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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

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BOOK: Winter Moon
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As a consequence, Moira had more than enough time to pack, and she had some additions, courtesy of the Countess, to her baggage when she was done.

In the dawn of the fourth day after her father's men arrived with their summons, she took her leave of Viridian Manor.

As the eastern sky began to lighten, she mounted a gentle mule amid her escort of guards and the maidservant they had brought with them. She took the aid offered by the chief of the guardsmen; not that she needed it, for she could have leaped astride the mule without even touching foot to stirrup had she chosen to do so—but from this moment on, she would be painting a portrait of a very different Moira from the one that the Countess had trained. This Moira was quiet, speaking only when spoken to, and in all ways acting as an ordinary well schooled maiden with no “extra” skills. The rest of her “personality” would be decided when Moira herself had more information to work with. The reason for her abrupt recall had still not been voiced aloud, so until Moira was told face-to-face why her father had summoned her, it was best to reveal as little as possible.

That said, it was as well that the maid was a stranger to her; indeed, it was as well that the entire escort was composed of strangers. The fewer who remembered her, the better.

This was hardly surprising; she had been a mere child when she left, and at that time she hadn't known more than a handful of her father's men-at-arms by sight. She had known more of the maidser
vants, but who knew if any of
them
were still serving? Two wives her father had wed since the death of her mother; neither had lasted more than four years before the harsh winters of Highclere claimed them, and neither had produced another heir.

Of course, father's penchant for delicate little flowers did make it difficult for them.
Tiny, small-boned creatures scarcely out of girlhood were his choice companions, timid and shy, big eyed and frail as a glass bird. Moira's mother had looked like that—in fact, if she hadn't wed so young (too young, Moira now thought) she might have matured into what Moira was now—ethereal in appearance, but tough as whipcord inside.

She felt obscurely sorry for those dead wives. She hadn't been there, and she didn't know them, but she could imagine their shock and horror when confronted by the winter storms that coated the cliffs and the walls of the keep with ice a palm-length deep. She was sturdier stuff, fifteen generations born and bred on the cliffs of Highclere, like those who had come before her. Pale and slender she might be, but she was tough enough to ride the day through and dance half the night afterward. So her mother still would be, if she'd had more care for herself.

The maidservant was up on pillion behind one of the guards. There were seven of them, three to ride before, and three to ride behind, with the seventh taking the maid and Moira on her mule beside him. They seemed competent, well armed, well mounted; not friendly, but that would have been presumptuous.

She looked up at the sky above the manor walls as they loaded her baggage onto the pack mule, and sniffed the air. A few weeks ago, it had still been false summer, the last, golden breath of autumn, but now—now there was that bitter scent of dying leaves, and branches already leafless, which told her the season had turned. It would be colder in Highclere. And in another month at most, or a week or two at worst, the winter storms would begin.

It was a strange time for a wedding, if that was what she was being summoned to.

“Are you ready, my lady?”

She glanced down at the guard at her stirrup, who did not wait for an answer. He swung up onto his horse and signaled to the rest of the group, and they rode out without a backward glance. Not even Moira looked back; she had said her farewells last night. If her father's men were watching, let them think she rode away from here with no regret in her heart.

They thought she rode with her eyes modestly down, but she was watching, watching everything. It was a pity she could not simply enjoy the ride, for the weather was brisk without being harsh, and the breeze full of the pleasant scents of frost, wood smoke, and occasionally, apples being pressed for cider. The Countess's lands were well situated and protected from the worst of all weathers, and even in midwinter, travel was not unduly difficult. The mule had a comfortable gait to sit, and if only she had had good company to enjoy it all with, the trip would have been enchanting.

The guards were disciplined but not happy. They rode without banter, without conversation, all morning long. And it was not as if the weather oppressed them, because it was a glorious day with only the first hints of winter in the air. As they rode through the lands belonging to Viridian Manor, there were workers out harvesting the last of the nuts, cutting deadfall, herding sheep and cattle into their winter pastures, mostly singing as they worked. The air was cold without being frigid, the sky cloudless, the sun bright, and the leaves that littered the ground still carried their vivid colors, so that the group rode on a carpet of gold and red. There could not possibly have been a more glorious day. And yet the guards all rode as if they were traveling under leaden skies through a lifeless landscape.

They stopped at about noon, and rode on again until dark. In all that time, the guards exchanged perhaps a dozen words with her, and less than a hundred among one another. But when camp was made for the evening, the maid, at least, was a little more talkative. Lord Ferson had provided a pavilion for Moira to share with the maid; if it had been up to Moira, she would have been perfectly content to sleep under the moon and stars. She felt a pang as she stepped into the shelter of the tent, wishing she did not have to be shut away for the night.

She let the maid help her out of her overgown, and sat down on the folding stool provided for her comfort while the maid finished her ministrations. “I have not seen Highclere Sea-Keep in many years,”
Moira said, in a neutral tone, as the maid brought her a bowl of the same stew and hard bread the men were eating. “Have you served the lord long?”

“Eight years, milady,” the maid said. She was as neutral a creature as could be imagined, with opaque brown eyes, like two water-smoothed pebbles that gave away nothing. She was, like nearly every other inhabitant of the lands in and around Highclere, very lean, very rangy, dark haired and dark eyed. The Sea-Keep had always provided its servants with clothing; hers was the usual garb of an upper maidservant in winter—dark woolen skirt, laced leather tunic, and undyed woolen chemise—and not the finer woolen overgown and bleached lamb's wool chemise that Moira recalled her mother's personal maidservant wearing. So her father had sent an upper maid, but not a truly superior handmaiden. This was not necessarily a slight; handmaidens tended to be young, were often pretty, and could be a temptation to the guards. This woman, old enough to be Moira's mother, plain and commonplace, and entirely in control of herself and her situation, was a better choice for a journey.

