Read The Bone Queen Online

Authors: Alison Croggon

The Bone Queen (6 page)


“Oh, you know, important, and solemn, and serious.”

“I am certainly all of those things,” said Nelac gravely. “And I would thank you to keep any reports of my solemnity and seriousness unsullied.”

At this, Selmana laughed out loud. Nelac limped over to a table on which stood a green bottle stoppered with a large cork.

“I think we deserve something special, no?” he said, turning to smile at Selmana as he twisted the cork and drew it from the neck. He poured out two glasses of straw-coloured wine, handing one to Selmana. She sipped it hesitantly, and wrinkled her nose. Nelac regarded her with amusement.

“It’s an excellent wine, you know,” he said. “It’s made from the white grapes picked on the slopes of Til Amon, which are justly renowned for their flavour.”

“The bubbles went up my nose,” she said. “But it is nice.” She paused, and then spoke in a rush. “Were you are that meeting … it was about Cadvan, wasn’t it? Did they decide to – are they going to let him come back?”

“I don’t know,” said Nelac. “I left before the vote. And even if they did, I don’t know whether he would return. Do you think we should allow him to?”

Selmana looked surprised at being asked, and then frowned, seriously considering the question. “If it were up to me? Yes, I think so. He did wrong things, and terrible things happened. And on top of that, many people don’t like him, because they say he is arrogant and vain. And he
, you know. That doesn’t make him a – a bad person. There are lots of Bards much more vain than him.”

“Do you know him?” asked Nelac.

“I wasn’t a friend of his, but I did, a little. Ceredin was my cousin…” A deep sadness flickered over Selmana’s face. Nelac, his attention arrested, glanced at her sharply, and then looked away. There was a long silence.

“I miss Ceredin, so much. Every day I miss her.” Selmana swallowed hard. “She – we are the only Bards in the family, and she looked after me, when I first came here and it was so strange. When she was killed, I hated Cadvan. I thought no punishment would atone for what he had done.”

“And yet you believe he should be allowed to return?”

Selmana met Nelac’s eyes. “I didn’t think so for a long time. He wanted to talk to me, after, but I wouldn’t speak to him, not for a whole year. But one morning I woke up, and it seemed clear to me. Ceredin came to me in a dream. And I remembered that she really loved Cadvan, and he really loved her. And she wouldn’t have loved him like that without reason. She wasn’t – foolish…”

“Ceredin was one of the most gifted Bards I have taught,” said Nelac gruffly.

“She was kind. She was one of the kindest people I ever knew. I know what she would say. She would say that sending Cadvan away won’t bring her back. Nothing will ever bring her back. And everything that happened was just a horrible accident…”

“Ceredin’s death was wholly caused by Cadvan’s folly, and worse, by his dealing with the Dark,” said Nelac, his voice hard. “Were it not for that, she would be alive today.”

“I know.” Selmana frowned again. “That’s exactly what he said to me, before he went away. He came to tell me – to say sorry. He said he understood there could be no forgiveness, that no punishment was enough. Maybe he’s right. But exiling him for ever seems – it’s such a waste! People say we need good Bards now, and I know he’s a good Bard. Maybe if he wasn’t before, he is now.”

“You comfort me, Selmana,” said Nelac. He lifted his wine and saluted her. “And even if you struggle with the Reading, you know more of the Way of the Heart than some very deeply learned Bards I know.” He drained his glass, and set it down precisely on the table. “For what it’s worth, I think exactly as you do. Well, I’ve done my best. We’ll all know the decision soon.”


Selmana left, Nelac sat unmoving for a long time, staring into the fire. He wondered at his earlier anger: he had long mastered his temper, and the arguments today had hardly been unexpected. Yet he felt a compelling urgency that had nothing to do with these arguments. Was it simply that he loved the boy? He frowned, dispassionately examining his feelings. There was no doubt that he did love him: but his desire that Cadvan be permitted back into the world of Barding was surely more than that?

He called into his mind the image of the young man he had known. Cadvan was sensitive towards any kind of snobbery, and reacted aggressively. It was a juvenile hangover which Nelac had sought, without success, to discourage: some young Bards, envious of the drama that surrounded Cadvan’s arrival in the School and of his obvious talents, had teased him mercilessly in his first years there. From such petty things could disaster grow…

The facts were bald enough. When he was made full Bard, Cadvan had come in contact again with Likod, who had shown him some sorceries that dated from the days of the Great Silence. As Cadvan admitted later, tormented by shame and regret, his curiosity overrode the strict laws that forbade sorcery; more, he had thought himself a powerful enough Bard to control the forces these sorceries summoned. And so the shadow rooted itself, and grew insensibly inside all his actions.

