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The following spring in Pelnar
The Dragonlords came to the inn after a miserable day of riding in the rain. Water pooled among the cobblestones of the yard between inn and stable; the earth was so sodden it had nowhere to go.
Linden swung down from Shan and stepped right into a puddle. Brown water lapped over his boot toes. He sighed in resignation; it wasn't as if his boots—and Maurynna's and Shima's—weren't already soaked through, but still … He heard Maurynna's disgusted "Feh!" and knew she'd done the same.
"Gods, but I'm sick of this rain," she said. "If we don't dry out soon, we're going to turn into fishes."
Shima pushed back the hood of his cloak a little. "I don't think I've seen as much rain in my entire life as we've had in the last tenday. I'm glad we're stopping so early in the day." He looked up at the leaden sky and grimaced. "If this keeps up, I'm going back to my desert in Nisayeh!"
Even the Llysanyins looked disgusted as the little party waited for the grooms. The three stallions stood morosely, water dripping from the ends of their noses.
"Hopefully it will end in the next day or so and we can wait out the rain here," Linden said, eyeing the inn.
It was a large one, and—to him—new, being only about fifty years or so old. Though he'd never had occasion to travel this particular route since the first timbers had gone up for the Gyrfalcon's Nest, other Dragonlords had. "Damned fine ale," Brock Hatussin, another Yerrin like Linden, had reported. "Even better wine and cider. Good food and plenty of it. And best of all, not only are the beds clean, they're long enough for a Yerrin or a Thalnian."
For which I will thank the gods, Linden thought. Both he and Maurynna were fed up. The last few inns where they'd stopped, they'd had to sleep curled up like hedgehogs to keep their feet from hanging over the ends of the beds.
Thinking that the grooms might not have realized that more travelers had arrived, he led the way toward the stable. "I'd really like to get inside and dry out as quickly as possible," he said to his Llysanyin, Shan. "Will you go with the grooms when they come? Brock said that they know their business."
Shan snapped at a raindrop. Linden knew the stallion was as annoyed as he was with the turn the weather had taken a tenday ago. Before that, their journey from the College of Healers' Gift in Pelnar had been pure pleasure. Up in the crispness of dawn, a leisurely ride in the morning coolness, then a long midday halt to avoid the worst of the summer heat, followed by another easy ride and a stop at an inn or a night spent under the stars: a traveler's delight. Everyone had enjoyed it—until the cursed rain started.
As they neared the stable door, it opened and a man bustled out, followed by two smaller figures so swaddled in their cloaks it was impossible to tell their age or sex.
"Sorry, m'lords and lady," the man said cheerfully, peering nearsightedly at them through the curtain of rain. "But a large party arrived a bit ahead of you and we've just finished with their animals. Luckily we've enough room left for your horses." He beamed at each of them in turn.
One potential disaster averted, thank the gods; Linden knew if Shan had to spend another night outdoors, he'd make sure Linden would be in for a bad time the next morning. He tossed the reins to the nearest groom. "Behave yourself," he whispered to Shan.
Shan slapped him with his tail as he passed, then danced out of reach and calmly followed the groom. Boreal and Je'nihahn snorted in amusement as they followed.
"One of these days," Linden muttered as he turned toward the inn. "One of these days…"
"Let's get inside and dry off," Maurynna said. "Then I want something hot to eat and drink. I'm starving and I swear the wet has gotten into my bones. Heat spells just aren't enough anymore."
"I just hope this town we're going to is worth it," Shima grumbled.
"Hmm—I'm not so certain the town is worth it, but the horse fair certainly is," Linden said.
"Isn't that where the fair is?"
"No. It's close to it, though. There's the Balyaranna Fair outside the royal town of Balyaranna, where Balyaranna Castle sits. The grounds that the fair is held on belong to Lord Sevrynel and are part of his holding, the Honor of Rockfall."
"So why isn't this the Rockfall Fair?" Shima wanted to know.
"Because it takes its name from Balyaranna Spring in the Honor of Rockfall," Linden said with a grin.
Shima threw his hands up in mock exasperation as they turned the corner to the front of the timbered building. Linden pushed open the heavy oaken door.
A swell of warmth and rich, savory aromas washed over them as they paused on the threshold. Linden's stomach growled in anticipation. Stepping inside, his first impression was of wall-to-wall people and a constellation's worth of rushlights. Maurynna and Shima followed, the latter turning to close the door behind them.
Linden took a few steps into the common room and pushed back the hood of his cloak, as did Maurynna. He surveyed the scene before them.
There weren't quite as many people as he'd first thought, but the inn was certainly crowded; there was barely room to turn around. Many looked to be merchants, dressed well but not richly. They sat with their heads close together in conversation. Their clerks sat nearby, some jotting figures on tally boards, most playing dice or other games, a few looking bored unto death. One and all, the well-to-do merchants and their assistants ignored their lesser brethren, the peddlers, as the latter moved among the other patrons.
