Five Worlds In Which Keladry of Mindelan Did Not Become A Lady Knight... As Seen From The One In Which She Did.
Midwinter’s Eve, 485 HE
The visitors' parlour of the Mayor’s House in the mountain town of New Hope is dark and cosy, a round ashwood-beamed chamber with a large fireplace sunk into the centre of the floor. It’s a large room by Northern standards, but it’s reaching its capacity tonight. Supper is over, and the Mayor’s family and his guests are sprawled around the fire, trading stories of the past year.
The biggest news, of course, has been old Fanche’s retirement, and Tobe’s appointment in her place. He knows it won't be easy – the running of the thriving small trading town that New Hope has become since the end of the Scanran War is a difficult and complex process – but the last six months have passed without any major disasters, and he and Loesia are looking forward to the coming year.
A good half-dozen of his friends have travelled up from the capital to share the occasion. There’s Sir Nealan lounging by the fire cracking jokes and walnuts, elegant in a silver tunic to match his hair. Sir Merric has been forced into the biggest armchair by his hosts, his arthritic foot propped up on a cushion and a glass of the best mountain brandy in his hand. Sir Owen has draped himself across the back of Neal’s chair with scant regard for the dignity due a knight-commander of the King’s Own, and is helping himself to the walnuts whenever he thinks nobody is looking. On the other side of Merric sits the Lady.
To an outsider, Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, Training Mistress to King Roald’s pages, is a tall heavily-built woman in her forties with a sweet but tired-looking face, and short steel-grey hair that lost its colour far too early in her life. To Tobe, she is – and always will be, with due apologies to Loey – the kindest, nicest, most beautiful Lady in the world. She has spent the entire afternoon since she arrived ostentatiously addressing him as ‘Mayor Boon’ (vengeance, she claims, for all the years he has insisted upon calling her ‘my lady’) but behind the teasing everyone can see the pride that radiates from her like the winter sun. Her husband Dom is here too, sitting on the hearth-rug at her feet. He’s carefully turning the apples that are baking on the fire, and occasionally her hand snakes down to stroke his hair.
In a corner, Owen’s squire, a tall, narrow-shouldered girl of fifteen, is playing a complicated game involving cards and counters with Tobe’s eldest son, twelve-year-old Zamiel. The younger children have been packed away to sleep, bound to their beds for the night by their father’s awful warnings of the Midwinter gifts and treats that will not be forthcoming to bad boys and girls who roam around the house when they should be abed. Occasionally the elder members of the party swivel around in their chairs to watch the game with great suspicion, and finally Neal seizes a particularly large walnut and shies it across the room, bouncing it off the squire’s smooth black hair. The girl looks up indignantly. ‘Hey!’
‘Kehira of Queenscove,’ her father tells her, a disapproving expression on his face, ‘what have I told you about counting cards in order to cheat the young and the innocent out of their Midwinter sweeties?’
The girl sighs deeply. ‘That it's a breach of my duty to the realm as a noble and my honour as a Lady Knight in training, and a disgrace to my noble ancestors.’ Then she looks up at him and grins wickedly, all wide dark eyes and impish smile. ‘And that I should never draw to an inside straight until I'm absolutely certain I know where all the trump cards are.’
Another nut flies across the room and catches her in the forehead.
‘I put you on stable-cleaning and armour polishing duty enough times when you were a page, Squire Queenscove,’ Kel’s stern words are belied by the lurking amusement in her hazel eyes, ‘don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re too grand and grown-up to be set to it again!’.
Tobe chimes in, grinning ‘And we have a lot of stables at New Hope, Lady Squire!’
Grumbling, Kehira empties her pockets and pushes Zamiel's candy back across the table, but the boy shoves it back at her. ‘You can keep it, Lady’ he tells her, blue eyes eager ‘if you show me how to do that trick!’. She smiles broadly, and deals him back into the game.
‘Really, Jesslaw,’ Neal frowns in mock-disappointment, ‘I had hoped that you would have taught that girl some manners by now. Instead, against all conceivable odds, you actually appear to be making her worse.’ Owen, having just stuffed a handful of nuts into his mouth, can only shrug and grin broadly through a mouthful of half-chewed walnut.
