Reading Passage from A Song for Arbonne

from Chapter One

Hirnan, threading his way around roots and under branches, finally struck a rough east-west track in the wood and Blaise drew a calmer breath again. He was surprisingly conscious of where they were. Not that he had any real superstition in him, but there was something about this forest that, even more than the thought of tawncat or boar, would make him very happy when they left. In fact, that same truth applied to all of this island, he realized: the sooner they left the more pleased he would be. Just then a bird of some sort – owl or corfe almost certainly – landed with a slight, rushing sound of wings in air in the tree directly above him. Luth, Blaise thought, would have soiled his clothing. Refusing to look up, he moved on, following Hirnan’s shadowy form eastward towards the temples of the goddess worshipped here in the south as a huntress and a mother, as a lover and a bride, and as a dark and final gatherer and layer-out, by moonlight, of the dead. If we’re luckier than we deserve, Blaise of Gorhaut thought grimly, more unsettled than he really wanted to acknowledge, even to himself, maybe he’ll be outside singing at the moon.

Which, as it happened, was exactly what Evrard of Lussan was doing. Troubadours seldom in fact sang their own songs; musical performance was seen as a lesser art than composing. It was the joglars who did the actual singing, to the music of varied instruments. But here on Rian’s Island there were no joglars now, and Evrard had always found it a help when writing to hear his own words and evolving tune, even in his own thin voice. And he liked to compose at night.

They heard him as they approached the sanctuary grounds, emerging from the blackness of the forest into moonlight and a sight of distant lanterns. Drawing a breath, Blaise registered the fact that there were no walls around the guestquarters south of the temple complex, though a high wooden palisade surrounded the inner buildings where the priests and priestesses would be sleeping. There didn’t appear to be any guards manning the ramparts behind those walls, or none that could be seen. Silver light fell on the temples, lending a soft white shimmer to the three domes.

They didn’t have to go that way. On the extreme southern edge of the goddess’s compound, not far from where they stood, there was a garden. Palm trees swayed in the gentle breeze, and the scent of roses and anemones and early lavender drifted towards them. So did a voice.

Grant, bright goddess, that the words of my heart
Find favour and haven in the shrine of your love.
Yours are the seafoam and the groves in the wood

And yours ever the moonlight in the skies above…

There was a brief, meditative pause. Then:

And yours the moonlight that falls from above…

Another ruminating silence, then again Evrard’s voice:

Yours is the moonlight and the stars overhead

And the moonlit seafoam and each forest grove.

Blaise saw Hirnan glancing at him, an ironic look on his expressive face. Blaise shrugged. “Mallin wants him back,’ he murmured. ‘Don’t look at me.’ Hirnan grinned.

Blaise stepped past the other man and, keeping to the shadowy cover at the edge of the wood, began working his way around towards the garden, where the thin voice was still essaying variants of the same sentiment. Blaise wondered if it happened every night. He had a suspicion, knowing Evrard of Lussan, that it might.

They reached the southern end of the wood. Only grass, silvered by moonlight, open to view from the walls, lay between them and the hedges and palms of the garden now. Blaise dropped down, remembering with an eerie, unexpected vividness as he did the last time he’d performed this kind of manoeuvre, in Portezza with Rudel, when they had killed Engarro di Faenna.

And now here he was, fetching a sulky, petulant poet for a minor baron of Arbonne so the baron’s wife could kiss the man on his balding brow – and the god knew where else – and say how extremely sorry she was for chancing to scream when he assaulted her in bed.
A long way from Portezza, from Gorhaut. From the sort of doings in which a man should properly find himself engaged. The fact that Blaise loathed almost everything about Gorhaut, which was his home, and trusted at most half a dozen of the Portezzan nobility he’d met was, frankly, not relevant to this particular truth.

‘Thiers and Giresse – wait here,’ he whispered over his shoulder to the youngest two. ‘We won’t need six men for this. Whistle like a corfe if there’s trouble coming. We’ll hear you. Maffour, you’ve been told what speech to give. Better you than me, frankly. When we get to the garden and I give you the sign go in and try, for what it’s worth. We won’t be far.’

He didn’t wait for acknowledgements. At this point, any halfway decent men would know as well as he did what had to be done, and if there were any legitimate pint to this mission in Blaise’s eyes, it was that he might begin to get a sense of what these seven Arbonnais corans he was training were like.

Without looking back he began moving on elbows and knees across the damp cool grass towards the hedgebreak that marked the entrance to the garden. Evrard was still carrying on inside; something about stars now, and white-capped waves.
In his irritation with the man, with himself, with the very nature of this errand, he almost crawled, quite unprofessionally, squarely into the backside of the priestess who was standing, half-hidden, beside the closest palm to the entranceway. Blaise didn’t know if she was there as a guard for the poet or as a devotee of his art. There really wasn’t time to explore such nuances. A sound from the woman could kill them all.

Fortunately, she was raptly intent on the figure of the chanting poet not far away. Blaise could see Evrard sitting on a stone bench at the near end of a pool in the garden, facing away from them, communing with himself, or the still waters, or whatever poets did their communing with.

