Read The Bone Queen Online

Authors: Alison Croggon

The Bone Queen (7 page)

VI

T
WO
weeks after the First Circle confirmed Cadvan of Lirigon’s formal banishment as a Bard of Annar, Dernhil of Gent abruptly pulled up his horse on the road to Lirigon, causing a farmer who was driving a cartful of hay hard behind almost to run into him. The farmer cursed him roundly, and Dernhil started and apologised, moving to the side of the road. The farmer, slightly mollified, drove past, staring at the Bard. As he reported later to his wife, Dernhil seemed like a man stunned: he remained by the road, his horse prancing impatiently beneath him, until the farmer passed the next bend and could no longer see him. “White as a sheet, he was,” he said. “Didn’t know if he was coming or going. He might still be standing there, for all I know.” He sniffed, before dismissing the mystery. “Bards!”

Dernhil was oblivious to the farmer’s curiosity. He had pulled up his mare, Hyeradh, when he rode over a hill and saw, for the first time in more than a year, the red-tiled roofs of the School of Lirigon in the valley below. The sight swept a wave of nausea through his whole body, bathing him in a cold sweat. All the terror and grief of that night in the Inkadh Grove seemed to possess him: for an endless moment it was as if he were back there, standing in the shadows of the pines as Cadvan woke the dead, as Ceredin ran towards him, crying out in dismay and horror… Dernhil was shocked by how even the distant sight of the School brought those memories back; it was as sharp as if it had happened yesterday, instead of two years before. He wondered if he could bear to return.

At last, prompted by his mount’s increasing skittishness, Dernhil urged her on towards Lirigon. Infected by his mood, Hyeradh began to shy at things she would normally never notice: tree stumps, stray chickens, children playing. When a dog barked suddenly from behind a wall, Dernhil was nearly thrown off, forcing him to gather his scattered wits. But that last mile of road to Lirigon was harder than he could have ever imagined: he felt as if he were forcing himself, step by step, back into a nightmare.

Dernhil hadn’t sent ahead to inform the School of his arrival. Norowen, who was at the gate, recognized his tall, slender figure with a cry of surprise and ran towards him. “Dernhil! By the Light, how lovely to see you. What are you doing here?”

He dismounted and returned her embrace. Norowen was one of the healers who had cared for him in the dark months of his illness, and they had become good friends; but glad as he was to see her, she too brought back dark memories. Was every association in Lirigon to be tainted with horror? He forced himself to smile, and replied lightly that he had a fancy to visit Nelac.

Norowen stood back, holding his shoulders and examining his face. “You look pale,” she said. “It’s a long journey from Gent, Dernhil. Are you recovered enough?” Seeing a flicker of irritation in his eyes, she let him go. “Now, don’t be annoyed with me. You know you were my first concern for a long time, and I don’t care to see my handiwork treated lightly.”

At this, Dernhil laughed, and some of the strain vanished from his eyes. “And surely I was one of your worst patients!” he said. He clasped her hands and kissed her cheek. “It’s good to see you again, Norowen. But I must see Nelac, and I had no chance of making him come to Gent. Look, I have to stable Hyeradh now, but perhaps we can eat together tomorrow? I’m not planning to ride out straight away.”

Norowen nodded, and watched with a frown as he led his horse away. He still walked with a slight limp, and there was a shadow in his brown eyes, which had used to be brimful of merriment. She wondered if that shadow would ever vanish: it seemed to her that Dernhil’s mobile, expressive face now was set hard against an inner pain. Perhaps it never would go away entirely: Dernhil would never be able to unsee what he had seen, and he would bear the scar from the Bone Queen’s wound until the end of his days. She sighed, and returned to her interrupted errand.

Dernhil made his formal visit to the First Bard, Bashar, who was too courteous to ask him his business or to refer to his last visit. Perceiving her guest’s weariness, she welcomed him warmly, but she didn’t keep him long. Then Dernhil was shown to his guest chamber, and was able to unpack his bag and wash off the grime of his journey. He saw with relief that the pleasant room he was assigned was in a different part of the house from that he knew.

Clean and freshly clothed, he threw himself on his bed and closed his eyes, feeling exhaustion sweep over him. He had by no means travelled hard since he left Gent, making the journey in easy stages, but his endurance was not what it had been.