‘Children!’ Neal turns to Kel. ‘Appalling, awful children. I am sure we were never so ill-behaved in our day.’ Ignoring Dom’s chortle and the Lady’s raised eyebrow, he gestures towards his daughter, almost upsetting the walnut dish. ‘It’s bad enough when they’re your own, but I don’t know how you put up with them at the palace night and day. Do you never regret earning your shield just in order to spend your days running after twenty or thirty of those young hellions?’
‘After the first one I raised, Neal? The rest of them are easy.’
In the general laughter that follows, few people notice the small, slight woman sitting on the other side of the hearth, absent-mindedly fiddling with her long brown curls. Although the famous Seeress of Tortall largely confines herself to her rooms in the Palace these days, she too has made the journey up to New Hope. Irnai is no longer the chatterbox child she once was. She’s an important person at Court – without her help, no doubt the realm would have perished several times over in the past twenty years – but that doesn’t make her a popular one. She is old enough now to know that she isn’t a comfortable person to talk to; that her presence can make people uneasy if she’s too open about the things that she knows, while her silence tends to make others more nevous still. She prefers to keep herself still and quiet, to be as invisible as she can, and the habit holds even here among her oldest friends.
Dark green eyes glazing over, Irnai gazes into the fire, and sees the flickering shapes of the things that might have been, imagining a world without the Protector of the Small.
* * *
Eleven-year-old Kel closes the door of Lord Wyldon’s office softy behind her. She strides off down the corridor, eyes burning and head held high. ‘I am stone,’ she tells herself, ‘I am the stillness of the sun on deep water.’ She has done her best, fought the spidrens and climbed the heights and silenced the bullies all year long, passed her examinations as well as any other page, and it – well, if it wasn’t enough for Lord Wyldon in the end, at least she knows she did her best. She packs her things with his words ringing in her ears –
I want you to listen to me. I speak to you as I might to one of my own daughters. Now that you have made your point, consider the future. Soon your body will change. The things that you will want from life as a maiden will change. Pursue the course you have, and you might be crippled by an accident. What if you should fall in love? What if you came to grief, or caused others to do so, because your thoughts were on your heart rather than on combat? You are a good girl, Mindelan, and you have worked hard this year. I would to the gods that I could give you another answer, but I cannot risk allowing you to return next year.
She gives her belt-knife to Neal as a good-bye present, with a stern injunction to use it to eat some vegetables once in a while. Her weighted lance goes to Merric, who could use the extra strength training, and dry-eyed she asks the Wildmage to look after her sparrows for her. She is setting the lid down on her trunk for the last time when she hears footsteps at the door.
Looking up, she sees her teachers, Eda Bell and Hakuin Seastone – maybe they’ve come because they feel sorry for me – but the third is a stranger, a short, heavily-built person dressed in practice clothes of the kind worn by off-duty knights, only an inch or so taller than Kel herself. She is smiling awkwardly, and brushing copper curls out of her dark purple eyes. Keladry surges to her feet and is across the room in a couple of bounds.
The Lioness throws her arms around the child and tells her that she knows, she knows what it feels like and she’s sorry, sorry she wasn’t allowed to meet Kel until now, and sorry about this whole stupid business. At this point, some very rude words are nearly said about Lord Wyldon, until Eda Bell’s glare warns the younger woman to check her tongue. Once the shock of meeting her idol has worn off, the three adults sit the girl down, and begin a long talk with her. They have a plan. It won’t be easy, and it certainly involves bending some rules – for one thing, she’ll probably have to spend the next five years lying about being a noble – but would she like to try to become a warrior in another way?
When they leave the room, Alanna is helping Kel to shoulder her trunk. Hakuin follows behind with her glaive and sword, while Eda carries the box full of lucky Yamani cats.
Twelve years later, when King Roald takes the throne, one of his first acts as King is to bless the Lioness’ retirement and to appoint a new champion in her place. His choice is an interesting one – although he could have any one of the knights of the realm, from Nealan of Queenscove to Joren of Stone Mountain, well-trained and well-armed and aristocratic all, the champion that Roald chooses is the tall, quiet-eyed, broad-shouldered woman known up and down the kingdom as the Shang Buffalo.
* * *
The village healer smiles tiredly. ‘And are you the last, little one?’
‘Ess,’ the smallest girl gazes up at her and nods, hazel eyes wide and serious. Merrileine Weaver has never tested such a young child for magic before – ordinarily, testing for the Gift is not carried out until children are nine or ten, unless they have shown previous ability – and she’s certainly never tested so many in one day! But as Baron Piers and Lady Illane are departing for the Yamani Isles, they have decided to take no chances with accidental magic appearing on ship-board or at delicate diplomatic moments, and have asked her to examine their younger children in advance.
