by Sherwood Smith
The broken shutter in the window creaked a warning. I flung myself across the table to cover my neat piles of papers as a draft of cold wind scoured the room. Dead leaves whispered on the stone floor, and the corners of my moat of papers rustled. Something crashed to the floor behind me. It was the empty soup bowl I’d set that morning on an old, warped three-legged stool and promptly forgotten.
The rotted blue hanging in the doorway billowed, then rippled into quiescence. The whispers and rattles in the room stilled. I sat up and glared at the bowl. Could it be mended? I knew Julen would be angry with me. Julen was the blacksmith’s sister, and the mother of my friend Oria. After my mother died she looked after me, and she had of late taken over cooking for us. Crockery was hard to come by these days.
I reached for the pieces, my blanket ripped—and cold leaked up my arm.
I sat back on my cushion, staring down in dismay at the huge tear at my elbow. I did not look forward to the darning task ahead—but I knew that Julen would give me one of those glances she was so good at and calmly say that practicing my darning would teach me patience.
The voice was Bran’s. He tapped outside the door, then lifted the hanging. “Meliara, it’s time to go see Papa.”
Ordinarily Branaric never called me Meliara, but I was too distracted to notice right then.
“Bran!” I leaped to my feet. “I did it—just finished! Look!” I pulled him into the room, which had once been a kind of parlor for the servants, during the days when the castle had had plenty of servants. Pointing proudly at the table, I said, “I know how to cheer Papa, Bran. I’ve found us a way to pay this year’s taxes! It’s taken me two days, but I really believe I have it. It’ll buy us another year—you know we need another year. Look,” I babbled, stooping down to tap each pile of papers. “Every village, every town in Tlanth, and what it has, what it owes, and what it needs. Not counting the gold we set aside for our Denlieff mercenaries—”
I looked up, my mouth still moving, but the stricken look in Bran’s eyes sent all the plans from my mind as if that cold wind had swept them into the shadowy corners with the dead leaves.
Branaric gazed at me, his face unfamiliar. My brother always smiled—with his mouth, his eyes, even the little quirk in his straight brows. Julen once said that he’d been born smiling, and he’d probably die the same. There was no smile now.
“Papa?” I asked, my throat constricting.
He jerked his chin down. “Wants us both. We’d better be quick.”
I batted aside the door hanging and ran out. My bare feet slapped the cold stone flooring, and I shivered and yanked my blanket closer. I felt the old wool give and the hole at my elbow widened as I dashed past the warmth of the kitchen and up the tower stairs.
Bran was just behind me. Neither of us spoke as we toiled round and round, up to the little room at the top of the tallest tower of our castle. The cold was bitter, promising a fierce winter. As I ran I pulled my blanket tighter, tucking the ends through the rope I used as a sash.
The fourth round brought us to Papa’s room. He was completely alone—the villagers who had taken turns sitting with him had been sent away—and the windows were wide open. Despite two of our three precious Fire Sticks burning brightly in the fireplace and on a makeshift brazier near the bed, the room was shockingly cold.
“Papa—” I cried, flinging myself down by the high, narrow bed. “It’s not good for you to be so cold when you’re sick—”
“Leave it, child.” His voice was just a whisper. “I want to die hearing the windharps. Already the Hill Folk mourn me…”
I heard it then, a faint, steady humming on the wintry breeze, carried down from the distant mountain peaks. The sound was eerie but strangely calming, and I turned away from the window, the cold air forgotten.
“Papa—” That was Bran.
Our father’s gray beard stirred as he turned his head. He gave Bran a weak, tired smile, no more than a twitching of the lips, and it wrenched at my heart. “Be not sad, my boy. Be pleased.” Papa spoke with effort. “The Hill Folk honor me. All my life I have kept the Covenant, and I shall die keeping it. They know it, and they send their music to guide my spirit from the mortal realm.”
