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A Willow Rampant

Summer 56

TORISEN DREAMED OF KOTHIFIR and half woke, confused, in the half light before dawn.

“So you’ve come at last, all the way from the Riverland. Have a nice trip?”

Harn had never said that to him. He remembered all too well his greeting to the Southern Host as a boy, especially Harn Grip-hard’s stony face staring at him as the big Kendar tapped his credentials on the desk before him.

“So Lord Ardeth has sent you to me as a special aide. How kind of him.”

Harn was second-in-command of the Host under the Caineron Genjar, but Adric would hardly have entrusted Ganth’s heir to one of his father’s archenemies . . . would he? Not for the first time, Torisen wondered what Lord Ardeth really had written in the letter that he had carried so far. After what the former Highlord had done to the Kencyrath, no kin of his was apt to find a welcome there.

“More likely,” Harn had continued, “you’re one of his bastards and a spy to boot. Ha, that raises your hackles, does it? Then prove me wrong. Know anything about soldiering?”

“No, Ran.”

“Well, we’ll find a place for you. Somewhere. Just stay out of my way. Dismissed.”

And Torisen had walked out of headquarters into the dazzling glare of the Host’s camp. He had been fifteen years old at the time.

“My lord?” It was Burr, carrying a bowl of porridge and a jug of milk, Torisen’s breakfast. He must have dozed off again for now it was full morning with birds flitting past his tower windows. “You had a poor night?”

Torisen unwound the tangled blankets and sat up. The wolver pup Yce watched him, nose on paws, from the hearth where his restlessness had driven her.

“I dreamt about Kothifir when we first arrived there.”

“Huh. Not exactly a warm welcome, was it? What clothes for today?”

“Something practical. I need to walk the fields and talk to the harvest master about the hay.”

He ate, watching Burr lay out a shirt, plain jacket, sturdy pants, and high-topped leather boots, all black like most of his limited wardrobe. Black wore well. He liked it. He used to think that it made him inconspicuous, but now the Host knew him as Torisen Black Lord or simply as Blackie. In those early days he had thought that Burr had been sent by Adric to spy on him, and he had been right. Not until the Kendar had broken with the Ardeth and sworn to him had he really trusted the man.

He dressed and descended from his tower apartment into the great hall of the old keep where Marc worked in a blaze of sunrise glory at the shattered eastern window.

A furry form rose from the floor where it had been basking in the heat of the kiln and became the wolver Grimly.

“Good morning, Tori, and you too, your highness,” Grimly added with a bow to the pup who briefly waved her tail at him in acknowledgement.

“You know,” he said, “she’s getting rangy enough to assume human form, at least partway. Adolescence comes to our kind at about her age.”

Torisen didn’t tell him that he had waked during that troubled night to see a shaggy young girl curled up on the threshold, gnawing at her nails in her sleep.

Marc wiped big, gnarled hands on a rag. He had been setting in place another pane of glass made from materials gathered from the land around Kothifir, brick red shading to green for the copper and iron there. The margins and trade routes of the Wastes were slowly filling out as agents sent back materials native to each region. The Kendar had found that if he properly matched areas and held up the new pieces between ironwood plates, they melded at the edges without extra heat, allowing him to build his map within its upright frame. Thus the map grew in place, a rainbow of color against the eastern sky that only resembled a map to those who knew what they were looking at.

“Did you dream, my lord?”

Marc had noticed that if Torisen added a drop of his blood to the mix, the resulting piece glowed with an inner light. This in turn had given him the idea that the Highlord might use these patches to scry on the corresponding areas, Kothifir in particular. Marc, like Torisen, wanted news of Jame.

To scry, to spy, Torisen thought uneasily. Harn’s first assumption still stung, as did Burr’s initial role. Unlike every other lord in the Riverland, he didn’t use secret agents, hence his lack of information. As much as Jame had told him, though, in those last days they had been together after her graduation from Tentir, he hungered to know more, as if she were the dark side of his moon.

It was also strange that whereas he had once stayed awake for days, even weeks, to avoid certain nightmares, now he reluctantly courted them.

“Yes, I dreamed, but how much of it was true?”

“Anything about the lass?” asked Marc, sounding wistful.

Torisen tried to remember. Why was it that most dreams slipped away so quickly when he couldn’t forget the worst ones at all? “I think she fell down a hole, but wasn’t hurt, and there was something about kicking the head off a mechanical dog.”