Disdaining finesse, Blaise surged to his feet, grabbed the woman from behind and covered her mouth with one hand. She sucked air to scream and he tightened his grip about her mouth and throat. They were not to kill. He disliked unnecessary death in any event. In the silence he had been trained to by the assassins of Portezza, Blaise held the struggling woman, depriving her of air until he felt her slump heavily back against him. Carefully – for this was an old trick – he relaxed his grip. There was no deception here though; the priestess lay slack in his arms. She was a large woman with an unexpectedly young face. Looking at her, Blaise doubted this one would have been a guard. He wondered how she’d got out from the compound; it was the sort of thing that might someday be useful to know. Not that he planned on coming back here in a hurry, if ever.

Laying the priestess carefully down beneath the palm tree, he motioned Maffour with a jerk of his head to go into the garden. Hirnan and Thulier came silently up and began binding the woman in the shadows.

Yours the glory, bright Rian, while we mortal men
Walk humbly in the umbra of your great light,
Seeking sweet solace in the –

‘Who is there?’ Evrard of Lussan called without turning, more peeved than alarmed. ‘You all know I must not be disturbed when I work.’
‘We do know that, your grace,’ Maffour said smoothly, coming up beside the man.

Edging closer, hidden by the bushes, Blaise winced at the unctuous flattery of the title. Evrard had no more claim to it than Maffour did, but Mallin had been explicit in his instructions to the most articulate of his corans.
‘Who are you?’ Evrard asked sharply, turning quickly to look at Maffour in the moonlight. Blaise moved nearer, low to the ground, trying to slip around to the other side of the bench. He had his own views on what was about to happen.

‘Maffour of Baude, your grace, with a message from En Mallin himself.’
‘I thought I recognized you,’ Evrard said haughtily. ‘How dare you come in this fashion, disturbing my thoughts and my art?’ Nothing about impiety or trespass or the affront to the goddess he was currently lauding, Blaise thought sardonically, pausing next to a small statue.

‘I have nothing to say to your baron or his ill-mannered wife, and am in no mood to listen to whatever tritely phrased message they have cobbled together for me.’ Evrard’s tone was lordly.
‘I have come a long way in some peril,’ Maffour said placatingly, ‘and Mallin de Baude’s message is deeply sincere and not long. Will you not honour me by hearing it, your grace?’

‘Honour?’ Evrard of Lussan said, his voice rising querulously. ‘What claim has anyone in that castle to honour of any kind? I bestowed upon them a grace they never deserved. I gave to Mallin whatever dignity he claimed – through my presence there, through my art.’ His words grew dangerously loud. ‘Whatever he was becoming in the gaze of Arbonne, of the world, he owed to me. And in return, in return for that -‘
‘In return for that, for no reason I understand, he seeks your

company again,’ Blaise said, stepping quickly forward, having heard quite a bit more than enough.
As Evrard glanced back at him wide-eyed, attempting to rise, Blaise used the haft of his dagger for the second time that night, bringing it down with carefully judged force on the balding pate of the troubadour. Maffour moved quickly to catch the man as he fell.

‘I cannot begin to tell you,’ Blaise said fervently as Hirnan and Thulier joined them, ‘how much I enjoyed doing that.’
Hirnan grunted. ‘We can guess. What took you so long?!
Blaise grinned at the three of them. ‘What? And interfere with Maffour’s great moment? I really wanted to hear that speech.’

‘I’ll recite it for you on the way back then,’ Maffour said sourly. ‘With all the “your grace’s” too.’

‘Spare us,’ said Hirnan briefly. He bent and effortlessly shouldered the body of the small troubadour.

Still grinning, Blaise led the way this time, without a word, down towards the south end of the garden, away from the sanctuary lights and the walls and the temple domes, and then, circling carefully, back towards the shelter of the wood. If these were the corans of a lesser baron, he was thinking to himself, and they turned out to be this cooly competent – with one vivid exception – he was going to have to do some serious reassessing, when they got back to land, of the men of this country of Arbonne, even with its troubadours and joglars and a woman ruling them.

The one vivid exception was having, without the least shadow of any possible doubt, the worst night of his life.

In the first place, there were the noises. Even at the edge of the woods, the sounds of the night forest kept making their way to Luth’s pricked ears, triggering waves of panic that succeeded each other in a seemingly endless progression.
Secondly there was Vanne. Or, not exactly Vanne, but his absence, for the other coran assigned to guard duty kept wilfully abandoning Luth, his designated partner, and making his own way down the rope to check on the two clerics in the sailboat, then going off into the forest itself to listen for the return of their fellows, or for other less happy possibilities. Either of these forays would leave Luth alone for long moments at a time to cope with sounds and ambiguous shiftings in the shadows of the plateau or at the edges of the trees, with no one to turn to for reassurance.

