The votes are in and the readers’ choice for the next scene of the month is Dragon Stones. Flipping randomly through the pages, I stopped at this scene, in which the kidnapped oracle Tolaria makes good her escape.
Tolaria stood at her tall windows, in her usual spot, and looked out at the placid surface of the lake, far below, past the town. Dawn had stolen across it, lending the warmth of its ruddy colors to the steel-grey water. The forested hilltops to the north and east were afire with light as the sun climbed over them. The town itself was quiet, thin trails of smoke rising into the sky from hearths and chimneys, pushed off across the plains by a gentle wind. Dunshandrin hardly seemed like a nation that was mobilizing for war; but then again, the people in that village hardly knew war was imminent, did they?
Tolaria started as someone draped a blanket over her shoulders: Wyst, walking up to her as silently as the sun moving through the sky. “It’s a chill morning, my lady,“ she said. “You’ll take sick.“
“I’m quite warm enough, thank you,“ Tolaria said. “I did manage to survive for a number of years without anyone to bring me furs and slippers whenever I shivered.“
Wyst mumbled some sort of apology and fled back to her corner. The oracle shook her head. She shouldn’t take her frustrations out on the girl; Wyst was a simple creature, doing as she was told, terrified of punishment. She must think Tolaria a horribly ungrateful mistress.
She turned away from the window and padded back to her bed. She sank onto its softness and contemplated the vision that had jolted her from sleep and sent her to stare out into the darkness as it lightened into day. She had dreamed of Flaurent, where she’d been taught to control her gifts. The walled oasis in the Salt Flats had been her home for many years; she’d learned letters there, lost her virginity, gained her vision. In her dream, she had returned to the college, gliding up the grey river on a flat-bottomed boat with no pilot; but she had not found the school intact. Its walls lay in ruin and rubble, its buildings crumbled and half-buried in dust and salt. The waters of its broken fountains had flowed in short, dark dribbles before vanishing into the thirsty earth.
She had stepped off the boat and wandered through the devastated college, seeing in the ruins the traces of places she had once known. She called and called, but her voice merely echoed off the dead walls and blew away in the wind. Eventually, she found a single body: The Headmistress, buried up to her neck in sand and rubble, her face blistered and peeling from the relentless sun and the stinging clouds of salt.
Tolaria stood, looking down at the dead woman, and suddenly the dry eyes had opened and the Headmistress spoke to her, using a language Tolaria had never heard before. She began to grow dizzy and it seemed that the words were in the air, flying around her like angry insects, cutting her with their sharp sounds, stinging her with their pointed meanings; despite this, she had no idea what the Headmistress was trying to convey.
She knew they had sent Orioke to Flaurent, and feared that the nightmare was something more than the workings of her imagination.
Suddenly the door to Torrant’s room banged open, rousing her from her thoughts. The prince stood in the open doorway, wearing his nightshirt and a pair of soft purple slippers, embroidered to the point of absurdity with gold thread and tassels. “Good morning, Tolaria,“ he said. “I heard you moving about. Why up so early?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Ah, yes. Sleep can be elusive when great events are underway.” He stepped into the room, stretched, yawned, and scratched himself, making it painfully obvious that he wore no undergarments beneath the nightshirt. “If you would care to come into my chambers, perhaps we could while away the morning in pursuit of something other than rest.”
“No thank you,” Tolaria said. “I believe I will stay here and count the cracks in the ceiling again. I think some new ones may have formed since yesterday.”
Torrant chuckled. “As you wish. Of course, I will be back again tomorrow to make the same proposal.” Then his face grew serious and he added: “Eventually it will not be a request.” He withdrew, shutting the door behind him.
Tolaria threw one of her pillows at the closed portal, but missed, instead striking the porcelain bowl and pitcher that stood on a table beside it. The impact knocked them off the table and they fell to the floor, shattering. Water darkened the stone. Wyst gave a little shriek and scurried over. “Oh, look what’s happened,” she said, picking up the pieces. “Your basin fell off the table.”
“It didn’t fall,” Tolaria said. “I knocked it off.”
“Don’t walk over here, my lady. You may cut your feet.”
“Perhaps Torrant will come back and cut his feet,” she said, with malicious hope.
“Oh, no, the prince mustn’t do that!” Wyst exclaimed. She continued picking up shards, down to the most minuscule slivers of white, collecting them on the table. “There, now we needn’t worry about the prince’s poor feet. You stay where you are, my lady. There may be more pieces across the floor. I’ll fetch a broom and a new basin.”
