Madbond, p.1

Madbond, page 1

 

Madbond
 


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Madbond


  Madbond

  Sea King Trilogy, Book One

  Nancy Springer

  Two there were who came before

  To brave the deep for three:

  The rider who flees,

  The seeker who yearns,

  And he who is king by the sea.

  Two there were who came before

  To forge the swords for three:

  The warrior who heals,

  The hunter who dreams,

  And he who is master of mercy,

  He who has captured the heart of hell,

  He who is king by the sea.

  —TASSIDA’S SONG

  Prologue

  I am a madman, a murderer, a mystic and some say a god. But before I was any of those, and even before I was a fool, I am a storyteller.

  Let me tell you the tale of the sea king, at first as the eye of sky saw it.

  He waited alone in the midnight shadows. No bodyguard for the young sea king that night, no Birc, no faithful Rowalt. Once each fortnight, at the time of the highest tides, when the moon was at the full or at the new, it was required of him that he should keep vigil alone in the darkness of the great lodge. He, his tribe’s most precious member, waiting to fend off death, alone—no one clearly knew why. The practice reached back beyond memory into the times of legend, into ages even before the time of Sakeema, he-whom-all-we-seek, he who would come again. The young king could not call even on Sakeema for help. Pacing the shadows with his long knife of flint in hand, every nerve at the ready, or standing and hearkening for the approach of the unknown enemy in the black night, the footfalls masked by the soughing of the surf … Seven times challengers in disguise had come to meet him and he had bested them, not without wounds, but in grim silence, holding fast to a cutting point of honor: that the king in vigil beset must not cry out. Of necessity he had become a canny fighter, though never an eager one. And three times the devourers had come, the cold, swaddling, life-sucking demons from the stormy western sea, or certainly as cold as that greendeep, though they came at him out of wind and shadowy air. They had beaten him to the rocky floor with the corpse-cold folds of their winglike flesh. Their teeth had torn at his chest. They seemed to mind his knife no more than seawater would, and still he had not shouted out for help. And somehow he had driven them off.

  But no such foe had ever come upon him as that which attacked him the night of the late winter’s new moon.

  The sea was raging in bitter storm, so that there could be no warning. Lightning in the night sky, even at the time of year. Thunder like that of the surf, and then—hoofbeats, it was a maddened horse, the rider burst right in at the door! Half the wall came down with him—he was a man well thewed to be a warrior, one of the wild Red Hart hunters from the vast mountains that loomed eastward, half naked even in the freezing cold, his hair, braided, flying, the color of the lightning. Bearing down at the gallop he came—and in his upraised hand, lifted to strike, a long knife such as had never been seen, a knife of more than a forearm’s length! The blade was as smooth as ice, made of some strange substance that bore an edge sharper even than chipped obsidian, and it glinted as pale as the horseman’s hair. But the long knife-thing, the sword, was not the worst weapon the rider bore, not to the young sea king who sucked in a single breath and faced him. Far worse was the battering force of the stranger’s heartbroken rage, the grief that skewed his face, the pain that gave mountainous power to his blow.

  Ducking, parrying that first mighty blow—the knife of flint broke off in his hand. The mounted attacker towered over him. Falling back, circling, the sea king screamed aloud for his followers.

  He who came in the lightning, he of the long weapon, the pale hair, it was I whom folk called Dannoc, I the storyteller, Sakeema’s fool.

  Chapter One

  It was like coming up through black water, awakening. I thrashed and flinched, for my enemy stood at the surface, I knew that, stood waiting with knife poised to stick me in the gullet when I gasped for breath. I would die. I gasped anyway, and struggled, striking out with my fists to protect myself, and I felt an oddly quelling touch take hold of them, a touch as strong as my fear but far gentler. I awoke.

  Dark, but not as dark as the black water—I was in a sort of cave. A young man, as young as I, had hold of me. He was no one I knew. I grew still with surprise, and he let go of my arms and looked down at me where I lay, his gaze unsmiling but not harsh. He seemed grave, as a deathbed vigilant might be grave. Beyond him white winter light slanted down like snow through the only entry—overhead. A pit, a prison!

