Chapter 1: A Stranger
When I first saw him, I had no idea he would change our lives. There was no tremor from the ground, no icy gust of wind, not even a real shiver down my back. Just a small twinge of unease. I didn’t even tell Mama about him. Maybe I should have? I don’t know. It wouldn’t have changed anything, not really. From the moment he caught sight of me, it was too late in any case.
It was supposed to be a good day. I had been looking forward to it for a long time – the Midsummer Market, when all the clans met to trade, and talk, and entertain each other with races and contests and music from dusk to dawn. Mama and me had worked our fingers to the bone, drying herbs and making ointments and remedies for all sorts of ailments, and Rose, my foster sister and best friend, had carved bowls and spoons and shelf ends, and little dolls and animals for the children. She was clever with her knife, and in her hands a bit of kindling would suddenly turn into a cow or a dog, as if the animal had been there all the time, hiding in the grain of the wood. My older brother Davin had nothing to trade, but he thought he might win a prize in one of the races with Falk, our skittish black gelding.
This would be my first Midsummer Market in the Highlands. The summer before there had been strife and hostility among the clans, and no real Market had been held. Kensie, the clan we lived with, had clashed with Skaya, and it was only at the last moment that we had managed to stop the battle in Skara Vale before they ended up killing each other. It had all been Drakan’s fault, of course; Drakan who called himself Dragon Lord and ruled almost all the coastlands, now, after having murdered the old castellan of Dunark. He was a bad enemy to have, was Drakan, both devious and ruthless. Instead of doing battle with the clans himself, he tricked them into warring with each other. And back when he killed Ebnezer Ravens, his daughter-in-law Adela, and her young son Bian, he managed to have the castellan’s own son Nicodemus accused of the murders. Nico would have ended up with his head on the block if it hadn’t been for Mama. And me, a little bit. On that day, Drakan had become our enemy. And his reach was long.
We still couldn’t go anywhere without protection. Callan Kensie had been Mama’s bodyguard for two years now. He was big and steady and kind to us, and I liked him. But I still wished we didn’t need him.
“Such a crowd,” said Mama and had to keep a firm hold of the reins; Falk, who was serving as our carthorse today, was not used to all the push-and-shove and hubbub. “Where do you think we should go?”
I surveyed the crowded scene. At first it looked completely chaotic, with people milling about like ants in an anthill. But there was actually a pattern to the Market – streets and squares and crossroads, just like a real town, even if the Market town was made up of carts and wagons and tents instead of houses.
“There’s a free spot,” I said, pointing. “There, at the end.”
“Right,” said Mama, clicking her tongue at Falk. Our black horse snorted but walked on, stiff-gaited and suspicious of the crowd.
“Copper kettles,” yelled a peddler woman. “Best copperware at even better prices!”
“Three marks?” said a broad-backed Skaya man, “Bit steep for a pair of socks, if ye ask me!”
“Pork sausage! Smoked venison! Have a taste, Medama. Ye’ll not regret it!”
Falk laid back his ears and became even more stiff-legged. The cart was hardly moving at all, now.
“Can’t you make him move a little faster?” I asked Mama. “Somebody else will grab our space.”
“He doesn’t like all the ruckus,” said Mama. “Dina, I think you had better lead him.”
I climbed off the cart and grabbed Falk’s bridle. This made him move a little faster, but not much. And just as we were about to reach the slot I had decided was ours, a cart coming from the other direction swung into it.
“Hey,” I yelled. “That’s where we were planning to set up!”
“Is that so?” said the carter. “Ye should have made better time, then.”
I glared at him. He was a thickset man with curly brown hair and a smith’s apron round his heavy middle. And he didn’t look in the least bit sorry.
“You saw us! You knew this was where we were heading!”
“Hush, Dina,” said Mama. “We’ll find another spot.”
The carter seemed to notice Mama properly for the first time. Or rather, the Shamer’s signet that hung fully visible on her chest. It was no more than a pewter circle enamelled in black and white to look like an eye, but at the mere sight of it, the man blenched and changed his behaviour completely.
“Beg yer pardon,” he muttered, one hand releasing the reins to slip behind his back, “I had not seen … If Medama wants this space, then … “ he hauled back on the reins one-handedly, forcing his tough little Highland horse into a sharp turn.
“No, that’s perfectly all right – “
But he was already off, steering his horse and cart through the market crowd as quickly as the bustle permitted.
“Did you see his hand?” said Rose. “Did you see it?”
“He made the witch sign,” I said tonelessly. “But at least he did it behind his back. Some people make it right in your face.”