The truth was, Luth said to himself – and he would have sworn to it as an oath in any temple of the goddess – that he really wasn’t a coward, though he knew every man here would think him one from tonight onward. He wasn’t though: put him on a crag above Castle Baude in a thunderstorm, with thieves on the slopes making off with the baron’s sheep, and Luth would be fierce in pursuit of them, sure-footed and deft among the rocks, and not at all bad with his bow or blade when he caught up with the bandits. He’d done that, he’d done it last summer, with Giresse and Hirnan. He’d killed a man that night with a bowshot in darkness, and it was he who had led the other two back down the treacherous slopes to safety with the flock.

Not that they were likely to remember that, or bother to remind the others of it, after tonight. If any of them lived through tonight. If they ever left this island. If they –

What was that?
Luth wheeled, his heart lurching like a small boat hit by a crossing wave, in time to see Vanne making his way back onto the plateau from yet another survey of the woods. The other coran gave him a curious glance in the shadows but said nothing. They were not to speak, Luth knew. He found their own enforced silence almost as stressful as the noises of the night forest.
Because they weren’t just noises, and this wasn’t just night-time. These were the sounds of Rian’s Island, which was holy, and the eight of them were here without proper consecration, without any claim of right – only a drunken ex-priest’s mangling of the words of ritual – and they had laid violent hands on two of the goddess’s truly anointed before they’d even landed.

Luth’s problem, very simply, was that he was a believer in the powers of the goddess, profoundly so. If that could really be called a problem. He’d had a religious, superstitious grandmother who’d worshipped both Rian and Corannos along with a variety of hearth spirits and seasonal ones, and who’d known just enough about magic and folk spells to leave the grandson she’d reared helplessly

prey to the terrors of precisely the sort of place where they were now. Had he not been so anxious not to lose face among the other corans and his baron and the big, capable, grimly sardonic northern mercenary Mallin had brought to lead and train them, Luth would certainly have found a way to back out of the mission when he was named for it.

He should have, he thought dismally. Whatever status that withdrawal would have cost him was as nothing compared to how he’d be diminished and mocked because of what had happened tonight. Who would ever have thought that simple piety, a prayer of thanks to holy Rian herself, could get a person into so much trouble? How should a high country man know how bizarrely far sound – a murmured prayer! – could carry at sea? And Hirnan had hurt him with that pincer-like grip of his. The oldest coran was a big man, almost as big as the bearded northerner, and his fingers had been like claws of iron. Hirnan should have known better, Luth thought, trying to summon some sense of outrage at how unfair all of this was turning out to be.

He jumped sideways again, stumbled, and almost fell. He was grappling for his sword when he realized that it was Vanne who had come up to him. He tried, with minimal success, to turn the motion into one of alertly prudent caution. Vanne, his face blandly expressionless, gestured and Luth bent his head towards him.

‘I’m going down to check on them again,’ the other coran said, as Luth had despairingly known he would. ‘Remember, a corfe whistle if you need me. I’ll do the same.’ Mutely, trying to keep his own expression from shaping a forlorn plea, Luth nodded.

Moving easily, Vanne negotiated the plateau, grasped the rope and slipped over the side. Luth watched the line jerk for a few moments and then go slack as Vanne reached the rocks at the bottom. He walked over to the tree that Maffour had tied the rope to and knelt to run a practised eye over the knot. It was fine, Luth judged, it would continue to hold.
He straightened and stepped back. And bumped into something.

His heart lurching, he spun around. As he did, as he saw what had come, all the flowing blood in his veins seemed to dry up and change to arid powder. He pursed his lips and tried to whistle. Like a corfe.

No sound came out. His lips were dry, as bone, as dust, as death. He opened his mouth to scream but closed it silently and quite suddenly as a curved, jewelled, inordinately long dagger was lifted and held to his throat.

The figures on the plateau were robed in silk and satin, dyed crimson and silver, as for a ceremony. They were mostly women, at least eight of them, but there were two men besides. It was a woman, though, who held the crescent-shaped blade to his throat. He could tell from the swell of her body beneath her robe, even though she was masked. They were all masked. And the masks, every one of them, were of predatory animals and birds. Wolf and hunting cat, owl and hawk, and a silver-feathered corfe with golden eyes that glittered in the moonlight.

‘Come,’ said the priestess with the blade to Luth of Castle Baude, her voice cold and remote, the voice of a goddess at night. A goddess of the Hunt, in her violated sanctuary. She wore a wolf mask, Luth saw, and then he also realized that the ends of the gloves on her hands were shaped like the claws of a wolf. ‘Did you truly think you would not be found and known? she said.

No, Luth wanted frantically to say. No, I never thought we could do this. I was sure we would be caught.

He said nothing. The capacity for speech seemed to have left him, silence lying like a weight of stones on his chest. In terror, his brain going numb, Luth felt the blade caress his throat almost lovingly. The priestess gestured with a clawed hand; in response, Luth’s feet, as if of their own will, led him stumbling into the night forest of Rian. There were scented priestesses of the goddess all about him as he went, women masked like so many creatures of prey, clad in soft robes of silver and red amid the darkness of the trees, with the pale moon lost to sight, like hope.

© Guy Gavriel Kay

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