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The Knight, the Harp, and the Maiden
By Anne Kelleher Bush
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- Mass Market $17.99 $22.99 CAD
- ebook $9.99 $12.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 1, 1999. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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ALSO BY ANNE KELLEHER BUSH
Daughter of Prophecy
Children of Enchantment
The Misbegotten King
WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 1999 by Anne Kelleher Bush
All rights reserved.
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
"You! Old woman!" The harsh voice echoed across the meadow beneath the cloud-studded autumn sky, and reached the old woman as she stamped her foot, impatiently trying to dislodge a troublesome pebble from the sole of her worn leather shoe. She frowned a little and raised her head in the direction of the sound. Little wisps of grey hair escaped her hood and obscured her vision. She swept her hair out of her eyes and gripped the straps that secured her harp to her back. Across the long wind-bent grass, three horsemen bore down on her so swiftly she knew she had no chance to step aside. She picked up the small pack that held the rest of her worldly possessions more out of reflex than need. If it were Dramue's will that her life was to end here on this rock-rimmed highway, so be it. "As you will it, I obey," she murmured.
She narrowed her eyes as the riders cantered up, their huge round-rumped horses obviously bred for war. Their cloaks were a uniform shade of dark red, bordered in intricate designs of black. Some master-thurge's house guard, she surmised. She noticed that one carried what could only be a woman's petticoat, white and flounced with lace so delicate it was no more than a gossamer banner in his black-gloved hand. She straightened her back, sensing trouble. This was a public road that led eventually into the City of Sylyria. There was no reason any should deny her access.
The riders reined their mounts a few paces from the roadside, and the animals tossed their heads, snorting and pawing impatiently. She struggled not to show her fear. One blow from one of those horses' hooves would be enough to knock her unconscious. "Goddess blessing," she said, her voice steady by virtue of years and years of travel upon rougher roads than this.
"State your business here, old woman." The speaker wore a short pointed beard and his hair was the color and texture of tousled straw. It stuck up in all directions, and the old woman was suddenly hard-pressed not to laugh.
"I say the songs the goddess sends," she replied, the old ritual answer falling off her tongue without thought. "I travel to the keep of Thane Jiroud at Castle Sarrasin. I am invited." She raised her chin defiantly. These ruffians would not intimidate her. She noticed that one of them had ragged scratches, still raw and bleeding, across his face, and the other's cloak was torn along one seam. What had these men been doing? she wondered. She peered at them more closely, and saw that beneath their cloaks, their clothing was disordered, and that their breeches were muddy at the knees.
Scratch-face leaned forward and spoke in Straw-hair's ear. All three men guffawed, and Straw-hair looked at her with contempt. "I'm sure you are, old woman." He waved his arm. "Off with you. You've another two hours on foot."
She nodded, not taking her eyes off the men. The one who held the petticoat thrust it down on the far side of the horse, out of her sight. Her uneasiness turned to fear. Something had happened here, something that involved a woman, and one gently born by the looks of that petticoat. There was a furtive air about the men, an air of guilt. She stood her ground as Scratch-face dropped his eyes and pulled at the reins of his horse so quickly that the animal reared and wheeled. "Off with you, old woman," he said with a quick gesture to his companions. As one, the men touched their heels to their horses' sides and galloped off.
She stared after them for a long moment, then scanned the line of willows that surely must bend over a brook. Nothing moved, and she thought of taking off her shoes and bathing her tired feet in the cool water. The pebble that had lodged in her shoe somewhere on the long walk between Eld and Sylyria was growing into a boulder, or at least, so it felt.
Another gust of wind swept over the meadow, and the grass rippled and the swaying branches of the willows dipped and signed. She looked down the road, and fancied she could see the faint smudge of the walls of her destination on the horizon. If she kept on, she would arrive well before dark. For a moment, she wondered if she should investigate. But if she paused to find out what mischief those men had involved themselves in, she might be on the road after nightfall. The looks of those men decided her. The world was a cold place when one traveled alone, without so much as a roof to call one's own. She would not invite trouble. She stamped her foot in one more futile attempt to dislodge the troublesome stone, and gripped the straps of her harp harder against her back. She coughed. The familiar tightness in her chest clenched around her heart. She thought of her old friend and student, Reyerne, now music master at the keep of the thane. One more student to assess, one more prodigy to recognize, one more Festival, and then it would be time to rest. The goddess was calling her home. With a sigh, she shrugged her pack to her shoulder and continued on her way.
