For as long as he can remember, Heriot Tarbas has been plagued with fits, headaches, dreams, and nightmares that make him feel as if a part of his very self is being torn away. His visions are only whispered about in his quiet life on the family farm. But when the King of Hoad hears word of his powers and seeks him out to be a member of the royal court, it becomes clear that Heriot has a gift, and a valuable one. While Heriot unwillingly learns to use his mind-reading and other abilities to serve the king as his most trusted advisor, four remarkably different lives—that of a Hero, a Magician, a noble girl, and a Prince—weave their way, for better or for worse, toward his. When their paths finally converge in the midst of political upheaval, hand-to-hand battles, and burgeoning romances, Heriot must decide how he’ll choose to use his magic—and what his destiny will be.
With a complex cast of characters set against a majestic land, award-winning author Margaret Mahy weaves her magic in a fantastical tale exploring the meaning of truth, freedom, and loyalty to one’s greater destiny.
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THE MAGICIAN OF HOAD AMONG THE LIONS
Among the ruins, late cabbages, carrots, and turnips grew in straight lines, overlooked by five lions with scrolled manes and smiling faces. Earlier in the year these lions had worn wigs of green leaves and scarlet flowers, but now the bean stems were brittle, and the flowers were gone. All that remained were large, dry pods rattling with the seeds of next year’s crop and a few tattered leaves.
It was autumn but the gardener was still working up and down between his remaining rows of plants, his bare back shining like copper in the autumn sunlight, his long black hair tied back with a plaited ribbon of flax. As he worked he whispered under his breath, smiling into the crumbling soil. His name was Heriot Tarbas and he was twelve years old.
As he worked he sang a little, then whispered again, happy at home on his farm, in his own place, among his own people. During the last three years the catastrophic headaches and the twisting fits that had marked his entire childhood had become much rarer. Of course the dreams hung on. He still dreamed that dream—the one in which he found himself sitting on the wide windowsill of an alien building, looking in at a boy several years older than he was and sending in an urgent message: “Know me! Know me. I’ll protect you until then, but you have to recognize me when the time comes. Then it’ll be your job to save me. I’ll need you and you’ll need me.” That dream, along with other less defined ones, certainly hung on, but at least he was growing out of the old feeling that something ravenous was feeding on him and tearing him into two. Perhaps, in time, the dreams would fade and disappear and he would become an ordinary man like his brother and cousins, just as hairy and just as strong.
A farm cat stalked toward him, sniffing at the freshly turned earth, and Heriot scooped it up, scratching it under the chin and staring deeply into its yellowish eyes, and as he did, someone said his name inquiringly, so he grew immediately quiet, anxious that his private conversations with cats and gardens shouldn’t be overheard.
His older sister, Baba, was looking over the wall behind him. Heriot looked back cautiously. Since she had grown up and been pulled in from the fields to work in the kitchen and dairy, she always seemed to be blaming him for something. But on this occasion at least, she was excited and cheerful.
Heriot had one particular eye—his left eye—that he called his puzzled eye. It didn’t always see straight. Now he covered it with his left hand and stared back at his sister, knowing she had come into the garden to tell him something exciting.
“The Travelers have arrived,” she announced. “Old Jen sent me to bring you in. But don’t think you’re getting out of work. You’ll be given some other job, that’s all.”
She grinned and vanished. Heriot cleaned his spade and hoe, then set off down the path that led from the garden to the walled courtyard of his sprawling home. He and his mother, the family herb woman, had planted ferns around the outside of the courtyard wall to keep witches at bay, interspersing them with daisies, well-known sun signs, now working their way into a prodigal autumn flowering.
The house had been built within the walls of a ruined castle, but these days it seemed to have become part of the castle, growing naturally out of the stone shell, for any of the first rooms that were still intact were either lived in or used for storage. Beyond those original, uneven walls, built of huge blocks of stone, Heriot could glimpse a dairy and an old barn, alongside the roof of a new one. Then, beyond all those roofs and walls, broad fields sloped upward, patching the hillside until, toward the top, the hill shrugged itself casually out of the farm’s control. From the very top of the hill the black rock Draevo, though eyeless, looked back at Heriot darkly, just as it had looked at him ever since he could remember.
