Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 18

Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 18

Chapter 17

The sky was still leaden, but at least it wasn’t raining when they started off the next morning. She also didn’t feel as terrible as she had on the previous day, so in general Meb found the world a better place. Her master had even come up with some stale rye bread for breakfast. He plainly didn’t think much of it, but to Meb, it was a familiar sort of food for a morning. If it hadn’t been for a lurking feeling that she was a disaster looking for a place to happen, she’d have said it was the best experience a poor girl from a fishing village could ever dream of. She had to be grateful to that merrow for taking her hair . . . and turning her into an imitation boy and thus into the gleeman’s apprentice. She had a lot to thank him for, besides being grateful for him saving her from drowning.

“Where are we going today, master?” she asked, fully expecting “elsewhere” or some such answer.

“Alba.”

She gaped. Wanted to skip with excitement. Alba! That, to a girl who had dreamed of going as far as Tarport, was the other side of the world. The citadel of the alvar was a place of legend to the fisherfolk. Nobody had ever been that far! Why, it was leagues away, in the mountains.

Which, looking around her, might be where they were now, if the cloud would lift. They walked on, Meb with a new spring in her step. Inevitably it came on to rain — but it was a brief shower, and after it was over the clouds did break up a little, giving her glimpses of steep slopes and distant peaks. And then they rounded a spur and came out of the trees onto an open — and windy — point of gray rocks and grass clipped by grazing sheep.

Yenfar stretched out below them, the sun breaking through the clouds and picking out bright patches. Forests adorned in autumnal shades, still-green patchwork fields, and the distant, sparkling sea. Looking across the water there were hints of purple mountains beyond that again.

“Aye. It is beautiful,” said Finn, taking a seat on a boulder, as Meb stared, trying to drink in the bigness of it with her eyes. “It’s a pity it is not stable.”

“What do you mean, master?” She looked again, wondering if it would disappear.

“It’s a mishmash of magical places, stuck together with magic. It’s beginning to tear itself apart.”

“Now?” she looked at her feet. Across the landscape.

“Not just yet.”

“Then we should fix it,” she said resolutely.

Her master got to his feet. “Not me. Come on, we’ve a few hours walk ahead of us.”

The track they were on joined another track, a larger, muddier one. That joined up with a third . . . which was paved. It pleased Meb. It was very splendid, even if there were now other people on the road too. She’d enjoyed their solitude.

Her master seemed taken up with studying the sharp granite ridges and the cuttings that had been made through them to level and straighten the road, so she thought she’d juggle, practicing as they walked.

“Don’t,” said Finn. “Just work on being a quiet unobtrusive boy, walking along the road. Make an effort to think of yourself as looking like one. The kind of person no one would look twice at. Really want it and try to look like it.”

She put the balls away. “Yes, master.” She was quick enough on the uptake to understand: he wanted her to use the dvergar magic to appear innocuous. He was up to something. It frightened her a little. But at the same time . . . she trusted him. He’d led her into trouble but had also got her out of it. And it had been at some risk and effort to himself. The ordinary Meb, the one that had been raised by Hallgerd to be a good girl said she ought at the very least to run away, or better, tell someone in authority. The inner voice just laughed at her. So she worked on being a simple country boy. It seemed to work. The sharp-eyed alvar guards at the checkpoint scarcely gave her — or him — a second glance. They did seem to be taking an extreme interest in the travelers coming up the road.

Finn led her on towards the vast sculpted gateway to the white citadel. It stood on edge of a lake, looking across the still water to the mountain beyond. Tall, slim towers soared above the wall. What struck Meb was the endless carving on the translucent white stone of the gate-towers. There were patterns — flowers and leaves — below and a long hunting scene frieze carved there above.

“It’s so beautiful!”

“Yes. So daft as well. The walls are carved too. And the whole place is made of alabaster. Very white. Quite soft. It’s a good thing it’s in the middle of the island, just about under Zuamar’s eyrie, or someone would have taught them the advantages of using harder stone, and making less handholds.”

Meb was rather taken aback at his lack of interest in the romance of the city. She still thought it was quite the most beautiful place she’d ever seen. That was, she admitted, not a very long list of places. But it left Cove village and Tarport in the shade. Perhaps the gleeman had seen many such places. He’d traveled. “What do we do now? Find an inn? I promise I won’t drink any beer,” she said, virtuously — and meaning it. She still hadn’t forgotten how she’d felt on the morning after her first serious exploration of beer, let alone what she’d done under its influence.

Finn snorted. “I wish. We’ll get a pass ahead, that’ll allow us into the city for the day. Don’t lose it. There are no inns inside for the likes of us. This is an alvar city and they’ll see that you don’t forget it.”

