Can reliving the painful past unravel the mysteries of the present?
The Bridge of D'Arnath, Book 1
Year 15 in the reign of King Evard-summer...The fidgety little man whispered to the landlord, and when the portly Bartolome shook his head, took a seat at a table not too far from me. His dark eyes darted about the room, and I concentrated on my soup. When next I dared look up, the man was sipping from a tankard of ale. Another mistake. Keroteans drank no ale or spirits of any kind. I had thought to observe the man for a day or two, perhaps question the landlord and servants about him, but my plan suddenly seemed foolish. Paulo and I could wrestle this fellow into submission if he gave any trouble.
Year 4 in the reign of King Evard-autumn
"Are you sure you won't go with us, little girl? Don't like to leave you here alone."
"I won't starve, Jonah. Anne's left me more than I could eat in the space of a week. I won't set the house afire or ruin your garden or break anything. And the weather's fine, so I won't freeze, even if I can't get a fire going."
"You'll learn the touch of flint, little girl," said Anne as her dry kiss brushed my cheek. "Just as you've learned so much already." She climbed up to the wagon seat. "You know the way down village if ought frights you. Jacopo will take you in."
Five months with the old couple had taught me one thing for certain: no one had ever been so inept, so useless, as I. Fires were lit by servants, not coaxed grudging from bits of metal and chaff. Food was brought on trays from warm kitchens, not grubbed from the dirt with raw and bleeding hands. I had only played at gardening. I knew nothing of rocky soil, wire-like weeds, or cartloads of stinking manure hauled from the pig sties in the village to feed the impoverished earth. Clothes were always clean and never had to be mended in candlelight with dull needles that tormented raw fingers. And there was always plenty to eat, even in spring when winter stores were depleted, so your stomach never gnawed at you until you were ready to eat sticks and weeds. Indeed I had learned a great deal in five months. Now it was time for me to learn to be alone.
"Be safe," I said and got on with my lesson.
Just past dawn on the third morning after Anne and Jonah's departure, I lay abed, deciding whether a hot breakfast was worth the hour's struggle with the fire, when I heard a hail from outside the door. "Jonah? Are you in?"
No one but Jacopo had visited the cottage since I'd come to live there, and the unusual still had the power to unnerve me. I pulled up the rag quilt and prayed the visitor would go away.
"Goodwife Anne? A word, if you would. And I've brought some oranges from Jaco. Washed up from the barge that wrecked upriver last week."
I shoved back the quilt with a silent curse. If the man was a friend of Anne and Jonah, it wasn't right to refuse him their hospitality. Hurriedly I pulled on the ill-fitting black dress Anne had given me, smoothed my ragged hair, and opened the door.
The man holding a splintered crate on his shoulder had sand-colored hair and green eyes and looked to be a few years older than me, perhaps as much as thirty. His face was serious, with regular features, a broad forehead, and the network of thin lines at the corner of his eyes that came from spending long hours in the sun. Unremarkable in height, dress, or manner. A ragged scar creased one side of his face from cheekbone to unshaven jaw.
He set the crate on the bench by the door. A dark blue jacket lay crumpled on the top of it, likely shed on the warm journey up the path. "Good morrow, miss." He did not seem surprised to see me. "I've come to speak with Jonah if I may. Or Goodwife Anne."
"They've gone to Montevial and won't return for several days more." Surely he would go now. "May I offer you ale or tea? I'm sure they'd wish it."
"Ale, then, and I'd thank you for it. The day's gone warm already." He retrieved the jacket, straightened it a bit, and flopped it over one shoulder.
I snatched a mug from the shelf, filled it from Jonah's little barrel, and shoved it into the man's hand, remaining standing in the doorway lest he decide to stay a while.
He raised the mug slightly and nodded as if answering a question I'd not heard. "I'd be Graeme Rowan from Dunfarrie." I couldn't remember any mention of that name, but his provincial inflections were much thicker than Jonah's or Anne's, so I couldn't be sure. He downed the ale quickly, but, to my distress, seemed in no hurry to go. "Perhaps I ought tell you why I'm here," he said, propping one foot on the bench beside the sand-crusted crate. The rotting, fishy scent of river-wrack overpowered any smell from the battered green and yellow fruits. "Aye, it's probably better I speak with you."
I didn't like the way he looked at me so intently, his expression revealing so little. And his slow speech, as if he weren't quite sure he wanted to say anything, left my jaw tight with impatience.
