Authors: Pauline M. Ross
“Thank the Gods!” he whispered. “I was so afraid…
” Then, just as abruptly, he released her. “The children?”
“All fine. Is it Jonnor?”
“No. No…” His voice became puzzled. “It can’t be Tella, surely?”
But it was.
The Karninghold Slave, the most senior of the Slaves to the Gods at the Karninghold, came to tell them. His deep set eyes glinted unfathomably above the hooked nose, grey hood pushed back to expose his shaven head. Mia still retained a trace of her childhood fear of the Slaves and their sinister tattooed skulls, and this one was more macabre than most, despite the comforting tang of incense clinging to his grey robes.
“Some children collecting berries found her,” the Karninghold Slave said, his voice deep and placid. “Most High Tella was lying at the edge of woodland an hour’s ride north of here, her horse grazing loose. They thought she was asleep at first, she was so peaceful. When they realised, they ran back to their village to fetch help. The elders recognised the torc of her rank, and sent a rider to the Karninghold. The Silent Guards have gone to bring her back to the temple in proper state.”
“But it’s not even the right direction,” Mia wailed, unable to comprehend anything about it. “She should have been riding south.”
“Who knows why Tella does anything?” Hurst said, shaking his head. “…
anything. Gods, this is bad.”
They had retreated to the family hall. The servants were gone, the children gathered up and taken off somewhere. Hurst and Jonnor were still in their mail, hair matted with sweat, having come straight from the training yard. Jonnor sat, head in hands, white faced. The men’s Companions stood in an awkward semi-circle, faces serious.
Nearby, Tella’s Companions were sobbing, while her own comforted them as best they could. It was a terrible business for them, so sudden, so hard to accept, so
. It was an honour to be a Companion, of course, to become part of a Karningholder family, knowing that you would always be together, even in the Life Beyond Death. But at such a moment it felt like a terrible price to pay for that glory.
“Why would the Gods take her? She’s too young for them,” Mia said, forcing herself to speak calmly.
“We may not question the will of the Nine,” the Karninghold Slave said, touching his forehead in the ritual gesture, which Mia repeated reflexively.
“I have never understood why they take anyone, Mia,” Hurst said slowly. “If I had the ordering of the world, everyone would die in their beds, fast asleep and unknowing. But accidents will happen, you can’t avoid them altogether. I suppose she was just riding fast, as she so often does -
, and her horse missed his footing.”
“I suppose so,” Mia said. “She was such a good rider, though… It’s surprising.” She turned to the Slave. “The Healers will be able to tell, won’t they, Most Humble? When they examine her? So we will find out what happened to her?”
“Undoubtedly, Most High.”
“May I go to the temple? To see her?”
It was Hurst who answered, one hand resting on her shoulder. “Let the Slaves do their work, Mia. They have to… prepare her. You can see her later, at the proper time.”
The Karninghold Slave nodded, tucking his hands into his sleeves. “The dead await their journey to the Life Beyond Death away from all eyes. However, the rituals of the temple may comfort you in this most difficult time. You may ask the Nine for an easy passage for your sister.”
Hurst made a tutting sound. “There will be time enough for that. Let’s take care of the living first. Mia, do you think you could look after Jonnor? He’s struggling with this. Will you get him to the high tower and get a drink inside him?”
“Of course.” Something useful to do. “What about you?”
“There are things to do, announcements to make, messages to send.”
So practical; she should have thought of that herself. Such a relief to leave such matters in Hurst’s capable hands. She was lucky in both her husbands, she reminded herself, as she guided Jonnor up the stairs to the high tower.
Poor Jonnor. He had been so in love with Tella, and who could blame him? With her pale skin, voluptuous curves and dark hair, Tella had always reminded Mia of a ravishing sword-maiden of the old stories. But then Jonnor looked like a warlord himself, so they were well matched.
Now his handsome features were marred by trickling tears, his face blotched. He allowed Mia to lead him to an armchair without protest. She pushed a goblet of wine into his hand.
He lifted it to his lips at once and took a deep draught.
