This is Chapter 1 of Voima. It's out of print, but if you like it, you can buy it as an ebook from Amazon. The word "voima," by the way, is from the Finnish, and means "power."
by C. Dale Brittain
PART I: Lords of Earth and Sky 3
PART II: Flight and Pursuit 149
PART III: Realms of Voima 277
PART I: Lords of Earth and Sky
Roric put his sword across his knees and his back to the guest house wall. When they came to kill him in his bed asleep, they would find him neither in bed nor asleep.
Swallows swooped through the twilight air, then disappeared back toward the barns as the sky went from yellow to darkest blue. He shifted on the hard bench, listening but hearing nothing. Even the wind was still. He reached into the pouch at his belt and absently rubbed the charm there with his thumb: the piece of bone cut in the shape of a star that had been tied into his wrappings when he was first found.
It would be good, he thought, to see Karin one more time. But it did not matter. They had said their farewells as though they knew they would not meet again short of Hel.
The moon rose slowly above the high hard hills to his left. His shadow stretched at an angle, dark and liquid, across the rough surface of the courtyard. He bent to tighten a shoelace and turned his head to be certain the soft peep off to his right was nothing more than a night bird. There was another shadow next to his. Someone was sitting beside him.
He was on his feet with his sword up in an instant. But the other, seeming for a second less substantial than his shadow, did not immediately move. When he did, it was to stretch out weaponless hands, palms up. "Would you attack me unprovoked?"
Roric did not relax his guard. "You intended to do the same to me!"
The other gave an amused chuckle. He wore a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed his face from the moon. "So that is why you are sitting outdoors when all others are asleep."
"If you are not come to kill me," said Roric cautiously, "and you have not come to warn me, why are you here?"
The other did not answer for a moment, and when he did it was in a soft voice. "Perhaps it is because we could use you."
"Me?" said Roric bitterly. "A man who may be dead before morning, and if he lives will be an outcast at least, and probably outlawed as well at the next Gemot? No one needs me."
"I do not think you will be dead before morning. But I must agree," with another chuckle, "that you will be of less use to us if you are. I need to ask you several things, and I am interested in your answers."
Roric leaned on his sword, listening but still hearing nothing ominous among the quiet sounds of the night. The other person, whoever he might be, was not a wight or he would not cast a shadow. But his soundless materialization on the bench suggested someone of great voima: a Weaver, perhaps, or a Mirror-seer--even a Wanderer. But if he was one of these, he should already know the answers.
"All right, then," said Roric, and a smile came and went for a second across his face. "We may as well talk while we're waiting for the attack to come." In the moonlight this man--if he was a man--seemed so unreal, so much a product of his own vision, that he could have been talking to himself.
"Then what have you done, Roric No-man's son, to make your fellows want to kill you and cast you out?"
"I've loved a high lord's daughter," shortly.
"And so your king has come to kill you?"
"How did you know a king wants me dead?" demanded Roric, raising his sword again. This person who knew his name but apparently not much else could in fact be one of the king's men, here to distract him from the coming attack, only seeming insubstantial because of night and moonlight.
But the other again gestured with upturned palms. "This is a royal manor, and the crown on your shoulder-clasp suggests royal service. Is your king planning to kill you himself?"
"No, not with his own hands. He couldn't!" with a grim laugh. Roric lowered his sword again; whoever this person was, he did not seem one of Hadros's men. "The king is my sworn lord, and he would be outlawed himself. But I wondered at the time why he sent me to this manor on such a trivial errand. Still, I did not suspect treachery until I saw the warriors arrive by stealth: three of them, my king's fiercest fighters. I would not have seen them at all if I had not forgotten my knife in the hall at dinner and gone back for it."
"Sit down by me," said the man. Roric had still not seen his face. "I do not like having to look up at an armed man when I'm trying to talk to him. Now tell me," when Roric had slowly seated himself, his sword again across his knees, "do you intend to kill these warriors?"
"I will not stand quietly while they kill me!"
"But are they not beneath your notice?"
"One of them I could certainly outfight," said Roric, "probably even two. Three I think will be harder . . . My tale is already short, because it starts with me, but the end should be very interesting."
There was another faint chuckle from beneath the broad-brimmed hat. "So your intent is to give up your life to make a glorious song? I would not have thought a life for a song a good bargain. The song will not cause your king much distress, nor comfort the lady."
Roric did not answer but stared straight ahead at the moonlit side of the barn on the far side of the courtyard.
"And tell me," added the other, "why loving your king's daughter should be such a crime."
"She's much too high-born for a man without kin, but she is not really his daughter," he started to say, then stopped. He thought again that if this person with a shadowed face--if he even had a face--was a Wanderer, he should already know this. For someone of great voima, he seemed remarkably ill-informed. "And you tell me, who it is who wants to use me, and for what purpose!"
"We have enemies," said the other, still in that mildly ironic tone, "whom we made deliberately, made ourselves, and are now finding a little harder to unmake. We have watched you for some time, Roric No-man's son. If you come with us, it must be of your own free will. A mortal, a man like you, may be able to help us, as well perhaps with another issue we are considering . . ."
"Then you are not a mortal yourself?" Roric asked slowly. It was sometimes said that warriors on the field of battle saw the Wanderers striding in their midst, but his battle was not yet joined--and he himself had never expected to see one of the lords of voima out of legend come to meet him.
But before the other could answer there came the sound Roric had been straining for the last four hours, of stealthy feet scrunching on gravel.
He was on his feet in an instant, his back pressed against the guest house wall. The moon in rising had left a slice of darkness here, and he would see the warriors well before they saw him. No time now to wonder about the lords of earth and sky. "It's been pleasant having this little conversation," he muttered to the person beside him, "but I think we will have to postpone the rest."
Good, they had brought a torch with them; the fir rosin smoked and sizzled, and the flame burned orange. Their dazzled eyes would never pick him up. Especially now: clouds came up abruptly in a clear sky and darkened the moon.
He breathed very quietly, thinking fast. He had intended to sell his life as dearly as possible, but now he had another plan.