I took his hand, which felt cold and dry. Pressing it against my cheek, I said, “But Papa, you are not to worry about Greedy Galdran’s tax demand. I’ve found a way to pay it—I just finished!”
The gnarled fingers briefly gripped my hand. “It’s no longer time for taxes, child. It’s time to go to war. Galdran’s demand was not meant to be fulfilled. It was an excuse. His cousin wants our lands.”
“But we’re not ready,” I protested numbly. “Just one more year—” I heard the scrape of a shoe behind me, and Bran touched my shoulder.
Papa tried to smile, but we could see the effort it took. “Meliara. Branaric and Khesot know the time is come, but that is what they are trained for. Indeed, daughter, they are ready because of the help you have given them this past year.”
I fell silent. His desperate gaze shifted from me to my brother and then back as he spoke with increasing difficulty.
“Remember, my children…although your mother chose to adopt into my family, she was a Calahanras…the last of the very finest royal house ever to rule Remalna. If she had wanted, she could have raised her banner, and half the kingdom would have risen, gladly, in her name. You two are half Calahanras. You have her wit, and her brains. You can take Remalna, and you will be better rulers than any Merindar ever was.”
I stared at my father, not knowing what to say. To think. It was the first time he had mentioned our mother since that horrible day, nearly ten years ago, when the news had come that she had died so suddenly and mysteriously while on a journey to the capital, Remalna-city.
“Promise me,” he said, struggling up on one elbow. His breath wheezed in and out, and his skin was blotchy with the effort, but his voice was strong. “Promise me!…You will…fight Galdran…protect Tlanth…and the Covenant…” He slumped, fighting for breath.
“Papa,” I quavered.
Bran reached for the frail old hand. “Papa, please. Rest. Be easy—”
“Promise!” He gripped our hands, pulling us toward him. “You must…promise me…”
“I promise,” I said quickly.
“And I,” Branaric said. “Now, Papa, you must try to rest.”
“It’s too late for…” His eyes closed, and his fingers loosened from mine, and wandered without purpose over the bedclothes. “Khesot…You and Khesot, Branaric…as soon as our hirelings get here from Denlieff, then you attack. Surprise…will carry you a long way.”
Bran jerked his chin up. “Just as you say, Papa.”
“And trust Azmus.” Papa trembled with the effort it took to speak clearly. “He was your mother’s liegeman…If—if he had been with her on that cursed trip, she would be with us now…Listen to him. I didn’t, once, and…” Grief wracked his face, grief and pain.
“We understand, Papa,” Bran said quickly. I couldn’t talk—my throat hurt too much.
Our father gave a long sigh of relief, sinking into his pillows. “You’re a good boy, Branaric. No, a man now…a man these four years. And Meliara, almost grown…” He turned his head to look at me. Horror seized my wits when I saw the sheen of tears in his eyes. “Meliara, so like your mother. I wronged you, my daughter. Please forgive me for neglecting you…”
Neglect? I thought of the years that Bran had reluctantly gone up to the tower to wrestle with musty old learning-books while I ran free with Oria and the other village children and, in summers, roamed the high mountains to dance with the Hill Folk under the full moon. My father had always seemed a distant, preoccupied man, and after Mother’s death he had become even more distant. It was her I’d missed, and still missed.
I sucked in my breath, trying hard not to cry. “But I was happy, Papa,” I said. “It wasn’t neglect, it was freedom.”
My father smiled. The tears shone in the furrows beside his eyes. “Free…” I don’t know if he was repeating what I said or beginning a new thought; whichever, it was destined to remain unfinished, at least in this world.
He fell silent, his hands reaching again. This time when we each gripped his fingers, there was no response. His breath slowed, then stopped.
Branaric stood helplessly, staring at the still figure in the bed. Feeling numb—unreal—I took Papa’s thin hands, which were still warm, and laid them gently across his breast. Then I turned to my brother. “There’s nothing we can do now, except gather the villagers…” And prepare the funeral fires. I couldn’t say the words.