“How could this happen?” His voice was high, cracking. “She was so full of life! She
Another mouthful of wine. “It’s impossible! There must have been a mistake. That’s it! It’s a mistake! She’ll come galloping into the yard, and laugh at all this fuss.”
He raised the goblet again. “How she’ll tease us about this! Is there more wine?”
In silence she poured. She didn’t like to contradict him, but this line of thought was unwise.
Taking a deep breath, she said, “I think we must accept that – that she is gone. It does no good to pretend.” Tears prickled, but she forced them away. She had to be strong now, to support Jonnor.
He grabbed her hand so hard she winced. “How can I go on without her?” More tears trickled down, running unheeded over his full lips and down his chin.
“You must.” She knelt down beside him, lifting a drooping curl of hair away from his face. “Remember that she will be in the Life Beyond Death with her Companions and the Nine. That is such a comfort, isn’t it?” Her voice shook a little.
“It doesn’t comfort
!” He thrust her hand away and gave a great sob.
She wasn’t sure what to do for him. Such an agony to stand and watch, helpless to relieve his suffering. She wanted to hold him in her arms, but probably he would rebuff her. Even Tella was repulsed when he was out of sorts.
“Do you want anything to eat?” she suggested. That brought a shake of the head.
What else? He was still sweaty and dishevelled from the training yard.
“Shall I run you a bath?” A hesitation, then a tentative nod.
She ascended the stairs to the bedroom floor. At last, something practical she could do for him. Her own tears stung her eyes, but the need to help Jonnor kept them at bay.
The upper floor of the high tower was divided into four bedroom suites around an atrium. Out in the border Karnings, where the unending war against the barbarians was waged and more Skirmishers were needed, there were three floors of bedrooms to accommodate marriages of up to twelve, but their inner Karning only needed the four of them. Three, she corrected herself, her stomach twisting at the thought. Only three now.
She went into Jonnor’s bedroom, through the dressing room and into the water room, opening valves to draw water from the boilers several floors below and lighting burners to keep it hot. While she waited for the water to rise, she crept back to his bedroom.
A strongly masculine room, she thought it, with its dark walls and only two wardrobes – one for his combat gear and the other for ordinary clothes. There was little furniture, and no wall hangings or paintings on the wooden panels. No books, either; Jonnor was a man of action, not contemplation. The room was tidy, for she and the Companions had been through only that morning, sweeping, dusting and straightening; the servants were not allowed in the high tower. The only smell in the room was wax polish.
On impulse she tiptoed through to Tella’s room. It was crammed with little tables and decorative dressers, several wardrobes along one white-painted wall, their doors ajar, and mirrors everywhere. Discarded tunics, trousers, coats and scarves lay over chairs, and every surface was littered with the various jars of cream with which her sister had hoped to stave off any sign of advancing age. Tella’s favourite perfume lingered in the air, as if she had just that moment left the room. It was hard to believe she was gone for ever.
She picked up a gown from the floor, the silk ordered specially from the northern coast, she recalled, a vivid purple she would never wear herself. Mia held the fabric, as soft and delicate as petals, against her cheek. When she closed her eyes and breathed in the scent, she could see Tella wearing it, her curves filling the bodice, her dark hair falling loose almost to her waist at the back, the skirts swirling round her long legs. She was laughing, her brilliant eyes sparkling; in memory Tella was always laughing, although less so in life, at least lately.
Mia held the gown against her, the skirts trailing along the floor at her feet, and stared at her reflection in one of the mirrors. She looked like an ashen-faced stranger, not herself at all. She had none of Tella’s beauty or liveliness or allure, yet at the end of the month of mourning she would move upstairs into this room and become the lead wife in the marriage.
wife from now on.
But such thoughts were unseemly. She tidied away the gown into one of the wardrobes and shut the door with a snap.
She ran Jonnor’s bath and went back down to the living floor. He was sprawled in the armchair, his leather combat gear and chain mail in a heap on the floor. One hand held the goblet and the other clutched the nearly empty wine decanter resting on his stomach.
“I heard you.” His voice was flat, devoid of emotion. He sat immobile, not looking at her. “Creeping around in
room. She’s barely cold and you’re already taking over.”