"I've heard Anne and Jonah had a visitor these few months. Some in the village say it's their granddaughter Jenny, come home after so many years lost." The moment stretched. His gaze picked at my face. "Last night, three men come to the village. They're the sort who look as if they'll burn their shoes when they leave your town and think no one in a place the size of Dunfarrie can understand words of more than one syllable."
The long pauses and his unreadable expression goaded me to speak. "And what did these men want?" The planed edge of the door frame dug into my back.
"They were looking for someone, someone they badly want to find, though they vow they wish her no harm. Told me only that the one they hunted ran away from her family five months ago, that she's twenty-five, tall for a woman, and has brown eyes and red-brown hair, cut shorter than the usual. They claim it be a matter of law. The time was the same as when Jonah and Anne came back from Montevial in the spring, so I thought to come up and ask what knowledge they might have of the question."
As if an executioner's hood had been dropped over my head, the brightness went out of the day. "What did you tell these men?" My voice came out no more than a whisper.
His gaze did not waver. "Naught as yet. But they didn't know who I was. They'll find that out this morning."
"And who are you?"
"I'd be the Sheriff of Dunfarrie."
Bile rose in my throat. No matter what claims were made about maintaining order or protecting the citizenry from theft and murder, a sheriff's first duty, the very reason for his existence, was to exterminate sorcerers. And though he was appointed by his lord, a sheriff's first allegiance was to his king. Evard's man. Evard's anointed killer.
Coldly, no longer in a whisper, I said, "So you'll tell them about Anne and Jonah's guest."
"I'm god-sworn and king-sworn to uphold the law."
I spat at his feet. "That for Evard's law!"
The slight hardening of his mouth and eyes reflected his judgment of me. "You've no business here, madam."
No matter that he was a damnable villain, he was right, of course. I couldn't hide behind the old couple's kindness, and I didn't think I could run. Karon had told me about that kind of life, and I had neither the determination nor the skill for it. Survival was not that important to me. But Anne and Jonah were. "So you'll hand me over?"
One might have thought I was some kind of dungworm. "I ought. But they've given me no warrant, no grounds, not even a name. For all I know this is just a game for ones like you and them-causing trouble for ordinary folk. But unless you give me some reason not, I'll tell these men what I'm required to tell them, and they'll have no such scruples."
I stood mute. I would not tell a stranger-a sheriff-of my life. He snorted, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and started down the path.
The world was already cold and shadowed even before I stepped out of the sun. I straightened the quilt on the pallet that Jonah had crowded into the corner by the hearth, put away the cup I had used the previous night, and folded the mended towel I used for washing. When all was tidy, I sat on Jonah's bench and stared at the sun-drenched meadow long enough for the sheriff to be well on his way. Then I rose and walked down the path toward the village, expecting never to come back.
The common room of the Wild Heron was dim after the glare of summer morning, so it took me a moment to see the four men seated at a corner table: the sheriff, two soldiers in red livery, and a dark-haired man in black, who had his back to me.
Rowan noticed me first. His expression did not change. One of his companions touched the arm of the dark-haired man, who whipped his head around. Darzid. I thought I might vomit.
He remained seated, his shiny boots resting on the table, as he inspected me. "Well now, my lady, you've come up in the world, I see. From sorcerers to pig farmers. What next? Grave-diggers? Cutpurses?"
"What do you want of me, Captain?" I said, forcing my voice even.
"Only word of your safety and health to carry back to your friends and family. Your brother grieves for your company."
"Also, you have something that belongs to your king."
"Ah, dear lady, only by his sufferance do you live."
"I'm sure I'm very grateful." What kind of game was this?
"Gratitude is not enough. There's a price for the king's parole."
Parole. I caught my breath. "He wouldn't dare!"
"Oh, yes. The first day of autumn is only three weeks away. This exemplary sheriff has been charged with the responsibility to see that you fulfill your duty on Sufferance Day in this and every year of your life." I started to speak, but Darzid raised his finger. "You'd best not compound your past offenses with treasonable words. Such an example it would be. And from a duke's daughter, one whom rumor claimed was to be our queen! Do the good people of this place realize the honor to which they are privy, having such an exalted personage in their midst?"
One of his companions nudged him and said, "Not from her dress, would they, Captain?"
Darzid chortled merrily. "Perhaps not. But her manners are so fine. I'm sure she curtsies to the swine, or perhaps she discusses fine points of law with the sheriff here." He waved Rowan and the men in livery toward the door. Then he stood and straightened his dark purple tunic and vest. "Have you any message for your brother, my lady?"