It was even more beautiful inside the walls than outside them, with the wide paved streets set with tall, slim poplars . . . and the only people afoot were visitors like them, and men in simple uniforms whose principal task was to clean up after the fine horses of the alvar. There was — of course — a market-place, and that was were they, and most of the other visitors headed. There were alvar goods on sale, and — essential for alvar customers — fresh food.

“They’re hunters. The mountains can’t sustain the pressure of the population of a city this size. So they have to ship in food,” explained Finn. “Of course it would make more sense to spread out, or to live in the lowlands, or to grow crops. But they’re big on tradition. We’ve come to buy clothes or a few lengths of cloth to get some really fancy clothes made up for us. It depends on what they have.”

Meb didn’t think that she’d actually ever had clothes bought for her before. It had always been hand-me downs or, at best, sewed from the cheapest cloth that Hallgerd had been able to buy from the pack-peddlers. She looked eagerly at the stalls. They were full of the stuff of dreams for anyone who had ever yearned for finery. Silks, satins, gold-threaded brocade, fine lace, pretty carved mother of pearl buttons, ribbons. And that was in the part of the market that catered to male customers. To someone who had only ever seen one piece of silk close up, to whom clothes had been made from flax or wool . . . it was nearly overwhelming. Finn seemed at ease and familiar with it, telling her the names of materials she did not recognize . . . and spending money. More than a fisherman might earn in twenty years, with a level of casualness that awed her. It didn’t seem to make a huge impression on the stall-holders, so Meb came to realize that it was probably quite normal for them.

They finally left with all their parcels and their passes, which they had to hand in at the gate a few minutes later, and followed other shoppers down a rutted track which branched off from the paved road about half a mile from the gate. It led away from the pretty valley — into another valley — which was rather full of small houses and looked like a mixture between the Cove village and Tarport. Narrow, muddy alleys squirmed their way between crowded houses.

They made their way down one of them to something that was little more than a hovel — a far cry from the alvar beauty of the white city.

The gleeman knocked. Eventually a woman answered. She smiled radiantly when she saw him. Hugged him. Meb knew a moment of jealously. She was — especially considering the very run-down house, a pretty woman. “Come in,” she said, “It’s cold and miserable out there.”

Meb decided that she preferred the weather outdoors. Really. But as Finn went in she had little choice.

Inside, the house was considerably more prepossessing. It had, which Meb found very strange, bright globe lights and a skylight directly above the huge table — a table piled high with linens. “It must be a good three years since I was last here,” said Finn, grinning.

“Nearer to five,” said a second woman who was sitting and stitching. “I didn’t think you’d ever come back after that.”

“And who is the young man?” asked the first woman, still holding on to Finn. Meb smiled determinedly. “I am his apprentice,” she said as gruffly as she could.

Finn did not either confirm it or deny it. Instead he said: “The scrap of humanity is a good juggler. I want clothes appropriate for an alvar lordling’s fool.”

“You’ll need a wig for him then. Girls are in fashion. But fortunately, so is juggling.”

“Well, Scrap,” said the gleeman, raising an eyebrow. “Do you think you could manage to be a little alv girl? You’ll need to wear a dress, I imagine.” Meb nodded, open-mouthed, wondering if she should explain. But Finn had already turned back to the two women. “And you can tell me just what has got the alvar so stirred up?

“There is a rumor,” said slightly younger one, still holding on to Finn. “That some thief plans to rob them.”

Finn laughed until he had to sit down.

***

The two women were seamstresses. They were craftswomen of note, Meb realized, watching how they set tiny precise stitches at a speed that was almost supernatural. In fact, watching them work Meb had to believe they were using magic. Their comments on the fabric that Finn had bought were not flattering. “You should have come to us first. Who on earth is going to wear that violet?”

“Me,” said Finn, cheerfully. “I’ll be suitably pale and blond.”

Leilin — the woman who had met them at the door — and who was making every excuse to touch Finn, snorted. “You’ll stand out like a candle in a coal-scuttle.”

Finn nodded. “That was the idea, m’dear. But I rely on your clever fingers and needlework to make it look as if I am rich and wanting to be noticed.”

“And your . . . apprentice?”

“Oh, definitely noticed. I expect at least one offer to buy the beautiful young thing from me. So that I can turn it down with suitable disdain, Scrap. I’m sure you will make a very pretty young juggler girl, in quite startling motley. But we’re going to need to get out of the outfits very quickly. So there will be no sewing anyone in.”

Leilin grimaced. “This is going to hurt Prince Gywndar? Badly?”

“He will lose face, considerable face,” said Finn. “Indeed, I suspect there’ll be some calls for his head.”

“Good,” said the older sister, showing a vixen-smile. “We will lend some of our glamour. That’s what you want isn’t it, Finn?”

