W&N Fiction

Trinity Rising – Chapter Five

Gollancz Author: - July 27th, 2012
Elspeth Cooper, Extract, Fantasy

Chapter Five: ESCAPE

Drwyn had given Teia a new horse for the ride to the Gathering. Finn, her old dun gelding, was consigned to the pack-train after aiming a kick at him, and had been replaced with a sweet-faced grey mare. By the fifth day of the journey Teia hated her. She was entirely too biddable.

Not much chance of you aiming a kick at the chief’s backside, eh?

Feeling guilty, she patted her mount’s neck. It wasn’t the grey’s fault she wasn’t Finn.

She darted a sidelong glance at Drwyn. As a mark of her favoured status, she rode at his side now, whilst her family rode with the rest of the clan. He sat his raw-boned black warhorse with easy arrogance, wrapped in a thick plaid cloak against the chill wind. When he caught her looking, he heeled his horse over and leaned down from the saddle to crush her lips with a kiss.

‘Pretty thing,’ he murmured, stroking her cheek with his thumb. Then he kissed her again, roughly, his tongue pushing into her mouth. The heat in his eyes told her he would want her that night. She managed a smile, then focused her eyes on the mare’s dainty tufted ears and tried not to feel sick.

Eight days, and it felt like a year. She lived in Drwyn’s tent, fetched his meals and warmed his bed. She was expected to come at his call and leave when dismissed, in between doing whatever was asked of her. In return, he refrained from hitting her, unless she needed to be taught a lesson. He still liked to bite and slap when he bedded her, but she had learned not to complain. The one and only time she had, he had whipped her buttocks with his belt until they bled, so now she pretended to enjoy his attentions. It was a small price to pay to avoid another beating. The journey to the Gathering was long enough without having to make it on a flayed rump.

Teia pulled her chin down into the fur collar of her coat. Winter had drawn in fast. The plains were sere and hard with frost; the wind blew out of the north and in the mornings tasted of snow. Overhead the dull sky pressed down like a thick fleece. She could not recall a summer that had felt so short, or a winter that promised to be so long.

She longed to scry out her future, but Ytha watched her too closely. Ever since that night by the river, the Speaker appeared suspicious of her, and having arranged the match with Drwyn she watched its results closely. Whenever those cat-green eyes lit on her, Teia wanted to scream.

There was so much she needed to know. She hadn’t yet learned how to focus her scrying and seek specific answers; she saw only what the waters chose to show her. Sometimes the visions them¬selves terrified her – even apparently simple ones, like the boy with the chief’s torc, for not understanding the significance of even the most innocuous image frightened her all the more.

The last things she had seen had been that eagle’s-eye view of summer plains and her own bloody face. During the long nights in Drwyn’s tent, she had tried to puzzle out what they might mean, had dredged her memory for every scrap of lore Ytha had ever uttered on the subject of interpreting dreams and visions, but come no closer to the truth. Blood could mean an argument, a difficult decision, damage to one’s aspirations or, more often than not, just blood: someone would be hurt. That frustrated her; it was not an abstract vision of blood, but a very specific one. Her blood, on her face. Something was going to happen to her and she did not know what it was.

***

Storm clouds roiled overhead. Rain plastered Savin’s shirt to his skin and the wind shrieking around the towers of Renngald’s fortress whipped his hair across his face. He shook it free and squinted at the image rendered in miniature in the basin resting on the iron tripod in front of him: a tiny ship on a storm-tossed sea, wavering as the rain lashed the shallow water. One toothpick-slender mast was already broken; surely it couldn’t be long before the others followed, yet somehow the ship battled on; climbed each towering wave, survived the dizzying drop into the following trough and did not broach. Spread around it like a fabulous cloak was an intricate tapestry of the Song that bulged and billowed with the force of the storm pummelling it.

The Guardian was the architect of that glittering web. Savin could feel his will in the shaping of it – after so many years, he knew Alderan’s work the way he recognised the hand of a master sculptor – but the power that gave each gossamer strand the strength of an anchor chain, that was the boy. Untrained, raw as meat on a butcher’s slab, but between his strength and the old man’s skill they were deflecting a gale that should by now have smashed the ship to kindling.

