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On Wings of Magic
Witch World: The Turning Book Three
By Andre Norton, Patricia Mathews, Sasha Miller
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Andre Norton, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
A Lady Scholar at Lormt
A solitary mounted figure plodded down the mountain trail, brown cloak and hood blending with the brownish-grey mule, one more shadow on a tan hillside. The mule's worn leather saddlebags were just large enough to hold a few necessities and a change of clothing; four long leather cylinders strapped alongside the saddle gave the impression that the rider might also be an archer—or a messenger.
The scholar's apprentice guarding the entrance to Lormt knew the cylinders for scroll cases. The mule's saddleblanket, though worn and faded, was a work of art—an original Jommy Einason, or Nolar missed her guess. The lean trousered figure who dismounted at the gates and looked around directly was no peasant boy, but a young woman with the sharp features and hot coloring of the Falconer breed.
Nolar's whole body trembled within her skin from fear and from anger, for her Falconer stepmother had loathed her birth-marked face. But this woman of the same race merely looked at Nolar with relief and said, "Good afternoon, sister. Arona Bethiahsdaughter of Riveredge Village. May I see a scholar? Not a he-scholar, if you please—if that's possible."
"Nolar of Meroney," the young student answered, taken aback. Her mind raced over the female scholars at Lormt. Dame Rhianne had always welcomed a new girl, but she was old, and dreamed in the sun. Nolar knew a few student-assistants, and there were some older women who were little more. Only one name remained; with a sigh, Nolar called out and a young boy appeared. "Visitor to see the Scholar Lady Nareth, if she will," Nolar said briefly.
The boy stared frankly at Arona and asked, "Falconer lady?"
"Was," Arona said curtly. "The old ways are gone forever. I could not endure that." She was speaking to Nolar directly now, the boy dismissed and forgotten. "Nor would I have our story lost and hidden through rarilh."
Nolar turned, puzzled; Arona smiled briefly. "Deliberately failing to record and tell the tale, from malice. He-scribes have strange notions on what is important and what is not." Her eyes searched Nolar's face and she said bluntly, "Do you fear me, that you look so grimly at me?"
Nolar blushed. "I beg your pardon, Lady. I ... my father's wife was of your people. She...."
Arona's eyebrows raised. "Do I know her name and clan?" she asked, and then put a few brief questions to the girl; then the Falconer woman whistled. "An aunt of Lennis the Miller! An angry and stiffnecked clan, those of the mill. Mine, now, is said to be bitterly proud and disastrously impulsive; the Mari Anghard are known even to outsiders, at least by reputation."
Now Nolar whistled a bit. "The Anghard? She who was nursemaid to the three Witch children?"
Arona smiled in truth now, and her whole face lightened. "The very one." She took cloths and a currycomb from her pack, and began to groom her mule as she spoke, looking around for water. The creature was already nibbling at what grass there was by the gate. Then she laughed. "I had a mule named for me once by Cousin Jommy, though he thinks I don't know it, for I can be stubborn."
They talked earnestly and happily together, until at long last the boy returned.
"You're to follow me, Mistress Arona," he announced. She did so, leading the mule until they came to the stables and left the beast to Lormt's care.
The Scholar Lady Nareth was past her middle years, with dusty brown hair and piercing grey eyes. "Sit down, my girl," she ordered, indicating wine on a side table. Arona sipped it gratefully. "I understand you have some scrolls for me. Do you know what they contain?"
Stung, Arona answered coolly, "I wrote or copied most of them. I was the scribe in our village until the elders decided to preserve the peace by giving the post to a refugee boy. We are of the Falconer Women's village by the river, under the crag; this is the account of our lives."
Nareth studied her, then held out one well-groomed hand for a scroll. She unrolled it, frowned, and said, "You say nothing of life in the Eyries here, nor anything else concerning Falconers; yet you are of their blood. Of course, they keep their women apart."
Truly annoyed now, Arona said, "We saw very little of them, thank the Goddess. This is the account of our lives, not theirs. We do have lives, and kindred, and songs, stories, and a long history. Very little concerns those things men think important, such as wars and battles; this is why I would rather not see a he-scholar."
Nareth's eyes flashed grey in her cool, pale face. "Calm yourself! And tell me what wisdom is in these scrolls that merits your long journey to Lormt. You do realize we do not trouble ourselves with such records as what Falconer's woman gave him a son when, or how many measures of grain were issued to each woman at harvest time, or that one pulled the other's hair over her man's favors or her allowance or her ribbons."
Arona's lips were white now, and her hot Falconer eyes blazed. In a thin voice she said, "We bore no sons to any man. We bore our children to our own names, and saw the boys stolen from us as soon as they could walk or before. We were given nothing. All we had or did, we devised with our own hands and minds. We saw much of it destroyed time after time as the Falconers in their madness raged among us."
