The western frontier, 301
A long long time ago, when Deverry men first sailed west to the province they called Elditiña but which we know today as Eldidd, there lived a man named Paran of Aberwyn. Half scribe and half hunter, he was the son of a merchant house but a restless soul who preferred to sell maps and the hard-won knowledge of new territory rather than haggle in the marketplace. All alone he travelled wild places and lived out of his pack like a pedlar, but he carried dry chunks of ink, a stone for grinding them with water, bunches of river reeds that he could cut into pens, and precious strips of parchment–the kind cut from the edges of the skins as no use to temple scribes. Since in those days there were no lodestones and astrolabes, his maps were rough, of course, the directions squinted out from the sun, the distances an estimate of how far and fast he’d been walking, but he always put in plenty of landmarks–watercourses and suchlike–so that others could follow him. Both the merchant guilds and the noble lords paid high for those maps and the stories he told to go with them.
On one of his trips west, however, Paran ended up with a fair bit more than he’d bargained for. About a week’s walk on foot to the west of Aberwyn, he came to a place where, through a tangle of sapling hazels and fern, he saw a river flowing silently, clear water over white sand. The path he’d been following, a deer trail or so he assumed then, turned to skirt the water and lead deeper into the trees. At the bank itself, though, he found a clearing, a sunny luxury after days in the wild forest. He swung his heavy pack off his shoulders and laid it down for a good stretch of his sore back. To either hand the river ran through a tunnel of trees that promised hard walking ahead. Nearby, the pock pock pock loud in the drowsy summer day, a woodpecker hammered an oak.
“Good morrow, little carpenter,” Paran remarked.
The bird ignored the sound of his voice–puzzling, that. He sat down by his pack, unlaced the leather sack at the top of the wooden frame, and took out a long roll of parchment, scratched and spotted with his map and his notes. He was just having a look at how far he’d come when he heard the barest trace of a sound behind him. He was on his feet and turning in an instant, his hand reaching for the hilt of his sword, but he drew it only to find himself facing an archer, his horn bow drawn, an arrow nocked and ready, out of reach at the forest edge. When Paran let his sword fall and raised his hands in the air, the archer smiled. He was a pale young man, with a long tangle of hair so blond it was nearly white, and boyish-slender with long, narrow fingers. Barefoot, he wore a knee-length tunic of fine pale buckskin, belted in with the quiver of arrows slung at his hip. Around his neck on thongs hung a collection of tiny leather pouches and what seemed to be carved bone charms or decorations. When he spoke quickly in a melodious, lilting, and utterly unknown language, Paran gave a helpless sort of shrug.
“My apologies, lad, but I don’t understand.”
The archer cocked his head in surprise, looked Paran over for a moment, then whistled three sharp notes. From a far distance they heard first one answering whistle, then another. Paran let out his breath in a sigh for the trouble he was in. Paran Broco they’d called him as a child, Paran the badger, always wanting to dig up something new, always poking his snout into things that were no concern of his. Today he had the distinct feeling that he’d poked it a little too far. Two more archers stepped out of the forest, and when the three of them strolled over to inspect their prize, Paran was in for the shock of his life. Their eyes were dark purple, and the enormous irises were slit vertically with pupils like those of cats. Their ears were abnormally long, too, and curled to delicate points like sea-shells. They in their turn were pointing out his eyes and ears to each other and chattering away about them, too, from the sound of it.
“Uh, I mean you no harm. Truly I don’t.”
The three of them smiled in a rather unpleasant way.
“And what have we here?”
The voice seemed to speak in Paran’s language but the young men called out a halloo in their own. As she materialized between two trees, the woman seemed as blonde and boyish as her companions, dressed much like them, too, but when Paran tried to look at her face, her image swam and flickered, as if he’d drunk himself blind. She seemed to age, her tunic changing back and forth from blue to green to gray; then she suddenly was young again. The archers, however, stayed as visible and substantial as himself as they stared at the woman in awe, lips half-parted.
