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Unless this figure fall into the House of Bronze, that is to say, the seventh country on our map, or into the House of Gold, the fifth country where dwell art and song, then it be ill-omened, bringing dissension, injury, and the lust for revenge.
The Omenbook of Gwarn, Loremaster
Round Cerr Cawnen the meadows lay marshy, crossed by a thousand streams, most no more than rivulets, and dotted with pools and bogs. With his face and hands lard-smeared to keep the blackflies from biting, Jahdo picked his way through the high grass to hunt for brooklime and colt’s foot. To the north the mountains that the dwarven folk call the Roof of the World towered out of blue mist, their peaks shining white in the summer sun. To the south the rolling meadows spread out into farmland, dotted with trees, and here and there a plume of smoke from a farm wife’s kitchen rose like a feather on the sky. In his pure boy’s tenor Jahdo sang aloud, swinging his wicker basket in time to the song. He was so entranced with this wide view, in fact, that he stumbled, stepping out into empty air and falling with a yelp some four feet down into a gully carved by a stream.
He landed on soft grass and marshy ground, but the basket went flying, hitting the water with a plop and floating away. He scrambled up, decided that the sandy streambed offered the best footing, and splashed after the basket as it rounded a turn and sailed out of sight. Jahdo broke into a shuffling sort of trot, keeping his feet under the knee-high water, traveling, quite inadvertently, in near silence, hidden by the banks of the deepening stream. At another twist in the watercourse, he caught his runaway basket, which had beached itself onto a strip of shore at an eddy. When he picked it up, something shiny caught his eye, a little disk of metal, pierced and hanging from a leather thong. He grabbed it, hoping for a dropped coin, but the thing was only pewter, engraved with a strange squiggle. He slipped it into his pocket anyway, stood for a moment panting for breath, and realized that he heard voices.
Just ahead the leafy shadows of trees danced on the water. Up on the banks stood a copse, where a man and a woman talked on the edge of anger, though they kept their voices down so low that Jahdo could guess they met in secret. He began backing away, slipped, and fell with a splash and a curse.
“Here!” the woman shrilled. “A spy!”
“I be no such thing, good lady.” In a wail of protest Jahdo clambered up. “Don’t hurt me.”
Tall, blond, with ice-blue eyes as cold as the northern peaks, a young man jumped down onto the sandy strip of shore bordering the stream, grabbed his arm, and hauled him out of the water. When he recognized Verrarc, a member of the Council of Five that ruled the city, Jahdo began to stammer apologies. Verrarc grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him hard.
“What are you doing here?”
“Gathering herbs, sir. My sister she be ill. Gwira the herbwoman said she’d treat her, but it was needful for me to go and do some gathering. To give her due fee, I mean.”
Verrarc threw him to his knees. As he looked up at the tall, hard-muscled man towering over him, Jahdo felt the world turn all swimmy. Verrarc’s blue stare cut into his soul like the thrust of a knife.
“He does tell the truth.” Verrarc’s voice seemed to come from far away.
“That’s of no moment. Kill him.” The woman’s voice hissed and cracked. “We mayn’t risk—kill him, Verro!”
Jahdo whimpered and flung up his hands, half warding a blow, half begging for his life. When he tried to speak, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, and he gasped for breath. Verrarc laid one hand on the jeweled hilt of the sword slung at his hip, then considered him for an achingly long moment. His stare seemed normal again, merely the look of an angry man, not some strange ensorcelment.
“I know you. You be the rat boy.”
“I am, sir.” He found his voice at last, but in his terror he could only whisper. “Jahdo Ratter.”
“Kill him now.” Wrapped in a black cloak with the hood well up, the woman crouched on the edge of the gully.
“Hold your tongue, Rae!” Verrarc snapped. “I’ll not be hurting the boy. He’s but ten summers old, and no threat.”
“Verro!” Her voice, this time, whined, as petulant as a toddler. “Kill him. I want to watch.”
