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Marit was pretty sure she had been murdered. She recalled vividly the assassin's dagger that had punctured her skin, thrust up under her ribs, and pierced her heart. Any reeve—and Marit was a reeve—could tell you that was a killing blow, a certain path to a swift death. In the moment when life must pass over into death and the spirit depart the body, the misty outlines of the Spirit Gate unfold. The passage between this world and the other world had opened within her dying vision. But her spirit had not made the journey.
She woke alone, sprawled naked on a Guardian altar with only a cloak for a covering. Her eagle was dead. She knew it in the same way you know an arm is missing without looking to see: Your balance is different. Her eagle was dead, so she must be dead, because no reeve survived the death of her eagle.
Yet that being so, how could she stand up, much less stagger to the edge of a drop-off so sheer she hadn't noticed it because she was disoriented? She stepped into thin air before she knew she'd mistaken her ground, and she was falling, falling, the wind whistling in her ears. The earth plunged up to meet her.
Then she woke, sprawled naked on a Guardian altar with only a cloak for covering, and realized she had been dreaming.
Sitting, she rubbed her eyes. The place in her dream had been a narrow ledge without even a wall to warn of the drop-off. This place was high and exposed, an expanse of glittering stone untouched by vegetation. She rose cautiously and ventured to the highest point on the bluff. She stood at the prow of a ridgeline. The vista was astonishing: In front lay a lowland sink dropping away to a wide cultivated plain that extended toward a distant suggestion of water; to her right spread a pulsing green riot of forest so broad she could not see the end of it; behind, ragged hills covered with trees formed a barrier formidable not because of their height but because they were wild. The wind streamed over the ridge, rumbling in her ears.
She knew right where she was: on the southernmost spur of the Liya Hills, an excellent spot for thermals that an eagle and her reeve could spiral on for hours with a view of the Haya Gap. The vast tangled forest known as the Wild lay to the south, and the lowland plain that bordered the arm of the ocean known as the Bay of Istria ran east.
She knew right where she was.
Aui! She was standing on a Guardian altar.
So far nothing had happened to her. But that didn't change the unalterable fact that she had broken the boundaries that forbade all people, even reeves, from entering the sacred refuges known as Guardian altars. She had broken the boundaries, and now she would be punished according to the law.
That being so, what had happened to her lover, Joss, who had after all been the one who had persuaded her to follow him up to an altar?
There was only one way to find out: walk to the main compound of Copper Hall, which lay about midway between the cities of Haya and Nessumara, and find out what was going on.
The altar wasn't so difficult to get down from after all. A stair carved into rock switchbacked down the stone face and into a sinkhole that twisted to become an ordinary musty cave with a narrow mouth hidden by vegetation. She ducked under the trailing vines of hangdog and pushed through a thicket of clawed beauty whose thorns slipped right off the tempting fabric of the cloak. Clusters of orange flowers bobbed around her, which struck her as odd because clawed beauty only bloomed in the early part of the year, during the season of the Flower Rains, and that was months away.
Except for the rest of the afternoon and the following days it rained in erratic bursts as she trudged through the woodland cover. The trails she followed became slick with puddles and damp leaves. She slopped alongside cultivated lands. Farmers, bent double in ankle-deep water, transplanted young rice plants. Women dragged hoes through flooded fields, skimming off the weeds and setting them aside for animal fodder. The sun set and rose in its familiar cycle. As she moved toward the coast and low-lying land, the dykes and edges had their own distinctive flora: pulses, soya, hemp, with ranks of mulberries on the margins. She kept her cloak wrapped tightly around her, but anyway people were too busy to notice her.
Soon enough paths joined cart tracks that joined wagon roads that met up with the broad North Shore Road. Although the original Copper Hall had been built on the delta, the main compound was now sited about forty mey south of Haya on one of a series of bluffs overlooking the Bay of Istria with a lovely vantage and good air currents swirling where land met sea.
It had been years since she had walked to the turning for Copper Hall. Once Flirt had chosen her, she had always flown. The paved roadbed was raised on a foundation and surfaced with cut stones fitted together as cunningly as a mosaic, flanked by margins of crushed stone. From an eagle, you didn't notice the remarkable skill and craftsman's work, or the stone benches set at intervals as a kindly afterthought. From an eagle, one's view of the roads turned from textured ramps of earth, gravel, and paving stone into the all-important solid lines linking cities and towns and temples.