The guest house door was around on the side. They knocked; the sound was of a sword hilt wrapped in a cloak. "Open the door for us, Roric," called a gutteral voice. He recognized it; it was Gizor One-hand, whom he had distrusted even when still a boy. "We just want to tell you something."
I'm sure you do, he thought. The note in Gizor's falsely-friendly voice would have been a warning even if he had been lying inside asleep.
They knocked again when they got no response, then tried the handle and seemed surprised to find it unlocked.
"Be ready," Roric hissed, glancing back over his shoulder. "We'll move as soon as they go inside." But the other had disappeared so thoroughly into the darkness he could no longer see him.
Then all three warriors shouted together and crashed through the door, the torch light flashing from their naked blades. Roric moved like lightning, across the courtyard, past the barns toward the stables, with no spare attention to wonder where the other had gone.
He had, he thought, something under a minute. No time for a saddle. He found Goldmane's stall in the dark, took a few precious seconds to rub the startled stallion on the neck and say some calming words, then led him out by the halter.
The housecarls had been roused by the shouts and were running toward the guest house, and he thought he could see the provost of the manor silhouetted against the doorway to the great hall. But the bobbing torch was already starting toward him.
"Is he there? He's there! He's got his horse! Don't let him get away!"
He leaped onto the stallion's back, and Goldmane began to run even before he had his balance again. He lay sprawled across the horse's neck, levering himself into position with his legs. Goldmane whinnied and sprang upwards--clearing a wall or a ditch, he could not see what--almost losing him in the process.
"Good horse, good boy," he muttered, seizing handfuls of mane to pull himself up. "Are you still mine, or have you joined Gizor's employ?"
But then he laughed, the night air whipping across his face. Clouds tore away from the moon. He could see now where they were, coming out of the lane onto the high road. He slapped the stallion joyously and settled down to ride.
Even if the king's warriors managed to get away from the manor without answering the questions the provost would doubtless pose them, they would never catch him before he reached the castle. Goldmane was a stallion of voima, who had triumphed in every race against every horse since Roric had won him from the troll.
The king might be plotting his death in new ways within the week, but he was not yet an outcast, and he would see Karin again. The moon floated in a clear sky as the stallion's long strides ate up the miles.
It was dawn when he came out of the dense woods at the top of the sandstone cliff, and Goldmane slowed to a walk for the narrow and steep descent among the ledges. Roric shifted his stiff fingers in the stallion's mane, now matted with sweat. It had been a long run even for a horse like this, but after the first mile all sounds of pursuit had been left behind. King Hadros would not be expecting him unless he had had a raven-message, and Roric did not think Gizor One-hand was one who spoke to ravens.
The rising sun glinted on the sea, several miles off. But as the road reached the cliff's base the sun was hidden again. Here oaks grew on sandy hills, with nothing but long grass between their massive trunks. Roric urged his horse into a trot for the final stretch through the trees and across the stream on the old stone bridge. Goldmane's hooves rang hollow, but this morning there was no sign of the troll.
The hall of the castle and the walls that surrounded it were built of yellow sandstone from the cliff. The whole great mass, including the weathered oak outbuildings within the walls, seemed to grow naturally out of the hill. Smoke rose from the cooking fires in the kitchen as he clattered through the open gate and into the courtyard, then slid from his stallion's back at the entrance to the stables.
Goldmane's head drooped, and now that he had arrived exhaustion seized Roric as well. The man--if it was a man--who had spoken to him, four hours of tense waiting, the long ride, were all jumbled together. But he forced himself to stay on his feet long enough to rub down the stallion, put a blanket over him, and be sure there were oats and water in his stall.
His thought had been to burst in on the king in the hall, flaunting his escape from treachery, defying him openly before his sons and his other sworn men. But at the moment sleep seemed even better. He tried to remember precisely what he had planned to say.
As he started out the stable door, there was a quick step outside, and then Karin was in his arms.
She pressed her face against his chest, filthy and sweaty as he was, and for a second he felt her shoulders quivering under his hands. But then she lifted her face, cheeks smudged but eyes clear.
"I knew you would escape alive," she said in a voice that just barely did not tremble. "I went to the Weaver who lives by the cliff and burned an offering. But-- But dare you be here? They'll say you killed the men unprovoked."
He pulled her back into the stables and kissed her slowly and thoroughly. "I did not kill anyone. Did the king boast to you that I would be dead?"
"Of course not," she said sharply, as if irritated for a moment. "It was only because he has been acting so oddly this last week that I was watching, and I saw Gizor One-hand and those thugs of his slip away--even Hadros may not have known when they left."
"The king must have hoped at a minimum I'd be outcast for wounding or killing one of them. Maybe he intended to get rid of Gizor and me at the same time."
They were talking in low voices, their arms tight around each other. "But are you sure they really meant to kill you?" she murmured. "After all-- You escaped."
He pulled his lips into a thin line. "Are you doubting the strength of my voima when it's three against one?"
She shook her head hard. She had hair the color of wheat fields in July, gold tinged with russet, and it was undone and tangled as though she had been up all night.
"I ran," he added, then stopped, feeling it was less than honorable to tell her this. He shook his own head. "Come, and we will face King Hadros together."
But she stepped away from him as he went into the great hall. King Hadros sat with his warriors and housecarls around him, finishing his morning porridge and beer. Roric spotted the red hair of Valmar, the royal heir. The king was bent over his flagon, his elbows out as though to keep the others away. He gave a great start as Roric walked toward the table, and his brows rose sharply. Although he managed to put the flagon down without spilling any more beer his eyes stayed round. A strange expression went across his face--was it relief?
Roric changed all at once what he had planned to say. "I finished my business at the manor more quickly than I expected," he said loudly. His heart was beating hard though he strove to keep his tone casual. Exhausation was gone.
