DargonZine 12, Issue 7

Talisman One Part 1



This entry is part 8 of 38 in the series Talisman

Author’s note: This first tale of the Talisman’s rejoining takes place about 120 years after Talisman Zero. As the might of the Fretheod Empire fades in the wake of the destruction of the Yrmenweald and the loss of their primary advantage, the anhekovel, outlying territories of the Empire have become independent in all but name. But not all of these territories are content to let the Empire fade away.

 

Bralidan, heir to the Duchy of Grahk, shone his lantern down the dusty corridor lined with shelves, and groaned. The catacombs under Plethiss, the ducal mansion-turned-castle, seemed to go on forever and even though he had assigned himself the job of thoroughly exploring the ducal archives stored there, he wished that it had turned out to be a smaller job.

As he lit another candle and affixed it to a cleared-off shelf, he reflected that this particular task was turning into another failure. Though only twenty two, he was finding the prospect of assuming the ducal coronet more and more of a burden. He was still years from becoming duke, as his father was hale and enjoyed vigorous good health, but he still feared the day that Grahk became his to govern.

 

Ever since turning sixteen and being confirmed as heir according to Fretheodan tradition, Bralidan had been trying to find within himself the makings of the duke he must become. First he had explored the military requirements by learning what it took to be a commander. And he had done well in the traditional training exercises, first leading a single squad of teraehran, and then groups of squads, and finally entire armies. But his satisfaction in his accomplishments was dimmed when he discovered that the skills to command fellow teraehran did not work outside of the structure of the military. He quickly came to see that even the servants employed at Plethiss required different communication and governing skills. He had gained much from the experience, but not what he had been looking for.

 

Next, Bralidan had attempted to learn his father’s job by watching Duke Bralevant at work. Unfortunately the effort was undermined by two things. First, the duke seldom announced the reasons behind his actions or decisions, and even though he made a few attempts in order to help his son, he usually forgot quickly and went back to his normal way of doing things.

 

The second problem was that Bralevant took more interest in the details of running both Plethiss and all of Grahk than was normal. At times, he acted more like a castellan than a duke. In fact, Plethiss no longer had a castellan of its own. That only made Bralidan even more worried, as he knew he had no aptitude for that kind of work. He felt that, although he was learning some things from watching his father, he couldn’t use Duke Bralevant’s methods as a guide for his own actions once he became duke.

 

It was the suggestion of his younger brother, Biralvid, that Bralidan turn his preoccupation with the archives into another learning experience. Bralidan had always spent an inordinate amount of time in the dusty catacombs, an activity encouraged by the former keeper of the archives. Old Norissey had enjoyed his ‘young protege’, as he called Bralidan, and fed the young heir tome after tome of somewhat sensationalistic histories of the glorious Fretheod Empire.

 

Norissey had died about five years earlier. The new keeper, a young man named Rajath, had no time for the adolescent heir, which didn’t stop Bralidan from haunting the catacombs, although he’d had little purpose in doing so until his brother’s suggestion. Biralvid’s idea was that maybe somewhere within the volumes of information contained in the archives was what Bralidan needed to tell him how to be duke.

 

Systematic exploration of the catacombs and the archives had, oddly enough, not met with Rajath’s approval even though Bralidan hadn’t requested the keeper’s time or assistance in doing so. The mystery of why Rajath didn’t want him down here still bothered him, but only in an idle curiosity kind of way: it wasn’t among the keeper’s powers to bar the heir of Grahk from the catacombs.

 

Intending to be exhaustively thorough, Bralidan set about walking down each and every row of shelving, examining the contents of each shelf and making notes as to what was where. Half map, half index, half almost-travelogue, his notes were getting rather copious. He had started just that winter, about four months ago. Now it was spring, and he hadn’t quite explored half of the archives so far.

 

But he had looked at enough scrolls and bound leaves of paper to know that the possibilities of finding some kind of treatise on exactly how to be the best duke possible were very small. All he had found so far were domesday rolls of the populace for every year since long before Grahk was a separate duchy, detailed lists of provisions for each season for almost as many years, and a few dry, boring historical documents about terribly uninteresting times. The sensationalized, and therefore interesting, histories that Norissey had fed him had all been stored near the entrance. He had yet to uncover any lost masterpieces.