She trudged past the triple-gated entrance to a temple dedicated to Ilu, the Herald. The gatekeeper slouched on a wooden bench under a thatched lean-to, staring disinterestedly at the road. His dog whined, ears flat, and slunk under the bench. She wrapped her cloak more tightly, but no one—not the gatekeeper and none of the folk walking along the road—paid the slightest attention to her. Salt spray nipped the air. Fish ponds lined the rocky shore. The bay gleamed gray-blue in late-afternoon light, waves kicking against the seawall.
On the seaward edge the land rose into a series of high bluffs while the road curved inland past rice fields lined with reeds and salt grass. As the sun set, she found an empty byre to shelter in against the night rains, its straw mildewed. She didn't really sleep; she lay with eyes closed and thoughts in a tangle, never quite coming into focus.
She woke at dawn and rose and walked, and at last saw the stout stone pillar carved with a hood and feather in relief and the huge wooden perch, freshly whitewashed, that marked the turning to Copper Hall. She was home.
Wiping tears from her eyes, she plodded up the long slope toward the high ground, feeling more and more winded, as if all the life and spirit were being drained out of her. As if she was afraid. How would she be greeted by her comrades at the reeve hall? She had broken the boundaries. She would have to accept punishment.
Aui! She had to find out what had happened to Joss, protect him if she could or back him up on his reckless decision to investigate the Guardian's altar in Liya Pass. Hadn't he been right? Wasn't it true that something was terribly wrong?
No person in the Hundred had stood before a Guardian at an assizes since her long-dead grandfather was a boy. Anyway, an old man's memory might be suspect. The meticulous records stored in Sapanasu's temples recording the proceedings of assizes courts where Guardians had presided might, in fact, be explained as a conventional form used by the clerks and hierophants of the Lantern to account the decisions made by wandering judges who were otherwise perfectly human.
Many said the Guardians had abandoned the Hundred. Others said the Guardians had never existed, that they were only characters sung in the Tales. Yet on the Guardian's altar up on the Liya Pass, she and Joss had discovered bones—the bones of a murdered Guardian, maybe, because a pelvis could have been splintered in that way only by a tremendous fall or a massive blow.
But all the tales agreed that Guardians couldn't die.
The reeve hall was a huge compound surrounded by fields and orchards and open ground where a pair of reeves—relatively new ones, by the look of their tentative maneuvers—were learning to harness up under the supervision of a patient fawkner. She didn't recognize the young reeves, but she was pretty sure the fawkner was her good friend Gadit, although she was holding her body at a canted angle, as if her right shoulder was stiff from injury.
High watchtowers stretched up as little more than scaffolding. She did not recognize the pair of very young men lounging on gate duty, but their bored faces and listless chatter irritated her. They did not bother to challenge her, and they ought to have; she was an unlikely sight, with her naked feet and calves and a cloak clutched tightly around her body, yet she walked through the gate unremarked. She would have words with Marshal Alard about their lackadaisical attitude.
It was difficult to remain annoyed in the familiar environs she loved: the wide-open land-side parade ground with its chalk-laced dusty earth; the low storehouses side by side in marching order; the barracks and eating hall sited where the high ground dipped, making a bit of a windbreak; the high lofts set back to either side, and beyond them the seaward parade ground that overlooked the cliff and the choppy bay.
Most reeves must be out on patrol, since she did not recognize the few faces she saw. Two very young fawkner's assistants scurried toward the lofts with harness draped awkwardly over their backs. A youth shuffled past holding a cook's ladle while sneezing and wiping his nose. A young woman seated on a bench was sniveling while Marit's dear friend and fellow reeve Kedi spoke in the tone of a man who has said the same cursed words a hundred times:
"It's done, Barda. When an eagle chooses you, you've got no choice in the matter."
"But I don't want this. I never wanted it." She wasn't a whiner. She was genuinely overwhelmed, her eyes rimmed red but hollow-dark beneath; her hands were trembling. "I was supposed to get married tomorrow. All the temples agreed it was an auspicious day for a wedding, Transcendent Ox, in the Month of the Deer, in the Year of the Blue Ox. Especially for a long and steady and calm alliance. That's all I ever wanted, and I like Rigard, only now his clan has called off the wedding. They've broken the contract, because now I'm a reeve. I was just walking to market and the bird dropped down out of the sky and I screamed I was so scared. Don't you see? My life is ruined!"
