“You’ll offend her father. He’ll think we don’t want her.”
Then he’d think right, I didn’t. My wife was for birthing my children, not his. I worked hard to keep the flesh on my family, I shouldn’t have to work hard to keep it on his.
But after Kastea had told me how it had happened, the horror and terror of it, I agreed she could keep it and as soon as I could I’d beget another on her. I said—though not out loud—if because of mine the cuckoo goes hungry then, well, maybe that’s a way to be rid of her.
Abelea’s birth raised some brows, being so soon after the cuckoo. And now we had three: Abelea, Bregan and the first born Oalys. That should have been enough but they kept on coming: Argoin, Tren and Gaitha, though Gaitha died when the Darkness came. Kastea hadn’t the milk for her. One child, that’s all we lost. Others lost more. I even managed to keep some of the stock, including a dog. But then, dogs feed themselves, don’t they.
By then Oalys stood as a man; that helped. We two set out most early mornings . . . we’d that many mouths to feed. Though by the time we thought to do that the Darkness had already been two triks with us. Not that we ever were sure if it were day or night, not with the Darkness hiding Sauën’s face. We never saw Palamon, not once during the Darkness. At least sometimes Sauën could be seen, if only by the ghastly colours in the sky. Some said that wasn’t Sauën at all, they said it was all of Draksen’s doing. Not that we saw many people during that time. No one wanted to travel far. In that I wasn’t alone.
It weighed heavy on me, this need to travel. Yet how else to deliver Bregan to Mistress Maia. Though, it wasn’t only the travel.
“So,” Maia had asked on my first visit to the King’s Hold after Bregan’s birth, “is it a girl?”
I should have told her then that Bregan wasn’t my daughter, that she’s a cuckoo, her father one of the woodland daen. And there she was, suckling at Kastea’s breast when it should have been my child there.
“I’ll have her as soon as she’s old enough,” Maia said.
“What if she doesn’t live so long?” I said.
But at least now she was to go to Maia we had no worry of finding a man for her. She could grow up fat and hairy or scrawny and pale, it made no difference. She wasn’t intended to be a wife. She needn’t be juicy-plump. She needn’t be fair. She needn’t have long red hair. She needed no skills and crafts like the other girls—though, of course, she had them, gotten from helping Kastea.
Bregan would do that— help Kastea. At least, mostly she would. Other times, though, she refused, taking herself off alone to we didn’t know where. I’d watch her go, refusing to heed her mother’s call. I’d watch till she was out of sight, silently hoping her father would find her and she wouldn’t come back. I didn’t like myself for thinking like that. Kastea would have mourned her. Even though she wasn’t my child, she was Kastea’s.
Yet for all I wanted her gone it was difficult not to like her. Even as an infant I found myself wanting to pick her up, to hold her, cuddle her. By the time she could walk she would cast me a smile and any wrong she’d done in a flash was forgotten. I sometimes thought her Sauën’s child for, I swear, her smiles shone bright as the sun. And she smiled a lot. She seemed always happy. Truly, I don’t remember her ever crying.
My conflicting regards for her held me in a tight cleft. I didn’t want her there, she wasn’t my child. Yet far from being a trouble, she was a help. She seemed to know what Kastea wanted, without Kastea having to say. And as my own children grew, demanding more of their mother, how could I complain of that.
But now I had this journey to make, to deliver Bregan to Mistress Maia at the King’s Hold on the Highlands of the Sun. Without the Darkness it would have been easy, it wasn’t far by river-boat. But to go by river-boat during this Darkness? The rivers stank enough to fetch up your feet. According to the law-men it was all the dead things in the water. Dead things in the water? Dead things were everywhere. Dead things and flies.
Had the Darkness not come I’d have kept my promise to deliver Bregan to Mistress Maia when she came of age. But now? No way would I venture down-river. And the alternative, to go by the Broadway, was little better. Though there’d be only the one river to cross (by the King’s Hold), the walk wouldn’t be easy. And we would have to walk. So, I still had some cows but they weren’t used to the yoke. If I had kept the old oxen . . .