Nothing was what it had been. When he pictured himself before the events in the Inkadh Grove, he no longer recognized the Bard he was: that man was a stranger, carefree and heedless, no more reckoning of danger than a child. Now he saw death everywhere, a dark pulse in everything living. The world was a different place, and he moved through it as a different person.

He rested only for a short while, then swept his long legs off the bed and stood up slowly, wincing. He went to the casement and looked out joylessly at the darkening day. From here, on the second floor, he could see over the inner courtyard of the Bardhouse, where a herb garden was planted between paths of grey stone that were now blackened with rain. The sun was obscured by heavy clouds that hung low over the School, draining even the red roof tiles of colour. He felt cold and comfortless, although a fire burned brightly in the hearth behind him. Then he shook himself, as if he could shoulder off his black mood, and went to find Nelac.

Nelac was, as Dernhil had hoped, in his rooms. He answered the door with a faint frown of irritation, which cleared as soon as he recognized Dernhil.

“I’m sorry for the interruption,” said Dernhil, looking over Nelac’s shoulder into the room, where a young Bard was staring at him from a table covered with books and paper. “Shall I come back later? I just wanted to see if you were free.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” said Nelac, drawing him inside. “Selmana and I were just about to finish.” He directed a glance of amusement over at Selmana, who had shut the biggest of the volumes with a loud bang. “I’m giving her some help with the Reading. I suspect that Selmana wishes that it were true that you could absorb knowledge from books by sleeping on them; but, alas, the only way to do so is by reading them.”

“If I slept on the
Aximidiaë
, I’d have the biggest crick in my neck and I would never walk straight for the rest of my life,” said Selmana.

Dernhil laughed. “So you are a Maker,” he said. “If only Poryphia had thought to write in proper Annaren, instead of the language of her own time!”

“And if only everything she said were not so important!” Selmana was gathering up her notes. “Maybe when I grow up I’ll translate it, so that other poor Bards don’t have to suffer as I do.”

“That is a fine ambition,” said Nelac. “Do you know Dernhil of Gent? Dernhil, this is a stray student of mine, Selmana.”

Selmana shook Dernhil’s hand. “I knew that I recognized your face!” she said. “I couldn’t quite place it, but of course I saw you when you were last here.” She seemed about to say something else, but checked herself, blushing, and glanced at Nelac. “I’ll leave now, I see you want to talk. I’ll come again next week, yes? You don’t know how glad I am of your help…”

“But of course,” said Nelac. As he showed her out, Dernhil stood by the fire, looking around Nelac’s sitting room. Oddly, this time its familiarity was reassuring. Like most Bard quarters, it blended an attention to beauty with comfortable disorder; but what he felt most of all was Nelac’s calming presence. He sat down on the couch and stretched his legs out towards the fire.

“Can I offer you a wine?” said Nelac. “I was planning to eat here later, and you’re welcome to join me, if you’re not too tired…”

“Is it that obvious?” said Dernhil.

“Only to eyes that know you well.”

Dernhil smiled ruefully. “You’re too courteous,” he said. “I’m sure I look as bad as I feel. But yes to both wine and dinner, although I fear I might fall asleep on your most comfortable couch. I was hoping we’d have time to talk properly today.”

Nelac handed Dernhil a glass and sat down, examining him gravely.

“I can’t but wonder what brought you here,” he said. “I didn’t think to see you in Lirigon again.”

“I can’t pretend that it wasn’t – hard – to come back,” said Dernhil. “When I came over Veanhar Hill and first saw the School, I almost turned around and went home. I swear, Nelac, just that glimpse brought it back; it was like it happened all over again. I didn’t expect that.” He took a long gulp of wine. “But I had to see you. I’ve been longing to talk to you this past month, you don’t know how much. There was no one else I could think of speaking to.” His voice cracked, and he stopped.

Nelac leaned forward and gently patted Dernhil’s shoulder. “My friend, be easy. You are here now, and there is plenty of time. But perhaps I am not so astonished that you are here after all.”

Dernhil, who had been staring into the fire, looked up swiftly. “Is it the dreams with you too?” he asked.

“Dreams? No, not dreams,” said Nelac. “I have reasons to worry.” He waved his hand impatiently. “I’m right in thinking, though, that this has to do with Cadvan?”