“Has the keep changed much in that time?” Moira asked, as she finished her meal and set the bowl aside. It was a natural question, and a neutral one.

The woman shrugged as she took Moira's braid down from its coil and began brushing it. Needless to say, the pins holding it in place were simple silver with polished heads, not bodkins. “The keep never changes,” she replied. “My lady has fine hair.”

“It is my one beauty,” Moira replied. “And my lord my noble father is well?”

“I am told he is never ill,” said the maid, concentrating on rebraiding Moira's plaits.

Moira nodded; this woman might not be a superior lady's maid, but she was not rough handed. “He is a strong man. The sea-keeps need strong hands to rule them.”

Bit by bit, she drew tiny scraps of information from the maid. It wasn't a great deal, but by the time she slipped beneath the blankets of her sleeping roll, she began to have the idea that the people of Highclere Sea-Keep were not encouraged to speak much among themselves, and even less encouraged to speak to “outsiders” about what befell the keep. And that could be a sign that the lord of the sea-keep was holding a dark secret.

If so, then this was precisely what the Countess Vrenable of Viridian Manor wished to find out.

 

Highclere Sea-Keep was less than impressive from the road. In fact, very little of it was visible from the road.

The road led through what the local people called “forest.” These were not the tall trees that surrounded Viridian Manor; the growth here was windswept, permanently bent from the prevailing wind from the sea, and stunted by the salt. The forest didn't change much, no matter what the season; it was mostly a dark, nearly black evergreen she had never seen anywhere else but on the coast. Though
the trees weren't tall, this forest hid the land-wall and gatehouse of the sea-keep right up until the point where the road made an abrupt turn and dropped them all on the doorstep.

And there was a welcome waiting, which Moira, to be frank, had not expected.

She had not forgotten what her home looked like, and at least here on the cliff, it had not changed. A thick, protective granite wall with never less than four men patrolling the top ran right up to the cliff's edge, making it unlikely anyone could attack the keep from above. There was a gatehouse spanning both sides of the gate, which was provided with both a drop-down iron portcullis and a set of heavy wooden doors. Above the gate was a watch room connected with both gatehouses, which could be manned even when the worst of storms battered the cliff. Both the portcullis and the wooden doors stood open, and arranged in front of them was a guard of honor, eight men all in her father's livery of blue and silver, with the Highclere Sea-Keep device of a breaking wave on their surcoats.

Moira dismounted from her mule—but only after waiting for the leader of the honor guard to help her. He bowed after handing her down from the saddle, as the sea wind swept over all of them, making the pennants on either tower of the gatehouse snap, and blowing her heavy skirts flat against her legs.

There was ice in that wind, and the promise that winter here was coming early, a promise echoed by the fact that the trees that were not evergreens already stretched skeletal, bare limbs to the sky.

“Welcome home, Lady Moira,” the leader of the guard said, bowing a second time. “The Lord Ferson awaits you in the hall below.”

“Then take me to him immediately,” she said, dropping her eyes and nodding her head—but not curtsying. The head of the honor guard, a knight by his white belt, was below her in status. She should be modest, but not give him deference. This was one of the many things she should have learned—and of course, had—under anyone's fosterage. She had no doubt that this knight would be reporting everything he saw to her father, later.

The knight offered her his arm, and she took it. Most ladies would need such help on the rest of the journey. She and the knight led the way through the gates, with the honor guard falling in behind; the maid and her journey escort brought up the rear.

Just inside the gates stood the stables and the Upper Guard barracks. These were the only buildings visible. Just past them was the edge of the cliff, and the sea.

She took in a deep breath of the tangy salt air; for once, there was no more than a light wind blowing. This was home. And despite everything, she felt an odd sense of contentment settle over her as the knight led her courteously toward the cliff edge, and the set of stairs, only visible when you were right atop them, that were cut into the living rock of the cliff. And only when you looked down from that vantage did you see the sea-keep itself.

It was built both on a terrace jutting out over the
ocean, and into the cliff itself. The side facing the sea was six feet thick, and needed to be, for when the winter storms came those walls would shake with the force of the waves crashing against them, and only walls that thick could prevent the keep from tumbling down into the foam.

Today, with the sun shining and the wind moderate, the spray from the waves beating against the base of the cliff far below was nowhere near the lowest level of the terraces—which, in a storm, would be awash.

From the highest terrace at either side were two walkways leading along the cliff. These led in turn to the second reason for the existence of the sea-keeps—the beacons.

It was the duty of the lord of each sea-keep to man the beacons and keep them alight, from dusk to dawn, and during all times of fog and storm. They warned ships away from the rocks, and provided a guide to navigators. In return, because even the beacons could not protect every ship from grief, the lords had salvage right to anything washed ashore. It was from this salvage right that the lords obtained their wealth. Ships could and did sink even far out to sea; ambergris and sea coal came ashore, and also here at Highclere, true amber and jet. Seaweed and kelp were burned for—well, here Moira had to admit she didn't know precisely what they were burned for, but apparently the ash was quite valuable. And there were some types of kelp that were edible, by people and animals. She'd had kelp soup hundreds of times;
it was one of her favorites. Other kinds made jelly superior to that made with calves' feet. When the tide went out, the scavengers came out to scour the shingle, and half of what they found was the property of the lord.

If a typical keep were to be set on its side, its entrance facing upward, that is how the sea-keeps were built. The stair led downward to the entrance, a kind of hatchway with two enormous double doors, which now were open to the sky and laid flat against the roof of the topmost tower.

BOOK: Winter Moon
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