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Bridge of D'Arnath #1: Son of Avonarby Carol Berg
I dreamed of the fire again that night. After ten years, one would think such pain might fade into the dismal landscape of my life. Yet once more I saw Evard's banners whipped by the cold wind, bright red against the steel-blue sky. I heard again the jeering of the wild-eyed crowds that surged against the line of guards surrounding the pyre, and the stake, and the one bound there, maintaining as he could the last shreds of dignity and reason.
Where was justice? Time blurs so much of worth, so much of learning unused, so many of the daily pleasures that shape a life, too small to make grand memories. Why would it not erase the image of Karon's mutilated face: the ragged sockets where they had burned out his eyes, the battered mouth where they had cut out the tongue that had whispered words of love and healing? Should not mercy dim his last avowal of joy and life, given just before he withdrew from what relief and comfort I could give him? After ten years I should not hear, again and again, his agonized cry as the flames consumed his sweet body. Dead was dead.
But as much as I tried, I could not silence that cry. In the day, yes, as I worked at the business of survival, but I had never learned to command my dreams. I had vowed on the shields of my ancestors never to weep again. Yet was it any wonder that weakness threatened to betray my resolve upon waking from such a dream?
I had permitted no tears on that day or for many days after. The dream forced me to relive that, too--the two months they kept me confined in the palace with no companion save the mute serving sister, Maddy, and the doomed babe that grew within me. Even Tomas did not come to me in that time. My brother did not want my shaven head or bulging belly to stand witness against him for what he had done or what he planned to do. They could not kill Karon's child before it was born. The spirit might seek a new host, they said. They wanted to be sure.
Only Darzid had ever shown his face at my door, but it was not for me he came. Always he sat by the brazier, clad simply and impeccably in black and red, propping one boot on the iron hod. Tell me of sorcerers, Seri. Who was your husband? What did he tell you of his people?' Always probing, always questioning, his unrelenting curiosity picking at my pain as the horror of what had happened settled into grim history, and the horror of what was to come took appalling shape in my ever-naæ[auve head.
I had begged Darzid's help, promised him gold and power, love and loyalty if he would but smuggle me out of my palace prison before my son was born. But he brushed away my pleading just as he flicked off ash that settled on his shining boot, and always he returned to his questions. Tell me of the sorcerer, Seri. Something happened when he died. Something changed in the world, and I must understand it.'
Eventually I had stopped begging. Stopped talking. Stopped listening. Eventually Darzid had stopped coming, and eventually arrived the day that I willed my labor to stop, the day I struggled to hold the babe within me yet a few more moments, for I knew I would never hold him in my arms. Nature had its way, and I was left empty; the law had its way, and my son's life was cut short by my brother's knife. The physician, his head and throat wrapped in a black turban so that his cold face hovered above me like some cruel moon, had commanded the serving woman to take the child to Tomas. I wasn't even allowed to see my son until Darzid, sober and impersonally curious like an alchemist observing the turmoil he had wrought in his glass, brought him back to me--the tiny boy, pale, motionless, washed clean and laid in a basket, perfect but for the angry red slit that crossed his fragile neck. Then they took him away and burned him, too, and proclaimed the last sorcerer gone from the earth.
Why had they bothered to wash him? I had never understood that.
Once all was done as the law prescribed, they left me alone in that cold room. Ten years it had been since that last day, and still the dream made it real....
Year 4 in the reign of King Evard
All was silent. The sprawling, squat-towered palace at Montevial, home to more than a thousand nobles, courtiers, servants, and soldiers, as well as the Leiran king, might have been abandoned. No sidelong whispers outside my door. No thumping boots or rattling weapons as the guards were changed. No clatter of dishes in the hallway or jangle of harness from the bleak courtyard far below my small window. Even mute Maddy, who had been my companion for every day of my imprisonment and who had coaxed me gently through the wretched birthing, had vanished.
