The Wayfolk are a dark-haired, wandering people who shun doors and walls. Corleu is Wayfolk, albeit with hair the color of the moon. But when his companions and his own true love become trapped in an unearthly swamp beyond the reach of time, he dares to cross a forbidden and forbidding threshold, to enter a dark house that should not exist, to meet with a tinker who is also a king, and to embark on a quest for the one long-lost treasure that may free his people: the heart of the Cygnet.
The Cygnet is a figure of myth and legend, like the Gold King, the Blind Lady, the Dancer, and the Warlock. Once Corleu had thought these beings to live only in the stars and in children's rhymes. Now he knows that they are as real as himself, and that it is the Cygnet that holds the others at bay.
To find the heart, he must walk paths he never imagined: apprentice himself to a beautiful sorceress of uncertain motives, brave the Fire Bear in its lair, catch the Blood Fox by its shadow, and elude a valiant woman warrior whose destiny is strangely linked to his own. More, Corleu must also wrestle with his own conscience.
For if he fails in his quest, those he loves are lost forever to timeless limbo. But if he claims the heart, then the Cygnet falls and so do all who live...
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Ace Books by Patricia A. McKillip
THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD
THE SORCERESS AND THE CYGNET
PATRICIA A. McKILLIP
Table of Contents
RIDER IN THE CORN
He was a child of the horned moon. That much Corleu’s great-gran told him after, pipe between her last few teeth, she washed the mud out of his old man’s hair and stood him between her knees to dry it.
“You have your granda’s hair,” she said.
“Tell him take it back.” A thin, wiry child, brown as dirt otherwise, he stood tensely, still trembling with the indignity of being crowned with mud, tied up with Venn’s granny’s holey stockings and left in the sun to dry.
“I can’t. He’s dead now. His hair sprouts into dandelion seed. Moon seed.” She smelled of smoke like a wood fire, he thought, leaning into her, and lavender and something dank but not unpleasant, like a cow barn. She was talking again, telling story as she stroked his hair with the cloth. Her own hair, proper dark, not moon hair, had a few white seedlings here and there. There were seedlings above her upper lip, and a mole like a black moon, which fascinated him, so the story he had to take out and examine later—years later—to understand it fully.
“He rode between the rows of corn on his great dark horse, and all I could think was: His hair is white like the corn silk in my hand. I thought how it might feel, under my hand. Hot from the hot sun, and damp from his sweat. I stood there in the corn, thinking those things for the first time. Everything grew farther away, closer he came. His eyes were green, he wore green. I never saw green the same way, after. Everything was singing: My mam, a row away, was singing ‘the little dark house falling, falling. . . .’”
“I know that,” Corleu said, finding a place in the story to stand, a stone rising up in a river while the quick blurred water spun past.
“Everyone knows. Dark house falls to everyone. But that day it sounded like a love song. Even the corn was singing, under hot sun, leaves quiet like they never learned how to whisper secrets, but whirring and buzzing from their shadows like blood flowed in them. I held the ripe corn heavy in my skirt, and the one in my hand I pulled leaf and silk aside with my teeth and bit into, sweet and hard and full of sun. . . . He rode up to me and stopped.”
She stopped, too, suddenly; Corleu gazed up at her, feeling as if the river had stopped.
“Go on. Tell story.”
“Nothing much more,” she said. There was more: He saw it in her eyes. “Only how all the corn leaves pushed together to hide us, and made the sky turn green. . . . And then he rode away. And I had your granda. With his hair.” She pulled Corleu straight, scrubbed at his hair with the cloth. “He could foresee in a bucket of still water, your granda. He could see with his feet, they said. He could find anything in woods, any herb, mushroom, flower.”
“Who was he?” Corleu asked. “Who was rider in the corn?”
She made a sound in her nose, in the back of her throat, like a laugh, but she wasn’t smiling. “So many asked me that so many times. But how was I to know? I never asked, he never spoke. ‘Corn,’ I told your granda. ‘Corn was your father and sun your grandfather.’” She smiled then, her lined face rippling like pond water. She touched his chin. “And old horned moon his grandmother, who turned to see him just as he opened his eyes first time, to see her. So all her power spilled out of her horns into his eyes. Likely you looked at her, too, with that hair. But you haven’t learned to look in other ways. My son was reading petals by your age. He could see the simple things: weather, birth. He learned to fight young, too, like you. No place for the white raven among the dark.” She stroked his damp hair flat. “And all Wayfolk are dark-haired.”
“Because long ago we wandered down out of the stars, that’s how restless the Wayfolk are. Looking for new ways and roads and paths. We still carry night in our hair.” She lifted his face between her fingers. “And eyes. Even though you stared at moon, you’re one of us, with night in your eyes. And that’s why women always put a braid in their hair, so the night and Wayfolk past won’t flow out of it at sunrise.”
