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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

Winter Moon (8 page)

BOOK: Winter Moon
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Now, as an adult, she knew that strange behavior of wind and sound was usual in a storm. No matter how well shielded the lanterns were, not all remained lit; drafts were so unpredictable that servants went through every passage at intervals, relighting the lamps that had blown out. And there was no way to keep drafts out of a place like this in storm season.

She felt sorry for anyone who had to take the passages to the beacons. There was no hope of doing anything except making your way in the darkness. No lamp flame could survive the blast that traveled along that tunnel, which was the source of the uncanny moan that signaled the beginning of a storm and didn't end until it was over.

As she neared her chambers, she paused for a moment, then, prompted by a feeling that she
ought
to, she abruptly took a different turn, going down the corridor that led to her old childhood nursery. The nursery had a window, and one of the best views in the entire keep. This wasn't an accident. The idea was that the children of a sea-keep should get used to the worst that storms could throw at the keep at an early age, and the cradle was not considered too early. Moira remembered many, many gloomy afternoons when it was too dark to have lessons or read or do needlework, lying in her bed on her stomach, peeking out through the curtains at the foot of her bed and watching rain lash the window. The curtained bed had seemed very safe when she was small, a good place to retreat to if the storm became so fierce the walls shook.

And she remembered nights, too, when lightning flashed through the cracks of the shutters while thunder vibrated the whole keep. Storms had never frightened her once she had gotten past a certain age; in fact, she'd found them exciting, exhilarating.

Though in the dark of the night, with witch fire dancing on the points of pikes, the tips of towers, and the tops of flagpoles, and the wind keening a death cry, the idea that those drowned souls might come looking for the warmth of the living could still make her skin crawl. At least they weren't looking for revenge. It was the honor and the duty of the sea-keeps to
prevent
them from coming aground….

Yes, but why was Father saying those things to the Prince of Jendara, then?

She shivered, opened the door to the nursery, and wrinkled her nose at the cold, dusty smell of the place. Clearly no one had been in here since she had left.

She felt her way along the wall, huddling into her warm shawl. The stone was like ice, the room itself as cold as a snow cave, but she wanted to see the storm over the ocean for herself. It was a sight she hadn't had since she'd left. The storms at Viridian Manor were impressive, but nothing like the Winter Witch riding the waves.

She came to the shutters and flipped the worn, wooden latch, opening them just as a bolt of lightning struck the sea outside.

In the brief flash of light, she could see that the waves were already washing over the stone terrace of the lowest level of the keep. As usual, water would be running in under the door there, and down the stairs. No matter. There was a drain for it at the foot of the stairs, and no one would go out that door until the storm was over, so it didn't matter if the stairs were slippery. She'd gone down there once or twice, daring herself to touch that foot-thick door as it trembled visibly under the full fury of the storm. All the keep children did. It was a rite of passage, to prove that you dared the witch to take you, and you were brave enough to face her down.

This was, definitely, one of the worst storms in her memory, especially for one so early.

She sat down on the chest just beneath the window, propped her elbows on the sill with her chin in both hands, and peered through the darkness, look
ing for the northern beacon that marked the beginning of the Teeth—and frowned.

She should see it clearly from here. No matter
how
terrible the storm, she should be seeing the beacon! Nothing could blow it out, and never, in all the history of the sea-keep, had anyone failed to light it in darkness or storm and keep it lit. This was no tiny lantern flame to be blown out—it was a great, roaring, oil-fed conflagration, shielded in a large bubble of greenish glass as thick as a thumb and surrounded by polished brass mirrors that reflected all the landward light out to sea.

Then, turning her head a little, she saw it, breathed a sigh of relief—then frowned more deeply.

It wasn't where it should be. It should be much farther away, along the cliff face. It wasn't where she remembered, and she had very vivid physical memories of planting both elbows on this windowsill, in little depressions that countless other elbows had worn into the wood, and looking straight out through the center pane to see it. Not through the pane that was left of center.

But I'm older and much taller
—

No, that wasn't the problem. It couldn't be the problem. Taller would make no difference in where the beacon appeared to be from the view through this window—

But I can't be sure….

She stared at the warm, yellow light; it was, of course, much dimmer from the land side. The reflectors that sent as much light out to sea as possi
ble saw to that. But the more she stared, and the more she positioned herself within the window frame, the more certain she was that it was not her memory that was at fault here.

But there was a way to be absolutely certain, and as she sucked on her lower lip anxiously, she decided she was going to make that test for herself. Because if something
was
wrong, she wanted to know, and she wasn't going to go to her father to try to find out. He had, after all, brought the Prince of Jendara here, and she was certain that it was without the King's knowledge or permission.

Quietly—in fact, on tiptoe, though she could not have said
why
she felt the need for stealth—she slipped back to her rooms. Anatha was not there. She was probably still enjoying her own dinner with the rest of the servants, for Moira had made it quite clear that she did
not
require her maid to dance attendance on her at every waking hour. There was no reason to leave the hall; the banks of hot stones that kept the food warm more than made up for the winds whistling in the rafters and stealing the warmth of the fires up the chimneys. And if she was in particularly good graces with the cook and the housekeeper, Anatha would be invited afterward to the warm room backing onto the baking oven, which the superior servants used as a parlor in winter.

Thank heavens.
Anatha's absence made this much easier—no need to conjure up excuses for going back to the nursery.

She opened her jewelry casket underneath the
lamp and found the ring she was looking for. Slipping it onto her middle finger, she stole back down the hall to the nursery, carefully closing the door behind her this time.