Bran’s chest heaved in a sob, and he pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes. His grief dissolved my numbness, and I began to weep.
Bran opened his arms and I cast myself into them, and we stood there for a long time, crying together while the cold wind swirled round us and the distant windharps of the Hill Folk hummed.
It was Bran who pulled away. He gripped my shoulders. “Mel, we have to keep that promise. Both of us. But you don’t know—” He shook his head and knuckled his eyes. “Together. I know I’m the oldest, and Papa named me the heir, but I promise right now, we’ll share the title. Half and half, you and me, even if we disagree—which I hope won’t happen. All we have now is this old castle, and the county’s people to protect—and each other.”
“I don’t want to be a countess,” I said, sniffling. “Look at me! Wearing a horse blanket and running about with bare feet! I don’t know the first thing about being a countess.”
“You’re not going to Court,” Bran said. “You’re going to war. And about that”—he winced—”about that, I think you know just about as much as I do.”
“What do you mean?”
Bran sidled a glance at Papa’s body. “I know it’s stupid. He can’t hear us. But I don’t feel right about telling you these things up here. Let’s stop the fires and go downstairs.”
We each moved to one of the blazes and said the Words of Power over a Fire Stick. The fires flickered out with a snap. I picked up my Stick, which was still warm; I wrapped my chilled fingers around it and waited as Bran picked his up, with a last glance at the still figure on the bed.
“Have you been keeping secrets from Papa?” I asked, full of foreboding, as we started down the long spiral.
“Had to.” Bran took a deep, unsteady breath. “He aged ten years when Mama was killed, and every year since, he’s seemed to add another ten. Until this year. Of late each day seems to have added ten.”
“Better tell me, then,” I said.
“There’s no way to make this easy,” Bran warned as we reached the ground floor again. “First you should know why Papa wanted us to go on the attack right away: Azmus has proof that the king, and his cousin, plan to break the Covenant. It’s a letter that Debegri wrote. It’s full of fancy language, but what it means is he’s offering our colorwoods for sale outside our kingdom. For gold.”
“What about the Hill Folk? The woods are theirs! It’s been that way for centuries!”
Branaric shook his head slowly. “Not if Debegri gets his way—and Azmus knows the king is behind this scheme, because royal messengers were sent to carry the letter.”
“But we haven’t heard from those warrior captains we hired—”
“Now it’s time for you to hear the secret I kept from Papa.” Bran’s expression hardened. “Those mercenaries from Denlieff took our money and vanished.”
I whirled around to face him. “What? Do we know that for certain? Could they have been delayed—or ambushed—by Galdran?”
Bran shrugged. “I don’t know. The only reliable informant we could send to find out would be Azmus.”
“But isn’t he still in the capital with Papa’s letter to the king?”
“Awaiting the signal to deliver it and disperse copies through all the Court, just as Papa ordered. But as to the mercenaries from Denlieff, both our messengers have returned and reported that the commander isn’t to be found. No one’s even heard of him or his troop.” Bran added sourly, “I thought all along this was as risky as trusting skunks not to smell.”
As we stopped by the empty kitchen and laid the Fire Sticks on the great table, I made a last attempt at hope. “But Papa was so certain they’d believe in our cause.”
“Mercenaries don’t have causes—or they wouldn’t be swords for hire,” Bran retorted. “We really need someone trained to captain our people and teach us fighting skills.”
“We can’t hire anyone else. We haven’t the gold,” I said. “I just spent two days trying to work around the sums we had to send for the taxes.”
Bran raised his hands. “Then we are on our own, sister.”
I groaned as we walked the last few steps to the old stewards’ parlor, and I swatted aside the hanging. Then I stopped again and groaned louder. I’d forgotten the broken window. All my careful piles of paper were strewn around the room like so much snow.
