Can reliving the painful past unravel the mysteries of the present?
The Bridge of D'Arnath, Book 1
Midsummer’s Day-Year 14 in the reign of King Evard
The dawn wind teased at my old red shawl as I scrambled up the last steep pitch of the crescent-shaped headland the villagers called Rif Paltarre--Poacher’s Ridge. A brisk walk to the eastern edge and I seated myself on a throne of rock as if I were a Leiran duchess attending a midsummer fete. But whereas my girlhood friends might celebrate the longest day of the year by watching jugglers, fire-eaters, and tittering knights and ladies stepping through the spiritless mimicry they called “rustic dances”, I witnessed color and shape being born from a vast and silent wilderness of gray.
Beyond the shoulders of the ridge, stretching west for two hundred leagues, stood the snow-capped peaks of the Dorian Wall, their brilliant rose brightening to eye-searing white. To the north swelled the ocean of dark green forest. To the east the ground fell away gently in a stone-bordered patchwork of meadows and farmland to the bronze ripples of the Dun River and the haze-shrouded village of Dunfarrie squatting on its banks. It was a splendid desolation.
As the light grew, I stuffed my leather-covered water flask into the cloth bag hanging from my belt, snugged the rags I’d wrapped about my hands, and took up the true business of the day-hunting dye plants to barter in the village. The first lesson I’d learned on coming to Dunfarrie, when I had scarcely known that food grew in the ground, much less that it must be coddled and coaxed and worried over, was that those whose bellies are pinched by hunger know nothing of holidays.
In early afternoon, back aching, hands dirty and sore despite the rags, I abandoned the glare and blustering wind of the heights for a shady clearing of pine trees and oak scrub. I ate a few dried figs, hard and half turned to sugar, and refilled my water flask at the stream that mumbled through the weedy clearing, trying to decide whether to return to the ridge top to dig another bundle of scabwort roots or head down to the cottage and the uncountable tasks that needed doing before sunset.
A spider skittered across the scuffed leather of my boot. A jay screeched. Beyond the stream, something large rustled the bracken-one of Evard’s deer, no doubt. No predators, human or beast, frequented the wooded hills behind Jonah’s cottage. Nor did enemy soldiers. Leire’s current battles were being waged in faraway Iskeran. Nor did sorcerous enchantments lurk in the wild forest, threatening to corrupt the soul. As the priests and people of the Four Realms had demanded for four-hundred and fifty years, the dark arts and those who practiced them had been exterminated.
I lifted my head. The rustling came louder, closer, and now accompanied by a muted, rhythmic pounding. Running footsteps…human…that halted somewhere in the trees to my right. “Who’s there?” I called out, scrambling to my feet.
As if from nowhere and everywhere sounded the blast of a horn, the clamor of a hunt sweeping through the forest on three sides: racing hoofbeats, jangling harness, a shouted command not ten paces from where I stood. The runner was closer than that.
“Stay away from me,” I said softly, trying to look everywhere at once, “or I’ll scream and let them know you’re here.”
A branch snapped. I whirled about, but saw nothing. Backing slowly away from the hunt toward the downhill side of the clearing, my hand moved slowly toward my slit pocket where I could reach the knife sheath hidden under my skirt. But whatever I thought to do with my pitiful weapon was left undone. A muscular arm reached from behind and wrapped itself about my neck, while another grabbed my waist, crushing my elbow into my ribs. I fought to keep my footing as my assailant dragged me downstream through the water and into a dense tangle of cedar, pine, and juniper. Twigs and sharp, dry underbranches caught in my hair, slapped and stung my face.
My captor’s arm was fiercely sunburned, the skin scratched and abraded. The heart pressed so closely to my back was thudding ferociously, and his sweat soaked the back of my tunic. He stank of unwashed terror.
I slammed my unrestrained elbow into his belly, tore at his arms, stomped my boot somewhere in the region of his foot, and flailed at his flank-discovering to my surprise that he seemed to be entirely unclothed. When I reached over my head to claw at his eyes, he used my own right arm to bat away my left and tightened his hold on my throat.
The pursuit careened through the woodland, the riders so close, I could almost smell the leather harness and feel the cool steel of their blades. Yet even if I could have mustered a shout or a scream, I wouldn’t have done so. I had no illusions that those giving chase were more benevolent than my captor. Such was the state of the vile world. I just wanted to get loose, to get out from between pursuers and pursued. A bizarre struggle…both of us wordless, desperate.
