Ursula Qua Loman reached House Loman at the head of a funeral procession. Her noble husband had not survived his fall from his favorite riding steed. The horse, lamed, had been killed on the spot by one of Hamal's more aggrieved retainers. So it was that Ursula arrived at the ancestral house of Loman with a heart as light as it had ever been.
The House itself was not grand, particularly to the eye of one raised amid the derelict splendor of Petronica. Ursula began to doubt her hope that she and Daya would be afforded a private room. The House was a square with corners rounded into towers. There was no entrance on the ground floor, and aside from various arrow slits the only opening was a single door some six or seven paces straight up.
It opened, and a ladder was lowered to allow them in. The House sat on a small motte, surrounded by outbuildings and stables. A village of two score homes or so, mostly wood and wattle and thatch, drowsed nearby. It was only a run or two down the hill, and Ursula looked to it longingly for a breath before she ascended.
The door opened onto a cramped antechamber with an ominously grated ceiling. The heavier secondary door was already open, inviting them into the first floor hall. It was perhaps twenty-five paces by twenty, and barely furnished with an assortment of heavy, hard chairs scattered in clumps. Rough looking palettes for lounging and sleeping lay among them.
There were no tapestries, though the ten or so men and women she could see were finely dressed, and only a single rug sprawled thickly at the other end of the chamber. It was there that the Lord and Lady of the House sat, one on a wooden throne, and the other on a stool. Before them was a table decked with beef and dark, crusty bread, as well as a few token vegetables, mostly onions and greens.
"Ursula! Come here, my child," the Lord called. She approached their table somewhat nervously, all the while taking in as much detail as she could. Torbral Nae Loman was a man in his later years, still strong though nearly fifty, his long triangular beard completely gray and his pate bald. His doublet was black embroidered with gold thread, the sign of three daggers prominent on his chest. His wife was younger by a decade or two and less hard-worn, though she too had streaks of silver in her blonde tresses. She was covered by a beautiful silver dress, embedded with minuscule flashing stones that caused her to sparkle in the hearthlight. She looked tired and bored.
"My Lord." Ursula bowed, Daya beside her and one step back.
"Ursula," Torbral said, not standing, "you are as beautiful as my adoptive son has written." His tone was ambiguous. "I know you must be deep in mourning."
"No more so than you, my Lord."
He nodded, and scratched his beard absently.
"I do grieve, young one. Hamal was a tremendous man, and I have few sons. He will be given the burial a Lord deserves. You will be provided for, of course, as his honored widow."
Ursula kept her head bowed, as was fitting. A Lord's funeral would mean nine days of bother over that brute. Afterwards, at least, she would be nominally free.
"I am grateful, my Lord. And after the burial, shall I continue the mourning vigil in our manor?"
Torbral leaned forward, his eyes sharp. "Manor? What manor?"
Ursula's heart skipped a beat. "My husband's manor, I mean. Won't I be going to live there?"
Torbral made a cutting gesture with his hand. "Absolutely not. Hamal's things belong to his House. That manor will go to another Lord. You can't expect I give every widow a palace of her own, even if you are first princess. No, you will remain here, with the other husbandless and bereaved."
"But..." Ursula began, her pleasant daydreams of the carriage ride were unraveling before her eyes. She was supposed to live here? In this dank, smoky prison? And yet she had no useful response. She knew enough about the world outside the palace, and the one within it, to realize that outrage would have been as futile as argument.
"I'm glad you understand," Torbral said, overriding her. "Now why don't you let Hanesh show you to your place." He was already looking beyond her.
"Hanesh! Here!" From the corner beside one of the hearths an ophidian wraith detached itself. The one called Hanesh wore a green vest over a greener caftan, and he veritably slithered over to them.
"Here, my Lord." He bowed unctuously. "Shall I take the Lady to her rooms?"
Torbral only waved his hand before turning his attention to another man across the room, one of Hamal's retainers. Torbral invited him to come eat, and his fellows as well. The princess was forgotten.