Kedi sighed in that weary way he had. His hair had been trimmed back tightly against the skull, almost shaven bare like a clerk of Sapanasu, and when he shifted to slap away a fly Marit realized he was leaning on a crutch. He wasn't putting any weight on his left leg.
"Heya! Kedi!" she called.
But he was too intent on the young woman. "I know it's not what you wanted. But let me tell you that every reeve in this hall envies you for the eagle who chose you."
"Trouble? It's a stupid name. She scares me."
"She's the most beautiful and best-tempered raptor in the Hundred."
Trouble! Marit wanted to ask what had happened to Trouble's reeve Sisha, a particularly good friend who besides could hold more ale than anyone, but Kedi had launched into an energetic description of Trouble that would make the hardest heart melt, so she walked down the alleyway between storehouse and fawkner's barracks that led to the marshal's garden.
Alard had loved flowers, the more resplendent, the better. So Marit was startled to see that his carefully nurtured beds of azaleas and peonies and heaven-full-of-stars had been replanted into ranks of practical herbs, as though the cook and the infirmarian had snuck in when the old man wasn't looking.
She climbed the steps to the roofed porch, where she paused, listening to the shush of a broom around the corner in a steady accompaniment to voices murmuring beyond the closed doors. Ladiya appeared butt-first, attention focused on lines of dirt forming ranks along the boards.
"Can I go in?" Marit asked.
The old woman still had her back to Marit and did not answer. She tilted her head to one side until it rested against the thin wall. Eavesdropping.
As the voices from inside were raised, it was impossible not to overhear.
"You've been marshal for one month. I'm surprised you waited so long to get rid of me!"
To hear his voice, healthy and strong and angry, hurt like a dagger to the heart, but it was the pain of unlooked-for joy that brought tears to her eyes. He was still alive.
"Joss, you have the makings of a good reeve—of an excellent reeve, perhaps—but you are out of control." The words were emphasized in a firm voice, entirely calm and utterly sincere. She knew that voice very well. It went on speaking, each word crisp as if with frustration hooded. "Still, with things the way they are, and the problems in Herelia, I can do nothing but send you to Clan Hall to get you out of my jesses. I will let the commander deal with you, thank the gods, so that I do not have to. I have enough to deal with here. If I could keep you belled I would, but I cannot. In the old days, so they say, a rogue and errant reeve was subject to execution for the kind of insubordination we have seen from you, the repeated breaking of the law, going time and again to Guardian altars despite knowing that it is absolutely out of bounds, despite knowing what happened the first time you did it. But we do not have the luxury now of punishing you in that way. The gods know we need you, and especially we need Scar. So I am sending you to Clan Hall and that is final. You leave today."
The last word rang. Afterward, there came a pause. Marit braced herself for the storm.
Instead of an answer, one of the doors was slammed open and Joss—as handsome as ever!—charged with all his loose-limbed passionate grace out of the chamber and past Marit without giving her a glance.
"Joss," she said. "Sweetheart."
He was already gone.
Ladiya turned around as a reeve whose short hair was laced with silver walked onto the porch in Joss's wake.
"Did you overhear all that?" he asked without a sliver of amusement, but he wasn't angry either. Masar was the most upright, bland, and humorless person Marit had ever known, and she had known him pretty well, having taken him as a lover for half a year when she was a lot younger. He'd been as humorless in bed as out of it, and he'd accepted her departure from the affair with a straight face and never in the years after showed the slightest sign that he resented her or, for that matter, pined after her. He was absolutely rock solid, a person who would back you up and risk his life to save yours and never ever cross the line past which proper behavior became improper.
Except that he was holding the marshal's staff with its jessed and hooded cap, the mark of authority in Copper Hall.
Ladiya said, "It's hard to resist a lad with good looks and the charm to back them up, but even I can see how he's gone wild since her death. Three years now, it's been. You would think he'd have devoured or drunk it off by now. You're going easy on him, Marshal."
Masar said, "I keep hoping he will settle down. I do not know what else to do. Nor do I need to. He is Clan Hall's problem now."
"Masar," Marit said. "Ladiya. What happened to Joss? Where is Marshal Alard?" She extended a hand, touched Masar's elbow. "How long have I been gone—?" Faltering, she gingerly patted Ladiya on the upper arm to get her attention.
They neither of them looked at her or appeared to hear her voice or feel her hand. She might as well not have been standing there, for all the notice they took.
