Chapter One: The Child Peddler
Among heather-grown slopes nested three low stone houses. A narrow cart track, not much more than a path, swerved to pass quite near, but there was little reason to halt here, unless one was very fond of heather, open sky, yew trees, and grazing sheep.
Nevertheless, a peddler's cart stood on the patch of packed dirt between the houses, and in the stonewalled fields the sheep had company - two mules and four horses rested, heads low and tails swishing, dozing in the early evening sun. And now we were making our way down the hill, my mother and I, and Callan Kensie. Most of the sheep stood stock still, watching us suspiciously, and I could almost feel their puzzlement. Probably they had never seen so many strangers at Harral's Place before.
The sun hung huge and orange just above the ridge. The day had been warm and almost summery, and the air was still pleasant. Next to the peddler's wagon, three men were playing cards, using a beer barrel for a table. A pile of round flatbreads, three mugs of beer, and a fat, darkly gleaming sausage competed for space on the barrel-top. It looked like something one might see outside any village inn on a breezy spring evening, until one noticed the leg iron that kept the peddler's ankle chained to his own wagon wheel.
The peddler carved himself a fat slice of sausage and slid the rest of it across the barrel-top towards the two men who were supposed to be guarding him.
"Here," he said. "Eat. A good game of cards can make a hole in a man's belly."
"Never mind the belly," grumbled one of the guards. "Losing four copper Marks and a perfectly good knife makes a sizeable hole in a man's pocket!" But his complaint was good-natured, and he accepted the sausage.
At that moment, one of the mules brayed earsplittingly, and the guards looked up and caught sight of us. They leaped to their feet, and one of them hastily swept the cards off the barrel, as if we had caught them doing something disgraceful. But I knew how they felt. It was hard to act harsh and commanding towards a man, once you started drinking his beer. And it was difficult to believe that there was any truth to the accusations that had been made against the cheerful little peddler. We knew him. He had come by our village often enough, and everyone enjoyed his visits. He was never without a joke or a good story, and he had a chuckling laugh and so many crow's feet that one could hardly see his eyes when he smiled. His eyebrows looked like two fat black slugs, except that they moved more quickly-one of them would shoot up questioningly at every other word. No, I thought, he was hardly guilty of anything more serious than cheating a bit on his measures. The boys must have run away, just like he said they had.
"Medama," said one guard, bowing in my mother's direction. He eyed me dubiously-just how polite did one have to be to an eleven-year-old girl? He settled for another bow, slightly less deep. "Medamina." After all, I was the Shamer's daughter. The third person in our party, Callan Kensie, received not a bow, but a measured nod, of the kind men give one another when there is respect between them, but not necessarily friendship. "Kensie. I thought you were guarding caravans down in the Lowlands?"
Callan returned the man's nod, in exactly the same manner. "Well met, Laclan. But no. I have other duties now."
"So. The Kensie clan take good care of their Shamer, I see." The guard's eyes rested for a moment on Callan's shoulders, very wide and knotted with the muscles a man gets from yielding a sword every day. Like most people, he avoided looking too hard at my mother. If one did not already know, the Shamer's Signet resting on her breast, in clear view, provided ample warning: a heavy round pewter circle, enamelled in white and black to look like an eye. I had one almost exactly like it, but blue instead of black, because I was still only my mother's apprentice. Anyone who saw the Signet would look away-or pay the price.
The peddler had also risen. "Well met," he said, grinning. "And none too soon. The company has been pleasant, but I had hoped to reach Baur Laclan before dark."
There was no trace of anxiety in his manner, and I grew even more convinced of his innocence. Not many people await the Shamer's call with such steadiness. He bowed briefly, to my mother and then to me. "Well met," he repeated, "But what a pity to send two ladies on such a long journey, and for no reason."
My mother raised her head an glanced briefly at the peddler.
