Below you will find the first two chapters of my novel A Call of Moonhart, available to pre-order NOW on Amazon. For sale beginning 15 May 2017.
May you be favored by Na the Goddess
I couldn’t run fast enough.
Memories nipped at my heels like wolves their prey, sucking the strength from my legs. I focused my attention on the next tree, the next curve on the beaten-dirt trail we followed, the squawks of starlings startled into movement by this silent band of running women. But such distractions lasted a few moments at best. Then the nightmare scenes rose up again and I gasped for breath, stumbled, and urged my legs to greater speed.
Dreams should fade with the light of day, washed into shadows with bright sunlight or held at bay by the arms of a lover. But this was no mere dream: the Goddess Na had reached into our sleep and crushed us to the ground as if our blankets had sprouted roots deep and fast into the soil. None of us could move until She had imparted Her Calling. Into my mind Na had cascaded scenes and sensations, a deluge of memory flooding my will like water sub-merging stones, each stone a terrible event: wanton slaughter, empty ekarras, nameless perversions from the lowlands creeping ever closer to the crags.
I shook my head and looked up again, again outward away from the rising tide of the Calling. But despite the bright glow of the early season sun, the events She had shouted into my mind with Her whispers fouled my perception of the world like smoke fouls the air, coating what had been vibrant and healthy with an ash of utter, desperate loneliness.
Just after midday, Tiera called a halt. We’d eaten as we could on the run, choking down waybread and pemmican, but even hunters need to stop, regain gasping breaths, and relieve urgent bladders. I almost smiled as I squatted: some things can be counted on when everything else has been uprooted, like eating and pissing.
Our hunthounds flopped themselves to the ground, tongues lolling, resting but alert. I envied them. They saw this morning’s run as excitement, another kind of chase and so they waited, looking to us for whatever came next. I looked to my stealna and lied to myself, for a brief moment, that she had the answers, that she knew what lay ahead just like she knew the well-worn paths we ran along. But Tiera’s haunted eyes told me she’d only seen enough of the dream to be terrified, not Called. I closed my eyes and leaned against Sarae, my huntmate, finding solace in our shared strength.
“So who is it?” Eanna’s unwelcome voice lashed out. “Who has the whole of the Calling?”
“What makes you think tis one of us?” Tiera asked, her voice more calm than I’d have expected. “All of Moonhart dreamed the Calling last night. Perhaps every eknos in the uplands.” She gasped, her voice catching. “Could be any.”
“It wasn’t me!” Eanna sounded as if she’d been accused of something vile.
“No one asked,” Sarae said.
“You!” I felt a shadow fall upon me and I opened my eyes. Eanna stood before me, hands on her hips. “Is it you? Tell me!”
“Are you giving up the hunt to become shaman, Eanna?” Sarae asked. “No one else has the right to demand details of a Calling dream.” Sarae reached for my hand and squeezed it, then lay back against me, her eyes closed as if that settled the matter. It was a fine hope but a vain one, where Eanna was concerned.
“Why don’t you say something?” she demanded of me. “There’s no botha for you to run and hide in like a startled chipmunk. Say something!”
Cold swept through me, dread and fury both, and I was on my feet and moving towards Eanna without conscious thought. She stepped back from me, her eyes wide. “Don’t ask me! I’m no one special to be Called by Na.” My voice caught and I stepped back. I looked away from Eanna and whispered: “I’m just a hunter, like you.”
“Not like me!” It was Eanna’s turn to anger and she reached out and grabbed my tunic, her greater size and strength pulling me off balance. “I wouldn’t have missed my shot and made that roe buck suffer. It’s not my fault that Na’s angry with us. With you!”
I peeled her hands from my tunic and pushed her away. “Do you think I wanted that deer to suffer? The wind blew my shot wrong!”
“Eanna!” Tiera stepped between us. “This Calling has nothing to do with the death of one deer, no matter how clumsy the manner of its killing.”
“No? Tiera, you even said at the time that Na wouldn’t suffer a hunter treating Her animals so. We’re all taught that they provide us food at Her pleasure.”
Eanna reached past Tiera’s shoulder to point her finger in my face. “I dreamt packs of wolves attacking herds of ibex, sleuths of bears, and calls of moonharts, but they didn’t eat. They just left the carcasses, bloody and torn, upon a plain to rot in the sun.” Eanna choked, then turned away and heaved up the waybread she’d just eaten. Labraitha reached out and gathered Eanna in, holding her as she threw up bile and grief and fear.
“I saw that, too,” Tiera said. “But more besides. When the Touch passed I was no shaman, but even I can divine that Na didn’t send a Calling to task us for one wayward shot.” She looked closely into my eyes and I stood there, silently willing Tiera to forego asking me what I’d seen. I couldn’t say. Not yet. “But there’s more to tell than even I dreamed. So, let us up and make haste. We’ll reach the ekarra tonight. With luck, Feanna will tell us what it means.” She reached down and gathered up her pack, the hun-thounds jumping up, eager to be away. The rest of us took up our things as determined, if less eager, than our hounds.