  The long arrow of fear darted through me, for all my life I had roamed the uplands and the highmountain meadows where the deer leap, and prison seemed the worst of torments to me. Or nearly the worst … I wanted to leap up like a deer, whurr away like a partridge, but instead I flopped about where I lay, like a great fish. My legs and wrists were tied with thongs. The young man at my side put a hand on my chest to restrain me.

  “Gently. You will hurt yourself,” he said to me, speaking my own language of the Red Hart tribe with only a slight hesitation. I grew still again and stared at him. His hair was dark brown, his eyes also of some dark color—it was hard to see what color in the dim light. He wore a plain tunic of rough wool such as the Herders weave. He was not of the Red Hart.

  “What place is this?” I demanded of him.

  “You are in a pit for the keeping of roots or prisoners—most often roots. Near the Hold of the Seal Kindred.”

  “What?” I shouted. I struggled again, but in a more centered way. The youth took hold of me by my bound arms and helped me to sit up.

  “But how can that be?” I exclaimed. How could I have come to the sea over the snowpeaks, and in the wintertime, yet? I had never ventured so far from the Demesne of my people. Yet I could not disbelieve him. Even as I spoke I could hear the cat-snarling of the surf.

  “Why am I imprisoned?” I asked next. “For what misdeed?”

  The young man sat back at a small distance and faced me. Even sitting, I overtopped him somewhat, for I was long of limb, rawboned and loose-knit, taller than most men. But I did not feel tall, sitting bound and helpless as I was.

  “You are no prisoner. You are my guest,” he told me. “I have but to call, and they will let the pole down for us from above.”

  He was not, then, a captive like myself? Perhaps not. He moved about freely, while I sat bound, and there was nothing of a captive’s despair in his look.

  Or did they treat prisoners so well, here? My glance dropped to my hands. The rawhide thongs that bound the wrists were padded heavily with wrappings of fleece, as if to spare me discomfort. I sat on a thick bed of linden-bark matting and pelts—sealskins, they were, and they made a warmer, thicker bed than I had ever known. Someone had taken care for me, as if indeed I were an honored guest.

  I could see that my companion had slept nearby. His bedding lay beside him, but it was only a single sealskin and a fleece for his head. Sitting half in shadow, he gazed at me steadily, as if waiting for something. “What is your name?” I asked him, for in my own silence I was beginning to feel the pressure of a blackness—I did not want to comprehend that blackness more threatening than the prison pit.

  “Rad.”

  It was a name of the Seal Kindred and told me little. “Is there a meaning to it?” I hazarded. “If you would care to tell me,” I added for courtesy’s sake.

  He shrugged. “It is the foolish name my mother gave me, ‘sea otter.’ She often told me the tale, how on my infant naming day when she carried me down to the shore to ask the sea for a name, an untoward wave knocked her off her feet so that I was hurled into the greendeep. She dived after me but could not find me, and she raised the lament for the dead, for she felt sure that I had been d
rowned.” The youth who called himself Rad looked at me with straight-lipped amusement. “Babes of the Seal Kindred in their first moon do not swim, no matter what the Otter River Clan may claim. So the entire tribe lamented me loudly. But a month later a man searching for glimmerstones after a storm found me in a sea cave, being suckled by a seal, and he bore me home rejoicing.”

  I listened, not knowing whether to believe him, or how much to believe.

  “I was too scrawny to be called the little seal, my mother said. So she called me Rad. I had the look of a sea otter, she said, slender and handsome.” I saw his straight mouth twitch, as if he mocked himself, and I decided that the tale was not meant to be believed, though I should have known it was too foolish not to be true. “Also, my father was of the Otter clan. Though as for sea otters, she could not have ever seen one. Children watch the kelp beds, but none have been seen for generations.”