As I was awash in the bitter implications of his news, it took me a moment to realize I was not to accompany him.
He propped one boot on a chair and used the hem of his cloak to flick away imaginary dust. "Quickly, madam. If we stay here too long, we'll begin to stink. A message for the duke?"
A message? For Tomas the executioner? Even in the moment's relief, my hatred boiled over. "Tell my brother he cannot wash his hands enough."
Darzid crinkled his eyebrows in puzzlement and shrugged. "As you wish. Don't think to run away again." With mock solemnity, he wagged a finger first at the sheriff and then at me. "It would go hard with anyone who's given you aid. And the first day of autumn-on your life and the lives of everyone in this charming sty, do not forget." Darzid and his soldiers left the tavern without closing the door behind them.
The autumn equinox-the Day of the King's Sufferance. The law stated that on the first day of autumn all those who lived by the king's sufferance must appear before him and swear they had not trespassed on his favor during the past year. The event was a favorite of those who enjoyed displaying moral superiority without fear of rebuttal or retribution. Observers could question the petitioner about anything, whether related to the past crime or no, and the penalties were severe if one answered untruthfully. A horrid custom. Humiliating.
At dawn on the last day of summer, I met Graeme Rowan at the Dunfarrie Bridge to make the day-long trek to Montevial. He waited on the seat of a rickety farm cart. A lantern gleamed from the seat beside him, revealing among other things, a gray smudge in the center of his forehead. No surprise to discover he was a pious man, one who would pray at the shrine of Annadis before a journey, marking himself with earth to remind the god of earth and sky that he was his servant no matter where he traveled.
I climbed into the seat without a greeting, and the sheriff put out the lantern and slapped the mule. Only after half a league of the bone-jarring ride did Rowan first break the silence. "I'm sorry this isn't the kind of carriage you're accustomed to," he said after a particularly hard jolt.
"You have no idea to what I'm accustomed."
"Those men told me of your crimes." His eyes were fixed on the road ahead-or perhaps the mule's rump.
"And are you properly appalled at the affront I am to lawful society? Afraid of my arcane connections? Afraid Jerrat will send a lightning bolt to strike me while I'm sitting next to you?"
"I thought it right you should know."
"You have a highly developed sense of honor-for a sheriff." For a man with so much blood on his hands.
Jacopo had told me how the sheriff had come by his office. Rowan had saved our local lord's life while serving in Evard's first Vallorean campaign back in King Gevron's time. That campaign, of course, had included the slaughter at Avonar. I glanced at Rowan's hands that gripped the mule's reins-short, work-hardened fingers, wide backs with a layer of wiry, reddish hair. Ordinary enough. But I could not look at them without imagining those hands binding women, men, and children to the hastily erected stakes, throwing piles of sticks at their feet, waving the blazing torches close…
Rowan slapped the reins hard. I didn't think the beast could go any faster. "It's true I have no rank, neither dukes nor earls nor even a lowly knight in my pedigree, but I manage to keep some sense of right and wrong about me."
"Do you think that's why I'm allowed to live? Because of my rank? Does that offend your belief in the law?"
"I'm not your judge-"
"I think I'm glad of that."
"-but I tired long ago of those who take or leave the law at their will."
"Rest easy, sir. I would not think of challenging your sense of right and wrong while in your charge. Any man who burned the children of Avonar would surely have no mercy on a depraved soul such as my own."
His features might have been carved from the oaken planks of that cart. He said no more. In fact, we traveled the entire day without twenty more words between us.
We arrived in Montevial after nightfall. Rowan had started fidgeting a league from the walls. As we pressed through the travelers crowding across the Dun bridge, trying to get across the sluggish river and past the city gates before they were closed for the night, his eyes flicked from side to side, and he moved almost imperceptibly toward the center of the wagon seat. The flickering torchlight made the lines about his eyes and the creased scar in his cheek seem deeper. Once, he stopped the wagon, jumped down from the seat, and spoke quietly to a constable who was patrolling a street of shuttered shops. When we at last came to a halt in the muddy stableyard of a cheap riverside inn, he kicked the crowding beggars away from us and snapped an epithet at a ragged girl. The sheriff seemed to think she was trying to steal the mule, but she had only come to take the beast into the foul-smelling stable. I don't know which of us was more relieved that the journey was over.
When Rowan appeared at my door the next morning, he wore his usual sober garb of tan breeches, a country man's canvas leggings, and a dark-blue coat, cuffs frayed and thin at the elbows. We walked through the city in a mournful drizzle, the crowds growing thicker as we neared the palace. Rowan started at the bump and jostle of the passers-by and gripped my arm tighter the farther we walked, as if I might be tempted to run away now I was in the bastion of Leiran aristocracy.
