Sifadis, Shore House Heiress
Crud and crusts! Just listen to that, the roar and thunder. The Falls were but a spat away. The mist from the water already was spreading, casting chills. The trail was veering towards it; away from the Ridge. But they shouldn’t be here yet, it was too soon. It was Lorken’s doing, Lorken bullying her, the trall.
“You forget who I am!” she had snapped at him a while back down the trail.
“With respects, ‘tis you who forgets: you forget whose hold is up yonder.” He had jerked his head towards Chendani Pass and Bashano Heights above it.
With a grunt of disdain she allowed her eyes to track the trail behind them. Where was he? Why wasn’t he following? May and hap she’d been too hasty in leaving; she hadn’t allowed him time to digest. Yet she couldn’t stay longer: there were her fisheries, her boats, the eclipse, the tides. And she had left him clues.
You ought to have told him openly, said a bodiless voice.
Sifadis swung round, eyes seeking the Endizi Peaks at the end of the Ridge. Was that the source? The Endizeres were supposedly crowded with spirits awaiting new life. Yet . . . see how far. Then . . . was it Ffadise? Yet Ffadise ought to be by her tomb in Citadel Lecheni, at Shore House.
I am no where, I am every where.
It was Ffadise! Fy, alai! she answered, none too sweetly. Quiet when I needed you in Luban, you were. Now you are here? But, the question rhetorical, the ancestor’s spirit didn’t answer.
Kullt was now leading them close to the Falls. The trail narrowed here to a single a footpath that wove between the bulky boulders, boulders that that pushed out of ground, like trees, smothered in vivid green growths. The descent began, the path steeply ramped. The thud of her feet jarred through to her knees. She hoped soon they would reach the bottom. And yet . . . too soon, too soon.
The roar of the water drowned all other sounds—except for the voice of Ffadise. Return without him, we lose everything.
Sifadis didn’t want to hear it. She flicked her head like a horse with a gad-fly. But she wasn’t a horse, it did nothing for her; the voice remained, everywhere about her. Were I you, I would return to him.
Hush and hold peace! she answered. If I could . . . But you see these holden being my guards? And now she was angry. She didn’t need Ffadise to prompt her.
Och, imagine his turmoil when he discovered the theft. Would he report it? Would it be counted as treason? It would in Rothi. But no balgerof in Luban – yet she had read in the Minutes that, ay, they did punish, sometimes severely. But it was worse than a matter of theft: she had hurt him, taking the very thing that he wanted. Ay, but with reason. How else could she force him to follow?
You could have told him.
Hold peace, I sais. You know nothing of the Lubanthan. He would not have come, I know it.
“Sifadis!” Lorken’s abrupt cry startled her out of her muse. The iron-bladed pike that thudded into the ground a step in front of her feet alarmed her more. She screamed.
It was the shock, only the shock; she wasn’t a child to be so scared. Yet her eyes wouldn’t leave the goblin as it writhed in pain around the pike. It was small, just a kobold, she had seen bigger.
“Best you move fast,” Lorken shouted at her. “Be away before it dies. Go! I’ll follow.”
Kullt waited for her, hand out and encouraging. Did they believe her to be so terrified? Or did they think her ignorant, that she didn’t know they were most deadly as they died. Had they forgotten her fisheries? Shore House harvested the sea. Still, she eyed it as she edged around it, holding firm onto the pony which snickered in fear. The kobold’s skin, mottled, brown and grey, was dry and cracked from its season away from the water. It would not do for curing. The marine amphibs were always best for that, especially the toads. Loh, how soon her thoughts turned again to Shore House.
It’s not only Shore House that needs the heir, Ffadise said.
And I repeat, I cannot go back. Her ancestress was nagging her worse than a mother. I’ve two tralls guarding me, and Raselstad’s Watch will likely arrest me as soon as I pass through their gate.
The path delivered them to the Falls’ wide basin. Sifadis turned and turned. Despite her agitation at arriving too soon, the green all around was a delight to the eye, especially now all else was rapidly browning. But that green was everywhere: it clothed the rocks; it fringed the pools – the puddles, pits, ponds and the lakes; it grew as grass and fern and moss; it grew, too, as an occasional sky-scraping tree.
