Authors: Katharine Kerr
“You never could have been a fool!”
Cullyn’s lips twitched in a brief smile.
“But I was, truly. A long time ago your old Da here was a rider in a warband in Cerrmor, and he got himself into a good bit of trouble. Never dishonor yourself, Jill. You listen to me. Dishonor sticks closer to you than blood on your hands. So my lord kicked me out, as he had every right to do, and there was nothing left for me but the long road.”
“The long road. That’s what silver daggers call our life.”
“But Da, what did you do?”
Cullyn turned to look at her with eyes so cold that Jill was afraid he was going to slap her.
“When you’re done eating,” he said instead, “we’re going to the market fair and buy you some lad’s clothes. Dresses aren’t any good for riding and camping by the road.”
And Jill realized that she would never have the courage to ask him that question again.
Cullyn was as good as his word about the new clothes. In fact, he bought her so many things, boots, brigga, shirts, a good wool cloak and a small ring brooch to clasp it with, that Jill realized she’d never seen him with so much money before, real coins, all of them bright-minted silver. When she asked him about it, Cullyn told her that he’d captured a great lord’s son on the field of battle, and that this money was the ransom the lord’s family had to pay him to get their son back.
“That was honorable, Da. Not killing him, I mean, and then letting him go home.”
“Honorable? I’ll tell you, my sweet, it’s every silver
dagger’s dream to capture a lord single-handedly. It’s the coin you want, not the glory. And by the hells, many a poor lordling has made himself a rich lord doing the same thing.”
Jill was honestly shocked. Taking someone prisoner for profit was one of those things that never got mentioned in the bard songs and the glorious tales of war. She was glad enough of the coin, however, especially when Cullyn bought her a pony, a slender gray that she named Gwindyc after the great hero of ancient times. When they returned to the inn, Cullyn took Jill up to their chamber, made her change her clothes, then unceremoniously cropped off her hair like a lad’s with his silver dagger.
“That long hair’s too messy for the road. May the gods blast me if I spend my time combing it for you like a nursemaid!”
Jill supposed that he was right, but when she looked at herself in his bit of mirror, she felt that she no longer really knew who she was. The feeling persisted when they went down to the tavern room of the inn for the noon meal. She wanted to get up and help Blaer the innkeep serve, not sit there and eat stew with the other customers. Because it was market day, the tavern was crowded with merchants, who all wore checked brigga as a sign of their station. They looked Cullyn over with a shudder for the silver dagger in his belt and gave him as wide a berth as possible. Jill was just finishing her stew when three young riders from a warband swaggered in and demanded ale. Jill knew they were a lord’s riders because their shirts had embroidered blazons, running stags in this case, on the yokes. They stood right in the way near the door and kept Blaer so busy that when Cullyn wanted more ale, he had to get up and fetch it himself. As he was coming back with the full tankard, he passed the three riders. One of them stepped forward and deliberately jogged Cullyn’s arm, making him spill the ale.
“Watch your step,” the rider sneered. “Silver dagger.”
Cullyn set the tankard down and turned to face him.
Jill climbed up on the table so she could see. Grinning, the other two riders moved back to the wall.
“Are you looking for a fight?” Cullyn said.
“Just looking to make a lout of a silver dagger mind his manners. What’s your name, scum?”
“Cullyn of Cerrmor. And what’s it to you?”
The room went dead silent as every man in it turned to stare. The other two riders laid urgent hands on their friend’s shoulders.
“Come along, Gruffidd. Just drink your wretched ale. You’re a bit young to die.”
“Get away,” Gruffidd snarled. “Are you calling me a coward?”
“Calling you a fool.” The rider glanced at Cullyn. “Here, our apologies.”
“Don’t you apologize for me,” Gruffidd said. “I don’t give a pig’s fart if he’s the Lord of Hell! Listen, silver dagger, not half of those tales about you can be true.”
“Indeed?” Cullyn laid his hand on his sword hilt.
It seemed that the whole room gasped, even the walls. Jill clasped her hands over her mouth to keep from screaming. Frightened men leapt back.
“Here!” Blaer yelped. “Not in my inn!”