His name was Gair, the man in Mesarild had said before he died. Some fatherless wretch the Church had cast out; a nonentity, but for his gift. They’re going to the Isles that’s all I know I swear please Goddess it hurts—

Precious little, and it had taken one of the woman’s eyes to get that much, despite her protestations that they would tell him everything. Alderan, it appeared, was as close-mouthed with his own subordinates as he was with everyone else. Still, it had given Savin a direction of travel to pursue; learning the rest had only required a little silver in the right palms. Now he had a chance to be rid of the old meddler for good.

Gripping the rim of the basin so tightly the cold metal bit into his fingertips, he threw more power into his working. It sang over him, through him, and he channelled it into the storm he had wrought.

The winds rose again and slammed into the old man’s weaving. The ship staggered, her single topsail straining against its reefs. Point by point, her course veered southwards, closer to the foaming shoals just visible at the edge of the image. Around him the northern storm-winds howled in sympathy and set the Kaldsmirgen Sea thundering against the rocks below the castle walls.

Despite the slap and scour of the storm on his face, his lips stretched into a grin. This Gair boy was strong but Savin knew the Guardian’s tricks far too well: he’d had the measure of them for years.

You’ll have to try harder than that to beat me, old man!

Already the billowing curtain of the Song that shielded the distant ship was beginning to fray under the strain of wind and water. It could last only minutes longer, then the shoals would have them. The whelp was no threat: without training, with no more discipline than was required to call and hold the power, all the strength in the world was as nothing. If he survived the storm, which was not likely, his own gift would no doubt finish the job before the year’s end. Candles that burned brightly were apt to start fires if left unattended.

Time to finish it and be done; Savin had other fish to catch. He wove the strands of his power more closely together, thrusting one hand up towards the sky. Physical gestures were unnecessary in working the Song, but it was late and he was bored; it was all too easy to slip back into the habits of childhood.

Viewed through the basin, the clouds above the Inner Sea convulsed, punctuated by the crack and boom of thunder. In his mind’s ear the shrieking wind reached a new pitch and the sea’s heaving grew more violent. Waves smashed themselves into spray, clouding his vision, but he no longer needed to see. He could feel the storm thrumming in every sinew, every muscle. He was one with it, and it was his to command.

Fist clenched, Savin brought his hand down hard.

The shield bowed but still did not tear. He blinked in surprise. How? Alderan was wily, and skilled at making the best use of what gift he had – how else could he have taught his students that, in the right hands, a dagger could turn aside a broadsword? – but in a contest of raw strength the old man should have been out-matched. Worse – the blow he’d just been dealt should have crushed him, yet his weaving remained intact, and it was brighten¬ing. Threads of new colour shone through it: vivid emerald, bright gold, gleaming clean and new as if polished.

The Church whelp; it had to be. Somehow that untried boy had reached further, deeper into the Song and turned loose his strength to reinforce the weave beyond anything Alderan could have wrought unaided. Now the shield arched high over the beleaguered ship like a steel breastplate and turned the storm’s force aside. Not stopping it but diverting it, backing the winds around to the east again. Underneath the shield, tiny figures swarmed over sodden decks and out along the straining main yard. Tightly reefed canvas suddenly bellied to the wind, bringing the ship’s head up. In moments she was running before the gale, north and west away from the reefs. The winds he had sent to destroy were instead carrying his old enemy to safety.

What are you doing here, Savin? Alderan’s voice floated calmly above the roar of the storm.

It’s a pleasure to see you, too. Savin reached back into his power, twisting thick ropes of air together until the winds screamed. You have no hold over me, old man. I can come and go as I please.

More’s the pity.

Now, now. No need to talk like that – not when we’ve known each other so long. Can’t we be civil?

We passed the point of civility when you killed Aileann.

Still holding that against me? Savin clicked his tongue impatiently. Maybe she’d still be alive if she hadn’t tried to tell me what to do.

She was your mother! Alderan snarled. His colours quivered with suppressed emotion, or perhaps the effort of communicating over such a vast distance – Savin didn’t know which and didn’t par¬ticularly care. The old resentment burned anew.

Then she should have known better, he snarled back.

But Alderan was gone, and Savin’s storm was drifting for lack of attention, driven northwards by the hot breath of the desert. Mastering it again would require as much effort as raising it in the first place, and by the time he did so the ship would be well away from the point of summoning and moving faster than he could send the storm after it.

Shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds in the basin as the vessel pulled away, gleaming on the yards and wet rigging like sailors’ fire. The ship was out of his reach now, and his foe with it.

‘Hjussvoten!’

He swept the basin off its tripod with the back of his hand. Water sprayed into the air, quickly lost in the rain, and the shallow bowl clanged onto the stones. Before it had stopping spinning he kicked it clear across the tower-top, where it careened off the far parapet with a sound like a cracked bell. Another kick sent the tripod tumbling after it.

Curse him!

Fury boiling through his blood, Savin cast about for something else on which to vent his frustration, but the storm-weathered tower-top was bare.

Curse the crafty old bastard to the stinking pits of hell – and his new apprentice with him!

Lightning arced from horizon to horizon, filling his nostrils with the dry, bitter smell of scorched air. The clouds seethed in response to his rage, and below the castle walls the Kaldsmirgen thrashed itself to pieces on the rocks, hurling spray up over the crumbling merlons. He tasted its salt in the rain, felt its sting in his eyes and howled, and the storm yelled back twice as loud.

At each corner of the tower, squat stone skaldings leered out of the night. Fists clenched, chest heaving, Savin glowered at them. Hideous things. The superstitious Nordmen carved them as both watchers and warnings, and their sly, knowing faces were all over the islands: above every gate, every fireplace, squatting on every gable end. Picking their noses and whispering in each other’s ragged ears. As if life on the Northern Isles wasn’t charmless enough, he had to be surrounded by so much ugliness.

The Song surged inside him and he thrust his hand out towards the nearest statue. With a crack like thunder its horned head flew apart in a shower of stone chips. Another crack blew off its wings and a third scattered the rest of it into the sea in shards.

It wasn’t enough, but he felt better for it. Raking his sodden hair back from his face, Savin stalked to the stairs that spiralled down into the keep. The men in the guardroom below glanced up from their dice-cups as he passed but let him be. Just as well, or they’d likely have met the same fate as the skalding. Down the stairs, along the draughty corridor towards his rooms, too furious either to maintain his ward against the cold or feel its lack, despite the chill that prickled his skin with gooseflesh under his wet shirt. He slammed the door behind him and warded it secure, then flung more of the Song at the lamps.

So the Church brat has a gift after all. A thought stoked up the fire. And a potent one at that – what a charming surprise that was, eh, Alderan? Another thought picked logs from the basket at the side of the hearth and hurled them onto the flames one by one, sending gouts of sparks boiling up the chimney.

You wily bastard. Playing your hand as if you held nothing but knaves, and then this!

The fire began to crackle, then to roar.

Heedless of the trail of drips he was leaving across his fine carpets, Savin strode to his bookshelves and hunted along them until he found the broken-spined wreck that had once been a finely gilded Chronicles of the True Faith: A History of the Founding Wars by St Saren Amicus, and tossed it onto the table by the sight-glass where it landed with its covers splayed open like the wings of a dead bird.

At the slap of leather on wood somebody gasped, and he looked up. The girl was still in his bed. One of Renngald’s innumerable nieces, or some castle functionary’s plumply pretty daughter; it was so tedious trying to keep track. He hadn’t noticed her amongst the mounded furs but now she was sitting up, staring at him with those mussel-shell-blue eyes. Thick white-gold hair tumbled around her bare shoulders, almost but not quite covering her heavy breasts.

‘My lord?’

She didn’t speak much of the common tongue but knew enough of the important words to please him. He watched her, his fingers tapping absently on the book. Well, it would be one way to vent his frustration. He flicked the cover closed.

‘Up,’ he said.

She kicked off the covers and presented herself on her hands and knees, her back arched and her round white buttocks raised towards him. Such a pretty arse; it made up for her lack of a brain. Not that he kept her for her conversation; she did far more interesting things with her mouth than talk.

Stripping off his sodden shirt – linen; he hadn’t risked silk in the rain – he walked towards the bed. Despite the chill embrace of his wet trousers he was already hardening, his flesh anticipating the girl’s hot cunny.

Peering back at him over her shoulder, she undulated her hips invitingly.

He knelt on the bed behind her, unbuttoning his pants.

‘I told you to shave,’ he said, and shoved himself into her.