 

The current section under scrutiny was five shelves high, just like most of the others in the catacombs. And also like the most of the others, the top two shelves were empty: they were too high off the ground to reach comfortably. It was as if the shelving had been constructed with some kind of portable stair in mind, which had then either been forgotten about, or lost in the ensuing years.

 

Bralidan started on the third shelf, opening plain wooden and metal scroll boxes and leaf cases, and scanning the contents. He was glad that the animal skin used for the parchment had been properly and well cured, since even the oldest scrolls he had found were in excellent condition. Some of the scrolls he was unrolling and scanning presently were two or three hundred years old, yet the ink was clear and dark, and there was no drying or cracking of the parchment itself.

 

Bralidan reached the bottom shelf without finding anything of interest. There were only two scroll boxes down there, but one was different enough to catch his attention. He lifted it onto a higher shelf and looked at it in the light of his lantern.

 

It was wooden, and highly carved, though its decorations were very unlike the simple carving on most of the other wooden scroll boxes he had so far come across. The style was very … different, somehow not Fretheodan at all. The dominant motif was of foxes, which made him think of his father, who always wore a small, stylized fox pinned to his chest. In fact, these foxes were somewhat similar in style.

 

Bralidan opened the lid of the box, and then lifted out the single scroll it contained. He looked at the band that held the parchment roll closed but instead of foxes, the metal circle bore the insignia of Grahk itself. Bralidan knew that only important documents were banded like this. He carefully extracted the scroll from within the band, and unrolled the document.

 

The title startled him. “Treaty of Rihelbak” was written in an ornate hand across the top of the scroll. The title was surrounded by small, neat decorations — leaves and vines, mostly — such as were used on important official documents. If this had been a display copy, the decoration would have been larger and more colorful. It seemed as if this was the original copy of the treaty. Why would this document be almost hidden away in the depths of the catacombs?

 

Bralidan scanned the scroll, and then read it word by word, disturbed by what he thought he had noticed. He read the parchment over carefully for the third time, and he still couldn’t believe what it said. But there could really be no doubt; the writing was in perfectly plain Fretheodan. It *was* the Treaty of Rihelbak. And by the terms written in front of him, it was about to be broken by default.

 

Bralidan decided that this had to be brought to his father’s attention as soon as possible. He couldn’t understand how this could have happened. His father had to know the terms of the treaty — his signature was the last one displayed. So why weren’t they being followed? People had died for this treaty — including his own great-grandfather! And yet it was being ignored. Something strange was going on, and he wanted to find out what.

 

Bralidan slid the scroll into his carry-sack, somehow forgetting about the fox-carved scroll box completely. He lifted his lantern, blew out the candle he had set, and turned back the way he had come. The candle would stay where it was to indicate how far he had come. He followed the trail he had left of burning, or in some cases guttering, candles back toward the entrance.

 

A dozen paces brought him to the next candle. He plucked it from the shelf — he would only need the one behind him to mark his place — but as he lifted it towards himself to blow it out, he accidentally dripped hot wax on his hand. The sting made him flinch and the lit candle flew into the back of one of the shelves.

 

He scrambled after it; the preservation treatment of parchment made it very flammable, and not every document was protected by a case. As he grabbed the candle, which had extinguished itself, his hand pushed against some kind of projection at the back of the shelf. With a click, the entire section of shelves swung away from him.

 

Intrigued, Bralidan lifted his lantern and peeked behind the swung-away shelves. A small room was revealed, lined with more scrolls, scroll boxes, and a few other odds and ends. He lifted a box off of a low shelf and used it to prop open the secret door, and went into the small room.

 

His eyes scanned the supposed treasures in scroll form that lined the shelves within this hidden room. But instead of pulling down a few examples to see what kind of information needed to be hidden away like this, his attention was drawn to one particular shelf that had three objects resting on it.

 

The first object that he picked up he immediately threw into a corner — it was a dead rat that had probably starved in the sealed room. The second item he lifted from the shelf he knew had to be an anhekova, one of those magical staves that had been the secret to the military superiority of the Fretheod Empire years ago. But no longer: in the aftermath of the civil war and the destruction of the Yrmenweald, it was nothing more than a rather plain wooden staff with an irregular lump of whitish crystal affixed to the top. He wondered who this might have belonged to, since it wasn’t the General’s Staff, which hung on the wall of the great hall.