I rose from the sodden bed, shivering from the sweat still drying on my skin. The murder had been swiftly accomplished; Tomas had been waiting in the next room, so Darzid had told me. I found a discarded towel and cleaned myself as best I could, tying rags between my legs to catch the birthing blood. Then I pulled Maddy's spare tunic from the plain chest beneath the window, wrapped it over my stained shift, and tied it closed.
The door was no longer locked. Karon's babe had been the prisoner, not Karon's wife. They planned to send me to Tomas's keep, the home of my childhood, to live in penitence and subservience to my brother and his pouting seventeen-year-old wife. But even with nothing left for which to fight, I was not ready to submit to that particular death.
Nothing was left to take with me. Every shred of clothing, every trinket, every paper and book and picture had been burned. The gold locket with the bits of dried rose petal inside, my wedding ring. The bastards had taken everything—No, don't think. Just walk. The time for pain and hatred and grief would come after I was away. And so I walked out of the room and out of the palace and out of my life.
Strange to find it mid-afternoon. Time had been suspended for so many months, the passing of days marked only by my changing body. For all those days I had existed in the unyielding, unvarying embrace of death, yet out here in the palace gardens, bitter winter had been replaced by damp spring. Life had continued for the hundred gardeners trimming the hundreds of trees beside the carriage road on which I walked. Crocuses were already drooping, and the showier blooms of daffodils and anemones fluttered brightly in the damp breeze.
Two horsemen raced by, then pulled up short and turned back toward me as I approached the first ring wall. Tomas and Darzid. Seri, you damned fool, where do you think you're going?' Tomas, speaking in his best lord-of-the-manor style.
I kept walking. The two wheeled their mounts and placed themselves in front of me again, blocking the entire roadway. I spoke to you, Seri. It can't be healthy for you to be out so soon.'
Words broke through my vowed silence, as molten lava bursts the volcano's rocky cap. And when have you ever concerned yourself with me or my health?'
My brother was not even a whole year older than me--as near twins as could be, so our nursemaids had always said--but the warm droplets trickling down my leg reminded me of the ageless gulf between us. My hands ached for a throwing dagger or my bow and a poisoned arrow.
I won't see my sister die among the rabble like some whore who whelped in an alley.'
Then you'll have to carry me, brother, and risk bloodying your fine breeches. The blood will match that on your hands, and it will never wash away.' I walked into the gardens beyond the first wall, hoping to get past the outer gates before I collapsed. My knees were trembling. Vengeance is the right of blood kin, even against blood kin. Blood for blood. Vengeance was my duty.
Seri, come back here!'
Tomas ordered Darzid to follow me, while he himself fetched servants and a litter. So the captain trailed behind as I walked through the outer gates into the teeming mid-afternoon business of Montevial. Everything blurred together: smells of horses and new-baked bread, rushing figures of tradesmen, liveried messengers, and matrons in fluttering cap-ribbons, the clattering of cart wheels, and the shouts of drovers trying to clear a way through the muddy, crowded streets. How could the matter of one dark winter make such commonplace activity so utterly alien?
Move along, wench. Are you struck dumb?'
Darzid observed from his black horse, unruffled as the constable poked at me with his stick. Once I had considered Darzid my friend, but I had come to believe that he would have watched me burn alongside Karon with this same unemotional curiosity.
I wobbled against a barrow piled with apples before heading down a sloping lane into the mobbed market of the capital city, vaguely aware of apples bouncing all over the street, a startled horse, and a careening hay wagon. Someone in the street behind me cursed and cracked a whip. But I could no longer bring the angry rider's name into my throbbing head. Concentrating was so difficult....
As I walked past booths hung with lengths of fabric, coils of rope, and tin pots strung together, mats covered with raw, staring fish, wagons of fruits and hay, and pens of squawking chickens, thickening clouds devoured the sun. I shivered in the sudden chill. Halfway down a lane of food vendors, a hunchbacked old man doled out soup to anyone with a copper coin and a mug. I felt hollow. Empty. But when the old man held out his ladle to me, I shook my head. I've no money, goodman. Nothing to offer you. Nothing.' And then the world spun and fell out from under me....