My chest hurt. Feebly, I tried jamming my fingers between my windpipe and his arm, but he trapped both my wrists in one broad hand and pinned them to my breast. But just as the black spots before my eyes started swirling together, he shifted backward a few wobbling steps, jolting to a stop as if he’d backed into a tree. My knees buckled and left me sagging against his arm, and either the change of position or some release on his part allowed me to gulp a bucketful of air.
The day fell unnaturally quiet. The noisy pursuit had passed us by, but the more ordinary sounds-the bawling of crows, the rustle of rabbits scrabbling through dead leaves-had not yet resumed. Only the faint mumble of the stream accompanied my captor’s breathing. While his chest heaved with harsh, shuddering gasps, painfully muffled, I dangled from his grip like a scrawny chicken waiting to have its neck wrung. Filthy bastard. I knew how desperate men were likely to release pent-up fear and anger when a vulnerable woman was within their reach, and I was having none of that. The slight quiver beneath his flesh hinted at weakness, and the sweaty hand that held my two wrists was trembling. One chance perhaps…
I wrenched my hands from his grasp, clawed at his arm, and tried to duck my head under it. But weakness is a relative thing. With devastating speed, and strength that came near cracking my spine, the man growled and spun me about, grabbed my wrists again, and slammed my back against the bole of an oak, his other hand clamped about my throat.
He was big--tall and broad in the chest and shoulder. His face was a blur of white, red, and brown: fair hair, blood, sun, dirt, terror…no…fury, not terror… I assumed I was going to die before I could see him with any clarity. But all at once, as if wrenched by an unseen hand, he snatched his hands away and staggered backward.
I took a full, satisfying, sight-clearing breath, and willed bone back into my knees. The naked young man-indeed he wore not a stitch-stood motionless. His limbs and torso were powerfully muscled and threaded with bloody scratches, his pale hair unkempt, and his eyes a startling blue, the deep, rich color of lapis, fixed on my face as if he had never seen a human person before.
Trying to hold his eyes engaged, I slid sideways a finger’s breadth. My skirt snagged briefly on the tree. Another step. Then I felt nothing behind me. I spun on my heel and bolted.
Damn and blast! Two steps and I was sprawled on the forest floor, my mouth full of dirt and pine needles, my chin stinging. I scrabbled forward, trying to get my treacherous feet under me, half turning backward, expecting to see his hands reaching for me again. But the man had not moved a step. Instead he had extended his hands palms up as if dedicating a sword at the temple of Annadis. Ripping my skirt loose from the brambles, I lurched to my feet and backed away, then turned and darted a bit more carefully down the hill. One last glance over my shoulder showed him take a single step in my direction, sway drunkenly, and crumple to the earth. I didn’t stay to watch him hit.
By the time I reached the lower boundary of the forested hills, neither feet nor pulse were racing any longer, but my thoughts lingered back on the ridge. The image was so extraordinary: those unbelievably blue eyes. They might have been the single spot of color in a painting rendered entirely in shades of gray. He hadn’t the look of any poacher I’d seen locked in the Dunfarrie pillory. Desperate, but not the ravenous derangement of a starving peasant. Skilled at violence, but lacking the reckless competence of the professional thief. He hadn’t broken my neck.
The stream pooled in a weed-choked depression at the edge of the trees before meandering sluggishly across the dry meadow. Shooing away a cloud of gnats, I dropped to my knees by the pool and doused my face and neck, wincing as the cool water stung my scraped chin and the skin left raw and bruised by his wide hands. I didn’t care what else he was. He was a brute. I’d wager that every one of them were brutes--villain and hunters together.
Mumbling oaths like a common soldier, I straightened my skirt and yanked at my shift that had gotten twisted uncomfortably beneath my shapeless tunic. As if my clothes weren’t threadbare enough, I’d have to pull out my cursed needle to repair the rips. Drying my hands on my skirt, I set out across the meadow toward the squat, sod-roofed shack that was my home and the weedy garden that kept me living.
After a few hot hours of work, the immediate annoyances of sucking beetles and wire-like threadweed had pushed the incident to the back of my mind. The threats of persistent drought and harsh Leiran winters hung over my head like a heavy-handed schoolmaster, requiring me to work as hard as I could manage from dawn to dusk every day of the year. The work occupied only back, shoulders, and hands, though; my intellect was as dull as the flat, unvarying landscape east of the river. As I yanked at the stringy weeds choking my tender plants, I kept a wary eye on the ring of trees that bounded the meadow, but the morning’s misadventure took on the quality of an uncomfortable dream…until the hunting party arrived.