Mama sighed. “Yes. It’s sad. And it seems to be getting worse.” She raised a hand to touch her signet, but she didn’t say it out loud – the thing we were all thinking: that it had gone from bad to worse since Drakan had begun to burn Shamers down in the coastlands. “Well. We might as well take the space. Come on, girls. Let’s set up shop.”
“If anyone will buy anything from the Shamer Witch and her family,” I muttered.
Mama smiled, but the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Oh, they’ll buy. For some reason they seem to think that my herbs work better than other people’s.”
Mama knew a lot about herbs and the way they worked on the various illnesses people get, but what she did was not magic. Anybody could make the same infusions, and many did. But because Mama was also the Shamer, people assumed that there was witchcraft involved. In reality, there was only one thing Mama could do that others couldn’t: she could look people in the eyes and make them confess their ill deeds – and she could make them ashamed of what they had done.
We unhitched Falk and pushed the cart into the neat row of stalls and other carts.
“Will you take Falk back to the camp?” I asked Rose. We had left the men – that is to say,
Callan, Davin, and Davin’s friend Black-Arse – setting up the tent in the shelter of some rocks a bit further up the slope, away from the worst of the crowding.
Rose looked a little anxious. “Can’t you do it?” she said. “With all those people around he might get a little … wild.” Rose was still not all that comfortable around horses. In Swilltown, the meanest and poorest part of Dunark, where Rose used to live, not many people could afford to ride or keep a horse.
I nodded. “Yes, all right. You have your own stuff to unpack, anyway.”
On the slope, the men had finished their task. They stood there, side by side, looking at the tent as if it was a four-storey building they had just managed to erect.
“There,” said Davin, rubbing his hands. “Nothing to it when you know what you’re doing.” He gave me one of those big brother looks that clearly meant that girls were generally good for nothing except being a suitably admiring audience for manly deeds.
I pretended not to notice and hitched Falk to the tethering line so that he could graze with the other three: Callan’s sturdy brown gelding, Black-Arse’s dun mare, and my own beautiful Silkie that Helena Laclan had given me last summer.
“Any sign of Nico?” I asked.
Callan shook his head. “Not yet. But the lad will be around somewhere.”
Originally, Nico had meant to ride with us to the Market. But that morning when we came to fetch him, he and Master Maunus had been in the middle of a full-blown row. We could hear them yelling at each other even as we came down the hill. The voices cut through the morning silence, and Master Maunus was shouting so loudly that Nico’s bay mare was all but choking herself, trying to tear loose from the post she was hitched to in the yard outside.
“What will it take to make you understand, boy? It’s your damned duty – “
“Like hell it is. Don’t preach duty at me. I couldn’t – “
“Couldn’t care less, yes, I’ve realised that. You would rather jig and dance and brawl with a mob of drunken peasants. And get drunk. Isn’t that what you’re planning on – Master Guzzle-Gut?”
“Don’t call me that!” Nico’s shout was nearly as loud as Master Maunus’, now.
“Oh? So truth is an unwelcome visitor?”
“Is it so unthinkable that I just want to have a bit of fun for a change? Must you immediately assume that it’s all an excuse to get drunk? You don’t trust me.”
“Have I reason to?”
The words seemed to hang there for a moment, a bitter accusation that Nico apparently could find no answer to. Then the door was flung open, and they both came out, Nico first, pale as death, and Master Maunus on his heels.
“Where are you going? Damn it, boy, you can’t just run away like that!”
“Why not?” said Nico. “You don’t listen to a word I say anyway. And why should you? I’m just an irresponsible drunkard. Can’t trust guzzlers like me, can you now?”
“Boy … “ Maunus tried to put his hand on Nico’s arm. “Nico, wait … “
But Nico wouldn’t wait. He threw one swift look at Rose, Davin, and me, but it was as if he barely saw us. With a quick jerk on the tethering rope, he unhitched the mare from the post, and leaped on to her back without bothering to use the stirrups. The mare, already half-panicked from the noise and the anger she could feel in him, practically took flight. She tore up the hill in a series of wild lunges, and within moments, both of them were lost from sight.
In Maudi’s yard, Master Maunus came to a halt, looking oddly helpless. He was a large man, with greying red hair and beard and strong, bushy eyebrows. Standing there so bewildered-looking and empty-handed did not suit him at all.
“Damn the boy,” he muttered. “Why won’t he listen?”