I tried to keep my eyes away from the palace towers that dominated the cityscape and the red banners with gold dragons that swelled limp and heavy from the walls, but as Rowan's firm hand steered me toward the center of the city, my steps slowed.
"What is it?" asked Rowan.
"I cannot…not that way. There are other ways to the Petitioners' Gate." Much as I despised myself for revealing anything to a sheriff, I could not hide the wave of trembling sickness that had come over me.
"Isn't this the quickest route? I should think you'd want to be done with it."
"Please, Sheriff. I beg you. Another way." Some places even pride could not carry me.
"As you wish. As long as we get there."
The Petitioner's Gate in the south wall of the king's residence at Montevial was opened twice a year: on the first day of autumn for the Sufferance Rite and on the last day of the year for the Feast of the Beggar's Penny. Legend said that in the days of trial before he was granted dominion over the earth and sky, Annadis the Swordsman had given his last penny to a poor beggar in the depths of winter, only to find out that it was his own father, the First God Arot in disguise. Soldiers in red livery guarded the gate, and a line of soberly dressed men of all ages and sizes was waiting to pass through. The men in line-there were no other women-were mostly prosperous merchants or officers. The poor could not afford the king's parole.
Rowan released my arm at the edge of the plaza that fronted the gate.
"Are you not to hand me over?" I asked when he motioned me to go on alone.
"My duty was to assure your attendance. You'll find me here when your duty is likewise done."
"But surely your duty does not extend to taking me back?" I was genuinely surprised.
"My duty, madam, is to uphold the law."
The sheriff's fiery emblem glared at me from his blue coat. Revolted, I left him and made my way to the line of petitioners, wrapping my shabby cloak tight around me.
The queue moved slowly through a small courtyard littered with leaves blown in over the walls. No one would ever bother to clean them up for such traffic as passed through the Petitioner's Gate. Beyond the courtyard was a waiting room crowded with wooden benches. I squeezed onto the end of a bench and fixed my gaze on the muddy stone floor. One by one the names were called. I felt light-headed. Perhaps I should have eaten something.
An hour passed. I could do this. For Anne and Jonah who had saved my life, for my freedom I could do it. What could they ask me that had not been asked during the weeks of interrogation before Karon's trial?
"Look deep inside, Seri love," Karon had told me. "Look at the beauty you've stored up there, the life you hold, the spark that is no other. They cannot touch it."
I would not let them in. Karon had built himself a fortress of peace to protect his own spark of life, and in the end, it had failed him. He had died screaming. But I was a warrior's daughter, and I knew of fortresses. To withstand the assaults of the world, you could not afford peace or sentiment. You couldn't afford to care about anyone or anything. I would give these people no satisfaction.
"Seriana Marguerite of Comigor."
The heavy-jowled man wore red robes and carried a guide-staff with a gold dragon on its head. Neck straight, eyes forward, I rose and followed him down a passageway, through a tall arched door, and into the Great Hall of Leire. Hundreds of people were crowded along each side of the vast room, their gaily colored dress garish beside the somber, ancient stonework. Cold light fell through the high windows.
At the far end of the Hall, scarcely visible through the murky light, twenty men sat at a long curved table. Evard slouched in his gilded chair at the center of them. Sitting on either side of him were others I knew: the Chancellor Villarre, the Dukes of Pamphile, Aristide, and Greymonte, the Earl of Jeffi, an old hunting partner of my father's, his leathery wrinkles sagging in distress. So many who had once been part of my world. On either side of the table were a few rows of observers of high enough rank to jockey for chairs, those like the priests, who had a special interest in those who violated the sorcery laws. Everyone else stood, whispering and murmuring behind fans and jeweled fingers.
About twenty paces from the table, the heavy-jowled steward stuck his staff out in front of me, barring closer approach. He spoke sideways through his teeth. "Obeisance. Complete. Now." Surely he was joking. No one of noble family made complete obeisance. The king was the first among equals. And to Evard? Never. I made a deep curtsy as was proper, keeping my head unbowed. My father had sat on the Council of Lords. My mother had been maid-of-honor to Queen Theodora.
As I rose, I glimpsed Tomas watching stone-faced while a fair, rosy-cheeked young woman clung to his arm, giggling and whispering with other women around her. His wife's name was Philomena.
