a first novel by Kathryn Lance, has a plot Shakespeare
would have loved, in a setting after Edgar Pangborn...
As a first novel, this stands above the crowd." -Locus.
Recommended List, 1986.
New Science Fiction Writer, Romance Times, 1986.
He knew they had been expecting
him. When Zach rode into the dusty yard, scattering the fowl, a face almost
immediately appeared in the small window at the front of the cabin, and
another peeked from behind a corner. Slowly, he climbed down and tethered
his mount to the wooden rail which ran along one side of the house, then
stretched to get the stiffness out of his limbs. It had been a very long
ride, and he was not young.
The door opened and a small
man stepped out, dressed in leather trousers and a worn cotton tunic.
He was followed by a woman, also wearing trousers in the northern fashion.
A dirty boy-child clung to her, sucking his thumb.
said the man.
"Marson and Eugenia?"
The little man grunted assent. "I am Zach, delegate of the Principal.
You were told to expect me." He showed his seal ring.
"The arrangements have
all been made?" The little man looked at once nervous and greedy.
"Yes." The man relaxed
and stole a glance at his wife. She looked away. Zach spoke again: "The
girl is ready?" The man nodded. The three stood for a moment, not
looking directly at one another, then the woman turned to her husband.
"He must be tired and
hungry," she said.
The little man grimaced slightly,
not hiding his distaste at sharing hospitality with Zach. Clearly this
was not a question of thrift-it was obvious the family had barely enough
for themselves, but like District people everywhere they would be honor-bound
to share with a visitor. This was not the first time Zach had been hated
while in service to the Principal, and it would not be the last.
"Come inside." Marson
abruptly turned and followed his wife through the door. Zach had to duck
his head and, once inside, found he could not stand up quite straight
except to one side of the long room. It was large and bare, with fresh
rushes spread over the packed-dirt floor. Most of the space was overhung
with a loft which dropped perhaps twenty inches from the roof. This appeared
to be used by the family for sleeping. Although his head cleared the bottom
edge of the loft, Zach could not see anything beyond darkness and heaped
bedding. A long table flanked by benches, two rickety stools, a loom,
and a straight-backed rocking chair completed the furnishings. At the
far end of the room was a large fireplace, with a heavy metal cooking
pot set on a rack.
"Sit," said Marson,
offering Zach the chair.
"Thank you," said
Zach. He settled gingerly onto the wooden seat, which was barely large
enough to hold him, while Marson and his wife sat side by side on one
of the benches. Now he noticed small pairs of eyes staring at him in curiosity
and fear. He counted five children; with the girl, that made six, and
from the look of the woman a seventh was on the way. For her sake, he
hoped it was not a girl. The silence was surprising: the children seemed
spiritless, perhaps from malnutrition.
"If I may
impose on your hospitality, I prefer to begin the trip back
in the morning," said Zach. "There are at most two
hours of light left."
"Yes, of course,"
"That means we have her
one more night," said the woman.
"Be quiet!" said
The woman looked at him angrily,
seemed about to speak, then turned to Zach. "We have no bed to offer
you," she said.
"I'm happy to have a roof
over my head," said Zach.
"How long a journey is
it to the Capital?" asked the oldest boy. He had been working at
the loom and looked to be about ten years old.
"Not far if you could
get there directly," said Zach. "But the going is slow through
bat country. After that, it's best to follow the river south and east.
By foot, it would take a very time. By mount it took me just under ten
days, riding hard, to get here."
"How did you find us?"
"The Principal's tax men
are preparing maps of the entire District. They have marked every town
and cabin in this sector."
"That way they don't miss
squeezing anyone," said Marson. "No matter how poor."
Zach pretended he had not heard
the exchange. He didn't blame the little man; taxes were necessary for
building the District and securing it, but the burden seemed to fall most
heavily on the very poor.
To cover his embarrassment,
Zach opened his leather pouch. "Do you mind if I smoke?" he
"Please," said the
As Zach tamped new-smoke into
his pipe, the older boy came closer. His dark blue eyes were enormous
as he studied Zach and his trappings. "What's that?" he asked,
pointing at the delicate feathers which poked up from Zach's pouch.
"Don't bother him, Daiv,"
"I don't mind," said
Zach. He opened his pouch and pulled out a narrow instrument made of thin,
polished pieces of dark red wood. Between the two end pieces were stretched
six double strings, their splendidly feathered ends fastened with bone
pegs. "This is a feathered lyre," he told the boy. "The
strings are made from the tail feathers of a new bird that lives in the
south and can't fly. The ends of the feathers are very strong and stretchable,
like hair. When I pull on a string, like this, it makes a tone."
He demonstrated, and the cabin was suddenly filled with the haunting moan
of the feathered lyre. No one spoke as the sound slowly faded.