Actually, Nico was no boy. Not any more. He was nineteen, and a grown young man. And the son of a castellan, to boot. Many people considered him the rightful lord of Dunark Castle, though Drakan ruled there now. But Master Maunus had been Nico’s tutor throughout his boyhood, and ruling his charge had become a habit. He had very firm opinions about what Nico should and shouldn’t do, and he would voice those opinions in no uncertain terms. Rows had become almost their normal way of talking, but even by their standards, this one had been a sizzler.
Master Maunus seemed to see us properly for the first time. He dabbed his forehead with a worn green velvet sleeve, trying to regain his composure.
“Good morning, girls,” he said. “Good morning, young Davin. How is your lady mother?”
He always asked. Like most people, he had a great deal of respect for my mother.
“Good morning, Master,” I said. “She’s fine, thank you.”
“Glad to hear it. What can I do for you?”
I exchanged glances with Rose and Davin. Judging from the row, Master Maunus would not be thrilled with our errand.
“We came to ask Nico and you, Master, if … if you were ready to ride to the Market with us,” Davin finally said.
Master Maunus looked at us for a moment. “The Market. Yes. I see.” He raised his eyes to the morning sun and looked indecisive. “I … I do not feel like going myself. And somebody has to stay here and mind the animals, after all. But the young lord … I think he has already left. At least, I think that is where he is going. And I thought … perhaps you would do me the favour of … keeping an eye on him there. If he is with you, then … well, I would feel better about it.”
You wouldn’t be so afraid that he would drink himself senseless, I thought. But I didn’t say it out loud.
Davin looked annoyed. Nico was not his favourite person in all the world, and acting as nursemaid to a nineteen-year-old “young lord” was probably not what he had had in mind for his first Highland Market.
“Of course we will,” I said, before he could say anything.
Now it looked as if I might have cause to regret that rash promise. Merely finding Nico looked like a steep task in this circus.
“I’m not spending my time playing sheepdog to Nico’s sheep,” said Davin. “He’s a big boy now. He can look after himself.”
“But we promised Master Maunus – “
“You promised. You look. I’m going to check out the race course.”
“Best ye stick together,” said Callan. “I cannot mind ye all if ye go wandering off by yerselves.”
“But you don’t have to,” I said. “Callan, there are so many clansmen here. Nothing will happen to us here. Even if somebody did try anything, I could just call for help.”
He looked at me for a while, then nodded slowly.
“So ye could. But … “ he prodded my shoulder with one finger, “Be careful now, ye hear? Do not let me catch ye going off with strangers.”
“Of course not.”
He had reason to be cautious. Last year, when Drakan’s cousin Valdracu captured me, it had been Callan who had to tell my mother that I was missing and that they feared I might be dead. It was not an experience he was likely to have forgotten. I hadn’t either, of course, and I was sometimes scared that something like that could happen again. But here, at the crowded Market, surrounded by clansmen and market vendors, I felt very safe. All I had to do was raise my voice and help would be at hand.
Callan, however, had not quite finished with me yet.
“Perhaps I had best … it might be best if ye did not go alone.”
“Callan. Please. Nothing will happen.” It would be a very boring Market, I thought, if I had to have Callan trailing me everywhere I went.
He sighed. “Aye, well. I cannot cage you, can I? Be off then. But watch yer step!”
Davin and Black-Arse were already headed for the racetracks, and I skipped off down the slope, to launch myself into the crowded Market once more. It was a little overwhelming at first; smells and sounds, people and animals … hawkers shouting at the top of their voices, mummers and mountebanks all eager to entertain you for the price of a copper penny. On one corner, a man was juggling three flaming torches; he had a trained dog that went around the watching crowd, sitting down in front of each of the onlookers in turn. It had a tin tied to its collar, and if you didn’t drop a penny, it began to bark and howl and make a terrific fuss. It was fun to watch, but I hurried along all the same because I didn’t want the dog to sit down in front of me.
I moved through the throng, searching for a familiar face, but Nico was nowhere to be found. Not at the races, where Davin and Black-Arse were watching the other contestants judiciously and making remarks like “a bit narrow in the bone” or “not enough chest”. Nor at the wrestling ring, where a mob of Laclan men were roaring their heads off, cheering for their man. I looked in every beer tent I passed, but didn’t find him there either. Instead, I bumped into the carter who had nearly taken our space. I was so busy peering at the beer drinkers that I didn’t notice him until I backed into his heavy aproned middle.
“Have a care, lass,” he said. And then he recognised me. “Pushy, aren’t ye?”
“Sorry,” I said, lowering my gaze from old habit. “I didn’t see – “
“I’ll say ye did not. Nose in the air, I’ll wager. But ye cannot go knocking decent people over just because yer mama is the Shamer.”
“I never meant to,” I said, trying to edge past him.