Tiera loped off down the path and we, her hunters, fell in line behind her, the hounds ranging out around us. For the rest of the day we ran. By the day’s end, fatigue did for me what conscious effort had not and kept the fearful images at bay. I felt un-hunter-like as I longed for nothing less than to be held by my mother amidst the throng of our eknos, a child-like hope that I might set aside, at least for a night, what I’d dreamt and what it meant. With both eagerness and trepidation, we entered the ekarra and hurried towards its center, where all of Moonhart eknos had gathered.
We paused at the top of the shallow bowl that held the Speaker’s Mound and the central fire. Surrounding this, each with an unobstructed view, the family fires ranged up the gentle hillsides of the bowl. Those speaking from the Mound could be heard by all in the bowl. Unless, of course, the four hundred families all talked at once, as happened often. As happened then. Shouts went up when those gathered saw us. Hundreds of people lurched to their feet, their voices a-buzz, as if we’d disturbed a hornet’s nest.
Tiera led us down to the central fire to where the ekma and other elders of Moonhart waited.
“Good that you’re here, Tiera.” Siova had been ekma all of my life – more than a score of years – but I hadn’t thought of her as old until that evening. The glow of the fire made her hair appear even more gray and the flickering light seemed to leave lines upon her round face. “The other two hunting bands are still out and we hoped we’d have at least one stealnan here.” Still, Siova stood tall as if in defiance of her own worry as she pulled the lean and wiry Tiera to a warm embrace and then she reached out and took each of our hands in turn.
When she came to me, she took my hand and scanned my face, searching. I hid a scowl but, sooner than was strictly proper, I pulled my hand out of the ekma’s grasp and turned away, anxious to hide what I feared showed all too plainly in my eyes. It would come out soon enough.
“Are any of you hurt or in need of comfort?” Corra, the hetairan, asked from behind the ekma, then smiled an understanding smile. “Or any more comfort than the rest of us?” Her warm, car-ing eyes looked to each of us in turn, but I avoided her gaze as well, looking instead for my mother.
“Na’s Bidden hasn’t come forward yet?” Tiera asked.
“No,” Siova replied. “She may be from one of the outlying fami-ly groups or at one of the seasonal camps, or she might arrive at any moment.” Siova stopped and looked back at the other elders of Moonhart. They looked wary, as if they feared further portents. “Unless any of you hold new, as yet unspoken, parts of Na’s Call-ing, Her message is frightening but not immediate.”
I pulled Sarae to me and whispered in her ear. “Does she assure us or seek assurance from us?” Amazement shook my voice.
Sarae shrugged, her eyes wide and troubled.
Siova drew herself upright, her generous body an imposing sight. “Visit the shaman soon to tell her your part of the Calling dream. Reunite with your families. When Feanna knows more, we’ll gather and discuss.”
Goban came up then, as if he’d been waiting for the ekma to be done with us. He pulled Sarae into a close embrace and I smiled at them. The comfort they took from each other gave me some com-fort, too. Goban reached out with one hand and I gave it a squeeze. Behind him I saw that the cearnan, Aichae, had stepped down from the Speaker’s mound to welcome her daughter Sarae home. Aichae was an age with my mother and had led the provid-ers for two hands of years.
I looked again for my own mother and didn’t see her. She was often gone from the ekarra to trade or travel but, on this night, I’d hoped that I wouldn’t be alone in our botha. When Aichae had kissed Sarae I tapped her on the shoulder. “Aichae, where’s my mother?”
Aichae reached out to me. “Ah, Rhia. Selwe left with a hand of others some days ago to trade with the sowers.”
“Now?” I stilled, the familiar feeling of separation yawning open between me and my eknos.
“The sowers offered and we had furs to trade, so they went. I’m sorry, Rhia.” Aichae pulled me into her embrace, pulled me back from the abyss of estrangement that so often gaped at my feet. I clung to her as I hadn’t since I was a young girl.
Aichae’s long hair tickled my nose. In that way, at least, the mother was unlike the daughter. Sarae never allowed her hair to grow out as much as half an inch but the provider leader’s hair fell as a dark cloud upon her shoulders. “I would expect they’ll return any day. I’m sure they all felt Na’s Calling and will hasten back.”
She gave me another squeeze and then held me at arm’s length. “With Selwe away, you’ll share our fire again, won’t you Rhia? I’ll set food aside.”
How could I tell her that what I wanted most was to escape the din of fear and uncertainty to my botha on the edge of the ekarra? Ha. Like a startled chipmunk. “Yes, of course. Thank you.”
“Do you wish to call upon Feanna yet tonight? I’ve no doubt you had a powerful Calling.”
At the reminder of Na’s Call, I swallowed hard. When I spoke, I heard a childish petulance creep into my voice. “Ah, Aichae. Not you, too.”
She gave me her stern look. “Humph. You don’t deny it. You’ll talk to her soon?”
“Of course. But Tiera’s had us running all day and I haven’t had a chance to breathe, let alone think. Might I set down my pack and perhaps change my clothes?”
Sarae looked at her mother and then nodded to me. “Go. Stow your gear and get into something clean. Come back soon or I’ll come looking for you.”
