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Authors: Katharine Kerr

A Time of Omens

BOOK: A Time of Omens
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The boundless imagination of
KATHARINE KERR

Her novels of Deverry and the Westlands:

DAGGERSPELL

DARKSPELL

THE BRISTLING WOOD

THE DRAGON REVENANT

A TIME OF EXILE

A TIME OF OMENS

DAYS OF BLOOD AND FIRE

DAYS OF AIR AND DARKNESS

THE RED WYVERN

THE BLACK RAVEN

THE FIRE DRAGON

Available from Bantam Spectra Books

TRAPPED

“Think we can hold off a small army? We might have to. I’ll wager they’re on their way to fetch a few friends.”

Carra was too spent to be frightened. She leaned back against a rock and looked straight in front of her with eyes that barely saw.

“Is there any water?” she whispered.

“There’s not,” Otho said. “Nor food, either. The horses bolted.”

“Ah, I see. We’re still going to die, aren’t we?”

No one said a word.

Dedication

For Nance Jordan Ashton
My Grandmother

Acknowledgments

As usual, I owe a lot of friends a lot of thanks.
Some are:
Brian Carnright, who keyboarded above and
beyond the call of duty,
Elizabeth Pomada, who once again performed
wonders of agenting,
Alis Rasmussen, who understands what plot
problems mean,
Mark Kreighbaum, who helped me
fine-tune the manuscript,
and as always, my husband, Howard Kerr,
who is Himself.

A Note on the Pronunciation of
Deverry Words

The language spoken in Deverry is a member of the P-Celtic family. Although closely related to Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, it is by no means identical to any of these actual languages and should never be taken as such.

Vowels
are divided by Deverry scribes into two classes: noble and common. Nobles have two pronunciations; commons, one.

A as in
father
when long; a shorter version of the same sound, as in
far
, when short.

O as in
bone
when long; as in
pot
when short.

W as the
oo
in
spook
when long; as in
roof
when short.

Y as the
i
in
machine
when long; as the
e
in
butter
when short.

E as in
pen.

I as in
pin.

U as in
pun.

Vowels are generally long in stressed syllables; short in unstressed. Y is the primary exception to this rule. When it appears as the last letter of a word, it is always long whether that syllable is stressed or not.

Diphthongs
generally have one consistent pronunciation.

AE as the
a
in
mane.

AI as in
aisle.

AU as the
ow
in
how.

EO as a combination of
eh
and
oh.

EW as in Welsh, a combination of
eh
and
oo.

IE as in
pier.

OE as the
oy
in
boy.

UI as the North Welsh
wy
, a combination of
oo
and
ee.
Note that OI is never a diphthong, but is two distinct sounds, as in
carnoic
(KAR-noh-ik).

Consonants
are mostly the same as in English, with these exceptions:

C is always hard as in
cat

G is always hard as
in get

DD is the voiced
th
as in
thin
or
breathe
, but the voicing is more pronounced than in English. It is opposed to TH, the unvoiced sound as in
th
or
breath.
(This is the sound that the Greeks called the Celtic tau.)

R is heavily rolled.

RH is a voiceless R, approximately pronounced as if it were spelled
hr
in Deverry proper. In Eldidd, the sound is fast becoming indistinguishable from R.

DW, GW, and TW are single sounds, as in
Gwendolen
or
twit

Y is never a consonant.

I before a vowel at the beginning of a word is consonantal, as it is in the plural ending
-ion
, pronounced
yawn.

Doubled consonants
are both sounded clearly, unlike in English. Note, however, that DD is a
single letter
, not a doubled consonant.

Accent
is generally on the penultimate syllable, but compound words and place names are often an exception to this rule.

I have used this system of transcription for the Bardekian and Elvish alphabets as well as the Deverrian, which is, of course, based upon the Greek rather than the Roman model. In spite of the ridiculous controversy still continuing in certain university circles, I see no reason to confuse the ordinary reader with the technical method of Elvish transcription in common use among linguists and scholars. Anyone who wishes to learn this system may of course refer to the standard works upon the subject available from the University of Aberwyn Press; the average reader of popular fiction would no doubt rather forgo such a formidable experience. I am surprised at the stubbornness of certain professors of Elvish, to say nothing of a certain Elvish professor, which has forced me to append such a
self-evident remark to these notes. One can only assume that these persons are underemployed by their academic institutions if they have the leisure to write scurrilous articles about contemporary novelists rather than devoting themselves to their proper areas of expertise.