She grunted at the abrupt intrusion, but soon caught the rhythm of his movements and pushed back lustily. One hand took her weight whilst she used the other to stimulate herself, the walls of her cunny flexing around him.

Good girl. She was no najji, trained from childhood to please, but she’d learned her lessons faster than the others – just as well, as he quickly tired of repeating himself – and had developed something of a knack: her pelvic muscles worked his cock like velvet-gloved hands. Soon the rhythmic pulsing had his balls up tight against his body, the knot deep in his lower belly clenching hard. Yes. He pushed down between her shoulder blades, pressing her chest into the furs, and thrust harder. She mewled prettily, but not too loudly. She’d definitely learned.

He spread his knees, pulled her hips up against him with his free arm and rode her pillowy arse until the knot loosened and he emptied himself in quick, hot spurts. Sitting breathless on his heels, he watched the girl crawl around to take his still-stiff cock into her mouth and suck him clean, murmuring her appreciation.

That bobbing blond head in his lap was proof that even the dullest pupil could be taught, if properly motivated. Those with a bit of ability could even, one day, outstrip their teacher. He grinned. After all, hadn’t he done so himself ?

Is that what you want him for, Alderan? To be the good little Guardian that I never was?

The girl’s teeth grazed his flesh and he grunted. ‘Enough.’

Those mussel-shell eyes looked up through bed-tousled hair as she continued to work her lips up and down the length of him. On another day that hot mouth and fluttering tongue might have roused him again, but now his fury was spent the girl had served her purpose.

‘I said enough!’ He slapped her away.

With a yelp she scrambled back to the far side of the bed to hide herself under the furs, watching him warily over the edge like a house-dog in fear of a beating. Knowing it would make her flinch, he snarled at her and laughed when she cringed.

Stupid creature, but what else were pets for?

What is your new pet for, Alderan? Will he fetch for you, walk on his hind legs, sing on command? Careful he doesn’t bite you – even house-dogs have teeth!

A thought dropped into his mind as clean and cold as a drip of snowmelt. His hands stilled on his trouser buttons. House-dog, or guard dog?

That was no reject from the priesthood he’d met in the inn’s roof garden – not with that sword across his back, and the spread of shoulder beneath his shirt that said he had the muscle to swing it. A Knight, then – or maybe just a novice; the boy was young enough. And with the potential he’d seen in the waters . . .

Oh, the irony was quite delicious. Savin raked his still-wet hair back from his face and thought of the book on his desk, and of a ship on a blue-green sea. The ship was out of reach for now, but all was not lost, not entirely. After all, sometimes an obstacle was just an opportunity in a dirty coat.

Wondering how much that shabby-proud Church youth might know about what had become of Fellbane’s treasure when the battle was done, he started to smile.

***

Twelve days after the Crainnh welcomed their new chief, they reached the Gathering place. It was a vast, bowl-shaped hollow surrounded by a ridge of black, glassy rock. A crescent-shaped lake lay within, its arms embracing a wide sward. Smoke rose from dozens of cook-fires in the clan camps strewn along the perimeter of the hollow. Corrals of livestock and picketed horses occupied one end of the flat ground by the lake, and at the other stood an open-sided pavilion decked with fluttering ribbons, where the wedding fair would be held. Traders’ pitches chequered the space in between, their wares spread out on blankets. The air smelled of woodsmoke, crushed grass and animal dung, laced with the north wind’s icy bite.

Whilst the womenfolk set about rigging the tents and preparing meals, Drwyn and a dozen hand-picked warriors from his war band went to greet the other chiefs. Ytha accompanied them, dressed in her snow-fox mantle and carrying her whitewood staff.

From the tent doorway, Teia watched them leave. Could she find the time to slip away before they returned? She cast an agonised look around, at the chores awaiting her. Two of Drwyn’s warriors had erected the tent for her, but she still had to furnish it and start cooking.

An idea came to her. She hurried back inside and feverishly spread the ground-skins, unrolling carpets and arranging cushions. Then she changed out of her dress and into elk-hide trews and a thick jerkin, and dug her bow and quiver out of the baggage. Drwyn did not like her to keep them, but she had managed to distract him enough with kisses that he had never got around to taking them from her.