  At once I felt my heart yearn. Another of Sakeema’s creatures, gone, like the wolves. Like the great red catamounts. My grandfather had seen such a mountain cat once, my grandfather now dead, but even in his dying age manly and proud in his bearing, his long braids, once as yellow-brown as mine, gone bone white—

  “And what might your name be?” Rad asked me, and in the space of a quickly drawn breath it was as if my grandfather had disappeared beneath—the thing I would not remember. I could no longer see him, any more than I could truly see myself, and I stared at the one who asked me the question.

  “Your name,” he repeated, as if perhaps I hadn’t understood him. But my name lay hidden in the—deep, deep, glinting darkly like a weapon of sharp edge.

  “I do not know,” I told him.

  “But you must have a name,” he pressed me gently.

  “I do not remember.” I truly did not, and I was not dismayed. In fact I felt glad, as glad as a captive of war might feel, excused from torment. My companion peered at me and nodded as if understanding something.

  “We’ll call you Archer, then,” he said, “after those calluses on your hand.”

  I looked down at the hand as if it were a stranger. Indeed, the marks of the bowstring roughened my fingers and thumb.

  Then the one who called himself Rad came over, and, pulling a knife from its leather sheath at his belt, he began to cut my bonds.

  It was a blackstone knife, probably traded from my own tribe, quite ordinary; but I watched it closely, feeling a queasiness I could not name. The youth released my wrists first, then my legs, which had also been thickly wrapped. In spite of the wrappings, I saw, there were bloody cuts on my limbs, in plenty, from the thongs. But the cuts had been treated with grease and did not hurt me. My prisonmaster offered his hand and helped me to my feet. If I had been myself I would have scorned his help, but I knew more than ever that something was wrong, for I could barely stand at first. He had to support me, and I swayed on my feet.

  “You have not eaten,” he explained. I placed my palm against the stony wall, and he left me and went to stand under the entry.

  “Birc!” he shouted. “The pole. And he’ll need a rope, I think.” I was able to understand most of this. The language of the Seal Kindred differed from mine in rhythm—the wash of a lulling sea was in it. But many of the words were the same.

  I did not need the rope to cling to. I scorned it, centered my strength and climbed the pole—a pine log with foot notches, creaking but solid—I managed. My folk had always said of me that I was as strong as a bison. Then they would add, nearly as clumsy. I stumbled out into the light to find a young guardsman warily eyeing me, spear in hand. Rad came up behind me and nodded at his tribesfellow.

  “Run down ahead of us, now, and see that there is some food ready.”

  Birc looked frightened. “My king,” he blurted, making obeisance, “let me walk with you.”

  I saw him bow his head, saw his upraised hands, heard the word, “king,” and I staggered anew in my astonishment. But this—this youth wore no headband, nor even the armband of a warrior, no fur-tipped cloak, no ornament of any kind. And he was of no great height, being shorter than I. And his name—no fitting name for a warrior—but as he was of the Seal, he would have earned another name in vigil, an honored name … could it be? He caught at me with both hands to support me.

  “Korridun son of Kela?” I whispered. “Seal king?”

  He did not answer me except to nod. “Birc,” he said, annoyed, “there is no need to be afraid. Go do as I told you—oh, blast it to Mahela, I suppose you had better help me here.”

  Birc was scarcely more than a boy, and plainly terrified. Of what, I wondered. Only later did I discover how truly loyal and courageous he was. He came to do his king’s bidding, and with one of them on either side of me we walked down the steep mountainside to the headland where the lodges stood.

  Long, low huts of pine timber they were, thatched with reeds. I stared at them all the while we approached them. This was the strangest of tribes to me, these Seals who ate fish and lived in fixed dwellings within sight of the snarling sea. My folk were upland hunters, woodsfaring with the wandering of the deer.… The lodges were built atop the rock, overlooking the sea cliff where the waves beat themselves to foam. In a high storm, spray might have clawed the log walls. Nothing else stood atop that cliff but a few contorted pines, and it was all, rocks, trees, and huts, thickly greenfurred with moss from the damp. The sky hung fishy white, breathing a cold, white fog. It chilled me—I, who walked bare-chested in the eversnow. I wondered why anyone would live within reach of that fog, that surf, so much under the eye of sky. But perhaps there was nowhere else to camp. The mountain slopes came down sheer to the sea.