Too late—Gruffidd drew his sword. With a sour smile, Cullyn drew his own, but he let the blade trail lazily in his hand with the point near the floor. The room was so quiet that Jill heard her heart pounding. Gruffidd moved and struck—his sword went flying. Across the room men yelped and dodged as the sword fell clattering to the floor. Cullyn had his blade raised, but casually, as if he were only using it to point out something. There was a smear of blood on it. Cursing under his breath, Gruffidd clutched his right wrist with his left hand. Blood welled between his fingers.
“I call you all to witness that he struck first,” Cullyn said.
The room broke into excited whispers as Gruffidd’s friends dragged him away. Blaer hurried after them, quite pale and carrying the rider’s sword. Cullyn wiped the
blood off his blade on his brigga leg, sheathed it, then picked up his tankard and came back to the table.
“Jill, get down!” he snapped. “Where’s your courtesy?”
“I just wanted to see, Da. That was splendid. I never even saw you move.”
“Neither did he. Well, Jill, I’m going to drink this ale, and then we’ll be packing up and getting on the road.”
“I thought we were going to stay here tonight.”
All aflutter, Blaer ran over.
“By the pink asses of the gods! How often does this sort of thing happen to you?”
“Far too often. These young dogs would count it an honor to be the man who killed Cullyn of Cerrmor.” Cullyn took a long swallow of ale. “So far all they’ve won for their trouble is a broken wrist, but ye gods, it wearies me.”
“So it must.” Blaer shuddered as if he were cold. “Well, lass, it’s a strange life you’re going to lead, riding with him. You’ll make some man a cursed strange wife someday, too.”
“I’ll never marry a man who isn’t as great a swordsman as my Da. So probably I’ll never marry at all.”
That afternoon they rode fast and steadily, finally stopping about an hour before sunset when Cullyn judged that they’d gotten far enough away from Gruffidd’s warband. They found a farmer who let them camp in a corner of his pasture and who sold them oats for Cullyn’s horse and the new pony. While Cullyn scrounged dead wood from the nearby forest for a fire, Jill put the horses on their tether ropes and staked them out. She had to stand on the head of the stakes and use her whole weight, but finally she forced them in. She was starting back to the camp when the gray gnome appeared, popping into reality in front of her and dancing up and down. With a laugh, Jill picked him up in her arms.
“You did follow me! That gladdens my heart.”
The gnome gave her a gape-mouthed grin and put his arms around her neck. He felt dry, a little scaly to the
touch, and smelled of freshly turned earth. Without thinking, Jill carried him back to camp and talked all the while about the things that had happened on the road. He listened solemnly, then suddenly twisted in her arms in alarm and pointed. Jill saw Cullyn, trotting back with a load of wood, and his eyes were narrow with exasperation. The gnome vanished.
“Jill, by the gods!” Cullyn snapped. “What cursed strange kind of game or suchlike were you playing? Talking to yourself and pretending to carry something, I mean.”
“It was naught, Da. Just a game.”
Cullyn dumped the wood onto the ground.
“I won’t have it. It makes you look like a half-wit or suchlike, standing around talking to yourself. I’ll buy you a doll if you want something to talk to that badly.”
“I’ve got a doll, my thanks.”
“Then why don’t you talk to it?”
“I will, Da. Promise.”
Cullyn set his hands on his hips and looked her over.
“And just what were you pretending? More of that nonsense about the Wildfolk?”
Jill hung her head and began scrubbing at the grass with the toe of her boot. Cullyn slapped her across the face.
“I don’t want to hear a word of it. No more of this babbling to yourself.”
“I won’t, Da. Promise.” Jill bit her lip hard to keep back the tears.
“Oh, here.” Suddenly Cullyn knelt down in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Forgive me the slap, my sweet. Your poor old father’s all to pieces these days.” He hesitated for a moment, looking honestly troubled. “Jill, listen to me. There’s plenty of people in the kingdom who believe the Wildfolk are real enough. Do you know what else they believe? That anyone who can see them is a witch. Do you know what could happen to you if someone heard you talking to the Wildfolk? For all that you’re but a little lass, there could be trouble over it. I
don’t want to have to cut my way through a crowd of farmers to keep you from being beaten to death.”
Jill went cold all over and started shaking. Cullyn drew her into his arms and hugged her, but she felt like shoving him away and running wildly into the forest. But I do see them, she thought, does that make me a witch? Am I going to turn into an old hag and have the evil eye and poison people with herbs? When she realized that she couldn’t even share these fears with her father, she began to cry.