“Sifadis Lafdi Bel Hade,” Lorken called back her attention. “We cannot stay here. You saw that goblin, there will be more. They return to the water in winter.”
Sifadis swung round. The way he said it, as if she were a lorel needing instruction – she curled her lip at him. Och, the audacity! Had she his weapons she would decapitate him. Yet she obeyed and walked on.
They followed the path until, again, it tracked across high and dry ground. Heli still was far from setting but her brilliance was hidden by the Falls. And though Euryale was waxing, as yet she was but a blue sparkle. With no direct light, the entire area was shadowed and chill. Yet here her guards—why call them other—called a halt and set about setting their camp.
Sifadis watched them for a few minutes. They were taking no notice of her. She pulled her travel-pack from the pony’s pannier.
“While there is water and light, I am going to bathe.” She didn’t wait for her guards’ response but headed off down a path she’d then spied. Behind her, the holden spluttered and she heard a scuffle but she’d not grant them as much as a glance.
“Sifadis Lafdi Bel Hade!” It was Lorken of course; predictable. Did he never tire of canting that mouthful? It was not for respect, respect had vanished those first few days at Raselstad and had yet to return. Perhaps he thought by according her such titles she then would be blind to his increasingly frequent liberties. Well rots to him! Once he was back at Citadel Lecheni, he’d soon remember his place.
“The goblins are no threat this time of day,” she called back to him. “As languid as the spirits of Endizerel Range.”
“Until you put your foot upon one!” Kullt answered.
“Then I shall watch where I tread. Women—lafdin—have need of bathing. Not that you’d know such a thing. Now give me privacy else Breken Lafard will hear it.” And with that she strutted off, her travel-pack slung over her shoulder.
~ ~ ~
To claim she wasn’t afraid would be to lie. Even above the noise of the Falls she could hear the amphibs close by her feet. Lumbering slow fattened things with split skins, intent now only upon the winter’s slumber. She must not disturb them. But the Falls and their entrancement, that was the danger: so easy in looking up to neglect to look down. But how could she not look when, even in this fading light, the Falls were magnificent. Loud, though. Ay, she could only hear what was close. She’d never know if Lorken was following. She cast a look back.
He couldn’t possibly believe she intended to bathe, not even in the shallowest pools. But had he seen what she had seen in her ‘turning and turning’, appreciating the green. But no, were that so he wouldn’t have allowed her the ploy. For there, cutting through the mosses and grasses that hung like a curtain upon an east-facing cliff, was the pale ghostly track of a natural ladder. It must be easy to climb. Others had used it, why else the lack of greenery. Lorken would never dare to follow her there; he’d not dare to weave between the pools. And once onto the rocks she’d leave no print. Unable to find her, he’d think her devoured.
But the closer she came to the cliff, the less certain she was. She had never done even a similar thing in her life. And she still had to find a way to it. Between her and the cliff were pools by the millions, and now Heli was gone, Euryale still barely a twinkle, and Medusa and Stheino yet to rise, all was lost in almost-blackness. Yet, say, what else could she do? Ffadise was right. Return alone to Lecheni and, regardless of legend, she must wed Breken’s choice. Return there with Boddy and, loh, everything answered – though mayhap some fighting. Perhaps she should warn him.
But would Boddy come with her? Would he agree it? She had heard his talk of the Curses of Verth; he’d not want a drop of her wealth.
He will go with you once you tell him the truth.
Ay, the truth of the stealing? Sifadis jeered. Ffadise didn’t understand what she’d done. The one thing Boddy had wanted, she had stolen.
But once you tell him the truth of his line, and what awaits him . . . Ffadise pressed on.
He wanted to wed me. How forlorn that thought. And yet he had. He had, it wasn’t her imagining.
Ay, Ffadise said.
But Ffadise . . . She sighed, so tragic in her imaginings. Cruds, Ffadise, you know what I have said of marriage.
That you fear it, Ffadise said, sounding smug.
That’s not true . . . though I suppose . . . Man-ufactured, the word repeated, as she had said of Affalind Lafdi-Legara
You love him, Ffadise said. Not a question.
Och! Do not speak of it. Hush, hold peace, go away. Besides, I feared more he would—
Disregard you? Thinking you wanted him only as heir.
No more, Ffadise, I said no more. Why must you torment me?