Once or twice a year the Travelers would arrive in wagons painted all over with stiff, angular figures whose significances were forgotten, with star patterns, histories, and emblems, until it seemed that mere horses must find it impossibly heavy to pull so much art from one side of Hoad to the other. Looking at these designs, Heriot found himself believing that, beyond the farm, the world lost its reality.
Of course the farm was real—there was no doubt about that. Then beyond the farm lay other farms, mostly undivided by walls and hedges, and then a village, while on the other side of that line of hills was the sea and the dark shape of an island—Cassio’s Island, connected to the mainland by an amazing causeway three leagues long. But after that there was nothing for Heriot but dim space and echoing, meaningless names. To the north lay Diamond, the King’s city, and to the west lay Bucazaz, the inner plain where, years ago, his father had died in the King’s wars. At this very moment, Heriot vaguely knew, leaders and generals, even the King and his three sons, had gathered together along with their enemies, the Dukes of the Dannorad, and were negotiating to end such wars forever.
Beyond Bucazaz lay Cordandeygo and Rous Barnet (the city among the mountains). These were all a part of the land of Hoad, and where Hoad ended, across the mountains or the sea, other lands took over... the Dannorad, Camp Hyot, the Islands. The countries were described in books and pinned down with those meaningless names. All Heriot could picture was a mist in which those names came and went, undulating like dreaming fish.
THE MAGICIAN OF HOAD A COURTYARD FULL OF WOMEN
When he came through the gate, Heriot found the kitchen courtyard was full of women, but that did not surprise him. During the terrible wars vaguely called “history” in which Hoad and its neighbors, the Dannorad and Camp Hyot, had advanced, clashed with one another, and retreated bleeding, Heriot’s family had lost most of its men. His cousin Nesbit, a survivor of the last battle, was the farm’s oldest man at thirty. On this occasion, however, the courtyard was not altogether without other men. Heriot could see a very small male cousin, a baby in his mother’s arms, and the Traveler men, along with a tomcat so sure of himself he had stayed behind to watch the visitors after other cats had fled. Strange and glittering in the sunlight, the Traveler men wore padded jackets and round hats made either of sheepskin or quilted silk, hung with enameled beads and tin charms, clothes more suitable to the mountains they had crossed two weeks earlier than to the plains. Around their strong throats hung chains, strung with mirrors the size of coins, beads of agate, carnelian, and tiny irregular fragments of lapis lazuli.
Great-Great-Aunt Jen stood among them, pointing and gesticulating. A cap with flaps coming down over her ears covered her gray hair, while her calm face, as round as a loaf of bread, brown and crusty, too, wore the expression of someone utterly accustomed to obedience.
“You’ll be our guests tonight,” she was telling the Travelers. “We’ll kill and cut up a sheep, and we’ll set up a fire in the big hall. I’ll send for the men out in the hills. You’re very welcome, I can tell you. It’s good to have you back.”
Heriot watched her with uneasy pride.
“There’s no need for it,” said one of the older Travelers. “No need for any special bother, that is. We’ve just come to see the tokens and the words, carrying on the custom, like.”
“We always welcome the chance for a party,” Great-Great-Aunt Jen replied, a little sternly, as if he had made light of her hospitality. Her dark, unexpectedly sad eyes fell on Heriot.
“You! Heriot!” she said to him. “Run and tell Nesbit and the others that the Travelers are here.”
The Travelers’ spokesman looked at Heriot with interest.
“He looks better these days,” he said.
“He was never sickly... well, not exactly,” Great-Great-Aunt Jen replied casually, though Heriot saw she became cautious as soon as his old trouble was mentioned. “He’s getting over it, whatever it was. Off you go, Heriot. Quickly, now.”
“Run fast!” said another Traveler. “I’d say it was going to rain.”