"No!" The word hung, almost visible, not six inches from the long nose of the man who stood in trembling obeisance before Jiroud, Thane of Sarrasin. "How many times and in how many ways must I say it? Invite all the songsayers you please beneath my roof; let Juilene play 'til her fingers bleed. But no daughter of mine shall make a public spectacle of herself, at the Festival or anywhere else, and that's my final word." Jiroud folded his arms over the gold medallion of his rank and leaned against the high carved back of his chair. The late-afternoon light slanted across his face, and the red glow of the fading sun only made him seem more formidable than he already was. Sarrasin was one of the largest domains in all of Sylyria, and anyone who met Jiroud never forgot it. The medallion gleamed upon his chest, throwing off golden glints of light in all directions, and his grey hair, once an auburn as ruddy as the light, hung loose and curling about his shoulders.
From the safety of the far side of the hearth, Juilene allowed her fingers to skip lightly over the brass strings of her harp, and watched her music master raise a stubborn chin, even as his shoulders shifted with a barely concealed sigh. The tentative notes faded, even as Reyerne's persistent pleading continued.
"But, Thane Jiroud," said Reyerne, a man more known for his musical talent than his diplomacy, "this will be her only chance, her last chance, to sing and play before the goddess. Can't you see the opportunity, the honor she will bring to your house? Not one of the noble houses—"
"Precisely," Jiroud said. "Not one of the noble houses has ever sent a daughter—or a son, either—to join the ranks of the songsayers at Festival. And that is precisely why I will not allow it, either."
Reyerne sighed and ran his fingers with their callused tips and long nails through his shock of unruly white hair. Fourteen years in Jiroud's service had inured him to the thane's wrath. "My lord, I beg you. Your daughter has a rare and unique gift. I know that most of the songsayers who appear before the Festival are mere charlatans, mere amateurs. But the Lady Juilene is the genuine thing—she more than any other pupil I have ever had deserves the honor and the recognition. One of the greatest of them all will be here before nightfall—just to hear your daughter sing."
"That's as may be," answered Jiroud. He looked up and for a moment, Juilene felt her father's keen eye fall upon her. She bent her head and hid her face behind the curtain of her curly auburn hair. It wouldn't be wise to attract too much of his attention at the moment. "Any songsayer is welcome beneath my roof. But my answer is still no. The songsayers may be sacred to the goddess in theory, Reyerne, but you and I both know that too many are little more than—than—" Jiroud glanced at Juilene, clearly struggling for a delicate way in which to express himself. "The reality is far different. Most of them are nothing but common harlots who offer much more than a song in exchange for a bed. I won't have my daughter mistaken for one of that sort."
"But, lord, can't you agree that when one is given a gift by the goddess as precious and rare as the Lady Juilene's, it should be used, appreciated, not hidden beneath a barrel to shine all alone by itself? What would the goddess have been thinking when she bestowed this gift upon your daughter?"
Jiroud's thick grey eyebrows rushed together and met above his hawk nose. "I don't presume to guess what the goddess was thinking when she bestowed the gift, as you call it, upon Juilene. But I remind you she also saw fit to make her the daughter of one of the most important families in all of Sylyria—in all the League, I might add. And there are certain things a daughter in Juilene's position just doesn't do—and parading around at Festival in the company of harlots and drunkards, thieves and cutpurses, surely is one of them." His face flushed, and he snapped his fingers at the seneschal, who, along with two other men, idled uncomfortably just inside the doorway that led from the kitchens. "Damn it, man, stop fingering that message like a whore. Where's that demi-thurge? I thought I paid well for fair weather, and now you bring me this." Jiroud held out his hand for the rolled parchment that the seneschal reluctantly laid in his palm.
Reyerne stiffened. When Jiroud was in one of his rages, it wasn't wise to confront him. Accordingly, the music master dropped his eyes and allowed his shoulders to sag an infinitesimal, albeit visible, amount. He sighed audibly as he withdrew. Juilene clutched the harp closer, and shifted on her stool. She held her finger up to her mouth as her music master approached with heavy steps. It definitely wouldn't do to call any further attention to themselves right now. She watched as the demi-thurge, a slight, stoop-shouldered man of middle years, shuffled to the front of the dais. Dust clung to the front of his robe, his hair looked as if it had never seen a comb, and Juilene could never remember his name.