But then if he knows who you are . . . Ffadise said, teasing as a mother who shakes a rattle above her baby.
But Sifadis shook her head. He will not want my wealth—he detests it. I fear he will run, refuse me more.
She had, for a moment, to dry her eyes. Now there was the truth: that he would refuse her because of her wealth.
And now she could no longer see her feet, so dark here, as black as a winter’s night. What if . . .? But nah, the amphibs seek the water and sleep. Ay, but was she not walking on a waterlogged sponge? Ay, but she wore boots that reached to her knees. Ay, and they were defence against a twelve-foot kobbran? And she was wet to the skin where the mist from the Falls had soaked through even her jasckte-wool coat. And that coat, already heavy, was now weighting her down. Och, and now she must stop yet again to fasten her brecks
Then, loh, the cliff-face – sensed not seen despite it was but an arm’s reach away. But was she near to where she had seen that rock-formed stairway? Again she glanced back. Lorken must have missed her by now. Why did Stheino delay her rising? Where was Medusa? She needed their light.
~ ~ ~
“Hey!” Boddy almost lost balance. He wobbled backwards and fell into the cave. A small cave, it was more of a cleft, a water-eroded split in the rocks.
Jonesi nudged him, pointed downwards, and made motions with his fingers of someone – or was it a thing? – climbing towards them.
Great, yeah, fine. But who’d be nugget enough to climb these rocks in the dark? Yea, yea, yea, so he and Jonesi would but they had reason – though Boddy still wasn’t sure of it. It had been Jonesi’s idea.
“Hey!” he had yelped as Jonesi pushed him off the path and into the fifty-foot grasses that fringed the forest. And, “Hey!” again when Jonesi steered him into the forest. Then, “Hey, are these proper trees, native-born, or are they—”
“Moss-trees,” Jonesi said.
Despite his objections at being directed into who knew what danger, Boddy had laughed. “Natzo, Jonesi, that’s full lily-loo. You’re telling me that the moss grows this tall?” His eyes followed them up. Those trees touched the sky. “Natzo!”
“You think I josh?” Jonesi said. “I tell you, these trees grow from the moss — from Sisny Moss. And, Boddy Felagi, to answer your query, we’re cutting this way to snatch a day off the quarry. By dawn we’ll easily be ahead of them.”
“If at dawn we’re alive, I’ll be sleeping.”
“I’m thinking young Boteras Felagi is all swagger and talk,” Jonesi retorted. “Fly like a hawk, he could catch her. Yet he tarries and walks.”
Great, yeah, fine, it was true. Had Disa been a scholar as claimed he’d have eagerly enfolded her, followed her to Rothi, lived with her there. But she wasn’t a scholar—or rather, she was not only that. And it wasn’t that she was an heiress that bothered him, for she wasn’t: his claim took precedence. Natzo, none of that. It was her wealth.
He preferred not to dwell on it, yet his head kept repeating what Ryal had told him: “Every ship in the Luant haven, every boat moored at the hythes, and every weir along the Tuthe, that as well as the usual holdings. No one eats fish but by her catching, no one wears toad-skin but at her harvesting, no one loses a tooth without her providing the ourali.” That was wealth. That was the Curse. That was Mucky Mercury. And he wanted none of it. Yet here he was, following after her.
That, too, was Jonesi’s doing. Jonesi, like some resolute surge, sweeping him along as if he’d fallen into the Luant. He’d been like that since the morning after Boddy’s talk with Ryal.
He had had a sleepless night. He’d tried to blame it on the spirits of Remen’s Black Tower. But it wasn’t them, it was his own restless thoughts, going over what Ryal had told him, arguing back and forth with his personal god. He would not chase after her; she was a liar and a thief. But Ghats and rats and shats and splats . . . Besides, though it would be fastest to ride, he couldn’t take Mason Lace. What would he do with the horse once he’d caught up with the liar, the thief, the heiress, the . . . woman? The piebald was on loan from Count Slemba; he would have to return it.
And what if she refused him? Great, yeah, fine, a chinking heiress. Who did he think he was? But she wasn’t the heiress, the heir was him. Yeah, and it might be another ten years before that sank in.