“Heriot could help to bring wood in,” cried Baba. “I’ll run for the men. And he hasn’t told the eggs yet.”
“What do you mean, he hasn’t told the eggs?” someone— a woman—asked from behind Heriot. “Told them what?”
“It’s a gift he has,” Great-Great-Aunt Jen replied, and once again Heriot saw on her broad face that familiar trace of—what was it—doubt, distaste? “He can tell which eggs will hatch cocks and which hens, and say how long ago they were laid.”
“Oh, he’s that way, is he?” said the speaker, as if she knew all about such talents. “He’s one of those. I thought you farmers had lost the gift.”
She stood in the gateway through which Heriot himself had entered a moment earlier... a young woman in the long, striped skirts and black short-sleeved smock, fastened down the front with buttons of bone, that all Traveler women wore. As they turned to look at her she came forward, walking freely in spite of her long skirts, while those skirts and the petticoats under them made a silky, sifting sound against her hidden legs.
“Azelma, our wise woman,” said the Traveler leader proudly, jerking his thumb at her. “She’s only a girl, but she has some of the old gift. She can see through walls, read closed books, and tell the future in patches. Even read minds. Of course she’s too bold, you can see that, but they do say that those who carry the gift burn up with it.”
“Heriot hasn’t got any gift,” Baba said. She hated to hear anyone else praised. “He’s slow.”
“I’m not slow,” Heriot protested. “I’m on my way now.”
“Not slow in that way... ,” began Baba. Heriot could see her straining to be off and away, over the fields and up the hill. His head filled with images of long waves and a dark island. His sister was longing to see the sea.
“What’s got into you, Baba?” Great-Great-Aunt Jen cried impatiently. “I’ve told you what you have to do. Now do it!”
“Great-Great-Aunt Jen... ,” began Baba, but Nella, who was married to Radley, Heriot’s older brother, tucked her arm under Baba’s, shaking her head. Heriot found his own arm taken and looked up, startled, into Azelma’s face.
“Here,” she said, talking across him to Great-Great-Aunt Jen and shaking his shoulder slightly as she spoke. “Do you know what you’ve got here? Does anyone out in the world know about this one? This one can read thoughts.”
“He’s not reading anything from anyone,” said Great-Great-Aunt Jen. “Off now! Off!” She clapped her hands in Heriot’s direction, and edging out from under Azelma’s hand, Heriot made for the gate.
“Well, talent or not, you’ve made a mistake this time,” he heard his mother saying. “He’s just an ordinary boy.”
“Ordinary?” Baba’s voice cut in. “He sees crooked and he has fits.”
But the disputing voices died away as Heriot ran, leaving behind not only the courtyard, his family, the Travelers, and the disturbing Azelma, but that past self... the one who dreamed over and over again of sitting on the window ledge, looking between rich hangings at a bed with a twisted fur coverlet, and a boy with mouse-brown curls, staring back at him from odd-colored eyes... one blue and one green. He had stared back with fascination and fear, as if Heriot, that dreamer on the wide window ledge, were not another boy but some sort of monster, and sometimes his lips had moved, but Heriot, dreaming, had never been able to make out what he was saying. Sometimes the boy had pointed and seemed to yell. Sometimes he had hidden his face in his pillows and refused to look out at Heriot. But that was all over and done with. It had to be.
THE MAGICIAN OF HOAD CASSIO’S ISLAND
Once clear of the farm buildings and pens, Heriot Tarbas skirted two wide fields, each with its own name, then crossed another diagonally, scrambling through well-known holes in hedges or hoisting himself over dry stone walls. The fields grew steeper as he climbed the hill, and he was out of breath as he climbed the last fence and reached the top at last, clapped his hand over his confused eye, and looked past his little finger to the view on the other side of the hill.
The whole world seemed to tilt. The stretch and sigh of the sea seemed to swell toward him, while the sound of his own hard breathing was briefly swallowed by the greater breath of breaking waves.
