Of all the lands of Hylor, Mel’Nir has the shortest history
and the longest chronicles. The scribes, working away in relays, at cross purposes, and in different colored inks, try to set down everything there is to be known. Kings, warlords, heroes, these are grist to their mill; a single battle gives them employment for years; a war, in their pages, never ends.
These busy chroniclers are always hungry for legends, for marvelous tales, for tall stories to enliven the endless feats of arms, the mustering and deployment of a race of giant warriors. Where can they find such tales? On the Chyrian coast, perhaps, within sound of the Western Sea. On the High Plateau, where the last of the Shee, the fairy folk, linger in the mist. In the Southland? Yes, for the air is warmer there, strange fruits hang on the trees, and over Ara, the tideless sea, lie the Burnt Lands.
What tales of intrigue and love and human folly might come out of the new Kingdom of Lien, with its young god and ancient heritage of poetry, art, and music? What secrets have been brought over the Western Sea from Eildon, which calls itself the most ancient of all lands? Who dwells in the
distant north in lost Ystamar, the vale of the oak trees? What is stirring among the Chameln, in the Land of the Two Queens, Old Aidris the Witch-Queen and beautiful Tanit Am Zor, the virgin maid, whose heart is cold? Who can tell what strange songs are sung in peaceful Athron? Who has ventured beyond its northern mountains, into the Black Plains?
In all these places the scribes stumble gleefully over a strange figure: the Wanderer, who comes out of the mists of time. (But what of the sighting last year or in the winter of the great snow?) Sometimes the Wanderer comes mounted on a black horse, alone or with shadowy companions. Sometimes there are a whole troop of wanderers, an army of the lost, thin and brown, crossing the endless sands. Reliable witnesses saw them come home to Pfolben in the Southland, heard their names and the name of their leader.
There is magic involved, magical objects … a ring, a sword (a nervous scribe might change to green ink, which wards off evil influences and at the same time expresses doubt). A kedran captain, a battlemaid, has been pitched headlong into the chronicles among the kings, princes, generals. For the Wanderer is a woman. Tall, red-haired—one scribe writes “beautiful,” because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Tall, red-haired, steadfast, a trained soldier: a heroine for Mel’Nir.
Gael Maddoc grew up on a hill farm in the Chyrian lands of
Mel’Nir. Holywell Croft was the land of the Maddoc family by deed and by custom. It was all they had: a wretched croft that hardly nourished the farmer, his wife, and their two surviving children. There was little else in their lives except the backbreaking struggle with the stony pasture. It seemed they had always been poor: Rab Maddoc could hardly look back to a happier time, and Shivorn, his wife, had grown very quiet.
Gael, their third child, was strong from birth. She survived and was not brought behind the hill to the graveyard where so many Maddocs lay under the tumbled stones.
Then again there were two bad years, and at last Shivorn bore her third son, her sixth child, the second survivor. The boy, Bress, was a year old, then two years, crowned with his father’s dark curling hair, and he was all their joy.
One spring night when Gael was seven years old and her brother three, it was certain Bress would die. Their mother had not slept for two nights, but still the fever would not shift. Gael crouched by the fire, for they had forgotten to send her to bed. She heard her mother say:
“I will go!”
And Maddoc made some reply, half angry, full of dread.
Her mother snatched up the child, wrapped him in her second shawl, and ran out of the stone hut. The yard was muddy, crusted in the shadows with ice. It was Crocusmoon. The breath of winter lay upon the ground around them, not quite ceded to the gentle winds of spring. Gael followed Shivorn through the yard, past the well; her mother had never run so fast. She ran and ran, little Gael stumbling after her, round the corner of the hill. She ran to the sacred Holywell that gave the farm its name. The moon looked through clouds as Shivorn Maddoc parted the bushes and the dead grass of the last season and opened the dark mouth of the grotto and its flowing spring, in the sacred precinct of the Goddess. Clutching her son against her breast, Shivorn bowed her head and entered.
In a moment, Gael had gathered her courage and followed her mother in. With one hand against the coolness of the limestone wall, she entered the darkness of the passage, keeping always to the right, away from the waters of the spring. She stumbled on the age-polished tiers of the flowstone floor, for the light was poor and her memory dulled by the passage of many days since the Holywell’s last ceremony. Ahead, already within the grotto, she saw her mother dip the boy in the sacred font, heard her utter a prayer before the altar. Then the cave was filled with the radiance of the moon, shining through an opening in the roof, and it was a sign the prayer was answered. So the boy lived, and he was a beautiful child who repaid all their love and attention.