Grimly grinned. “That sounds like Jame. What d’you suppose Harn made of the letter you sent him along with her?”

Dear Harn, it had read. Here is my sister. You know her propensities. Try to save as much of the Host as possible.

“You know he isn’t going to be comfortable having her there as a subordinate when she should be in command,” said Grimly.

“Not Jame.” Torisen was emphatic. “She doesn’t know enough.”

“Neither did you at first, but people reacted to you nonetheless, even Harn, for all his scorn. The Knorth blood is old and strong.”

Burr returned with an armload of the morning post before Torisen could answer. He regarded his servant’s burden with dismay; was he never to get to the bottom of these piles? Kirien had promised him a scrollsman scribe, an idea which he regarded with mixed feelings. Delegation of duty had never come easily to him, especially as Highlord when he no longer knew whom to trust. He drew out a parchment at random.

“Huh. Dari is still petitioning to be made lordan regent of the Ardeth.”

“Is the old lord in such bad shape?” asked Grimly.

“I hope not.”

But Adric was on the edge of going soft. If he died . . . no, when he died. The event was unthinkable, but inevitable.

“You confirmed young Timmon as his heir.”

“So I did and so I hold, although the boy is Pereden’s son. Jame sees something in him, though.”

“Then you trust the lass’s judgment.”

“To a point. She knew him at Tentir, but what does she know about politics?”

He pulled out another message and scanned it, frowning. “Here’s one from Adric himself. Huh. Still matchmaking.”

I would be less than a friend if I did not warn you, the note went on to say, and this part Tori did not read aloud to his friends. Your sister is a powerful Shanir. Others will be drawn to her, especially those Kendar whom you choose to bind so lightly, as though they would thank you for it. She may seduce them away despite themselves unless someone takes her firmly in hand. Now, my son Dari . . .

Torisen put the rest of the letter aside.

“The Knorth blood is old and strong,” Grimly had just said.

Did that apply to Jame too? But she was just a girl, and Adric was an old man, starting at shadows.

Still, the hair at the nape of his neck stirred.

“Father says it’s dangerous to teach you anything,” he had once told her. “Will the things you learn always hurt people?”

She had considered this. “As long as I learn, does it matter?”

“It does to me. I’m always the one who gets hurt. Father says you’re dangerous. He says you’ll destroy me.”

“That’s silly. I love you.”

“Father says destruction begins with love.”

Enough of that.

He drew out another note, broke the seal, and opened it.

“The Coman complain about the Edirr poaching on their side of the river. Sweet Trinity, can’t they manage their own territory?”

Marc cleared his throat. “It’s a bit more serious than that. I hear that sometimes one of the Lords Edirr leads a raid himself, for the sheer devilment of it.”

Torisen looked up sharply. “That’s dangerous. If Essien or Essiar should meet with an accident on Coman land, there’ll be Perimal to pay.”

Burr fumbled with the scrolls, then held out one. “This has the Danior seal.”

Torisen took it and read. “Cousin Holly reports sighting a yackcarn. Odd, that, so out of season. Also he killed a large, white wolf.”

“With blue eyes?” Grimly asked sharply.

“He doesn’t say. Surely he would if that were the case. Anyway, why to the north of us rather than to the south? It’s probably just a dire wolf from the hills.”

“Or it could be the Gnasher.”

They both looked at Yce, who was energetically scratching an ear. Grimly had come north to warn Torisen that the pup’s father—the King of the Deep Weald, formerly known in Kothifir as the Gnasher—had sworn that no heir of his would live and had been hunting Yce since the previous year.

“Be careful,” said Grimly. “That brute is a soul-stalker as well as hellishly strong and vicious.”

“Believe me, I remember.”

He took another scroll with a Jaran seal and raised an eyebrow. Usually he heard from that house through its lordan, Kirien, who in turn tended to communicate by far-writing with the Jaran Matriarch Trishien currently in residence in Gothregor’s Women’s Halls. He broke the seal, unrolled it, read, and laughed. “Listen to this:

“‘From Jedrak, temporary lord of the Jaran, to Torisen, Lord Knorth and Highlord of the Kencyrath, greetings.

“‘An event occurred recently that may amuse you. Or not. Word reached us that a certain golden willow had been sighted on the border between Falkirr and Restormir. Why it should still be rampant in midsummer, long after the season for arboreal drift, I cannot say, unless said tree has developed a taste for rambling. Willows are sometimes like that.

