Read an Excerpt
Wheel of Stars
By Andre Norton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Andre Norton
All rights reserved.
Down in the pocket-sized strip of meadow the dawn wind was whirling leaves about. One fluttered up, to catch on the side of Gwennan's knitted cap. She pushed her chin deeper into the folds of her heavy scarf. Even this chill could be forgotten as she stood at last, half-wedged between the two rough stones, her attention fixed on a third and tallest one standing still higher on the mound, stark against the paling of the sky.
Simple formations of nature, these three? She grimaced behind her scarf half-mask and for the hundredth time—the thousandth—denied that to herself. Would it happen as she had hoped—could it so happen again? She was as certain of what she had caught a faint glimpse of three weeks ago at this same hour as she was that she stood now in this place.
The books — how she had combed books, studied the speculations of those who had been laughed at, derided, even persecuted in their time by "authorities" who held tightly to accepted views because the foundation of their own scholarship was based on conventional accepted—accepted what?—merely more speculations if one dug deep enough and far enough.
Now! The light—it was right—as it encased the tall stone and—
Gwennan could have cried out. Perhaps she did croak hoarsely into the folds of her scarf. Her impression had not been imagination. There were those scratches along the pillar of stone, far too regular to be any freak of nature, too strange to be—what? Only in the half light, at this hour had she been able to see them. Were she to go forward now and strip off her mitten, run fingertips down that surface, could she also feel what her straining eyes told her were there?
To think so was the beginning of action. Her bare flesh shrank from the cold but she did not care. She touched—and then jerked away. It had been instinctive, that withdrawal, after the sensation of feeling something which was not of the rock, not born of the chill of air—not of—
She touched again. The oddness was gone. Just as ripples spreading from a pebble dropped into a pool were quickly spent. Now she strove to trace those lines. Ogham? That forgotten tongue written in scratches carefully placed above or below a line, or runes with their sharp angles? She had searched the books. No, those marks she saw—had seen (already they were fast being lost into the stone's secret, hidden by the change of light) were nothing she could identify.
Only she had seen them. They had been there! She would come again and again—Trespassing? Gwennan looked beyond the upstanding fang of rock to the woods below. There among the trees showed a slanting roof, as grey and grim—and seemingly near as old as these three pillars of stone.
She was, Gwennan assured herself fiercely (striving to hide her disappointment that the moment of revelation had again been so brief), doing no harm. The custom of nearly three hundred years as far as the town was concerned, made this untouched, untrodden land for the villagers. Yet no one had ever said in so many words, that the battered stone wall bordering the lane protected a forbidden territory.
Being born of the town, accepting as the town accepted, she had not realized for years how strange was the history of the valley. Not just because of these stones which had drawn her from the first time she had sighted them, but also because of Lyle House.
Back in 1730, when the first of the settlers from the coast pushed up the White River, away from the sea lands with their storms and bleak winds, hunting better fanning—Lyle House had already stood here. Who built it and when? If any of the newcomers had asked that they had quickly set bonds on their curiosity.
For here were the Lyles already in residence, with them a handful of Indians, also a score perhaps of dark-skinned servants of another race—silent, never mingling with the newcomers. Yet the Lyle of that day who had been master had done nothing to forbid settlers. In fact, from time to time, help had come from those grey walls to strengthen not only the small beginnings of a town but to aid separate individuals.
Gwennan's school had taught the old conventional myth of Columbus and his famed discovery in its approved history books. Only in the present day men knew more. Before that Italian adventurer had taken sail there had been hardy fishermen from England trolling along the coast, venturing ashore to dry their catch before going home, keeping a careful secret of the rich waters. There were the longboat people, too. No longer could their visits be denied when a village of theirs had been recently uncovered. Before them—who else?
What of the ruins in New Hampshire—the many "root cellars" dug, walled with stone, carefully constructed — used by encroaching later settlers for the prosaic service which now gave them their name? All that had been found then had been ascribed to Indians. Those identifying the remains never attempted to explain why nomad hunters built walls of stone and shelters of a strange form when they themselves dwelt in short held camps.