"Come, please, Lady." Hanesh gave her a reptilian smile. There was a door in every wall that led to one of the towers. The northeast tower was a spiral stair from cellar to turret, rising clockwise, and the only light knifed in from the vertical embrasures set into the wall at every revolution. It was the best Ursula could do to follow, though Hanesh seemed at home in the narrow dimness, as if it was his personal burrow.
They reached the top level of the tower and found it was divided by a wooden partition between two crowded sleeping chambers. The women's chambers held ten beds, half of them used by the servants. There were a few small chests and cabinets against the walls, and women sat sewing on the mattresses. Hanesh pointed out the one bed that was unclaimed, nearest to the far wall and the chamber pots. A single brazier smoldered on a tripod in the heart of the room, and smoke hung in a haze near the ceiling.
"I will fetch your things," the castellan whispered, standing nearly on top of her. He backed away, and disappeared into the gloomy stair. There were windows aplenty on this level, but they were the same as those in the tower; arrow slits set in embrasures, defensive measures, not aesthetic additions.
A woman detached herself from the sewing circle and hobbled over to greet them. She was wrapped in a thick shawl, her face a scrunched cloth with gravy stains for eyes.
"Princess? Princess? Is that you? Oh, we were all so distraught to hear about your husband. Lord Hamal was an asset to the house, an absolute asset, and we're distraught, so distraught, to hear about him."
"Thank you," Ursula said.
"It will be nice to have a new face around. Well, we have new faces all the time, but none of them stay. You're part of the family now, and that will be nice, you'll fit right in, and that will be nice. It's so nice to meet you."
Ursula, somewhat overwhelmed, nodded along until she could escape to her assigned bed.
"I'm Tam Delali," the woman said. "Tam Delali. And this is Ileshia, and that is Minaea, beside Lumia, and this is my granddaughter, Tee Delali..."
They were around her bed, and then they weren't. Her bags were brought up, and she stared at her things like she had never seen them before, while Daya brushed her hair.
* * *
A hot wind blew in over the golden reaches of the plains, that swaying and ungulate earthbound cloud of grass. The endu, like small, spiral-horned dear, cavorted among the stalks, ever wary of predators. One ballet of young jumpers caught a nasty shock when a centaur cantered out of a fap in the air, holding a hefty spear. The endu scattered, and the centaur looked after them with wistful eyes. He could not hunt for the kill now. He had other quarry, but his heart was elated at even the ersatz freedom he had been given, to run beneath the open canopy of the sky, and feel true earth beneath his hooves. This little time was his to enjoy.
He removed a handfull of small, round riverstones from the pouch at his belt. They were a dark gray dolomite. He spoke to them for some minutes, apologizing, mainly, and then exhorting, before scattering them in the grass.
"I am no host for your spirits," he said. "I am not even fit to keep my own." He stamped his fore-hooves, and knelt with formal gravity. He set his spear aside, and with one of his knives cut a thin line across his palm. Squeezing his hand into a fist, he let the blood dribble onto the dirt, moving his arm so that the dark splash became a ruddy spiral.
And the centaur chanted.
"As he runs, so do I follow, through glowered field, through hidden hollow; Faerie spirits, grant this gift, that I pursue my quarry swift..." The soil absorbed his blood. In a few breaths, not a single granule remained stained. The centaur straightened, wrapping his hand in a torn strip of cloth, and the loose top layer of plains dust lifted in a minor wind, lifted to swirl as a man-sized column in front of him. The column hung suspended for an instant, and then blew sunward, east.
The centaur set off in pursuit.
* * *
Tai-Mei was born beneath a cold sun, bright but unfeeling. The Rim winds had brought a sudden and intense chill to the people of the plains. Soon, with the bleak season full upon them, the grass would being to wither, laying down as a body to protect the seeds of spring. One cycle died to assure life to the next. This was the way of things, the Wyrd's way, death feeding life, and the thousand tribes of the Ragmar Tang understood it well. The clans had already begun their sunward journeys. They would travel to the edge of the plains, the bound of the boundless, almost into the lands of the Hateful Townmen. They would travel as far as they had to to survive, no farther. Not into those realms. Tai-Mei's birth was unfortunate, all winter births are. Newborns rarely survive the hardships that the season entails, despite the best efforts of the Song Eaters, and mothers often take a pessimistic attitude toward these children. Four months is an eternity to an infant.