"So I left last evening," he continued, "and rode all night to be here today. Oh, I happened to spot three of our warriors arriving when I was leaving. One was old Gizor One-hand. I hope they'll think to bring Goldmane's saddle home with them; I must have left it at the manor. I expect they had come on some special errand or other, but I knew it could have nothing to do with me, so I didn't wait to speak with them."
He let it hang in a profound silence, wondering how many of them knew, letting them wonder how much he had guessed. As long as he did not say openly that he had been attacked where he slept, he should be able to resume a normal life here at the castle. King Hadros would not want his other sworn men to know he had plotted the death of one of them, and certainly not that his plot had failed utterly. Not only had he escaped Hadros's thugs alive, he had put the king in his debt by not accusing him here.
But as Roric played again with the star-shaped bone charm, he did not feel the triumph he had expected from facing down Hadros before his men, telling the king in covert fashion that he knew all and had outwitted him.
Maybe it was because running from danger suddenly seemed a dishonorable thing to have done, the act of a man without a family.
He pulled out the knife from his belt, felt a momentary surge of satisfaction when Hadros's eyes for a second went even wider, tossed it into the air and caught it. "But now I'm tired," he said, deliberately turning his back on the king, who had still not spoken. "If you have no more errands for me to run to any other manors this morning, I'm going to sleep." As he reached the door, feeling somewhat better, he turned back for a moment and bowed.
He slept until noon, sprawled on the straw in the men's loft, and woke to find Karin sitting beside him. "Is this wise?" he asked with a smile. "If Hadros already wants me dead because he thinks your affections are turning toward me, what will he think when he finds you here?"
But then his smile faded as he looked at her face. She was still pale, and her jaw was clamped tight as though to keep it from trembling.
"Gizor's back?" he asked, sitting up abruptly.
"They came back a little while ago," she said as though it was of no interest. "They looked shame-faced."
He put an arm around her. "What is it, then, my own?" he asked softly. "Were you so worried about me? Don't you see that I'm safe now, as long as I'm in the castle?"
"It's not you," she said, her eyes averted.
"Then who do you love better than me who can make you this sad?" he asked mockingly, then stopped all at once. "Hadros-- He hasn't dared-- If he's forced you, then I don't care if he is my sworn lord, I'll--"
She squeezed his arm. "It's my brother," she said, still not looking at him. "I found out yesterday. The messenger had come to Hadros the day before, but he did not tell me until after he had sent you off to that manor. It's as though he wanted you away from here when he told me. And then last night I thought I had lost you both."
He pulled her toward him and stroked her hair. The straw crackled beneath them. "Tell me what happened. Your brother has died?"
"It was a shipwreck," she said indistinctly. "A calm sea, a clear crossing. But they were all young men on the ship, and they had all been drinking. They went right against the Cauldron Rocks. There were no survivors."
"I'm so terribly sorry," he said, continuing to stroke her hair.
She pushed him angrily away. "You don't understand, Roric! Of course I'm saddened to have lost my brother, but I hardly knew him any more--I hadn't seen him in over ten years, not since I came here as a hostage. And I've never been able to feel the same toward either my father or my older brother since. After all, they gave me into the hands of the enemy."
When Roric said nothing, she added after a moment, "I was much sadder back when I heard my younger brother had died, only a few months after I arrived. He and I had been playmates . . . But you wouldn't remember that!" she finished brusquely.
"I didn't really know you then," he said, looking at her with his head cocked. "You were just the pretty little girl that I understood had come to live with us. You were an outsider-- I did not then realize that you and I were both outsiders here. I do remember you crying, and I wondered why."
"You still don't understand," she said through her teeth. "Now that pretty little girl has become an heiress."
He considered her in silence for a moment. "So will you still love me when you're queen?" he asked with a grin.
She gave him another push. "Don't joke, Roric! You, of all people, should realize what this means."
His attempts to take the anguish from her eyes a failure, he said soberly, "Then you'll be important to a lot of people as well as to me."
"Not just important. Valuable. I've been valuable all these years as a pledge for my father's good behavior toward King Hadros. Now I'm the heiress to my father's kingdom. That makes me doubly valuable. A marriage would unite the kingdoms, ensure that war would never break out again between them."
"And as a future queen you couldn't refuse," said Roric grimly. "You'd marry Valmar, of course, because he's the oldest son."
"I could do worse than Valmar," she said, her eyes distant.
"Now don't you joke!" he cried, pinning her arms.
She focused on him again and shook her head. "I only meant that I would prefer to marry Valmar than to marry his father."
"But you can't marry Hadros!" Roric cried. "He's old enough to be your father! He almost is your father!"
"Older men marry young heiresses every day."
He clenched his teeth in silence for a moment, then thrust a fist into the straw. "I wish he was in Hel! Why is he doing this? Hadros is my sworn lord, and I used to love him like a father myself."
"Until last week," said Karin.
"You knew we quarreled?" he asked, turning around.
"Everyone in the castle knows it. Both of you have good voices for calling the hounds in the hunt--or for hurling insults."
For a second he thought he saw a smile on her face. Encouraged, he took both her hands. "Then let's run away, Karin, you and me. Neither Hadros or I will have to break our sworn word by killing each other, and you won't have to marry anyone but me."
She pulled her hands free and stared icily over his head. "Sometimes you're as dense as Valmar. If I go, King Hadros will invade my father's kingdom, while the whole court is in mourning and no one expects it. I'm going to be a sovereign queen some day. I cannot run away."
Roric turned away abruptly and thrust his fist into the straw again. When he turned back toward her she had risen to her feet. "As a queen," she said, "I also cannot compromise my good name by being found in the men's loft." But then she looked at his expression and bent to kiss him swiftly before scrambling down the ladder.
As the sky went red and shadows stretched long across the castle courtyard, Roric slipped out the gate on foot. He stayed away from the road but cut through the oak forest, across the sandy hills, toward the base of the cliff.
The sun had set by the time he reached it. He stood for several minutes at the cave entrance, waiting. Above him, the first bats darted across the sky, squeaking on the fringes of audibility.