 

But his interest in the origins of the staff faded when the light from the lantern fell on the last object on the shelf. Bralidan felt himself drawn somehow to the item. He set his lantern beside it and reached out to touch it tentatively. When it didn’t bite him, or send a tingle through him, he lifted it off the shelf and examined it.

 

The object seemed to be a fragment of a sculpture of some kind. It had a single smooth edge that held a slight curve, and two sides that sloped jaggedly towards each other. In fact, it looked like a piece of pie that someone had ripped out of the rest rather than cutting it. The sloped edges were ragged and uneven, and it was broken off well short of where those edges would have come together had it really been a slice of pie.

 

One face of the foot-and-more long pie-slice was as smooth as its curved edge, but the other was an intricate, if fragmentary, piece of art. Most of a carved falcon took up much of the piece, which was an interesting coincidence, since he had taken a falcon as his own personal symbol. Connected to the falcon was a band of glass that ran across the surface of the pie-piece before ending at a jagged edge. Also running across the piece were ribbons of a dull silver metal and a bright brass-like metal. The pattern looked like part of a larger work, probably of Geronlel knot-work, that kind of woven-line decoration that the natives of that north-eastern province favored. The falcon itself was also stylized in Geronlel fashion, and it looked like it had been interwoven with another beast, which might have been a dog; it was hard to tell without the head.

 

“I wonder what this was,” Bralidan muttered to himself. “It might have been part of a wall decoration. No, then its back wouldn’t be so smooth. Some kind of projection on a statue? Maybe a warrior’s shield? That could be it.”

 

Bralidan found that he liked the fragment very much, regardless of what it had been. The falcon was exactly what he had tried to describe to the flag maker when having his banner crafted. The result had been acceptable, but now he could actually *show* Diggseth what he wanted. And then he would put the fragment in his room, where he could look at it and explore it. And maybe his survey of the archives would eventually answer his questions about where it had come from and what it was.

 

Bralidan had a moment’s pause as he slipped the carving into his shoulder sack. Suppose there was something bad or dangerous about this carving? After all, it had been shut up in this secret room for who knew how long. But he dismissed those thoughts almost immediately. What threat could a stone, glass, and metal sculpture fragment possibly pose?

 

He slipped out of the secret room, and resumed his trek for the entrance to the catacombs. He left a candle stub on the shelf where the secret switch was, and picked up all the rest except one more to tell him which aisle to look in.

 

As Bralidan made his way out of the archives and up floor by floor to his father’s quarters, the heir thought about the Treaty of Rihelbak. For hundreds and hundreds of years, Grahk had just been a small administrative division within the Province Krelinlel of the Fretheod Empire. Nominally, it still was, but in the increasing chaos since the civil war more than 120 years ago, Grahk had been forced to do more and more defending of its borders without help from elsewhere in the empire. At the same time Plethiss, the country mansion of the administrator of Grahk, had been turned into a very well fortified castle. Eventually, as the central authority of Province Krelinlel dissolved, the various districts within it took upon themselves more auton omy, and the Duchy of Grahk, among others, was born.

 

To the northeast of Province Krelinlel stretched a vast territory of grasslands and plains called the Great Steppes, which were home to one of the few nations that the mighty Fretheod Empire had never been able to conquer. The Siizhayip, or People of the Grass, were a loose association of nomadic clans who wandered the Great Steppes with complete freedom.

 

At the western edge of the Great Steppes was a vast plain of grassland that, while usually considered part of the steppes, only joined with them along a narrow strait between southward thrusting mountains on the north, and the plateaus and mesas to the south. It was within that plateau land that Grahk was situated, and its northern border encompassed the land adjacent to the narrow neck connecting the Plains of Rihelbak with the rest of the Steppes.

 

Ordinarily, the Siizhayip and the Fretheodan left each other alone. Even after the might of the Fretheod Empire was reduced to what amounted to individual protectorates around the perimeter of the Great Steppes, the two groups of people ignored each other. Until a time seventy years ago, when, for a reason no one had recorded in the histories Bralidan had read, seven small clans of the Siizhayip had banded together and attacked Grahk.