“Tiel doesn’t braid,” he said, thinking of her dark, straight, glossy hair.
She chuckled, hauled to her feet, and said something else it would take years for him to understand. “She will, one day. She’ll braid, like all of us. But whose name will she braid into her hair?”
For all those years to understanding, it seemed to him that all else he inherited from his granda—or great-gran, more likely—was a gift for getting into trouble. “Moonbrain,” he heard endlessly. “Corleu fell off moon. Limehair. Catch a cuckoo in Corleu’s hair.” Fists would fly, a small brawl erupt among the colorful wagons, always with the lank, corn-silk hair at the center of it, until someone’s mam waded in with soup ladle or a pan of dishwater. He could turn even a simple game hobble-nobble. It might begin peacefully enough: all the dark-eyed, barefoot, raw-kneed smallfolk in a circle, holding hands and moving around the moonbrat, who held his hands over his eyes, in a game as old as memory.
“In a wooden ring,” the circle chanted,
“Find a stone circle.
In the stone ring
Find a silver circle.
In the silver ring
Find a peacock’s eye.
Lady come, lady come,
Find my eyes, find my eyes.
Circle, circle . . . Blind can see!”
The circle jostled to a sudden halt; the blind dropped his hands. In front of him: Jagger, a stocky child with coarse straight hair and an eye for trouble. By rule of the game, Corleu must do whatever Jagger ordered, to get himself out of the circle. They stared at one another, mute, challenging, while the other children whispered and grinned.
Jagger gave his command at last. He pointed a grubby finger toward Venn’s parents’ wagon and said, “Go stick your head in that bucket of milk. Milkhead.”
When the older children finally peeled the pile apart, there Corleu was on the bottom, with his hair rubbed so full of dirt he looked almost one of them. His nose was running, his eye wild, his fists clenched; Sorrel, receiving him into the wagon, sighed worriedly, for her fey son hardly looked human.
She cleaned him up and sat him down at the tiny painted table. She emptied a basket of dried flowers in front of him: wild rose, lavender, verbena, dandelion, hawthorn. “Pick the stalks out,” she instructed. “And the leaves. Only leave the petals.” She was a tall woman, with lovely almond eyes and a soothing, husky voice. She wore bright ribbons braided in her long black hair; that and the songs she sang had entranced Corleu since he was old enough to uncross his eyes. They had also entranced Tul Ross, a stolid, hard-working man who had fallen in love with her as she sang in the fields. Unafraid of her peculiar father and her own odd gifts, he had married her and had only said resignedly, when the past echoed in her newborn’s hair:
“That’s out of the way. Likely you’ll have the dark ones now.”
But she never did. She watched her son sniffing and picking at the petals, so gently they barely stirred under his hands. As he had watched her do, he blew over them, winnowed them with his breath, so that colors formed patterns on the wood. He sat silently again.
“What do you see?” she asked at last, curiously. He looked up at her, his eyes huge, shadowed.
He showed her with his finger: two knotholes and a scowling crack. She shook her head, baffled, and gave him one of his granda’s books to read, for he had an odd, useless gift for that.
As smallfolk became halflings, they ceased tormenting Corleu and began trailing after him, for he also had inherited his great-gran’s tongue. He told them the tale of the Rider in the Com many different ways, always feeling his way closer to the truth of it, until one day they all stumbled into understanding, and the tale took off in wild variations. The Rider was a lord from Withy Hold. The Rider was an evil mage from Berg Hold. The Rider was a cowherd on a borrowed horse. There never was a Rider, only his great-gran’s fancy, and the warm, sweet, singing corn. One of Wayfolk boys had fathered the bastard and Corleu’s great-gran had looked at a white goat under the full moon, that’s why his hair. Since by then, great-gran was dead, they couldn’t go to her for the true story. He told them other tales, collected from Granda’s books, or from listening silently in the dark while the oldfolk talked around fires on mild winter days in the deserts of Hunter Hold, where they met with other Wayfolk companies for the season, or in the barns and stables and cider houses on the sweeping farms of Withy Hold. One summer, he learned to take more than tales from the cider house.
He lay with Jagger and Venn and a crock of cider on hay they had, piled one hot midsummer night when they were all pushing into adulthood several directions at once, and all of them in the dark. Early in the morning, tales took a turn from fathers, girls and ghosts, to the stars above them, thick as sheep in a shearing pen. Living between earth and sky, little escaped their notice underfoot or overhead. Corleu, who was racing Jagger for height, but was yet all scrawny wire and muscle, took a swallow, slapped a mosquito on his cheek, and said,
It was hardest to see: a spray of glittering eyes clustered near the almost perfect Ring. Venn grunted.
“I see it.” He grunted again. “I see two Rings.”
Jagger burped. “Where’s the Blind Lady?”