She positioned herself at the window with her eyes mere inches from the center pane, and making a fist, rubbed a little scratch in the glass right where the beacon shone through the storm with the diamond in the ring.

There
. When the storm broke, she could come back here in daylight and see if the scratch lined up with the beacon. If it did, she had been anxious over nothing.

If it didn't—

If it didn't, there was something very, very strange going on at Highclere Sea-Keep. And she would have to find out what it was—and more important, why it was happening.

 

When Anatha returned to Moira's rooms, she found her mistress with her feet resting on a stone warmed on the hearth with a fur rug covering her lap, sitting beside the fire, knitting. Knitting was a very plebian pastime, and most ladies didn't even bother to learn, but Moira found it soothing. It was one of the few tasks that could be done by the uncertain light of a flickering fire and guttering lamps during a storm. And it certainly did no harm to have extra soft, lamb's-wool hose on hand in a sea-keep winter.

“A wild night, my lady,” was all Anatha said. “The Winter Witch has come early.”

“I thought as much—but I also wondered if my memory had been at fault,” Moira replied. “Well, what are the canny old sailors saying?”

“That—that it isn't natural, my lady,” Anatha replied, looking over her shoulder first, as if she expected to see someone spying on them from a corner. “The witch has never flown before all the leaves are gone, not in anyone's memory.”

Once again, Moira felt an odd little sense of warning. “The leaves will certainly not outlast this storm,” she replied, and yawned. “Are they saying this means a bad winter?”

Anatha looked over her shoulder, and this time, she leaned very close to Moira and whispered, “They're saying, this storm was
sent.

Once again, that touch of warning, that sense as if a single ice-cold fingertip had been touched to the back of her neck. She thought about her father and Prince Massid exchanging cryptic comments and glances full of meaning about the winter storms.

But no one could control the weather. Even the greatest of magicians couldn't control the weather—the one who could would have a great and terrible weapon at his disposal. Such a magician wouldn't be content to serve a greater master. He himself would use that power to become a powerful ruler.

Not that Moira had any great acquaintance with magicians. They were few and far between, the genuine ones, anyway. The Countess had her wizard, Lady Amaranth, but she had never performed any magic more powerful than the spell that al
lowed the Grey Ladies to use pigeon-mail. And Lady Amaranth was supposed to be the most powerful wizard in the kingdom, except for those that served the King.

“How could such a storm be sent?” she replied, keeping her tone light and disbelieving. “And more to the point, why? This is a sea-keep—we are used to such storms. At most, it is an inconvenience. The men-at-arms won't be able to hunt until it's over, and we might run a bit short of fresh meat, but the High Table will not suffer. The beacons will have to be tended, and the poor fellows who have to do the tending will spend a miserable time of it. Soon or late, it doesn't matter when the Winter Witch flies, she'll have no effect on Highclere. And I hope you aren't going to tell me that God has sent the storms early for our sins! I shall be quite cross with you.”

Anatha laughed at that. “No, my lady. You're right, of course. It was all just kitchen talk.”

“Then I count on you to be sensible,” Moira replied, with a nod. “When that sort of talk begins again, make sure you are the one who keeps her head.” She yawned and set aside her work. “And I believe that I will be sensible and go to bed.”

Tucked up in bed, with the curtains closed tightly all around to prevent icy drafts from waking her, Moira did not feel in the least sleepy. She turned on her side to think.

If someone was a powerful magician, and could control the weather, at least in part—he'd use that power to make himself a king. Wouldn't he?

But what if he already was a king? Or, say, a Khaleem, which was basically the same thing.

Massid had said that the Khaleemate had never lost a ship to storms. Maybe that wasn't just good luck. Maybe the Khaleems of Jendara had power over the weather.

If that was their only power, it was a cursed useful one, especially for a nation that fielded an enormous navy, and unofficially fielded a second enormous force of pirates.

But why would that be attractive to her father? It was true that bad storms could bring a few more ships to grief on the Teeth of Highclere, and that in turn would certainly increase the coffers of the Lord of Highclere Sea-Keep. But the gain would be offset by some loss; the worse the storms were, the less hunting there would be, the less fishing, and the more likely that one of those unfortunate accidents would befall whoever was supposed to be working outside. She vividly recalled a particularly wretched winter when frequent, though not violent, storms had kept everyone pent up within the walls right up until late spring. The number of fights had been appalling. Feuds had begun that were probably still being played out to this day. Ferson had lost a dozen men to accidents and to fights; it had been hard to replace them, and the keep had been shorthanded for nearly a year.

So what possible use could Ferson make of such a power that would outweigh the disadvantages?

She couldn't think of anything. So whatever had
brought the Prince of Jendara here, it probably wasn't that.

She fell asleep still trying to figure out what had.

 

After four days of wind and storm, the morning of the fifth day broke over calm seas and a cloudless—if icy—sky.

Immediately, the scavengers went out to comb the shores for whatever the sea had cast up. Heaps of extremely useful kelp was always thrown upon the rocks, of course, but there were other things. Amber, jet, sea coal. And sometimes the sea in her fickle nature elected to toss back things that had gone to the bottom in previous wrecks. By the time Moira went down to breakfast, the keep was practically empty. Everyone who could be spared was out combing the shore, and everyone who could hunt was up in the forest doing so. The cook would make only one hot meal today, as most of his helpers would be elsewhere.

BOOK: Winter Moon
8.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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