DREAMS IN THE DARK
And the Dragons’ song, so wild and strong,
fell from the sky like rain
upon my soul; which, watered well
bloomed with a joy no words can tell
where once was a dusty plain.
My name is Lanen Kaelar, and I am older than I care to remember.
I have heard the bards call me Queen Lanen in their tales, and that I fear is the least of their excesses. I cannot stop the songs they sing or the stories they tell but at least I can write with my own hand a record of those times, in the slim hope that anyone might be interested in the truth
Now I put my hand to it, I would I knew how the trick is turned. Where should I begin? Wherever they start the tale seems the only possible place, no matter how much has gone before. I suppose the only sensible beginning would be at Handron’s farm.
I was born at Hadronsstead, a horse farm in the northwest of the Kingdom of Ilsa, which was the farthest west of the Four Kingdoms of Kolmar. The stead and the village nearby were a few hours’ ride from the Méar Hills to the north, and two weeks to the south and east lay Illara, the King’s Seat. Farther south yet the fertile plains of Ilsa began, a land full of farmers and crops and little else, and west over field and mountain lay the Great Sea.
lsa does not encourage women to go beyond the narrow boundaries of home, but from my earliest memories that was all I ever wanted to do. As a child I lived for those times when I managed to escape for a few hours, taking my little mare north to the Méar Hills, walking among the great trees that marked the southern edge of the Trollingwood, the vast forest that covers all the north of Kolmar. But always I was fetched back to the farm, and a closer watch kept on me.
Hadron was a good man, I do not say otherwise—he simply did not care for me. My mother had left him soon after I was born, and for some reason I decided that his close hold on me was because he feared I would do the same. When I came of age the summer I turned twelve, I asked to go with him to Illara, to the Great Fair in the autumn. By then I was grown nearly to my full height, and since I was clear no longer a child—I stood nearly as tall as Hardon even then—I thought I was due some of the privileges of being of age. Instead, Hadron brought my older cousin Walther, his sister’s son, to live with us. When autumn came, Hadron calmly announced that he and Jamie would go to the Great Fair, and that Walther would look after me until they returned. Hardon never understood why I yelled and fought with him over that decision; to him it was obvious that I needed a keeper, and Walther was enough older than I to make sure Hadron’s words were obeyed. Needless to say, I hated Walther from that moment.
I wasn’t overfond of Hadron, wither, but then had been. He always kept his distance while I was a small child, and when I grew so tall so young he seemed appalled. From the moment I came of age he despised me, though I never knew why. I could do nothing right in his eyes. Sometimes I gave in to despair, knowing I was an evil creature who had no heart, since my mother had left me and my father did not love me. The worst of it to me, the true darkness in my heart that frightened me most and that I whispered to no one, was that I did not love him either.
But there was one bright light in my world, one beacon of hope
and love and caring in all the desert of indifference I saw around me.
For me, any words of Hadronsstead must begin and end with him. He was there from my earliest memory, Hadron’s steward and his right hand on the farm. Jamie managed the crops and the other livestock while Hadron ignored his child and made a name for himself as a breeder of horses. But to me, Jamie was ever love and kindness.
When as a child I needed comfort, it was always his small, dark, wiry figure I looked for, not the cold tree-height of Hadron. It was Jamie who made sure I was always looked after when Hadron forgot, Jamie who was a quiet friend when I so desperately needed one, Jamie who later taught me to see my strength and man-height as an advantage instead of a curse. When at fourteen I began to walk stooped over, trying to lessen my (I thought unnatural) height, which I feared made Hadron hate me, Jamie it was who took me aside and told me kindly that I reminded Hadron of my mother, it was nothing I had done, and he persuaded me to stand tall. Against Hadron’s wishes Jamie taught me to read and write, and when I begged him he also taught me in secret how to fight without weapons, and how to use a sword and a bow. He was always there, never complained through all my needing him that I can remember, had a soft word for me even when my temperlashed him instead of its true target. He loved me as a daughter, as Hadron could not, and in return was given all the love I could not lavish on a heedless father.
I can hear the young girls wondering why I did not think of marriage. The true answer is that I did, sometimes, late at night as I lay in my too-short bed and dreamed. But there is a good reason I did not escape by marriage. I have seen some of the paintings the young ones have done of me in my youth, and they do make me laugh! I am now and always have been no more than plain. Hadron told me so all my young life, and I learned to believe him. Men were the same then as now; the young ones want a beauty, the old ones want a young one, and after being trapped so long on the farm I had the heart of an old woman and no beauty to speak of. The best that can be said is that I was tall as a man, strong as a woman well can be, brown as a nut from years of farm work in the sun and rain, and had a temper I only occasionally managed to keep in check.