 

The conflict had been bloody and short. Grahk’s troops were used to fighting in the terrain of their homeland; incursions by people trying to claim their own piece of the crumbling empire had grown more and more frequent. Not that the Siizhayip were completely unskilled at battle, but they hadn’t been able to stand up to the organized tactics of this particular remnant of the empire’s might. Within but a single month, the majority of the nomads of the seven clans were dead.

 

Even though the attack of the seven clans had not been sanctioned by the clan council of the Siizhayip, there had still been danger of retaliation by others among the clans. So, the Sun clan had stepped in and called for a truce. The One of the Sun, the person elected by the clan council to speak for all the clans when such was required, had sat down with the duke of the time, and a treaty had been worked out.

 

Duke Branvor had been perfectly willing to cease hostilities as long as the Siizhayip ceased as well. But his father, Duke Bravid, had been killed in the senseless fighting, and Branvor had wanted to make sure that the Siizhayip never thought to attack Grahk again. He had to come up with a penalty that would mean something to them. And that something was land.

 

The treaty that resulted granted the Plains of Rihelbak to Grahk. The histories made mention of the reverence that the Siizhayip had for the land, and that they didn’t believe in ownership of land, but did believe in territoriality. However each side understood it, the Plains of Rihelbak had been forbidden to the clans of the Siizhayip forever more.

 

But somehow, an important part of that treaty had been left out of the history that Bralidan had learned: there was supposed to be a confirmation ceremony every five years! The terms of the treaty indicated that a representative of Grahk and of the Sun clan would meet at the boundary of Rihelbak and confirm the treaty at the appointed times. If that confirmation ceremony didn’t occur five times in a row, the treaty would be invalidated and the land would return to the control of the Siizhayip. The last time the treaty had been so ratified, as indicated by the dated signatures, was in 2322, twenty-five years ago.

 

The fact that that last signatory for Grahk was Bralevant only made it harder for Bralidan to believe that his father had let the terms of the treaty be forgotten for so long. It was part of the duties of a duke to ensure that things such as this were taken care of, wasn’t it? How could Bralevant have just ignored these requirements?

 

Bralidan finally arrived at the door to his father’s quarters on the upper floors of the east wing. He pulled the braided rope and heard the bell inside jingle. Almost immediately, Osirek, the duke’s personal aide, opened the door, his face stiff and bland in his most businesslike manner. But when the man saw who stood at the duke’s door, his face crinkled up with a heartfelt smile and he gestured the youth inside.

 

“Ah, welcome, master Alin! You’ve been in the catacombs again, haven’t you? Just look at all that dust and grime.” The old man, who had at least fifteen years on the duke and so was almost like a grandfather to Bralidan, produced a small hand broom from somewhere. “Now, let’s get you cleaned up a bit before you see your father. You did come to see him, yes? Something you found in those caves, yes? Good, good, right, just a moment and I’ll let the duke know you’re here.”

 

Osirek fussed about Bralidan for a few moments, brushing dust off of his shoulders, cobwebs out of his hair, neatening up his outfit as much as possible. Then he said, “Now, just a moment, Alin. The duke is reviewing some inventory lists, just checking how Plethiss fared the winter. I’m sure he’ll not mind an interruption from that task, but it wouldn’t do to startle him and make him lose count or something. I’ll be right back.”

 

The old man darted quietly through the doors on the other side of the small antechamber, and Bralidan stood, absently fidgeting with the treaty scroll. Osirek poked his head back into the antechamber and beckoned to him. Bralidan stood and walked slowly over to the doorway, while Osirek straightened up, held the door open, and announced in an official voice, “Heir Bralidan to see you, your grace.”

 

Bralidan stepped into his father’s secondary receiving room. The chamber was outfitted for reception as well as work; an ornate throne stood against one wall, between floor to ceiling windows, curtains, and an impressive collection of all manner of weapons mounted on the wall as a decoration. In another corner stood a desk, its top covered with sheets of ledger-ruled parchment. Bralidan knew the duke spent more time behind that desk he was just rising from than in his throne.

 

Bralevant was a large man, about half a head taller than Bralidan and weighing maybe half again as much. Once the duke had been fit and trim but these days, Bralidan realized, the floor length robe he wore bulged more than a bit in the middle. He wondered what would happen if his father had to take to the field of battle; had his armor been kept matched to his shape?