I smiled at her and left them to their reunion. I spent less time than I would have liked washing my arms and face with the water warmed and set aside for that task, and then walked to the botha I shared with my mother while Koudu, my favorite of the hearth-hounds, trotted alongside me. Her tail wagged encouragingly, eager to sooth the spirits of her people upset by the Call. When I entered the botha, Koudu settled down outside beside the door, head on her paws, as if to be there in case of need, as willing to provide sol-ace as a hetairi. The botha felt damp, unused, even though my mother had been gone only a few days. I shivered in the dark, chiding myself for my childish needs and yet her absence unnerved me. Unlike almost everyone in Moonhart – save my mother – I usually enjoyed time spent by myself.
The thick bark that made up the skin of the structure kept out the cold but also much of the light, especially once I let the heavy leather flap close over the entrance. I reached for the shelf that held the collection of small oil lamps, found one by touch, and struck steel to flint and lit the first lamp. I lit the others from that one and set them about the botha and soon enough, their steady flames took the chill from the air.
I changed out of the stiff leather tunic and heavy woolen trews into softer and more comfortable clothing, trying to leave my misgivings on the floor with the discarded stuff. It didn’t work. Many days on the hunt followed by the anguished dash home had left me sweaty and tired. I stretched out on the platform, wondering if I might seek the oblivion of sleep, when Sarae slid aside the leather door and came inside.
“Mother says your food is getting cold. Are you coming?”
“Just falling over asleep would be frowned upon?” I sighed. “Or hiding?”
She pulled me to my feet and into a hug. “I know you’re not hiding.”
“But you used to spend every moment you could listening to the stories of the old hunters. You don’t do that any more.” She let me go and stood back. “It’s been noticed.”
“But I’m not hiding!” I turned away, fiddling with the lamps as if their flames needed urgent adjustment.
“I know, my love. You’re practicing: with your sling or your bow or you’re calling the birds. But you do it alone.”
“I’m not as good as I need to be. They’re expecting – ”
“They’ve always expected too much of you. Now that you’re a hunter, even more eyes are on you. I know.” She sighed. “It breaks my heart. First the ekma and other elders set you apart with their unfounded expectations and then you retreat even further from the rest of us in trying to fulfill those expectations. You don’t have to do that.”
“No?” I wanted to believe her but she didn’t feel the looks, see the disappointment mirrored on so many faces. I turned back to face her. “Eanna will tell everyone that it was my poor hunting, the suffering that I caused, that brought about the Call.”
“Yes, most like. But no one gives Eanna much credence.” Sarae bloomed into that grin that always takes my heart and gives it a shake. “We’ll just have to give Eanna another explanation for your long absences.” Sarae touched my face and pulled me close for a kiss, soft and urgent.
Her honest, urgent, desire brought a storm of emotions and tears like rain to my eyes. “We’ve run all day, I’m sweaty and dirty, the Cearnan is expecting us to come and share her fire, and Na has Called us to some as-yet unseen fate. And you want to share pleasure with me? Now?” I laughed and kissed her again. “Do you pester Goban when he’s busiest?”
She grinned, a faint dimple creasing her cheek. “He says I find him most attractive when he’s doing something else, like tanning leather.”
“Ugh. I know.” And now it was my turn to wear a sly grin. “We’ve discussed the matter.”
Sarae turned to stare at me, her eyes wide. “No!”
“Oh, yes.” I grinned at her. “We’ve shared many stories since you took him as a mate. Is it true you like him to—”
She stopped my words with a kiss. “Remind me not to take a lover and a mate who are friends.”
“Yes, Badger.” I’d called her that ever since we were children. She’d argue with me and hold her ground on any point as if she had claws to dig into the soil.
She affected a huge sigh and pouted. “We should go eat. Mother’s worried about you. Says you’re too thin.”
“She’s always said that. She waits for me to grow up big and strong like the daughter of her blood.” I pulled Sarae into another kiss.
“Now, don’t mock the cearnan.” Sarae rested her hand on my chest. “If you’re not careful, she’ll have Goban build a botha that’ll fit all three of us, just so she can have you close in case you need feeding.” I turned away to seek a robe that I wanted, that my mother often wore on cool nights like this, so early in the Burning season.
Sarae sat herself sideways on my sleeping platform, her feet sticking out over the side. “How about if we go together to see the shaman tomorrow morning?”
I turned to her and she winked at me. I sighed. “Aichae or Siova?”
“Truth be told, while they have traded off giving me Meaning-ful Glances since I returned, twas Goban who suggested that you may just need a friend to lean on.” Her eyes turned all dewy when she mentioned his name and I had to smile.
“As I said, he’s a good friend.” I turned back to the pile of cloth-ing and hides. “You don’t suppose mother took that one bearskin robe with her, do you?” At the sound of rustling, I turned around and Sarae held out the robe to me.
“You mean, the one I’ve been sitting on?” She rose and took my hand. “Come. I’m hungry.”
The crowd around the cearnan’s fire near the bottom of the bowl called out to me when we joined them and I began to relax in their welcome. Sarae and I were handed large plates filled with a variety of good things to eat and we sat and ate and listened to everyone talking all around us.