At last it all made sense. As the thoughts lined up in their neat ranks, a weight—more of terror than pain—settled in her chest. All that long way she had walked from the Guardian's altar across the plain, for days and days she had walked and only now did it occur to her that she had not eaten or drunk or even truly slept. No one had spoken to her or acknowledged her.
No one had seen her.
And for that matter, her feet weren't dirty.
"Great Lady," she whispered, as Masar beckoned to Ladiya and they walked past her back into the marshal's cote and slid the door shut in her face. "Great Lady . . ." Prayers failed.
That girl named Barda had stated that she had intended to marry tomorrow, an auspicious day made especially so because it was also the Year of the Blue Ox.
Marit was pretty sure she had been stabbed by an assassin's dagger in the Year of the Black Eagle. Three years before the Year of the Blue Ox.
The cloak fell open as she extended both arms and stared at the paler skin of her palms, like a ghost's hands against her brown complexion.
Joss had "gone wild since her death."
Three years it had been, according to Ladiya.
Now she understood the punishment laid on her.
Marit walked out of Copper Hall, one clean foot set in front of the other clean foot and the first again and the second again, out to the turning, and there she stared one way along the North Shore Road and after that the other way. People were out and about, going on their business and their lives. They couldn't see her, because she was dead.
Is this what it means to be a wandering ghost, one whose spirit has failed to cross through the Spirit Gate?
She wept without sound because no one could hear her. At length she got bored of standing there and crying to no purpose. She turned north and walked toward Haya. The mey passed smoothly; no wonder she didn't tire. Questions dove like stooping eagles.
Do I even exist?
If no one can see me or hear me, then why can I see and hear myself?
What do I do now?
Late in the afternoon with the waters of the bay settling into their twilight calm and the light fading in the east, she saw the triple-gated entrance to the temple of Ilu beside the road and wondered if she could overnight in the lean-to. The bored young apprentice sitting as gatekeeper would not care. He would not even see her.
He was playing ticks-and-tacks in the dirt with a stick and pebbles. His dog whined and cowered, and the youth looked up and down the road and, seeing nothing, scratched its head absently. The temple compound was set back from the road, separated by gardens where the envoys and apprentices grew vegetables. The last workers were shouldering their hoes and rakes and laughing together as they headed up the track toward the compound walls. One shuffling figure wandered through the rows, bending to finger the strong green shoots.
A woman broke away from the laborers. "Here, now, Mokass. Come along. It's time for our gruel."
The lone figure skipped away from her, gabbling in a singsong voice. With a most unholy oath, the woman chased after him. He bolted, giggling, for the gate, a white-haired old man with bent shoulders and bowed back but nimble legs. The dog lifted an ear and barked once. The young gatekeeper heaved up, muttering.
"Oh, the hells. Not again." But he wasn't really angry.
The old man skittered to a halt beneath the gate, staring at Marit. He leaped back a single hop, and raised both hands palms-out.
"Death, death!" he chanted. Tears flowed suddenly. "Go away, fearsome one!"
"Can you see me?" Marit demanded.
"I never did it! I never stole that coin. Anyway, you don't want anyone here. Just walk on."
The woman caught up with him and took hold of his right arm. "Here, now. Don't go running off. It's time for our gruel." She nodded at the gatekeeper. "Good work, Lagi."
"I did nothing. He just stopped of his own accord and started babbling."
"He's gods-touched," said the woman with as much fondness as exasperation. "Poor old soul."
"I beg you," said Marit. "Mokass. Is that your name? I need your help."
"You've got no call to be knowing my name! Go away! We don't want you here."
The dog took courage from the old man's defiance and began to bark at Marit. In sympathy, more dogs within the compound started up a yammer.
"Aui! Mokass, just come along, now you've got them all going. My ears will swell up and drop off from the noise!" The woman dragged on him, and he wasn't strong enough to do more than stumble along unwillingly behind.
"Have to send death off!" he cried. "Go away! Go away!"
"In the name of the Lady, I beg you, Mokass," Marit called after him. "Go to the reeve hall and tell that the ghost of Marit sends warning: Beware Lord Radas of Iliyat. Let someone warn Copper Hall: Beware Lord Radas. He's the one who had me and my eagle killed."
"Hush, now! Sit!" Lagi towered over the dog, scolding. "You cursed beast! What's gotten into you?"