Who were the Lyles and why had they found their way here? There were the legends of a pirate who had brought upriver his treasure and the remnants of his outland crew to found a small kingdom. But, however they had first come, they were a part of this land in a way that the later settlers quickly grasped and did not openly question. It was also true that the town and the outlying farms were never raided during the Indian wars, that certain of the Indians themselves had, on occasion, taken refuge with the Lyles. War had not come here—only modest prosperity. There was a mill built with Lyle gold—and oddly enough also a school, concerning which the Lyles had made only one stipulation, strange for those days, that the daughters of each household share equally with the sons in any learning dispensed there. Still, any influence the family might have exerted was always indirect—they did nothing to alter the ways of life the townspeople had brought with them.
Often, too, during the succeeding years, the big house was empty, save for that small core of servants (who apparently married to provide future generations to take up their duties as their elders aged and died). The ruling Lyle might disappear for a space. Sometimes there would come the news that there had been a death abroad. Sooner or later another member of their silent clan would arrive, to competently take his or her place, and life would continue as it always had. It was a woman who was the Lyle now. Gwennan had seen her only recently in person.
They called her, after the fashion which had come down from the first settlers and which the townspeople now found so familiar that they never questioned the oddness of such a title in this most plain-speaking of countries, Lady Lyle. There had never been any children known in residence at Lyle House, any marriages and families which might ensue were always in foreign parts. However, it was well known that each new head of the house in features and bearing resembled closely the one he or she succeeded. The family bred very true.
Gwennan had only lately begun to wonder at the minor mystery—how a family who had dominated the land for so long had also managed to efface themselves so thoroughly. She had been completely fascinated by Lady Lyle. In the first place, she herself had never met another woman who matched that gangling height which made her so self-conscious all her life.
She, herself, had always topped all her contemporaries at school and hated her own thin stretch of body. But Lady Lyle was a proud forest pine of a woman, with a great white braid wound around her head—forming so massive a crown of hair that she could never wear more than a knotted scarf to cover it. She walked with a presence such as Gwennan imagined a queen regent might have displayed in those other days when royalty ruled instead of reigned.
Though Gwennan had little in her own narrow life to give her any standard of judgment. As Nessa Daggert's niece her social life had been very meager. Any widening of physical horizons had been strictly curtailed. Miss Nessa had headed the town library, her whole life centered upon her duties there. She had taken Gwennan (very reluctantly, but from the strict sense of inbred duty, upon the death of her young and footloose, wandering parents) to raise. By town standards she had done her best for the child—adequate, if plain, food, clothing which was fashioned according to Miss Nessa's standards of what was fit, and the instilling of a moral code which was already being challenged by the outside world, made the sum of her contributions.
There had been no college for Gwennan. By the time she graduated from high school (and she had not been counted in any way a scholar since she was apt only to apply herself to subjects in which she was interested and to let the rest slide by), Miss Nessa was already prey to the wasting disease to which she refused to surrender. She determined to hold the reins of her small place in the world until the end and Gwennan became, as a matter of course, her hands and feet, her ears and eyes.
There had been no desire for rebellion on the girl's part. Not only had duty been well established as a motif of life, but she had come to really fear anything beyond the narrow round of her own days. She had always been a social misfit, and secretly she had found her inner escape—books.
There was a drive in her, she had begun to realize that. Though as yet it was formless. She read — how she read — history, reports of archaeological discoveries, everything concerning strange finds which could not be fitted into the accepted pattern vouched for by the experts. Oddly enough Gwennan had never been stimulated to try and fit herself to become one of the seekers of the unknown. Perhaps she questioned too much accepted theories. But, though outwardly she was Miss Nessa's dutiful niece and willing assistant, inwardly she measured, questioned, sought.
Once she had dreamed. This morning here, between the stones, memories of those dreams stirred faintly. She thrust them fiercely aside. When she had been quite young she believed everyone "dreamed real" and she had talked freely—only to be accused of telling lies, until she realized the danger of strangeness, and readily agreed that she had "made up" this adventure or that.
Not since her early teens had the dreams come, and, in the end, she had been glad. For the latter ones had been of nightmare quality producing fear which terrorized her until she had built a wall against them.
When Miss Nessa had died two years ago she had left Gwennan her house, a very minute sum in the bank (for in spite of her Spartan fight, the illness had eaten up much of what she had stored with strict economy) and her place in the library. The town, having been used so long to have Gwennan deputize for Miss Nessa, simply voted her on into that position. The only change in her life had been that her salary was a fraction higher and she was thus enabled to add to her precious collection of books.