No matter what track their tales took, every story circled back like a sower lost in the deepest woods, to talking about Na’s Call. Some spoke of the dream they’d experienced and some spoke of how they weren’t ready to talk about their Call. Sarae gasped at each new theme added to the greater Calling, each element of the riddle laid bare. But without the thread that tied all the elements together in order, each story, each dream, amounted to nothing more than the uneasy sense of gathering storm with no shelter in sight. When asked, Sarae refused to speak her dream, saying that the shaman should hear it first. I borrowed that excuse and mollified the Elders by mentioning that Sarae and I would visit the shaman first thing in the morning.
“I look forward to seeing you, Rhia.” I hadn’t realized that Fe-anna stood nearby. “Come early, child, and we’ll have te’na together.”
“Certainly, shaman.” Sarae squeezed my hand even as Goban spoke up.
“Have you discovered Na’s Bidden yet, shaman?”
Feanna frowned and shook her head. “No.”
Breaths that had been held escaped from disappointed lips.
“And I doubt I’ll know the purpose of Na’s Calling until I know whom Na Bids. We have to be patient.” The shaman smiled in a way she meant to be reassuring. “Not every Calling is tragic.”
Goban shook his head as she walked away. “If she can counsel patience, I suppose I can be patient. My fragment of the dream tells me nothing but that I’m not Na’s Bidden.” He shivered. “Ai, but that must be a terrible thing: Na Calling you out of a sound sleep and a warm botha.”
Aichae had been watching me while Goban spoke. “Goban, Rhia’s mother received Na’s Bidding, the year before Rhia was born. Does Selwe seem so terrible to you?”
“I’d forgotten that.” He gazed at me for a moment. “Rhia, what she was Bid to do?”
I shrugged and set my plate aside. “I’m not sure. She’s never said much about it.”
Aichae’s eyes lingered on my face before she spoke up again. “Selwe not being here, I’ll tell the tale in her stead.” She stopped and looked deep into the fire. “At least, as much as I know of it, for it’s in my heart that the tale is not yet ended.”
I shivered and pulled the bearskin robe closer about my shoulders.
“Selwe and I were close when we were young, although not huntmates, Rhia, as you and Sarae are. I’d been out with one of the cearna when a Calling came upon us all. Twas more than halfway through the Gathering season, but the dream showed the leaves heavy and deep green, and the lowland fields golden in the sun. Aye, just as some have seen in this most recent Calling, the dream showed us the lowlands. Then, however, we were shown broken stone buildings and many heard great and sonorous voices speaking. It may have been Na or even An, but we couldn’t recall the words once awake, even though we’ve never forgotten how those words felt. Twas as if the words echoed through our souls.”
For some moments, Aichae looked not at us, but deep within the fire as if she sought the sounds, the words of those voices. “When we awoke, the cearnan hurried us back to the ekarra, much like Tiera did to you. The shaman determined, once he heard from all of us, that Selwe had experienced all of the Calling dream.” She looked off to the east, away from our fire and the ekarra. “The shaman divined that Na Bid Selwe to travel alone into the lowlands and seek out a particular religious house, built to honor Na the Goddess. But naclavs and honoring the Goddess had fallen into disfavor amongst the sowers long ago and this religious house lay in ruins. She had to find this place and bring back some-thing from it, something that would be of great value to the eknos.”
I told myself that it meant nothing that Aichae’s gaze fell on me. “Your mother came back with items of great beauty and signif-icance from the naclav, as well as great knowledge of the lowlands from her travels, knowledge that she has added to every year since.” She sighed and shuddered. “It must be hard, to be so often separated from the eknos. I don’t know that I could do it.”
“Did she do as Na had Bid her, then?” Goban looked between Aichae and myself. “Or is that why she keeps going back to the lowlands? Does she still seek something there?”
“She did as she was Bid.” But then, in a voice quiet and uncer-tain, Aichae added: “She must have.”
As a youth, I remember well the Equinox celebrations. Pa haggled with the merchants that arrived from all over Anacarra while ma visited the grocers. My sister and I sought out the Players. I could envision no life finer nor more romantic than to be one of the Unencumbered, traveling the length and breadth of Anacarra, honored and feted everywhere they went.
– Diary of Kalen dirAila, Mayor of Rillsherd during the reign of Ailnaric I
Bainellen has long been an ill-luck province for me. Fool that I am, I took myself and my troupe of Players there anyway, hurrying south down muddy roads out of Maukellen province in order to arrive in a goodly-sized town before the equinox celebrations. I had thought Rillsherd would suit our needs and we stood just out-side the gates to the town proper.
My Players put on their clothes for the entrance spectacle: garish and gaudy, a garden’s worth of colors on each sturdy and spangled tunic. The loose clothing allowed for easy movement but the billowing sleeves were cuffed and leggings fitted snugly to the skin so that juggled balls or clubs or knives might not go awry.
Oean rummaged within our wagon and I wondered what instrument he would deem fit for playing us in. Nine years ago I’d coaxed Oean away from his troupe of Unencumbered Musicians and I trust he didn’t regret it. He’s a fine musician and a magnificent wordsmith, but the troupe he’d been with had asked no more of their word-wright but that he compose the occasional short lyric or bawdy verse. When he sought more he sought me out.