Mokass hopped, waving his hands as though batting away a swarm of wasps. "Aui! Aui! Her eagle is copper. I was born in Iliyat, did you know that? But I won't tell any tales. They're all lies." He did not look back over his shoulder, and his companion crooned soothingly as they walked away.
Marit sank into a crouch and covered her head with her arms, just sat on her heels and rocked. But it did no good. Nothing changed. The cursed dog kept barking, and finally the youth whapped him a single hard blow to shut him up, and that was too much for Marit. She jumped to her feet and ran off, not wanting the poor dog to be punished for doing its duty just because the only person who could see her was an old man not right in the head.
She walked through the night with its scraps of clouds and a Sickle Moon fattening toward the half, and at last she fumbled with the clasp and tore off the cloak and flung it aside with a scream of frustration and grief and fury and fear. She ran, as if by sprinting she might churn Spirit Gate into being and race through it to the other side, where she could find peace.
The running caught up with her. She began to cough, and could not take in air. A wind rose off the bay, howling up the road and over the fields. She staggered to a halt and fell to her knees, bracing herself on her hands as she gulped and hacked and gagged, her vision fading in and out. The world tilted and spun. She pitched forward, hit the gravel with her shoulder, and tumbled onto her back. A white mist rose off the road, rippling and billowing. Blown by the raging wind, the cloak slithered along the ground. Rising to envelop her, it molded itself to her face until she could not breathe. She fought and clawed, but it devoured her.
There was no pain.
She woke alone, sprawled naked on a Guardian altar with only a cloak for a covering. Her eagle was dead, so she must be dead, because no reeve survived the death of her eagle. Since it was too much trouble to try to make sense of the world, she slept.
In her dreams she trudged up hills or slogged through swampy coastlands, searching for the man she loved or for her eagle or for an answer. She wandered, lost and alone, and kept falling, falling, until she woke again with the cloak wrapped around her. She found herself in a new place, one she did not recognize except it was high and exposed and the stone ledge on which she lay glittered with a twisting pattern grown into the rock.
It was a Guardian altar, just like the ones before.
She had a headache as bad as if she'd been sucking sweet-smoke, drugged and dazzled for days, as good an explanation as any although how she had gotten up to a Guardian's altar she could not figure. It seemed she was only now truly waking up. Probably she had dreamed the entire journey to Copper Hall.
She felt thirsty and hungry, and she wanted clothing because the winds on the height chilled her. With the cloak clasped at her throat, she climbed a treacherous path down to the base of the altar, bloodying her feet and hands. She stumbled through sparse highlands forest and happened upon a shepherd's high pasture cottage, uninhabited in the cold season. Here she found a storeroom with old but serviceable tools and hunting equipment. She also found humble clothing, needing a wash that, she discovered later, hadn't gotten out all the clinging lice, and a stash of nuts and moldering nai to be pounded into a paste for a stale porridge.
The thing is, when you're not sure if you have become a ghost or perhaps something more frightening, you are wise to choose prudence. When a winged horse lands in the highlands meadow where you are sheltering, where you are trying to make sense of what has happened to you, you don't chase it away. You investigate, because you are still a reeve in your heart. In a small bag hooked to the back of the saddle, you discover a modest offering bowl like those beggars carry, and a polished black stone. The offering bowl presents no surprises; it is just a bowl. But when you place the stone in your left hand to get a better look at it, a sharp pain strikes up your arm and a flash like lightning sears you.
When you wake again, to find yourself on the ground with dirt and debris covering you as though a storm has blown over you or days have passed, and that cursed horse slobbering across your face as it nuzzles you, then you discover that the stone has vanished.
But at night, you can call light from your palm.
Marit was weak, too exhausted to travel. She lived in the shelter through the cold season, gathering and hunting. Once she had gained enough strength, she cut herself an exercise staff to work through the conditioning forms taught to reeves.
The winged horse vanished for intervals that never lasted longer than a day. She never saw it graze in the meadow or drink from the cold stream, which made her suspect that it, too, was a ghost: the ghost of a Guardian's winged horse. The Guardians were dead and gone. She had herself seen the bones of a dead Guardian, the day she was murdered on the Liya Pass. Most likely this state of being betwixt and between was indeed the punishment she had received for walking onto a Guardian altar when everyone knew it was forbidden.
But at least Joss still lived. He had survived. That was her consolation.
Copyright © 2008 by Katrina Elliott. All rights reserved.