She lifted her chin. Proudly she said, "Our tales go back over twenty generations of women, to the Far Shore, when we were queens in our own lands, and prospered. Only an invasion of armed men in overwhelming numbers put an end to that. Uprooted in a strange land, alone, with nothing, with our own men turned against us and blaming us for their military failures, we built and survived and endured, and still prospered. But I see not even Lormt cares to hear that! Your pardon, scholar's handmaiden. I should have known." And to her complete horror, the Falconer girl broke down, in tears.
Lady Nareth, on the verge of having the girl expelled for her extraordinary rudeness, did not. Behind the veil of her grey eyes was a scholar's mind, logical, unemotional, detached. "You are overwrought and overworn," she said with the same detachment. "I will forgive that outburst. You may guest in the wing used by our maidens and she-scholars; there is food in the refectory. I will read these scrolls and assess their worth myself; then I will speak to you again. I warn you, there are to be no more hysterics in my presence; we are scholars first, here, not women."
Arona looked up; Lady Nareth nodded sharply. "Thank you, my girl. You are dismissed."
As Arona went in search of her quarters, and food, Lady Nareth thought with regret of her own mentress, Scholar Rhianne. Rhianne had taken every stray female chick under her wing, not as a mother, but as if they were younger versions of herself. She protected them fiercely, and grieved when they—like Nareth—left her to deal with the more important scrolls and scholars.
Nareth's disciples were all boys. She had little but contempt for the average girl. Most of them were weak, fuzzy-minded if not mindless, subservient, and sly. Or they were strident and rude, forever in hysterics about some imagined slight. Every year there were some—the little sluts—who dared accuse this master or that of scandalous conduct towards them, and had to be turned out of the community.
It was plain that she and Arona would be crossing swords every day the Falconeress was at Lormt. Yet, Nareth's duty to the community forced her to read the scrolls, and therefore Arona must stay until she did. With a dire vision of a firebrand being touched to a keg of old oil, Nareth opened the first scroll. On top of it was a letter, to her (though not by name), from Arona, in a fine square hand. Intrigued, Nareth began to read.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
All accounts of Falconer life deal with the men and birds in their high mountain eyries. For the rest, it is said, "They keep their women in villages apart. They also keep their dogs in kennels, their horses in stables, and their sons in nurseries." Does nobody find anything lacking in this statement?
I, Arona Bethiahsdaughter of the Foxlady Clan, a woman of the Falconers, have come to complete that record. From time immemorial, since the days the Sulcar mercenaries set us down on your shores and before, we have had a life, a tradition, a culture of our own. We had our songs, our stories, our teachers, and our scribes, of which I was one.
We fell, not from force nor under oppression, but from peace and under freedom. Perhaps, if this is so, it is time we did, but I cannot help but mourn the life I was reared to. In many ways it was a good life: proud, self-sufficient, and but for the Falconer visits and their grim aftermath, free. Here, then, before our tale is lost and our lives go down to dust, is our story.
Arona, ChroniclerCHAPTER 2
The Falcon Cries at Night
Falcon Moon, a little past full, rose huge and red above the treetops to the east. To the west, Falcon Crag glowered in the blood-splashed grey of sunset. The women of Riveredge Village whispered together in tense little groups from which the children were excluded, glancing up at the crag as if afraid of being seen, then down again.
Where were the Falconers? The first full moon of fall always brought the strange, masked madmen to take the boy babies away, and to start daughters growing in the villagers. Elders and children peered restlessly out of their hiding places in the caves, ready to bolt and run again. Those volunteers of childbearing age whose names had been drawn in the summer lottery drew their Visit veils about them and dug in the trailhead gardens in swift, jerky motions, saying almost nothing.
A thin, nervous girl with hot bronze hair and yellow eyes threw back her unaccustomed veil and whispered, "Tell me again about last time, Aunt Natha."
The woman beside her glanced up at the Crag again and whispered softly, "They fixed the Visit huts, and cut us several cords of wood. They redug the outhouse trenches, and after generations of ignoring this place, made everything as snug as if we truly lived here. Why, they did not say. Does anything in the records speak of this?"
The girl Arona shook her head and looked up at the sky. Thunderheads were forming in the east as they did most evenings in the early fall. The sky was darkening. Natha Lorinsdaughter, coguardian to the young Keeper of the Records, took her hoe and Arona's and turned back towards the cluster of cabins around the trailhead. They were small and barren, of log chinked with clay, with crudely thatched roofs and tiny stone hearths by the door. The Falconers had built them long ago when, strangers to these lands, they deserted the village to seek their fortunes alone. Some said they had been expelled for extreme ill-behavior. Arona wondered.
