We’d all love to hear you talk about your mother’s family.” “I’m finished.” Margot rose from the bench, accidentally knocking the lord with her elbow. He bumped against Isabeau. Isabeau upset her glass. Water spilled over the table’s red feast cloth, and the front of Isabeau’s finely woven, blue dress. “Don’t you ever feel any shame? How can you use water magics in the feasting hall?” snapped Isabeau.
The cousins sitting around Isabeau went suddenly silent, their perfect almond-shaped eyes all fixed on Margot. The lord shifted away from her. Margot felt her face growing splotchy red with outrage. “I knocked into the lord,” Margot retorted. “That’s all I did.” The cousin nearest Isabeau shook her head, unbelieving. Suddenly Isabeau laughed. She turned to the lord. “We can’t let Princess Margot near waater. Her mother was from the Western Isles. Even the ‘highest born’ there are all tainted by base fortunetelling magic. They use it instead of hide it. A strange kind of nobility, don’t you think?” The cousins started giggling again. The lord snorted..... They all turned from Margot, leaving her standing alone and apart, facing their backs. Dismissed. Then they leaned together and started to speak of weak love potions and reading unlikely futures in water dishes, as well as fortunetellers’ other pastimes. Ignorant asses, Margot wanted to yell.
Instead she stalked off, pushing through a tangle of drunken lords. If she insisted that knowing and understanding water had nothing to do with fortunetelling magic, she’d only get stares and scorn. Her father would glare because she wasn’t sitting quiet and drab like a rock on the ground. His present wife would give her one of those impatient sideways glances; Belinde sneered at her ‘base blood’ but often seemed just as annoyed that she couldn’t appear to obey while still doing what she wished, as Belinde always did. The holy men would waggle their jowls and explain that they’d tried to train her but she wouldn’t learn to ignore the base magic in her blood. Others would whisper about her mother, starting off with the lie: I don’t like to speak poorly of the dead. No one here knew anything. Faces looked briefly at her as she passed. She didn’t stop to talk. None of them felt a thrill when the rain came down or the lake rolled and heaved in a storm. Very few had any desire to go west and stand near the greatest water of all, the Sea. If Margot hadn’t found the book that had once been her mother’s, she’d probably believe she was tainted with base magic, or had gone mad. But she was neither.
Margot walked faster.
She broke away from the crowded tables and went to stand in an empty corner, despite the drafts.
Leaning against a wall hanging, she wished she could step back through the hanging and the stone wall, out. She was shut in, though. She had to stay trapped with these guests, her tall bearded father, and Belinde.
They stood together. Belinde, her belly large and round from the baby she carried, was calm and graceful as she directed scrubs with platters. She was also smiling, but Margot had once overheard her say, privately to the scrub she’d brought here, that she missed the northern city and northern kingdom she’d come from.
That land’s king had been married, though, and Belinde had wanted to be a queen. Margot’s father had wanted a new beautiful well-dowered wife. So, here she was. Margot had already watched her father put two wives and a daughter aside. He’d sent them to live with cousins or friends. Belinde seemed certain that even if she birthed a daughter, she wouldn’t have to go. Or, if she was worried, she never showed it. Margot didn’t always like Belinde, who understood nothing about water. But there were moments when the queen seemed to be trying to teach her how to always both charm and get her way. And there were moments when Margot wanted to learn from her.
Margot, however, wasn’t certain Belinde would get her way, in the end. Though, the king had given in about buying her a newer faster horse, he probably wouldn't about an heir. He smiled and laughed as Belinde touched his arm, but Margot wasn’t fooled. He wasn’t simply enjoying himself. He was also scheming, as always, thinking of ensuring an heir and building strong alliances. His one impulsive moment, he told anyone and everyone, had been to marry Margot’s mother because of her lovely eyes and hair. Neither, he let everyone know, had made up for the small dowry the Western Isle nobility could afford, or the base magic in her blood. He was proud to say he’d never been impulsive again. Margot hunched when he looked her way, hiding behind wide Merchant Blaas. She avoided her father when possible; unlike Belinde and the other wives, she wanted no part in his scheming. A rhythmic clapping started. Voices shushed each other. A story, her father had called for a story.