"With all due respect, Thane Jiroud," he began, "there is no way to guarantee safe passage of a cargo. Not from pirates and weather. What you demanded was simply too complicated for this time of year, when the winds off the Outer Ocean are too unpredictable—"
Jiroud glared at the demi-thurge. "Excuses. You like the security of my roof—of my kitchens well enough. You'll take my money and my food. And in exchange, what do you give me? Excuses. All you thurges—some days I think we'd be better off without the lot of you hanging 'round."
"I beg your pardon, Thane Jiroud," said the demi-thurge, "but not every thane agrees with your assessment of our worth. Why, only last Festival, the thurges of Sylyria were commended for their—"
"Quiet," snarled Jiroud. "I was there." He shook his head. "What do you suggest now, Master Demi-Thurge? My cargo's in the hands of Parmathian pirates—what's left of it."
"I will, if my thane wishes," replied the demi-thurge with an air of injured dignity, "consult with Master-Thurge Lindos. It is entirely possible that I made mistakes in my calculations—I am ready to take responsibility for whatever difficulties that has caused."
Juilene bit her lip. Her father was behaving like a boor and a bully. The poor thurge looked so uncomfortable. Beside her, Reyerne looked no less discomfitted. One of these days, her father was likely to burst a blood vessel in his head with all his bellowing, and it looked as if today might be the day. Certainly it was not a good day to ask her father anything. But every year since she had turned fourteen—the minimum age for a songsayer to appear at Festival and perform before the goddess—Reyerne had approached her father and asked, no, begged permission for her to play and sing before the city. And every year her father said no.
This year was different though. Her exasperation flared into full-fledged resentment as her fingers fell across the strings more heavily than they should, and Reyerne raised an eyebrow. Her mouth twitched an apology. But why apologize? This was the last year she would ever be able to appear before the Festival. Songsayers were supposed to be single—they couldn't be married, for the Goddess Dramue in her incarnation had remained unmarried. And this year, on the eve of her twentieth birthday, she was to be married to her childhood sweetheart and the heir to the neighboring domain, Arimond of Ravenwood. Thus, with one stroke, her father accomplished two things at once: his daughter's happiness and the uniting of two distant septs of one of the oldest families in all the Sylyrian League. Though, really, thought Juilene as she caressed the smooth strings of polished brass, really he had accomplished three. He had insured that she, his only daughter, would never seek employment as a songsayer.
She plucked a few strings experimentally and watched her father beneath carefully lowered lids. For all the lip service her father paid the goddess, he had no idea what music meant to her or to anyone else for that matter. He was a tall man, still in his prime, still vital, still a force to be reckoned with, and his whole life was consumed with the cares of his domain. Jiroud's scowl deepened as he chewed a stick of uster-wood, reading and rereading the parchment scroll from his agent in the port city of Khardroon. The pirates who roamed the waters of the Parmathian Straits were a notorious menace to shipping and trade, and Jiroud had sought to ensure a safe passage by means of the magic. Juilene pressed her lips together in a suppressed sigh, and glanced at Reyerne.
The music master's hair stuck up in all directions, a sure sign of distress, and his whole body quivered. "I am sorry, my lady," he began. "I tried. I thought this year—surely, this year, your father would relent. Perhaps after Galicia hears you sing—"
She shook her head and shrugged. "I doubt it, Reyerne. Look at Father's mood. Could the goddess herself change his mind? I know you meant well, asking her to come and hear me, but I'm not surprised. I never thought for a moment Father would allow it. You know what he thinks of songsayers."
Reyerne sighed again. "Yes. I do. And for the most part I agree with him. It is a most debased occupation. But you—you, my lady—your gift is real. Who better to honor the goddess in her own profession?"
Juilene looked down at the harp she held, at her long nails necessary to play the brass strings. "It won't be the same after I marry Arimond, Reyerne, you know that. I won't have time for singing or for playing. Maybe it's just as well that I stop now." She finished with an angry glance in her father's direction.
"No, my lady, please don't say that." Reyerne bent down and covered her hand with his. On the broad palm, she felt the same smooth calluses as on hers.
