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Authors: Amanda Hemingway

The Sword of Straw

BOOK: The Sword of Straw
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Battle

 

Not the blade

 

but the hand on the hilt

 

Not the prize

 

but the blood that is spilt.

 

Not the song

 

but the cry of the steel

 

Not the pain

 

but the ones who can’t feel.

 

Not the fire

 

but the pulse of the heart

 

Not the fear

 

but the standing apart.

 

Not to weep

 

but the tears running red

 

Not to sleep

 

but to dream with the dead.

Prologue: The Dead City

I
t began with a city, a city in another universe.

Nathan Ward dreamed of the city, as he had dreamed of other cities long before. Most people dream of other worlds, dreamworlds parallel to our own yet subtly different, where strange things are familiar and familiar things strange—the spin-off regions of the subconscious mind. But the worlds in Nathan’s dreams were real, or seemed real, depending on the nature of reality. He went to the kind of school where teachers talked about philosophy and quantum physics, so he knew the chair he was sitting on was proveably nonexistent, and the entire cosmos was made up of particles too small to believe in, popping in and out of reality whenever scientists studied them too closely. (Sneaky things, particles.) Nonetheless, Nathan was a down-to-earth boy who had yet to find a magical country at the back of a wardrobe, so it was unnerving to find one in his own head. The previous summer he had almost gotten lost in such a dream, and had been unable to make his way back without help.

Sometimes on these journeys he was merely a disembodied thought; at others, as the dream grew more solid so did he, while his sleeping form would fade, even vanish altogether. He was a weekly boarder at Ffylde Abbey, sharing a dormitory with other boys, and a tendency to dematerialize in the night didn’t always pass unremarked. Particles can get away with such behavior more easily than teenage boys. At home his mother, his best friend, and the man he called Uncle all knew of the problem, so there was no need to try to explain the inexplicable, but there were moments when he still felt unsafe. As if there were a hole inside his head through which his life and his very self might slip away. Dreams can too easily become nightmares, and when your dreams are real, the nightmares have teeth…

The strange thing was, when he dreamed of the city, he knew it wasn’t the first time, though the earlier times were all but forgotten, immured in a locked cupboard at the back of his memory. The dream gave him a
feel
he couldn’t mistake, like when you return to a place visited in early childhood. There’s nothing you recognize, yet you know you’ve been there before.

There had been a city in his dreams many times in the past, the city of Arkatron on Eos—a city at the end of time, last stronghold of a high-tech, high-magic civilization in a universe that was dying. It had been a futuristic metropolis of soaring sky-towers and airborne vehicles that wheeled and dipped around them like giant birds, and a population mantled and masked and gloved against the poisonous sunlight—a science-fiction city with a ruler called the Grandir—a ruler thousands of years old, whose face was never seen and whose true name was never spoken—a ruler who had once had a whole cosmos for his empire.

But this city was different. (In his mind he called it a city, giving it the benefit of the doubt, though quite possibly it was only a town.) It sprawled over two hills, the higher rising into a bastion of rock with a gray-walled house perched on the top, built of the same stone and blending with it, so you couldn’t tell where the crag ended and the house began. The lower hill was a humpbacked ridge crested with pointy gables and spiked with chimney stacks, but only one or two emitted a thin spindrift of smoke, and as his vision drew nearer Nathan saw windows without panes, doors ajar on empty halls, new grass growing over untrodden roads. It was a ghost town—or ghost city—except there seemed to be no ghosts left, only endless vacancy. There weren’t even any birds.

In Arkatron, focus of a universe that was ending, the city thrived after a fashion, crawling with people and lights and life, yet here, though the universe showed no signs of imminent demise, the city was dead. A
Marie-Celeste
of a city, whose footsteps had barely faded and whose voices might have been stilled only a little while ago. It reminded Nathan of towns pictured in history books, the outer houses made of mud bricks and rickety timbers, with shaggy thatching on the roofs, the inner of stone and tile. The hilltop house was the largest, poised in the eye of the wind, weather-beaten and grim, sprouting irrelevant battlements and tiny turrets as if it were trying to become a castle, though no one would be fooled. It had neither moat nor portcullis, and on one side a steep little garden sloped down to wall and road. As Nathan’s thought winged earthward he saw four children were playing there.