“Oh, here, here,” Cullyn said. “My apologies. Now don’t think of it anymore, and we’ll have a bit to eat. But now you know why you can’t go babbling about Wildfolk where other people can hear you.”
“I won’t, Da. I truly, truly promise.”
In the middle of the night, Jill woke up to find the world turned to silver by moonlight. The gray gnome was hunkered down near her head as if he were keeping guard over her. Since Cullyn was snoring loudly, Jill risked whispering to him.
“You’re my best and truest friend, but I don’t want to be a witch.”
The gnome shook his head in a vigorous no.
“Isn’t it true? Do only witches see you?”
Again came the reassuring no. He patted her face gently, then disappeared with a gust of wind that seemed to send the moonlight dancing. For a long time Jill lay awake, smiling to herself in profound relief. Yet she knew that her Da was right; from now on, she would have to be very careful.
The folk of Deverry have always been the restless sort. In the old days of the Dawntime the ancestors wandered thousands of miles before they settled the old kingdom, Devetia Riga, which was part of a faraway land called Gallia. The bards still tell many a tale of how the ancestors fled the encroaching Rhwmanes and sailed across a vast ocean under the leadership of King Bran to find the Western Isles. They rode all over the Isles, too, before
King Bran saw the omen of the white sow that told him where to found the holy city of Dun Deverry. Even during Jill’s time, there were still people who lived more on the roads than at home—priests on pilgrimages, young men riding from one lord to another in hopes of finding a place in a warband, and, of course, silver daggers. After a few weeks of riding with her father, Jill realized that the lure of the road had caught her, too. There was always something new to see, someone new to meet; she wondered how she’d ever endured being confined to one small village.
Since Cullyn had plenty of coin, Jill was surprised when he began to look for another hire. As they rode aimlessly east through Cerrgonney, he was always asking for news of feuds and border wars.
“The summers half gone,” he told Jill one night at their campfire. “A silver dagger has to think about coin for the winter. Well, not that many of my wretched band do think, mind, but they don’t have a daughter to worry about.”
“True spoken, Da. Did you ever have to sleep out in the snow?”
“I didn’t, because I could always ride back and winter with your mother.” All at once, Cullyn turned melancholy, his face slack as if he were suddenly exhausted. “Ah, ye gods, I only hope no word of this comes to her in the Otherlands. Her only child, riding the roads with a man like me!”
“Da, you’re splendid, and this is splendid, too. When I grow up, I’ll be a silver dagger like you.”
“Listen to you. Lasses can’t be warriors.”
“Why not? They were, back in the Dawntime. Like Aiva. Have you heard those songs, Da? Lord Melyn’s bard used to come to the tavern, and he’d sing for me sometimes. I always asked for the ones about Aiva. She was splendid. She was a Hawk woman, you see.”
“Oh, I’ve heard the tales, but that was long ago. Things are different now.”
“Why? That’s not fair. Besides, there was Lady
Gweniver, too, and she was only back in the Time of Troubles, not the Dawntime. These men insulted her honor, and she gets them for it.” Jill laid her hand on her heart, just as the bard did. “‘Back they fall, and bright blood blooms, on helm and heart as the hells claim them.’ I learned that bit by heart.”
“If ever we ride back to Bobyr, I’m going to have a thing or two to say to Lord Melyn’s bard. Ye gods, what have I sired?”
“Someone just like you. That’s what Mama always said. She said I was stubborn just like you and every bit as nasty when I wanted to be.”
Cullyn laughed, a muttered chuckle under his breath. It was the first time Jill had ever heard him laugh aloud.
It was two days later that Cullyn got the news he wanted about a hire. They’d stopped in the midst of a grove of oak trees for their noon meal, and they were eating bread and cheese when Jill heard the sound of two horses, trotting straight for them. Cullyn was up and standing with his sword drawn before the sound truly made sense to her. Jill scrambled up just as the horsemen came in sight, ducking and dodging under the branches. They were armed, wearing chain mail, and their swords were drawn.
“Hold and stand!” the leader called out.
As they rode into the clearing, Cullyn stepped smoothly between them and Jill. The men pulled up their horses, then suddenly smiled. The leader leaned over in his saddle.