Most nights, to be truthful, I thought more of love than of marriage, and more of going away than of love.
That is the real deep truth of me, now and as a girl. I longed to see the world, to go to those places that rang on the edge of stories like sweet distant bells. Even the sight of the Méar Hills to the north pierced my heart every time I saw them. Autumn ws the worst, when they put on their patchwork winter coats and beckoned like so many red-and-gold giants. Lying on my bed in the dark I wandered through those trees a thousand times, laughing—sometimes aloud—as I watched the sun through the stained-glass leaves, breathing in their spicy scent and soaking in their colour until I could hold no more.
But my real desires lay beyond the Méar Hills. All of Kolmar was mine in the dark, covered with a quilt, weary from the day’s needs but with mine still unfulfilled. In thought I roamed east and north, through the dark and threatening Trollingwood to the fastness of Eynhallow at the edge of the mountains, or into the mountains themselves, into the mines where jewels sparkled from the walls in the light of a lantern held high. Sometimes, though not often, I would venture south to the green kingdom of the silkweavers of Elimar—the north always called to my heart with the stronger voice.
But those times I most resented what I was forced to do, when despite the duty I owed him I would have cursed my father for making me stay, when even Jamie could not console me and the bleakness of my future came near to breaking me-then I would let loose the deep dream of my heart.
In it I stood at the bow of one of the great Merchant ships, sailing for the Dragon Isle at the turn of the year. The sea was rough, for the Storms that lay between Kolmar and the fabled land of the Dragons might abate but they never ceased. The ship swayed and groaned beneath my feet, spray blew keen and salt in my face but I laughed and welcomed it. For all I knew I would find naught on the island but lansip trees, and the long and dangerous trip there and back all for no more than my pay for harvesting the leaves more precious than silver. But perhaps—
Perhaps the Merchants’ tales spoke true. It might be that I should be chosen to approach the Guardian of the trees, and perhaps as we spoke I would see him, and he would not be some giant of a warrior as everyone but the Merchants said.
I would feel no fear. I would step towards him and bow, greeting him in the name of my people, and he would come to me on four feet, his great wings folded, his fire held in check. In my dreams I spoke with the Dragon who guarded the trees.
Now, everyone knows that there are dragons, poor solitary creatures no bigger than a horse who live quietly in the Trollingwood away to the north. They pass their lives in deep forests or in rocky caverns, and almost always alone, and generally dragons and men do not trouble one another. Sometimes, though, a dragon will acquire a taste for forbidden food—a village’s cattle, or sheep, or human flesh. Then great hunts are gathered from all the villages round and the creature is slain as quickly as possible, or at the least chased away. These little dragons have only faint similarities to the True Dragons of the ballads. They have fiery breath, though it is soon exhausted; they have armoured scales, but their size tells against them, and they seem no brighter than cattle. Unless they fly away-and they do not fly well—they may be killed without too great difficulty.
The Merchants, however, have the word of those who have been there, and they say that the Dragon Isle is the home of the True Dragons of legend. They are as big as a cottage with wings to match, teeth and claws as long as a man’s forearm, and a huge jewel shining from each forehead. Of course the Harvesters who returned were asked about them; but the last ship to return from the journey to the Dragon Isle came home to Corlf more than a century ago, and there are none living who can swear that the True Dragons exist. It is said that within certain boundaries it is safe to visit that land, but some old tales whispered of those who dared to cross over seeking dragon gold and paid the price. If you believe the tales, not one of those venturous souls ever returned.
The bards, of course, have made songs of the True Dragons for hundreds of years. Usually the table is of some brave fighter attacking one of them against terrible odds, defeating it but dying in the process. All very noble but more than a little absurd, if the Merchants recall truly their size and power. Still, there are some lovely lays about such things.
Every now and then, however, you come across as story with a different turn. The Song of the Winged Ones is a song of celebration, written as though the singer were standing on the Dragon Isle watching the dragons flying in the sun. The words are full of wonder at the beauty of the creatures; and there is a curious pause in the middle of one of the stanzas near the end, where the singer waits a full four measures in silence for those who listen to hear the music of distant dragon the silence, and is almost never performed because many bards fear it.
I love it.
I heard it first when I was seven. The snows were bad that year, and a bard travelling south from Aris (some four day’s journey north of us) on his way to Kaibar for midwinter got stuck at Hadronsstead for the festival. He was well treated, given new clothes in honour of the season, and in return he performed for the household for the three nights of the celebration. The last piece he sang on the last night was the Song of the Winged Ones, and I fell in love. I was just warm and sleepy enough to listed with my eyes closed, and when the pause came I heard music still, wilder and deeper than the bard’s but far softer. I never forgot the sound. It spoke to something deep within me and I resolved to hear it again if ever I could. When I mentioned it to the singer later he paled slightly, told me that people often imagined that they heard things, in the pause, and swore to himself (when he thought I had gone) never to sing the wretched thing again.