They might have been the only children—perhaps the only people—in the whole city. Three boys and a girl. The boys were fighting with wooden swords, banging their weapons on toy shields, shouting incomprehensible war cries. The girl was making mud pies. She looked about seven or eight years old and wore an expression of extreme concentration half hidden under the tangle of her hair. She reminded him a little of Hazel, his best friend, who often hid behind her hair, but whereas Hazel’s was brown and straight this child’s was blond, dark blond like wheat, and the tangle was rippled and crinkled into untidy waves. One of the boys came over, evidently to check on her, and she looked up with a sudden sweet smile, which made Nathan think that when she was older, though she might not be pretty or beautiful, her smile would always win her friends. As in other dreams he could understand what the children said, though he realized afterward that the language they spoke wasn’t English.

“Let me play with you,” the girl said. “I can fight, too.”

“Swords aren’t for girls,” the boy retorted. “You might get hurt.”

“Have one of my pies, then.” The smile disappeared; her face closed.

“I don’t eat mud and sand,” the boy said, half teasing, half scornful.

“ ’Tisn’t mud and sand,” said the girl. “It’s chocolate.”

“ ’Tisn’t chocolate, stupid.”

“ ’Tis so.”

The boy opened his mouth to go on arguing, and then was suddenly quiet. Nathan found his gaze fixed on the mud pie, which was round and carefully molded, and he thought it did indeed look a lot like chocolate. There were even little flakes around the rim, like decoration…

“Chocolate,” said the girl with satisfaction.

A shadow swept over the scene, the advancing edge of a storm cloud. The boys ceased their game, staring upward. A door opened at the top of the garden and a woman in a linen headdress leaned out, calling to the children to come in. There was a note of urgency or fear in her voice. The boy who had been quarreling with the girl seized her wrist and pulled her toward the shelter of the doorway, though she seemed reluctant to go with him. A winged darkness swooped low over the city, swift as a sudden squall; on the slope a stunted tree twisted with the wind. There was a noise that might have been thunder or the booming of immense pinions. Whether the shadow was cloud or creature Nathan couldn’t tell, but he felt the icy chill of its advent, and the wind that tried to tear the tree from its roots whirled his thought away, out of the city, out of the dream, into the gentle oblivion of sleep.

When he awoke he was in his own world, and the dream seemed very far away. Nonetheless he thought about it, from time to time, all that day, and the next. It was the Easter holidays, and he was going to be fourteen, and he had to decide what he wanted by way of a birthday treat.
I want things to happen,
he said to himself, both hopeful and afraid, for things had happened to him the previous year, to him and to others—things both exciting and terrifying—and he knew that wishing for trouble is one way of inviting it in.

He said the same thing that evening, when his uncle (who wasn’t really his uncle) came to supper.

“You sound like a child in a story,” said his mother, “wishing for adventures. After last summer, you should know better. There may have been a kind of happy ending for you, but not for others. People died.”

“Of course I don’t want anyone to die,” Nathan said. “It’s only a little wish. For my birthday.”

“When you’re older,” Uncle Barty said, “you’ll learn that things happen without your wishing for them, all the time. You may even wish for peace and quiet one day. But you probably won’t get it.”

Nathan said no more, quelled by the phrase
When you’re older,
because he knew his uncle was older than anyone, and had seen more things happen than Nathan would ever dare to wish for. Bartlemy Goodman had the Gift, a strange legacy that gave him not only long life but other powers beyond the norm as well, powers that might have made him a sorcerer or a magus, though he appeared to use his abilities mostly for ordinary things, like cooking, and brewing homemade liquor, and herbal medicines. He didn’t look at all sorcerous: true wizards should be lean and cadaverous, hook-nosed and long-bearded, but Bartlemy was fat and placid and clean-shaven, with a broad pink face, fair hair turned white with age, and mild blue eyes gazing tolerantly at the world. Still, Nathan had seen beneath the surface, though only a little way, and he never doubted his uncle’s reliability, or his wisdom.