‘Well, don’t worry,’ the woman begins kindly, ‘this won’t hurt at all, and you’ve already seen me test your brothers and sisters – ’
‘Oh, just as though Kel’s got any magic,’ sneers twelve-year-old Oranie from across the room.
‘Oranie, if I didn’t know better,’ her elder sister Adalia smiles sweetly, ‘I’d almost think you were jealous, just because you didn’t have any either.’ The younger girl subsides with a scowl, and Merrilene commences her work, bending over to place her hands on the six-year-old’s head. For a long moment, there is quiet – aside from a few fidgets and scuffles from the other children in the room – as she probes through the girl’s mind. Strong character, stubborn even for a six-year-old, and she can see great reserves of determination, courage and empathy, but as for magic, no doubt she’s just like all the oth – oh.
Merrilene doesn’t need to open her eyes to imagine the looks on the faces of the others – the hush that falls across the room is enough. When, after a long minute, she does look up, it’s into a circle of shocked faces, Baron Piers and Lady Illane’s no less than that of their children, each reflected in the deep bronze glow of their youngest daughter’s Gift.
When the Mindelan family travel to the Islands a few weeks later, little Keladry is left behind. Life in the City of the Gods is hard and cold, but there is satisfaction there too, joy in the learning of ancient rites and powers, and the mastering of new spells. For the youngest child of a non-Gifted family in a noble ladies’ convent, things are not always easy. She knows that she’s odd and awkward, too tall and too heavy, that her clothes are not as fine as other girls’, but what does any of that matter, when there’s magic to be learned? Pleasingly, as she grows older her Gift is revealed to be a powerful one: dark rich bronze-coloured magic, good for scrying and shielding, seeking out things hidden and protecting the weak. Although in later years she is visited by her parents and her brothers and sisters, Keladry grows up tall and stooped and stocky and plain, friendless and studious and largely happy to be so.
When it is time for her to take her Ordeal of Sorcery, she chooses to work a particularly powerful scrying spell, hoping that it can aid in the war against Scanra. What her Gift shows her – a circle of dead children, an unspeakable horror, a hideous perversion of the magic she loves – is enough to drive her half-frantic. Although her teachers agree that this is a powerful weapon, and must be shared with the king, Corus is far away and Keladry is not a person who has been trained to patience. Two days later she sets out from the City under cover of darkness, accompanied by her spellbooks, her beautiful grey horse, and as many battle spells and charmed weapons as she can lay her hands upon.
What Blayce the Gallan does to the young mage’s body after Stenmun has taken it to pieces demonstrates a truly unpleasant power of imagination.
* * *
In the shadow of the walls at Haven, in the velvet moonless dark of the shortest night of the year, two young men are wrapped around each other, oblivious to all until the burr and flutter of an owl’s wings overhead drops them back into the world. The shorter man pulls abruptly away, crossing his arms across his chest.
‘That,’ Dom says, in a flat, hopeless voice. ‘That was a kiss.’
‘Yes,’ Kel agrees placidly. ‘Would you like another one?’
Dom rakes a hand through his hair. ‘I thought we weren’t doing this any more.’
‘I could be wrong,’ an amused half-smile twists Kel’s face, ‘but the evidence seems to suggest that we probably are.’
‘This is funny to you?’
Dom glares up, scowling, and Keldarrin of Mindelan, Knight-Commander of Fort Haven, looks back at him with calm hazel eyes. He never meant for this to happen, and least of all with Lord Raoul’s old squire, who he still half thinks of as a clumsy fifteen-year-old covered in griffin bites. But Kel is all grown up now, and Kel is... well, Kel is Kel is Kel, big square hands and broad shoulders and deep quiet voice, moving through the fractious, squabbling camp of refugees like a three-way cross between a nursemaid, a sergeant-at-arms and a referee, comfortingly solid and steady, never out of temper or at a loss. How Dom’s meatheaded cousin Neal had ever become friends with such a man would, of course, remain a mystery for the ages.
‘No.’ A shadow of guilt crosses the handsome face. ‘I’m sorry.’
Kel reaches out a hand for Dom’s shoulder, but he shrugs it roughly away, staring down towards the river.
