Read The Prize in the Game Online

Authors: Jo Walton

Tags: #Epic, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction

The Prize in the Game (8 page)

BOOK: The Prize in the Game
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Well, nobody could say it had been cold. It was one of the warmest springs Elenn could remember.

The hall was dark and shadowed. King Conary was standing with Ferdia, Darag, Leary, and Leary's parents.

As Elenn came out of their room, Conal and his parents came into the hall through the outside door, letting in a little dawn light with them. Inis came in a little behind them. Emer went straight to Conal and stood beside him, abandoning her sister. Nid joined a group of people going outside, and slipped off to join her family.

"The fires in the dun are cold," Finca reported.

Elenn walked over to stand by Ferdia and Darag. At least they looked pleased to see her. Ferdia was even wearing new clothes. That made Elenn feel more comfortable somehow. It was so strange when everything was the same and different. She wished she was at home with her brother teasing her and her father making special porridge for them to eat before the fires were put out. Nobody had offered her any early breakfast, so it would be nothing but cold food all day. Ferdia smiled at her, and Darag complimented her on her dress. It was nice that somebody noticed.

King Conary led the way around the whole hall, starting in the kitchen. The fires were almost out already. He quenched all those that were still burning, using water. At home, Maga would have used her charm. Everyone

knew the charm for lighting fires, but the charm for putting them out again was something special. Maga had promised to teach it to her daughters when they were grown. Elenn bit her lip
Page 27

and hoped she would not teach it to Emer first now. There had been a message for Emer with the clothes, but nothing for her. Was Maga angry with her? And if so, for what? For letting Emer take up arms, or for not doing the same herself?

Conary led the way back through into the main hall and they all trooped after him. Even the hearth-fire, which never went out except for the Feast of Bel and the Day of the Dead, was little more than embers. Before bending to it, Conary touched the heads that hung on each end of the stone mantle above the fire. Elenn knew they were only vanquished brave enemies, protecting the hearth, the same as the ones at home. But the ones at home were familiar; she had heard their stories told many times. There were no more here than at Cruachan, but they somehow seemed more sinister. She wondered if any of them were people she had known. It was not polite to ask.

Conary took up a poker and stirred the embers apart. When they sparked to life he poured water on them, sending up a choking cloud of smoke. Emer coughed, and for a moment Elenn almost went to help her. Then she remembered that her sister wouldn't want her help anymore and stayed where she was. When he was quite sure the fire was out, Conary blew out his candle.

The others who had candles hastily blew theirs out, too.

Ap Fathag opened the door outside, and they all followed Conary through it. The sky was quite light now.

Everyone was gathered in the space between the hall and the hilltop. It looked as if not only everyone in

Ardmachan but all the farmers for miles around had come. On the hilltop was a cold bonfire, ready for sunset.

Conary strode toward it through the crowd.

"Do we follow?" Elenn asked Ferdia. The grass was wet and cold with dew, chilling her feet.

But it wasn't really cold, not like sometimes. There had been Feast of Bel mornings at home when she had shivered in her bare feet almost as much as on the Day of the Dead six months later. "We can stay here," Darag said. "We have seen the fires put out, the king doesn't need his household with him now."

Conal's family, with Emer, her eyes red and streaming, stopped a little way ahead. Leary's family followed

Conary almost all the way up to the crest.

"Shhhh!" Ferdia said.

Conary had reached the top and was looking out eastward, waiting for the first sliver of sun to clear the horizon over the distant sea. A hush grew through the crowd, a quiet expectancy. This, at least, was just as it was in Cruachan. At this moment, Elenn knew, her mother would be waiting as Conary was waiting, as the kings of Muin and Lagin and Anlar and the Isles would be waiting.

As the sun revealed itself, Conary raised his arms, first palm up and then palm down. "Hear this," he said loudly. "Lord Bel, Mother Breda, and all gods of earth and sky and of home and hearth and clan. And hear this, my people assembled here before me. The fires are cold. The folk of Oriel have kept the Ward."