I spent the next seventeen years waiting to hear that sound. and
dreamed of meeting a True Dragon, a Dragon out of the ballads, huge, wild and fierce, yet possessed of the powers of speech and reason. And he would not kill me for daring to speak to him. He would respond in courtesy, we would learn of each other and exchange tales of our lives, and together the two of us would change all of Kolmar. Humans would have someone new to talk to, a new way of seeing life and truth, and it would happen because I had dared to do what few had even dreamed about.
And they would grant me the name I had chosen in the old speech, those who came after and know what I had done. They would call me Kaelar, Lanen Kaelar, the Far-Traveller, the Long Wanderer.
And there the sweet dream would end, and I would cry myself to sleep.
* * *
My world changed in my twenty-fourth year. Hadron, rest his soul, finally had enough of raising horses and a daughter with no prospects. He died at midsummer, and Jamie and I laid him in the ground high on the hill overlooking the north fields.
After Hadron’s death his lands and goods came to me, which shocked me to the bone. I had always thought Jamie or Walther would be his heir, but in death Hadron was more gracious than ever he had been in life. I was amazed by the extent of his lands, many of which I had never seen, and by the wealth he had gained. I knew well enough how to run the place—I had been Jamie’s right hand for years—but the sheer size of it all took me by surprise. I still thought of Jamie as my master, and he still taught and helped me in those first months, but to my chagrin I found that I was blessed as well with a valuable steward in my cousin Walther.
Walther had for many years now made his peace with me, though I could never forgive him for siding with Hadron in keeping me caged. It did not help that even as a child I found him dull and a little slow. All his thoughts were of the farm; his one fond wish had ever been to become as good a breeder and trainer of horses as his uncle. He had not know what his place would be when Hadron died, but since working for me did not seem to concern him I never mentioned it.
Hardon’s death came just as he was starting to prepare for the Great Fair, and with him gone there was more to do than hands to do it. There were a good dozen of the horses old enough, broken in and ready to be sold this year. Hadron and Jamie had always gone to Illara, but Hadron’s part now fell to me as the heir. If I had been a little less tired I would have been delighted at the prospect of finally seeing the King’s Seat of Ilsa. As it was, grief and weariness outweighed all else. I did not pretend to mourn Hadron greatly, but I felt his loss, and grieved quietly to myself that I had cared so little for my own father. In great part, though, I must admit that I felt a weary weight lifted from my shoulders.
I could see no further than that until the night before we left, when my eyes began to open.
The horses had just been brought into the barn for the night. We would have to rise early to begin the journey—the fair was in a fortnight’s time and we would travel most of that, Jamie and I and the three farmhands who were coming to help with the horses. Still, the night before leaving had always been exciting even when I was not going on the journey; a time of ending and beginning, full of promise and change. Jamie had already gone to his bed and the other hands to their lodging. Walther and I had just finished the last chores, and I was trudging across the paving stones of the courtyard when he laid a hand on my arm and stopped me in the torchlight, saying he had something to ask me.
“What is it?” I asked, wondering why we had to stop walking I was filthy and exhausted and wanted a bath and my bed in the worst way.
“Lanen, I—it’s been six weeks since Hadron died. There’s been no man around here but me to look after you, and…”
He had to wait while I laughed. “You’ve a curious sense of things, Walther. None but Jamie has ‘looked after me’ for twenty years. Why should someone start because Hadron died? Besides, I’ve yet to meet a man who wanted the honour, and none I wished to give it to.” I moved on towards the house.
“What about me?” said Walther loudly.
That stopped me.
“What about you?” I asked as kindly as I could, turning back to face him. All women have a sense that warns them of such things. I was shocked—he was all but betrothed to Alisonde from the village—but I could smell it coming and was desperately trying to think of how to get out of it without being too mean. I didn’t like him, but some things demand mercy.
“Marry me, Lanen,” he said quietly, moving close to me.
He smelt of the stables even stronger than I did. “I’ll not pretend there’s more between us than there is, and I—I’ll not demand a husband’s rights, but you need a man to look after—to run the place for you. You know everything I do, but you haven’t the touch.”
That was true enough. I never was interested in houses the way he was, certainly, save perhaps when a mare was in labour. Still, even in my anger I nearly smiled to myself. Poor Walther always thought he was so subtle.
“Walther, this is so sudden,” I said, unable to keep an edge from my voice. “What would Alisonde say? She deserves better of you than this.”