Nelac entertained an uneasy suspicion that Likod was a Hull, one of the corrupt Bards who exchanged their Truenames for endless life. Very few Bards attracted by the arts of sorcery became Hulls: indeed, Hulls had been unknown in Annar for centuries, although it was said some still lived, if living it was, in the south. If Likod was a Hull, he had made his bargain quite recently, within the past hundred years or so. As they outlived their natural lifetimes, the bodies of Hulls shrivelled and became skeletal. They could conceal this easily enough from most people, but it was hard to hide from Bards. It could be that there was a new cabal of Hulls. This possibility, as much as anything else that had happened, disturbed Nelac deeply. If it were true, it would mean that the Dark was returning: only the Nameless One knew how to take the Name of a Bard.

Certainly, what followed bore all the hallmarks of the Dark. The arrival of Dernhil, the famous poet from Gent, had catalysed Cadvan’s actions into disaster. Dernhil was a year younger than Cadvan, and his equal in intellect and magery. Cadvan conceived an irrational dislike of him, which stemmed from an unbecoming jealousy at having a worthy rival for his place as undisputed star of Lirigon. His dislike was fanned by Dernhil’s amused responses to his provocations: Dernhil refused to rise to any of Cadvan’s baiting. Eventually, Cadvan, a noted poet himself, had challenged Dernhil to a duel of poems. Dernhil won easily, and Cadvan took the loss badly. In a towering rage, he had told Dernhil that, although he might be better at the mere crafting of words, Cadvan was the greater mage. He challenged him to a duel of magery.

Dernhil, with a rare display of temper, had accepted the challenge. Cadvan had told him to meet him at the Inkadh Grove, a dingle surrounded by ancient pines less than a mile from the School, at midnight. Later that day, perhaps from a sudden doubt, he had confessed to Ceredin what he planned to do. She had known nothing of his secret study of sorcery and was horrified. She begged him to lay aside his rivalry, but Cadvan was a man possessed and refused to listen. In the end, attempting to protect Cadvan from his own folly, Ceredin had also gone to the Grove. Out of loyalty, she had told no one else. Nelac bitterly regretted that she had not come to him.

There, Cadvan had summoned a revenant from the Abyss. And not just any revenant: in his arrogance, he had called the Bone Queen, Kansabur herself. She had ruled over Lir, as Lirhan was then called, during the Great Silence, when the Nameless One had held sway over all Annar. Even after all these centuries, the Bone Queen was still remembered in Lirhan with a shudder of dread, as a name to frighten small children, an evil shadow that haunted the folklore. Bards had longer memories, and knew what Kansabur’s terror really meant.

Cadvan had told Nelac this much, but neither Dernhil nor Cadvan willingly spoke of what had happened that night. Cadvan had unleashed a monstrous spirit: the revenant had proved much stronger than Cadvan had imagined, and Kansabur had broken his control. When the other two Bards added their power in an attempt to banish it, they were brutally cut down.

The Bards of Lirigon had felt the jolt in the Balance the moment that Cadvan uttered the summoning, and had raced to the Grove: but it was too late. Nelac closed his eyes, remembering what they had found there. The trees, blasted with magefire, were still smouldering, giving a ghastly light, and the air was thick and sour with the burnt smell of sorcery. The three young Bards lay in a welter of blood. Dernhil was barely alive: he had suffered a deep wound from his shoulder to his thigh. Ceredin had been slashed almost in two. Cadvan had suffered no physical hurt: he was found unconscious, splashed with the blood of his companions, his eyes wide in stark horror. The revenant had vanished. It had taken more than a year to track the spirit, and to banish it back to the Abyss had taken all the powers of the First Circle. It was done at last: but the harm it had caused, that night and afterwards, could not be undone.

Bleakly, as he relived those terrible times, Nelac wondered again if there could be pardon for such a crime. Even with all the love he bore Cadvan, he found it hard to forgive him. Yet could one wrong be answered by another? Banishing Cadvan’s gifts was to double the loss to Barding. But there was something else, some other reason that plucked at his deeper Knowing. It was an instinct that had yet to grow a mouth, a shadow that remained stubbornly without form. Again he groped towards it in his mind, demanding that it show itself, and again it vanished before him, mocking his fears.