She couldn’t breathe, blinking away tears. His grief was so deep, and she was increasing his misery with her thoughtlessness. Everything would remind him of Tella for a while, but if she was careful and bided her time, surely one day he would turn to her? Surely they could comfort each other in their sorrow?
He stood up, slamming goblet and decanter down onto a table, sloshing a little wine over the side.
“Do what you like, I don’t care,” he spat. “But don’t imagine for one instant that you can ever replace her.”
He turned towards the stairs.
Mia crumpled into the chair and wept, for Tella, for Jonnor and for herself.
“Can you believe it, there’s a crowd outside the gate already,” Hurst said, dropping onto a sofa, legs stretched out. “How do they know?”
Gantor, his senior Companion, shrugged. “Same way vultures gather over a battlefield. Here, have some wine. Did you get your messages sent?”
Hurst took the glass from Gantor’s hand. “The secretaries are taking care of it. They know the proper form better than I do.”
They were in Gantor’s sitting room, called a library in honour of its few rows of books. Hurst had chosen Walst and Trimon, his two younger Companions, for their ability with sword and bow. Gantor was quite different, closer to Hurst in both age and temperament. He came from a family of scholars, which made him an improbable Skirmisher, but perfectly suited to the role of Companion and advisor to a Karningholder.
“Did you ask at the temple about Tella? How she died?”
“Yes. Probably a fall from her horse, the Healers think.”
“Probably? Broken neck, then? Head smashed in?”
“Didn’t mention anything like that. You know what they’re like. It was the will of the Gods, and so on. Mustn’t question the will of the Gods.” Hurst ran his fingers through his hair. “But it must have been a fall. What else could it have been?”
“Hmm. So now what?” Gantor asked, leaning against the fireplace, one arm resting on the mantle.
“A funeral at dusk and…”
“Tsk. After that.”
“A burning at dawn, and a month of mourning.”
Hurst leaned back and closed his eyes. He had bathed and changed, but it felt odd to be sitting around in the afternoon, instead of tearing about the training yard with sword or spear.
“What?” He sat up and sipped the wine, avoiding Gantor’s gaze. “This is good stuff. Vilkorani?”
“It’s Trellian, and don’t change the subject. Be serious, will you. You have to face up to it sooner or later. Everything will change now. Mia will be lead wife and she could be with either you or Jonnor. Or both, come to that. Any arrangement is possible, but Mia won’t say a word and Jonnor will get the final say if you don’t assert yourself.” He strode across the room, whisking the wine from Hurst’s hand. “
to me! Are you going to sit tamely on your backside and let Jonnor walk off with the woman you love?”
Hurst’s stomach twisted, but he tried to keep his tone light. “He’s the lead husband, and she’ll be lead wife. Seems logical to me.” He snatched the wine back and took another mouthful, allowing it to trickle down his throat. That was it, focus on the wine, don’t think about Mia. Such excellent wine. Gantor always had the best northern vintages.
“It’s not right,” Gantor persisted, hauling a chair across the rug and sitting a sword’s length from Hurst. “Ten years you’ve played the dutiful second husband, letting Jonnor do what he likes. Look where that’s got us – stuck on the third line, pretending to smile while younger marriages thrash us in the skirmishes and gallop past us towards border Karnings. You’re older than him, far more experienced – you’ve had
experience, by the Nine! You’ve washed barbarian blood from your sword. You should be in charge of the skirmishes, and as for Mia…”
Hurst shifted restlessly, but said nothing. What was there to say? His throat constricted at the thought of her. She was so dainty, so precise, her birdlike movements always a pleasure to observe. And her hair, he loved her hair. Usually she tucked it neatly under entwined head-scarves, but sometimes he’d seen it loose, falling across her face like a cowl the colour of a harvest mouse.
He swirled the wine round in his glass, watching it spin and churn. “It’s too soon to talk about this,” he said at last, sombrely. “Tella – I had no great love for her, you know that, but let’s mourn her before we worry about the future.”