“There is no Blind Lady,” Corleu said.
“Blind Lady wears the Ring of Time,” Jagger argued. “She sees out of the Peacock’s tail.” Venn giggled, was ignored. “So where is she?”
“In stories. In the sky you only see her Ring.”
“How come she’s blind?” Venn asked. From farmhands, shepherds, they all knew bits and pieces of the silent shapes of fire and shadow that haunted the night. Corleu said dreamily, hugging the crock against his chest:
“The Cygnet tricked her. If she looks straight at you, you die, because the end of time is in her eyes. So the Cygnet, when they were all fighting, tricked her into looking at her reflection in the full moon. So she went blind. Now she sees out of the Peacock’s eyes.”
Venn juggled his arm. “You’ll split your tongue with book lies. Pass crock.”
“I’m not! It’s not lies, it’s stories.”
“It’s stories,” Jagger said. His voice was deeper, his jaw was shadowed, he held a weight of authority. “Pass the crock over.”
“Stars don’t fight,” Venn muttered.
“These did,” Corleu said. A dog barked somewhere, catching wind of them, then subsided. He shifted on the hay, an intimation of dawn creeping over him: Tul’s furious face; haying under a blazing sun with the headache oozing out of his pores. But for now, night seemed on the verge of forever. “They fought the Cygnet. The Gold King. The Dancer. The Warlock. The Lady.”
“For Ro Holding.”
“Who won?” Venn asked fuzzily. Jagger nudged him with a beefy elbow; cider splashed out of the crock onto Corleu.
“You mucker, watch my hair—”
Venn snickered. “Been watching it, it’s still white as bird shit.”
Jagger’s arm weighed across Corleu’s chest as he started to sit up. “Don’t brawl in the hay,” he warned. “Bad enough we’re drinking in it. Get on with story, I want to hear. Venn, you say another word I’ll take your teeth for my sling.”
“It’s the cider in my tongue,” Venn said meekly.
“It’s a talkative cider,” Corleu said darkly.
“Go on. Who won the star fight?”
“The Cygnet of course, you loon, it’s the Holding Sign of Ro Holding. The others are only Hold Signs.”
“Gold King is,” Jagger said after a moment, calculating. “Sign of Hunter Hold. But not the others. Not the Dancer or the Warlock or the Lady. Hold Signs are the Blood Fox and the Fire Bear—”
“And the Ring,” Venn said, catching up. “The Ring of Withy Hold.”
“It’s the Lady’s Ring,” Corleu said.
“What of Blood Fox, then?”
“Cygnet broke the Warlock into pieces and trapped him in the Blood Star. His shadow fell to earth, into the Delta, into Blood Fox’s shadow. That’s why they say: Beware the Blood Fox with a human shadow.”
They were silent a little; the thick, blazing stars had edged closer, it seemed, to listen to Corleu’s tales. The Cygnet, its broad wings spanning the sky at an angle, gazed with a frosty eye over its realm. Winking, the Warlock shifted, stars limning his shadow, which, oddly enough, was both in the sky and in the Delta, attached to a Blood Fox’s pads.
Jagger said, “Fire Bear.”
“Fire Bear chased Cygnet all over the sky, roaring fire at it, protecting Dancer. But the Cygnet stayed just ahead, until Fire Bear held no more fire, only that one last red star in its belly. Cygnet trapped the Dancer in ice on the top of the world. Fire Bear guards her. But there’s no more fire left in the Fire Bear to melt the ice. So the Dancer stays frozen.”
Jagger yawned. “Pass crock. There’s Gold King, still.”
“You’ve got the crock under your arm, crockbrain.”
“Get on with Gold King. Then we throw Venn in the sheep dip.”
“Gold King is trapped.” Corleu yawned, too, hugely, trying to suck stars into his breath and bones. “The Cygnet trapped the Gold King in the Dark House. There it is, above the farmhouse. The black house with the lintel of gold and roof of gold.”
“Cygnet trapped them all,” Venn said drowsily.
“They’re angry up there, likely. Being trapped so long.”
Hay rustled as Jagger rolled suddenly, peered over the stack. “They’re not the only things angry,” he muttered. “My granny sleeps like a stump, but your da had an eye to your empty bed, Venn, and so did Corleu’s. Your mam’s out there, too, Venn.”
Venn groaned, trying to crawl deeper into the hay. Corleu took a final swallow, passed the crock to Jagger. “Summer,” he said, meaning the still, green-soaked air, the vast, glowing sky, the tales and touches that seemed to tremble constantly on lip and fingertip. Jagger grunted and toasted the moon.
