Read The Bone Queen Online

Authors: Alison Croggon

The Bone Queen (5 page)

One morning in the early spring, Cadvan woke and lay staring into the darkness. He could feel the time in his bones: it was the icy hour before dawn, too late to turn to sleep again. He thought of rising to light a candle, but the air was freezing and his body was stupid with the remnants of sleep. Instead he set a magelight hovering above his head. Its blue, edgeless light bloomed against the walls, still bare, after all these months, of any decoration. He was possessed by an almost unbearable ache of nostalgia: how long since he had practised this trivial act of magery?

The dream that had wakened him refused to fade; instead, grief thickened in his throat. This dream had been different from his usual nightmares, more vivid and somehow more real, even though his nightmares were full of terrible memories of things that had actually happened to him. And the sorrow it left in its wake was of a different kind: keener and deeper and larger. His suffering was a small thing, after all: when he died, it would die with him. The spring would succeed winter, the earth would burgeon with increase, bringing its gifts of life and death. Yet in his dream he had walked through a world in which the seasons were broken and the oceans were dying; he had seen dead lakes of strange, toxic colours covered with dark clouds of flies, and deserts, wasted by war and poison, where nothing lived, stretching further than eyes could see. There could be no consolation in such a world: a human life was vain, and its death meaningless.

Now he stared sightlessly before him, trying to shake off the horror of his nightmare. What if there were no spring, what if winter were endless? What if the song died in the throat of every lark, if the cuckoo no longer returned from its sojourn in the south, if the thawing waterways no longer sprang with breeding salmon and thick tangles of frogspawn, if the leaves fell in the forests and no greening answered their fall?

He took a deep breath and exhaled, watching the vapour curling white before his face. What had he dreamed? A vision of a world beyond healing, of the death of the Balance. A dream, he told himself. Only a dream… A thought struck him, and he almost laughed: perhaps his mind had drawn a likeness of his own soul, grown to encompass the entire earth. Ah, the petty egotism of Bards. Perhaps he would never be rid of his vanity.

At last he got out of bed, wincing against the bitter air, and shrugged a thick woollen cloak over his underclothes. He thought of blinking out the magelight – since his arrival in Jouan, he had refused to use magery of any kind, aside from healing – but he hesitated, and left it to follow him down the stairs. He lit a fire in the kitchen, again using magery. Its warmth quickly filled the room, and he sat down, looking about the house that had been his home for the past five seasons as if he was seeing it for the first time.

It was a far cry from the Bard rooms he had once taken for granted as his own, but it had a humble beauty. The house consisted of two rooms, one upstairs and one down. He and Taran had patched the broken roof and replastered the walls with lime, and there he had left his decorating. He possessed the minimum of furniture: there was a large pine table that he had bought from the local carpenter, two low stools, a bench and a cupboard. On the table was a clay bowl, in which lay six brown eggs, a loaf of dark bread and a big bunch of spring greens he had gathered the day before. A bowl of early apricots that someone had left on his doorstep sat on the cupboard, next to his neatly arranged cobbling tools and some curious pieces of black coal imprinted with the outlines of leaves that he had collected to study. Dry bunches of herbs, grown for medicine and cooking, hung from the ceiling and filled the room with their fragrance. It was enough. It was more than enough.

What he missed most of all was books. He had brought none with him, and there was no means of buying any in Jouan. Writing was unknown: miners kept track of their labour by making notches in sticks, and bargains were struck with a word and a handclasp, and stories told over firesides or remembered in song. Cadvan had a book of paper and a pen, hoarded in his cupboard, that he had brought with him from Lirigon, but he hadn’t thought about writing since he had been here. It was part of the life he had laid aside. He still had his lyre, which was as much a part of him as music, but he kept it upstairs, hidden in a chest: no one in the village even knew he could play. He knew another musician in the village would be welcomed – the Jouains loved music – but to play would have pained him, reminding him too much of everything he had lost.

He sat unmoving in the kitchen for a long time, watching the light creeping across the floor. For once, his sorrow didn’t fill him with anger and self-contempt. He realized he no longer saw Jouan as an ugly, dull settlement: it was a place of complex life, of deep lore, of profound loyalties and relationships, which were no less significant than anything a Bard might study in the grand libraries of the Schools. There seemed no reason why he might not remain in Jouan for years. He might, after all, make something of his life that wasn’t a lie.