“You’re a Karningholder,” Gantor said briskly, “you’re not expected to love your wives. What you
expected to do, though, is show some planning ability. And what
expected to do is advise you. Which I’m doing. You have a month to reach an arrangement between the three of you. If you don’t, the Voices will break the marriage.” Gantor stabbed a finger in the air. “Do you
Jonnor to have her?”
Hurst sighed, running a hand through tousled hair. “Mia would be happy with that.” Was his voice steady? He thought it was.
“Why would she be?”
Hurst grunted. “He’s better looking than me.”
better looking than you. Even
have a certain rugged attraction…”
That made him smile. Women fluttered round Gantor like moths.
“…but that’s hardly the point,” Gantor went on. “You’re worth ten of that snivelling waster, and Mia’s a fool if she doesn’t realise that.”
call her a fool!” he snapped, leaning forward so he was inches from Gantor’s nose. “She’s an innocent who thinks the best of everyone. Honestly, look at me. I have a face like the back end of a donkey, and a deformed leg. She’s as delicate and exquisite as a butterfly. She’s never seen me as more than a friend, and why would she? So I’m not going to force myself on her. If Jonnor chooses to have her, I can live with that. She’ll make him happy, you know, which Tella, for all her charms, never did, not truly.”
“Ah, but will
Hurst chewed his lip. “Look, she’s waited ten years for him to notice her. Ten years of running round after the pair of them, carrying the burden of the Karninghold almost single-handed, not even having children of her own. Now she’ll have that possibility, at least.”
He took a sip of wine, before forcing himself to say the words. “Yes, he’ll make her happy.”
They gathered at day’s end, the fiery sun painting half the courtyard in brilliant gold. Hurst, Mia and Jonnor stood in a little cluster, their Companions behind them. They were all in white, the colour of the Gods, the colour the dead wore when they went to meet them.
Hurst hated the funeral robes. The stiffness, the constricting length, the vast amount of material wrapped around him, so that he felt he couldn’t breathe. Just getting up and down stairs was a ridiculous effort. How women managed their gowns so effortlessly he couldn’t imagine.
Mia usually chose practical trousers and tunic, but she wore gown or robe with equal grace. For a Skirmisher, though, robes were too effeminate. It was all very well for the male Slaves, who gave up their masculinity with their names when they took their vows, but he found it very trying.
Across the yard in the shadow cast by the high walls, the servants and guards and Skirmishers stood, still and quiet. A few women sniffled. Tella’s three Companions huddled at the funeral gate, heads down, sobbing quietly. Hurst could see Mia watching them, her hands clenching and unclenching, but unable to comfort them. What comfort could anyone offer?
He inched closer, and wrapped his hand around hers, as fragile as a child’s in his giant bear’s-paw. She didn’t acknowledge him, but her hands relaxed.
The torch-lit procession emerged from the temple, the Karninghold Slave leading the Silent Guards carrying the bier, and a long line of other Slaves following. The grey of the Slaves’ robes blended into the gloom, but the Silent Guards’ golden armour reflected and magnified the flickering torchlight. Odd to see them out in the open, the courtyard and the crowds making them seem smaller, more fragile, the gleaming armour as delicate as a buttercup. In their usual role in the temple, standing watchful and immobile around the perimeter, they were as solid as stone pillars. Here, pacing slowly across the courtyard in perfect synchrony, their faces expressionless beneath their helms, there was something light and insubstantial about them, as if they could transform themselves into golden birds and fly into the setting sun.
They were an odd group altogether, though. Sinister, even, although perhaps that was to be expected when they were secreted away at the age of five and trained relentlessly to this passionless discipline. How was it achieved, that silent perfection? Hurst was familiar with Skirmishers and household guards, and knew them to be normal men and women, with the same range of faults and strengths as any group of people. But the Silent Guards showed no weaknesses, never spoke or trained or made a misstep in public, revealed nothing of themselves. It was said that they had their own secret language, their own beliefs, their own plans but who could tell? They were a mystery.
The column stopped in front of the three Karningholders, and the bier-carriers set down their burden. Jonnor made a convulsive noise at the sight of the shrouded figure. Mia lowered her head, and clutched Hurst’s hand tightly.