People jostled, making a wide space around the hearth for the storyteller. Margot climbed up next to Merchant Blaas’s daughters, who stood on a bench. At least this would be exciting or funny. She wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, and no one would talk to her.
The clapping stopped. A man walked forward to the hearth. It wasn’t the storyteller who wintered here; he’d left to travel for the summer as all of his kind did. It was another of the land’s five best tale tellers, the one who wintered at the hill lords’ castles.
He wore his black cloak with its edging of red marnloy feathers. Underneath was his tunic, which was half black, half white. His loose trousers were black and white as well, but on opposite sides. He had a full beard and a homely face. He quickly hunched and leered at the crowd. A couple of small children shrieked, then laughed. He rolled his eyes and stomped his feet so they laughed harder. Margot laughed too. “A tale of Gwist the tricky fool, Highness?” he asked. “My queen will choose,” came Margot’s father’s voice. “What do you say, Belinde?” “I’d like Rosalind and the Pig’s Head,” the queen answered. Margot grinned. Belinde picked good stories.
The storyteller straightened. His homely face became proud, heroic. “A very fine choice,” he said.
He gave a low graceful bow.
Then he opened his arms. Everyone fell silent. Careful to be quiet, Margot shifted so she could see better.
The storyteller’s fingertips started glowing with the pale yellow light of magic. The light spread down his arms like vines growing fast. It wrapped around him and became an illusion. He was Rosalind. She wore a draping gown of pale red, and her brown hair hung to her knees. Her face was clever and merry. To Margot, everyone else seemed hazy and indistinct. Rosalind was real.
The third daughter of the strongest chieftain was clever fair Rosalind, But her father heard that one man would take from him his place as chieftain would cast him down: the man who married Rosalind.
He took her to his brother, a trader in forbidden magics, who made her fair face, her fair hair disappear.
In its place was the head of a pig.
Rosalind’s face stretched. Her eyes shrunk. Her hair disappeared. Her nose lengthened and fattened into a snout. She cried and raged. Margot winced. The cries were hard to listen to.
Then Rosalind left her father. The holy men could do nothing but tell her she’d have to wed to break the spell. So, she looked in cities and in countrysides for a man she could marry.
While her gown faded and tore, her boots wore thin and cracked. Then, in a field, on a sunny day, she met a man who stopped his hunting to talk to her, Gregoire.
Each day, he’d say he’d not come back.
But then he returned and lingered and laughed with her.
Until one day he had too much game to carry home.
“I don’t like to leave my catch behind,” he said.
“I’ll take a bundle for you if you wish,” she said.
They walked in the hot sun together, until they had to stop to sit and rest beside the path.
And Gregoire saw that her hands were very lovely, as were her ankles, and the shape of her, beneath her gown.
“Besides your pig’s head,” he said, “You’re the fairest woman I’ve ever seen.” “When I marry, the pig’s head will disappear,” she answered.
“The spell cast by my uncle will break, “And the face I had, my face, will return.” “If that’s so,” he said, “And if you’ll have me, “I’ll rid you of that pig’s head as soon as I am able.”
It felt like moths were fluttering in Margot’s chest, wings brushing against each other and her ribs. The spell was almost broken. Gregoire and Rosalind went to a holy man who performed the rites and bound their wedding bands to their fingers. Then Rosalind stepped forward. The wings in Margot beat harder. Rosalind’s head, the pig’s head, began to narrow and shrink. The snout and jowls became a woman’s clever merry face. The squinty eyes grew larger and almond-shaped. Brown wavy hair flowed over her shoulders. Rosalind laughed. Margot laughed too.
There were other sounds, cheering, far away. Only Rosalind’s triumphant laughter ringing out with Margot’s was loud and real.
Gregoire fought Rosalind’s father and won. He and Rosalind ruled the land. “And if they’d lived forever, they’d be with us still.” Rosalind curtseyed, laughing again. Then Rosalind faded.
