Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Epic, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
Conal grinned at her behind Inis's back. That was the way to ask Inis questions if you wanted information out of him. Conal hadn't taken much notice of Emer before. She was a year younger than the rest of them, only sixteen. She'd just gone through a growing spurt and seemed all eyes and legs. She hadn't caused disruption among the rest of them the way her sister had. He'd been concentrating on Elenn, and Darag, of course. But now it seemed that unlike her beautiful sister, Emer had more wit than hair.
"Some events have such weight that they cannot be changed," Inis said. "Most times we are free to choose, and if folk choose the same in other worlds, it is because they are much the same folk and so choice arises.
But some things touch the way the worlds are held together and with them, it feels like choice but is not."
Conal frowned, wishing this riddle made sense. Emer drew breath to speak, let it out, drew it in again. "I don't think I can tell the difference between those events and any others," she said.
Inis laughed, the laugh Conal's mother Finca called his cracked cackle. Elenn and the others ahead turned to look, but Conal gestured them on and they started walking again.
"If I cannot tell after all these years of looking across the worlds, then how can you hope to, child?" he asked.
"Being able to tell is part of what an oracle-priest must know. I cannot tell until afterwards, and that is only the second such time in my life."
"It would be very interesting to know the other time," Conal said.
Inis grinned at him, looking almost like any old man, except for the way his head was shaved in the front and the brightly colored shawl that would have marked him as an oracle-priest however sane he seemed. "It was when I got Conary on King Nessa," he said.
It was such an ancient scandal, from so long before Conal was born, that he was surprised to see Emer look shocked. Maybe it wasn't well known in Connat. Conal's parents didn't like to talk about it, but all the same, he had known since he was five years old.
"If only two events in all your length of life have been of such stature as to hold across all the worlds, then
maybe there will be none in mine," Emer said.
"Such are lucky folk," Inis said. "And such are most folk, truth told. But I do not think either of you are so lucky."
"I know better than to ask," Conal said, looking ahead through the trees to where Elenn inclined towards
Leary. They were holding hands. Nid had gone a little way ahead. "You know, Grandfather, though my mind is quick for the branches of learning, and though I love you, I hate learning from you. I have always learned songs and figuring fast enough, but this Oak Knowledge of learning to read luck and the way of other worlds makes my skin crawl. I don't even like thinking about it."
"You know the story of Curog the Oracle-priest?" Inis asked. "He prophesied that a certain lady would win the love of a certain lord. When the lord died, the lady came to him and reproached him for being wrong, for he had never loved her. Then Curog said that in the worlds he could see, where he had not spoken, she had acted to win his love and won it, but in our world, she had been sure she would win it without acting, and so nothing came of it."
Inis said no more. Conal glanced at Emer, who was frowning at nothing. They walked in silence for a while.
Conal started running through arguments he would make to Conary. It was hideously unfair to let Darag and
Ferdia take up arms early and on a fortunate day, and not the rest of them. But Conary always favored Darag of all his nephews. There -were good reasons for that, of course. Though Conal was good, Darag was better.
But Conal was sure that if he put in more effort, more time practicing, building up his strength, he would eventually catch up and even overtake Darag. Being strong and fast as a boy was nothing, what counted was when you were men. Even his father said so. If Darag had taken up arms today, then Conal would do the same, that's all there was to it. Anything else was unthinkable.
When they came out of the orchard, Elenn, Leary, and Nid were bullwaiting for them at the foot of the mound.
Nid was swinging on the gate. The bottom palisade was no ring of sharpened stakes but a tall
fence of strong bog-oak, the oak that could break an iron ax. No enemies had ever breached it.
No enemies were expected today however, which was fortunate as there was nobody guarding the lower gate.
"We thought we'd wait for you slowpokes," Leary said, sticking out his tongue at Conal. Conal smiled as if amused at how childish boys of seventeen could be, hiding all the pain. Leary had been his friend. They had always practiced together, each of them hoping to become as good as Darag. Now Leary hardly spoke to him except to jibe.