I might have walked but with night creatures everywhere, thriving and multiplying in this awful pall, I couldn’t ask it of Bregan. Neither was it only them. Noxious spirits lurked close to every small water, not only the rivers but the meadows alongside them. And the packs of ravening wolves—we heard their howling day and night. More, bloated rotten corpses lay wherever they’d died, attracting flies that rose in angry swarms when disturbed. How could I expect her to walk amongst that? When with every step she risked putting her foot into something loathsome?
And so I put off the deed, daily rehearsing my excuses to Maia. Aye, the girl had seen the years but the Mother had yet to touch her. Only that wasn’t true, as Maia would’ve soon discover. Dare I tell her the truth: that I was afraid to travel to the King’s Hold in the Darkness?
I had almost convinced myself that Bregan wouldn’t yet be needed when the king’s law-men came by our hold.
As the law-men explained, they’d been sent out around the land to announce to all that the Old King was dead. Killed by the truvidiren.
I said, “Aye, of course he’s been killed. Did he defend our land against this dragon Draksen? No, he failed us and so he must die.”
But I didn’t envy them their task: from West Alsime Land in the south to Meksuin’s Land in the north, from the Point in the east to Blisa Go in the west—though not to the islands. No one ventured overseas while the Darkness hung heavy. They’d have been lost in monotonous blackness.
They said, “Now a New King must be chosen.”
I said, “But of course, that’s the way.” Why were they telling me this? That was the business of the truvidiren.
But they said, “Of all the truvidiren, none has put forward a likely candidate.” And in all the years of the Alsaldic Kings this never has happened. Always one or another of the truvidiren had been directed by Saram to present the true heir.
I didn’t need the law-men to explain the problem. Saram, hidden by the wings of Draksen, could no longer guide the truvidiren and so another means must be found to find the true heir.
“A contest,” they said. And this was the true reason for their visit: to announce the Games.
After their visit I pondered long. For if there was to be a New King, there would be a New King’s Feast. And that meant Mistress Maia would be busy brewing the King’s Beer. Yet, I told myself, she has her brew-women to help her and they live to hand on the Central Highlands; they’ve no need to cross a river. But a voice within me wouldn’t allow it. A brew-woman isn’t the same as a King’s Wife, and that’s what Bregan was to be. Maia was to train her, and in time our Bregan would replace her, be Mistress Bregan. And that’s what had weighed so heavy on me. For the King’s Wife looks to her brother’s daughter for her apprentice, the one who’ll replace her. That’s the way it has always been. I should have told Maia from the start that Bregan wasn’t mine, that she was a daen’s child.
I could not claim ignorance, vague recollections of Aunt Melea coming to claim my sister—though at the time I was distracted, chasing after Kastea. I had wanted her from the first meeting. Such a beauty, she should have been the Queen—except the King already had Queen Yoisea to sit beside him.
No, I should have told Maia when first she said of taking Bregan. I should have said for her to take one of Oaln’s daughters instead—except that Oaln hadn’t even a wife at the time, and maybe he’d never have a daughter. And if I’d told her of Bregan maybe she’d have taken Abelea instead. I didn’t want her to have Abelea.
But it was wrong for Maia to make Bregan her heir to the craft; triply wrong that I’d said nothing of it all this time. Yet if I spoke now she’d take Abelea for certain, my brother Oaln still having no daughters.
Such was my dilemma; why I held back, why I blamed the Darkness of Draksen when in truth it was because of my guilt. I wonder how long I’d have waited had it not been for a stranger appearing out of the Darkness.
Who is this stranger? And what role has he to play? Is he to act as a catalyst, to spark Bregan’s cuckold ‘father’ into delivering his promise? Or does his presence signal something more ominous? See the next episode: The King’s Beer.