A man, the storyteller, stood where she’d been. Another man stepped into the space cleared around the storyteller, a tall bearded man in a rich blue tunic, Margot’s father.
Margot’s grin melted away. The king had an arm around Belinde, whose jeweled combs glinted in her hair. They praised the tale teller. The merchant’s daughters standing beside Margot on the bench whispered. Margot could hear snatches of conversation from the cousins and the aunts and uncles. She could smell their sweat or the flower scents they used. Why couldn’t they have faded instead of Rosalind?
Margot’s father still had a protective arm around Belinde, but he’d most likely put her aside as quickly as he'd put aside any other. He might like a love story, but he’d place Margot in any advantageous match, advantageous for him. He’d even arrange a barren match, one made for alliance only, not love at all. Margot leaned against the wall behind her; people pitied women in barren matches, or laughed at them. She pressed hard against the solid unyielding stones. If she were water, she’d run out through the cracks that let in the drafts. Then she’d be free.
Margot left the feast earlier than almost anyone else. She went through the entrance hall's side door.
She then started down the steps to the holy men’s stone paved tunnels with defiant pleasure: girls were forbidden to walk dark remote places alone. Demon spirits wanted to rule not just their realms deep under the ground but also the god’s realms beyond the clouds, and human lands, too. They used their magics to burrow up from down deep in the earth. They made doorways in lonely roads, alleys, and underground walkways. Then they took over abandoned houses and enslaved people and animals. Demon spirits were rarely found in the holy men’s tunnels, though. The holy men walked through often, easily noticed any weakening spells, and fixed them. Men and even older boys walked here alone all the time. These men weren’t just herbalists and storytellers, whose magics gave a little protection from demon spirits. They were also scrubs or lords, any men. Woman minstrels, however, weren’t allowed alone in the tunnels though they had magics like those the herbalists and storytellers had. Margot had overheard Belinde say that women could walk alone in the city she’d come from. The king and holy men there thought it safe. Margot’s father had said, teasing, that that was what was one of her city's flaws. Margot hadn’t heard the rest of the discussion. She did, though, keep a list in her head of rules that made little sense or were not the same everywhere. These rules were proof that holy men could be wrong about all kinds of things, not just her. She walked along the stone path. Dim lanterns lit her way. The click of her wooden boot heels echoed eerily, and she caught herself glancing sideways into the shadows. She thought of demon spirits. They had beautiful faces and a boggy rotting stench that she’d never seen or smelled but knew to run from. It was stupid to feel so jittery. No demon spirit had ever appeared in a holy man tunnel. Just because she was a girl didn’t mean they would.
She stopped looking into the shadows and, finally, exited the passageway when she reached the small, wooden, tunnel shed. The libaria, the eating hall, and all the other houses that made up the holy men’s draelan were quiet and dark. She tramped through the vegetable garden, wet from the rain she’d missed standing in. At the garden’s end she avoided the path to the cairns, where the holy men waited for rare visits and advice from the god’s spirits. She made her way to one of the squat guest houses. The door creaked as she stepped into the house’s one cramped room. It had a narrow bed and a simple bench and table. She had to sleep in this room for a few nights while important cousins stayed in her room. She didn’t mind. A fire in the hearth already warmed it, and she suddenly felt twelve instead of fifteen. For a year, she’d lived in a house like this one; an earlier of her father’s wives had thought ‘it would be best.’ The wife had wanted the holy men to spend more time teaching her to stop acting like a fortuneteller’s daughter. Belinde had brought her back to the castle. The new queen wanted her nearby to more easily find her a husband. As her father did.
She stirred the coals and got into the narrow bed. Then she reached under her pillows, defiant pleasure rising in her again. She pulled out the most precious of all her possessions: a book the length and width of one hand span. She lifted it to her nose and breathed in deeply. It should have smelled of leather and vellum, but it didn’t and never had. It smelled as the Sea must smell, of water-drenched wind and inexplicable wildness. When she lowered it from her face, she could taste salt on her tongue.