He nodded. “Of course, your exquisite company and stitchery as well.”

They both laughed. “You’re a liar, and a rogue.”

He bowed. “I do my best.”

“A wig and powder and a bit of cornflower on the nose and ears will go a long way before we even start. You apprentice is slight enough, just a bit on the short side.”

They became very professional about it, measuring and cutting. It was still going to take a few days of work to complete, they informed him. It wasn’t just a simple task. As well as that, one of them slipped out to buy a wig. They made Meb practice walking. They said that she was a quick study at being a young woman. “Glamour works best when you work with it.”

Meb could make no sense of it. Glamour? “What do you mean?” Glamor was something the alvar had and used.

“Show her,” said Finn, from where he’d made himself comfortable in the best chair. “She’s less likely to drop the balls if she sees it now.”

The two women looked at each other. Shrugged in unison. “Walk towards the mirror,” Leilin said. “Walk as much like a woman as you can. Move your hips.”

Meb did as she was told, doing her best not to be irritated and pleased at the same time. The dvergar necklace had helped to disguise her, and it was satisfying to fool these two, but . . . she walked toward the mirror. And saw how her face grew longer, with higher cheekbones, and her eyebrows developed a delicate arch. And her ears . . . She stopped. Shook her head.

The seamstresses laughed. “Glamor.”

“Um. Thank you. That’s magic, right?”

They both tittered. “Of a kind, yes.”

“They’re good at it,” said Finn, lazily.

It had been startling. But what Meb did not say was that what she had seen in the mirror was even more startling. The two seamstresses — so ordinarily human looking had been something quite different reflected in the mirror. It hadn’t been her own ears she’d been startled by.

Later, when the sewing women had gone to sleep she quietly asked Finn. “They’re alvar, aren’t they? Why do they live in this horrible place instead of in the white city?”

He nodded. “Yes, little Scrap. Your education continues. But you must understand. There never were — or at least not for many years — just all ‘alvar’ any more than all humans are alike and belong to one group. The sprites and fire-beings are different of course. The sprites are effectively one creature with many bodies, and the creatures of smokeless flame have a very powerful hierarchy that tolerates no dissent. But that was not true of the alvar. The alvar, broadly speaking were divided into Loftalvar and Dokkalvar, Huldralvar, and Stromalvar. And of course several smaller factions, each with their own little kings and lords. The Stromalvar were always closest to the humans, and, with the Loftalvar, ascendant and dominant before Tasmarin.”

He paused. “You must remember that the formation of Tasmarin was the work of a lot of malcontents. Inevitably though, quite a lot of ordinary folk who just happened to be living in the areas that were taken, also ended up here. The alvar got pride of power and place here, under the dragons, once they had killed the human mage Arawn. Only that was not — obviously — the Loftalvar. The Stromalvar took on the role of Loftalvar, took on their style of dwelling — although always by water — and did their best to out high-alvar their image of the Loftalvar.” Finn smiled wickedly. “That went down really well with the few Loftalvar that happened to be drawn in. And of course with the Huldralvar. They fitted in better than the Loftalvar did. But still . . . a good half of those living in this rat-warren are alvar. They’re ashamed. They use their glamour to hide what they are. And they do not like or cooperate with the present rulers. Leilin and her sister are of Loftalvar blood.”

“How do you know all this, master?”

He shrugged. “I’ve been around. And I tell stories, and listen to them, as well as juggle and do tricks and make people laugh.”

“That’s not all, is it?” she asked.

“Well, all that you need to think about now, Scrap,” he said, wryly. “I forget that education in small fishing village tend to be about how to gill and gut fish.”

It seemed a slight on the village and Meb was still feeling slightly touchy. “Oh we learn about the weather and the sea too. And I met a merrow once. Lands-people don’t.”

He looked at her with narrowed eyes, and a small smile. “Now that is interesting. They’re sharp, are merrows. You have to watch them carefully. They’re honest enough, but . . .”

She nodded. “They’ve got sharp teeth too. And they can be sort of . . . nasty-nice.”

“They collect the souls of drowned sailors. And love storms,” said Finn, his tone neutral.

Meb shuddered. “He didn’t seem evil.”

For once Finn’s customary smile disappeared. His face was grim. “Not all that seems evil is. Not all of those who destroy and wreck all that is good are evil. It’s not something quick or easy to recognize.”

She nodded, halted by his seriousness. “But . . . how do you know what’s right? What to do?”

He shrugged and grinned. “I suppose we just have to guess and muddle through.”

Meb nodded, because he was her master. But deep inside she disagreed with him. You could feel “nasty,” sometimes. But, true enough, since the dragon had overseen the destruction of her home, she’d realized that it wasn’t always the obvious that felt that way.

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