Withy Hold for sowing and harvest, Hunter Hold for winter, and back again . . . and again . . . and then one year the wind changed direction, or the stars shifted a hair’s-breadth, or some such, for two things happened, only one of which Corleu’s mother had foreseen. Venn’s younger sister, Tiel, crossed the camp one day carrying a bucket of water from the stream, and Corleu, chopping wood, glanced up to find that in the interim between her going to the stream and returning, the world had transformed itself under his nose. The wooden ax handle was of a finer grain; the ground her bare feet touched had never been walked on before. Even the air was different: too shallow to breathe, so that she seemed to sparkle as she moved through the morning. She glanced up at his staring. For a moment their eyes clung. Then she looked down quickly, the water trembling in her bucket, and for the first time in his life, he cursed his great-gran and the rider in the corn, for no one, he felt, of such dark, sweet, mysterious Wayfolk beauty, could love a head of hair like his.
He had reached his full growth by then; with his father’s shoulders and his startling corn-silk hair and something of the stranger in the slanted cast of his face, he drew attention. But, giving and taking pleasure now and then with young women from farms or other companies, he had thoughts only for Tiel. He watched her, and realized that all the young men in their company were falling all over each other watching her. Then someone spoke a word that, for a little, drove even the thought of Tiel into the back of his mind.
No one ever remembered who first spoke the word—maybe it had travelled with them from Hunter Hold—but there was talk of going south to the warm, misty Delta for the season instead of to Hunter Hold. Tul snorted; Sorrel foresaw and was baffled by her seeing. “Something falls,” she could only say, and, used to water, leaves, seeds, something always falling out of the sky, no one paid mind. Talk grew stronger through harvest, swept from morning fire to night fire, until autumn, when nights began to chill and old bones began to ache, and suddenly it was true, they were turning south for the winter, toward the country of the blood fox and the sea and the ancient house of the rulers of Ro Holding.
Corleu was as amazed as everyone when his parents decided to leave the company. He was still whittling away at Tul’s arguments the evening before their paths forked between known and unknown.
“Withy Hold in spring, Hunter Hold in autumn and back again,” Tul said, “that’s what’s done and what’s to be done. I never liked change. Swamps and bog lilies, that’s all you’ll find down there. Beetles big as your hand. Damp air like steam from a kettle, smelling of rot. That’s no place for us. We follow sun and stars. You should come with us, not chase after some butterfly future.”
Corleu shook his head. “Past is here,” he said. They sat in the wagon Tul had helped him build. The back was open to dark and fire and tender songs yearning under wanderers’ fingers for times and places that never existed. On his tiny table, Sorrel had spread her petals; scents of lavender, white lilac, violet, wove into the smell of burning applewood. Corleu picked out a harebell leaf absently, twirled it between finger and thumb, his eyes, intent and implacable, on his father’s face. “You can’t leave past behind you like a holey boot. We’re all family and ghosts of family. You’ll be without shadow, in Hunter Hold.”
“I’ll be without son, is what,” Tul retorted. “Your place is with us, to feed us and drive our wagon when we get feeble and toothless. You come with us.”
“I’m going south.”
“Your mother has only you. What will she do for the little folk if you marry elsewhere?”
Corleu snorted. “Likely I’ll have to wait till I’m bald to marry. Who in any company would want to wake to this head of hair every morning? It’s got questionable past in it.”
“Your granda married,” Sorrel reminded him. “And in this company.”
“My gran was fey to begin with. I’m going south. I want to see Ro City.”
“What for?” Tul asked in astonishment. “Walls, stones, straight lines, roofs—why city, of all?”
Corleu shifted slightly, his eyes falling away from his father. “It’s old,” he said to the harebell leaf. “It’s got past running straight back to the beginning of Ro Holding. It casts a long shadow.”
“You’re Wayfolk. What has a city’s past of any kind to do with you?”
“I don’t know.” He dropped the leaf, ran his hand through his hair. “Stories, maybe. Old stories. Old words. Books, maybe, like Granda’s.”
“You have books here.”
“Well, what more reading do you need? What more can books give you?”
“I don’t know,” he said again, hoving against the chair he straddled until it creaked. “It’s a fair question,” he admitted.
“There’s no work we’re used to, in cities.”
“Then what are you using your head for, besides to hang your ears on? You can’t eat story, or wear it, or bed it. Best come with us.”
“I’m going south.”
“It’s your hair,” Tul said recklessly, but Corleu only nodded.
“Likely, for once. The rider in the corn gave me an unnatural taste for words. But you have them all twisted. It’s not me leaving you, it’s you leaving me, for something done and done until it’s a wonder we don’t meet ourselves coming back on the road to Hunter Hold. You might like change; you never tried it.”
“I never needed it,” Tul said. “None of you knows what lies south in the Delta, and here’s even your mother seeing against it. Change is for weather and geese and worn-out trousers. You stay with us.”
“Won’t. Stubborn as an old root ball, you always were. Your place is with us, not by sea or swamp or whatever unfurrowed place this company muddles across. You come with us.”
