Authors: Susan Dexter
Book Two of
The Warhorse of Esdragon
This book is for:
Nancy Griffin and the Otter Creek Store of Mercer, Pennsylvania—one of the most consistently inspiring and uplifting retail establishments I have had the pleasure of visiting.
Poor, to whom Rook owes her beauty and her courage.
Nikki, Allysa, and Kristen—hope this makes up for all those times I told you I wouldn't come out and play because I had to work on The Book.
Janet Parris—now you owe
a book dedication, so get cracking!
Elvira Jane—guinea pig extraordinaire.
The Duchess Kessallia ruled Esdragon with an iron will all her days, no matter that her slight, white-maned frame seemed the most unlikely of vessels for the power she wielded. Kess was born to what she had, on both sides of her blood, and lived up to it with relish.
Leith of the Isles—her consort—was more concerned with living down his blood heritage, a curse of ill luck. He knew better than to meddle with his wife’s governing of Esdragon. Instead, he put his happenchance observations of the Beriana Mountains to practical use and searched Esdragon’s becliffed coast for places that resembled them. He found tin and copper—even traces of gold and silver—in quantities worth mining. Kessallia applied her arts to his welfare, and whether she overwhelmed his curse or it naturally faded, in the end the mines prospered and Leith’s luck was deemed to be superior to the average man’s. Esdragon was well served and made wealthy.
Kessallia would have welcomed a daughter, would have passed on certain teachings that had come to her from her own renowned and sorcerous mother. Perversely, she bore three sons instead, and when those were each in turn wed, ’twas to conventionally minded women unlikely to welcome witch daughters with enthusiasm. Kess kept an eye open for signs of gifts she might nurture, but she generally saw her grandget only as infants—the very time when magical tendencies were faintest. If the witch taint in her blood indeed bred true, Kess could never be certain of it.
Leith was three years his wife’s elder, and felt his years sooner, as men are wont to do. His step slowed, beyond the hitch in his gait that he had borne from his birth. In time he began to ail in more serious fashion. The Duchess Kessallia meted out physick and magick with liberal hands, and kept him by her long after Leith himself was more than ready to depart, his every breath become a burden. Autumn turned to winter, with no promise of spring.
Finally Leith schemed to evade his lady for an hour’s space, slipped away to Keverne’s stables, and stood before the black stallion whose years were nigh a match for the prince’s own—years that sat invisibly on the horse, just as his sable coat bore not one single white hair. Valadan’s sire was the ageless wind; one man’s lifetime had not marked him, and could not. Leith begged his old friend for one last boon—that the horse bear him away, just far enough that he might do his dying in peace, without distressing his beloved Kess.
Sorrowing, Valadan complied, and knelt before the master who could no longer otherwise climb onto his back. He and Leith of the Isles would adventure this last time to gether. Mist closed around them, and the stallion returned riderless to Keverne.
Kessallia was never to forgive Valadan for helping Leith to leave her. She saw her husband decently mourned, her pale head unbowed by grief, held as high as it had ever been, no matter what fate had decreed. Next day, her eldest son Brioc woke to discover the ducal signet ring round about his finger, and of his mother there was nevermore a trace to be found.
Some said the duchess had thrown herself from Keverne’s clifftops into the sea, choosing by such means to rejoin her lifemate. There was no reason to suppose such rumors true—Kessallia’s own mother had been mourned sixteen years and yet discovered alive, if the tales were true. But there was no knowing—after long years fact and fancy had mingled, had become impossible to disentangle. The warhorse Valadan, who had kept a watch upon the clifftop, could have told the truth of the lady’s disappearance—but none questioned him. Folk no longer believed that the stallion had spoken literally with his late master, no more than they believed him immortal and ageless. That was only foolish fancy, they declared—the Prince of the lsles chose always to ride a black horse, and named each successive steed Valadan, for sentiment. The legends were nothing more than that, suitable to be shared out around a winter fire, forgotten come break of day. . .
Druyan had never stepped foot in Keverne, till her grandsire’s funeral assembled her extended family there, and her uncle’s unexpected accession to the ducal authority kept them there weeks past the few days they had planned. Lastborn of her father Ronan’s eight children by a succession of three wives, she had in fact never been from home before, and as home—Glasgerion—was land that sloped gently toward the sea pastures leagues away, Druyan had never beheld a lofty cliff, either. Pent too many days within stone walls by interminable ceremonies, she seized the chance to escape and explore.
Though her untiny feet were firmly upon the ground, Druyan felt that she walked high in the air, for there were noisy seabirds wheeling all about, and those on her right hand were actually below her, flying over the white boiling of the sea. She knew the ground was solid under her sturdy boots—yet she could feel the beat of the waves through it, a curious sensation indeed, like a great heartbeat of the cliff.
The air moved about her like a sea itself, teasing her heavy skirts, tugging and plucking at her foxy hair till it slipped free of its plaits and danced about her. Some of the escaped hair got into her mouth, and Druyan scooped it away, then turned so the wind could scrub her face and banner her hair out behind her. The sea breeze pressed against her like a great salty cat, the plaintive mewing of the gulls its wheedling voice.