He lowered his eyes from the cliff to find a short personage standing before him. "Greetings, Roric, No-man's son," said a voice that could have been either a high-pitched man's or a deep-pitched woman's. No one had ever been able to say for sure if Weavers were men or women, or if the distinction had any meaning for them. This one, or one just alike, was said to have lived here since before the castle was built.
Roric reached for his belt. "I've brought you my best knife," he told the Weaver.
The pommel was set with rock crystal and the blade was polished steel. The Weaver took it and examined it, turning it over as a squirrel turns over an acorn, before finally whisking it out of sight beneath dark robes. Roric followed as the Weaver stumped back into the cave where a tiny fire was burning.
"And what would you ask of voima and of fate?" asked the Weaver, arms and legs huddled together until the robes looked like a pile of empty clothes, though yellow eyes glinted in the firelight. Roric too sat down.
"I met someone last night," he said after a moment. "Weaver, Mirror-seer--or Wanderer. I want to know who he was."
"And why do you ask another's name when you have no true name of your own?"
"He said he might have use of me," said Roric, trying with an effort to keep the edge out of his voice. It was no use becoming angry with a Weaver.
"And that use might be--?" When Roric said nothing more, the Weaver's hand disappeared again into the shapeless robes and emerged this time with a piece of string. Fingers moved quickly as the string took shape, first a series of loops, then triangles and diamonds, finally a web so dense it looked as though it must contain much more string than when the Weaver had begun.
"Tangled," came the voice at last, neither man's nor woman's. The Weaver always said that. "Lives are tangled here. The change, the upheaval, may be closer than anyone thought, and some beneath the sun may be sought to withhold it, or even to hurry it."
"I gave you my best knife for a clear answer," said Roric testily. "I'm not burning an offering to influence the future--not that I'm sure that often works. I'm asking you something that has already happened."
"What has happened," said the Weaver enigmatically, "depends so much on your perspective. Who has appeared, and what he seeks, depends on whether he seeks a man without a name or a man with a mighty father."
"And which one do you think you're talking to?" asked Roric fiercely.
"It might also depend on which the Wanderers could use most readily . . ." The light and shadow from the fire accentuated all the Weaver's deep facial lines.
"So it was a Wanderer!" The Weaver did not reply, which Roric took as assent. He stared unseeing for a moment into the fire. "Such a thing has never happened to my certain knowledge to any I know," he said at last, very quietly, "only to those of the old tales."
"And are there not Weavers as well in the old tales?"
Roric did not anwer but cocked his head as though listening to the high voices of the bats outside. "He never did tell me what he wanted," he said after a minute, "but if he wants me it's because I was nearly an outcast when he spoke to me. Does that mean-- Does that mean the Wanderers have reasons of their own for hiding from me who I am?"
"You are Roric No-man's son," said the Weaver loudly.
"Yes, and that's who they said they might need. But why would the lords of voima want a mortal to help them?"
The Weaver examined the web of string again, picking at a few threads until the knots were even more tangled. The silence stretched so long that Roric had decided he would have no answer to his question when the other suddenly spoke. "Even the Wanderers may not have full control over their own fate."
"Listen. I haven't tried this since I was twelve." Roric tugged in sudden resolution at his ring, the one Hadros had given him when he became a man and received his sword, when they had first sworn their oaths to each other. "If I give you this, will you give me a straight answer? Will you tell me my father's true name?"
The Weaver made little rasping noises that could have been a cough, could even have been a laugh. "That is not an answer I give for a ring--or for the silver-decorated halter you tried to give me years ago. This is an answer that gives a man his identity and takes it away in the same instant. The price of your question is knowledge that will destroy you."
"I must say I don't understand you any better than I did when I was twelve." Roric rose abruptly. "I've wasted a good knife," he said with a shrug. "The Wanderer--if he was a Wanderer, and if he appears again--can tell me himself what he wants. In the meantime, I know who I am, and I have no intention of waiting for my fate to reach me. I am King Hadros's sworn man and bitter enemy, and I am the man Karin loves."
As he left the cave, there came a metallic clatter almost at his foot. He paused and glanced down. It was his knife.
He stood motionless for a second, then picked it up and returned it slowly to his sheath, looking back toward the cliff. A fitting conclusion to the last day's events, he thought with a mirthless smile. Even in the oldest tales, no Weaver had ever refused payment. It was now full night, and there was not even a glint of firelight from the cave.
Karin had never told anyone, not even Roric, about the faeys.
She slipped out of the hall very early in the morning, an hour before the maids would rise to stir up the fires for morning porridge. The room was still completely dark. Hadros and his sons snored peacefully in the other cupboard beds as she went on slow silent footsteps across the hall, finding her way by feel to the great door. She always kept the bolts oiled, and they slid back effortlessly. The hinges gave the faintest creak as she swung the door open, but the note of the snores did not change.
Roric, she knew, would also be asleep, up in the men's loft with the king's warriors and housecarls. She hesitated for a moment as she pushed the door soundlessly shut behind her, with a disquieting image of him quietly knifed. But even Gizor would not dare an attack among so many men.
She pulled her cloak around her against the pre-dawn cold and hurried across the courtyard to the apple tree that spread its trellised limbs against the outer wall. They would assume she was in one of the other buildings in the castle when they woke to find her gone from the hall. She had been climbing this apple tree since she was small, and it would still--just--hold her.
She scrambled upward quickly, pausing at the top of the tree to free her cloak from a twig on which it caught. The last ten feet she went by toes and fingers, but the sandstone was soft enough that she had been able to chip away holes over the years. Then she went lightly along the top of the wall toward the back of the castle, where an oak branch stretched near. Since Hadros had won the war with her father, he had neglected such things. She seized it, scrambled, and worked her way down the tree until she was low enough to jump.
The faeys would want to know she was going to become queen.
The long grass brushed dew against the skirt she had hitched up while she climbed, and roots caught at her feet. She never liked to come out while it was still fully night, for fear of meeting the troll, but if she waited for sunrise the faeys would be gone. She hurried in the opposite direction from the cliff, darting between trees whose shapes became clearer and clearer as the sky lightened above her.