Corleu started to answer, then did not. His eyes were hidden; the lamplight overhead drew stray shadows beneath the bones of his face, giving it a smudge-eyed, secretive cast. Sorrel gave him an opaque glance. She sifted petals through her fingers; a pattern of colors formed on the wood. “It’s you being stubborn,” she said to Tul. “And blind as a harrow after a hare. He’s in love.”
Corleu stirred suddenly, as if he had left a splinter or two in the chair he straddled. He could feel Tul’s stare like a flush of fire over his face; he refused to look up. Tul found his voice finally:
“What’s that to do with the time of day or the price of a turnip? You’ve been in love before.”
“The world is full of pretty faces.”
“So you’ll stay,” Tul said a trifle sharply, “and go south with the geese, to mope after some girl who will show you the back of her head while she smiles at true Wayfolk—”
“I am true Wayfolk,” Corleu snapped, goaded into staring back at Tul. “I walked Wayfolk paths my whole life.”
“You’re looking to cross thresholds in Ro City. Wayfolk shy at doorposts. My da had to drink his way through doors.”
“I can’t help it. It’s not the doors or straight roads or high walls or lintels I want—it’s the past that built the city.”
“How do you expect any Wayfolk woman to understand that?”
His hands closed on the chair back. “I don’t know,” he said tightly, holding the chair as if Tul were about to toss it and him into deep water. “I just want. Both.”
“Likely. Likely that’s a word for it. Wayfolk word would be ‘moonbrained.’”
Sorrel breathed softly across the petals; they drifted across the wood, changing pattern, colors hidden, colors revealed. She studied them a moment, brows pursed; then she gave notice to the tension in the air.
“Tul.” Her deep voice, half imperious, half pleading, eased them both. “It’s our last night.”
Tul muttered softly, yielding; Corleu slumped against the chair back. Three haunting notes from a reed flute caught his ear; then he named the song and could let it go.
“My lady walks on the moon’s road,
Shod, she is, in peacock feathers,
All eyes, she is, all eyes . . .”
“Besotted,” he sighed. “If that’s to have your head so full of one face you don’t even remember whose feet you’re walking on.”
“Have you said so to her?” Sorrel asked practically.
“I’m biding my time.”
“Till when?” Tul inquired. “Till her hair is the color of yours?”
Corleu glared at him, then dropped his face into the crook of his arm. “Till I can drag my voice back out of my boots when I try to talk to her.”
“Ask now. Tonight. If she says no, you can come—”
“Tul,” Sorrel murmured, and then to Corleu, “You’ve only spoken to her all her life.” Both men looked at her in surprise. She patted Corleu’s shoulder. “Nothing’s secret around here. Except to your father.”
“She’s different now,” Corleu said, gazing at the swirl of petals. “Like she went somewhere without us and came back. She makes me forget words.” He cast a warning glance at Tul, waiting for abuse. But his father only blinked down at the petals as if he finally saw the pattern in them.
“I don’t want you to leave us,” he said gruffly. “That’s the all and that’s the end.”
“Then come. Come with us.”
“No. Not to Delta.”
“Why? It’s only a Hold, not another world. By the sound of you, we’re travelling toward some place outside Ro Holding, not held by Lauro Ro, beyond even the Cygnet’s eye.”
“How can the Cygnet see anything under that bog mist?” Tul retorted. Corleu, wordless, met Sorrel’s eyes and saw the end of their lives together. He stared wide-eyed at the table. She gave him no comfort; she had seen it coming since he was born.
“Well,” she said softly, intent on the petals, her voice snagging here and there on a word. “You’ll always know where we are. Withy Hold, Hunter Hold and back. When you need us.” Then she was still, not even breathing, so still that both men drew toward her. Her hands went out, staying them, before they disturbed her pattern.
“Strange,” she whispered. “Strange . . .”
Corleu studied the breath-blown petals. Troubled, he only saw in every delicate, circling path, an ending.
So the Wayfolk came down from the heart of Ro Holding to the Delta. Corleu, plodding through days, one eye to the road past his mare’s rump, the other to the strange, dark, tangled horizon, never knew exactly when they left the clear, endless blue of Withy Hold sky behind and passed into the Delta mists. There the sun was invisible by day; at evening it hovered, huge and blood-red, above silvery, delicate forests. The rich, steamy, scented air clung to everything, even time, it seemed, until it moved like the slow, indolent water moved, deep and secret. The bog mists, the great red sun, the lovely green drugged the eye. The final, glowing moments of sunsets, trees like black fire against a backdrop of fire, burned into memory; Withy Hold paled, ghostlike, into past.