But Tai-Mei's mother was a determined woman. Her mate had died in the Hunt, and there
was no more honorable death than that; his loss made keeping Tai-Mei alive all the more important. The babies name meant 'Last Hope'; the hope of a lost hunter who spots smoke by the light of the moon, or of a great warrior who sees the frailty of life, and seeks a Song Eater who can secure his spirit an everlasting home. Her mother's name was Chai.
Chai had black braids that touched her elbows, prettily decked with the wing bones of Warblers and ChiChi birds. Men always complemented her hair, and she was vain of it. Her own bones were not so fine, for she was strong and handsome. She was prized for this as well, though likely her most famous feature was the large breasts bound tightly in her endu-skin top. She was vain of these as well.
There were thirty-two people in her tribe, the Dimilei, which was itself a fragment of the Gawno clan. Ten of those thirty-two were numbered as men; some young, and some nearing the age of Leavetaking. Twelve of the thirty-two were women grown, and of these Chai was known to be the prize. The women defered to her while being spiteful and jealous in other ways, and the men coveted. Her mate had been the fiercest of them all, and fiercely loving, but he was gone.
Her day began with a mouthful of Banthu root, nourishing and bitter. Then it was her baby's turn to feed, as well of that of another to who she played wetnurse, for its mother could produce no milk.
The tribe, indeed, the whole clan, was on the move, and as such they foraged as they traveled. Nuts were as rare as the trees that bore them, and berries unheard of in this season. Roots and tubers were the mainstay, and certain species of grass could be cut, and the seeds sifted and ground into a powder that could be mixed with water and baked on hot stones for Tapa loaves. The men split into two parties, and each set out at an angle from the tribe to hunt Endu and Baboos, or if the spirits smiled, they might come upon a long-necked Gerough, which could be taken only if they were solitary, but carried enough meat to sustain the tribe for many days.
Chai carried her child suspended in a sling on her back, singing softly to herself the songs that mothers sing.
"I go running in the tall strands, running in the gold
I go running in the grass lands, running ever bold,
I go running in the golden lands and I say them all the same,
Sorrow Grass and Silver Bind and Whistler's Nemashee
and Bawnlin Bead and Nether Weed, and Simple Gros, and Grue..."
They stopped, all of them, because of a motion to their right. A cloud of black specks had lifted out of the plains perhaps a Walk or two distant, becoming a band in the sky. It moved forward in a slow wave, like the shadow of the Great Serpent itself. These birds were the one thing never eaten on the Ragmar Tang. Even what was poisonous could be cleansed by boiling or by herbcraft, but the Starlings carried the souls of the dead into heaven by the vehicle of their own bodies, and thus they were sacred. The tribe watched, as did many others across the seas of grass, and then they walked again. They would waste the whole day if they waited for the flock to pass entire. The size of a Starling cloud is measured in turns of the hour, and by the petals opening or closing on the sun.
It was a good omen, seeing them, and Chai went on with a lightened heart.
* * *
The centaur pounded across the plains, heedless of sun and thirst, heedless of the exhaustion seeping into his mortal fibers. The wizard Gargamel had placed a geas on him, and he could not resist it even to sway far enough from his course to suss out a stream. He would come across enough to survive by, surely, but the chantment would loosen no further than that. It would drive him unto death, and even there was no release. His spark had been bound into a wooden card, and Gargamel would not free him until he had grown boring, and perhaps not even then. Disuse was as near oblivion as he could come.
He spied a great mass to the south. For a moment it defied his comprehension. Birds? He had never imagined that there were so many in all of Mythopoeia.
As soon as he realized his legs had stopped moving they began to kick again. Wisps of dust-laden wind still guided him, and though the master's quarry had a week of travel in advance of him, he knew he could not be far behind. He sensed it in the earth.
So focused was he on his goal that he did not discern the signs of ambush. A javelin leapt out of the waves of gold, and only the centaur's exceptional reflexes saved him. His own spear moved before he was consciously aware of the danger; wood cracked on wood as he knocked the javelin aside. The second missle missed of its own accord, and four men rose up around him.