Prologue

Wmmglaedd,
1096

On the Inner Planes, Time as we know it no longer exists. This is why an omen may refer to things which we perceive as long over and done with as well as to things in process at the moment in which the omen is cast and to things which we have yet to perceive at all. Past, Present, Future—these states do not exist in the world from which an omen proceeds, yet there is no denying, of course, that they do exist in ours
….

The Pseudo-Iamblicbus Scroll

In those days the eastern border of the elven lands lay in the middle of a forest. A traveler leaving the high plains and heading east came down a long gentle decline into the oaks to find several rivers that might mark a border—if only anyone at all had lived on either side of them. In that vast tangle of tree and shrub, bracken and thorn, finding the lands of men (that is, the three western provinces—Eldidd, Pyrdon, Arcodd—of the kingdom of Deverry) was no easy job. If you wanted to go from west to east, the sandy coast of the Southern Sea made a much more reliable road, if, of course, you could fight your way south to reach it. The ancient forest had a way of tricking travelers unless they or their companions knew the route well.

The woman who rode out of the forest late on a summer day traveled with a horde of such companions—not that most human beings would have seen them. Sylphs and sprites hovered round her in the air; gnomes clung to her saddle or perched on the back of the spare horse she was leading; undines rose out of every stream and pool she passed to wave a friendly greeting. Her friends weren’t the only odd thing about Jill. If you looked carefully at her silver hair, cropped short like a lad’s, and the fine lines that webbed her eyes round and latticed her cheeks, you realized that she had to be at least fifty years old if not somewhat more, but she radiated so much vitality, the way a fire gives off heat, that it was impossible to think of her as anything but young. She was, you see, the most powerful sorcerer in all of Deverry.

The first human settlement that any traveler coming from the west reached on the coast was the holy precinct of Wmmglaedd, although in those days, before the silting of the river and the meddling of humans had extended the shore, the temple lay a little ways out to sea on a low-lying cluster of islands. Jill rode along the sea cliffs through meadows of tall grass to a rocky beach, where the waves
washed over gravel with a mutter, as if the sea were endlessly Regretting some poor decision. A fair mile offshore, she could see the rise of the main island against the glitter of the Southern Sea.

She led her pair of horses down to the two stone pillars that marked the entrance to a stone causeway, still underwater at the moment, though when she looked at the water lapping at the carved notches along the edge of one pillar, she found each wave falling a little lower than the one before. Crying and mewling, seabirds swooped overhead, graceful gulls and the ungainly pelicans that were sacred to the god Wmm, all come to feed as the dropping tide exposed the rocky shallows. At last the causeway emerged, streaming water like a silver sea snake, to let her lead her horses across the uncertain footing. At the far end of the causeway stood a stone arch inlaid with colored marble in panels of interlace and roundels decorated with pelicans; it sported an inscription, too, “water covers and reveals all things.”

About ten miles long and seven wide, with a central hill standing in the midst of meadows of coarse sea grass, the island sheltered four different temple complexes at that time, brochs as tall as a lord’s dun, clusters of wooden guest houses, cattle barns and riding stables as well as a series of holy shrines placed at picturesque locations. Although the temple had been founded in the year 690 as a modest refuge for scholars and mystics, during the long civil wars of the ninth century its priests had the shrewdness and the good fortune to play a crucial role in placing the true king on his throne. When the wars were over, their fame drew an occasional desperate soul seeking an oracle, and as the long years went by, the rare case became a swarm of pilgrims, all laden with gifts to earn the favor of the god.

Now Wmm was rich. Still leading her horses rather than riding, Jill left the causeway and followed a fine road, paved with limestone blocks, through the smallish town that had sprung up near the temples. In among the round, thatched houses townsfolk and visitors strolled around or sat in the windows of one of the many inns, and peddlers kept accosting her with trays of sweetmeats or baskets of little silver medals and pottery souvenirs. She brushed
them all off and strode on her way, skirting the main complex, too, bustling with visitors and priests here in the summer season, and took a little-used path that ran southeast through pine trees, all twisted and bowed down from the constant wind. In a little bay of rocky shore a jetty stood with a ferry bobbing at anchor beside it. Beyond, a scant mile away, she could see the rise of East Island, a long sliver of land that most visitors knew or cared nothing about.