But she was in time. As she came over the last rise, she could see their lights still burning with a cold green glow. Many of the faeys had already gone into the hill, but others lingered in the dell. She paused above them, pushing back the hair she had not taken time to braid, and whistled three times.
They ran around in panic for a few seconds as they always did, as though they never could remember they had taught her that whistle themselves. But then they spotted her and poured up the hillside to meet her.
They came up to her knees. They leaped and frolicked like puppies, crying, "Karin! Karin!" in shrill voices, snatching at her skirts and all trying to get closer to her than the others.
Even miserable she had to laugh. "Yes, yes, I'm coming to visit you! I have news you'll like to hear. Yes, I'll tell you when we're all inside."
For ten years, the faeys had been the only ones with whom she could be not a princess, not a hostage, not even a woman, but only herself, Karin.
They poured back down the slope into the dell and gathered up the lights. She went on her knees to crawl into the hillside behind them. The stone swung shut, closing them in.
In all the years she had been coming here, she had never liked this disorienting moment when natural light was abruptly gone, leaving them all illuminated only by the faint green light that put weird shadows across their features. She took a deep breath and shut her eyes, then carefully opened them again.
It always became better in a few minutes. The faeys brought out wild strawberries and honeydew from the bees and ate happily, apparently not noticing that she was not eating hers.
"Yes," said Karin. "I told you I have something to tell you. I'm going to become a queen."
"A queen! A queen!" the faeys cried in delight. "And will that pleasant young man you told us about become your king?"
"I don't see how he can. But I love him, and I don't want to marry anyone else."
The faeys gave her more strawberries as though that would solve her problems and finally noticed she was not eating. She ate a few to make them happy.
"And that's not all," she continued. "I shall have to leave here, go back to the kingdom where I lived when I was little."
This caused consternation. "But how could you go away? That would mean you'd leave us! Don't leave us, Karin! Maybe we could come with you!"
She looked at them between exasperation and affection. She had stumbled across the faeys when wandering at twilight the first summer she had come to Hadros's kingdom, within a week of when her younger brother had died. She had not then been much taller than they were, and the faeys had since told her she was the first mortal they had successfully tamed.
"If you came with me," she said, "you'd have to leave your dell. The trip is too long for a single night, and much of it is by ship."
They had not thought of this. They conferred urgently among themselves for a moment, then announced, "Then you'll have to give up being queen! That way you can stay here and still marry that nice young man."
They gave her arm and hair reassuring pats, happy to have solved her problem so easily. Karin shook her head. She had come hoping the faeys might have some ancient wisdom to offer, but years of visiting them should have made her know better.
"The king here would like me to stay, I think," she said.
"There! What did we tell you? You know you wouldn't want to move away from us!"
"But he will want me to marry his son, rather than Roric, the man I love."
For a reason she could not understand, there was immediately further consternation among the faeys. They jumped up, knocking over their bowls, and several darted off down the tunnels while others started making little piles of pebbles in the dim green light.
"What's happening?" she asked in a minute when no one seemed about to tell her.
One looked up from a pile of pebbles that kept falling over every time he tried to balance another on top. "Is your Roric-- Is he sometimes known as Roric No-man's son?"
"That's right," she said with a frown. "He was found at the castle gates when he was a baby, no more than three months old. The queen had pity on him, especially since she had no children of her own yet--or so I've always heard. He was brought up as King Hadros's foster-son and became one of his warriors, but he is a man without family."
"Should we tell her? You tell her. Don't you think she'll be upset if we tell her? We don't want to upset Karin. But queens have to deal with upsetting things every day."
"What's going to upset me?" she almost shouted.
"Oh, nothing!" the faeys cried together. "Nothing at all! Just something we heard, but it must have been another Roric altogether. Nothing to do with you!"
She rose to her knees, as high as she could go in the cramped space. "If you do not tell me at once," she said resolutely, "I shall leave here and never visit you again."
There was a horrified silence, then several spoke up, although hesitantly. "Well, it's probably nothing serious. But maybe it's better if-- We may have been mistaken, of course . . ."
"Tell me plainly," she said grimly, "and tell me at once."
Only one dared speak now. "We've heard-- That is, someone said-- We've heard the Wanderers want him."
This was so unexpected she sat down abruptly on her heels. "But why would the Wanderers want Roric?" she asked in wonder.
"Well, you know," said the faeys unhappily, "even you mortals must realize-- Even for the lords of voima, fate does not always go well. Or for faeys!"
"Yes, I know the faeys have their problems," she said absently. "But-- But could it mean they need him because of who he is?" Her face lit up in the green glow of the lights. "Could he really be a son of a Wanderer all this time?"
"What?! Why would you even think that? Don't think that! It's not right for mortals to have such notions!"
It had been a nice idea for about two seconds.
"They want him because he is a mortal, but one who has no ties with other mortals!"
Then they don't know about me, she thought. This was disconcerting; it was almost as bad to think that the Wanderers could have important gaps in their knowledge as it would have been to think that they were watching all the time.
"What use would they have for a mortal?"
"Maybe he can help them," said one of the faeys slowly. "We sense the time of upheaval is coming, the time even creatures of voima fear . . . Soon we may have to seal our burrows against the outside world; sometimes we have to seal them for hundreds of years. Would you like to stay inside with us when we do, Karin?"
She deliberately ignored this, not sure what upheaval the faeys could be talking about and certainly not wanting to be sealed up anywhere for the rest of her life. "But how did you find out about Roric? Do you speak yourselves to the Wanderers?"
"Not us! No, not us! Even the Wanderers don't come into our tunnels! Only faeys and mortals we invite. And we only invite you!"
"Then who told you?"
Here their anwers were so contradictory, so confused, that it was at best a guess that they might have learned this from the Weaver.
"And what do the Wanderers want with him?" she tried a third time.