She looked into his faded brown eyes, and all the anger she felt for her father melted into sympathy for her tutor. She had studied with Reyerne for more than twelve years. In all that time, Reyerne had refused offers of other employment, the opportunity to move on to other households, even to teach at the Academy in Sylyria, where the best of the songsayers trained. There were some unkind enough to say that Reyerne did not so much refuse to leave Juilene as he refused to leave his sinecure. But Juilene knew the depth of the old man's devotion.
He drew another deep breath and slowly straightened. "Forgive me, my lady. Galicia is a very old friend of mine, a songsayer of highest repute. Perhaps she will be able to change your father's mind."
"If she does," Juilene said with a sad smile, "she will be the first."
"I have known her since I was very young, for I was fortunate enough to study under her when I was not much older than you are now. Surely the goddess herself has willed that Galicia intends to be in Sylyria for the Festival this year. For even if your father won't change his mind, I want her to hear you play. She cannot help but be impressed."
Juilene smiled. Everyone who heard her play said the same things. It would be good to play just once at the Festival—just once to sit before the anonymous, faceless crowds and offer her songs to the goddess. It would be a fitting end to her years of study. For a moment, she allowed herself to imagine the scene—the crowds clustered close about her feet, the flickering torchlight, the eager faces fastened on her hands and on her harp. With her hands and her voice, she would weave a spell as real as any thurge, and she would feel the acclaim, know that with her music, she had pleased them all and taken them to a place only she could show them. But Reyerne was speaking, and the vision faded abruptly. "I—I have begun to make arrangements, in fact."
"Arrangements, Reyerne?" Juilene set the harp aside, and gestured for her teacher to join her on the bench. Her father was bellowing for his scribe; it was extremely unlikely he would even remember Reyerne's request if no one mentioned it again.
Reyerne sat, pulling his robes around his thin shoulders. "I have a little money saved, my lady. Your father was a most generous employer—his wages to teach you were far more than I ever needed. And so I am thinking of finding a little house in the city, after you marry, and perhaps taking on another pupil or two. Something to occupy my time, but nothing taxing." He paused and smiled ruefully at her. "I doubt I shall ever have a student as able as you."
"Oh, Reyerne." Impulsively, Juilene kissed the old man's cheek. "I am sorry Father is so—so stubborn about letting me perform at the Festival. He just has such strong ideas about what is right and proper."
"And I don't blame him, my lady." Reyerne rested his age-spotted hands on his knees. "He should be concerned with the proper order of things. It only makes me sad to see such talent as yours wasted. Everyone here loves your playing and your singing, and all the children love the stories you tell—" Abruptly he broke off, staring into the distance. "Ah, well. Soon enough you will have children of your own to tell them to, my lady," he finished. "Perhaps it is nothing but an old man's pride in the best student he has ever had the privilege to teach."
Pride made her straighten and hold her harp tightly. She basked in the music master's praise, even as something in her rebelled at the restrictive circumscriptions of her life. But better not to think of it now. She might as well make the most of the time she had left. "Listen to the variation I made up, and tell me what you think."
Reyerne smiled once more, and settled back, nodding his head, as she ran her fingers over the strings. The notes rippled and she frowned a little, trying to remember the particular combination she had thought so pleasing.
From the corner of her eye, she saw her father's eyes shift toward the door, and he broke off speaking in the middle of a word. His scribe paused in writing, and Juilene saw the man's mouth open, even as the great doors of the outer entrance to the hall slammed open with a loud bang. A voice as familiar as it was unexpected rang out, "My lord Jiroud, my mother begs your help in the hour of our need."
Amazed, Juilene turned to stare, the harp strings vibrating beneath her suddenly still fingers. Arimond stood in the doorway, poised at the top of the shallow steps that led down into the great hall. His cloak was carelessly tossed over his arm, and his hair was windswept. Without even pausing to scan the hall for her presence, he strode down the steps, toward her father's central chair, one hand outstretched.
"What's wrong, boy?" Jiroud half rose from his seat, waving away his scribe with one hand as he beckoned to Arimond with the other.
Arimond swallowed hard and wiped a dirty glove over his face. "It's my sister. She was found an hour or so ago in the lower meadow by the river. She'd been set upon by—" Abruptly he broke off, and Juilene handed her harp to Reyerne.