She lit the fire as Aunt Natha filled an old ceramic pot, chipped around the edges, with water. They unrolled the sort of bedding usually given to animals on the rough dirt floors. A shepherd on duty would find this adequate, but for the closeness and the fear; many a young girl sleeping out in the woods for this reason or that had less comfort. To go without weapons or jewelry or any other adornment, and to drink neither ale nor beer, made this a religious vigil of sorts. It was only the apprehension that made her uncomfortable, she told herself. For a moment she even believed it.
She and Aunt Natha had eaten a rough meal of field rations, washed down with water, cleansed themselves clumsily from their only pot, and given thanks to She Who Guards Women, when an odd sound made her stand up suddenly. Arona raced for the hut's open door frame and put her head out. Far above her, a lookout's throat twisted itself into the harsh sounds of a falcon's cry. "They're coming," the girl blurted out, turning back to the door. "Now!"
She was almost too late. Racing hoof beats drowned out the sounds of the lookout's warning. Arona covered herself hastily, begging the Goddess for protection as her heart pounded. Above her, shadowy mounted figures raced down the well-worn trail between this meeting place and Falcon Crag.
Mounted Falconers in bird masks, with metal pots over their heads and metal plates binding their jackets, thundered into the village on the backs of horses, like horses fleeing before wolves. Long, curved butcher knives hung from their belts, and wolf-spears were bound to their saddles. They swung themselves out of their saddles and moved with grim purpose towards the huts. Without a word, one took the girl by the shoulder and shoved her into the hut. Well warned at her Initiation, she made no outcry, though she was bitterly angry that she must endure this three times in succession. Was this how daughters were started in a woman's womb? This was the central mystery of their lives, that she had been so eager to experience?
But birth was also painful and bloody, and lasted longer; nor did the Falconers enjoy the deed that makes a child, either. They seemed driven and desperate.
Before the last Falconer was finished with his duty, a low-voiced, harsh mockery of her own lookout's call sounded, very close. The Falconers in the hut swore, rapidly made themselves fit to ride again, and raced for the door, herding the two women after them. A golden-helmeted Falconer stood in the center of the cluster of huts. "Females," he barked, harshly. "We go now. Keep your sons. We cannot see them now. We will see them later. Now go." He prodded one with a short, nasty-looking eating-knife. Awkwardly she moved at a rapid walk, not daring to run, until she reached the shelter of the forest. The others followed, each going their separate ways. The central figure said, even more harshly and loudly, in that unnatural deep voice, "We must do this. Enemies must not find you. Forgive."
He barked an order and, efficiently, the mounted Falconers rode into the huts and gardens, trampling everything that could be trampled, knocking the straw from the roofs, tearing down the log huts, as the women watched in stunned silence. Then they rode away to the south, without venturing deep into the forest where the real village was.
As soon as the last Falconer was gone, Arona and the younger women picked up their skirts and ran along the hidden forest trails to their comfortable, safe homes under the trees. Then Natha Lorinsdaughter opened her throat to sound the all-clear, followed swiftly by the call for possible trouble ahead. Arona wondered dry-eyed what trouble? And what worse enemies they could have than these bird-faced creatures? Then she ran into the House of Records, flung herself across her bed, and wept as if her favorite dog had savaged her.
In the village of Cedar Crest, Morgath the Blacksmith's house and forge were burning like the bonfires of an angry god. With one last, hastily stifled sob, Morgath's wife Huana—no, his widow, now—looked down from the hillside to which she'd fled, and laid a hand over her young daughter's mouth. The trees, thick as winter fur, hid the sight from the women and the women from the Hounds of Alizon. But the village square was empty.
As Huana watched, people began dashing out of houses and barns to the forge where lay several bodies, as still as death. All but a few of the gathering crowd wore skirts, and those few were very young, or very old. The blacksmith's widow laid her finger across her lips and whispered, "Stay here, Leatrice, and don't make a sound unless one of our neighbors comes." She thought a bit and said, "If it's a pack of lads alone, don't answer even if it's our neighbors."
"I'll climb a tree," Leatrice promised, hushed by her mother's manner. But excited as well.
Huana groaned. "It's unseemly and unwomanly, but—better that than spoiled for marriage, I suppose." She said so as if grudgingly. "I'll be back." Purpose came back into her voice then. "If I'm not back by next sunset, wait till dawn and try to reach your Aunt Markalla in Twin Valleys. And, Leatrice—keep to the back roads if you do!" And as silently as possible, the woman slipped down the hillside.
Excerpted from On Wings of Magic by Andre Norton, Patricia Mathews, Sasha Miller. Copyright © 1994 Andre Norton, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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