Full daylight had arrived to bathe the stone and hide the marks. Gwennan pulled on her mitten and turned—to freeze. She was no longer alone.
The man who approached so silently had not climbed the mound, rather stood at its foot, gazing somberly up at her. He was tall—and he was a Lyle! His face carried Lady Lyle's features—bolder, harsher, more hawklike—still with the family signature plain to read.
In spite of the cold his head was bare, inclined backwards a little to better watch her from beneath half-closed eyelids. The hair, above skin so weathered that even in this season it was still brown, was a thick cap, golden bright even in this early light, cropped shorter than was the custom at present.
Those eyes so intent upon her were of the same brilliant, gem blue as Lady Lyle's. Gwennan shifted her feet uncomfortably. She was a trespasser, and dealing with a Lyle on his own ground was a little daunting.
"Who are you?" His demand came bluntly.
Gwennan refused to yield to her own uneasiness. Instead she moved away from the rock pinnacles.
"Gwennan Daggert." Her name would probably mean nothing at all to him—she was trying to think of an excuse to offer for being here. To betray her secret was more than she would ever do.
"Gwennan Daggert," he repeated. "And what brings you here, Gwennan Daggert?" Now his eyelids lifted as he favored her with an insolent, challenging stare. Perhaps he had every right to do so.
"Chance —" She could not seem to think fast enough.
He laughed. "Chance?" His head moved slowly from side to side in negation of her lie. Yet there was another change in his expression, as if a shadow had drifted away to reveal him more completely. There was a difference which she sensed, a kind of raillery, as if he held her so stupid he could coax her into other lies.
Gwennan was surprised at her own idea. Having had so very little contact with young men, she could believe that her social ineptitude might well betray her into the wrong guesses of the meaning of a lift of brow, the slight movement of those firm, rather narrow lips which were now shaping a smile she did not like.
In fact she found the whole man disturbing. This was like being confronted by a person who—Gwennan gave up. She had no time to search for small shades of strange emotions. Instead she wanted to get away—to be free and alone, out of the presence of this unknown Lyle.
As she reached the foot of the mound she discovered she must again look up to meet his eyes. Tall as was Lady Lyle, this man of her family was even taller. For the first time in her life Gwennan felt oddly small, somehow fleetingly like another person—as if this was a shadow of another meeting with one in complete command so purposefully disturbing. Approaching him she felt she was closing in upon something, in its way, as strange and hidden as the stone which had drawn and centered all her innermost curiosity for so long. Yet this was a man—flesh and blood, standing very much at his ease.
"Gwennan Daggert." Again he spoke her name, only something in the sound of those two words was not right. The girl felt as if he spoke them in another language, accented them wrong—was trying so to—She shook her head at such a fantasy, or thought that she did.
"You are addicted to dawn walks, then?" His mocking smile grew more pronounced. "Even in this weather?" Now he gave an exaggerated shiver. "You are a hardy people, of course, you Downeasterners."
Gwennan possessed firm self control once more—safely back in the mold Miss Nessa had formed. "We tend to be." She had, she hoped, mastered any sign of that momentary uneasiness which had troubled her. "If I wish to walk it must be early in the day. I have a job." She held up her wrist, peeled back the cuff of her mitten to consult her watch, "and —"
His brows, several shades darker than the hair, which was more and more impossibly golden as the sun began its slow rise, lifted a fraction. "What kind of a job which begins at this hour? It is not too far past dawn ---"
"Late enough for me to be on my way." Her reply was short, curt. She might be unduly rude but she could no longer control that shadowy emotion she did not understand. The uneasiness which spread from him to lap about her grew ever stronger. That there was a second Lyle, unknown to the town, was strange in itself. There had never been any talk of Lady Lyle's having a son—or was this man within the age range to be her son? Gwennan thought she was no good judge of that.
A strange Lyle—still that mere fact should not produce such a feeling in her. One of—fear? What had she to be truly afraid of? She trespassed here, that was true. However, merely walking across a field to watch the sun rise between three stones—that was no crime. She had disturbed nothing, done nothing. Why did she feel guilty, threatened—as if he had some good reason to mistrust her?
"To where?" Still he smiled.
Excerpted from Wheel of Stars by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1983 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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