But either the faeys really did not know, or the prospect of telling her was even worse than her threats not to see them again. After a few minutes, agreeing somewhat relucantly than she would indeed come visit soon, she crawled out, back into the dell, and pushed the stone shut immediately behind her, knowing the faeys would all be huddling far back in their tunnels until the threat of direct sunlight was gone.
She adjusted her cloak around her and hurried back toward the castle. She had to speak to Roric as soon as she could get him alone, to discover if he knew anything of this. For some reason she was still reluctant to tell him about the faeys, though he was certain to ask how she came by the startling information that the Wanderers wanted him.
Had he in fact already met a Wanderer himself? His eyes had looked strange yesterday morning when she found him at the stables, but anyone who had escaped death and ridden all night would be wild-eyed, even without a conversation with the lords of voima.
There might still be some things, she thought, that he felt reluctant to tell her, as she kept the secret of the faeys. They had had, both of them, to learn control, to use caution in a castle where they were at the same time family members and outsiders. She passed the little valley where an oak's low-spreading branches made a hidden bower. It was here, three weeks before, that she and Roric had lain together for the first and only time, wrapped up in both their cloaks, laughing and kissing and pledging eternal love to each other.
Their future together had looked so hopeful then, and Roric had been so sure that Hadros, who had been a father to him his whole life, would raise no objections. That hope had lasted until last week when he had finally decided the moment right to raise the topic.
Karin scraped the last of the porridge out of the pot and sat down to eat at the opposite end of the table from King Hadros. "I went for a walk," she said shortly when he looked a question at her. Her firmly-set jaw and lowered eyes kept anyone else from speaking to her.
The king's sons were discussing the horses. It was the season to bring the mares and the young foals in from pasture, to introduce the foals to humans and rebreed the mares, and almost time to start breaking the yearlings for riding. She listened absently to their conversation as she finished breakfast and braided her hair.
"We'll have to see how well the foals came out this year," said Valmar with a laugh. He was the king's oldest son, two years younger than Karin, and had red hair and dark blue eyes with lashes that had always seemed to her too long for a boy. She still thought of him as her little brother, even though in the last few years he had shot up from boyhood to young manhood. Though most men stayed clean-shaven until marriage, he had managed to grow a somewhat patchy beard. "And we'll have to see if the mares will be satisfied to be covered by an ordinary stallion this time. I'm afraid Roric's troll-horse may have sired some of this year's crop!"
His younger brothers, Dag and Nole, laughed too, then glanced toward her as though recalling her presence and stopped abruptly. They all knew better than to say anything that could possibly be considered crude or lewd in her presence, but King Hadros did not seem to have noticed.
Valmar rose. "Coming with us, Father? Or is your knee still bothering you?"
Karin looked up sharply at that. The king sat with one leg extended straight out from the bench. "Oh, my leg is fine," he said easily. That was the leg, she recalled, that he had broken in the fall last year--or was it the year before? "But perhaps I shall let you go ahead and catch up with you."
His three sons clattered out, taking the housecarls with them. Karin stood up with a swirl of her skirt, thinking that she would work in the weaving house; it did not require much concentration, once the pattern was established, and the tension burning inside her needed an outlet. The maids would be impressed at how fast she threw the shuttle today.
But King Hadros motioned to her. "Come here, Karin. I would speak with you."
He smiled when he spoke, and she went somewhat reluctantly to sit beside him, looking at him steadily. Hadros was no taller than she but twice as wide, all of it muscle. He had little white scars all over the backs of his hands and arms and a long one on his cheek, which just barely did not reach his eye. Ever since she was fully grown, she could usually manage to talk and smile him into being agreeable.
Today she was less sure that she could control herself. This was the man, she thought, who had ordered Roric murdered.
But the man she saw now was the one who had taught her to ride, the man who had given her the direction of his household when the queen had died and she was still only a girl herself. She had known him both in riotous good humor and in black rages, especially when he had sat drinking long with his warriors. It was Hadros who, when she had first started developing a woman's body, and one of the housecarls had made a remark to her so coarse that she had been another year older before she understood it, had seized the man by the neck and smashed him to the floor with such force that he died. But at some point, almost without her noticing, Hadros had developed lines in his tanned face and gray in his hair. And she had never before not known him to lead when they brought in the foals.
There were voices and the sound of hooves in the courtyard. She glanced through the open door to see that Roric, riding Goldmane, had joined the king's sons. His rather ferocious good looks, straight dark eyebrows over deep-set eyes, a muscled body always in motion, usually made her heart turn over, but today she felt more irritation than anything else. In the one glimpse she had of him he appeared carefree, and he did not glance at all in her direction. Could he have forgotten already?
"I had not realized your leg was bothering you again," she said, turning back to the king.
He shrugged. "I have not spoken with you for nearly two days, Karin," he said, "since I had to tell you about your brother. By now I hope you have adjusted to the news."
Oh no, she thought. Here it comes. He's going to ask me to marry Valmar--or even himself.
Instead he smiled and tucked a finger under her chin. "So sober, my little princess." He had not called her that in years. "I know you realize this makes you heiress to your father's kingdom. The All-Gemot of the Fifty Kings will be held at his castle this year. Would you like to accompany me across the channel?"
This was not at all what she had expected him to say. The All-Gemot, she thought wildly. She had contemplated it during the long hours two nights ago when she had sat up, dressed, in the dark, listening to the restless tossing from the king's bed. If Gizor and his thugs had killed Roric, she would have found some way to accuse Hadros before the Fifty Kings.
She had not known the All-Gemot would be held in her own father's kingdom. She tightened her lips. They had sent her out a prisoner, a little girl, someone less important than Hadros's offer of peace. But she would be coming home a woman and a future queen.
"Yes," she said gravely. "I would very much like to accompany you."
"There are a few sovereign queens already among the Fifty Kings," he said. "And I'm sure you know it is not always fifty anymore. Last year I think there were sixty-three in attendance, including several from those little kingdoms up north--though it was quite an act of courtesy to call them kings!"
"How soon will we leave?" Roric might be among the warriors to accompany the king--or Hadros might use the opportunity to try again to have him killed here at the castle while his own hands stayed clean. She wondered if there was any way to ask the king to bring him along.