Nobody moved or spoke. Behind them, Elenn knew, the sun was rising slowly. Usually she stood beside her family and watched it rise. It seemed a great deal of trust to put in Conary to let him watch alone, though he was the king, and he had no wife or children to stand beside him.

After a time that seemed endless, Conary spoke again. "The sun is risen, Lord Bel, master of life and death.

No fire will be kindled again in Oriel until we see the fire that has been kindled on the Hill of Ward." It was much too far to see the Hill of Ward from here, of course. But there was a bonfire prepared on each hilltop, and as each hilltop sighted the fire on the next, they would light their fire until every fire in the land was lit.

Then the feasting and dancing would begin.

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"Let the Ward hold across Tir Isarnagiri," Conary said. "Let there be death in bright sunlight, life out of darkness, war without hatred, strife without bitterness. And let the evil time come not."

Everyone murmured their assent. Then they sang the Hymn to Dawn, voices rising together.

When it was done, people started moving and talking. Elenn stayed still. Weren't they going to sing again? But it seemed they were not.

"Come and have breakfast," Darag said, taking Elenn's arm.

"It seems strange to do this and be hungry," Ferdia said, taking her other arm.

Elenn smiled up at him. "Do you eat first in Lagin, too?"

"Ah, but breakfast is the best part," Darag said.

People were going into the Speckled Hall and coming out with baskets. Finca was setting up an ale barrel.

"Are people going to start drinking already?" Elenn asked.

"Some people will, others will wait until this evening," Darag said.

"We could drink some ourselves," Ferdia said.

Darag grinned. "I hadn't thought of that. Have you ever had any?"

"A little cup at dinner with my father sometimes," Ferdia said.

Elenn smiled to cover her uneasiness. She wouldn't have wanted ale even if she had been allowed it. Maga had told her all about it, how it muddled people's minds. She did -want something to eat, though. She wondered what was in the baskets. She saw Emer going with Finca into the Speckled Hall. "Should I go to help?" she asked.

"They look as if they know what they're doing, but I expect they wouldn't turn help away,"

Ferdia said.

"You should stay with us," Darag said. He smiled at Elenn, and she smiled back. She liked Darag. There was just something strange about him, even now, when he was being nice.

Leary came running up to them, whooping. "Ale. Did you see?" he asked.

"We saw," Darag said, smiling amiably at him.

"Get some for you, Elenn?" Leary asked.

"I'd prefer to have some well water," Elenn said, meaning it.

"Get you that, then?" Leary begged. Elenn smiled graciously at him and gave him permission. Then they went to collect some food.

There were apple pies and meat pies, cold but delicious. They filled their sleeves with them.

The boys got wooden cups of ale, and Leary came back with Elenn's water. They sat down to eat on the far field, right over by the wall. Nobody was playing hurley or practicing slingshots today. There were other people around, but nobody was really close. Elenn sat down, spreading her skirts out and putting her pies on them. The boys sat sprawling, Ferdia and Conal on each side of her and Leary opposite.

"Aunt Finca's been baking for days," Darag said, munching on an apple pie. "She says they've used up every last one of last year's apples and she's asked Uncle Conary if we can have a big hunt soon to replenish the meat stores."

"Hunt?" Leary sat up a little. "For what?"

"Boar, deer, whatever we find to fill the smokehouse," Darag said, spraying crumbs.

"But we could go with the champions?" Ferdia asked, looking eager.

"Of course we could." Darag grinned. "We're champions now, just the same as the others."

Elenn didn't say anything. She took neat bites out of her pie. She didn't want to go hunting anyway.

"Do you think it'll be tomorrow?" Ferdia asked.

"Probably Conary will leave it a day or two, to let people get over tonight." The three boys laughed.

Page 29

"Oh, that happens here, too?" Elenn asked. She had heard about that from Maga. Nobody cared who slept where on the night of the Feast of Bel, once the children were put to bed. It was a wild festival. "People getting drunk and dancing and plowing the furrow in the fields?"

The boys looked at each other, and then awkwardly at her. "People will get drunk," Ferdia said.

"Then they'll be hung over tomorrow and not ready to hunt."

"You going to do that?" Leary asked.

