by Sylvia Kelso
The kingdom of Everran is dying, razed by a dragon that came out of nowhere to burn its oil groves and devastate its vineyards and kill its folk. Legend says, a dragon’s coming always has a cause. Why has the dragon come? What does the dragon know? One man knows the riddle’s answer. No man knows that answer’s cost.
The first Chronicle of Rihannar. Other books in this series: The Moving Water, The Red Country.
“Kelso knows how to use fantasy to fathom the depths of the human heart.”
—Sydney Morning Herald
Where the dragon came from, nobody knows. It may have flown down from the torrid north, up from the icy south, east across the endless red deserts of Hethria, or west over the bulging blue eyeball of Nerrys’yr, the Peaceful Ocean. Whatever its origins, most people were sorry that it fell upon Everran, which was not only a small kingdom but prosperous, and not only a prosperous land but a contented one. They may have felt such a place should be dragon-proof as well as extraordinary.
As dragons go it was quite ordinary. That is, it was longer than an ocean-going ship, black, mail-clad, claw-toed, fire-breathing, winged, and ravenous. Or silver, fire-breathing, crested with stings, bearing a scorpion’s tail, and ravenous. Or molten gold, crocodile-legged, fire-breathing, winged, clawed, possessing eyes that spellbound its prey before the teeth dismembered him. And ravenous. Always ravenous.
These descriptions come from eyewitnesses, or, at least, those who left at speed from a safe distance. No one close enough for accuracy survived.
Which brings me into this song: my name is Harran, and for three years before the dragon came I was hearthbard to the Everran kings. Being hearthbard, I am naturally a harper, which as naturally means, lore-keeper: the guardian of past and present, to whom truth is a sacred trust. I shall have cause to remember that, before this song ends. But I pledged myself to make it, and the holder of that pledge shall have truth entire and unbroken, however discreditable it proves to me.
My own origins are not a mystery. I come from Meldene, those high western hills where the winds riot and the yeldtar bloom crimson amid the gray rocks and gray hethel trees. People call it a hard country, grudging, dull: but if you pause to watch the sun slide on the hethellin groves, or try to number the subtle shades of gray that play amid the leaves in their twinkling galaxies, you may never crave bright colors again.
Perhaps that vision, like the memory of my parents’ tall, narrow house above the gate in Vethmel, is biased by time as well as miles. After all, it is eleven years since I left for Saphar with a harp under my elbow and a most noble ambition to be the crower of the age, eleven years that have brought me from the carriers’ taverns to the houses of the carriers’ masters, thence to the hethel oil and vineyard owners’ halls, and on to the marble floors and rosewood ceilings of the palace itself. It is a fine palace, despite its oddity. It overlooks Saphar as Saphar overlooks Everran: a thin angular heap of towers and sun-rooms and open audience halls, straggling along the thin high cinnabar scarp from which Saphar falls in rucks of red tile and golden thatch and whitewash to the loop of Azilien, whose clear blue currents girdle the city like a gemstone in a ring.
Curiously for a capital, Saphar itself was a happy town. There were few beggars, except those too lazy to work, and Everran has plenty of work. The soil of Gebria and Tirs and Meldene is too poor for our neighbors to covet, but the vineyards of Stiriand and Saphar and the hethel groves of Meldene demand much labor, and repay in kind. Hethel oil has underwritten half our aristocrats, and our wine is counted the best in the Confederacy. Since our people are too canny to breed big, expensive families, we need not export men, and our lords learnt three generations back to keep their place in things. There were cobbles in the streets, good engineers had arranged the water supply to the many fountains, and the houses rarely fell down, causing lawsuits more often than funerals when they did
I knew little of that when I looked up that first time, pausing on the bridge over Azilien. It was a clear sunset, with a sky like a vast azure bell, making the crimson-shot bulk of the Helkent ranges a mere backdrop for the city beneath. In the elbow-crook of river and range it rose upon its knoll in cornice after cornice of golden light, glossed blue with smoke, edged bright with sunset gilt, buzzing and ringing like a happy human hive. Close by came a cheerful racket from a wayside inn. Higher, a harper was playing in some wine-lord’s feast. Highest of all, silver bells rang out from Asterne’s lookout post, a sweet wind out of the autumn sky. I shifted my father’s harp in its old leather sling, and thought: I shall be a song-king. Here is my inheritance.
If there may be more than one kind of king, there was only one king in Saphar, as Beryx taught me the first time I played for him. It was in the great audience hall, at the feast on Fire’s day. My patron was a high lord, since I was well up my peak by then, and he took me as others took their jesters or jugglers or fire-swallowers: to amuse Beryx, after the lord Iahn had been pledged on His hearth, and the real drinking of the night began.