"It is unkind to mock my old bones, Grandson," Inis said sharply. Leary jumped. He was used to the old man not paying any attention. Conal kept his face still, to show nothing.
Inis let go of Conal's arm, and then, a moment later, Emer's. He led a brisk pace past the stables and up the hill towards the dun. Here, where Conal would have guessed he'd want support, he decided to do without it.
The rest of them followed him in a straggle, Conal first, quickening his pace, and Emer beside him. "I didn't know Leary was ap Fathag's grandson as well," Emer said quietly.
"You're getting really good at not asking questions," Conal said and smiled at her. This time, she smiled back, shyly, not at all like her sister. "But it's all right to ask me. Inis had four children. My mother, Leary's mother and Darag's mother by his wife, and Conary by King Nessa as he just told us."
"I had heard before," Emer said even more quietly. "Do you think he told us that last story to stop us asking questions?"
"Yes," Conal said. "Or maybe to tell us he isn't infallible, or that oracle-talent isn't infallible. He hates being asked questions. He can't help but look then, and he prefers to look in his own time."
"Can you see across the worlds?" Emer murmured. Conal had to lean close to hear her.
"Of course not!" he said quickly, surprised she would ask. "I'm not an oracle-priest, and you must have heard me saying just now how I hate to think about those things."
"That's what made me wonder whether you could," she said.
"Can you?" he asked.
Emer shook her head. "Sometimes when I talk to ap Fathag, or to ap Fial at home, I can almost see how to do it. They say I could learn. But I don't want to. Like you, I'd rather not know what might happen already.
You know what ap Fathag said when I asked him whether I really would marry Darag the way my mother wants?"
"Your mother might want it, but it will be up to Conary just as much," Conal said.
"I know," Emer said. "I don't want to. He's in love with Elenn."
"Marriage is nothing to do with love," Conal said.
"I know that, too," Emer said. "But anyway, when I asked your grandfather, he said 'Often enough you do.'
That's just so horrible. Even if I don't, even if I manage to get out of it, often enough other ones of me didn't and have to marry him. Ugh. I'd much rather not know that."
Inis was at the top gates, speaking to the guard, and they were almost on him. Conal was intrigued enough to stop. "Ugh? You don't like Darag?"
"He's horrible. I hate him," Emer said in a whisper. Then she went on, almost running to catch up with Inis.
Conal followed more slowly, trying to smooth out the frown that wanted to come down between his eyes.
Elenn smiled at Leary, but it wasn't any funmdashhe was too besotted, there was no challenge
there at all.
He would have done anything for her, but it didn't matter. Besides, he might be King Conary's nephew but he wasn't anybody really. Nobody thought he might be the next king of anywhere.
Dear Ferdia was almost sure to be the next king of Lagin. As for Oriel, it was bound to be Darag or Conal. Her mother had told her before she left home that it would almost certainly be Darag. That didn't mean it wasn't worth being nice to Conal in case, Maga had added. As if Elenn would ever be mean to people just because they weren't important. That wasn't the same as not worth bothering with. She smiled at Leary again and looked up at him through her lashes. It was amazing how easy it was.
Maga had told her a lot of things about how to act with men, but she had never had a chance to try them out until she came to Ardmachan. Back at Cruachan, everyone knew her, and what was more, everyone had seen Maga. Next to Maga, Elenn thought, she barely counted as prettier than Emer. Away from Maga, it was a completely different story. Amagien ap Ross had written a poem saying she was one of the three most beautiful women in the island of Tir Isarnagiri. That made her feel quite shaken and all excited deep inside, but she knew how to act. Alone with Emer at night she had laughed and recited the poem over, but in front of everyone she sat listening to it being sung as if it were nothing unusual. But it was, it was very unusual for such a poem to be written about a seventeen-year-old girl who was away from home for the first time in her life and enjoying every minute of it.