“Yes. Yes, it has, but I don’t know why. But, yes, we have to find Cadvan, wherever he has gone. If he’s dead, then … well, I don’t know what we will do.”

“I would know if Cadvan had died,” said Nelac. His eyes unfocused, and for a few moments he seemed to be seeing into a far distance. “No,” he said at last. “He’s not dead: but he is far away, in thought as well as in body.” There was a short silence, and then Nelac noticed Dernhil’s empty glass, and refilled it. “But we will talk of this later. For now, my friend, I want to hear how things are in Gent.”

Nelac kept the conversation to trifles until after they had eaten dinner, when most of the strain had left Dernhil’s face. He knew Dernhil as the most private of people: he wasn’t given to showing his deeper feelings, even to his closest friends, preferring to hide behind a mask of levity. It was one of the things that had enraged Cadvan, who read Dernhil’s lightness as a studied insult.

Had Cadvan been in his right mind and disposed to be fair, Nelac reflected, he might have considered that, for all his apparent confidence, Dernhil was very shy. He might also have read Dernhil’s poems with more attention: they contained all the feeling and thought that Cadvan claimed was missing in Dernhil’s character. But Cadvan had not been in his right mind.

Nelac studied the young Bard in front of him. Deep shadows were carved under his eyes, and even now he gave off a sense of inner tension barely held in check. When he had first arrived at Nelac’s door, he had seemed to be at a breaking point. At least now the brittleness that had so disturbed Nelac had subsided.

“So tell me, Dernhil,” said Nelac, breaking a comfortable silence. “Why are you here?”

Dernhil paused, gathering his thoughts. “It’s difficult to say,” he said. “It so easily sounds foolish…”

“Be sure that I don’t believe you are a fool.”

Dernhil glanced up swiftly, smiling, and then studied his glass thoughtfully. “Well. Begin at the beginning, I suppose. It won’t surprise you to know that since – since that night, I’ve suffered from regular nightmares. When I left Lirigon, I wanted to forget, I never wanted to think about what had happened here again. I know it’s not the Bardic way, but even knowing that, I couldn’t go near those memories without the most awful pain. I still can’t. Physical pain, I mean; the scar hurts, and when the memories possess me, as they sometimes do, I feel the wound almost as if it were still raw. The body and the mind are not two things, as some Bards say, but one thing together, however they might seem divided: if nothing else, this experience has taught me that.”

“I expect you’ve always known that,” said Nelac. “You are a poet, after all.”

“I suppose so. In any case, as poets are commonly supposed to do, I began to drink too much. It helped to blunt the memories, and if I was very drunk, I slept too heavily to have nightmares. I can tell you that it’s not very good for poetry, though… But I am only saying this because it’s not as if I haven’t suffered from bad dreams. They are more common than not: I know what a nightmare is, and how the terror of that night has inscribed itself in my memories and my body, no matter how much I wish it hadn’t, and how it spills out in dreams and unwanted memories, as it does with other people who have suffered such things.”

He refilled his glass, and was silent for a time. “These dreams are different. They started happening this autumn. I become more anxious in autumn, even in Gent; the weather is a prompt, bringing it back… And the first dream happened on a night which was very like the evening when we went to the Grove. It was a clear, beautiful night, do you remember? Almost like summer. Full of stars, there was no moon. Most of all I remember the scent – the hunaf shrubs were all in flower, that sweet, heavy smell. There are many around Gent, too, although I wish there weren’t… Anyway, I went to sleep eventually, having had a large quantity of wine. And Ceredin came to me.

“I’ve dreamed about Ceredin before, but those dreams – well, they were just terrible memories. This dream was different, not like a dream at all. Most of all, it seemed entirely real.

“I was at my table in Gent, writing, and Ceredin walked in. I was mildly surprised, and said, but aren’t you supposed to be dead? And she said, yes, I am dead. She looked very sad – sadder than anyone I’ve ever seen – when she said this, and I stood up and took her in my arms to comfort her. She kissed my cheek, and then stood back, looking at me in that way she had, open and serious and with that – that capacity for understanding that was her special gift. She told me that she couldn’t stay for very long. ‘I linger on the Path of the Dead,’ she said. ‘One day I will come to the Gates and will not return. Dernhil, I know that you cannot forgive Cadvan for what he has done. I do not ask you to forgive him or to forget. But you must find him, or else everything is lost.’

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