Dominating the horizon, dark with forests on its landward side, was an island... Cassio’s Island, the home of the Hero of Hoad and Revenger of Senlac, one of the rulers of the people Heriot’s family called “Secondcomers.” There were towns and a castle and a whole busy life on Cassio’s Island, but none of this could be seen from Heriot’s hilltop. From there the island looked completely empty.
Still, it was not drifting; it was firmly tethered to the mainland. Many years ago the same people who had once lived in the ruins of the castle that now held Heriot’s home had built the causeway... a road over which traders and messengers could bring goods and information from the King to the Hero and back again. And every now and then the Lords of the counties of Hoad, along with the King and his family and other Secondcomers, gathered on Cassio’s Island to watch men fight to the death for the right to be Hero. Heriot had never set foot on the causeway. His only travels were to the nearest village with Radley or his cousin Wish, for Great-Great-Aunt Jen discouraged any of her family from wandering, and Heriot most of all.
“In many ways it’s best not to be seen out in the world,” she had told him over and over again in her calm, dry fashion. “Work hard, keep your head down, and don’t let the Secondcomers catch sight of you... not even Lord Glass, though he’s a kind man compared with a lot of them. Take it from me, the Lord’s eye is the King’s eye! So keep out of sight.”
Just down the hillside Nesbit, Wish, and Heriot’s brother, Radley, were carrying stones to block a big gap in the wall, washed out during the previous winter. Shouting and waving, Heriot admired Radley’s wonderful shoulders and back, and the way the sea air had persuaded his shoulder-length hair into ringlets. If Heriot had a single ambition in the world, it was to look and live exactly like Radley, who was swinging rocks as easily as he swung his baby in the courtyard at home.
“Don’t tell me!” he said as Heriot came up. “She wants us home! Is it because of the storm?” He nodded at a solid bank of cloud, which was moving toward them, gray at its leading edge but billowing blue-black on the horizon.
“She wants you home because the Travelers have arrived,” Heriot said, watching Radley set the stone in place as precisely as if it were a chessman on a board.
“Which tribe?” asked Wish, but Heriot didn’t know.
The three men stopped working, straightened up, and began to wander up the hill, joking and laughing with one another, but for some reason Heriot didn’t want to go back to the farm. He hesitated, watching them climb, half expecting Radley at least to turn and call him to heel. But they went on and up, past Draevo and out of sight, talking all the time without noticing he wasn’t tagging along behind.
Heriot turned toward the sea and the dark forests of Cassio’s Island. He didn’t want to see Azelma again or hear her suggest he was different from everyone else in his family. He didn’t want to be forced into thinking of himself as anything but plain and mostly invisible.
Somewhere on Cassio’s Island was a port where ships put in, and somewhere beyond the forests was a city that held the castle of the Hero—one of the two great spirits of Hoad—at present alive in the person of Carlyon of County Doro. Somewhere on that island lived a whole population of men and women who were loyal to the Hero first and the King second. This was not only allowed, it was an ancient rule.
“It keeps the King just a little humble,” Great-Great-Aunt Jen had once declared. “Once the Kings of Hoad used to be the Heroes as well, but it’s too much glory for one man to have both Hero and King alive in him at the same time. Sometimes they’re contrary spirits. They might tear him apart.”
The causeway was still green, a quick arrow pointing out to the island. On a day like this, a fine day when usual events were yielding to strange ones, someone might walk along the causeway and step onto Cassio’s Island and stand just for a little while in a place that was almost another country. It was not forbidden; it was just something no one in the Tarbas family had ever done... at least not as far as Heriot knew.
Two years earlier he had stood on that hilltop with his family, looking down on the causeway at glittering columns of men and women. According to the customs of Hoad, a young man called Carlyon had challenged the Hero, Link, and the King and his court were carrying him to combat in the Hero’s Arena. To Heriot, looking down from above, the parade had seemed more than royal. It had seemed to him not a company of mere Kings and Princes, but one of sun bears, centaurs, and strange, stalking birds as beautiful and passing as dreams. Three days later they had returned, carrying Link’s body in great splendor, leaving young Carlyon, Hero by conquest, to discover the island on his own and take possession of his hidden city. Heriot had believed the whole world was being paraded past the farm in a glittering thread so he could take note of it, but by now brambles and wild grasses were pushing in on either side of the narrow road, which on this particular day, at this particular time, was totally deserted.