  “Look,” said Korridun to me with a slight quirk in his voice. “My cousins are hauled out.”

  Even though he pointed down toward the sea I could not tell what he meant. I saw no people, only rocks mottled with lichen and weed. Then one of the rocks moved, and I blinked: there were seals lying at the base of the sea cliff, a throng of them, half a hundred or more.

  “So many,” said Korridun. “My cousins prosper.”

  Of all the tribes, only his people, the Seal Kindred, claimed such kinship with a creature of Sakeema. We of the Red Hart cherished the deer, but we knew our shortcoming, that we could not like them leap out of bowshot with a single bound.… But the Seal Kindred claimed a seal ancestor, Sedna, from whom sprang their royal line. They called seals “cousins,” as I had many times heard my people grumbling around a campfire—my people of the Red Hart, but I could not remember their faces. Danger, if I remembered their faces.

  Korridun guided me by the arm. We were drawing near the lodges, threading our way along steep shelving rock, and the chill air had braced me so that I walked more strongly, without much help. But we did not enter any lodge. Instead, Birc left us and, running ahead, brought back a torch. Rad Korridun guided me under an overhang, and I stood in such a cave as I had never seen.

  Eerie, it seemed to me at the time, the smoothness of the rock walls, as if a sleek giant of an otter had made the place to slide in, had made tunnels everywhere running off at all levels, no pattern to them that I could discern. And the floor, if it might be called a floor, lay all in swells, like the surface of a quiet sea. I had experienced the jagged mountain caves where the mountain cats once denned, but this was of a different sort of stone, brown and polished, and far more open, so that a man could walk upright in it. But what man could have built it, or would have fashioned it so askew?

  “The sea made this Hold, we think, ages past, and has since withdrawn,” Korridun said, as if I had asked him. “Perhaps one day it will take a notion to surge up again. There is no telling.”

  I did not understand him, how the sea could make caves. Still less, how its level could change. I knew but little then of the ways of that vast, cold greendeep.

  We came to a room, or rather a large hollow, which glowed warm and red with fire. There was a stone firepit built against an upward crevice, which made a smoke hole for it. Mu
ch food stood by the fire, and there were places for many people, timber stumps topped with thick pelts for sitting on and long, flat, timbers laid between supports for the placing of food. But there were no folk. Birc threw his torch in the fire and left the place, nearly running, and Korridun motioned me to a seat on one of the fur-topped stumps. But I settled myself cross-legged on the floor instead, as is the Red Hart custom, picking with my hands at the rushes that strewed it. Korridun dipped me food out of a basket of spruce roots, tight-woven and sealed with pitch to make a vessel fit for cooking in. It was a thick soup made of fish, boiled in the basket with stones heated in the fire, much as my folk would have made a venison stew and used the stomach of the deer to hold it. Korridun brought the food to me in a bowl of red clay, and I felt all the honor of that. Vessels of clay had to be traded from the Herders, from the far plains beyond the thunder cones. Most Seal folk, I thought, would eat from dishes of wood or shell. But perhaps Korridun himself was accustomed to clay. He was the king.

  He handed me the bowl and a bone spoon. “Eat slowly,” he cautioned me.

  I was ravenous, as hungry as I had been after the days of my name vigil, but I was not much accustomed to fish, and the odd, oily taste kept me from gulping it too quickly. Korridun got some of the stuff for himself and sat on a sort of bench, setting his bowl on a flat timber. I eyed him, holding my own bowl on my lap, and we ate in silence. There were many questions I was not asking—how I had come into the prison pit, and when, and why I had been bound, and why were the marks of the thongs on my limbs, as if I had fought most fiercely, and why was he, Korridun King, attending me. For the most part, I did not want to know the answers. But when I had taken the edge from my hunger, silence began to press on me again, and I spoke.

  “If you are king here,” I said to Korridun, “how is it that no one waits on you?”

  He gave me a look so wry it might have been a smile, though in fact he did not smile. “It is the custom of the Seal Kindred to humble their kings,” he said.

 
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