I laughed when on this day he pulled out the Glanellen pipes. He slung the strap over his shoulder, and began to huff and puff into the blowstick to engorge the bladder, causing the pipes to squawk as the drone came up. His nimble fingers flew across the two chanters and brought forth such a happy – and loud – tune as begged to be danced to. Oean’s light brown eyes seemed to gleam gold with rapture and his usually-placid features seemed lit as if from within.
“I can’t sing to that!” Beathen called out, clapping Oean on the shoulder. Oean shrugged, never missing a trill or an ornament. Beathen drew in a deep breath that swelled a chest that seemed to have been made by the cooper’s art, and began to bellow a bawdy song all at odds with the reel that Oean played.
At my words, Beathen fell to laughing. “So, Dughal. Juggling for me, then?”
I nodded. We all had our jobs within the troupe Bardeelin. Mine own was the task of setting the stage, arranging my players where their talents would best serve the play. Or, as in this case, the spectacle. “You and Sionn trade passes while following Camran on the wagon. Barrol will take tumbling runs between you.”
“Ah, that’s how it’s to be, is it?” Sionn hunched himself over so that he peered at the young Barrol through a fall of long dark hair. “Then it will be knives we’ll be throwing,” he said in a thick Maukellen accent, so at odds with his normal light Glanellen speech. Sionn’s crooked smile blossomed forth as he tossed his hair back. “You’d best be spry, youngling.”
Of course, since Barrol was but five years younger than the twenty year old Sionn, Barrol just scoffed. He reached up to tie his blond hair – worn long in imitation of Sionn’s – back off of his face. “Aim for Beathen and not me. I’ll not get in the way!”
“Good lad,” I said. “Sionn, I’ll thank you not to perforate our youngest performer. We’ll need him for Playing later today.”
Sionn affected his most innocent expression. I marveled that he could cultivate such a look given that he and innocence were but scarcely acquainted. His eyes went soft and just a bit wide, and up-on his cheek just a hint of his most dangerous dimple showed.
“Dughal! You wound me.”
“Just don’t wound me!” Beathen smoothed his hands down across his well-muscled chest. “This tunic has been mended enough so I’ll thank you not to put a hole in it. I wouldn’t want to appear unkempt before the fine people of Rillsherd.”
Sionn rolled his eyes and turned away, rummaging in one of the compartments beneath our tall wagon. He brought out the juggling knives that were both very shiny and very dull. Oh, the tip could pierce the hand that caught it ill, but the edges were no more sharp than the clubs. With a casual ease, Sionn flipped three of the knives at Beathen, who spun them into a cascade.
Sionn often reminded me of my older brother. Our ages had been much as Barrol and Sionn’s were, but alas, Beccán had never gotten much older. He fell victim to the Anwroth when he was but twenty and three. Sometimes my memories of Beccán led me to give Sionn more latitude than I should have. It may be at times that I was unjustly harsh, no doubt for the same reason.
Oean’s song continued to spill all around us. Beathen and Sionn began passing the knives back and forth while Barrol stretched and readied himself for tumbling.
“To the top then?” Camran asked.
I turned to the oldest member of Bardeelin. “Up you go. ‘From yon lofty perch survey all that would pass before you,’” I quoted from the Old Poet. “Keep a weather eye out, my old friend. I would compare your assessment with mine own.”
“Relax, Dughal.” Camran squinted up towards where the sun glowed bright in a cloudless sky. The silver that shot through his once-black hair gleamed in the intense light. “No storms coming our way.”
“Optimism?” I asked, projecting astonishment into my voice. “From you, Camran?” I held my hand to his forehead. “Do you fever?”
“I never fever!” He laughed as he hauled himself up to the seat, far above the ground. “No, Dughal, I’m no moonhart to change my hide with the seasons. I just have more fond memories of Bainellen province than you do.”
And more dire, too. His long-dead wife Avrea had hailed from Kairill, an important town in this province. As dour as the oldest member of Bardeelin was normally, any thought of Avrea eased his mood and I’d not sour it with mine own misgivings. I nodded and slapped the side of the wagon and we moved into Rillsherd.
Rillsherd teemed with three times its normal numbers as those in the outlying crofts and carrins made their way into town for the Equinox festival and a brief respite from the hard toil of readying the fields for planting. Even expecting that, the size of the crowds surprised me. In the ten years since Bardeelin last played in Rillsherd, it had grown most prosperous. Unlike many areas of Bainellen, Rillsherd seemed to have regained a vitality, a burgeon-ing growth, despite the repeated reaving of this area by the Anwroth. It looked little like the cross-roads hamlet we’d last played.
With Oean’s piping behind me, I strode along the main thoroughfare calling out at every opportunity: “People of Rillsherd! We are Bardeelin, Unencumbered Players of Anacarra! Be entertained! Be amazed! Be edified! We shall perform a play for your delight this very afternoon.” Between the noise of the pipes and the two huge horses pulling our distinctive wagon, the milling crowd made way for us – some with smiles and some with frowns. These I’d expected.
I was not prepared for the glares sent our way by the members of His Own.
