Authors: Katharine Kerr
There was darkness, warm and gentle, a dreaming water-darkness: the soft, safe prison of the womb.
In those days, down on the Eldidd coast stretched wild meadows, crisscrossed by tiny streams, where what farmers there were pastured their cattle without bothering to lay
claim to the land. Since the meadows were a good place for an herbman to find new stock, old Nevyn went there regularly. He was a shabby man, with a shock of white hair that always needed combing, and dirty brown clothes that always needed mending, but there was something about the look in his ice-blue eyes that commanded respect, even from the noble-born lords. Everyone who met him remarked on his vigor, too, that even though his face was as wrinkled as old leather and his hands dark with frog spots, he strode around like a young prince. He never seemed to tire, either, as he traveled long miles on horseback with a mule behind him to tend the ills of the various poor folk in Eldidd province. A marvel he is, the farmers all said, a marvel and a half considering he must be near eighty. None knew the true marvel, that he was well over four hundred years old, and the greatest master of the dweomer that the kingdom had ever known.
That particular summer morning, Nevyn was out in the meadows to gather comfrey root, and the glove-finger white flowers danced on the skinny stems as he dug up the plants with a silver spade. The sun was so hot that he sat back on his heels and wiped his face on the old rag that passed for a handkerchief. It was then that he saw the omen. Out in the meadow, two larks broke cover with a heartbreaking beauty of song that was a battle cry. Two males swept up, circling and chasing each other. Yet even as they fought, the female who was their prize rose from the grass and flew indifferently away. With a cold clutch of dweomer knowledge, Nevyn knew that soon he would be watching two men fight over a woman that neither could rightfully have.
She had been reborn.
Somewhere in the kingdom, she was a new babe, lying in her exhausted mother’s arms. On a mirror made of sky he saw it with his dweomer sight.
In a sunny room a midwife stood washing her hands in a basin. On a bed of straw and rags lay a pretty young lass, the mother, her face bathed in sweat from the birth but smiling at a child at her breast. As Nevyn’s sight showed him the baby, the
tiny creature, all damp and red, opened cloudy blue eyes and seemed to stare right at him.
Nevyn jumped to his feet in sheer excitement. The Lords of Wyrd had been kind. This time they were sending him a warning that somewhere she was waiting for him to bring her to the dweomer, somewhere in the vast expanse of the kingdom of Deverry. He could search and find her while she was still a child, before harsh circumstances made it impossible for him to untangle the snarl of their intertwined destinies. This time, perhaps, she would remember and listen to him. Perhaps. If he found her.
The young fool tells his master that he will suffer to gain the dweomer. Why is he a fool? Because the dweomer has already made him pay and pay and pay again before he even stood on its doorstep. …
The Secret Book of
Cadwallon the Druid
A cold drizzle of rain fell. The last of the twilight was closing in like gray steel. Looking at the sky made Jill frightened to be outside. She hurried to the woodpile and began to grab firewood. A gray gnome, all spindly legs and long nose, perched on a big log and picked at its teeth while it watched her. When she dropped a stick, it snatched it and refused to give it back.
“Beast!” Jill snapped. “Then keep it!”
At her anger, the gnome vanished with a puff of cold air. Half in tears, Jill hurried across the muddy yard to the circular stone building, a tavern, where cracks of light gleamed around wooden shutters. Clutching her firewood, she ran down the corridor to the chamber and slipped in, hesitating a moment at the door. The priestess in her long black robe was kneeling by Mama’s bed. When she looked up, Jill saw the blue tattoo of the crescent moon that covered half her face.
“Put some wood on the fire now, child. I need more light.”
Jill picked out the thinnest, pitchiest sticks and fed them into the fire burning in the hearth. The flames
sprang up, sending flares and shadows dancing round the room. Jill sat down on the straw-covered floor in a corner to watch the priestess. On her pallet Mama lay very still, her face deadly pale, oozing drops of sweat from the fever. The priestess picked up a silver jar and helped Mama drink the herb water in it. Mama was coughing so hard that she couldn’t keep the water down.