"Definitely not," Ferdia said. Elenn looked at him approvingly.

"I don't know," Darag said. "I've never had the chance before."

Ferdia looked disappointed in his friend. "I'm not going to," he said again.

Leary giggled. "Drunk, plowing the furrow . . . know what they say about the Feast of Bel? Feast of the

Mother comes nine months later."

Ferdia laughed.

Elenn was horrified. It just wasn't the sort of thing people talked about, and especially not men and women together. It seemed almost an impious thing to say. She looked at Darag, who had neither said it nor laughed, and saw that he was also looking shocked.

"You know what they say," Ferdia said, grinning, oblivious of the fact that nobody wanted to hear this. "They say children born at the Feast of the Mother always know for sure who their mother is!"

"They don't say that to me," Darag said, forcing the words out. He looked as if he'd been hit quite unexpectedly and very hard. Elenn put her hand out unthinkingly and pressed his shoulder for a moment, offering comfort.

Ferdia looked surprised and a little taken aback. "Were you born at the Feast of the Mother, then?" he asked.

Leary also looked chastened. "Didn't mean you," he said.

Darag looked as if he was never going to get a word out again.

"I was born at the Feast of the Mother," Elenn said. It was true. She had always thought it a good time of year for a name day. Mother Breda gifts all children to their mothers, but Elenn had always felt especially close to her because she had been born at her festival. Besides being true, she said it because she wanted to distract Ferdia and Leary from going after Darag when he felt so bad. Maybe he really didn't know who his father was. Both his parents were dead, after all, and both had died when he was very young. She'd never heard him addressed by his father's name since she'd come here, he was always Darag, as if he were king already. "Maybe my parents went out to the fields," she said, smiling.

"Yes, definitely," Ferdia said, much too quickly. "I'm sure they did. Lots and lots of married couples do."

"Lots of married couples go together," Leary confirmed unhesitatingly, clearly not believing a word of it.

Elenn now understood something of what Darag might be feeling.

She felt stupid. She knew that Maga didn't go into the fields with Allel, but alone, to find a new and willing partner. She had never thought before, how Mingor and Emer looked like Allel but she didn't. Where babies came from was a Mystery, a Mystery of the Mother. People shouldn't talk about it like this. Not that it mattered. She'd ask Allel if it was true when she got home. Allel, not Maga. Maga knew a lot and understood things really well, but sometimes she said what she wanted to be true. Allel didn't always know, but he always told things straight out.

Darag looked as if he was a painted statue of a young man someone had set up in the field.

Ferdia looked anguished, clearly realizing he had hurt her, though he was staring at Darag, obviously too distressed even to look at Elenn. Leary looked uncomfortable.

Page 30

"Think we should get more pies," he said and took Ferdia's arm.

"I think not," Ferdia said, shaking him off. "Daragmdash"

"Darag's thinking. Be fine in a little while. Elenn wants more pies, don't you, Elenn?"

It would give her a few minutes to gather herself, at least. Darag looked as if he was going to be quiet for a long time. She raised her chin affirmatively. But as soon as they were gone, Darag stirred.

"You are festival born?" he said.

"Yes," Elenn said. There was hardly any point in denying it. "But it's a Mystery. Leary shouldn't talk about it like that."

"He shouldn't," Darag said, very quietly. "Or Ferdia either."

"Ferdia didn't know," Elenn said. "I didn't know."

"My mother didn't know who my father was," Darag said. "She told my uncle he was a god."

"I have heard stories of that happening at the Feast of Bel," Elenn said. She was starting to wish she had gone with the others. "Nive, or Lew, or Govannon coming to join the feast."

"But my mother wasn't married," Darag said. "So it must have been a god. Or maybe not. I've never known.

Sometimes it seems that it was just some lucky man, and other times I think it must have beenmdash" He stopped and put his head in his hands.

"It is a Mystery, truly," Elenn said. "But it would explain a lot if it was," she added.

"Explain, yes, but what's left for me then?" he asked. "Who would want me, or even see me, when everything

BOOK: The Prize in the Game
10.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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