In such a small capital royalty is not remote. Beryx had crossed my path a score of times, riding out with hawk or hound or border cavalry, banqueting in guildhalls, dispensing justice or inspecting half-built porticoes, overseeing the wine and oil weighed in market when the Confederate traders came. That night in the palace still seems my first real sight of him.
Red light from burning tarsal wood and golden light from pendant hethel lamps overflowed the hall, cascading through open arches into the sky where Valinhynga, the evening’s herald, loveliest of planets, was just pricking through. In Saphar, men dress their halls in air and dress to allow for it. All down the table the lords wore fur-lined jackets and trousers of creamy Quarred wool, with gold chains of office shining over everything. They answered the silver tableware, the ruby glow of wine, the glitter of gems on the ceremonial sword sheaths propped against each chair. But at the table’s head Beryx leant a little aside, chin in palm, elbow on the arm of the king’s seat, and all the light of the hall seemed to gather on his royal crimson cloak, his raven hair, and his long, lazy, twinkling green eyes, that saw so much and made such a joke of it all.
Sea-eyes, the name means, so it was of sea I sang: not Nerrys’yr, the wide blue ocean, but Berfing, the green southern sea where the whalers of Hazghend stain the ice-floes red with blood. Everyone knows that in boyhood he ran away to ship with them. As I sang I could see the royal brooch, a huge circlet of whale-tooth ivory, rich cream upon his crimson cloak.
The lords clapped at the end, in more than courtesy. It made my patron flush. He was high in his clique, and ambitious of climbing higher, and had seen me as a chancy ladder rung. He called to Beryx, “Is he not a prince of harpers, lord?”
Beryx nodded. Then the corners of his long mouth went up, and he drawled, “A prince of harpers, Vellan. But not—yet—a king.”
Though Vellan was a ruddy man I saw his color fade. It was a mere moment, a tiny aside. Yet I, too, saw those eyes were the color of an iceberg’s shadow, and I, too, understood.
Then Beryx looked back to me and smiled, a real smile this time. “Harpers are long-minded in Meldene,” he said. “So, you will find, are kings.”
So I went back to the lords’ halls, and I wrought with my art as vinegrowers do with weeds. And two years later, when the corsairs ravaged Quarred and Beryx took his soldiers down to a great cleansing by the sea, I made a song about newer deeds.
When I finished, he leant back in the high seat and nodded toward the right side of the fire, the place of a hearthbard, which had been empty since his father’s harper Quennis died.
“Bring a seat for the harper, Kyvan,” he told his chamberlain. “He has been standing long enough.”
* * * * *
The king’s hearthbard is expected to entertain at every banquet, with an endless fund of songs and a fine tact in their choice. He also adorns household ceremonies, from Lords’ days to chambermaids’ betrothals, creates memorable lore from mundanities, and commemorates both his lord’s judgments and his nobility. I had my rank, my bardic lodging, my robes and role to fill. The one flat in the strings, and that an ungrateful one, was within me. Beryx was easy to serve and easier to compliment: in three years I never had to hide one shabby deed. But in those three years I was never more or less to him than a hearthbard, and he was never more or less to me than a king.
Nevertheless, it was as hearthbard that I had attended audience, on that chill spring morning when the first news came. Counselors, messengers, plaintiffs had all come muffled to the eyebrows: I relished the fire near my own ribs. Vast blue gulfs of air spread below us over the slopes of Saphar Resh, which were all that most delicate green of newly burgeoned vines. Trying to catch it in a couple of phrases, I hardly heeded the messenger, till the silence round him made my fumblings over-clear.
“…from Pentyr, lord.” A farmer, an ordinary pharr’az, dirty breeches, wide straw hat, wide red face. But the cheeks were drawn in, and shiny with sweat. “Couldn’t find a mirror-signaler nowhere, we thought best to send… There’s half a deme of vineyards scorched to ash. ’N steadings burnt. My neighbor Varn.” He swallowed noisily. “We heard the screams. ’N Pensal’s gone, lord. That selfsame night. Fire high as the stars… Burning. We smelt it on the wind.”
I saw general Inyx’s hand clench upon his sword. He had gone against the corsairs. He knew what such burning meant.
Counselors clucked like hawk-scared fowls. In the high seat, Beryx’s face was hidden from me, but Inyx stiffened when he spoke.
“Pentyr deme burnt. Pensal razed. Where was my lieutenant in the north?”
The farmer rolled his eyes up. Appalled, I saw he had begun to weep.
“Marched out, lord. All t’garrison of Pirlase, ’n Lyvar at their head. When I left ’twas three days—three days quiet. ’N never a man of ’em come back.”
Inyx’s sword rasped, half-drawn, then driven home into the sheath. Beryx said, “Thank you.” Then, to the chamberlain, “Kyvan, attend this messenger. Counselors, good day.”
Counselors’ mouths opened. Shut. Out they went, and the rest with them. Only Inyx stood his ground.
