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Authors: Anna Kendall

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BOOK: Crossing Over
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I made my way to the bottom of the ladder. During the night the clouds had cleared and a nearly full moon shone through the open stable door. The air was cold and sharp, the silence broken only by the restless stamping of horses. I curled up in a corner, on a pile of not-too-clean straw, but no more sleep came.
At dawn a man entered the stable from the inn and stood over me. “Are you Roger Kilbourne?”
He thrust a hunk of bread and meat at me. “Then eat breakfast. We start for court shortly. Faugh, lad, you smell! Wash at the well or you don’t ride with me.”
“Yes, sir.”
I did as he told me and hurried back to the stable yard. The courier had just finished saddling his horse. “At least you’ll ride light, lad. There’s naught to you but bones and eyes. Here, put this on. You can’t go to court in those bloody and torn clothes, what ails you?”
It was a tunic of green wool, clean and whole, and I guessed it was his own. He was just as thin as I, but four or five inches shorter. The tunic was too short but fit everywhere else. Almost overcome by this simple kindness, I stammered, “Thank you, sir.”
“I’m not ‘sir,’ I’m a courier. My name is Christopher Beale—call me Kit. By damn, you know nothing of court life, do you?”
“No, sir . . .
“Then the skies alone know what will happen to you there. Come on.”
He swung easily onto the saddle, then reached down a hand to me. The truth was that I had never before ridden a horse. But I sensed that I would now have to do many things I had never before done, so I grasped his hand and half climbed, was half pulled up behind him. I almost gasped; we were so
Kit twisted in the saddle to look at me. “You’ve never ridden pillion before?”
“N-no.” The height was dizzying; I clutched his waist.
“And what is it you’re going to be at court?”
“A l-laundress.”
He stared at me a moment longer, shook his head, and we cantered off. I hung on for my life. But after a few minutes the rocking of the animal between my thighs came to seem more natural, and I lost some—not all—of my fear of falling off.
We rode all day before coming to a wide river. There was a fishing village here, large and prosperous, but we didn’t stop. Kit turned the horse west, on a wide, well-used road along the river. Just beyond the village, we stopped and dismounted to let the horse drink. My knees bowed outward, and when I tried to walk, I nearly fell. Kit grinned.
“You’ll get used to it. Or maybe not. A laundress, did you say?”
“Yes. Does . . . does the court lie along the coast?” I knew it did not, but I wanted to get Kit Beale talking, so that I might learn from him as much as possible. He shook his head and gave me a superior smile.
And yet I could tell you things about the country of the Dead, and then
would be the ignorant one
Kit said, not unkindly, “No, lad, no. Don’t you know the lay of The Queendom, your own homeland? Look here.” He drew his sword and began to sketch in the dust of the road. “See, here is the coast. We came up from the south, the wild coast, from just before the border with the Unclaimed Lands. This river here”—he drew it with the tip of his sword—“is the River Thymar. The palace is in the capital city, Glory, on a large island far upriver, just before the Lynmar joins the Thymar. The Queendom is one huge valley. We’re surrounded by mountains to the south and west, hills to the north, and the sea to the east. The valley we’re in is all flat, fertile land. Easy riding.”
“Where is Hygryll?”
“Hygryll? I don’t know it, but the name sounds like the south. Maybe in the mountains of the Unclaimed Lands.”
“It’s on Soulvine Moor.”
All at once his eyes grew cold. “What business could
have with Soulvine Moor?”
“Nothing. I just heard the name once.”
“You’d do better to never have heard it. That’s no place for men to go, lad.”
Kit shoved his sword back in its sheath. “We go now. We’ve tarried too long already.”
“Why is Soulvine—”
“Be quiet,” he snapped, and I was.
He said nothing to me that night, nor the following day’s ride to the capital. Not one single word. I had closed off my only source of information.
Although I knew that Glory, the capital of The Queendom, lay inland, that did not mean that I could ever have imagined the city itself. Hartah had kept us to villages, small and isolated, where there was less chance of encountering soldiers. And yet as Kit and I first approached the capital, it looked to me almost like a village, a vast village of thatched huts and numerous greens, all set between fields now busily being harvested of their crops. I saw no shops of any kind. As Kit had sketched in the dust, the whole was ringed in the far distance, south and west, by mountains, those in the west sharply high against the blue sky and those in the south hidden in soft haze. To the north, the country rose gradually in gentle hills.
In fact, The Queendom was a series of rings nestled inside each other. The widest was the distant, three-sided curve of mountains and hills. Then came a vast ring of plains, fields, pastures, and—although I could not see them now—the smaller villages through which Hartah had wandered. Closer in was this sprawling web of connected villages, curiously devoid of shops or alehouses, which circled an island in the wide River Thymar. And on the island was the capital city of Glory.
The entire island was ringed by a high, thick stone wall that came right to the water’s edge. Soldiers patrolled the ramparts. Huge iron gates, now all raised, were set into the wall. Wide, high stone bridges connected the riverbanks to the island. Other gates had no bridges but instead docks, to which barges came and went on the placid waters of the river. In some places, the circling island wall seemed to project out
the river, which I didn’t understand.