"Ten days. And you will want to bring your finest clothes. I am sure you remember the standards those kings south of the channel set for themselves! We will not be thought another little upcountry kingdom."
She had not considered that, and for a few seconds she ran in her mind through the fine clothes stored in the bottom of her chest--the red silk dress she had worn when she came here had not fit for nine years. She did recall that, when she first arrived, this court had seemed crude, unrefined, but she had already been ready to hate everything about it. She could scarcely remember her own mother, who had died when her younger brother was born, but now that she thought about it she was quite sure the queen had not worked in the weaving house or done her own brewing.
"And the All-Gemot will be an excellent opportunity to announce your betrothal to Valmar."
Karin took a sharp breath, then bit her lip. He had brought it up when she had almost forgotten to fear he would.
The king smiled at her as though he had just offered her a treat. "I could not of course urge Valmar on you while you were a hostage here. No man could say that King Hadros made war on girls. But once you are home you shall be able to make your choice freely. You two have spent a lot of time together ever since you were children--I helped make sure of that. By now you must know he'll make you a fine husband."
It was his expectation that she would delighted at this generous offer that made her answer hotly. "Valmar? But why should I marry him? The beard can't hide it. He's nothing but a stripling boy!"
She stopped, seeing his surprise and, yes, disappointment. Whatever she wanted to argue with King Hadros about, it was not the manliness of his oldest son.
But where she had expected hot words in return, he said quietly, "He is still young, Karin. Perhaps you would prefer to wait a year or two. There has mostly been peace of late among the Fifty Kings, and even the upcountry bandits and southern booty have provided less opportunity for boys to be hardened into warriors. Most of the ships now on the channel are merchants' ships, not war ships. I had already killed three men in combat when I was Valmar's age." She thought he was finished, but then he added, almost under his breath, "Of course, there are some, like Roric, who do not need war to make them men."
She clenched her fists until the nails bit into her flesh. "And he is the man," she said in a voice that she was dismayed to hear tremble, "that I shall marry."
Again she expected a hot answer, but Hadros only went perfectly still for ten seconds, then turned to look at her gravely. "He did not say he had spoken to you already . . ."
She caught herself just in time from shouting, "And would that have made any difference in your ordering him killed?" Instead she kept her fists clenched at her sides and asked as evenly as she could, "And how can you possibly object to my marrying him?"
"You have always been a princess, even before your brother died. You were a hostage, but I intended to treat you as though you were my own daughter, and no man without a father could marry a daughter of mine."
"You're his father just as much as you're mine." She spoke in a low, intense voice. No one else was in the hall, but there might be highly interested maids outside the open doorway.
He pulled out his dagger and started trimming his nails, not looking at her. "Don't be childish, Karin," he said, and it was only the faintest unsteady note in his own voice that kept it from being patronizing dismissal. "You know I never formally adopted him, even though my queen loved him, even though the lords of voima had not yet granted us sons of our own. He is my sworn man, but I would as soon see you married to Gizor One-hand."
"Well, small chance of my wanting that!" she said, trying desperately to laugh. She started to ask why then, if he never intended to adopt the baby found at the castle gate, he had had his own wife raise him, but she closed her mouth without asking.
Hadros glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "And Roric is too young to marry anyone," he said slowly.
"He's five years older than Valmar!" she thought but did not say.
"He could still carve out a lordship for himself, maybe in the upcountry, maybe somewhere along the coast. My own grandfather won this kingdom in war, and even in these more peaceful times--and maybe especially in these more peaceful times--there is room for a man of courage to rise high through his own strength. I would not see him shackled to a wife and a fancy southern kingdom."
Karin slowly digested what this implied of the king's attitude toward his own oldest son. At last she said, very quietly, "But Roric could be fated to die in his first battle as easily as to win renown."
"And I," said the king, just as quietly, "would rather see him dead than wasting the strength within him." He rose abruptly to his feet. "I had better see how those lads are getting along with the foals."
Valmar shouted and waved his hat to turn the mare, then dug his heels into his gelding to pursue her down the line of trees. She saw the pen at the bottom too late, and before she could turn again both she and the foal running at her heels had had the gate slammed behind them.
He pulled up, panting and wiping his forehead with his sleeve. "Is that all of them?" he yelled to Roric.
Roric sat on the fence, relaxed and self-assured, counting horses. He wore a sleeveless leather jerkin that showed all his muscles--Valmar hoped he would have arms like that some day.
Even though the mares had been running free all spring and were nervous about letting anyone near their babies, they were used to King Hadros's men and were already calming down. "I think we're still short one mare," Roric called to him. "Has anyone seen the spotted one?"
Just then the spotted mare, with a jet-black foal beside her, appeared at the top of the hill. Nole, Valmar's youngest brother, was right behind her, but she wheeled and darted away again, Nole and a half dozen housecarls at her heels.
Roric swung back up on Goldmane. "Should we give him a hand?"
Valmar smiled and shook his head. "Let him catch at least one by himself."
Roric stilled his stallion with a firm hand on the reins and looked at the pen full of circling mares. But Valmar, watching, thought he did not see them. Ever since he had quarreled with the king last week, and especially this last day and a half, since he had returned from his errand to the manor, Roric had not been himself. He could still joke with the king's sons and ride a horse who would not allow anyone else on his back, but any time there was a pause his face took on an expression as though his thoughts were a hundred miles away.
And his own father was also acting strangely. Valmar was still not sure what Roric's remarks had meant when he came home the morning before, or why his father had listened to them without saying anything at all.
"Tell me," said Valmar suddenly, "why you and Father quarreled."
Roric gave a start, then smiled what appeared to be his normal smile. "I gather we were heard all over the castle. But men sometimes say things when they have sat too long drinking that they later regret."
"Is that why you slipped away last night rather than drinking with us?" But as he spoke he remembered: that shouting match in the hall with the door closed, the voices loud though the words were indistinct, had taken place in the middle of the morning.