Beryx left his high seat and paced about. Harper and general, we watched him as he walked, wind fluting the crimson cloak, across the hall and back across, blazing, dulling, from arch to sunlit arch. Tall, and straight as a spearhaft: a kingly king.
Halting, he looked at Inyx: squat, black, gnarled as an aged hethel tree, his calling in his face. Their eyes spoke, an old comradeship.
Beryx said, “Pentyr deme. Half Stiriand Resh.”
I remember finding it odd that Inyx, usually so definite, should seem hesitant, indeed reluctant to speak.
“Lyngthirans,” he growled at last.
Beryx shook his head. “There’d have been some alarm.”
“Too early. And too far north.”
When Inyx said nothing, he went on, “Pensal sacked. A whole deme burnt in a night. Not an entire army could do that.”
Inyx growled in his throat. Beryx said, “And the Pirlase garrison clean gone. If it were raiders, someone would have got back.”
Not raiders? What else on earth could it be? I looked at Inyx, still mute. Beryx looked too.
Then he said, “You think it is.”
If Inyx did not want to listen, nor did he like what he heard. He shook his head about. Then he burst out, “Why should it be? What’s to say it’s that at all? It could be—”
“It could be what?” He waited. “It could be what, old lad?”
Inyx growled under his breath and tossed up both hands in a surrender long since become habitual. “The Phathos?”
“The Phathos,” Beryx agreed, “first.”
* * * * *
So messengers went to the observatory of the Phathos, the seer of Now, Then, and Soon. And the Phathos, sitting in the high seat with his claw fingers on the carven chair arms and his thin white beard tumbling over the blue velvet gown that hid his thin old knees, closed his eyes and said in his thin high voice, “It is a Skybane. Its name is Hawge.”
Any question of Whence or Why it came or How it might be removed, he declined to hear.
Since the hearthbard is also made free of the king’s presence chamber, I too received that messenger. After he left, Beryx set a foot on the hearth-kerb and stared down into the core of the fire.
“A Skybane,” he said.
On the hearth the coals glared, red as the aura of that word. A Skybane: known in lore if not in living memory, and through that lore they move like baleful meteors. Small matter indeed if it had come down from the torrid north, up from the icy south, east across Hethria, or west over the Peaceful Ocean. It was here. Fabulous, legendary. Crown of scourges, king of catastrophes.
Slowly my training reasserted itself. Harpers are men’s judges as well as their memorials. It was for Beryx to deal with this. It was my part to gauge how he dealt. But within the common urge to refuge with our betters from disaster, within the harper’s scrutiny, rose a small sharp personal interest: now, at last, I would plumb the man under the crown.
He was still gazing into the heart of the fire. The green eyes were cold, but to my astonishment, full of an intransigent mirth. Then his mouth corners went up.
“A dragon,” he drawled. “And in our time. Sad luck—for us.”
“Sad luck?” The last thing I had looked for was frivolity.
He gave me the tail of an eye. Then he said wryly, “Prophets are seldom so… concise.”
I gave my opinion of the unhelpful Phathos on my harp. Beryx laughed.
“And its name,” he said, “is Hawge.” His brows knit. “Is there value in knowing that?” Of a sudden he thrust out a foot to hook round a chair and swung himself astride it with elbows on the back as any carrier in a tavern might. Kingship was in his blood. Kingliness he could shed like a cloak.
“What does the lore tell of dragons?” he said.
“There are many songs,” I began.
“Sing them,” he said.
The shadows reversed from east to west while he listened, chin in palms, eyes unwavering upon my face. I sang of the goldsmith who became a dragon when he fell in love with his hoard, and his brother whose greed brought a youth to slay his bloodkin on that golden bed. Of the sea-dragon who ate maidens chained to a rock, slain by the head of a woman whose face turned her beholders into stone. Of the lion-hero who slew the dragon guard upon a tree of golden apples at the Other End of the World, of the fire-breathing monster whose slayer was obliged to ride upon a winged horse. Of the sage who mastered a dragon simply by speaking its name, and the dragon who from vanity showed a spy in its lair, its only chink. Of the bowman who found that chink.
When I finished, Beryx said, “Go on.”
I looked at him. He said, “You know you haven’t sung it yet.”
So I sang of the old king who went out, with nothing but mortal might and valor, to slay a fire-drake and save his land: how the dragon seared his flesh and melted his armor, his horse died, his company fled, and he himself, sore scathed, gave the dragon its death wound and took his own.
I made a cacophony of the final chord. Beryx paid no heed. As the jangle died away, he murmured, “But he saved the land. In the end.”
Then he sat up and began to number briskly on his fingers, showing me how a harper’s vision differs from a king’s.