And now, as he walked along the causeway, with his whole family left behind him on the other side of the hill, Heriot was seized with a lonely elation and began to run and leap and to fling up his arms, chanting under his breath, spinning wildly, shouting wordlessly. Feeling he could twist all the way to the island, he turned cartwheels, until he toppled over, laughing as he fell, only to sit up in the middle of the road, staring wildly around him.
Then he relaxed, laughed at himself yet again, and breathed deeply, taking conscious pleasure in the smell of salt and seaweed and in the lap and rattle of water in the rocks on either side. The thought that the sound went on and on like that (water on rock, rock on water), whether there was anyone to listen to it or not, gave him a sort of relief. Free at last, he thought, without having the least idea just what it was he had been freed from, and set off once more along the wild road... the central seam of the causeway.
Directly before him at the end of the road was a stone arch.
At first it seemed enormously far away, and insignificant compared with the wide expanses of sea and sky, but suddenly he found he could not look around it or over it anymore. Suddenly it had become the only thing the world had to show him.
A great fountain of seawater erupted beyond it, and then another and another. Heriot approached it warily. Increasingly the arch seemed to drain color and shape out of everything around it, even the water and the autumn air.
THE MAGICIAN OF HOAD THE DISSOLVING WINDOW
And then, at last, he had reached it, was walking under it, then standing for a moment to read the inscribed names of the Heroes. Carlyon’s name was there, freshly cut into the old rock. Heriot put a tentative hand out to touch the names, trying to imagine his own name carved among them. But the stone would not accept his name, even in imagination. He wasn’t noble, and only men who were born to nobility were free to fight on Cassio’s Island. Heriot moved out from under the arch to stand on the island itself.
Directly in front of him, the forest began. Looking into it, he felt uneasy—and this first uneasiness grew stronger. It could not be shaken off. On his right, the road skirted the edge of the wood for a little way, while on his left, the long, sinuous, swelling waves cast themselves onto the rocks over and over again. Fountains of spray, forcing their way through unseen blowholes, leaped into the air, while the whole island creaked and muttered and gurgled. Heriot could hear it, even though he was concentrating on something else.
The forest in front of him had a door. It hung on huge iron hinges between two columns of black stone. But there were no walls on either side, and it was a gate that seemed to demand walls.
“No wall!” Heriot mumbled. “Door but no wall! Hey, you! You couldn’t keep a cat out! It’d just walk round you.” But the door would not be mocked. Out of its stones and iron and its dense wood there reflected, like ancient stored heat, a terrible weariness, as if the gate might choose to fall on him, crushing him into the dirt, out of boredom and nothing more. Not only this; little by little he began to feel certain that someone was watching him.
Abruptly he was invaded by a single terrifying image. Somewhere behind his eyes a window of black glass sprang into existence. It seemed it had always been there, though he had only just become aware of it, and he suddenly believed that, for years and years, a hand had been rubbing, rubbing against the glass with a soft patience as the black barrier had grown thin and then thinner. In a minute it would finally dissolve under the pressure of the preoccupied hand. In another moment he would be able to look not only forward but backward, too—far backward—backward into himself, and he would see something terrifying, something that would change him forever.
This waking dream, almost a vision, came and went in a moment, but it frightened him so fiercely that he spun away from the gate and saw, in the long grass on his right, a flattened patch as if some animal, no larger than a dog, had been lying there. The grass blades were still moving, in the act of springing up again. Heriot understood that, only a moment earlier, something must have been curled up there, hiding itself from him. Only a moment earlier something must have been watching his approach and had chosen to disappear. He clapped a hand over his puzzled eye and stared at the space with the eye that saw straight. So he fled—fled from the gate without a wall and from the flattened patch of grass; fled away from the fringe of Cassio’s Wood, out under the arch, and onto the causeway.