Fingering the beaded stitching around the neck of the quiver, she remembered her father gifting it for her tenth summer. Every Crainnh should know how to hunt, he’d said, then taught her to shoot, and how to care for the bow-stave and the elk-horn nocks. A fierce little pang shot through her and the blue and green beads blurred a bit. Macha willing, she’d be with her family again before too long.

Tying her hair back, she composed her face. Now she had to be strong. Quiver shouldered, heart thumping so loudly she was sure it could be heard right across the valley, she stepped out of the tent.

The two guards looked around as she emerged. One of them, a stringy-haired fellow with bad skin, eyed the shape of her in the close-fitting trews.

‘Fetch my horse,’ she ordered, amazed that her voice did not quaver.

The guards exchanged a glance. ‘And where would you be going?’ one of them asked.

‘To catch the chief some supper. A brace of widgeon, I think.’

The lecherous one – Harl, she thought his name was – leered at her. ‘Well, he does have a taste for a bird, especially one with a nice plump breast.’ He stared directly at the open neck of her jerkin.

Teia snatched an arrow from her quiver and in a heartbeat had it nocked and aimed at his eye. ‘Careful your eyes don’t fall in,’ she said. ‘I’d hate to see you lose one.’

Harl blinked, startlement replacing his lustful expression. The other guard stifled a snigger.

‘I said, fetch my horse.’ She drew a little harder on the string, enough to make the bow creak, and he backed off a pace. ‘That’s better. Come on, Harl, come on. The afternoon’s a-wasting.’

Harl bobbed his head. ‘Yes, lady.’

When he’d gone she returned the arrow to the quiver, then wrapped her hands around the bow so the other fellow wouldn’t see they were trembling. She needn’t have worried. However amused he’d been by what had happened to Harl, the man was now standing at his post and keeping his eyes to himself.

Harl returned with her grey saddled and ready. Teia thanked him coolly, mounted and rode out of the camp. Only when she was well away from the tents did she let herself relax, her sigh of relief trailing off into a giggle at her own audacity.

Treating Drwyn’s men as if they were her servants! But it had worked. Whether it would work a second time she couldn’t say, but for now it had bought her an hour unobserved. She was determined to make the most of it.

A mile or so north of the Gathering place, a string of smaller lakes nestled like jewels in a silvery web of streamlets. With little solid ground to speak of, she had to leave her horse tethered to a bloodthorn bush and pick her way through the reed beds on foot, but the cover was good and the patter of the bone-white stems in the wind covered any noise she might make.

Within a quarter of an hour Teia had dispatched a pair of widgeon at the largest of the lakes, recovered and cleaned her arrows, and tied the birds by the feet with a bit of twine. Now the rest of the afternoon was hers. She knelt on the shore and scooped water into a dainty bronze bowl she’d filched from Drwyn’s tent, small enough to hide in her belt-pouch. Holding it steady on her knees, she summoned a little of her power.

At first the image was smeary and difficult to hold. Her face again, this time with a ragged gash on her temple that was the source of the blood on her cheek. As she watched it knitted up into a tight pale scar; where it disappeared into her hairline, her dark hair turned snowy white. The dead look in her eyes changed, too, becoming instead haunted, as if she carried a dreadful secret buried deep in her heart, like a worm in a blushberry.

Then the image re-formed, stretching and filling the bowl between her hands until she saw herself, in exquisite detail, robed in snow-fox fur and carrying a Speaker’s staff.

Teia gasped and dropped the bowl. Cold lake water soaked her knees. She was destined to become a Speaker? How was that possible? If Ytha found out about the Talent, she would know she had been deceived and only exile could follow. Teia would have to join the Lost Ones or die alone on the pitiless plains. But if Ytha did not find out, she would have to continue with the life she had.

She closed her eyes and pressed her face into her hands. So the wedding fair would have been her best choice after all. The chance remained that Drwyn would give her up, but it was diminishing. The more she played his willing concubine, the more he tolerated her. In time, he might even make her his next wife, and then Teir would get the bride-price of which Drw’s death had cheated him.

Poor Drw. He had been kind to her; vigorous but gentle enough that sharing his blankets had not been a chore. Some­times, when he had only wanted her to sing or keep him company in silence, he had told her she reminded him of his daughter. Then the old chief had cried for the children he had lost, gone to join their mother in the next life.