"I just had somewhere to go," said Roric offhandedly, though Valmar, watching his face, thought there was more here than he wanted to say.
"Even though you quarreled with Father," Valmar asked, "will you stay at the castle? Will you continue to serve him--and," he added almost shyly, "once I am king, will you serve me?"
This time Roric looked disconcerted, as though he had not thought this through. "I do not know," he said, not quite meeting the other's eyes. "There are reasons--the lords of voima know what powerful reasons--for me to stay, but something has happened that may mean I shall go away for a while . . . How about you, Valmar?" he added suddenly and with a grin. "Are you going to travel far and boldly, to win a fortune and a place in all the songs?"
It was Valmar's turn to be disconcerted. "But I could not leave," he said slowly. He had grown up knowing he would someday inherit this kingdom and had never seriously considered going elsewhere--even if the day he would inherit always seemed impossibly far in the future. "Without someone directing the castle, nettles would invade the fields, deer roll in the meadows, geese nest in the forest clearings--"
"Here comes Nole," said Roric. "He has her this time."
As the spotted mare galloped down the hill, a band of shouting men on her tail, Valmar glanced up to see a single rider in the distance, silhouetted against the sky. Father was coming after all, he thought. He would try to talk to Roric privately some other time.
The three brothers, Roric, and the housecarls leaned on the fence to look at the foals. Valmar was glad now that his father had not accompanied them. When Hadros reached here in another minute, he would find everything as it should be. Valmar had showed he could be trusted with the horses, and the housecarls had all obeyed him today without any of the humoring he sometimes sensed, the faintest suggestion that he was still a child.
"The mares should have all been bred to Midnight this year," he said. "Father said that black colts have been doing especially well at market recently. So tell us, Roric," with a elbow for his ribs, "where did those two sorrel foals come from?"
"Don't ask me!" he protested. "I do not set my stallion at stud without charging for it!" In the middle of a laugh, his face changed abruptly.
Valmar whirled to look where he was looking. His father had ridden to within a dozen yards of the pen.
Except that it was not his father.
The housecarls and Valmar's two younger brothers fled, kicking their horses wildly. But the mares in the pen went dead still, and the birds above them fell silent. Roric turned slowly to greet the rider. Valmar, behind him, was too frozen to move. This was a creature out of the recurring nightmare he had had as a boy, the nightmare he hoped he had finally outgrown, coming to meet him in broad day.
The rider had no back. He had a face, a front, but it was only a hollow shell.
But Roric did not seem to notice. "Have you decided then that you need me?" he asked the rider evenly.
"We want you, Roric No-man's son," said the rider, in a voice so deep it seemed to come from the earth. Valmar could see blue sky through the holes of his eye sockets.
"I shall be with you in half an hour," said Roric. He suddenly tossed back his hair and grinned. "There is one other person who wants me."
"Not half an hour," replied the rider in the same deep, vibrating voice. As he spoke storm clouds moved across the sky, and the air temperature began to drop precipitously. "You will come now."
"Roric!" hissed Valmar. "You can't-- Don't you see-- He has no back!"
"Don't bother me with children's tales," Roric hissed in reply. "Two minutes!" he shouted to the rider.
Then he whirled on Valmar and seized him by the shoulders. "Listen very carefully," he said in a low voice. "Take this message to Karin for me. Tell her I have found at last a place for a man without a family--or that such a place has found me. Tell her I have gone with the Wanderers, but that I shall always love her."
"That's not a Wanderer!" protested Valmar. As Roric shook his head, Valmar took in what else he had said. "You mean-- You mean you love my big sister?"
The corner of Roric's mouth curved up slightly. "Yes. Tell her that. And take care of her if I do not come back--especially if you marry her yourself."
"I couldn't marry her!" Valmar started to object, but Roric had already turned away and was mounting his stallion.
Valmar looked after them in amazement as Roric and the being who could not be a Wanderer rode quickly away. Could this be not a nightmare but a dream, the dream he had sometimes had of all-powerful beings realizing they were not all-powerful but that they needed something, someone, him? But that he might marry Karin! One of his most vivid early memories was of her, only a few weeks after she had first arrived at the castle, coming to him and saying, "You're my little brother now. And I'm going to teach you the games you have to play with me."
He glanced back over his shoulder. His father, really his father this time, was galloping toward him, a crowd of warriors and dogs and housecarls with him.
Valmar suddenly jumped on his own horse. "Roric!" he screamed, his voice thin and high. The two figures were about to disappear into the forest. "Roric! Wait! I'm coming with you!"
His gelding ran all out, but he was too late. When he reached the forest edge, they were already gone.
Long, long ago, in your grandmother's day or your great-grandmother's day, lived a man and woman who loved each other with all their hearts. He fished in winter in the briny sea, and grew barley in summer in his fields on the hills, while she kept the cow and brewed the beer and made the cheese and bread. Their only sorrow was that they had no children.
Their only sorrow, that is, until one stormy winter's night his ship did not return from the briny sea.
And in her despair she came home from drinking his funeral ale to a silent hall, and she called on the lords of voima to hear her. Her man was dead such a short time, she argued, he could not yet be in Hel, in the realm of the lords of death. Voima must still reach him. She demanded the lords of earth and sky to listen, demanded incessantly for three days. And on the third day, when she had almost lost hope and had returned to her duties on the farm and was once again brewing the beer, a Wanderer came to her.
"So you want your man again," he said, standing in the door of the brewing house and looking at her from under his broad-brimmed hat. "All it will take in return is that which is between you and the vat."
"Between me and the vat?" She looked down and saw the silver funeral buckle at her waist. "Of course," she said. "I shall gladly meet your terms." But even while she was loosening the buckle the Wanderer disappeared.
She looked wildly for where he had gone, then forgot him, for she heard a voice in the yard and a step she had thought never to hear again. But as she turned to rush from the brewing house she suddenly gave a great cry and collapsed in agony.
For the lord of voima had not meant her buckle. And she had not known until that moment that she had been with child.
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