We’d first met His Own in the north, but this ascetic sect of worshipers of the lonely God were few in Maukellen province. Here in Bainellen they flocked much more thickly. I counted a dozen before we reached the town’s center and I began to worry: ascetics seldom see the benefit in diverting entertainment. One of His Own cast me an inscrutable glance and then ran off ahead of us towards the center of town. I began to wonder if I’d chosen the right town to play in.
Throughout all of this, my expression scarce changed, my patter varied as needs be, and the wagon wound through the crooked streets of Rillsherd until we reached the main inn at the center of town: a solid, two story building with a large courtyard surround-ed on all three sides by a low gray stone wall. Canvas booths of every description huddled close outside those walls, with merchants selling all manner of goods and services. I noted where a tinker’s stall stood so that I might send Sionn there to have some of our properties mended.
The inn itself saw brisk commerce as thirsty farmers took ad-vantage of the inn’s ale and food ready to eat. The wagon lumbered by me and I nodded my approval. Sionn walked nearest to the wagon facing forward while casually tossing knives over his shoulder. Beathen, looking both elegant and the epitome of calm nonchalance, caught the knives even as he flung his own at Sionn’s back. No one ever seemed to realize that Sionn’s gaze stayed focused upon a collection of mirrored pieces affixed to the wagon. Few could pick those out from amongst the bright paint and other gaudy bits adorning our cart, but Sionn used that collection of jumbled mirrors to keep his eyes upon Beathen and the hurtling knives.
Barrol took a fast tumbling run, flipping between the flight of knives and landing beside me with a grand flourish. More gasps and scattered applause erupted and my young scamp bowed low and elegantly, as if to the richest carrinan or carrinanen.
Barrol had been a Player since before his birth, carried upon the stage in his mother’s womb. Lona had been the last woman player of Bardeelin, as fine an actor as any I’ve ever seen. Her per-formances had made strong men weep and timid lasses fill with resolution. But the edict against female performers had fallen not long after she was delivered of Barrol and she never set foot upon the stage after. A great pity, that.
It was some tribute that Barrol now played many of the roles his mother had performed before him, and I credited him with a studious reading of his mother’s notes in the margins of her scripts. I had great hopes that someday he’d play the roles with the same depth of meaning and experience as his mother had in her prime. For now, he was coltish and lanky, with a placid alto voice, long blond hair, and the deep blue eyes of those that hailed from Danellen.
Oean’s tune ended. As often happened when he was the sole musician the applause, when it inevitably and enthusiastically came, startled him. He blinked and blushed brightly as he took a hesitant and self-conscious bow.
Beathen dropped the knives at his feet and both he and Sionn turned and bowed, acknowledging the applause. I stepped between them and Sionn gave me a challenging look, his dimple sharp. “You’ve been practicing,” I said sotto voce to Sionn before calling out to the audience: “We welcome you all, for we are Bardeelin, Unencumbered Players of Anacarra. If you enjoyed this merest taste of what we can do, please tell all of your friends to come join us the second hour after noon when we will perform a play for you all.”
“Tell your friends to join us,” Sionn echoed. “Tell your enemies to try the mussels at the fishmonger’s tent.” Sionn scrunched up his face and grabbed his nose. “Whew!”
The audience laughed and some of my anxiety ebbed away, for if they laughed at such a well-traveled joke they were well-enough disposed to Players. I bowed once more to those gathered and turned to gather my men around me.
Camran had climbed down from the high seat and stood at my shoulder. “Sionn will have to work in some praises of fishmongers in the play today.”
I nodded. “I know. I own he finds as much fun in that as in the insults before.”
The crowds dispersed once they were sure there would be nothing more from us for the moment. My men put away their entrance frippery and properties: Oean set the pipes lovingly amidst his extensive collection of instruments while Sionn placed the knives among the equally numerous juggling implements.
The inn took up all of the south side of the courtyard, so I had Camran maneuver the wagon into place on the northern side. Had there been fewer people about, or the promise of fewer for our performance, I’d have had us take the east so as to have the full of the sun and capture all who would come out of the inn. Today, with so many people about, finding an audience wouldn’t be the problem that managing it would be. We would be lighted well enough by the sun as it moved west, and furthest from the door so as to not impede the innkeeper in his custom.
Said hosteller had just come out of his establishment and bustled across the courtyard to us, his powerful hands wiping themselves on the once-white towel at his waist. A large man, with a great shock of black hair and a prodigious set of whiskers, he huffed and puffed across the space. I had moved to intercept him when someone took hold of my arm.
The man importuning me wore the same clothing as the rest of His Own I’d met in my travels – black trews surmounted by a black tunic surmounted by a black wide-brimmed hat with a single band of red upon the crown of the hat and at the cuffs of his tunic – but I could tell he was no simple religious. The cloth and cut of his garments was finer, the shoes and hat more delicately buffed, and the way he peered down at me even though we were of a height told me that this man played a far larger role in this town than I’d expected. I caught Camran’s eye and he moved towards the inn-keeper while I allowed the man at my shoulder to wait but one moment more. I directed Sionn and Barrol to begin their work of converting our tall wagon into our stage. With that effort com-menced, I turned my attention to the man beside me. His eyes had narrowed and his mouth pursed so that it disappeared beneath the combined onslaught of beard and mustache.