IV

N
ELAC
of Lirigon, Bard of the First Circle, foremost scholar of the Speech, famed healer and mage, stifled a sigh and stared down at the table that ran the length of the meeting hall in the School of Lirigon. Cut from a single cedar trunk centuries before and constructed with impeccable craftsmanship, it was a thing of rare beauty shown to visitors as one of the city’s treasures, but Nelac was long used to its marvels. He wondered how many hours of his life had been spent sitting around this very table, listening politely to self-important fools drone on about matters of which they knew little and cared less.

Too many hours, he thought. Even a Bard’s life, long as it was compared to others, was finite. And surely no life was long enough to compensate for the compound of tedium, exasperation and sheer, grinding depression that swept through him now. Noram of Ettinor had been speaking for the past hour, in a voice that might have been precisely judged to induce the nicest balance of boredom and irritation in its hearers. He was a thin, small-mouthed Bard who had built his scholarly reputation on an astounding ability to collect mountains of obscure facts, which he then arranged, thought Nelac, without the smallest skerrick of insight.

“In short,” said Noram at last (here Nelac involuntarily smiled), “there is no reason whatsoever to reconsider judgement in this matter of Cadvan of Lirigon. As I have demonstrated in detail, there is no precedent in the
Paur Libridha
of Maninaë nor in any subsequent constitution of any of the Schools of Annar that warrants appeal against the sentence of exile for dealings with the enemy. I leave it to my learned colleagues in the Light to consider the evidence I have here compiled. More, I would suggest to those who would treat these traditions with disdain and contempt, that it is just these seemingly inconsequential examples of disregard that lead to the corruption of the Light. From such small beginnings grow the larger breaches, as the tiny breach in a dam portendeth flood.”

Noram allowed himself a small, smug smile at this final flourish, and sat down. A number of Bards nodded and a couple clapped, but at least one of them, Nelac noticed, was doing so to cover the fact that she had dozed off. Nelac glanced at Milana, First Bard of Pellinor, who like Noram had travelled long and far to be at this meeting; she was pale with anger, her face carefully blank. Noram had supposedly been answering her, and his speech had been a calculated insult in the way it either brushed off or totally ignored her arguments.

In the silence that followed, Nelac accidentally caught the eye of Calis of Eledh, who sat opposite him. Her face too was expressionless: all the same, Nelac knew that she shared his stunned indignation. For a moment, seeing an answering sparkle in her eye, he wanted to laugh. Then he stood up.

“I have only one thing to say,” he said. “My ‘learned colleague’ has indeed illuminated us with a legal history of the Schools, back to their very foundations. But he has traced a very different history from that outlined by Milana. For example, I find it curious that in all his learning there has not been one mention of the Way of the Heart. If we are to honour our traditions, as Milana reminds us, it is this tradition above all that Maninaë adjured us to observe. Is it not said, on the opening page of the
Paur Libridha
, that the Way of the Heart is the keystone of all knowledge? And did not Maninaë also say that a Bard without compassion is no Bard at all, since love is the key to insight, and knowledge without insight is an empty husk which nourisheth not the body nor the mind nor the soul?”

Noram flushed with anger, but before he could say anything, the other Bard bowed.

“I must now beg your indulgence,” Nelac said. “I have even now an appointment for which I am unforgivably late, as this meeting has continued much longer than I realized it would. I ask your pardon, but I must leave. I have nothing further to add to what I’ve already said, and you all know my decision on this question. I ask Calis to register my vote in my absence.”

Calis nodded gravely, and the Bards watched Nelac in silence as he left the room and the heavy doors swung shut behind them. No one saw Nelac of Lirigon, Bard of the First Circle, foremost scholar of the Speech, famed healer and mage, viciously kick the wall outside in an uncharacteristic eruption of fury. He stood there for some time, breathing hard, staring blindly at the stone, until a student passing by on some errand jogged him out of his abstraction. He turned to leave and only realized then how badly he had hurt his foot: he could hardly walk.