“Dragons breathe fire and fly. They are so armed and armored, it is an ill march going against them without some great weapon. Of knowledge—or of magic. Which we lack. Or unless you are a hero-god. Which we are not. Their stomachs are bottomless, but they hoard gold: I must visit the Treasury. You can parley with them. We must wait till it lairs for that. They may be mastered by a wizard. Which we also lack. Or… by courage alone.”
“What may be done by courage alone?” asked Sellithar the queen, entering from the garden with a swish of silk and a timbre of laughter in her voice.
Sellithar is tall, and fair as Beryx is dark, and comely as women go: but her deep, pure voice is resonant as human harpsong, which is why I have been in love with her since the first word I heard her speak.
“What may be done?” she repeated as we rose. She was smiling, yet her wide blue eyes held a sort of timidness.
“A dragonslaying,” Beryx told her, smiling also, “as demonstrated by the king of the Geats.”
She caught her breath. Her hand caught the band of sapphires at her throat. Faintly, she said, “Oh, no.”
“No?” He was still smiling. “Why not?”
Her pupils widened till her eyes seemed almost black. “You,” she sounded breathless, “are the king.”
Then, at last, I saw the fullness of the threat. Climbing to my eminence, I had never paused to wonder what upheld the world for me to climb, never pondered the nuances of that word “king.” Never thought past the lucky wanderer, the dashing soldier, to the years of trading, building, dealing justice, managing lords and guilds, guarding borders, keeping the Confederacy in tune. Yet each dull daily decision asked as much skill and foresight as that cold glance which had quenched Vellan’s uprising with a look. How often had I heard it, at some insoluble debate in market or quarry or guildhall? “Take it to the king.” It was upon this Everran rested, as upon the harp’s firm arms the fragile strings.
“Starflower,” he was saying, light as ever, “you and my harper are a pair. He’s sung all morning round what any ditch-digger would tell me. And you won’t even think of it.”
When she did not reply, he spoke at last those words I had so sedulously avoided: the first words in dragon-lore.
“A dragon’s coming is a curse upon a land. Unforeseen, but not unearned.”
She looked down on Everran: lovely, carefree, and prosperous. “What has Everran done, to earn a curse?”
He turned his hand out. “You know the saying.”
“Not in Tirs.” She is from Maer Selloth, citadel of Tirs, our southern Resh. The Resh-lord’s daughter. Wed, perhaps, to secure all three.
“Liar.” He was laughing still. “Skybane, king-bane. King-summoned, king-slain.”
Frightened out of respect, I snapped, “If the king is an idiot.”
“Master harper,” he remarked, while I sat gagged by my insolence. He did not seem offended. He was studying the rich, dark beams of the rosewood roof. “Master harper, what do you suppose the Findarre and Kelflase garrisons will say if I send them after Lyvar’s men—alone?”
I retorted with spirit, “That you are a wise general as well as a king.”
He shook his head. “That’s no road for a king.”
“Better,” I lost all prudence, “to fry nobly and leave Everran to the dragon—and to Vellan’s kind?”
He was looking at me as he had at Vellan. He had not moved a muscle, but his pupils had dilated. It was like hurtling headfirst into two black, deadly, sentient wells.
“Harran is right,” Sellithar, invisible, sounded more breathless than ever. “Beryx, he’s right. If you were—what would Everran do?”
My sight returned. The king had looked away. He strode to his high seat and whipped around, fingers white on Everran’s carven crest of the shield and vine.
“This time,” he said balefully, “I shall quote some lore.” He jerked a thumb at Saphar. “Nine kings ago, our founder Berrian turned that from a pit of brigands to a country’s capital. Eight kings ago, his son threw the Hethox out of Gebria and built a wall to keep them out. Seven kings ago, my forefather Berghend ransomed Meldene when he leapt onto the Hazghend spears. Six kings ago, his son met the Lyngthirans in Stiriand and drove them north of the Kemreswash for good. Five kings ago, his son Berazos founded the Confederacy. Four kings ago, his son brought it through the plague. Three kings ago, my longfather taught the Everran lords that a king is not a corsair’s figurehead. Two kings ago, my grandfather built this palace,” his eye softened, glancing up, “after he led Quarred and Estar to burn the corsairs in their ships. One king ago, my father rebuilt Saphar to match, after he steered us through the five-year drought.” His hand clenched on the crest. “Now comes a Skybane. The king of plagues. Up there,” his hand shot north, “are wasted lands, burnt steadings, razed towns. Dead men. Soldiers. And helpless, innocent folk. That is my land! My forefathers’ trust! Do you think that I, a Berheage, will sit like an Estar shophet and watch it butchered before my eyes!”
From the palace garden a black and white eygnor sang liquidly, limpidly, in the hush behind his steps. Then Sellithar said, between tears and laughter, “He always goes where he wants. And you would have to fight, if you did get there first.”
My only answer was in the harp. It grasped a child’s phrase, summoning the apple-buds to Tirs. Sellithar caught her breath. Said, “Help him, Harran,” and went.