In late afternoon, five horsemen came galloping across the meadow from the direction of the village path. I kept at my work. No use in running. No use in wishing for a weapon more serious than my scratched dagger, still solidly and discreetly fixed to my thigh under my skirt. I didn’t even look up when the dust of their arrival settled on the turnip leaves, and the massive presence of five snorting, overheated horses surrounded me. We take small victories where we can.
“I don’t get many visitors,” I said, yanking a snarl of threadweed from the dry soil.
“Isolation does not suit you, my lady.”
My eyes shot upward to the trim, dark-haired man who urged his mount into the middle of the garden and halted right in front of me. “Darzid!” I searched deep for the proper expressions of contempt, of wounding, of hatred, furious that words of sufficient pith and clarity would not come at my beck. Captain Darzid-my brother’s right hand, his chief aide, his lieutenant in all things despicable.
He jerked his head at the cottage. “After all these years, my first visit to your charming little refuge, and, sadly, I’ve no time to dally.” As ever, amusement glinted in eyes as cold and sharp as black diamonds; the smile that creased his tanned, trim-bearded face held no more warmth. “I’ll have to return for a tour another day.”
“Are you here to exhibit your wit, Captain? Or perhaps to demonstrate your skill at confronting dangerous women? I’m sorry no infants are available to slaughter, or you could display your inimitable courage. But then, you didn’t bring Tomas to show you how it’s done, did you?”
Darzid’s smile only broadened as he waved his companions toward the cottage and the solitary copse of willows and alders clustered about a muddy spring a few hundred paces away. Two soldiers dismounted and entered the house; two rode for the copse. “Your brother is otherwise occupied today. He’ll be as surprised as I to learn that this hunt has led me past your doorstep.” His long thin hands-the grotesque scarring on the palms the result of some long ago battle, he’d once told me-stroked the neck of his restless stallion. “Ah, lady, when will you realize that your battles are lost and your grievances long forgotten? These men don’t even know who you are. Our search has nothing to do with you.”
Returning my attention to my work, I shifted down the row and yanked on a spiked-leafed thistle as if it were Darzid’s honeyed tongue. “So who is it you seek? Has some peasant failed to tithe his full measure to our king?”
“Only a horse thief, the ungrateful servant of a friend of Duke Tomas. Your brother owes the lord a favor and has sent me to chase down the rascal. He seems to have vanished hereabouts. You’ve not seen him-a tall man, so I understand, young, fair-haired, a bit unsteady of temper?” Darzid’s words were cool, unruffled, mocking, revealing nothing of his true purpose, but then, I would have expected flames to shoot from his mouth before I would have expected truth. Yet, in the pause as he awaited my response, I felt something more-a pressure, an intensity I had never noted in all the eighteen years I had known this meticulous soldier who hovered in detached deviltry about the bastions of power. I glanced up. He was leaning toward me from the saddle, all smiles vanished for that moment, his very posture trying to squeeze an answer from me. Darzid cared about this matter. It could be no simple thief he was hunting.
“I’ve seen no thieves today save you, Captain. And as soon as you leave, I’ll drink fish oil to rinse the taint from my mouth and burn dung to cover the stench.” Childish taunting, not worthy of my training in scholarly debate. But words helped diffuse the pressure of his scrutiny.
As I turned back to my work, the four soldiers returned with negative reports. Three more riders remained half hidden under the eaves of the forest. They hadn’t expected much trouble from me, I supposed. I shuddered when I noticed the three-an inexplicable reaction, for the day was warm and soldiers had no power to frighten me.
Darzid nudged his mount to the edge of the garden and paused, speaking to my back. “So, a wasted venture. Good day, Lady Seriana. Behave yourself. Have you a message for your brother?”
I plucked off three beetles that had left the soft green leaves looking like ragged lacework, squashed them between finger and thumb, and flicked them into the dry grass beyond the garden.
Darzid snorted and spoke a clipped command. The five men spurred their horses, rejoined their fellows waiting at the edge of the trees, and disappeared down the forest path toward Dunfarrie.
For an hour I worked. Dug weeds. Hauled buckets of water from the pool to dribble on the beans and turnips. Salvaged what vines and plants I could from the horses’ trampling and threw the ruined ones onto the waste heap. Refused to think of anything beyond the task of the moment.
The sun sagged westward. I stared at the ax waiting beside a pile of logs I had dragged from the forest on a wooden sledge roped to my shoulders. Then I ripped the grimy, blood-streaked rags from my hands, threw them on the ground, and strode back across the meadow, past the pool, and up the hill into the wood.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2003
|Back Home||Send Email|