“Hold your tongue! He be valuable, this lad, and besides, the herbwoman does know he’s out here.”
With a snarl she sat back on her heels. All Jahdo could see of her was gray eyes and pale cheeks, streaked with sweat. No doubt she found the black cloak a burden on such a sunny day. Verrarc ignored her, slipped one arm around Jahdo’s shoulders, and turned him round.
“Look, lad, as one man to another, I ask you: are you really going to be telling anyone about what you did see here today?”
All of a sudden Jahdo understood: a love affair.
“Of course not, sir. It be none of my business, bain’t?”
Verrarc winked and grinned.
“Not in the least, lad, not in the least. And don’t you go worrying. No harm will come to you, as long as you hold your tongue.”
“Thank you, sir, oh, a thousand thanks. I’ll never say naught, I swear it. And I’ll gather my herbs somewhere far away, too.”
Verrarc looked deep into his eyes and smiled. It seemed that his blue eyes turned to water, that his gaze flowed over the boy like warm water.
“Good. Good lad. Now, just trot back down along the stream, like, and go on your way.”
Jahdo followed orders, running as fast as he dared, never looking back until he was a good mile away. He climbed out of the gully and stood for a moment, shaking his head. Something odd had happened, down there by the water. Or had he fallen asleep and dreamt it? He’d seen something, someone—Councilman Verrarc and a lady, and they were sneaking out behind her husband’s back, and he’d sworn to speak not a word of it. Fair enough, and he’d certainly keep his promise, especially since he wasn’t even sure if it was true or just a dream, or even a rumor. The city was full of rumors, after all. Maybe he hadn’t seen a thing. He was sure, as he thought about it, that he’d seen no one but Verrarc, sitting by a stream.
By the time he’d filled the damp basket with herbs, he’d forgotten the councilman’s name, and by the time he was heading home, all he retained was a sense of fear, linked to the grassy bank of some stream or other. A snake, perhaps, had startled him; dimly he could remember a sound much like the hiss of a snake.
Although there were a scattering of villages farther west, Cerr Cawnen was the only town worthy of the name in that part of the world, the Rhiddaer (the Freeland), as it was known. In the midst of water meadows lay Loc Vaed, stretching in long green shallows out to blue deeper water and a rocky central island, the Citadel, where stood the fine homes of the best families and, at the very peak, the armory of the citizen militia. The rest of the town crammed into the shallows: a jumble and welter of houses and shops all perched on pilings or crannogs, joined by little bridges to one another in the rough equivalent of city blocks, which in turn bristled with jetties and rickety stairs leading down to the stretches of open water between them, where leather coracles bobbed on ropes. Toward the edge of town, where the lake rippled over sandy reefs, big logs, sawn in half and sunk on end, studded the surface of the water and served as stepping-stones between the huts and islets. On the lakeshore proper, where the ground was reasonably solid, stood a high timber-laced stone wall, ringing the entire lake round. Guards stood on constant duty at the gate and prowled the catwalk above, turning the entire town and lake both into an armed camp. The forty thousand folk of Cerr Cawnen had more than one enemy to fear.
It was late in the day by the time Jahdo trotted through the gates to the stretch of grass that ringed the shore, and he knew he’d best hurry. Not only did the memory of his fear still trouble him, but he was worried about his elder sister, who’d woken that morning doubled over with pain. Clutching his basket tight, he jumped his way across the shallows from log to log, then climbed some stairs up to a block of buildings, all roofed with living sod or vegetable gardens. Most of the stilt houses had wide wooden decks round them, and he leapt or clambered from one to another, dodging dogs and goats and small children, ducking under wet laundry hung to dry, calling out a pleasant word here or there to a woman grinding grain in a quern or a man fishing from a window of his house. At the edge of the deeper water he climbed down and helped himself to a coracle tied to a piling. These little round boats were common property, used as needed, left for the next person wherever one landed them. With his basket settled between his knees, Jahdo rowed out to Citadel.