Gael grew up taller than Maddoc, her father; her skin was lighter. The blood of the incomers, the giant, tawny warriors of Mel’Nir, was mixed in the veins of the dark Chyrian folk. Her mother had old Chyrian tales she told by the fireside to Gael as they did the baking. In winter she had family stories for Bress and his sister. Shivorn’s father, Euan Macord, had been an incomer, in Chyrian the word was
one who came from beyond the campfire, a traveler, perhaps, or a wanderer. He was a Chyrian, certainly, but pale-faced and with hair dark red. He was a hunter and something of a harp player and had taken service
at Ardven House, by the Cresset Burn, where he wed Gael Rhodd, one of the spinning girls—the grandmother for whom young Gael was named.
Now the great house by the river was a ruin. When Sir Oweyn Murrin had passed on, his eldest son, the Heir of Ardven, was well set up on family lands in Balbank, and the elder girl, Avaurn, had married in Rift Kyrie, to the southeast. The younger daughter, Emeris, had gone for a kedran battlemaid and led a wandering life in all the lands of Hylor and beyond. Now there was no one living in the ruined house but this half-cripple kedran captain, Old Murrin.
In summer Gael took her brother down by the Cresset Burn, and Old Murrin let them fish within the grounds of the manor. They were shy children, unused to strangers, unused to the simplest comings and goings of village life. Besides the occasional desperate ceremony, such as that which had preserved Bress’s health and life, there were festivals and ceremonies held about twice or three times a year at the Holywell. The reeve of Coombe village came along, with the Druda Kilian Strawn and the old woman Fion Allrada, one of the half-Shee, to conduct the ceremony.
On these occasions, the Maddocs cleaned the grotto and set greenery about and readied the ancient urns for flowers, brought by the village wives. There was a small dark place, a cave, hidden within the passage to the grotto—across the spring, and too far a step for those unfamiliar with the water’s course. Gael took Bress there to hide and watch all that went on. They knew it was dangerous—Maddoc was not a harsh man but he might have given them the flat of his hand if he had found them there.
When Bress was a big lad of eight, ten, he stood with the rest of the people, but Gael, growing tall, awkward, and shy, still kept watch from her hiding place. She told her mother that she must stand guard to see that no one stole the sacred stone cups or the ancient urns but in fact it was because she liked to be there. The place was full of magic. One winter at the beginning of the feast days, after she had seen the small gathering of worshippers leave the grotto, she heard a sound close by. A piece of stone fell down beside her feet where she sat curled up. Investigating
further, she discovered a sort of shelf, natural but bearing signs of ancient chisel work, from where the stone had fallen. The stone left a square hole in the wall and inside there was a metal casket, a small thing, no bigger than a thick slice of bread. She snatched it up, tucked it inside the slack of her tunic—for she would not wear a gown and shawl—and took it home to the storeroom where she was allowed to sleep in winter.
There, in the first pale light of dawn, Gael opened the grey metal casket and found an ancient parchment, folded small, and covered with writing and strange drawings. There was nothing else but a small leather pouch at the bottom of the casket—inside was a joined loop of fine silvery chain. She slipped it over her head but took it off again, returning it to the pouch. The casket and its contents she hid far away under the sacks of winter vegetables. She tried to think no more of the casket—she had hoped for some gold to give her father.
On the night of the Winter Feast, when even the Maddocs made shift to celebrate a little by the fireside, she brought out the chain and gave it to her mother, saying she had found it under a stone before the grotto, which was very nearly the truth. This was the year that Maddoc had made Bress a bow and arrows and there were sweet honeycakes after the rabbit stew.
One person had a care for such poor folk as they, and it was the village priest, Druda Kilian Strawn. He knew they were as needy as the wandering tinkers and the mad old men who lived in the woods. Winter and summer he came to them, reminding them that a feast day was coming so they would accept his gifts. He brought bacon, rabbits, woven stuff, and bundles of tailings from the fleece so that Mother Maddoc could spin them up.
The Druda was a tall bony fellow with a lank braid of black hair streaked with grey. He was middle-aged, a few years older than Maddoc. He came and went in all the cottages round about. Men admired him because he had been a soldier and served with the men of Mel’Nir during the Great King’s War, in the sad days of civil strife when opposing war-leaders’ men had torn apart the country. Women talked freely to him because he had been married. He was widowed of a fair young wife from Banlo Strand down by the sea, a woman whom he had wed after the war, and the touch of that coastal life had held close on
him, in his faraway gaze. “Druda” was a title jealously reserved, but Kilian Strawn was not a distant celibate, like those of the priestly colleges in far-off Eildon. He was a Guardian, so-called, from the Holy Grove by Tuana, the old Chyrian capital, and deep trained in Chyrian ways.