Zach put the instrument away,
then lit his pipe with a glowing piece of kindling from the fire and sat
puffing, wishing that he weren't here, wishing that the Principal had
not asked this of him. But, of course, Zach was the only man he could
trust on this mission. It was strange how two men who were so close could
be so different, in the most important ways. Of course, the Principal
had always maintained that they were more alike than Zach ever cared to
admit. Zach's mind drifted with the new-smoke and was gradually pulled
back to the long room by the aroma of cooking food, and by the bustling
of the woman as she set the table with bread, drinking gourds, and wooden
"Will you have brew with
dinner?" asked Marson.
Zach hesitated. Clearly brew
was something precious to the man, and just as clearly he did not really
want to share it; but to refuse would be an insult, and besides, after
the long, grueling ride Zach craved the bitter taste and relaxing warmth.
"Yes, please," he
said. Marson bowed his head slightly and disappeared outside.
The boys squirmed themselves
onto a long bench which barely seated all of them. The oldest, Daiv, was
the only one who seemed able to look at Zach for more than a few seconds
at a time. Marson returned with a large stoppered crock and two pottery
tankards, and poured.
"To your health,"
said Zach, raising his tankard. Marson lifted his but didn't speak. The
brew was surprisingly good, as fresh as any he had tasted in the Capital.
"Did you make this yourself ?"
Marson nodded. "My father
was a brewer. I was to follow in his footsteps, but outlaws took the town
and we were burned out. There's not much market for the stuff here, or
much time for brewing."
"You have the touch,"
said Zach. "Perhaps someday you'll be able to put it to use."
"Not likely, living as
we do," said Marson. "Good ingredients are too rare, and too
expensive. For this batch I used real corn-we traded last fair day for
some beets we'd grown."
Zach repeated. He now tasted the stew, which was thin and mealy and seemed
to consist largely of beets and unidentifiable greens, and what might
once have been fowl. "The stew is good too," he said. "Thank
you, mistress. "
"We're happy to share,"
the woman said. Then, leaning across the table, she whispered to the oldest
boy. "Daiv, take a bowl up to your sister. She's hardly eaten for
Zach watched as the boy disappeared
up the rough ladder to the loft.
"I've heard the Principal
plans to expand trade," said Marson.
"That's true," said
Zach. "The first step is building better roads. Once they've come
into this region, it's possible that you could set up a brewery and inn.
Such places exist now closer to the Capital."
Marson grunted. "You put
all your work into something, try to build it up, and outlaws take over.
No, thank you."
"That is what the Principal
is trying to prevent," said Zach. "The risk of outlaws goes
down as more people move into an area. The Principal hopes to extend civilization
to all corners of the District and beyond."
Marson. "That's what got us into the mess we have now."
Zach had no answer. Marson
was about to speak again when there was a sudden, piercing, feminine cry
of "No!" and a thumping noise, followed by "Deenas take
you, Evvy!" There was another thump, and then Daiv descended the
ladder, holding the bowl, its contents soaking the front of his tunic.
want to eat," he said and took his place again.
His mother started to say something,
then stopped, looking up at the loft. When she returned to her own meal,
she kept her face lowered. For a moment nobody'spoke, then Marson said
gruffly, "Pass over the serving bowl, Daiv."
Zach felt he could not swallow
one more bite of this family's food.
"I'm quite full now,"
he said, pushing himself from the table. "Thank you."
"Welcome," said Marson.
Unceremoniously he took Zach's half-empty bowl and poured its contents
back into the serving pot.
"I believe I'll take a
walk," said Zach. "If you'll excuse me
The man and woman didn't bother
to hide their relief. "We close the house when the sun goes down,"
said Marson. "You won't want to be out then, anyway."
Hanging his smoking pouch on
his belt, Zach stepped outside, then went to his mount, which had been
lapping water from a trough in the side yard. He took his short sword
from the saddle, then walked toward the woods. He was too tired to do
much walking but wanted to give the brewer's family more time to sort
out their troubles. He half expected that when he returned they would
announce that they had changed their minds. Of course he could not allow
that--the Principal had become obsessed with the project. Zach sat on
a boulder and, using his flint and steel, lit his pipe, then he gazed
beyond the roof of Marson's wretched hut. The smoke escaping through the
chimney-hole seemed to blend with that from Zach's pipe; only by focusing
could he keep them separate, just as he was able to separate himself from
the general misery of humankind by keeping his own wants and expectations
so low that he was seldom disappointed.
Whether it was his reluctance
to return to the hut or the reverie inspired by new-smoke, sunset crept
up on him. It happened so gradually that there was no one minute when
he could say, "This is dusk." Rather, the air changed imperceptibly,
becoming more moist and cool; the color of the sky went from blue to bluer,
then indigo. The trees began to vibrate with the sounds of insects, and
it was only after he had been startled by the bite of a shiny green fly
that Zach realized how late it was. He must get back to the cabin.
His mount had already assumed
the immobile position of sleep by the time Zach reached the yard. He started
toward her, to retrieve his blanket, when he heard the swishing of wings
above him. He threw himself to the ground barely in time to avoid the
poison-dripping talons of the bat which had found him out at night, unprotected.