“Good day to you, my friend. I do apologize for keeping you waiting. It is a task of no little effort to create the proper space for a performance, but we should be ready by this afternoon.”
My respectful greeting caused his beard’s angry advance to re-treat a bit. “Your effort will be for naught without my leave.”
For over 500 years, during both the Rici and the Republic, the law has stated that no local power may deny Unencumbered Players their right – and duty – to perform. My interlocutor could not be ignorant of such a fact but he might be willing to challenge it. I knew better than to scorn a leader in his own town, for whatever else he might be, this man was far more important to his neighbors than any troupe of Players.
“By all means…?”
“Goodman Tornan.” He gave me his name as if reluctant to part with it. “I am mayor of Rillsherd and a deacon of His Own.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Goodman Tornan.” I bowed deeply. I judged he knew to a fine degree just how much deference he was owed. “It has been some time since last we played Rillsherd. Any guidance you might have for us would be appreciated. We seek only to fulfill the role that the God of sheaves has ordained for us. As, no doubt, do you yourself.”
His mustaches scowled at me for that. Tornan was some dozen years or more my senior. At least, so I judged based on the deepening lines around his hard, blue eyes. He reached up and took hold of the lapels of his tunic and stood up straight as he peered down at me.
“A man who knows his place and seeks to understand what the lonely God has ordained for him may, at last, come to wisdom. So, allow me to instruct you in this: the town of Rillsherd does not appreciate Players or their wanton ways within the town limits.”
“Oh?” I frowned, confused. “Then how do you hear news of the other parts of Anacarra? How do your people learn of the glo-ries of our past? Why the Old Poet himself said that Players provide the living chronicle of the times.”
Tornan’s eyes glittered under his thunderous dark eyebrows. “Be that as it may, the people of Rillsherd are Godly folk.”
“There is no conflict, Goodman. We’re more than happy to perform a play that is as moral as it is edifying.” The set of his jaw told me he was not convinced. “Why, it is well known that – for the simpler folk, you understand, not one such as yourself – words of a most serious nature are most oft heard and remembered when presented as part of a spectacle. Sermons spoken from the Priest’s spiral may be righteous indeed, but will they be remembered?”
“And your plays are remembered? They are so much fluff and lies.”
For a moment, words failed me. But as he began to turn away, I blurted out: “To be sure, some plays are just such fluff, I do confess it.” Tornan turned back, smiling as if he’d scored a point upon me. “But the best of the poets and playwrights knew that art should provide usefulness in its delights. Such a one we will present today.”
“The playwright? Tell me, who would you play?” Tornan stood, hands upon his lapels, waiting.
I did a quick mental inventory of the plays that we might do for this vexatious man. “We’ll present a play by Hereric.” I thought, if any playwright could win his approval, it would be the monk turned poet from the darkest days of the Rici.
Tornan seemed to consider this. Finally, he nodded. “Well, Player, I’ll give you a chance. It may be true that the rustics from the crofts might remember your message better than mine.” He moved closer to me, his smile all of teeth and nothing of mirth. “But woe to you should I judge your message heretical.”
“Oh, have no fear, Goodman.” I gave a small bow. “It is what I do.”
“Hmph. One other thing. While I will grant you your time up-on the stage, I’ll not have you playing more depraved fare off of it.”
He stood impassive but resolute, yet I couldn’t for the life of me take his meaning. “I’m sorry. What?”
His nose crinkled in disgust. “Since you affect to not understand me, let me be plain. I won’t tolerate any sexual depravity nor any woman or girl importuned by your lusty fellows.”
I struggled to keep my mouth from gawping open at his description of us. It wasn’t wholly untrue, of course, but rarely so specifically or insultingly applied. I closed my mouth and smiled with re-assurance. “I daresay the fellows in my troupe are no more lusty than the next man.”
Tornan glared. “I know all the men in this town. I don’t know yours and all hear of the licentiousness of Players. It’s said that in the western provinces women act like harlots with actors, and I’ll not have you thinking to treat the good women of Rillsherd in similar manner.”
He was serious! Of course, players had long been sought out as partners in pleasure. In the western provinces, yes, but in the east, too. Until now, if Tornan’s attitude reflected the prevailing one. “I assure you, we will importune no one.”
“I have your word?”
“My word, Goodman.” He seemed somewhat mollified if not actually convinced.
Camran arrived at my side even as another black-clad man approached Tornan. Camran shared a glance with me as Tornan’s companion shared a whispered word with him. Tornan’s eyes grew wide and then narrowed as he looked back at me. He nodded and his fellow ran off. Tornan turned back to us. “We will be here to see what lessons you will present today, Bardeelin.” With that, he left us, turning on his heel with no word of leave-taking.
“What a peculiar man.” I shook my head as if to shake off the contagion of the man’s foul mood and turned to Camran. “He threatened to deny us leave to play!”
Camran stroked his beard, pausing as he considered his words. “He might well have. Our innkeeper told me that Tornan rules over the sacred and secular both. The priest in the Temple Fields is said to look to him and not the Hierarch in Bierncarra.”
“These His Own are so strong in the town?”