 

And that robe — yet another new piece of clothing. The duke never wore the same garment twice, though the cloth of one garment normally became parts of other garments eventually. The only constants in his clothing were the narrow band of gold he wore about his head, and that carved wooden fox-shaped brooch that he always wore on his chest.

 

Bralevant’s most striking feature, aside from the paunch of good living, was not his pale skin nor his raven black hair. Rather, it was his eyes. The left one was blue while the right one was brown. Bralidan’s eyes were a misty grey, and in most other respects he bore little resemblance to his father. His own hair was reddish brown, not black. His face was narrow, rather than broad and square like the duke’s. His skin was a more natural tone, and he was both shorter and thinner than Bralevant.

 

Biralvid, on the other hand, was a little copy of their father, except for his eyes which were both blue. Bralidan had once envied his little brother that resemblance, believing that his father would prefer Biralvid to him. As it turned out, the duke was far more interested in running Plethiss and Grahk, and both his brother and he had been raised by servants. As far as he could tell, both were equally regarded by Bralevant — when they were regarded at all.

 

Bralevant stood and said, “Well, hello there, son. Osirek tells me you have been poking around in the archives again. I’m glad to see that you’re taking your future responsibilities so seriously, though I must say that I never found myself drawn to the catacombs the way you do. I doubt that I could find anything in there without the keeper, a detailed map, and several wilderness guides!” He laughed heartily, then continued, “Osirek also says you have something I need to see. What is it, son? What have you found?”

 

Bralidan said, “Yes, father, I have found something disturbing in the archives: the Treaty of Rihelbak!”

 

The duke frowned. “So, son? The Treaty of Rihelbak was signed years ago. What relevance could it have today?”

 

“But father, what about the confirmation signings?”

 

“Well, ah …” Bralevant looked confused for a moment. His hand rose to his chest and he stroked the fox brooch with a finger. “I don’t … don’t know … What are you talking about, boy? Have you been breathing spider webs too long?”

 

“Father, you must know. Twenty five years ago, you confirmed the treaty as required. Since then, nothing.”

 

“When? Confirmation signing? What?” Bralevant’s hand was clutched over the fox-brooch and he was frowning as if he was in pain.

 

“Here, look. Right here. Every five years, the treaty has to be confirmed. If it goes twenty-five years without being confirmed, the treaty is broken. And Father, it was last signed twenty-five years ago this year!”

 

Bralevant squinted at the parchment that Bralidan held up. He scanned the whole thing as if he couldn’t see anything written where his son was pointing. He closed his eyes and gasped something that sounded like “Ke …” His hand jerked, and with a slight tearing sound he pulled the brooch free of his robe. The duke opened his eyes again and seemed able to see the words his son was indicating. He read them closely, mouth gaping. He finished reading, and closed his eyes again, slumping back onto his stool with a short gasp of something like pain.

 

Osirek dashed over to the duke and said, “Alev, are you all right? What’s wrong?”

 

Bralevant opened his eyes and reassured his friend. The fox-brooch was laid on the desk, and was promptly forgotten.

 

The duke said, once he had recovered from whatever had gripped him, “Good work, son. I don’t know how I could have forgotten about that part of the treaty, or even how the treaty could have ended up in the archives. It should be on that shelf over there, with the other vital documents.

 

“Well, it looks like we have an outing to organize, doesn’t it? The treaty signing is in two weeks, and this year I will be there. And so will you, son. And so will you. After all, if not for your squirreling through the catacombs, the treaty would have been broken, right? I just don’t know how this could have happened …”

 

Osirek started to reassure the duke, who was still looking shaky. Bralidan immediately felt left out as the two old friends chatted together, and he turned and left without any ceremony. But he kept hold of the treaty. He knew his father would organize the confirmation signing, but Bralidan was going to see to it that it didn’t get forgotten again.

 

***

 

Nikorah was riding her horse, Red Mist, when she saw them. Six riders and a wagon were approaching the camp from the Rihelbak. They were coming this year!

 

She rode back to camp and jumped off of Red Mist’s back in front of her father, Demahh, the One of the Sun clan and thus the One of the Siizhayip. “Father! They’re coming!”