Bran took in the mess and scratched his head. “I sure hope you wrote down your figures,” he said with a rueful smile.
“Of course I didn’t,” I muttered.
He slewed around and stared at me. “You didn’t?”
“No. I hate writing. It’s slow, and my letters are still ill formed, and the ink blobs up, and my fingers get stiff in the cold. I simply separated all the villages’ lists of resources and figured out who could give a bit more. Those papers went in one pile. The villages that are overreached went in another pile. I made mental trades in my mind until I managed to match the totals demanded by Galdran. Then I was going to find Oria and tell it all to her so she could write it down.” I shrugged.
Though I’d only learned to read and write the year before, it was I who kept track of our careful hoard of supplies, and the taxes, and the plans—and now all my work was scattered over the stone floor of the room.
We stared until the plop-plop of raindrops coming through the broken window and landing on the papers forced us into action.
Working together, we soon got all the papers picked up. Bran silently gave me his stack, and I pressed them all tightly against me. “I still have approximate totals in my head,” I assured him. “I’ll find Oria and get her to write it out, and we can see where we are. We’ll be all right, Bran. We will.” I wanted desperately to see that stricken look ease—or I would begin crying all over again.
Bran lifted his gaze from the mess of rain-spattered papers in my arms and smiled crookedly. “A horse blanket, Mel?”
I remembered what I was wearing. “It tore in half when Hrani tried washing it. She was going to mend it. This piece was too small for a horse, but it was just right for me.”
Bran laughed a little unsteadily. “Mel. A horse blanket.”
“Well, it’s clean,” I said defensively. “Was—at least, it doesn’t smell of horse.”
Bran dropped onto the three-legged stool, still laughing, but it was a strange, wheezy sort of laugh. “A countess wearing a horse blanket and a count who hates fighting, leading a war against a wicked king who has the largest army the kingdom has ever known. What’s to become of us, Mel?”
I knelt down—carefully, because of the broken crockery—set my papers aside, and took his hands. “One thing I’ve learned about doing the figures: You don’t solve the problem all at once, or it’s like being caught in a spring flood under a downpour. You solve the problem in pieces…We’ll send our letter to the king. Maybe Galdran will actually listen, and abide by the Covenant, and ease taxes, so we don’t have to go to war. But if he doesn’t, some of those courtiers ought to agree with us—they can’t all be Galdran’s toadies—which means we’ll surely get allies. Then we’ll gather the last of our supplies. And then…”
“And then?” Bran repeated, his hands on his knees. His dark blue eyes seemed darker with the intensity of his emotions.
“And then…” I faltered, feeling overwhelmed with my own emotions. I took a deep breath, reminding myself of my own advice. Pieces. Break it all into small pieces. “And then, if Galdran attacks us, we’ll fight. Like I said, maybe we’ll have help. The courtiers will see it in Papa’s letter to the king: We are not doing this for ourselves. We’re doing it to protect the Hill Folk, for if Papa is right, and Galdran’s cousin wants to break the Covenant and start chopping down the great trees again, then the Hill Folk will have nowhere to live. And we’re doing it for our people—though not just them. For all the people in the kingdom who’ve had to pay those harsh taxes in order to build Galdran that big army.”
Branaric got to his feet. “You’re right. In pieces. I’ll remember that…Let’s get through today first. We have to tell everyone in the village about Papa, and send messengers throughout Tlanth, and get ready for the funeral fire.”
My first impulse was to run and hide, for I did not look forward to facing all that pity. But it had to be done—and we had to do it together.
And afterward, when the village was quiet and lights went out, I could slip out of the castle and run up the mountainside to where I could hear the reed flutes mourning.
The Hill Folk would emerge, looking a little like walking trees in the moonlight, and wordlessly, accompanied by their strange music—which was a kind of magic in itself—we would dance to somber cadence, sharing memory, and grief, and promise.
by Sherwood Smith
$3.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-071-2