“This is a strange deer you’ve caught in my forest,” she said to them, then turned to Paran. “Who are you?”
“Paran of Aberwyn, my lady. Do you know the place? It’s a little town down by the sea.”
“I don’t, and the sea means naught to me. What are you doing here?”
“Just seeing what I can see. I’m a curious man, my lady, and no man of my race has ever been here.”
“I’m well aware of that, my thanks.”
She studied him with narrow eyes, cold now and yellow as a snake’s, and her lips were tight, too, perhaps in rage, perhaps in contempt–it was hard to tell with her constant shape-shifting–yet of one thing he was sure, that he’d never seen a woman so beautiful or so dangerous. If she gave the word, the archers would fill him with arrows like a leather target at a festival.
“I swear it, my lady. I mean you not the slightest harm.”
“No doubt, but harm can come without a meaning behind it. Your people are the ones who are taking slaves from the river villages, aren’t you?”
“Are those your vassals? I’ll swear to you on the gods of my people that I’ve naught to do with that. My kind of clan doesn’t need bondsmen. We don’t have any lands.”
“They’re not mine, but they’re gentle souls who do no harm and make their tools out of stones. Your people stink of blood and iron.” She turned old, very old, old beyond belief yet still beautiful, and her heavy cloak was gray with mourning. “How much have you killed in my woods?”
“Some squirrels, some hares, and some fish from the river. Forgive me: I didn’t know I was poaching. I didn’t know anyone lived out here.”
“And what will you give me in return?”
“Anything of mine you desire.” Paran pointed at his pack. “Look through it, or take it all if you want.”
Suddenly she was young again, with a smile as disdainful as any high-born lady’s in Elditiña. Her beauty seemed to hang around her like a cloud of scent or crackle in the air like heat-lightning: he found himself struggling for words in his own mind, and him a man who’d always been able to talk his way out of anything before.
“Keep your greasy trinkets. I want the truth for my dues. What truly made you come here?”
“A charge from the merchants of Aberwyn. They wish to find out what lies in this country because they wish to trade. Naught more–only to caravan goods back and forth in peace.”
“But who comes behind them? Those blood-soaked men who build the ugly stone towers and take slaves?”
Paran could only nod in agreement. Like most common-born men in Eldidd, he had never approved of making bondsmen out of people who were neither criminals nor debtors. It infuriated him that he was on the edge of paying for the arrogance of lords.
“If I have you killed,” she said in a musing sort of voice. “No doubt someone else will come, sooner or later. I have no desire to be as cruel as your folk, Paran of Aberwyn. You walk out of my forest alive if you leave today.”
“I will, then.” He gasped in an involuntary relief that made the archers smile. “I’ll even walk hungry to spare your game.”
“No need of that, as long as you take only what you truly need to feed yourself.”
With a smile she laid a slender hand on his cheek, her fingers oddly cool and smooth, allowed him to turn his head and kiss her fingers. Then she was gone; they were all gone; there was only the clearing, the sunlight, his pack and his sword lying in grass. Something else had been there, not but a moment before–Paran couldn’t remember what. Deer, perhaps? Birds? A badger? Then he shrugged the wondering away. Whatever it was, he’d gone far enough into this useless forest, and it was time to head back to Aberwyn. Yet when he knelt to retrieve his pack, he found his map. As he picked it up and read his notes, the memory came back to him, sharp and clear, and he laughed in triumph. Dweomer the lady had, strange and powerful dweomer, but she knew nothing of the ways of men, who write things down to outlast their remembering. Of course, if he told this story of a sorcereress in the woods and her cat-eyed minions, no one was going to believe him anyway. As he set off, he was wondering just how to phrase the thing to the merchant guild of Aberwyn, or if he should say anything at all.
Katharine Kerr has been compulsively writing about the world of Deverry for over 35 years. She also loves cats, not that this will shock you.