Tul had guessed it: In the Delta, the Cygnet was invisible. In the Delta were low, sultry skies, smells of mud, still water, the sound of hidden water, the sound of a great river breaking up into roads and trails and ruts of water, black pools and backwashes, before it drained into Wolfe Sea. Huge, shy, graceful birds—yellow, rose, teal—cried at night in throaty, urgent voices. Flowers of burning colors floated on dark water, left their imprint on the eye like the sun. Like the old river road they followed, Wayfolk were drawn from wonder to wonder toward what lay beyond the mists. But the mists never parted and the road ran endlessly into them.
Corleu, driving at the end of the line, eating the dust Jagger’s wagon kicked up, felt a thought move, slow and fishlike, in his swampy brain. A warm weight sat on his head, his eyelids; sat on his thoughts, too, like hot light on water. The thought surfaced finally, making him lift his head, blink. The scythe-like, silvery leaves danced above his head, not a touch of autumn on them. We have been travelling forever, he thought surprisedly. Then the drowsy, sweating, perfumed air filled his veins again. The slow wagon ahead of him, with Jagger’s gran peering out the back, and the dogs trotting behind it, grew smaller and smaller. He drifted in and out of a dream of blue sky. “Limehead,” he heard someone call in the dream. “Catch a cuckoo in Corleu’s hair.” A bird had spoken, or the river. “Moonbrain. Corleu fell off the moon.” He was on the haystack again, with Jagger and Venn, pointing to the Blood Fox prowling, huge, silent, dangerous, along the horizon, dragging the star-limned shadow of the Warlock behind it. “Delta fought Cygnet under the Hold Sign of the Blood Fox . . . Milkhead. Stick your head in a bucket of milk.”
He raised his head, groggy, astonished at what he was hearing. A great blood fox flowed silently out of the shadows across the road under his horse’s nose. The horse reared, jolting Corleu awake; hooves pounded down on the blood fox’s shadow. Corleu, staring at the shadow’s human hands, nearly lost the reins when his horse bolted.
He pulled at them, shouting; horse and wagon careened across spongy, shifting ground toward a broad, lily-choked swamp. Water loomed closer; the wagon reeled, nearly throwing him; he wondered if he should jump. Then both he and the horse saw something at the water’s edge. The mare veered sharply away from it. The wagon groaned on its axle; things tumbled and smacked the floor. He got the wagon turned, its back wheel laying track within an inch of water, and he harried the mare back across the trembling ground to the road. He set the brake and jumped down, shaking, his head jerking back at the swamp where he had had a confused image of the blood fox’s shadow, standing upright, black as the inside of nowhere, juggling stars in its hands.
He saw no one, nothing but the lilies, little burning crowns of light on the dark water, all of them just opened that morning, it looked, or maybe the moment before he saw them. He heard a noise behind him and spun; it was Jagger, loping down road.
“Gran said you tried to drive on water,” he said. He had grown into a burly young man, grim, lately, a dark, puzzling force in the world, pent-up like a beer crock and apt to blow for no reason.
“Blood fox came out of nowhere,” Corleu said, and saw again its human shadow across the dust. “Ran under the mare’s nose, scared her.”
Jagger grunted. “Would scare me. I’ll send Gran to ride with you. She pinches if you fall asleep.”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
“She said you were drifting.”
“Maybe.” He shivered suddenly, breaking out of a dream. “Likely that’s all it was.”
“Just a daydream.”
“What? Blood fox?”
Corleu looked at him, then away, picking through shadow at the swamp’s edge. The perfect lilies teased him again, irritating, like the whine of an unseen insect. “No. Thought I saw something, is all. It scared me. Jagger, how long ago did we cross over from Withy Hold?”
Jagger shrugged. “Days. Week or two maybe.”
“Why?” There was sweat on Jagger’s face, dust on his shoulders; he did not want to tally time. “Do you have urgent business in the city?”
“Look around you.”
“What of it?” Jagger demanded, not moving.
“Just look! We left Withy Hold in autumn! Where’s the dead leaves, the birds flying south overhead, the flowers withering away? Where’s the season? Feels like we’ve travelled into winter, but nothing dies here. Nothing dies,” he said again, with a curious prickling of fear, but Jagger only looked annoyed.
“Winter’s gentler in the Delta,” he said brusquely. Corleu snorted.
“So gentle here that death tiptoes past the flowers. And where,” he added, “is everyone in this wonderland? Could harvest all year long, here, if you drain a field or two. Yet we meet no one.”
“Too far from the city.”
Corleu eyed him askew. “You don’t find it peculiar?”
“You’ve never been to Delta before, why should you find it one way or another? It’s Delta, nothing we’re used to—”
“It’s Ro Holding, not the backside of the world! Winter travels, just like Wayfolk. It should have caught up with us by now.”
“Winter.” Jagger squinted at him. “A week or two out of Withy Hold—”
“Or a month or two—”
“We’ve been slow in this heat!”
“It shouldn’t be this hot!”
“You’ve never been here before.”
“No one has!”