 

“Who’s coming, Nika? Who did you see?”

 

“Them, father. The Kuizhack of Grahk. They’re going to sign!” Nikorah felt elation; this meeting wouldn’t be in vain like the last one. The people from Grahk were going to sign!

 

She saw that her father was frowning, and wondered why. Then, as she thought about it, she realized what the signing meant. “Oh, I apologize, Father. I wasn’t thinking. This means that the Rihelbak will be barred to us again. And it was almost ours! I wonder why they didn’t sign for so long. Did they do it on purpose? To torture us or something? I hope not. Maybe they just forgot.”

 

Demahh’s frown softened as his daughter rambled on. When she ran down on her own, he said gently, “Yes, there is more bad than good in your news. But their coming was in the hands of the Anhilizharnoh. And only they, the Lords of the Sky, know why this year was different than those previous.”

 

With a heartfelt sigh, he continued, “Go gather the others. The sooner this task is completed, the sooner we can rejoin the clan. Off with you!”

 

Nikorah gave her father a teasing bow, and hurried away to spread the news. She tried to temper her enthusiasm, but it didn’t matter what the signing meant ultimately; it was still a ceremony, an event. And she would get to witness it.

 

She quickly gathered the other four members of their delegation, finding the senior herd keeper Kendra last, who was whittling away at a piece of wood as usual. Only Kendra reacted badly to her news, her swarthy features blanching almost white. She got a furtive look in her eyes, and said after a moment, “Nika, dear, ah … tell Demahh that some of the horses are restless. I had better stay with them, keep them calm. I am not needed at the ceremony.”

 

Nikorah shrugged, nodded, and gave Kendra a hug. She had always treated the herd keeper like an aunt, and she wondered what was bothering her. Then she went racing back to the other side of the camp as fast as her feet would carry her. The riders would have arrived by now, and she was eager to see the Kuizhack, these strange people who actually lived in houses of stone.

 

There was a great deal of milling around going on next to the low wall that the Fretheodan Kuizhack had built across the entrance to the Rihelbak Plains. Only two feet high, the wall couldn’t physically keep anything out of the Rihelbak, but it served as a symbol of the treaty which had kept the Siizhayip out of those plains. The riders from Grahk were unloading the wagon they had brought with them and, with the help of the four Sun clan members, were getting ready for the ceremony. Large rugs were placed on the ground on the steppe side of the wall, upon which a high table was set. The legs were so tall that Nikorah wondered how they were going to see the top of it as they sat on the ground around it. And then chairs — strange things all made of wood, not like the mostl y canvas or hide chairs the Siizhayip used — were set all around the table. “That answers that,” thought Nikorah.

 

The top of the table was covered with an embroidered cloth, and then a small square of wood was placed on top of that. A scroll was placed on the square of wood, and two quill pens were placed to each side of the scroll.

 

The chairs were jostled around. Strange stands were placed around one side of the table, upon which were hung more rugs. Nikorah realized that the people of Grahk were trying to turn the openness of the steppes into some kind of enclosure with all of their rugs and stands and tables and such. She laughed at their strange quirks. Why close out the horizon? Why cut off long vistas and views? Then again, why live in unmovable houses of stone?

 

Finally everything was ready, at least as far as the people of Grahk were concerned. Nikorah knew that her father would just as readily have squatted on the bare earth, traded a few words, and scratched his mark on the proper line with no more bother than that, but he was going to do whatever the Kuizhack wanted. This ceremony was dictated by the Fretheod Kuizhack, and Nikorah’s father saw the need to accommodate them even though the freedom of the Siizhayip was limited by it.

 

Demahh motioned to his people, and Nikorah joined him at the table. The hard wooden chair was uncomfortable, but she wouldn’t be here for too long, she hoped.

 

The one in charge, the one with that bright metal band around his head, said, in Fretheodan of course, “Welcome, People of the Grass, to this confirmation signing of the Treaty of Rihelbak. I am Duke Bralevant. This is my eldest son and heir, Bralidan. And this …”

 

But Nikorah didn’t hear anything else the man said, nor any of the words her father traded with the duke person. She didn’t notice when the quills were picked up, finally, and the treaty confirmed and witnessed and dated. She noticed none of this because she was too busy noticing the duke, and more importantly, his heir.