Plodding along the lane to the Hub, shoulders sore from his crumpled sleep, he’d thought of a plan. Citadel Lecheni, yeah, that’s where Eshe had gone. So if Disa refused him he could seek out his friend. “Hey, Eshe, I heard of the bandits; thought you’d appreciate an escort home.” It would save him his face. Then, having thought about Eshe, he found himself fretting for her. Yeah zo, that was one decision he could definitely make: No matter what happened with Disa, he would escort Eshe home. In which case he’d best take Mason Lace.
“Ouch!” he yelped as Jonesi slapped his tender back. “And where have you been these past two nights?” He’d not done his usual midnight creep into Boddy’s room. “Hey, have you been sleeping in Royan’s shrine?”
“Good morning, Jonesi, peace on you, Jonesi, nice day, Jonesi, see the sun shines. But no, none of that. ‘Have you been sleeping in my shrine?’ No, young Boteras Felagi, I shared with the holy man.”
“You did . . .! You sneaked his food too? You shouldn’t do that; that’s a holy cell and holy food, it’s given to the holy man.”
“What is holy?” Jonesi said and turned around so he walked backwards facing Boddy.
“You ought to watch where your feet go,” Boddy said.
“No, Boteras Felagi, I watch where your feet go. I have everything packed for us, everything ready. I have told Uncle Kachinnar.”
“Wha . . .? But . . .” He’d only then made his plans. “Have you been speaking with Gammer Haspra?”
Jonesi spread innocent hands.
“Then Ryal, you must have spoken to Ryal?”
Again the spread hands.
“Then . . .?”
“Royan’s heart, long time tiny and curled, now unfurls and blossoms as big as the world. You think your friend Jonesi can’t see?”
“But . . .” Spew on it, man, he was defeated. “So what have you told Uncle Kachinnar?”
“That we go to the Ridge and spend some nights enrapt of Medusa. Your uncle too has seen your heart, swollen and crying that you must part.”
“Great, yeah, fine. But, Jonesi, when I fail to return? He’ll think . . . my mother . . . he still has his moments.” He could not do that to his uncle. Although now he thought, he realised Gammer Haspra would tell him the truth.
“Peace, Boddy Felagi. You think me heart-departed. So the holy man will tell him – before he leaves. He’ll tell Negghe too.”
Boddy had looked away. Yeah zo, what could he do? But he didn’t like Jonesi’s haste in hurrying him out of the town. Yet he would be glad to have Jonesi along. Friend, surrogate father, companion, now guide – and it seemed there wasn’t a place that Jonesi didn’t know.
Jonesi knew where he was heading, he knew a track through the ‘moss-trees’, the leathery meat-plate leaves squelching beneath the soft soles of Boddy’s boots – a shame ‘I-have-everything-arranged’ Jonesi hadn’t given him time to change into something more suited. Boddy, too, knew where they heading – yeah zo, impossible not to with that noise – to where his mother had—Natzo, he still wasn’t able to say it. Distraught at his father’s death, she had walked away – wandered, some kindly said, out of her mind – leaving him, a child, alone and wanting. And Jonesi had brought him here, to this cliff – where now, deep in that darkness, someone was climbing.
The series of ledges that formed the cliff glistened like blood in the light of the two rising moons. The climb down was supposed to be easy, but Jonesi hadn’t reckoned on this other climber. Boddy assumed it was a person, though a full-grown kobbran could possibly do it. He shuddered at that thought.
The sounds of the climber were suddenly loud, now within hand’s reach of the cave. Boddy watched, breath held – as if that made a difference with the roar of the Falls. As the climber drew level, Medusa and Stheino shone full upon a short plait of hair.
Recognition was instant. Boddy gasped and started towards her. But Jonesi’s arms were quickly around him, restraining. He opened his mouth, intending to call. But Jonesi slammed a hand over his mouth. “You want her startled?”
There was no mistaking her. He looked at Jonesi. Jonesi signed to wait. And still he watched her, her arms straining to find the next hold. She wore the drab scholar’s coat although in the moons’ light it looked black. Natzo, it was black! It was black with wet; he could see that now by its drag. Ghats, the weight of that, how could she climb with it. He watched, pangs of longing torturing him, as she climbed past him and out of his reach.
He started to follow but again Jonesi restrained him, waggling his head to say no. He mimed alarm, arms flailing, her falling. He mimed to wait until she was safely into the forest at the top. Then they would follow. To wait was an agony.
But what was she doing climbing these rocks? And where were her henchmen? Had something happened to them? Had they fallen into the water, drowned and been eaten by goblins? Or . . . was that why Disa was drenched? Had she fallen into the lethal Luant? He could feel his eyes prickle with tears.
Peace, Boddy Felagi, you saw that she lives.
You know, they said with her . . . they said the goblins hadn’t yet . . . that she was alive when she . . .
Boteras Felagi, you know why she did it. To release her spirit, to be again with your father.
There’s pain, Roo, deep pain. And not even her bracelet to give to Gammer.
And now, spew on it, man, he couldn’t see and there was Jonesi pushing at him. He sniffed, and to the winds if Jonesi could hear him, he’d rather just stay there, fold into a ball and blubber. He never cried when it happened. He owed his mother some tears. Yet he dried his eyes and edged out of the cave and started the climb after Disa.
I want to hold her, Roo, to press her close. What do they say of it, to cleft? I want to cleave all my life to her.
Wow, that is poetic, Boddy Felagi.
Yeah, great, fine; he was a poet, wasn’t he.
They were three ledges from the top when they heard the scream.
~ ~ ~
Those three ledges were nothing, gone from beneath him as he scrambled fast to the top. How loud was that scream that he should hear it, and above the Falls. So what was the terror? What beast had attacked her? Gods, not a kobbran! Or what if a grampus had strayed from the Moss? What else could it be; he could think of nothing. In Rothi they had pack-hounds yet they’d not been known to venture south. Could she have been caught in a swarm of vermin? The Luant was dangerous at this season with amphibs of all types returning.
He surged over the top – and froze.
Yeah zo, this wasn’t what he expected. Men.
He didn’t count them, confused with the tree-trunks and the moons’ red light (cast here in patches). He saw no horses. He saw swords, and throwing-axes. He saw the glint of metal on boots. He saw blond hair. He saw sparkles of tift and trappings. He dropped flat to the leaf-littered floor, pulling Jonesi down with him. He had weapons: a cut-short pike strapped to his back while climbing, brought as defence against amphibs, and two throwing-knives. He might want to attack, and he desperately did, but against an unknown number and in this terrain, that would be wasting his time. And how could he rescue Disa if he were dead. Though he didn’t like it, he knew he must wait.
They had already gagged her. A stream of words he’d like to throw at them was dammed in his throat. And now they were tying her though she thrashed and writhed like a stuck goblin. Yeah-zo! Go at it, Disa, kick them. That’s right, the crotch will do it. Then a giant of a man one-handed lifted her and tucked her under his arm. He strode away with her, his company, following, spread wide through the trees.
Boddy let out his breath and signed to Jonesi. They’d follow. The roar and pound of the Falls would hide the soft squelch of their feet.
Deeper into the forest and again all was dark. Jonesi took the lead. Boddy trustingly followed. Jonesi brought them through the grass fringing and onto the path. In the bright light of the moons it was clear no one was here.
“Yeah, what now?”
“Hey, is Boddy Felagi, the Dragon’s own angel, not thinking? Two in this hand, two in that hand, are the two not linking?”
Boddy nodded, great, fine, yeah, he’d caught his meaning.
“There’s no other place for them to spill out of the trees but onto this path. And since bandits aren’t known for their walking, they must have mounts somewhere waiting. And mounts leave tracks. Yeah zo, why didn’t I bring my own Mason Lace? It was because of you,” he accused.
Jonesi held his hands up. Yea, yea, he was innocent, Boddy knew it; the accusation was born of frustration.
“This far east it’ll be Mallen,” Boddy said and though Mallen was big that giant wasn’t him. “She’ll be safe with him—scared and bundled, but safe.” Did he say that only to convince himself? Yet it was said without conviction. “A lafdi, wealthy, she’ll fetch a good ransom.”
Then—Natzo! In a spin of rage he threw himself round, jaws grinding.
“Natz and Ghats, Jonesi! If he takes her for a penniless scholar . . .” He gulped, feeling cold at the thought it. Natzo! Ghats and rats and shats and splats, his dainty fragile Disa, taken and spread. “They’re dead.”
He didn’t wait, he didn’t consider, he was off at a run.
~ ~ ~