Their skin was as sunbaked as the hides they wore. Lank hair hung about their faces, oiled and adorned with charms. They wielded stone knives and sharpened staves hardened by fire.
They spoke to each other in a tongue that put the centaur in the mind of throated birds of the swamp. He thought their mouths might have been full of mud.
A decision seemed to have been reached.
He wared the knife men easily with his long falcion, backing and turning to prevent a flanking maneuver. He was surprised to see how well the two staff wielders controlled their primitive weapons. He slashed the forearm of the knife to his right, and used the blunt end of his polearm to punch the air out of the other, knocking the man off of his feet. The spear wielders interwove their advances, one sweeping wide while the other stabbed. He tucked his shoulder, narrowly avoiding the point of the spear, even as he spun his own weapon in an arc that captured the second man's and turned him towards his partner. He pulled up, diverting the follow up jab of the first man. Changing his grip so that his right hand faced inward, and his left, toward the bladed end of the falcion, he crossed his arms and the curved sword end bit into the ribcage of the tribesman whose spear was still too high to defend. The man cried out and fell to the side. His partner let out a shout, but was disarmed by a quick series of well timed blows.
The centaur felt a bright pain in his haunch, and he spun with a snarl. The man whose forearm he had cut had taken up his stone knife with his other hand, and punched it into the centaurs back leg. The falcion whistled as it spun, and the tribesman impacted on the ground in two pieces. Turning back, the centaur saw the unharmed spear wielder in weaponless retreat. The one he had cut was calling out in that swamp tongue, and the second knife man had disappeared altogether.
The centaur reached back to tear free the rough stone blade, hissing out his pain. Then he set out again, working out the limp in a dozen strides.
* * *
At the end of the day's travels, as the tribe gathered around the night fire, the Song Eaters shared their words of sorrow. Two tribesman had lost their lives in the hunt, lost their lives to a creature not of the Tang. The body of a zebra and the torso of a man, it had been a fell abomination. If not for the two deaths, the returning hunters would not have been believed. The Song Eaters had allowed for the truth of their tale, saying that such beasts did exist, and in great numbers, far to the south and west. There would be whispers. The mate of one of the dead was already hinting that she suspected murder, that the two who had lived had conspired against her lover our of jealousy, and would soon proposition her, one or the other. After all, had he not been killed by a blade rather than by foot and claw? This was not a monster's doing, but a man's. Never mind that they possessed no weapon that could behead a man so cleanly as her's had been. Guilt has sprouted out of lesser seeds than this.
The fire had been laid in a pit surrounded by a ring of stones. They dug such a put every night, or they used the old pits they came across, as they and others had been this way before. One hunting party had met with tragedy, the other with fortune. They had caught a baboo, brought it down with a poisoned arrow.
The black furred animal was the size of a child, though it had long, sharp-fingered hands and a mean, prognathous jaw. There was a strip of white under its throat and belly. Dead, it was piteous. Skinned, it was only another animal.
The meat had been divided among all equally. No special favor was shown to the hunters who had made the kill. It was understood that the whim of the spirits was of more import to the success or failure of a hunt than was any mortal skill. Favoring the hunters would lead only to an unacceptable arrogance. The eyes were given to the children as treats; the brain, however, was saved for the Song Eater. The baboo's skull was baked over the fire until it cracked, and the Song Eater took it in his hands and broke it open, impervious to heat. He ate the dessicated organ with his fingers as the others watched. He would take no other food this night.
The Song Eater was a young old man. His skin had few lines, yet his unbraided hair was white as the sunflower's disk on a clear day. He was not especially large, but possessed of a sinewy strength few warriors would dare to test, even if not for his exalted position in the tribe. His black eyes were ageless, and they shone darkly when he had finished his meal.
He approached Chai, who was sitting and feeding Tai-Mei, and he looked down on them from what seemed to be a great height.
"You carry a Wyrm child at your breast," he said, quietly enough that no one could hear, and he turned his back on her. Chai shuddered, not understanding, and cooed a consolation to her little one, "What a strange world we live in, Tai-Mei, that you are not a stranger in it."
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books
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