The only thing visible beyond the city wall was a single slender tower, soaring several stories high and dotted with narrow, slitted windows. An open section near the top held immense bells. Above that was a flat roof surrounded by a parapet.
“Don’t gape like a fool,” Kit said. “You’re not even inside yet.”
We were stopped at the land side of a bridge, where a guard dressed in blue read a paper that Kit handed him. The guard glared at Kit’s green tunic, then at his face, and Kit glared back. As the horse clattered over the stone bridge, I glanced back over my shoulder. The guard in blue made a gesture at us, one so filthy that in any farming village it would have started a fight to the death.
The Blues and the Greens. Even in the countryside we knew of this, the scandalized talk of every faire and alehouse. I said, “Kit, what—” but my words were drowned out by the pealing of the bells in the tower. They sang a sweet song—but it was
. When the clamor stopped, we had passed under the iron gate and I forgot my question in astonishment at Glory.
Never had I imagined such a place.
Another ring, but nothing like the villages outside. Stone walls ran crazily through the city, carving it into small spaces crammed with tents. The tents held people, shops, livestock, alehouses—everything I had ever seen in the world, all crammed into spaces too small to hold them, all yelling and reeking. Children shrieked, running among the legs of adults. Chickens cackled. Songbirds in painted cages trilled, adults cried out to each other, a fiddler played, with a wooden box at his feet to receive coins. Everything seemed for sale—food and copper work and live ducks and cloth and chamber pots and leather goods and ale—and at least half of it smelled.
“Red pea soup! Good red pea soup, made fresh this morning!”
“Chickens! Live chickens!”
“Lemme go, Gregory, it’s not your turn!”
“Lavender and herbs!”
“That was my pot, you oaf! Mine!”
“Empty your chamber pot
, will you!”
“Grain for bread!”
“I saw it first!”
“Red pea soup!”
My senses reeled. Kit smiled.
“Flooded your brain, has it, lad? We’ll be inside soon.”
? “Is it all like this?”
“Everything outside the palace. The law says no trade for three leagues around Glory except within the city itself. There’s not much room left on the island, and the old queen decreed that no stone or wood structures are allowed here. Except the palace, of course.”
That explained all the tents. I saw now that the stone walls, which probably surrounded the palace, were all connected, a single vast structure with sections that shot out in all directions like a huge, rigid, gray plant sprouting stone branches. Some of these branches were short and wide, some long and narrow, some curled gracefully back on themselves like tendrils of stone, some led to other structures, round or boxy or triangular—there was no pattern to it, no plan. And no windows, anywhere. Not one. The palace was another ring, although irregular in the extreme, within the circle of the city. What must it be like inside, at the heart of all these rings?
Kit shouldered his way through the crowded, narrow streets, leading the horse, which barely fit but seemed accustomed to the close, smelly din. People shouted at Kit and he shouted back. Over his shoulder he called to me, “Much of this rabble goes home off the island at night!” I said nothing, stunned by the noise and reek and lack of space to move.
We edged our way toward a wooden gate set into the palace wall. Kit showed his papers to yet another guard, this one dressed in green. The gate was opened, and we stepped inside the palace.
I blinked. Everything was different.
a large stableyard, open to the sky, very clean and very quiet. The thick wooden gate shut out all noise from the city. The very cobblestones seemed to have been scrubbed of normal dirt. A stable boy rushed forward to take Kit’s horse and lead it into a closed stable at one side of the stable yard. Kit and I walked to the other side of the yard, the crunch of our boots on stone the only sound, and through a second, less fortified gate.
Another courtyard, planted with bushes and boxed in by stone walls with many wooden doors, all painted green. Servants went in and out of the doors. I said timidly, “I have a letter of introduction to one Emma Cartwright, a serving woman to—”
“You go nowhere until you’ve bathed,” Kit said with disgust. “You
a savage, aren’t you? There, to the left—that’s the laborers’ baths. I’ll be here when you’re done.” He strode through doors on the right. Almost I ran after him—what would I do if I were left alone in this strange place? But I did as I was told and went through one of the doors on the left.
More strangeness! The room—perhaps more than one room—had been built out over the river, and the floor removed except for a wide ledge around all four walls. A new floor, wooden on stone pilings, had been built two feet under the water, so that the Thymar flowed right through the room. A few men bathed, naked, in the clean water. I remembered that we had passed a section of the Thymar downriver where it had abruptly turned reeking and foul; the city’s sewage must be sent there. Here, upriver, the water was clean for bathing, and perhaps farther upriver, cleaner yet for drinking. It was an ingenious system.
I removed my clothing and piled it on a shelf against the wall. Other shelves held bars of strong soap. I scrubbed myself clean, pulled back on the tunic Kit had given me, and cleaned my boots in the water. Since I couldn’t bear to put on my smelly small clothes, I wadded them up and left them in a corner, going without underclothes. There was also nothing I could do about my filthy trousers, but the tunic hung to my hips, hiding the worst. Having no comb, I ran my fingers over and again through my wet hair until it held no tangles.
Kit waited in the courtyard, wearing fresh clothes. No riding clothes, these, but a tunic of green velvet, white silk hose, and green shoes. His dark hair gleamed and he had a silver earring in his left ear. I saw that despite his slight stature, he was handsome: a manly little man.
BOOK: Crossing Over
10.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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