Jill grabbed her rag doll and held her tight. She wished that Heledd was real, and that she’d cry so Jill could be very brave and comfort her. The priestess set the silver jar down, wiped Mama’s face, then began to pray, whispering the words in the ancient holy tongue that only priests and priestesses knew. Jill prayed, too, in her mind, begging the Holy Goddess of the Moon to let her mama live.
Macyn came to the doorway and stood watching, his thick pudding face set in concern, his blunt hands twisting the hem of his heavy linen overshirt. Macyn owned this tavern, where Mama worked as a serving lass, and let her and Jill live in this chamber out of simple kindness to a woman with a bastard child to support. He reached up and rubbed the bald spot in the middle of his gray hair while he waited for the priestess to finish praying.
“How is she?” Macyn said.
The priestess looked at him, then pointedly at Jill.
“You can say it,” Jill burst out. “I know she’s going to die.”
“Do you, lass?” The priestess turned to Macyn. “Here, does she have a father?”
“Of a sort. He’s a silver dagger, you see, and he rides this way every now and then to give them what coin he can. It’s been a good long while since the last time.”
The priestess sighed in a hiss of irritation.
“I’ll keep feeding the lass,” Macyn went on. “Jill’s always done a bit of work around the place, and ye gods, I wouldn’t throw her out into the street to starve, anyway.”
“Well and good, then.” The priestess held out her hand to Jill. “How old are you?”
“Seven, Your Holiness.”
“Well, now, that’s very young, but you’ll have to be brave, just like a warrior. Your father’s a warrior, isn’t he?”
“He is. A great warrior.”
“Then you’ll have to be as brave as he’d want you to be. Come say farewell to your mama; then let Macyn take you out.”
When Jill came to the bedside, Mama was awake, but her eyes were red, swollen, and cloudy, as if she didn’t really see her daughter standing there.
“Jill?” Mama was gasping for breath. “Mind what Macco tells you.”
“I will. Promise.”
Mama turned her head away and stared at the wall.
“Cullyn,” she whispered.
Cullyn was Da’s name. Jill wished he was there; she had never wished for anything so much in her life. Macyn picked Jill up, doll and all, and carried her from the chamber. As the door closed, Jill twisted round and caught a glimpse of the priestess, kneeling to pray.
Since no one wanted to come to a tavern with fever in the back room, the big half-round of the alehouse stood empty, the wooden tables forlorn in the dim firelight. Macyn sat Jill down near the fire, then went to get her something to eat. Just behind her stood a stack of ale barrels, laced with particularly dark shadows. Jill was suddenly sure that Death was hiding behind them. She made herself turn around and look, because Da always said a warrior should look Death in the face. She found nothing. Macyn brought her a plate of bread and honey and a wooden cup of milk. When Jill tried to eat, the food turned dry and sour in her mouth. With a sigh, Macyn rubbed his bald spot.
“Well now,” he said. “Maybe your da will ride our way soon.”
“I hope so.”
Macyn had a long swallow of ale from his pewter tankard.
“Does your doll want a sip of milk?” he said.
“She doesn’t. She’s just rags.”
Then they heard the priestess, chanting a long sobbing note, keening for the soul of the dead. Jill tried to make herself feel brave, then laid her head on the table and sobbed aloud.
They buried Mama out in the sacred oak grove behind the village. For a week, Jill went every morning to cry beside the grave till Macyn finally told her that visiting the grave was like pouring oil on a fire—she would never put her grief out by doing it. Since Mama had told her to mind what he said, Jill stopped going. When custom picked up again in the tavern, she was busy enough to keep from thinking about Mama, except of course at night. Local people came in to gossip, farmers stopped by on market day, and every now and then merchants and peddlers paid to sleep on the floor for want of a proper inn in the village. Jill washed tankards, ran errands, and helped serve ale when the tavern was crowded. Whenever a man from out of town came through, Jill would ask him if he’d ever heard of her father, Cullyn of Cerrmor, the silver dagger. No one ever had any news at all.