“There’s old road under your feet—”
“Road to where? We’ve been nowhere but here, days, weeks—the same sky, same trees, same flowers that always look like they bloomed just a moment ago when your back was turned. Just exactly where are we, here?”
“Delta,” Jagger exploded. “You cob-haired gawp, where do you think? We’ve found a road leads out of the world? Have you been sitting back here with your face in the cider?”
“Don’t call me cob-haired.” His fists were clenched; he heard himself, the edge in his voice, the idiotic words, in sudden wonder. He and Jagger hadn’t brawled in years. But there was something between them, like air tense with storm, and Corleu couldn’t put a name to it. He eased his hands open, said more calmly, “It feels strange here to me, is all. Something does.”
Jagger kicked at a clump of grass, blinking. “My brain’s melting in this heat,” he muttered. He added with an effort at thinking, “I forget you can’t see moon changes under this mist. Women must know, though, they keep track of days. Except my gran.” A corner of his mouth went up. “She thinks we’re still in Withy Hold.” Then someone stepped between them and his face went dark again. Corleu breathed in the scent of hair rinsed with lavender water.
“Da sent me to ride with you.”
Tiel’s hair fell past her waist; behind its darkness, and her sun-polished skin, the pale swamp flowers grew, thickly clustered, carved of ivory, without a bruise of time on them. Corleu drew breath, feeling Jagger’s eyes boring at him. Someone else pushed among them, clung to Tiel’s skirt.
“And me,” said Tiel’s youngest sister, her face and hands grubby from the bread and honey she was eating. Tiel, her face suddenly averted, lifted her up. The stiff, bulky line of Jagger’s shoulders eased; he grinned fleetingly.
“Shall I send my gran, too?”
“Why not.” Corleu took the child from Tiel, swung her onto the wagon seat. “Send the dogs, too.” He added abruptly, as Jagger turned, “It was you, then, calling me.”
“You calling me names before the horse bolted. To wake me.”
“I wasn’t calling you names,” Jagger said. “You didn’t give me time.”
Corleu was struck mute for a time by the bone in Tiel’s bare ankle, by the gentle, light bird-gestures of her brown hands. The child did most of the talking. Tiel stirred now and then; the threads of her skirt dragging over wood grain seemed loud as language. She said little. Corleu felt the brief, dark, wordless glances she gave him, but she never let him meet her eyes. He wished another language would startle out of him, in the shape of small birds or pearls, for his head was as vacant of words as the sky. It’s my hair, he thought hopelessly, remembering his father’s warning. No one could love a head of hair like this. We could talk, once. What happened?
That was north.
“Shadow fox, fox shadow,” the child chanted, and Corleu tensed, his eyes flickering across the road. But it was only a rhyme for a hiding game. “Hide your fox, hide your shadow—”
“Hide your face, hide your shadow,” Tiel corrected. Corleu glanced at her. She leaned toward the child; the long, dark, heavy line of her hair hid all but the brown curve of her cheek. “Go on. Red star, blood star . . .”
“Find your eyes and see.”
Find your voice and talk, you gabblehead, Corleu thought. The tall, graceful trees, thick with vine and moss, cleared ahead, gave him a glimpse of the wagons strung along the overgrown track, meadow feverishly green with dank, dark water beyond it, more trees.
“It’s so empty,” he breathed. “We’ve seen no one since we left Withy Hold. Not a traveller, a trapper, a boat—you can’t walk a mile in Withy Hold without running into a field wall or stepping in a cow pile. Something hinting at people.”
Tiel turned her head, let him meet her eyes a moment then; the dark, flickering glance dragged the breath out of him. “Strange,” she agreed, but nothing in her voice truly considered the word. She was content, her eyes seeking colors. Her hair rustled against her back as her head turned. “It’s so beautiful, it is odd no one has stopped here, of those who like stopping in one spot.”
Corleu, watching her speak, almost stopped the wagon, wanting to taste and swallow the words coming one by one out of her full mouth. A wheel bumped over a stone; the child, climbing into Tiel’s lap, clutched at Corleu’s wrist with sticky fingers, dragged him back to earth.
“Dancer danced to a dancer dancing,
“Dance! said the dancing dancer,
“Dance the dancer dancing—”
“No,” Tiel said, laughing. “Dancing, the dancer danced—
“Dancing dancer danced—”
“Dancer danced—ah, my tongue’s muddled. Dancing the dancer—You say, Corleu.”
“Dancing, dancer danced the dance.”
“And danced,” they all chanted. “And danced. And danced.”
“Tell story,” the child demanded, and Corleu’s tongue went on without them:
“She danced on a hill, she danced in a rill,
She danced on a moonbeam, danced in a dream,
Danced on a star, danced very far,
Danced in a bear’s den, danced home again.”