How often, he thought, are one’s convictions decided by trivial preference, rather than by a true desire for justice? He felt unusually troubled. Finally, he reached a decision and made his way to the guest quarters, to find Milana of Pellinor. He had need of counsel.

“Well, that was dispiriting,” Milana said, as she poured him another wine. “I had thought better of my fellow Bards. Well, maybe not Noram. Right now I would gladly mince that man and feed him to the pigs.”

“How did the vote run?”

“Me, you, Calis. Everyone else voted for exile for life, and it is confirmed by Bashar. I think it’s shameful.”

Although he had expected the decision, Nelac felt a stab of sorrow. He was silent for a time, studying the slender Bard who sat opposite him, her long black hair swinging across her downcast face, her startling blue eyes averted from his.

“My heart tells me this is a bad decision,” he said at last. “And yet I scarcely know why, aside from my love of Cadvan. Tell me, why did you speak for clemency?”

Milana gave him a candid look. “For the same reasons as you did, I imagine. You heard my argument. I don’t know Cadvan as you do, but in the hunt for Kansabur I perceived his soul, and I know the Light is true in him. Bards should not be so swift to condemn…”

“Noram was one of those who resented Cadvan,” said Nelac. “He often mocked his pedantry. But other arguments, such as Bashar’s … they’re not so easily dismissed.” Those, he thought, were sober judgements from Bards who had thought long and deeply on the question. After all, Cadvan was by no means generally disliked. If he was arrogant, he was also generous: his gift for mockery had always been directed towards Bards who puffed their self-importance, or who used their status to diminish those they considered beneath them.

“You are troubled, my friend,” said Milana. “This is about more than the harsh punishment of an errant Bard, is it not?”

“Milana, there is a shadow. A shadow pressing my mind. And yet I can’t name it, I don’t know what it means. I wonder if it is merely my sadness…”

“Perhaps you perceive a dimming of the Light,” said Milana. “Our colleagues have been less than wise, and have permitted the desire for revenge to overcome their desire for justice. That is what I will carry home tomorrow. But…”


Milana didn’t respond for a time. She stood up and walked to the window, staring out with her back turned to Nelac. “There is a deeper Knowing at work here, my friend,” she said at last. “I too feel it. And I don’t understand why our friends are so blind to this. I feel a peril among us, that bears upon this decision. Is it fear, you think, that makes them so unwilling to listen?”

“Fear, certainly. Nothing more, I hope. But I have not before sat in such a debate, where the arguments of the Light had so little purchase.”

“I can tell you that Pellinor would not have made such a judgement.” Milana turned around, and Nelac saw how anger still flickered in her eyes, a blue flame. “It goes hard when the First Bard is against you, and I have never felt Bashar was more misled. Cadvan is Lirhanese, and not in my jurisdiction, so I do not have the weight. I could understand his exile from Lirigon … but for life? From every School? I know it sounds petty, but I resent being bound by this ruling. Had I the authority, I’d admit him to Pellinor, but that choice is taken from me.”

“What is this deeper Knowing you speak of?”

“I fear for Pellinor. I couldn’t speak of this at the Council, for I couldn’t shape the connection.” She paused. “You may not know that Dorn has foredreams,” she said abruptly. Nelac lifted his eyebrows in surprise; he knew Dorn, Milana’s helpmate, a Pilanel Bard.

“No, I didn’t know,” he said.

“We don’t speak of them to others, as a rule,” she said. “But he dreamed before I left for Lirigon. It was a terrible dream, and he wouldn’t tell me the whole: but among other visions, he said he saw Pellinor burned and sacked. And afterwards he said, do not permit Cadvan to be sent away, for our children will need him…” She looked down at her hands. “Dorn and I have no children,” she said. “It was a strange thing to say. And yet I knew, with all the foresight given me, that it was true.”

“Perhaps he meant all children,” said Nelac.

Milana shook her head. “Maybe I should have spoken of this. I regret now that I didn’t. But it likely would have made no difference. Foredreams are rightly distrusted: how do we know they are not merely phantoms of sleep? And if they are true, how often do they set feet on the very path they prophesy? But when the vote was cast, Nelac, a dismal weight fell across my heart, as if our future had narrowed. I felt it was the first footstep towards doom.”

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