The village was in the northernmost province of the kingdom of Deverry, the greatest kingdom in the whole world of Annwn—or so Jill had always been told. She knew that down to the south was the splendid city of Dun Deverry, where the High King lived in an enormous place. Bobyr, however, where Jill had spent her whole life, had about fifty round houses, made of rough slabs of flint packed with earth to keep the wind out of the walls. On the side of a steep Cerrgonney hill, they clung to narrow twisted streets so that the village looked like a handful of boulders thrown among a stand of straggly pine trees. In narrow valleys farmers wrestled fields out of rocky land and walled their plots with the stone.
About a mile away stood the dun, or fort, of Lord Melyn, to whom the village owed fealty. Jill had always been told that it was everyone’s Wyrd to do what the noble-born said, because the gods had made them noble. The dun was certainly impressive enough to Jill’s way of
thinking to have had some divine aid behind it. It rose on the top of the highest hill, surrounded by both a ring of earthworks and a ramparted stone wall. A broch, a round tower of slabbed stone, stood in the middle and loomed over the other buildings inside the walls. From the top of the village, Jill could see the dun and Lord Melyn’s blue banner flapping on the broch.
Much more rarely Jill saw Lord Melyn himself, who only occasionally rode into the village, usually to administer a judgment on someone who’d broken the law. When, on a particularly hot and airless day, Lord Melyn actually came into the tavern for some ale, it was an important event. Although the lord had thin gray hair, a florid face, and a paunch, he was an impressive man, standing ramrod straight and striding in like the warrior he was. With him were two young men from his warband, because a noble lord never went anywhere alone. Jill ran her hands through her messy hair and made the lord a curtsy. Macyn came hurrying with his hands full of tankards; he set them down and made the lord a bow.
“Cursed hot day,” Lord Melyn said.
“It is, my lord,” Macyn stammered.
“Pretty child,” Lord Melyn glanced at Jill. “Your granddaughter?”
“She’s not, my lord, but the child of the lass who used to work here for me.”
“She died of a fever,” one of the riders interrupted. “Wretched sad thing.”
“Who’s her father?” Lord Melyn said. “Or does anyone even know?”
“Oh, not a doubt in the world, my lord,” the rider answered with an unpleasant grin. “Cullyn of Cerrmor, and no man would have dared to trifle with his wench.”
“True enough.” Lord Melyn paused for a laugh. “So, lass, you’ve got a famous father, do you?”
Lord Melyn laughed again.
“Well, no doubt a warrior’s glory doesn’t mean much to a little lass, but your da’s the greatest swordsman in all
Deverry, silver dagger or no.” The lord reached into the leather pouch at his belt and brought out some coppers to pay Macyn, then handed Jill a silver. “Here, child, without a mother you’ll need a bit of coin to get a new dress.”
“My humble thanks, my lord.” As she made him a curtsy, Jill realized that her dress was indeed awfully shabby. “May the gods bless you.”
After the lord and his men left the tavern, Jill put her silver piece into a little wooden box in her chamber. At first, looking at it gleaming in the box made her feel like a rich lady herself; then all at once she realized that his lordship had just given her charity. Without that coin, she wouldn’t be able to get a new dress, just as without Macyn’s kindness, she would have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. The thought seemed to burn in her mind. Blindly she ran outside to the stand of trees behind the tavern and threw herself onto the shady grass. When she called out to them, the Wildfolk came—her favorite gray gnome, a pair of warty blue fellows with long, pointed teeth, and a sprite, who would have seemed a beautiful woman in miniature if it weren’t for her eyes, wide, slit like a cat’s and utterly mindless. Jill sat up to let the gray gnome climb into her lap.
“I wish you could talk. If some evil thing should happen to Macyn, could I come live in the woods with your folk?”
The gnome idly scratched his armpit while he considered.