"Let us hope there is no reason," she said, not loudly, nor in any threatening tone of voice. Yet for the first time the grin on the little man's face started slipping, and he raised his hand to his mouth involuntarily, as if to prevent more words from escaping. But he recovered quite quickly.
"May I offer some refreshment after your long ride? Good beer? A bite to eat?"
"Thank you, no," said my mother politely. "I have a duty. That must come first."
She dismounted, graceful still despite the long ride. Falk, our black gelding, nosed her hopefully, wanting to be rid of his bridle, but she handed the reins to Callan. I got down off of the small tough Highlander pony I had borrowed-less gracefully, I'm afraid. I get less practise. Callan loosened the girths to allow the horses to breathe freely, but he made no move to unsaddle them. He clearly did not expect a long stay.
"What is your name, Peddler?" my mother asked, quietly still, with no hint of anger or threat.
"Hanibal Laclan Castor, at the lady's service," he said, delivering an unexpectedly graceful bow.
My mother pushed back the hood of her cloak and looked at him. "My name is Melussina Tonerre, and I have been tasked to look at you with a Shamer's eyes, and speak to you with a Shamer's voice. Hanibal Laclan Castor, look at me!"
The peddler started, as if someone had turned his own long skinner's whip on him. The tendons in his neck stood out tightly, like the strings on a lute. Much against his will, he raised his head to meet my mother's gaze. For a while, the two of them stood locked in complete silence. Sweat beaded the peddler's forehead, but my mother's face remained as expressionless as a mask of stone. All at once, the peddler's legs buckled, and he dropped to his knees in front of her. Still she held his gaze. He knotted his fists so tightly that his nails bit into the palms, and n0 a few drops of blood appeared between the clenched fingers on one hand. But however much he wanted to, he could not look away.
"Release me, Medama," he finally begged, choking. "Be merciful. Let me go!"
"Tell them what you have done," she said. "Tell them, and let them witness it. Then I shall release you."
"Medama ... I have merely done a bit of business ..."
"Tell them. Tell them exactly what you mean by 'doing a bit of business,' Hanibal Laclan Castor!" For the first time, emotion crept into my mother's voice: a seething contempt which made the little peddler shrink and become visibly smaller.
"Two boys," the peddler breathed, his voice hardly more than a whisper. "I took two boys into my service. It was an act of human kindness, they were both orphans ... No one in the village wanted them ... I treated them well, fed them properly and saw to it that they were decently clothed. They had never been better off in their lives!" The last words came loudly and defiantly, a final defence. But they did not impress my mother.
"Tell us what happened later. How kindly you then acted."
"The winter was a hard one. I lost an entire load of seed corn when we were snowlocked at Sagisloc. It sprouted and fermented, corn worth sixty silver Marks, completely useless! And the boys ... one of them was all right, a soft and biddable lad. Not very strong, though. But the other! Trouble, he was, always trouble, from the very day I laid eyes on him. One time he pinched seven needles from my stock and sold them on his own. And spent the profits on cake and hot cider! Gave him a beating for that. Of course I did. But it was useless. He only got worse. Always contrary, always disobedient. If I asked him to unhitch the mules, he would scowl and tell me to do it myself. Send him for firewood? He would be gone for hours, and I would see neither hair nor hide of him until the fire had been long lit and the soup cooked. What was I to do? Sooner or later he'd have scarpered, and there I'd be, with nothing to show for all the money I'd spent on food and clothing for that lout. No doubt he would have taken the other one with him, they were such little pals, the two of them."
The peddler's flow of words came to a halt.
"And then?" My mother's voice prodded him onwards. "What did you do then?"
"Then ... I found them other employment."
"With a real gentleman-cousin to Drakan himself, the Dragon Lord at Dunark. Not such a bad fate, I'd say-serving a Lord. If they play their cards right, they may end up with a knighthood! The Dragon Lord looks not on birth and reputation, they say, but on whether a man serves him well and true."