The student paused and asked if she could help. Nelac smiled ruefully.

“I seem to have had a foolish accident,” he said. “I may have broken a toe. I’d be grateful for your shoulder, if you could manage that. My rooms are not far away…”

It was, as Nelac had said, only a short walk to his rooms in the Bardhouse, but by the time he arrived, leaning heavily on his helper’s shoulder, he was sweating with effort. Luckily the young Bard was strong: she was as tall as Nelac, broad-shouldered and well muscled, and her red, curly hair was cropped short. In answer to his polite queries, she told Nelac her name was Selmana, that she was seventeen years old and had been at the School for six years, and that she studied the Making with Calis.

As they entered, Selmana looked around with ill-concealed curiosity: in all her years in Lirigon, she had never been inside Nelac’s sanctum. It was a dull midwinter day and, aside from the grey light that filtered through the latticed windows, a fire crackling in a small hearth was the only illumination. Rich colours leapt in the shadows. Three couches were arranged around a low table by the hearth; they were covered in vivid crimson silk, echoing a hanging on the opposite wall that was worked in rich reds and blues. The other walls were shelved to the ceiling, and glowed with the gilt bindings of books and a myriad of curious objects: brass astrolabes and quadrants; zithers and lyres and flutes; a collection of unusual stones, steel-blue celestite and silver pyrite and rose quartz crystal. A table in the centre of the room was piled with scrolls and books and drifts of paper.

Selmana assisted Nelac onto one of the couches, and he breathed out with relief. “I think we could do with some light,” he said. “Would you mind…?”

She saw a lamp by the low table and lit it with a word. It made the day outside seem even gloomier: although it was only mid-afternoon, the sky was heavily overcast.

“I swear it’s going to rain,” she said, to fill the silence.

Nelac grunted, glumly easing off his sandal and inspecting his foot. His little toe was poking out at an odd angle and was already turning black. He studied it dispassionately, and then, grimacing, set the toe straight. Once it was at the correct angle he pressed his hand over the foot. For a few moments he glowed with Bardic light. He set his foot on the floor, testing, and winced.

“Ah, well,” he said. “Too much to hope that the bruising would vanish, but at least I can walk now. It’s astonishing that breaking something as tiny as a toe can be so crippling.”

Selmana had been watching him interestedly. “Did you mend the bone?” she asked. “I can’t do that. I broke my toe once and I couldn’t walk for weeks.”

Nelac smiled. “Easy enough, when you’ve had as much practice as I have. I hope yours wasn’t as absurd an accident as mine.”

“Me, I kicked an anvil because my father wouldn’t let me be a smith,” she said. “And I was really, really angry.”

“How old were you?” asked Nelac.

“I think I was about eight.”

“I kicked the wall because I was really, really angry,” said Nelac. “But I am twenty-two times older than you were, so I have no excuse at all.”

The girl’s eyebrows shot up, and she looked faintly shocked. Nelac was far too old and serious a Bard to have such a tantrum.

“Oh,” she said blankly.

“But I forget my courtesy,” said Nelac. “My thanks for helping me. So Calis is your mentor, eh? A fine Bard, Calis. And a great Maker.”

“Oh, she is!” said Selmana, her face lighting with sudden passion. “I don’t know if I’ll ever make things as beautiful as Calis does, but maybe one day… And I have to learn all these other things, and I’m not very good at the Reading. All those books!” She rolled her eyes in comic dismay, and Nelac laughed.

“I suppose she’s given you Poryphia’s
Aximidiaë
?” Nelac named a huge tome, the standard authority on working ore and metals.

“She did. It’s hard going, you know. So big! But I expect you’ve read it through and through…” Selmana suddenly recalled that she was speaking to one of the most important Bards in all Annar, and blushed vividly. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t – I’m taking up your time—”

“Should you be elsewhere?”

“Well, not really…”

“If not, perhaps you would like to share a wine with me. I have nothing important to do either. I told the Council I had an urgent meeting, but I lied. I had to escape, or I would have strangled someone.”

Selmana gave Nelac a long, frank look. “You’re not at all what I imagined,” she said at last. “You always look so…” She stumbled, and blushed again.

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