It was strange that Amagien was Conal's father. It was hard to imagine two people more different. Amagien was so emotional and Conal was so driven. Conal was so handsome, too, like ap Fathag, even though ap
Fathag was so old. Amagien wasn't at all handsome. But he had good manners, unlike his son.
She could have liked Conal, except that he didn't like her. He tried not to show it, but he didn't.
He was too clever. She thought maybe sometimes he could see what she was doing and laughing at it, or even disapproving of it.
She'd have to try harder with him, she could see that. He thought too much.
The one she really liked was Ferdia. He was the one she was going to ask her mother if she could marry.
Then Maga would fix it. Emer could have Darag if she wanted; Maga thought that was a good idea anyway.
Maga was good at that sort of thing. Elenn liked Darag, but he scared her sometimes. Darag was wild. He might be the strongest and the best fighter, but Ferdia was taller and gentler. She had the feeling he would have been kind to her even if she hadn't been beautiful. He was kind to Emer. Darag and Conal had hardly noticed that Emer existed. In some ways it was really nice that she was the important one, that nobody cared about Emer here. But it was wrong even so. Elenn was so used to being compared to her sister. And she had to share a room with her, she had to hear Emer's views on everything. In front of everyone, Emer was quiet, the way Maga had told them to be. But get her alone and she wanted to share what she thought. So Elenn couldn't forget about her. And if she was going to have to care about her, then everyone else ought to.
She looked to see where Emer had got to. She had been walking with ap Fathag and Conal, which was all right, but now ap Fathag had gone on ahead and she seemed to be talking intently to Conal. That wasn't all right. It especially wasn't when Conal paused to hear -what Emer was saying. Elenn just knew they were talking about her. She couldn't catch up to them either, because she had to walk with Leary and pretend to be paying attention to what he was saying.
What was he saying anyway? She listened for a moment.
"Nobody takes up arms until they are eighteen, which won't be until next spring," he was saying.
Leary had been talking about Darag and Ferdia being wrong all the way from the grove.
Well, Elenn thought it was
wrong, too, but she wasn't going to bore anyone with it. She closed her ears again, which was a useful skill sometimes. Sometimes what a queen has to do is just sit and smile and look beautiful.
Maga had told her that, though Maga wasn't a queen of course, but a king. A king needs different skills. But Elenn wasn't going to be a king, and she was glad. Being a king would be boring and you'd have to listen to people going on and on all the time. A queen had a lot of work to do with organizing food and supplies for everyone and being gracious, but no fighting.
Not that Maga did any fighting, she hadn't for years. But she might have to if there was an invasion. No fighting, no being forced to do more than pretend to listen to boring people, and no talking to the gods.
Talking to the gods was scary. Let her brother Mingor be the king, she'd be a queen and make a good alliance for Connat. If Ferdia were king of Lagin, he'd make a very good alliance indeed.
They had reached the top of the mound. It was strange how familiar with Ardmachan she had become in the month she'd been here. At first it had seemed huge and frightening. There was the wall at the bottom, and another wall at the top, and then three big halls inside, as well as the ordinary buildings. Everything was inside here, except things that couldn't be on top of a hill, like the well and the smithy.
Elenn smiled at the guards on the gate as she went through. She always did. It wasn't any trouble, and it made them like her, and things were always easier if people liked her. She knew one of these guards. He was Casmal, who taught them spear-throwing. He looked worried, and she wondered what ap Fathag had said to him. She gave him a special smile, then hurried after Leary and the others.
Nid gave her a strange look as she caught up. Elenn didn't understand Nid very well. She was a girl, but she wasn't at all beautiful, not even as pretty as Emer. That wasn't strange, but Elenn couldn't understand why
Nid didn't care about it. She wore long brown straight shifts and saved embroidered overdresses only for special days. She kept her hair tied on top of her head almost all the time.
All she wanted to do was be a charioteer. Finca, Conal's mother, who taught them chariot-fighting, said that Nid -would probably be very good at it. She was good with ponies and she wasn't going to be heavy, which was important for a charioteer.