These were peasants dressed in homespun. Some of them sat in a corner with a peddler as they pored over wares spread upon a cloth on the floor. There was even a red-and-yellow-clad minstrel at one table, listening intently to two men and a woman dressed in hunting leathers. A group of peasant women sat off to one side; judging by the gales of laughter and the knowing looks, Linden guessed their husbands and lovers might not be pleased with the tales making the rounds. A few of the women looked him up and down and smiled a welcome. Then their gazes went to Maurynna standing by him. Next came a good-humored, resigned shrug and they turned back to their friends.
But merchant, peasant, peddler, farmer, or the gods only knew what, they all had one thing in common: All talked at the top of their lungs. The noise in the common room was well-nigh deafening.
Shima joined them now. He still wore his hood pulled low over his face and kept his hands hidden inside his cloak, thank all the gods. Linden and Maurynna had found it was no use trying to pass as truehumans when Shima was with them. One look at his dark, honey-colored skin and long, arrow-straight black hair, and anyone with half his wits knew he wasn't of the Five Kingdoms or even from Assantik. Worse yet, too many folk also knew by now that there was only one such man in the Five Kingdoms—and they well knew that he was a Dragonlord, one of the great weredragons that held a rank equal with any king or queen.
Linden sighed. If only Otter hadn't written that song about our mission to Jehanglan.…
Shima muttered, "Is there a quieter room we can go to? It's too hot to stay bundled up like this, but you know what will happen if I drop my hood."
Linden nodded. They knew all too well: instant, uncomfortable silence. But the serving girls were too busy to notice them and he couldn't tell where the two doorways at the far end of the room led; the last place they wanted to wander into was a busy kitchen.
Then the right-hand door swung open; before it shut again, Linden caught a glimpse of the kitchen as a portly woman sailed through. Weaving a path through the crowd, she came up to them.
"Good day, Dragonlords, and welcome to the Gyrfalcon's Nest," she said quietly. "I'm Elidiane Tunly, one of the owners of this inn, and at your service. I'm sure that you'd prefer a bit of privacy, so please follow me if you will." She turned and started off.
Linden blinked. A quick glance told him that Shima was still hidden within the folds of his cloak. He caught up to her. "How did—?"
"My husband. Watkin, my lord. You met him outside." She looked back at them, her brown eyes alight with amusement. "We've had Dragonlords here before, Your Graces, so Wat knows what a Llysanyin looks like. That there were no bits on the bridles clinched it. He sent our son to warn me."
She led them through the other door and into a quiet hallway. As soon as the door closed behind them, Shima tossed back his hood with a sigh of relief. "That's better. I hate the smell of damp wool—too much like having a wet dog in your face."
Four more doors lined this hall, two on each side, and the murmur of voices and muted laughter could be heard behind them. These were the private rooms where travelers who did not care for the hubbub of the common room—and could afford it—might dine and take their ease.
The innkeeper asked, "So—how may I help you, Your Graces?"
"Food, a quiet place to eat, and rooms," Maurynna said. She twitched her cloak, sending drops of water flying. "I can't wait to get dry again."
A tiny frown creased Elidiane's forehead. "Oh, dear—we've only one room left.…"
Damnation. Linden had been looking forward to a bit of privacy. For one moment he considered insisting she roust someone, anyone, out of their room. But the desperate look in the innkeeper's eyes made him relent. Likely the private rooms were already taken by nobles or wealthy merchants who were the inn's regular custom, while he, Maurynna, and Shima might well never pass this way again in her lifetime. And he knew full well who'd suffer if the unlucky person or persons took offense; it would not be the Dragonlords.
"We're willing to share." He tried to keep the resignation from his voice. By the amused look in Shima's eyes, he didn't do very well.
"And there's only one bed."
"I'll sleep on a pallet on the floor," the Tah'nehsieh Dragonlord said. "I don't even care anymore as long as the roof doesn't leak."
"That it doesn't. Thank you, Your Graces." The relief in her voice said that someone had not been so reasonable. "The rooms are up—"
One of the doors opened and a richly dressed man stepped out. "Ah, there you are, Mistress Tunly! We were wondering if you've heard any news about— By the gods! Linden Rathan! Maurynna Kyrissaean! And you must be Shima Ilyathan, are you not, Your Grace?" He bowed to them.
"I am, my lord," Shima said, nodding. "But I'm afraid I don't recognize you."
Maurynna said, "Shima, this is Lord Tyrian of Cassori. He helped us on the first leg of our journey over the sea to Jehanglan. It's not easy finding a ship and crew on short notice, even if they are the crown's own, but Lord Tyrian did it." To Tyrian she said, "If I'm ever in command of a ship again, I want that crew."