 

She found herself fascinated with both of them. There was something familiar about them both, but she had a different feeling about the duke than about the younger Bralidan. She found herself not liking Bralevant, for no reason that she could detect. His pale skin didn’t bother her, nor did his very black hair or the tiny moustache and beard he sported just around his mouth and chin. Not even his eyes, one blue and one brown, specifically bothered her. It was something else, something distant, almost a memory. Almost.

 

But nothing at all bothered her about the heir, so she put the duke out of her mind for a time and concentrated on the one called Bralidan. He was good looking, almost handsome but not quite. His reddish brown hair that hung to his shoulders was very enticing, though, as were his mysterious grey eyes. There was something about him as well, but not something unpleasant. Still like a memory or dream, but definitely a pleasant one. She wondered what he looked like in just a tunic, and then she wondered what he looked like in nothing at all. She wondered if these people of Grahk would want to stay for evening meal. She wondered if she might get to talk to Bralidan. She wondered what she might say to him if she did. She didn’t know anything about the kind of life he must lead, always in the same place, cut off from nature by walls of stone. But he had been riding a horse. Maybe they would talk about that.

 

Even in the midst of her distraction, she noticed that both the duke and his heir were also looking at her. The heir in particular was spending more time glancing her way than paying attention to her father’s — or his own father’s — words. They only made eye contact once, and it had been so intense, so full of a meaning that she just couldn’t quite fathom, that she had made sure not to look into those grey eyes again.

 

At last, everyone was standing up from their chairs. She had been so absorbed that she hadn’t even noticed how numb her rear end was now. She leaned on the table and worked the feeling back into her legs, keeping her eyes on Bralidan. But it soon became apparent that the Kuizhack were not staying. They took down their meeting table and its cloth walls, and in far less time than it had taken to set it all up. Soon, the entire collection of table, chairs, rugs, and frames was back in the wagon, and with some courteous words of parting, the Kuizhack rode away. Nikorah stood and watched after them, and she was sure that the heir, Bralidan, looked back several times before details were lost in the distance.

 

She returned to her ghur in the encampment and slipped inside the low, dome shaped structure of hides covering bent poles woven together at the top to form a smoke and air hole. She was glad she had earned her own ghur last year upon reaching her sixteenth summer, because all she wanted to do at the moment was think about Bralidan.

 

Nikorah settled herself on some pillows that were placed atop the rugs that formed her ghur’s floor. She reached into a small chest and pulled out her favorite flute, the one with two bells that she had crafted herself. She dug around in another chest, and finally dragged out one of her favorite keepsakes and set it in front of her. While she slipped off her moccasins and rummaged in the first chest for the special hammer, she stared with pleasure at the hunk of rock.

 

The keepsake had been a gift from her father. A tinker, one of those wandering vendors of trinkets and repair work, had happened by the clan’s camping ground seven winters ago. Nikorah remembered the stir he had caused; anything different in the middle of winter was a welcome diversion. She also remembered the first time she had seen her little stone cat, lashed to the side of the box wagon the tinker pulled. It was a fragment of something else, since its two straight sides were jagged and broken, and the strips of gold, iron, and glass that ran across its surface looked torn apart where their paths met those irregular sides. The bulk of the foot and a half long fragment was taken up by a stylized cat, out of which a bit of the iron strips seemed to grow. The strips were woven together, almost like a basket, but not as neat and regular. But the best thing about it, aside from the picture of the cat that she used as her personal totem, was that the metal strips clinked musicall y when tapped. The glass strips didn’t, though she often had the thought that they should, somehow. But nothing she hit them with produced a sound that was sufficiently note-like to bother repeating.

 

Even though the cat-rock was a broken instrument, Nikorah had found a way to play it. The few notes it was capable of didn’t make up a complete scale, nor were they all even in the same octave. But Nikorah had managed anyway. She clamped the tiny hammer she had grabbed between her toes and slid her foot into position over the cat-rock. Then she placed the end of the flute between her lips, positioned her fingers, and started to play, using the tones of the cat-rock as accompaniment. And as her fingers and toes worked together and the ghur filled up with music, her mind began to weave fantasies about the heir of Grahk.

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