“Jill, halloo!” The ferryman, a stout priest draped in an orange cloak, waved both hands at her as she led her horses gingerly down the steep path. “Back so soon?”

“I am, at that. How have things been? Quiet?”

“They always are, out our way.” He grinned, revealing brown and broken teeth. “His holiness has pains in his joints again.”

“I’m surprised you aren’t all as bent and stiff as village crones, frankly, out here in the fog.”

“True, true. But well, we’ve got a bit of sun today at least. Enjoy it while we can, say L”

Since the tide was running out, the journey was quick and easy, though the ferryman was bound to have a harder trip rowing back by himself. Jill coaxed her horses off, left him sighing at the job ahead, and headed across a wind-scoured meadow to a complex much smaller and plainer than those of the main island. At the base of a low hill stood a clutter of roundhouses and a stables, shaded by a few stunted oaks. Dust drifted and swirled over the threadbare lawns and sickly vegetable gardens. She turned her horses over to a groom, carried her saddlebags and bedroll to a hut that did for a guest house, dumped her gear onto the narrow cot, and decided that she’d unpacked. With a deferential bob of his head, a servant came in, bringing her a washbasin and a pitcher of water.

“His holiness is in the library.”

“I’ll join him there.”

After she washed up, she lingered in the silence for a moment to get her questions clear in her mind. Like all the other pilgrims, she’d come to Wmm’s temple for help in making a decision, in her case about a voyage to the far-lying islands of the Bardekian archipelago, a very major undertaking indeed in those days. It was likely that she’d
be gone for years and almost as likely that she wouldn’t even find what she was looking for, the translation of a single word that she’d found inscribed inside a ring. The word, written in Elvish characters though it made no sense at all in any language, might have been a name or sheer nonsense for all that she knew. What she did know, in the mysterious way that dweomermasters have, was that the inscription would make the difference between life and death to thousands of people, men and elves alike. When, she didn’t exactly know. Someday, perhaps even soon.

She suspected—but only suspected—that the answer lay in Bardek. She was hoping that the priests of Wmm could either confirm her suspicion or lay it to rest.

The library of Wmm was at that time an oblong building in the Bardek style of whitewashed stucco, roofed in clay tiles to cut down the fire danger. Inside, in a row of hearths peat fires constantly smoldered to keep the chill and damp off the collection of over five hundred books and scrolls—a vast wealth of learning for the time. Jill found the chief librarian, Suryn, standing at his lectern by a window with a view of the oak trees beyond. Unrolled in front of him was a Bardekian scroll. He looked up and smiled at her; as always, his weak eyes were watering from the effort of reading.

“Oh, there you are, Jill! I’ve been looking for that reference you wanted.”

“The history scroll? You’ve found it?”

“I have indeed, and just now, so it’s a good thing you wandered in like this. Must be an omen.”

Although he was joking, Jill felt a line of cold run down her back.

“In fact, I’ve found both of the sources you were talking about.” He tapped the papyrus in front of him with a bone stylus. “Here’s the scroll, and it does indeed have a reference to elves living in the islands. Well, maybe they’re elves, anyway. Take a look at it, and I’ll just fetch the codex.”

The scroll was an ancient chronicle of the city-state of Arbarat, lying far south in the Bardekian islands. Since Jill had learned to read Bardekian only recently, it took her some minutes to puzzle out the brief entry.

“A shipwrecked man was washed up on shore near
the harbor. His name was Terrso, a merchant of Man-gorat….” There was a long bit here about the archon’s attempt to repatriate the man, which Jill skipped through. “Before he left us, Terrso told of his adventures. He claimed to have traveled far, far south, beyond even An-murdio, and to have discovered a strange people who dwelt in the jungles. These people, he claimed, were more akin to animals than men, because they lived in trees and had long pointed ears. Because he was so ravaged by fever, none took his words seriously.”

“Curse them all!” Jill snapped.

“They don’t truly go into detail, do they?” Suryn came up at her elbow. “Here’s the Lughcarn codex. Do be careful with it, won’t you? It’s very old.”

“Of course I will, Your Holiness. Don’t trouble your heart about that. May I take it back to the guest house to read? I need to rest from my journey.”

Suryn blinked at her for a moment.

“Oh, you’ve been gone. Of course—silly of me. By all means, keep it with you if you’d like. There’s a lectern in the hut?”

“A good one, and a candle-spike, too.”

Jill bathed and ate a sparse dinner before she got around to looking at the codex. By then, early in the evening, the fog was coming in thick, darkening the hut and turning it chilly, too. She laid a fire in the hearth, lit it by the simple means of invoking the Wildfolk of Fire with a snap of her lingers, then stuck a reading candle, as long and thick as a child’s arm, onto the cast-iron spike built into the lectern. Before she lit the candle, though, she sat down on the floor by the fire to watch the salamanders playing in the flames and to think for a while about the work she had in hand, gathering every scrap of available information about the mysterious inscription. Although it was a pretty thing, made of dwarven silver and graved with roses, the ring itself carried no particular magic. It might, however, be important as a clue.

She already knew much of its history. Once it had belonged to a human bard named Maddyn, who had traveled to the western lands and given it to an elven dweomermaster as a gift. That master had in turn given it to a mysterious race of not-truly-corpsed beings called the
Guardians. She was assuming that the Guardians had added the unintelligible inscription for the simple reason that the ring hadn’t been inscribed before they’d got hold of it, but when one of their kind returned it to the physical world by giving it to another bard, elven this time and named Devaberiel, it carried its little riddle. As far as dweomermasters could tell, the Guardians perceived important omens about future possibilities as easily as most men see the sun. Since they insisted that the inscription had some important Wyrd to fulfill, Jill saw no reason to doubt them. Abstract terms like “why,” however, seemed to have no meaning for them, and there was much in the way of explanation that they’d left out of their tale.

As she always did toward evening, she found herself thinking about her old master in the dweomer and missing him. Although Nevyn had been dead for months now, at times her grief stabbed so sharply that it seemed he’d died just the day before. If only he were here, she would think, he’d unravel this wretched puzzle fast enough! A gray gnome, a creature she’d known for years, materialized next to her and climbed into her lap. All spindly arms and legs and long warty nose, he looked up at her with his pinched little face twisted into a creditable imitation of human sadness.

“You miss Nevyn, too, don’t you?” Jill said. “Well, he’s gone on now like he had to. All of us do in our time.”

Although the gnome nodded, she doubted if he understood. In a moment he jumped off her lap, found a copper coin wedged into a crack in the floor, and became engrossed with pulling it out. Jill wondered if she would ever meet Nevyn again in the long cycles of death and rebirth. Only if she needed to, she supposed, and she knew that it would be years and years before he would be reborn again, long after her own death, no doubt, though well before her next birth. Although all souls rest in the Inner Lands between lives, Nevyn’s life had been so unnaturally prolonged by dweomer—he’d lived well over four hundred years, all told—that his corresponding interval of rest would doubtless be unusually long as well, or so she could speculate. It was for the Lords of Wyrd to decide, not her. She told herself that often, even as her heart ached to see him again.

Finally, in a fit of annoyance over her mood, she got up and went to the lectern to read, but the chronicle only made her melancholy worse. She’d been trying to recall an event that had happened in one of her own previous lives, but she could remember it only dimly, because even a great dweomermaster like her could call to mind only the most general outlines and the occasional tiny memory picture of former lives. She was sure, though, from that dim memory, that she—or rather her previous incarnation, because she’d been born into a male body in that cycle—had been present at the forging of the rose ring. During that life, as the warrior known as Branoic, she’d ridden with a very important band of soldiers, the true king’s personal guard in the civil wars—that much, she could remember.

What she’d forgotten was that Nevyn had been not only present but very much an important actor in those events, perhaps the most important figure of all. There was his name, written on practically every page. As she read the composed speeches the chronicler had put into his mouth, she found herself shaking her head in irritation: he never would have sounded so stiff, so formal! All at once, she realized that she was crying. The flood of long-buried grief, not only for Nevyn but for other friends her soul had forgotten this two hundred years and more, seemed to work a dweomer of its own. Rather than merely reading the chronicler’s dry account, she found herself remembering the isolated lake fort of Dun Drwloc, where Nevyn had tutored the young prince who was destined to become king, and the long ride that the silver daggers had taken to bring the prince to Cerrmor and his destiny. All night she stood there, reading some parts of the tale, remembering others, until the sheer fascination of the puzzle buried her grief again.

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