In sacred Tuana, now overgrown and faded—Mel’Nir’s overlords distrusted magic and did what they could to discourage the old folkways—there had been always three priestesses, holy virgins, the Lady of the Grove and her two Maidens, who ruled the hearth and saw to the care of women. Then there were the warrior priests, the Guardians. In old times they had lived among the people and advised the chieftains in their councils. Kilian Strawn was of this old strain, perhaps among the last so trained.
Gael Maddoc trusted Druda Strawn so much that at last she brought out the ancient parchment she had kept hidden and told him she had found it by the Holywell. He unfolded it at night by the fire in their small cot and laughed with delight.
“See here!” he cried. “It is a map of Coombe!”
They looked, and when it was laid on a settle the right way round they all could see it—there was the road through the village, there was the Holywell marked with a sacred kell. There also were the crossroads. North and south were the twin fortresses: Hackestell, which still belonged to their liege lord, Knaar of Val’Nur, and Lowestell, which remained in the hands of Lord Pfolben, ruler of the Southland. There were words written in the ancient Chyrian tongue, and when the Druda, half teasing, helped Gael to sound them out, a strange thing happened: there came a glowing upon the parchment, and just for one moment, the outline of a great cup, with double handles.
Gael laughed, she was so frightened. “Is it Taran’s Kelch?” she asked, for that cup was a great Chyrian treasure and occupied a place of pride in many of the old stories Shivorn had told her.
The Druda looked at her, and his gaze was uncomfortably sharp. “Who is to say it is not?” he said softly, and then Gael was embarrassed, for the cup was a thing of legend, and she thought he must be teasing her. “By your leave, I will take this paper away with me, and study it.”
Then Druda Strawn did a strange thing. He brought out a box of polished wood, his writing case, and he taught Gael Maddoc straightaway to write her name, first on the parchment of the map itself and then on a sheet of thinner stuff, writing paper, from his case. “One day you will need to know this,” he told her, and again she was frightened. For all she knew, there had never been a Maddoc before her who had needed to know how to write.
When spring was upon them in the new year Druda Strawn came by on his old mare. Gael Maddoc was on the hill above the croft, breaking stone. The Druda came over the crest of their hill as Maddoc and his daughter ploughed the hillside.
“Your daughter wields that hand plough well enough!” he said.
Maddoc agreed, mopping his brow, and they watched her urging the simple furrow maker up toward them.
“What age is your daughter?” asked the Druda.
“The boy, our Bress, is thirteen,” said Maddoc, “so she will be seventeen.”
“I have a plan,” said Druda Strawn, “that will be pleasing to the Goddess.”
He explained it to the family at their hearthside. Gael Maddoc blushed to feel herself the center of attention, then her heart beat faster as the priest told of his plan. She, Gael, would go into training with the Summer Riders, and become a kedran after one year, when she was of age. This would not just be preparation for the Westmark’s required military training: she would train to be a true battlemaid, perhaps even be selected to join the muster for Coombe’s liege lord’s house. The family’s back taxes would be written off; the boy, Bress, could be spared from military service until he was turned sixteen, ready for
Gael did not look at her parents but spoke up, mastering her shyness. Yes, she would do it, she said eagerly. Her mother looked out into the yard where Bress was drawing water from the well and echoed her daughter’s words. If the Druda believed Gael could be made into a kedran …
Rab Maddoc was more hesitant. The Maddocs had ever performed their training for the Westmark, but never in living memory had they gone for soldiers. Their croft held the Holywell, perhaps few came there now, but the Maddocs were yet its guardians … Shivorn gave her husband a sharp look, a look that had a little of stomach hunger in its sharpness. “The girl is willing,” she told him. “Besides, Bress will stay with us still—think on that!” Rab Maddoc shook his head and sighed, but after that he kept quiet and did not give further voice to his protest.
At the Plantation in Krail, the golden city of the Westmark, their liege lord, Knaar of Val’Nur, kept and maintained the Westlings, three hundred warriors recruited from the Chyrian lands. Lord Knaar, though aging, was a restless man, and these three hundred were his pride. Knaar’s father before him had held fast against the outrages of Mel’Nir’s tyrant, Ghanor the so-called Great King, but now, in the peace of Ghanor’s son, Good King Gol, Knaar was treaty-bound to maintain his house’s army at this diminished strength. But those three hundred! A family with even one kern or kedran in the Lord of the Westmark’s service was lifted out of poverty.
Gone for a kedran in Knaar’s service—it was a golden dream. More practically speaking, the Melniros were a martial race, and if a kedran was not accepted into Knaar’s army … well, there were many lordly households throughout Val’Nur and beyond where a battlemaid could find good service.
A chance at training for one such as Gael was something to seize upon and not let go.