It was about a week later when he dreamed of the city again. It was just a brief glimpse of people piling bags and bundles into a cart, and the reins shaken, and the plodding hooves of a horse moving ponderously away. The girl was standing there—she was older now, almost his own age, but he knew her by her hair and the smile that gradually faded as she ceased waving and her hand fell to her side. The cart lumbered down the road and out of the city, heading along a sort of causeway across a low-lying country broken into many pools and water channels that mirrored the gray pallor of the sky. Without her smile the girl’s face looked grave and somehow resigned, as if she had seen many such departures. She turned and began to walk back up the road, until it narrowed into a steep path coiling about the hill, and then eventually became steps that climbed the last ascent to the house on the crag.

This is
her
home,
Nathan thought, suddenly sure.
Those boys were just visiting. She’s the daughter of the lord or king or whoever it is rules this place.

Her dress was patched with darns and her long hair looked as if it hadn’t been brushed for a day or more but there was something about her, a gravity touching a face that might have been merry, a hint of resolution or confidence, the assurance of a princess. A princess without crown or ermine, with no visible attendants and few remaining subjects, but a princess nonetheless.

When she reached the huge main door she opened it herself, without the aid of butler or footman. It must have been heavy since it took a strong thrust to move it. It creaked suitably, as such doors should, closing behind her with a reverberating thud as she went inside.

Nathan’s dream followed her—into a hall that seemed to be hung with shadows, up stairs that branched and zigzagged, along passageways and galleries with cold echoing floors and walls where threadbare tapestries flapped like cobwebs. At last she entered a room that was thick with books—books close-packed on regular shelves or piled in winding stacks or slithering earthward like rows of collapsed dominoes. Nathan was reminded a little of the secondhand-book shop that his mother managed and where they lived, though this room was larger than his whole house, with a vaulted ceiling from the center of which depended an iron chandelier festooned with dribbles of old wax, above a desk where an elderly man was bent over an opened volume, trying to read it with a magnifying glass. A window squeezed between two banks of shelving admitted a shaft of daylight that stretched toward the desk, picking out more books, and dust, and the man’s hair, which stood up around his head like a dandelion clock. Long strands of tallow trailed from the chandelier like stalagmites in a cave.

“Frim,” said the girl—the man looked up—“the Hollyhawks have gone today, and old Mother Sparrowgrass and her boys. They wouldn’t have told me, but I went to take them a cake, and there they were, all packed up and the cart rolling.”

“Deserters!” said the old man. “What did you do?”

“What could I do? I wished them luck.”

“They deserve no luck,” said the old man. “Running away. Bumskittles! They are your people.”

“They are their own people,” said the girl. “What have I ever done for them?”

“Your best.” He reached out, squeezing her hand in his own thin, bony one, then patting it. He had a strange knobbly face with startled eyebrows, round inquiring eyes, and a long nose that turned up at the tip. For all his age he had a quality of youthfulness that, Nathan reflected, few young people ever exhibited—he seemed vividly alive, curious, alert, exuding enough energy for a small mobile generator. “Never mind,” he went on. “The loyal and the truehearted remain.”

“Only because they have no choice. Bandy Crow is a cripple; Granny Cleep passed a hundred and twenty last year. The Twymoors and the Yngleveres—”

“They’ll not leave,” the old man said. “They’ve always been faithful to your family. They won’t abandon your father.”

“My father’s sick,” said the girl, “and growing sicker. I sometimes think the kingdom’s been under a curse since my great-great-I-don’t-know-how-many-greats-grandfather first lifted the Traitor’s Sword. And since I brought the Urdemons…”

“Don’t be silly,” her mentor admonished. “
You
didn’t bring them. They are drawn to acts of magic—”

“My magic.”

“You were a child, playing games of illusion. There’s always been a little magic in your family; as magic goes, it’s fairly harmless. You had no idea—”

“It’s still my fault,” the princess insisted, brooding into her hair. Like Hazel.

“Babbletosh!” the old man said briskly. “You take too much on yourself. Just because you’re the princess, you think you can claim responsibility for everything? I never heard of such presumption. You’re like a little girl who treads in a puddle, and then blames herself for a flood. Utter foolishness! Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said with a furtive smile. “Sorry. It’s only…Prenders told me…”

“That Woman,” her mentor said with unmistakable capital letters, “talks a load of—”

“Frim!”

“Squiffle-piffle! That’s all I was going to say. Doesn’t know her coccyx from her humerus. Why, when everyone else leaves, she has to stay around…”

BOOK: The Sword of Straw
11.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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