Druyan wended her way between tufts of sea pink and mounds of germander, stepped carefully around nests brimming with speckled seabird eggs. When she licked her lips, she tasted salt, wind-carried and misted over her. She studied the hawk soaring in great lazy circles far above, where the air was more settled. She watched the clouds, higher still and moving stately as the turn of the seasons. One foot led the other, and somehow she was half a league from the gateway that had let her out of Keverne, with no shelter in sight if rain came—but for a wonder Esdragon’s sky remained mostly blue, as it had been all the morning. All the clouds were fluffy white tufts like scraps of fleece escaping a sheep shearer, none of them threatening to do anything but continue inland.
Her wandering path had curved more than the cliff did, and gull cries and wave crashes were left behind. The breeze was more tentative, sporting some yards above Dru’s head, bound on business of its own.
Its freedom was to be envied. Wind obeyed no master, answered to neither parent nor nurse, was constrained by no rule of propriety. It went everywhere and anywhere, just as it chose, saw all that could be seen, roved far and ranged wide. its persistence had trained the branches of the apricot trees Druyan now strolled beneath, all of them streaming inland away from the sea and its breezes—but the wind was not tied to the trees as those trees were bound to the earth from whence they sprang. Wind was
A wisp of breeze tickled the leaves, like ghostly fingers brushing green harp strings. Druyan pursed her lips and whistled a counterpoint.
Above, the hawk abruptly tumbled out of its circle, recovering with a frantic wingbeat. Apricot branches clashed and clattered, and tiny unripe fruit pelted the ground like a spatter of rain. A swirl of wind circled roughly about Druyan, whipping her hair, stinging across her eyes, winding her skirt so tightly about her legs that she stumbled. Her lips went slack, her eyes went wide, her whistling instantly ceased.
The wind died.
, Druyan thought, and denied her fear, ignored the race of her heart. Her nurse had told her—amid a score of other do-nots—that proper-bred ladies did not whistle. ’Twas unseemly. That long-standing prohibition had naught at all to do with those other tales—unfit for her tender ears to hear—of witch women who could whistle up the wind and unleash it at their pleasure, raising storms and wreaking havoc with the weather for gold or for spite. So the wind had not come to her whistled call. But she did not like, somehow, to test the matter further. The earth was littered with green fruit, her unbound hair was tangled and full of twigs. There was no sense even taking a
that the cautionary tales were somehow true.
Dru looked up, so as not to have to look at the litter of mined apricots and suffer pangs for something she could not have been guilty of—and saw the horse.
She had heard no hoofbeat, but there he was, black as wet slate and big as life, impossible to have overlooked even if he had been grazing unobserved nearby when she arrived in the orchard. His pricked ears pointed right at her, his nostrils flared wide to take in her scent and thereby identify her.
lf she stirred, he would bolt. Druyan’s father bred horses; she had come to know them well. No creature was warier of strange situations, none half so ready to flee what it took for danger. But so long as she did not move, this horse would feel safe to observe her, else he would have run already. So they looked at one another, measuring, curious.
There might be other horses pastured nearby—the black was a stallion, Druyan noted. But ’twas unlikely a band of mares would be let run free so close to Keverne. There were fields and gardens and orchards all about, any of which would suffer from free-ranging horses. Perchance the stallion was a stray, escaped from the ducal stables and not yet captured. He might have seized the chance of freedom much as she had herself. She smiled to think of it.
He was well bred. That showed from his high-set tail to his refined head, and at every point between the two. He was deep through the heart and short through the loins. His croup was level, his hindquarters solidly muscled. In front, his shoulders sloped, promising free action under saddle. All his legs were clean as a deer’s, the fetlocks unfeathered. He was holding his handsome head very high, to see her better, and he could do that easily, for his neck was long and perfectly set on. When he arched it, ’twas like a black rainbow. His eyes were bright, missing nothing, and his flaring nostrils mimicked wine cups, even to their scarlet insides. His looks promised speed and the ability to sustain it over a distance the match for anything she had seen in Keverne’s stables.
No sensible man bred a horse with the frippary of its tail in mind, but the stallion’s was a glory—even held high, its ends brushed the ground like a black rain. His mane flowed down his neck like water, though it was wind-snarled and carried a twig or two. There wasn’t a single white hair on him that Druyan could see—each and every one was glossy black, like a crows wing. There was a powdering of dust on him—yet beneath it, he shone.
What must he see, looking back at her? Nothing harmful, that was sure—he was relaxing visibly, and his alert stance was no longer a certain prelude to flight. A thin girl of fifteen years, done growing upward and despairing already of ever rounding to a womanly figure. Hair even more tangled than his, unable to make up its mind whether to be red or gold, and so a washed-out in-between blend of both hues. And her great shame—her hands. So big, never to be a lady’s hands, long-fingered with joints that looked huge as walnuts to her critical eye, when she wasn’t hiding them in her skirts. But maybe a horse didn’t care, so long as those hands were gentle. . .
She was debating whether she dared chance a step toward him when he took one nearer to her—and another. And then he was within reach, letting her stroke his neck while he nosed at her skirts. Druyan knew just how to tell him she was a friend—she scratched and rubbed at the hair on the side of his neck, where mares nuzzled their foals and grown horses exchanged nibbles of greeting when they met. When he turned his long head and blew a sudden breath out of his nostrils into her face, she did not startle back, but returned the breath with one of her own, because that was a greeting, also.