‘It isn’t going to end well.’ The words burst out of him like a rain of hailstones, bitter and cold. ‘For you, or me, or for anyone. If word gets out – ’
‘I’ve told you. Where I grew up, it isn’t an insult.’
‘And I’ve told you, Black God take it, where you live now, it is.’
‘Palace gossip, Dom. You really think I care for what a bunch of – ’
‘It’s not just you and me!’ Kel takes a step back, blinking with the force of Dom’s whispered hiss. ‘If we’re caught, I’ll be out of the Own, and you’ll lose your shield. You don’t care about that, fine, but think of my lord!’
Kel’s eyes widen in confusion. ‘Lord Raoul? But what does he – ?’
‘Bad enough the gossip they’ve been spreading about him for years, but his own squire and one of his men! Think they’ll care that you’re of age now, and that anyway he’s never even touched you? Think that’ll stop them saying all the vilest things they can think of about him? That kind of mud sticks, Mindelan, and even if he keeps his post, do you think they’ll ever let him take a squire again? And then there’s that precious herd of refugees you’ve got penned up in there like sheep in wolf country,’ Dom gestures angrily towards the central keep, ‘you think you’ll be allowed to stay here with them, if people find out about us? Kel, I am telling you, you think it’s all going to be alright but they will catch us, and they will...’
But he trails off, losing momentum and energy as he can see his lover’s face turning hard, setting into the carved cold-stone expression that betrays no emotion, and brooks no dispute.
‘If that’s the way you feel about it – ’
‘Believe me, it is!’
‘Then I’m going back to finish drawing up the duty lists. You will finish patrolling, Sergeant. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me.’
Dom hefts his shield onto his arm again, while Kel squares his shoulders and turns to march back up to the central keep. Fifteen minutes later, neither of them have managed to move more than a few steps from their starting point.
This time, like last time, like the time before that. One more, just one more kiss.
* * *
It would have been better if people had been angry with him. Conal wishes, at the time and later on too, that his father would have beaten him, that his mother would have scolded, that his brothers and sisters would have paid him back in scorn and snideness and all their not-inconsiderable repertoire of nasty tricks. Anything so ordinary as being spanked or apple-pie-bedded or sent to his room without supper seems like a dream of happiness now, when everyone is going around with grey faces and red-rimmed eyes, when his brothers and sisters refuse to stay in the same room as him and aunts and uncles he barely knows keep taking him aside every so often to assure him that it was just an accident, that they know he didn’t mean it, that it was the grown-ups’ faults for letting them play unsupervised up on that awful tower. Above all though, he wishes that it would be all a horrible dream, that Keladry – annoying, bossy, stick-her-nose-into-everything Keladry – would come running around a corner, demanding to know where he’s going, and can she come too, and doesn’t he know that he’s supposed to be mucking out the ponies this morning, and she can climb that ladder way faster than he can –
He knows he didn’t mean it, too. It doesn’t help very much.
Later, much later, when Piers and Ilane are able to look at their third son again, they will reflect that it was almost like losing two children. Conal goes off to the Palace with the shadow of what he has done still hanging over him, and when they return from the Yamani Isles he is a stranger, a tall, whip-thin, silent boy with a badly-healed broken nose and huge shadows under his pale grey eyes. Inness swears that the other pages didn’t find it out from him, and Anders does his best to look out for his younger brother whenever he’s at the palace, trying not to think too much about whether he deserves it or not. It helps, but not enough.
There are grave doubts as to whether Conal will survive the Ordeal of Knighthood. His knight-master (Anders – who else but a brother would have taken the boy on?) argues long and hard to convince him to withdraw his candidature, but Conal cannot be persuaded. He walks into the Chamber in silence, knowing the horror that the room has to show him... and walks out changed, unrecognisable. For the first time since he was eleven years old, Conal of Mindelan walks with his head up, his jaw set, his eyes glittering like the sun on snow. Her work, the Chamber has told him as it showed him the twisted bodies and tortured spirits of children, so many children. It would have been her work, and now it is yours. From that moment forward, his pursuit of the Gallan is manic, fevered.
When the razor-tipped tail of the killing machine whips across his chest, ripping flesh and sundering arteries as it knocks him flying from his horse, when he lies bleeding out into the mud, hers is the face that he sees, behind the hot-metal-smoke taste, behind the thumping pain. The little figure is standing at the hem of the Black God’s cloak, clutching at it in much the same way as she once did her mother’s skirts. She is not the broken splattered thing he remembers at the foot of the tower, but solid and whole, her gaze level and serious.