Tyrian smiled broadly. "My lady, I'll be certain to tell them you said that; they'll be prouder than peacocks." He looked more closely at them. "Once you've had a chance to change into dry clothes, the party I'm traveling with would be honored if you'd join us for the midday meal."
Linden quickly consulted the others by mindvoice, then said, "It would be our pleasure, my lord. If you'll excuse us for now?"
Lord Tyrian bowed once more and went back into the private dining room. They followed the innkeeper to their sleeping chamber. As they gingerly removed their dripping cloaks, Mistress Tunly knelt before the wood already laid in the fireplace and expertly set it alight with flint and steel from her belt pouch.
Standing once more, she said briskly, "My son will bring up your saddlebags shortly, Dragonlords, and I'll fetch you towels to dry off with." She made them a courtesy and left.
Towels and saddlebags came a short while later. Not long after, they were on their way back down the stairs, urged on by their rumbling stomachs.
To their dismay, when the Dragonlords reached the private dining room they found Mistress Tunly waiting to announce them. She opened the door, said into the noisy discourse, "My lords and ladies, Their Graces Linden Rathan, Maurynna Kyrissaean, and Shima Ilyathan," then stepped back.
Silence. Then, as they entered the room and the innkeeper closed it once more, everyone scrambled to rise and either bow or make them a courtesy. Lord Tyrian came to meet them.
"Thank you for inviting us to share your meal," Linden said for the three of them. The savory aroma of roast goose with sage tickled his nose; he hoped his stomach didn't pick this moment to rumble again.
He glanced around quickly to see how many of the people present he knew from his time as one of the judges of the regency question in Cassori a couple of years before.
None were from the Cassorin Council, which was a relief beyond words. But nonetheless, many of the faces were familiar; it took him a moment to place where he'd seen them: one of the horse-mad Lord Sevrynel's "little gatherings." Thank the gods; horse talk was just fine with him. Politics were not.
He went on, "As you can see, we're not wearing our formal garb, so there's no need for such ceremony, my lords and ladies. Please—let us dine as friends."
The babble of voices broke out once more, and the Dragonlords found themselves seated at the large trestle table in the center of the room. Then all settled to the serious businesses of eating and horse talk.
After the edge was off his hunger, Linden asked Tyrian where his party was bound for.
"The fair at Balyarannna, of course," Tyrian replied. "And you, Your Grace?"
"The same. We plan to meet our friends Otter Heronson and his grandnephew Raven Redhawkson there, as well as Maurynna's cousins, who will be with the royal party."
Tyrian turned to Maurynna. "Ah! Of course—I remember them. Especially the little girl who wanted to go with you as a tumbler, Kella, Prince Rann's friend. I've been at my own estate much of the past year rather than at court, but from time to time I've had word of their … adventures."
"Oh dear. It is indeed that same little girl, my lord. Her sister, Maylin, will be with her—for the regents were kind enough to invite her as well." Maurynna paused. "Though I suspect Duke Beren and Duchess Beryl wanted someone around who'll sit on Kella if she needs it."
"Hmm, yes," Tyrian said with a twinkle in his eye. "I've heard once or twice that she can be, ah, impulsive, Your Grace."
Linden, nearly choking on his wine, thought with amusement, Now there's an understatement!
Maurynna laughed. "If by that you mean she has a nose for trouble, my lord—you're absolutely right."
Someone called down the length of the table, "Does Lord Sevrynel know that you're going to the fair, Your Graces?"
"Not as far as I know, my lord," Linden replied.
Whoops of laughter followed his words. "My, won't Sevrynel be surprised!" a few voices chorused. After the laughter ended, another voice said, "I hope you enjoy looking at pedigrees, Linden Rathan."
A fresh burst of laughter greeted this pronouncement.
"Oh?" Linden asked.
"You'll see, my lord," Tyrian said with a grin. "You'll see."
* * *
At the end of the meal the party broke up into smaller groups. Shima found himself the center of attention of a circle of the younger lords and ladies. They plied him with questions about life in Jehanglan and what it was like to live at Dragonskeep.
Many of the most intelligent questions and comments, he found, were from two young Kelnethi noblewomen, Lady Karelinn and her sister, Lady Merrilee. They now sat opposite Shima on a bench by one of the windows.
As Karelinn argued a point with one of the young men and Merrilee listened, nodding from time to time, Shima marveled at the difference between the sisters. He would never have guessed they were siblings.
Where Karelinn was plump, rosy, and, to be honest, quite ordinary, Merrilee was pale, slender, and ethereally beautiful. Indeed, she seemed so delicate that Shima wondered if she was really but a waking dream. If he reached across the short distance separating them and touched her, would she vanish like mist?
He noted with amusement that every young man in the party watched her with dog-like devotion, vying for a scrap of her attention, a word from her. Yet she seemed not to notice; Shima wondered if she even realized the effect she had on men.