The heavy-jowled man whispered from behind me. "Obeisance. Complete. Now." I stood firm.
Evard's relaxed posture was belied by the edge in his voice. "It is the custom for those who live by our sufferance to make a respectful approach."
"Your Majesty, I bear the honor of all who hold the rank I have been privileged to share. Acquiescence to such a custom would draw the structure of society into question. If such were my intent, I would most assuredly begin at a different place."
The crowd drew breath as one. Evard slammed his hand on the table. "The only rank of those who enter the Petitioner's Gate is the rank of supplicant. You will follow the custom or you will be forced to follow it."
It would have been easy, though repugnant, to grant Evard what he wanted, but as with most bullies, it would only leave him with expectations I was not planning to fulfill. I stood quietly while Evard jerked his head to the heavy-jowled man. Three red-liveried guards surrounded me. Two of them grabbed my arms and spread them in the supplicant's gesture. One forced me to my knees and bent my head forward until it touched the floor. After a moment they released me, and I stood again. Tomas was livid. What did he expect?
The Chancellor spoke first. "Seriana Marguerite, you have been adjudged guilty of the most serious crimes: consorting with enemies of Leire, conspiring to hide criminals, participating in treasonous activities, plotting to place on the throne of Leire one who knowingly harbored…" I did not even listen until Evard began the questioning.
"Where have you spent your time since you so ungratefully repudiated your family's concern?"
"A village in the south, your Majesty."
"And who has sheltered you?"
"Peasants. No one of importance."
"Do these peasants know of your crimes?"
"They know of what I have been accused. I acknowledge no crimes. My husband was a healer who shared a blessed gift with all who needed it."
The observers gabbled in disbelief. The High Priest of Jerrat, a tall man with a craggy face, jumped from his chair. "Insupportable."
Evard pounded on the table for silence. "Stubborn still, are you? We would advise you to restrain your insolent tongue. It would be easy to overreact to your heedless provocation and do that which might give us indigestion tomorrow. Tell us, madam, in these months since your judgment, have you had contact with any person who has at any time or in any wise practiced, studied, or tolerated the repugnant and unnatural rites of sorcery?"
"I have not."
"Have you, in any other way, broken any law promulgated in our name?"
"I have not."
Evard then turned the questioning over to those in attendance. It went on for well over an hour. Had I worked charms or spells? Did I know how? Where had we held the god-cursed rites? Was it true the late Earl of Gault was himself a sorcerer? Had I been intimate with a man since I ran away? The women's questions were the worst.
Tomas looked as if he might burst as the farce played out. His face blazed when one of his friends asked me if a sorcerer could "magic his prick bigger" during the act of love. And when his own wife asked if I pleasured myself, as no man would have a woman befouled by a sorcerer, I thought Tomas might throttle her. Darzid sat just behind him, watching thoughtfully.
I would have gotten through it quite well if a sober Graeme Rowan had not been standing by the door as I was escorted out. Why had he come? To see where he could get himself if he stayed by his duty? Ah, yes, it must be to bask in the glory of the law upheld. But when I thought of him hearing all I had been forced to answer…I was truly humiliated.
The journey back to Dunfarrie that evening was even more awkward than that of the previous day. Rowan never shifted his eyes from the road. I could not look at him without anger and embarrassment, and then I cursed myself for caring what a murdering sheriff had heard. We arrived at the Dun bridge near midnight. Honor required me to acknowledge the escort; he could have left me to walk.
"Thank you for bringing me back, Sheriff."
"I'm surprised you'd wish to return to peasants of no importance."
Stupid man. Couldn't he see it was better not to interest Evard in this place? I turned to go.
As I started up the path, though, he called after me in a very different tone. "Tell me one thing. What was the place in the city where you wouldn't walk?"
What was one more question on this day? He could have asked it at the Rite, and I would have been required to answer. And he had honored my request. "It was the commard, Sheriff. Surely you know of it. The heart of any Leiran city where public rites and performances are held and proclamations posted. In Montevial, the place where sorcerers are burned. For a year, as a warning, they leave it there, the pyre, the stake…whatever is left. It is the law." Words could not pain me. "I heard that Avonar looked like a burned forest."
From that day on, every year on the last day of summer I met Graeme Rowan at the Dunfarrie bridge. Neither his sober expression nor his stiff propriety varied from one year to the next, nor did we speak beyond the minimum necessary. The smudge of the gods always adorned his brow. Each year, he listened as I was questioned, and then we returned to our separate lives, duty and the law satisfied.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2022