He looked down. “She will understand.”
If it had been morning, broad daylight, I might have held my peace and simply refused him, but in the flickering torchlight at the end of a long day I let my armour slip. “Aye, she would understand,” I snapped. “Our marriage would be in name only, but as my husband you’d have Hadron’s farm atlast. The laws of Ilsa favour men. As long as we stayed married for three years, you could divorce me and keep all my property. I should think Alisonde would be willing to wait three years for you to become wealthy at my expense.” I could feel my anger growing with every breath. “What a charming life you offer me, Walther! A marriage without love, to which you bring no more than my father’s knowledge of horses as a bride price, and with the certainty of poverty at the end of a wasted three years.”
I made one last valiant effort to stop and keep my mouth shut before my temper got the best of me. It didna;t help that Walther didn’t deny what I had said, and seemed only vaguely guilty at being found out.
“Lanen, you don’t understand…”
“Save your breath to fan the fire,” I snapped. “I understand you perfectly. You spent too much time with hadron, you’re beginning to sound like him.” I stopped my words there, but I couldn’t stop my memories. Years, too many years of Hadron’s neglect, too many times being told I was too plain, or too tall, or too manlike, or simply not good enough to be my father’s daughter, piled on top of me like so much stone, and just when I was beginning to learn my worth and value my solitude, Walther, Walther of all people, insults me like this. I stood and fumed. “Why can’t you just marry her and stay here as master of the stables?” I snarled, my last valiant attempt to speak reasonably.
He was long silent; when he finally spoke his words had to fight their way past a know of anger in his throat as great as the one in mine. “And live my life as your paid servant? No thank you, cousin,” he growled. “I have no wish to work for a woman, and I don’t have the money to go elsewhere and start fresh. I thought I could stand being wed to you, if it meant in the end I’d have Alisonde and the farm as well.”
That did it. I gave no warning, just drew back and hit him. I am only a little under six feet tall and strong with it, and Jamie’s lessons were not wasted. Walther measured his length on the paving stones and I stood over him, battling my desperate need to hit him again. “How dare you speak to me so! You could stand being wed to me for a few years, could you, while you steal my inheritance?” I turned away for a moment, fighting the desperate temptation to kick him. “I do not take insults well, Walther,” I snarled, turning back to him. “Shall I tell Alisonde what your marriage proposals are worth?” He still did not speak, but now at least had the grace to look ashamed. In a breath my anger turned to disgust.
“Ah, get to the Seven Hells and take Alisonde with you,” I said, and was about to add a comment on his miserable heart when I froze where I stood. Like the sun bursting into a dark cellar, where all had been darkness there was blinding light. If I could have spared the effort I would have laughed with delight, but too many other things were crowding in one me. It may not make sense, but I give you my word that even after Hadron’s death, I had not understood that things had truly changed, that my life could be my own. I had kept my soul alive through dreams in the dark, as I had for so many long years, until Walther with his insulting proposal shattered the darkness. I almost felt I should thank him.
“Come, cousin,” I said, my anger gone in the instant. I gave him my hand and helped him up. “Let us think of this another way.”
“What way?” he asked, suspiciously, rubbing his jaw and watching my hands.
“Why, you were partly right. I shall need someone to look after the stock, to choose the right bloodlines for Hadron’s horses, to care for them, to train them to harness and saddle. Surely you and Jamie are best suited.”
“But what of you?”
I laughed. “I shall be gone, Walther. If you see me once in the year it will be more than I expect. But I do not renounce my inheritance; I am still Hadron’s heir, still the possessor of his house and lands and al his goods. But I shall need funds.” I stared hard at him. “This is what I propose, Walther. When the hands are paid and the year’s accounts settled, any profits will be divided three ways, one share each to you, me and Jamie. I shall simply ask Jamie to keep my shares for me until I return to claim them. That way we are all three equals, you need not work for a mere woman and you will soon have enough to marry Alisonde. Now, does that suit? Or do I send you back to your father as you stand?”
He could not speak, so he nodded. “Very well,” I continued. “I shall want a portion of the available moneys to see me on my way, and I shall take with me a third of the profits from the fair. Is it a bargain?”
He didn’t move, so in the country fashion I spat in my palm and held out my open hand to him. He did the same and took mine in a daze. I was awake all night preparing a contract for us three to sign, though I had to read it to Walther in the morning and help him make his mark. I had carefully put my few belongings into an old pack with my clothing and wrapped a good portion of silver in a pair of saddlebags. Jamie and I left before dawn with the hands and the horses.
I was happier than I could remember being.
Copyright ©1997 by Elizabeth Kerner