Lady Merrilee was quieter than her sister and rarely spoke. Instead her wide-eyed gaze went from speaker to speaker, her entire attention on each person in turn; she radiated an almost otherworldly aura of sweetness and innocence. Yet there was also, Shima thought, a touch of sadness in her eyes, as blue as a summer sky in Nisayeh.
But for all Lady Merrilee's beauty, it was Karelinn's smile that attracted him. Ordinary she might be—especially next to her younger sister—but when Karelinn smiled, it was as if she was lit from within. A man might warm himself with that smile, Shima thought, captivated. Nor did she seem to resent her sister's otherworldly beauty; the way their heads bent together to share a joke spoke of true affection with no taint of jealousy. He'd seen his own sisters do the same many times. The sight made him a little homesick and he wandered off into his own thoughts.
He barely noticed when the door opened once more, revealing Mistress Tunly; he ignored whatever the innkeeper said, for in his mind he wandered the stark, beautiful land of his people, smelled the sharp scent of scrub pine and kaqualla bush, sat by a river waiting for his friend Miune Kihn, the young waterdragon, to splash up the bank and sit beside him. He could almost smell his mother's cooking.…
Sharp cries of dismay brought him back. Startled, Shima looked about. Nearly everyone had jumped up to crowd around the innkeeper. The clamor was deafening. All Shima could make out at first was "But I must get to Balyaranna! I've two horses for the big race!" over and over again. Someone else just cursed long, hard, and impressively.
He turned to Karelinn. "Lady, what is it? I wasn't paying attention."
But Karelinn had her own distractions. Whatever the news was, it had upset Merrilee. She looked, Shima thought, like a frightened doe. "Oh gods—Kare?" the younger woman said uncertainly.
Karelinn put her arm around Merrilee's shoulder. "Don't worry, Merri. He wouldn't dare disobey Father. He won't follow us." She spoke so softly that only Shima could overhear in all the tumult.
And what is this all about? Shima wondered, suddenly alert. Had someone threatened the gentle Lady Merrilee?
"Did Mistress Tunly say how long the bridge will be impassable? I couldn't hear," Merrilee whispered before he could offer his protection as a Dragonlord.
Spirits! So that was the cause of the uproar. From what Linden had said during their journey, Shima knew that this was the only bridge within a tenday's ride. True, there was a ford; but it was at least three days' ride downriver, and if the Ostra River had flooded enough to wash out the stout stone-and-timber bridge they'd come over a few tendays ago, the ford was a lost cause.
He hoped they got to Balyaranna before the horse fair was over; he looked forward to seeing Raven and his aunt again.
But things would fall out as Shashannu, Lady of the Sky, willed it, Shima thought. Until then, he would see what he might do here. "Lady Merrilee—is there something I or the other Dragonlords might help you with?"
A rosy flush suffused Merrilee's cheeks. A quick look passed between the sisters; after a moment, Merrilee smiled her thanks, but shook her head.
At that moment their father, Lord Romsley, called Merrilee. He looked worried. What on earth is amiss? Shima wondered.
As Merrilee stood up to go to her father, Shima rested his fingertips on the back of her wrist, holding her back for a moment. Their eyes met.
"Just remember—if you do need help, any of us will aid you," he said quietly.
"Thank you, Shima Ilyathan. But I fear this is a thing that only time can mend." As she turned away, he caught the glint of tears in her eyes.
Ah; that sounded more like a heart broken than a life in danger. Somewhat relieved, he turned to her sister. "Lady?"
She took a deep breath. "By your courtesy, Your Grace, but…" Her eyes begged him to understand.
"I see—telling or not is Lady Merrilee's decision, is that it?"
"Yes, if you please, Your Grace." Her voice trembled.
He knew he could force the issue; he knew how powerful the words "Dragonlord's orders" could be. He had obeyed Maurynna when she'd said them to him back in Jehanglan and he'd had only his mother's stories of Dragonlords. To one raised to obey a Dragonlord, it might as well be a command of the gods. It would be that unthinkable to disobey him.
He was tempted, sorely tempted. But he also knew such power was not for whims. So he said, "Very well, my lady. But if you or your sister need help in the future, I lay this command upon you: You will come to me for aid."
Her smile lit her face; Shima basked in the warmth of it. He found himself thinking, I hope this rain goes on for a few days yet.…
Leaning forward, he said, "Now—it looks as if we'll be companions here for a while yet, lady, so let us talk to pass the time.
"You're from Kelneth, I heard your father say before. I've had no chance to go there yet, though Linden's spoken of it. He knew one of your long-ago queens. Tell me about your home."
"I will—if you'll tell me more about Jehanglan and Dragonskeep?" Karelinn countered.
"Done," he said. Then, with a grin, "You first."
Copyright © 2012 by Joanne Bertin