“‘At any rate, we tracked it down and were securing it—with much risk to life and limb, I might add—when up rode a party of Caineron, also on its trail. They protested that we were on Caineron land.’”

“Another poaching story,” said Grimly, “one way or the other.”

“Hush. ‘Luckily we had a singer with us who remembered an old song. Your revered great-grandfather once hunted this land while a guest of the Jaran. He had just killed a fat buck when up rode Caldane’s grandfather to claim that his arrow had struck it first. That may well have been, but the beast died on Jaran land, or so your great-grandfather decreed, conveniently close to a certain riverside cliff that serves as a notable landmark to this day. We were currently on top of it. “The Hunting of the Many-Tined Stag” is a lengthy song, full of witty flourishes poking fun at the Caineron, and the singer insisted that everyone listen to the end, even to join in on the choruses. Meanwhile, the willow snapped our bonds, churned its way across the Silver, and disappeared into the no-man’s-land on the other side between Wilden and Tentir. No one has seen it since.’”

“Good,” said the wolver as Torisen let the scroll roll up. “I’ve gotten rather fond of that tree galumphing around the landscape.”

“Not so good for the Caineron, though. Caldane is going to be furious. He already has a grudge against ‘singers’ fancies.’”

Grimly scratched his shaggy head. “I’m confused. For one thing, since when have Highlords been able to determine boundaries? You couldn’t between the Randir and the Danior.”

“I haven’t the authority that my great-grandfather had. Besides, east and west, domains are established by the Silver. North and south, however, boundaries depend more on the strength of the nearest houses. As you can imagine, the Caineron tend to push.”

“I think you could match any of your forebearers if you put it to the test. Anyway, how could a song stop anyone, much less a Caineron?”

“That,” said Torisen, “is part of the Kencyrath’s tangled legacy. I’ve told you how much knowledge we lost when we fled to this world. What we had left was largely oral, preserved by singers, with a few rare exceptions such as Anthrobar’s Scroll and Priam’s Codex, both since lost. Some of that has since been written down from memory, but much still exists only in songs and stories. You see the possibility for confusion. Once, we knew what was law and what was merely custom. Now that’s become muddled.”

“So the Jaran used a song as a legal precedent, and made the Caineron sit through the singing of it.”

“Exactly. They properly rubbed Caldane’s nose in his ignorance. Things get even more confusing when you consider the singer’s prerogative of the Lawful Lie. Take Ashe for example. I believe that she is true to the truth as she sees it, but how much of it is to be taken literally?”

“I see what you mean. We wolvers are singers too, and true to our songs, but one betrayed lover can speak for many, or many for one.”

“Just as Ashe makes one corpse speak for a company of the slain.”

“Aye, that’s certain,” said Marc. “That song of hers about the battle at the Cataracts . . . I never liked killing. Now I like it considerably less. Then too, she’s a haunt, neither quite alive nor quite dead. Her point of view is probably unique in our entire history. What are the odds, though, that several generations hence what she says now will be believed implicitly, especially if someone writes it down?”

“For people compelled to tell the truth,” said the wolver, “you’re in a fair mess, aren’t you?”

Burr gave an unexpected bark of laughter. “Tell us about it. M’lord, I haven’t mentioned it yet, but you have a visitor waiting below.”

“Only now you tell me?”

The Kendar shrugged. “I hoped that the Jaran scroll would explain him, but maybe there’s no need. He’s your new scribe, fresh from Mount Alban.”

Torisen sighed. “Then I had better greet him.”

He went down the northwest spiral stair, past the low-ceilinged hall that Marc now used to store coal to feed the fires of his two tower kilns. His steps slowed as he approached the ground-level death banner hall. Beyond a doubt, he needed help with his correspondences. As commander of the Southern Host he had trusted Harn Grip-hard—no, face it: hardly anyone could make out Harn’s writing but him. But Harn was Harn. This would be a stranger. A possible spy. He could now see the legs of someone wearing a blue robe, narrow back turned. The scribe was examining the death banners, specifically that of Kinzi, the last Knorth matriarch. Another step down, and Torisen saw that his hair was a wild shock of white.

The voice of his father woke in his soul-image with an outraged snarl: Of all insults . . . that Jaran bitch has sent you a filthy Shanir! Retreat now. Tell Burr to send him away.

Too late. The other had heard his foot on the stair and turned around with a tentative smile.

It was his cousin Kindrie.

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