‘Keladry.’ He’s sobbing. ‘Kel. I’m so sorry. I didn’t – I couldn’t... I failed. I’m sorry.’
Slowly, painfully, he pulls himself to his knees and crawls through the mud as best he can. One halting, dragging step towards her, then another. Gasping in agony, Conal falls to the ground in front of his baby sister, and she reaches out her arms to him and takes the pain away.
* * *
Keladry hasn’t eaten anything today, and not for most of yesterday either. She can barely move her head for the fluttering cascade of curls that the serving-ladies have spent half the morning torturing into her long brown hair with heated combs, and the silk dress is squeezing her half to death around the chest and shoulders.
Hold your head up and keep your back straight. Try not to look too tall, though. Keep your voice soft and modulated, gentlemen do not like ladies who are too loud and talkative. Make sure you give proper answers to his questions, or else he’ll think you’re stupid and dull. Let him know you are interested in his suit, but under no circumstances should you appear too interested. The instructions rattle around her head until she’s dizzy, and she feels like a dancing bear in a circus.
Whatever else he is, he’s damaged goods, she knows that. The official version of the story, the one she heard from the Convent Mother, is that he’s a younger son from a good family who completed several years of training at the Palace before, ahem, realising that his talents lay elsewhere. Mama has written to her, saying that the marriage contractor looked long and hard before proclaiming this a suitable match. The unofficial version of the facts, though – carried on the complicated gossip network of serving girls and dressmakers and, of course, the young convent ladies themselves – speaks of quite another story. Dismissed from page training for some nameless and awful misbehaviour four years ago, disowned by his father, disaster, disgrace. Wild, bad blood, trouble. Her parents have tried their best for her, she’s sure that they have, but what else should a youngest daughter from a poor noble family, one who doesn’t even have the decency to be pretty, expect on the vicious Tortallan marriage market?
After seven extremely dull years in the Convent of the Goddess, Keladry doesn’t even remember what trouble looks like any more. She isn’t altogether sure that she’ll like it. Perhaps she can ruin the interview deliberately, perhaps he won’t like what he sees and will go away again, and then Mama will have to spend another six months at the marriage contractor’s, lining up another boy...
She bites down the impulse to spring to her feet when she hears the Convent Mother’s footsteps in the corridor outside, half a lifetime’s worth of deportment lessons – a lady must remain seated until she is spoken to – holding her down. Besides, if she stays in her chair, she won’t look so tall. The Mother sweeps in, all severe angles and long black robes. ‘Lady Keladry of Mindelan,’ she announced, in a manner that seems to hit a dual note of disgust and apology to the tall, dark young man who walks behind her.
Keladry can’t bear it. She shuts her eyes, then flickers them open again as her hand is taken, kissed with surprising gentleness. The young man sweeps a flamboyant Player’s bow, and then straightens to his feet. Were she to stand up, they'd be about the same height, and she gets a confused first impression of blazing green eyes laughing down at her, and a thoroughly wicked grin.
‘Nealan of Queenscove, my lady Keladry. At your service, and at your family’s.’
Keladry smiles, for the first time in years, not a perfect noble maiden’s demure simper but a grin that answers the young man’s own.
Perhaps trouble might have something to recommend it, after all.
* * *
Irnai flutters awake as the blanket is draped around her shoulders, warm and soft. The fire has died down to embers, and almost everyone seems to have stumbled off to sleep.
‘Go, you two! Or no games and no dancing tomorrow!’ The Lady has crossed the room, and is gently chivvying Kehira and Zamiel off to their beds. They disappear down the corridor, still arguing sleepily about whether a game is forfeit if both players fall asleep with their faces in their counter piles, and how drooling affects the card values. Kel sinks into the chair opposite Irnai, using the toasting-fork to poke the fire up a little.
‘That looked like a trance to me.’
She nods, eyes on the fire.
‘Deepest one I’ve seen you go into for years. Did it hurt? Do you have a headache?’
‘Do you want to tell me what you saw?’
The Seeress hesitates for a moment, and then smiles. ‘Nothing important, I promise, Lady.’ Things that never were and will never come to pass. Some good, and some terrible, but none of them now and none of them here. They sit in silence for a while, listening to the house around them, warm with friends and family and sleeping life.
‘Nothing we have to worry about tonight.’