“In the province. The innkeeper said that all in Bainellen look to this Prophet: priest and plowman both.” Camran smiled, the lines around his eyes deepening. “Our friend the innkeeper was much put out by this. I’d wager he feels displaced from what had been his own position in Rillsherd.”
“I’d know which way the wind blows, Camran.”
“As I am vane, let me tell you then. The innkeeper feared Tornan would forbid us our Playing. In part to demonstrate his strength, in part to discomfit the innkeeper. Except that Tornan is distracted.”
My heart began to beat slower and my hands unclenched. “Let us hope he stays distracted and not think to turn his gaze on us again.”
We walked towards the wagon. Camran pitched his voice low so that only I could hear amidst the bustle of the inn yard: “It’s said aloud that Tornan’s eldest daughter died of mischance.”
I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. These were clouds I’d not expected to see in such a fair town on such a faire day. “And what is said in whispers?”
“The darker whispers say that she seduced Tornan’s lieutenant, a deacon and family man, and has run off for shame. Others say that she simply bedded some poor crofter, a man not of Tornan’s choosing, and has run off to be with him.”
I forced a hearty smile on my lips and slapped Camran on the shoulders. “Well, then. We’ll not play The Rape of Sarru.” The only reaction to my jest was a single grizzled eyebrow arcing up-wards. “Keep your eyes and ears open, old friend. With your help, we’ll not misstep.”
As each had their place in the entrance spectacle, so too did my Players have their roles in preparation of playing. Rillsherd had been, until recently at least, too small to have built an amphitheater. So, my two youngest opened our wagon up to become our stage. A masterpiece of the wainwright’s art, the wagon was so cleverly designed that in under thirty minutes we had a proper stage on which to perform wheresoever we might be. Few such wagons still rolled across the Anacarran countryside, but Bardeelin had one and it never failed to impress.
While Sionn and Barrol prepared our stage, Camran arranged with the innkeeper for every manner of things necessary to our performance: for space, for patrons, for notice, for our food and lodging. As has been the custom since the days of the Rici, we wouldn’t be charged for our room or board, provided that we told the news of the wider world to all who asked and performed songs, plays, and tales. Had we with us those who didn’t perform such as women or servants, then Camran would have set with the innkeeper the fee for their food and lodging. But none such had traveled with Bardeelin since just after Barrol’s birth.
Given the cautions of Goodman Tornan, I thought to perform something more somber yet still engaging. I took Camran aside and called out to Oean and Beathen to leave off their tasks of setting out the costumes and properties.
“My conversation with the mayor of this town has convinced me to change today’s bill.”
“I thought you spoke to one of His Own?” Beathen asked.
“The one and the same,” I replied.
“What shall we perform, Dughal?” Oean asked. “A comedy would seem to suit a festival.”
Camran shook his head even as Beathen spoke: “Not here. Or at least, not today. Have you not felt the mood?” When Oean had joined Bardeelin, so too had Beathen. They’d made music together, singer and musician, for some near score of years, but he, too, had had reasons to seek out a new troupe. As I’d been in dire need of Players, I hadn’t asked what they were. I’ve not had cause to regret it, for he has a commanding stage presence, a powerful voice, and a deft hand with juggling, in addition to his singing. Beathen tugged at the hem of his tunic as if he sought to smooth the uncer-tain emotions of the town. “A comedy wouldn’t endear us to such as these.” He motioned with his head towards the flock of His Own that still roosted in the courtyard.
Sionn and Barrol trotted over to join the conference. “What’s afoot?” Sionn asked.
“We’re changing the play. We’ll perform The Wayward Son.”
“Then it’s to be a comedy after all?” Oean asked.
“Ah.” Camran cleared his throat. “No. We do it as Hereric intended, moral and somber.” He paused and sighed. “Alas.”
“Exactly.” I turned to Oean. “You, the son, are naive and frustrated by desire. Uncertain, unwanted, uncomfortable desire.” Oean’s eyes narrowed at the thought and after a moment he nodded, his mobile mind already at work fitting the old words to the cur-rent mood.
“Barrol,” I said, “your young maid is upright, innocent, chaste. Her desires are pure and her actions right.”
“Oh!” The exuberant youth nearly bounced upon his feet. “I see, Dughal. Yes. Neither tease nor temptress, but woman wronged by the importunities of her beloved.”
He’s been talking to Oean. I smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “You have the right of it.”
“Ah, Dughal!” Sionn pouted, his dimple most uncharacteristically missing from his cheek. “The uplander Huntress is so much better played for comedy. Hereric was a stuffy old fool.”
I pulled myself upright and gazed upon my headstrong young player. “No doubt. And yet, you’ll play the uplander woman as Hereric envisioned her: licentious, venal, cold and deadly. A fine moral lesson to all who see your performance.” I turned to Beathen and Camran. “Questions?”
“I don’t think so.” Beathen tugged at his beard. “It’s been some years since we’ve played The Wayward Son in such a fashion.” He shrugged. “Since anyone has played it that way, I dare say.”
“Then we’ll be accounted original for our efforts.” I turned to all my Players. “Go. Prepare. Oean will hand out the pages so that you can enact the words anew.” I looked up at the sun and then out through the courtyard’s gate to the rest of the faire. “We per-form in two hours. Be ready.”