“What bear?” Tiel demanded, smiling, her eyes full on his face. They were the proper color for the sky, he thought, not blue, but deep, warm, shadowy brown, for day, for night. He shook his head, smiling back at her.
“Fire Bear, likely. I only tell them, I don’t make them.”
“Yes, you do. I’ve heard you make them, with Venn and Jagger.” Her face flushed suddenly, was hidden behind her hair. But she finished, “When you would sit by the fire late, behind our wagon. You thought everyone was asleep. But I listened.”
He felt his own face warm. “They weren’t meant for you. Only for our potato ears and sheep brains.”
“I know,” she said. Her face came out of her hair, composed again. “Goat brains, more like. Bat-wing ears. But I liked—I like how you say things. How you see. Even asleep, I’d hear your voice.” She was gone again, bird-quick. He swallowed, a blink away from letting the reins slide out of his hands, touch a strand of her hair with his fingertips, shift it aside to find her.
He said unsteadily, for he had never put it to words before, “All stories seem old to me, even the ones born in my brain. Likely it’s because words are so old. Story words, that is. They carry bits of older tales with them. Like Dancer. She could be you, dancing. Or she could be the star Dancer, who brings you dreams from both the fair side and the terrible side of morning.” He paused. “It’s what I think I want to do.”
“Go to Ro City and learn more words.” His mouth crooked. “Sounds silly. More stories, maybe. Something.”
“But what would you do with them?”
“I don’t know.” He flicked a fly off the mare’s rump with a rein. “Keep saying and keep saying them until I get all the way back to the first thing they mean.” He glanced at her, wondering if she wondered what murky waters lay between his ears. But she only asked thoughtfully:
“Can you do the things your granda could? Or your mother? Foresee in water, in petals?”
“Me? No. I only got his hair.” He slid it back between his fingers, to cool his face. “My mother tried to teach me petals, but all I ever saw in them was color, never any—never—” He faltered, his mind filling with petals then: dried roses, verbena, lavender . . . the pattern they had made under his mother’s breath, paths circling, circling. . . .
Something—an echo—made him realize she had spoken again. “What?” he asked, then knew he had made no sound. He had gone away again, to some place chill, lonely, terrifying. “What?” he said again, and came back to the pale, heavy misty sky, the long afternoon. He shivered suddenly in the heat. His eyes searched sky, trees, water, for some sign—any sign—of change: a hill, a different kind of tree, even a wild swan or a stork flying south for winter. “I think,” he said tightly, “I know where we travelled to.”
But she did not seem to notice the word. The child sat drowsing in her arms; her eyes had strayed from Corleu to a long tumble of orange and yellow blossoms, all fully opened, he noticed, all perfect, not one too young or too old for the moment he saw them.
“My mother foresaw this,” he breathed.
“This place. Day after day circling under this grey sky, no true sky for stars to point the way, no moon, no sun . . .”
“Yes, there’s sun. Look. It’s about to set.”
The evening fire was beginning, the slow kindling of the horizon into gold, then red, then deep, deep purple before the black, starless night poured over them again. Tiel’s eyes filled with the sunset; her face held the smooth blankness of a dreamer. She had forgotten Corleu.
It’s this place, he thought, terrified. This place.
They made a loose circle of the wagons in a meadow. Children of all ages broke out of the small colored rolling houses, flickered like night sprites in and out of the twilight. “Corleu,” a boy called, and then a girl: “Corleu.” In the dusk their faces blurred past him; their changing voices were unfamiliar. Surely there were not so many smallfolk in the company, he thought. There were too many voices, echoes of the past, as if they had carried even his own, Jagger’s, Tiel’s childhood ghosts down from the north. Then he saw Tiel, chasing after one of the smallfolk, laughing, her hair rising in a slow, dark wave, then settling as she ran. The world went simple again, everything in its place, no mysteries beyond the mystery of Tiel’s hair, rising darkly and falling. Then a girl said, “Corleu” behind him and laughed. He turned quickly, for that voice, that laugh, was long past and far behind. Someone circled behind him silently; he felt a long skirt whirl and fall against him, a brush of long fine bones: hands, back, shoulders against his shoulders. He turned to face her, saw only Tiel, walking away from him as she carried the child across the camp.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Patricia A. McKillip and her novels
“There are no better writers than Patricia A. McKillip.”—Stephen R. Donaldson
“I’ve been reading Pat’s books from the beginning...I’ve always loved her work for the obvious things, the things that everybody else who writes about her loves her books for, too: her sense of style, her deep understanding of the ancient story-myths that all of us story-tellers build on, the humanity, which is also to say the unpredictability, of her (human!) characters, who are and are not what they appear to be, and who often surprise us for both good and ill—just the way people out here in the real world do.”—Robin McKinley
“Weaving the past and present together into a vividly human and deftly layered story, master storyteller McKillip once again shows that language can be magic.”—New York Journal of Books