He rolled over twice to avoid another attack, then rose to a crouch, his
sword out defensively. He began to back up slowly, listening for the flapping
wings which were invisible in the near-total darkness. He had nearly reached
the door when the eerie swishing sound again approached, and he threw
himself against the door, fell into the room, and kicked the door shut.
A second later he heard the sound of talons scraping wood, a high-pitched
squeal of frustration, and then silence. Zach took a deep breath, then
slowly stood. His legs were trembling and he felt foolish as the brewer's
family looked at him, the children wide-eyed, Marson and his wife impassive.
"It gets dark quickly
here," said Marson.
Sit down," said the woman.
Zach sank into the chair and gratefully accepted the tankard of brew she
poured for him.
"You had no trouble with
bats on the way here?" she asked.
"I saw none, though I
heard one once," said Zach.
I heard a bat can kill you
in ten seconds," said Daiv. "Is that true?"
"Quite likely," said
Zach. "The poison is very powerful and fast-working."
"I saw a bat take a sheep
down in half a minute," said Marson. "It was years ago, before
poison-bats were as common as they are now."
"Enough talk of bats,"
said the woman. "It win give us all bad dreams." Then she flushed,
perhaps remembering that there was already reason for bad dreams.
"Daiv, go on up to bed,"
she said. "Make sure the little ones are settled and see if Evvy
With a show of reluctance,
Daiv mounted the ladder. Hushed whispers drifted down and Zach hoped there
wouldn't be another outburst.
"Does the boy know what
has been arranged?" asked Zach in a low voice.
"Only that Evvy's going
away to the Capital," said Marson. He snorted. "He wanted to
know why he can't go too." The little man looked down at his feet
while his wife suddenly busied herself with some mending.
Zach sensed that they would
prefer to settle the business tonight, but were hesitant to bring it up.
He too would prefer to get it over with, but the Principal had been explicit:
he mustn't turn over any metal until he had the girl secure. But what
was the harm? They would leave at daybreak, and she couldn't go anywhere
before then, not with bats hunting. On the other hand, he hadn't seen
her, only heard muffled whispers and some scraping noises. Perhaps it
was all a trick. But then Zach remembered the high-pitched "No!"
and the hurt and puzzled look on Daiv's face. Those could not have been
faked, nor could the pain and embarrassment of the brewer and his wife.
"We'll be getting a very
early start tomorrow," Zach said casually. "Perhaps we should
settle our business tonight."
"That might be best,"
Zach reached into his pouch
and brought out a small cloth bag, heavy with metal. Marson's eyes followed
the bag as Zach held it in his hand.
"You both understand that
once you take this you cannot change your minds. That you will never see
the girl again."
"I understand," muttered
"And you madame?"
There was a long silence, then
"Her other fathers?"
"Her first-father is dead."
"Very well. The Principal
wants his citizens to know that he himself observes his laws scrupulously.
A few years ago, his men could simply have taken her, whether you agreed
"That's so," said
"This way, it's a fair
exchange. Value for value. I give you this metal and you give your daughter
to the Principal, in my care, forever."
"We agree," said
"Yes," said his wife.
"Only, can you tell us what is going to happen to her?"
"She's the Principal's
to do with as he wishes," said Marson. "And he's an honest man.
He obeys his own laws."
Zach reached for his brew without
comment. Yes, the Principal was an honest man, and in most ways a good
and kind one. In this one area only he showed a dark side so strong that
all of his good intentions and works seemed powerless against it.
"I'll take good care of
her on the journey," Zach found himself telling the couple. "I'll
care for her as if she were my own daughter. In the Capital, she will
be well fed and well clothed." For the time That'she remains with
the Principal, at least, he thought privately.
The man and woman seemed overwhelmed,
and Zach sensed that they were once again on the point of changing their
minds. He spoke: "Why don't we all have a bit of brew, to seal the
"Yes," agreed Marson.
He hopped u and refilled Zach's tankard, then his own and a drinking gourd
for his wife. As she took it, Zach could see that her hands were trembling.
"To our bargain,"
said Zach. They drank. He rose and handed the moneybag to Marson, who
opened it onto the floor in front of him. He and his wife counted through
the shiny round coins, twice.
"It's so much," the
"Value for value,"
said Zach. "I advise you to hide it in a very safe place. Even in
this remote area, it's possible I have been seen and recognized."
"I already know the place,"
said Marson. "I'll attend to it as soon as you've left in the morning."
"I wish you luck,"
Marson looked at him, then:
"Thank you." He sounded exhausted. He gathered up the metal
and replaced it in the bag, then stood and took his wife's hand. "Come
on, then," he said. "Let's go to bed."
After they had climbed to the
loft, Zach finished his brew, looking at the fire. He thought of his blanket
still outside on the mount, then spread his cloak and stretched his long
frame out on it, resting his head on his hands. He was so tired that he
ached, but it was a long time before he fell asleep; when he did, he dreamed
that he was lost in a snowbank, hands and feet turning blue, while needles
of ice fell from the sky around him.