Scents of damp canvas and mildew intruded on my chaotic dreams. A scratchy blanket was tucked under my chin, and the surface under my back was hard and uneven. As I dragged my eyelids open to murky light, my neck was bent awkwardly, and a warm metal cup, quivering slightly and giving off the scent of warmed wine, was pressed to my lips. A few tart drops made their way to my tongue. A few more dribbled down my chin.
Poor girl,' said a voice from the dimness, a cracked, leathery voice of uncertain timbre.
Who could she be, dearie? She don't have the look of a street wench, for all she's dressed so plain.' This second speaker was surely an aged man.
Nawp. No street wench. Look at the hands.' Two warm, rough hands chafed my fingers. I was so cold. It's a lady's hands. What're we to do with her, Jonah?'
Can't just leave her, can we? She's just--' The old man's words quavered and broke off.
Just the age would be our Jenny.' So the sighing one was a woman. Let's keep her for the night. Don't look as if she'll care this is no fine house, nor even that she might not wake up where she went to sleep.'
Aye, then. We'll be on our way.'
While I drifted between sleep and waking, the bed on which I lay began to move, rocking and jogging over cobbled streets. The old woman stroked my hair and my hands, and crooned to me gently, while rain plopped softly on the canvas roof.
How did you discover it, my dear?'
She was shivering so, and terrible pale. I thought she was fevered. But when she held her tits just so and wept in her sleep for the pain of them, I knew. It's been less than a day, and she's lost a river of blood, and I don't know if it's been too much or no. If we'd left her in the market, she'd be dead for sure.'Twas a good deed you did, old man.'
Ah. This adds a worry though. Fine ladies don't dress in working garb and take a stroll through the market after they've dropped a babe, live or dead. There's trouble here someways. We'd best get her afoot as soon as can be, and put some leagues in between us.'
A hand gouged my aching abdomen, forcing me to cry out as I stumbled out of sleep.
There, there, child. We must knead your belly a bit to stop the bleeding. You'll do better in a day or three.' The hand pressed and squeezed again, then took my own hand and forced me to do it, too. Feel your womb harden. That's the way it must be.'
A worried face hovered above me in the dust-flecked light. Unlike that of the turbaned physician, this face was connected to a body--a small and wiry woman with broken teeth. Her gray curls were tied up in a red scarf, and her face was gently weathered.
Here, my man Jonah's bringing summat to perk you up.' A flap at the end of the wagon flopped open to let in soggy sunlight and the hunchbacked soup-maker from the market. The old man had wispy white hair and soft brown eyes that seemed to embrace the old woman when he looked at her.
The old couple shushed me with a spoonful of soup. While they fed me, they gabbled about everything: business in the market, good prospects for the coming season, too much rain for the early crops. We're headed south for Dunfarrie. It's planting time. If you've a place we can leave you on the way... friends who'll care for you?'
I shook my head. All our friends were dead. Like the books and the pictures, the few who had shared Karon's secret had been destroyed. He had been forced to hear them die, one by one: Martin, Julia, Tanager, Tennice, everyone he cared about. It had almost undone him. His tormentors told him he wasn't to know my fate, and they would taunt him with a different cruel story every day. But they never knew he could read my thoughts, or speak to me without words, or bury himself in my love so deeply that what they did to his body didn't matter. Until the end--until the fire.
I didn't mean to cause you more grief,' said the old woman in distress. We'll take you with us until you can see your way, little girl. Old Jonah and Anne will have you up, if for nothing but to get away from our foolish prattle.'
Vengeance is my right,' I said. My duty...' But not on that night.
The old woman gathered me in her arms and rocked me softly, for at last weakness overwhelmed me, and I wept until there could have been no tears left in the world.
But I would never weep again. I was a Leiran warrior's daughter, and by the shields of my ancestors, I would not weep.
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