Macha keep you, Drw.

Wiping her eyes, she retrieved her little bowl and pushed herself to her feet. The afternoon was waning fast, the lake flat and steely under a heavy sky. Dusk would be falling by the time she reached the tents if she didn’t hurry. She shook the bronze dish dry as best she could and stowed it away, then gathered up bow and catch and set off for her horse.

When she reached the camp, the sky had darkened to purple and torches were being lit throughout the hollow. Tall iron braziers flamed on either side of the entrance to Drwyn’s tent where the two guards stood, looking tense and uneasy.

As Teia dismounted, the tent flap was flung back and Ytha strode out, her face hard in the flickering light. ‘Where have you been?’ she demanded.

Heart lurching, Teia held up the brace of fowl. ‘Up at the lakes, hunting.’

‘Did you see anyone else?’

‘No, Speaker. Is something wrong?’

‘I sensed someone working the power outside the valley.’ The words were bitten off as if by a spring trap. Teia flinched; it was all she could do to meet Ytha’s gaze. ‘Was it you? Do you have the Talent? Answer me, girl!’

‘I saw no one, Speaker.’

‘Answer me! Do you have the Talent? You know the penalty for deceit!’

Teia shrugged helplessly. Ytha seized her head between her hands and her awareness swept into Teia’s mind on an icy wind.

She shrank from it, pulling her thoughts deep down inside herself, hiding from the storm beneath the covers of her fear. ‘Speaker,’ she whimpered. ‘Please!’

‘What happens here?’ The deep, rough voice was Drwyn’s. He loomed over Ytha’s shoulder, massive in the shadows. ‘Leave her be. She’s naught but a girl.’

Ytha’s grip on Teia’s skull did not relent. ‘She may have the power!’

‘So?’

‘It is clan law! A girl with the power is surrendered to her Speaker. If she is not, she is exiled. To breach clan law is to be stripped of honour unto the child of the child’s generation. This is the word of the law, Drwyn, and even you are bound by it.’

The chief laid a hand on Ytha’s shoulder and held it there. None but the chief would dare to lay hands on the Speaker and the flash of cold fury in her eyes showed she resented even that.

‘Let her be, Ytha. If you insist that she be tested I will give her to you, but for now, let her be. The rest of the clans will be here tomorrow; I’ve too much to think on without having to come back to a cold hearth and an empty bed every night of the Gathering. Besides,’ he added, ‘my supper is bleeding over your robe.’

Ytha recoiled with an exclamation of disgust at the dark blood beading her furs. She shot Teia a look, as if the fault was all hers, then turned a frigid face to the chief.

‘I await the day, my chief. She should have been sent to me long ago.’

With a stiff inclination of her head, Ytha stalked away.

Drwyn came forward into the firelight and Teia’s knees turned to water. With a sob of relief she slumped into his arms, grateful for his rough embrace though he would never know why.

‘Did she frighten you?’ he asked, in a clumsy attempt at com­fort. Teia nodded, scrubbing her hand across her eyes. ‘Well, there’s no need to be afraid. The Speaker means you no harm.’

About as little harm as a crag-cat means a kid. ‘She was inside my head. It hurt.’

‘She was just testing you for the power,’ Drwyn said. ‘Perhaps you should be glad you do not have it. Now what about that supper?’

So much for comfort.

Resigned to her mundane tasks, Teia plucked and cleaned the fowl then rubbed their skins with honey and salt before setting them to roast. As she worked, she contemplated what she had seen in the water. It had not clarified her earlier scrying at all, simply posed more questions she was incapable of answering.

If only she’d had more time. She was certain further scrying would have given her other images, clues to help her puzzle out her future. Had the visions come to her in dreams she might have gone to the Speaker for an interpretation, except she could not be sure Ytha would not see it as evidence that she had the Talent – and once she learned that, Teia would have no choice but to show her all that she’d seen. The boy with chieftain’s gold around his neck, all of it.

That night, when Drwyn was fed and bedded and sleeping the sleep of the sated, she thought about running away. The idea daunted her: leaving her family, everything she had ever known, for an uncertain fate. She had no idea where she would go or how she would survive the winter on her own, but she was filled with a dreadful certainty that she would not be able to remain where she was for very much longer.

 

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