With one finger, Margot traced the embossed words on the cover. The letters were shaped unlike any others she’d ever seen, full of odd twists and curls. They spelled The Book of the Sea. Slowly, reverently, she opened the book. On the first page, in angular cramped letters, was a name - Maira Alys of Isles of Pristanne - Margot’s mother. Above this name, were others - Tegwen Lassair of Isles, Ariana Elin of Isles. Margot ran her fingertip over them, as if her skin would soak up their meaning. Were they grandmothers, aunts, cousins? No family members from the Western Isles had come to her mother’s funeral. None had ever written or visited. Her father refused to speak of his dead queen’s family. Except for this book, it was as if her mother had come from no one and nowhere.
Margot was lucky even to have the book.
When she was three and her mother had recently died, she’d once been left alone near a box of leftover odds and ends. She’d seen the book lying on top as if it had been flung in. She’d taken it and pressed it against her face. Its smell had been like her mother’s. Hugging it close, she had wandered back to her nursery. She remembered how she’d lain on her favorite soft blanket, curled around the book.
Its own kind of magic had kept it hidden from her various nursescrubs. When she was a child, she’d often found it put away, leaning next to the one other book on her shelf.
It had looked very strange and out of place, to her, next to the small bright book that had family history verses in it. No one else had seemed to notice, though. She had thought it her secret friend, as a child. Now she knew that only girls who apprenticed to minstrels used or touched magic, so she helped it stay hidden. The holy men would take it if they knew about it. It wasn’t theirs to have.
Margot began to turn the pages. Each first letter on each page was large with intricate patterns. J’s had the shape of creatures with horses’ heads and fish bodies. W’s looked like water pushed and pulled in a storm. Letters sat together, each one curling and arching unfamiliarly but still full of meaning: whirlpool, reef, current, tide.
No words or pictures had anything to do with fortunetelling or love potions, thievery or trickery. They told of Sea animals and plants. They described how the seasons changed the water. They explained what lived in the shallow and deep pools. Margot bent over the book, her cheek against her hand.
The pull of the words caught her up and carried her away.
The flame flickered. Startled, Margot looked up. The candle had burned down to a nub. She closed the book and rubbed her aching eyes. The light would be gone soon, but she flipped to the book’s last several pages. The writing changed. The letters were angular and pushed close together. This was her mother’s writing.
Margot read of the waters her mother had found around this castle and land, Pristanne. She seemed to have loved Pristanne’s small merry rivers and the wide placid lake outside the castle gardens. Then Margot wrapped her arms tight around herself and read:
I need to go home to the Sea. The air isn’t the same here. It’s so dull and dry. My lungs only half fill, and then I hack and choke. I need to sit and breath air that’s thick with water.
Philip, I think, finally understands that I have to go, and that I’ll come back.
I’ll take little Margot. She’ll love the Sea. I know she will. We’ll leave soon, when spring comes.
Margot closed the book and tucked it under her pillow. Her mother hadn’t reached the Sea again. She’d died that spring of a sickness in her lungs. Margot had been so close to going to a place where no one would scorn her. She pulled up her knees and rested her forehead on them. Her mother was gone, but out beyond the mountains were the lands near the Sea, the westlands. Beyond them were the Western Isles and her mother’s family or, at least, people like her.
Both were far, a long dangerous journey away. To travel to them, she needed gold she didn’t have, to pay a holy man to protect her from demon spirits. Even if she had the gold, she didn’t know any holy man who would help her run away. Traveling alone would be difficult, impossible.
Animal sounds a long way off made her look to the small window and its barred shutter. Outside, many feral cries shrieked and ululated. It was probably just a pack of wild dogs. It could be demon spirits, though, triumphing over a capture or sounding a challenge. If they were calling a challenge, it wasn’t for her. But the cries seemed like they were taunting her.
You’re too scared. You won’t run. They were wrong. She went to the window, unbarred the shutter and opened it a crack. She stared at the night-shrouded path. She couldn’t see any creatures, spirit or otherwise, but she felt she was staring something down. She’d run. Soon.
Copyright © 2006 by Laura Williams McCaffrey. Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.