"And the price, Peddler ... Tell us your reward."
"There were my expenses ..." the peddler moaned. "Had to get a bit of my own back, didn't I? What's so bad about that? "
"How much, Peddler?" The question came like a lash, and the peddler opened his mouth to answer, unable to stop himself.
"Fifteen silver Marks for the runt, and twenty-three for the lout. He was tall and strong for his age."
The guards who had drunk his beer and eaten his food now looked as if they regretted it. One of them spat, to clear the taste from his mouth. But my mother had not finished with the man.
"And it was then that you discovered that this was a profitable line of business, wasn't it? Tell us, so that the witnesses may hear. How many more? How many more children did you sell to Drakan?"
It seemed that for the first time the peddler looked beyond defences and excuses. His wrinkled face was pale now, the eyes lightless like charcoal. Only now, trapped in the merciless mirror that the Shamer had created for him, did he see himself clearly. His voice cracked.
"Nineteen," he said, hoarse with shame. "Including the first two ..."
"The outcasts. The orphans. The rebels and the crazies, the slow-witted and the crippled. The ones the villages are eager to be rid of. Do you really think, Hanibal Laclan Castor, that Drakan buys them so that he can make knights out of them?"
Tears trickled among the crow's feet. "Let me go. Medama, I humbly beg, let me be ... I'm so ashamed. By the Holy Saint Magda, I'm so ashamed ..."
"Witnesses. You have heard this man's confession. Have I done my duty?"
"Shamer, we have heard his words. You have done your duty," said one guard slowly and formally, glancing contemptuously at the weeping man crouched at her feet.
My mother closed her eyes.
"What will ye do to the little bastard?" Callan asked, not even deigning to look at the peddler.
"He is a Laclan," said one of the guards. "Through his grandfather only, but still ... The Laclan clan must judge him. We'll stay here overnight and bring him to Baur Laclan in the morning."
"To sell people ... to sell children ..." Callan's voice was thick with disgust. "I hope he hangs!"
"Likely so," said the guard drily. "Helena Laclan is not a soft woman, and she has children of her own. And grandchildren."
Callan tightened the girths and then offered his hand to my mother, who had sunk down on one of the stone walls, looking completely exhausted.
"Medama Tonerre? Will ye ride? The sky is clear and we'll have a full moon to see by. And I've no liking for his company." He jerked his head towards the peddler.
Mama raised her head, but politely refrained from looking straight at him. "Yes. Yes, let's ride, Callan." She accepted his hand, but was too proud to let herself be lifted into the saddle. She made it on her own, but we could all see that she was shivering from strain and exhaustion. No doubt it would have been more sensible to stay the night, but I bit my lip and did not speak until we had crossed the first ridge and were out of sight of the guards and their sniffling prisoner.
"Was it bad?" I asked cautiously. She looked as if she was in no fit state to sit a horse.
The same thought had occurred to Callan. "Are ye fit to ride, Medama?" he asked. "We could make camp . . ."
She shook her head. "I'll be fine. But it's ... Callan, I see what he sees. When I look into his soul and his memory ... To me it's not just a number. Nineteen. Nineteen children. I've seen their faces. Every one of them. And now ... He has bought them. Bought them and paid for them, as though they were animals. What do you think he is going to use them for?"
None of us had an answer. But as we followed the track below the heather hills and the darkness grew close around us, I heard Callan mutter once more:
"I hope the little bastard hangs."
He didn't. A couple of days later, a sheepish-looking Laclan rider came to tell us that the little peddler had carved through the spoke of the wagon wheel they had chained him to, using the knife he had won at cards. He had run off, and Laclan had now declared him an outlaw in the Highlands, denying him his name and his clan rights from now on till the end of time. Anyone who saw him could now kill him freely, without fearing Laclan's wrath. But no one had seen him since.
English translation copyright © 2003 by Lene Kaaberbol
This text is from an uncorrected proof.