Hurst wished there was more he could do to offer her solace. Jonnor, too. It was dreadful to see him so consumed by grief. If only they could share the burden, the three of them. A touch here, an embrace there; surely after ten years they could manage that, at such a dreadful moment for all of them? Yet he hesitated to make the first move. Jonnor was still angry about the outcome of the last skirmish. As for Mia… he contented himself with the warmth of her little hand in his, a small consolation for his own sorrow.
The Karninghold Slave was smiling. “I bring comfort in your grief. The Gods have chosen Most High Tella for a special purpose. She will be esteemed above all others in the Life Beyond Death, for the Nine have marked her.”
Mia’s stricken face lit up. “Oh! How wonderful,” she whispered. She stepped forward eagerly, releasing his hand, but Hurst followed.
The Karninghold Slave drew back the shroud for them to see the dead woman’s face, just as lovely in death as in life, but stiller, frozen in a moment of tranquillity.
Beside him, Mia swayed as if she might fall, and Hurst put out his arm, steadying her.
“Are you all right? Do you want to sit down?”
“No. No, it’s just… I’ve never seen her immobile like this. She was always such an active soul, even as a child… Like a blur of motion, never quiet. Now there’s nothing.”
Hurst gazed down at Tella, his throat tight. He had seen it before, this stillness of death, with not the flicker of an eyelash, not a breath, not the slightest movement of hand or chest or lips. Many good men died in battle, but it was especially tragic in a beautiful young woman. He had to blink back tears.
“Look,” the Karninghold Slave said softly, bending his head down to catch Mia’s eye. “See the mark of the Gods.” He pushed the shroud further down and pointed.
There on Tella’s upper arm was the mark, an irregular star shape, deep blue. In the centre was a tiny point of some darker colour.
“Touch it,” said the Karninghold Slave.
Obediently Mia put a finger to it.
“Your whole hand,” he insisted. “Cover it. Take succour from the power of the Nine.”
So she did, and Hurst followed her lead, although he thought it odd. Tella’s skin was soft and smooth; warm, too, although the air was cool and the sun almost gone. Hurst took a deep breath; such an intimate moment, that touch.
After them came Jonnor, his face creased with grief, hesitant and uncertain. When he rested his hand on his dead wife’s arm, he crumpled and fell to his knees, crying out “No! No! No!” over and over, tears rolling unheeded down his cheeks. Hurst and Mia had to coax him away, one on either side to support him.
After that, many others came to gaze at Tella’s pale face and touch the mark in awe. It was a rare thing for a woman to be chosen, and something to be remembered.
“Such a comfort,” Mia murmured.
“Is it?” Hurst said, without conviction.
“Of course! She has been chosen by the Gods. There is some reason for her death, it wasn’t just an accident. And it means she was not alone. If no one else is there, one of the Servants to the Gods will be present, to offer comfort and ensure a glorious and painless death. Those who are chosen never die alone.”
Hurst said nothing. He had seen men marked by the Gods before, after skirmishes and once after a battle. A man would fall with some trivial injury, and by the time the Slave Healers got to him, he’d be dead, with the mark somewhere on neck or shoulder or arm. Chosen by the Gods, the Slaves said.
Sometimes the Gods’ choices were puzzling.
Once they chose one of his most inept Skirmishers, a man without skill or strength, or the wit to improve either. When he wondered aloud why, the Slave Healer had frowned. “Who dares to question the Gods on such a matter? They have their own reasons, and choose who they wish, not always the best or cleverest or most beautiful, but needed by the Gods for some ineffable purpose in the Life Beyond Death.”
Hurst kept his thoughts to himself after that. Whatever his own doubts, Mia believed it all and drew comfort from it, and he was content with that.
Eventually, the Karninghold Slave murmured, “It is time.”
Jonnor was still lost in his grief, so it was Hurst who nodded acknowledgement, and the Silent Guards lifted the bier. The courtyard was in darkness now, the sun lower than the surrounding walls. The narrow funeral gate opened, casting a shaft of golden light across the yard.