She sprang from her seat and ran to his side, gripping one arm. She could feel the tense muscles beneath his muddied tunic. Hair was plastered to his neck and cheeks, and he looked as though he had come straight from the practice fields without bothering to change.
"By whom?" bellowed Jiroud. "Outlaws? I thought we'd cleared the last of the scum—"
"No, my lord." Arimond's hand tightened on Juilene's but it was the only sign he gave that he was aware of her presence. "She says it was Lindos's men. And she managed to tear off a scrap—" Here he fumbled in the pouch he wore at his waist, and pulled out a dark piece of fabric. "These are their colors."
Jiroud rose to his feet at the name. His face darkened considerably. "Are you sure of this, boy?" His voice was soft, but in it Juilene heard the edge that made even the most hardened of all her father's soldiers quiver in their boots.
Arimond nodded and handed the tattered scrap to Jiroud, who met Arimond's eyes briefly, then turned the piece of material slowly in his hands, examining each side of it. "This blood—"
"My sister managed to inflict some damage of her own," Arimond answered.
Jiroud nodded. His grim gaze fell on Juilene, and he shook his head. "And you, my lady, think I'm harsh because I won't have you wandering the countryside dressed up in songsayer's rags." He shook his head and gave a short snort as he turned to the seneschal. "Have my horse saddled. I'll go to your mother directly, boy." His eyes flicked over the couple, from Juilene to Arimond and back. "Stay with my daughter if you wish. You've done all you can for your sister."
Arimond glanced down at Juilene and squeezed her hand. "Thank you, my lord."
Without another word, Jiroud turned on his heel and left the hall as anxious servants scurried in his wake. Juilene gazed up at her betrothed. He was tall and blond and just a few years older than she, and she was closer to Arimond and his sister, Arimelle, than she was to her own brother, Lazare, who was more than a dozen years her senior.
"Come and sit," she murmured as the flurry of activity subsided and the hall was once more peaceful.
He drew a deep breath and turned to her, bringing her hand to his lips. "Forgive me, sweetheart, for not greeting you properly."
Juilene shook her head impatiently. "Tell me what happened to Melly." She led him to one of the benches before one of the high hearths, and drew him down beside her. She glanced around. Reyerne had withdrawn with her harp. Except for two servants the hall was deserted. She beckoned to the nearest. "Would you like something to drink?"
He nodded. "Anything."
"Bring us some cider," Juilene said as the servant approached, wiping his hands on his apron.
Arimond waited until the servant had gone and the other was out of earshot. His clothes reeked of sweat, and the odor of the stables. "I'm sorry, Juilene. I know I don't look—or smell—very good."
"Never mind that, just tell me what happened."
Arimond drew a deep breath as though to compose himself by force. "I can't. It's too terrible."
Images raced through Juilene's mind, every terrible thing she could possibly imagine. "Arimond"—she gripped his arm—"please, you have to tell me—how bad can she be?"
"She'll be lucky to live. How's that? And if she does live, she'll be lucky to walk. They broke both her legs, one of her hands, they tore out locks of her hair—" He stopped at the look on Juilene's face. "I told you it was terrible. But I'll make him pay—by the goddess, I will make him pay. I swear it." He gazed into the hearth, where a small fire smoldered.
Juilene could feel the tension in the muscles of his upper arm as she pressed next to him. A long shudder went through his body, and when he turned his face to look at her, she saw tears forming in his eyes.
"I'll kill the bastard, I swear it. I'll take him apart with my own hands—thurge or not, he'll pay."
"Arimond," Juilene whispered, smoothing the tangled strands away from his face. "Father will know what to do. But please—will she live?"
He ran a grimy hand over his forehead. "I don't know. Branward doesn't know. They stopped just short of killing her. I suppose even they didn't dare that."
"Oh, goddess," whispered Juilene. The thought of her friend, beaten and abused, was more than she could stand. She clutched Arimond's arm. "And you're certain it was Lindos's men?"
"That scrap proves it, doesn't it? Those are his colors. And you know as well as I do he doesn't even attempt to control them. He lets them rape and plunder and pillage where they will—you know it, Juilene—don't try to convince me otherwise. They roam this countryside in gangs. Soon not a woman will be safe if this keeps up."
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 1999
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing