The Bridge of D'Arnath, Book 4
Daughter of Ancients begins five years after Gerick and his father leave the Lords of Zhev'Na beyond the Verges.
The library was immense, a high, painted ceiling, tall windows of colored glass, at least twenty lamps, and so many books that a staircase reached up to a walkway that encircled the room halfway up the walls. The Lady stood in the middle of the room, hands on her hips, looking from one side to the other as if trying to decide where to start.
She had changed into a long-sleeved red shirt, a gray vest embroidered in red, yellow, and green wool, and an ankle-length skirt of gray leather, split like trousers. A gold bracelet worked like a vine wound up one forearm, bright against her red sleeve.
I greeted her with a bow.
"I keep thinking I should start reading all of these," she said, "so I might understand everything that's happened, everything that's been learned since I was a child. But I never cared for reading books. My mother always said it was because I wasn't grown up enough. Even yet I can't sit still for it. Do you think that means I've not grown up yet?"
"I don't know."
As a child at Comigor, I'd heard the kind of witty replies men make to such questions from a lady, but I'd never learned the art of devising them myself. It was critical that I make this woman's acquaintance and gain her trust, but I was beginning to think even Paulo was better suited to it than I.
"Do you ride?" I said, unable to come up with anything more clever, and unable to take my eyes off her.
"I've been told I sit a horse quite fair." Putting one finger by her mouth, as if to tell a secret, she leaned her head toward a gray-haired lady who sat frowning over a book. "Mistress S'Nara," she said in a loud whisper, "do you think the young gentleman is asking me to accompany him on a riding excursion?"
"Indeed, Lady, I do." For a moment, the old woman reflected D'Sanya's radiant smile. Her face crumpled into a knot as she went back to her book.
"Well, are you, sir?" The Lady's eyes sparkled with laughter.
"I- Yes." Demons, why was it so hard to talk to her?
"I'd accuse you of reading my thoughts, but I think you might be reading my clothes, instead - certainly from your fixed glance. Or is it just you've never seen a lady's riding skirt?" She spun about until the wide legs of her leather skirt billowed out like a wind flare. Then she patted the reading lady's hand and waggled a summoning finger at me. "Come along, then. Let's ride away."
As we strolled through the hospice and across the yards to her stables, she told me how she'd coaxed the Dar'Nethi Builders to spread her house across the meadow rather than piling it up tall as was the usual Dar'Nethi preference. "I didn't want my guests to be stacked one upon the other, and the views are lovely enough from all the windows."
And she talked of the difficulties of bringing seventy people from every part of Avonar into one household and making them feel welcome, yet not compelled to mold their renewed lives into some image of hers. Her experiences made me think of the Bounded and the difficulties we'd had building a life there, and believe that she might be interested in hearing about those things, if ever I could trust her enough to tell her of them. For the moment, I simply listened. She never seemed to stop talking, as if she were trying to make up for a thousand years of silence in one day. Yet none of it was the nonsensical stuff my sometime-mother Philomena had spewed endlessly when I was a child.
We passed two elderly men trudging grimly down the path, and she greeted them gaily. "Blessings of life, gentlemen. Was not our rain refreshing after so hot a morning? Good Master Gerard, have you enjoyed the paintings I sent you for your apartments? I tried to find just what you described to me, but I'll try again if they don't suit; the modern styles are still beyond my comprehension."
Just as the woman in the library had, they brightened with her attention, agreeing with her assessment of the weather and the artworks. Neither man wasted a glance on me.
"I thought you didn't use names here?" I said.
D'Sanya waved to a middle-aged woman strolling among the flowers. "Only with those who have given permission. Most of my guests who come together in the common rooms and grounds see no need for the restriction any longer."
A balding Dar'Nethi man with a horrid scar on his face met us in the stableyard with my horse. He bowed to the Lady and held open the tall painted door, unrestrained adoration in his gaze. As I mounted, D'Sanya disappeared into the clean-smelling stable for a moment, only to reappear astride an unsaddled gray stallion.
"My brothers taught me to ride," she said, smiling at my surprise. "We were something less civilized in those days." Twining her fingers in the pale mane, she leaned slightly forward as if to whisper in the beast's ear and shot out of the yard like an arrow from a master archer's bow.
I prided myself on my riding. Though not as instinctive a master as Paulo, who became as one with his mount, I had good balance and hands sure enough to convince a horse to do whatever I required of it. But D'Sanya left me feeling awkward and slow, a dead weight in the saddle. She gave a cheerful whoop as the gray soared over a stone fence and landed like a feather, scarcely disturbing the air as he flew, while I jolted my teeth and jerked the reins to straighten our course, wondering who had put lead in my horse's hooves. I caught up with her halfway across the meadow, but only because she reined in, laughing over her shoulder. I halted beside her.
Her cheeks were flushed; her windblown hair settled around her face like a golden cloud; and her clear eyes reflected the sun that poked angled beams through the thinning clouds. "You sit fair yourself, sir. Where did you learn to ride?"
Would that I could have said "in my father's house" or "in my village in the Vale of Maroth" or even "on the bare green hills of Comigor in the mundane world across the Bridge." But I had not come here to make her smile at me. "I've ridden since I can remember," I said, "but I only mastered it in Zhev'Na."
And before I could prevent them, the images filled my head: of Fengara, the Zhid riding master, forcing me to ride my bad-tempered mount between blazing desert scrub, of endless hours in the scorching desert with sand in my mouth and bruises upon bruises from being thrown because she wouldn't let me use the reins or she'd driven the horse mad with visions of slavering wolves. I saw myself riding a gauntlet of screaming Dar'Nethi slaves who had been lashed until their flesh was in ribbons and their bones bare, just so I could learn how to control my mount when the blood madness was upon it. I tried to concentrate on the green meadow sparkling in the returning sunlight.
"So I was right," she said softly. "I knew it when I saw you. How long were you there?"
"Almost two years," I said. "I was taken when I was ten. Rescued when I was twelve." Though bound to the Lords for four more until my father set me free. But I wasn't ready to tell her about the unique nature of my association with the masters of Zhev'Na.
"Rescued," she said, her lips parted in an expression of wonder, even as her eyes filled with tears that did not fall. "I didn't know anyone was rescued from Zhev'Na. I prayed for it, hoped, wept for it every night for three long years. My father was the High King of Gondai, the most powerful of all Dar'Nethi, and he loved me as the earth loves the sky. But he never rescued me."
"I was fortunate."
Her gaze swept over me with the intensity of desert noonday. "You were not Zhid, not if you were taken so young. And you were not a slave, not if they taught you to ride…"
She searched my face, her own so filled with sorrow and pity that I wanted to look away for shame at the lies I would tell her. But I kept my gaze steady.
"I heard them plan to steal Dar'Nethi children," she said, "to turn their souls without devouring them as they did those of the Zhid. They said it would be their sweetest revenge. I never knew whether they were successful at it."
"The Lords succeeded at most things they tried."
She clucked her tongue, and the gray took off at a slow, easy walk up a narrow rift into the surrounding foothills. The path followed a grass-bordered brook that poked like a crooked finger of green through the barren crags. After a last steep climb, we came to a level spot where the stream rose from under the rocks, pooling in a rocky depression before splashing down the gorge we had just traveled. A few willows leaned over the pool, and star-like white flowers on long stalks grew out of the rocks. To one side of the track a jumble of rocks piled one upon the other towered over us. To the other side beyond the pool and the willows, a huge boulder, cracked by millennia of freezing and thawing hung out high over Grithna Vale.
"I like to come to this spot to remind myself I'm not there anymore." She dismounted and knelt beside the pool, scooping a handful of water to drink. "Fifty paces farther up the trail and you're looking out on the northern Wastes. The sight of it forces you to remember. But here the water is pure and sweet, and you can see only beauty and life."
I slipped from the saddle and walked out on the boulder. The Vales lay like deep folds of green, stretching all the way back to the mountain-ringed city of Avonar, invisible in the distance. Though every instinct told me it was beautiful, the green and blue vista of tree and valley and sky repelled me. The Lords had nurtured and honed my senses and instincts for war, nothing more. Nine years of knowing how badly they had warped my perceptions had done nothing to correct them.
However, I had decided long before that I reaped no profit in worrying about such things. The important matter was that if D'Sanya could see beauty where my senses found only ugliness, then what had been done to her was different than what had been done to me. I needed to understand it, and after what I'd already revealed, I had the right to ask.
I turned back to face her, but remained where I was on the rock. "I know everyone in Avonar has asked you questions…made you prove who you are. But have you ever told anyone all of it: about Zhev'Na…what it was like…what happened to you there?"
She trailed her hand idly in the silky water. "How could I? I remember so little. I lived there for three-and-a-half years. Then the Lords tired of me and sent me to sleep for a thousand. And who, except for one like you, could possibly understand what I had to tell? I'm not there anymore. I'm not what they wanted me to be. Nothing else is important."
"My father told me that if I kept it all hidden, I could never be rid of it."
Her lips parted and eyes widened. "You told him? The things you'd done, the things they made you do?"
"He forgave you for it?"
"He said no forgiveness was necessary."
"And did you believe that?"
I wanted to answer her. My father was the most generous of spirits, and he loved me very much, a grace I could not yet fully comprehend. But even he could not understand everything. The question hung heavy, like a sodden pennant waiting for a gust of wind to unfurl it.
D'Sanya stretched and stood up, wandering over to her horse and stroking his neck while he nuzzled her pockets. The sun glared behind her hair like a fiery corona. "It's late. I should get back to my guests."
The things I'd done, the things they'd made me do… I gave her a hand up, mounted my own horse, and followed her slowly down the path, wishing she would break the silence so I would have an easier time dismissing the vision of a Zhid warrior I'd lashed until his flesh spattered on my clothes, or the ones with blackened lips and swollen tongues who had died raving in the desert when I withheld their water to test their loyalty.
Neither of us spoke until we reached the bottom of the rift.
"You intrigue me, sir." Tilting her head to look at me, D'Sanya smiled, re-igniting the joy and mischief in her eyes. Perhaps she'd been seeing visions, too. "You seem to take it in stride that I am ten centuries old, yet can best you in a horse race. I've met no one else who can do that. I'll have to learn more of you."
"Only if I may request the same privilege," I said, a vibrant warmth spreading like plague to my every bone and muscle. "And I can best anyone in a horse race except my friend Paulo - especially a woman of such advanced age."
I dug my knees into Nacre's flanks and took out across the meadow at a gallop, shouting wordlessly for no reason, relishing the smooth surge of muscled power beneath me and the stretch of thigh and back as I leaned into the wind, winning by surprise what I could never have won by plan. She took the jump over the last fence no more than a tail length behind me. Flushed and laughing, she almost leaped off the stallion when I offered her my gloved hand.
"When will you return for a rematch?" she said.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2022