“Hold yer horses,” he snarled, snatching at my arm. “Ye might at least have the manners to say ye’re sorry.
“I did.” I tried to pull away.
“Did ye now? Very quiet, it must have been, that ‘sorry’. Quite silent, I think.”
That man was such a pain. I was beginning to get really angry.
“Let go of my arm,” I said, “Or I’ll – “ Or I’ll yell, was what I meant to say, but he didn’t let me finish.
“Or what? Or ye’ll get yer mother to curse me? Threaten an honest man, would ye?”
I wasn’t scared, not really. I looked around quickly to see if Callan was anywhere near, but he wasn’t.
“I’m not threatening anyone,” I said, as calmly as I could. “And my mother can’t curse people. And even if she could, she wouldn’t.”
“A likely story.”
“A true story!” I glared at him. And right then, it happened. It wasn’t anything I wanted. It wasn’t anything I could control. Not any more. It was just a flash, a quick searing pain inside my head, and then it was gone.
He cried out and let go of my arm as if I had suddenly become too hot to hold.
“Witch brat,” he hissed, backing away, and this time he did make the witch sign in my face, fully visible to me and everyone else who cared to look.
I had looked at him with a Shamer’s eyes. I hadn’t meant to; perhaps it had happened because I was angry, or because he wouldn’t let go of me. Now he wouldn’t even look at me, much less touch me.
“Avert,” he cried, so loudly that people turned to stare. “Keep away from me with yer devilry!”
Other people were making the witch sign now. A woman clutching a basket full of eggs backed away, trying to look and not look at the same time, and a black-haired man in a red shirt simply stood there and stared, as if I had turned into a troll or a banshee before his eyes.
Time to leave, I thought.
“Just leave me alone,” I told the carter and turned to go.
The black-haired man in the red shirt was barring my way. At first I thought it was an accident and tried to move past him. But he was still in my way.
“Excuse me,” I said, politely. One fight a day was quite enough.
He didn’t move. And he was staring at me with the most peculiar look on his face, as if … I wasn’t quite sure. As if he had found something, perhaps.
“What is your name?” he asked, and his voice had a strange sort of lilt to it. He did not sound like a Highlander, nor like any Lowlander I knew. And from one ear dangled a jewelled earring, a silver serpent with green gemstone eyes. The men I knew did not wear jewellery like that.
My heart was beating more rapidly than before. Who was he, and why was he interested in me? Was it because of the things the carter had shouted to the world, about devilry and curses and the like? I felt no desire to tell him my name.
“Excuse me, I’m in a bit of a hurry … “
Suddenly he put a hand on either side of my face and looked straight into my eyes. There was no roughness to his grasp, it was just so unexpected. I took a step backwards, and he released me immediately.
For a moment we stared at each other. Then I spun around and began to walk away, back the way I had come.
“Wait,” he said.
I looked over my shoulder. He was following me. Oh, why hadn’t I waited for Callan? I started to run as best I could in the crowded Market street. Where was our own stall? I pushed through a narrow gap between two tents, leaped across a wagon shaft and dove beneath a table full of pottery, making the potter yell in surprise.
I didn’t stop. I just ran. Was this our street? Yes, down there at the end was Callan, so reassuringly big and trustworthy, and Rose, dressed up in her Market best in a green skirt and white embroidered blouse. I looked back once more, and to my relief there was no black-haired, red-shirted stranger bearing down on me.
“Hello again,” said Rose. “I’ve sold three of the little horses already, and a bowl! And the herbs are selling well, too.”
Mama was talking to a customer, getting her to sniff our thyme balm. She was careful to look at the jar, and not at the customer, but they were both smiling, and it looked like another sale.
“Great,” I said, pushing my fringe away from my forehead, and tried to calm my breathing.
Rose peered at me. “What happened?”
“Oh, I … bumped into the carter who tried to steal our space. He wasn’t in a great mood.”
“I bet not. He missed a great space. Serves him right, too.”
I don’t know why I didn’t say more. Perhaps it was just that Mama looked so happy right then, and I didn’t want her to become all anxious and worried again. But there might have been more to it than that. It was as if I could still feel his palms against my cheeks. His hands had been warm and slightly roughened. His hair and beard were carefully trimmed and black as night, like the fur of Maudi Kensie’s favourite hunting dog. And the eyes that had looked so searchingly into mine had been green. Just like my own.
“Did you see Nico?” asked Callan.
“No,” I said. “Perhaps he stopped somewhere along the way.”
Copyright © 2004 Lene Kaaberbol
This text is from an uncorrected proof