Wyst crossed the room, reached into the neckline of her shift, and pulled out a key. Using it, she unlocked the door and exited into the hallway, closing the door behind her. Tolaria sat on the bed, staring at the door, too astonished to move. Wyst had a key! Why hadn’t she noticed that before? Well, the simple reason was that Wyst had never left her side before. She had seen the string around the girl’s neck, had assumed it carried some worthless trinket. But a key … now that was something interesting.
Tolaria went to the door and tried the knob. Wyst had locked it again, of course. But that was actually a good thing; she would hear the key turning before the door opened, giving her a chance to react. She quickly moved about the room, seeking something to use as a weapon. Not the chairs; they were huge and ornate, far too heavy for her to lift. She could scarcely manage to drag them. The basin and pitcher were smashed, the pieces too small to be of any use. A candlestick? Three stood on the mantel, silver and solid-looking, gifts from Torrant not long after they’d moved her to this room. To help lighten her mood, he’d said, trying to make a little joke. She grabbed one, hefted it, swung it a couple of times. She could manage this. Clutching the candelabrum, she hurried back to the door, flattened herself against the wall beside it, and waited.
She began to wonder if Wyst were really coming back. How long did it take to get a basin and a pitcher? Where did they keep them, in the kitchen? Where was the kitchen, anyway? Had the girl found something better to do? Perhaps she had stolen away to meet a boyfriend.
No, Tolaria couldn’t believe that. Wyst was too cowed to derelict her duty in such a fashion. If she had not returned yet, it was because something or someone had prevented her.
She heard a low voice, nothing like Wyst’s, mumbling in the hallway just outside her door. She raised the candlestick just as the lock unfastened and the door opened, brought it down on her visitor’s head. It connected with a solid thump, like a branch striking a hollow tree; her victim crumpled to the floor like a heap of unwashed laundry.
She quickly dragged the man inside, shut the door, rolled him over. Orioke. Why would he be sneaking into her chambers? Had he met Wyst in the castle halls and interfered with her?
Well, no matter. The wizard had decided to join forces with her captors instead of rescuing her; now he would help her unwittingly, by lending her his garments. She quickly stripped him of his hooded cloak and the robe beneath, leaving him naked except for his undergarments. He turned out to be a pallid, scrawny, thin-limbed creature, not much larger than she was; if she’d found him in the gutter, she would have taken him for a pathetic wastrel rather than a dangerous magician.
She trussed his wrists and ankles with cords from the draperies around the window, gagged him with a pillowcase, and shoved him as far as she could under the bed. Then she donned his clothes—they smelled of sweat and dust and salt, reminding her of Flaurent—and went to the door, opened it a crack, looked around.
The hallway was quiet, deserted; it was very early, and few denizens of the castle would be awake. Her door was not guarded. Perhaps the twins thought it unnecessary to have her watched so closely now that she was in the royal wing, or perhaps Orioke had sent the sentry away. Tolaria pulled the hood of Orioke’s robe over her head and slipped out of the room.
She soon found herself hopelessly lost in the castle corridors. She had no idea where any of these hallways went or where an exit might be, and didn’t dare speak to the guards or servants she met for fear of being asked a question. As she had hoped, they took her for the wizard and made no attempt to engage her in conversation, instead pretending to look elsewhere as she passed; Orioke had obviously made himself well-loved during the short time he’d been in the castle.
She wandered a while, following breezes that felt like they came from outside in hopes of finding a way out; but the castle was drafty, and it soon became obvious that this was fruitless. Draughts came through chinks in the wall, ill-fitting shutters, arrow slits, gaps beneath barred doors. Tolaria began to grow anxious. Wyst may have returned, found her gone, raised the alarm; even now there could be men scouring the castle in search of an impostor dressed in wizardly garb.
She decided to try something different, turning into any corridor she found that was larger than the one she was in. This seemed to work better; she soon found herself in a hall that she thought she recognized. Hadn’t she come through here the day she’d arrived? The stone floor was covered with dried mud, tracked in by people entering from the rain-soaked courtyard. The mud grew thicker to her right, so she went that way, eventually coming to a large door, half-open, letting the light of early morning trickle in. Guards stood on either side, looking sleepy and bored.
To hesitate would be to invite scrutiny. She marched right past them, unchallenged, into the courtyard. She had made it out of the keep, but the outer wall of the castle still stood between her and freedom. The large gate remained closed against those who would intrude in the night; no tradesmen or villagers came or went at this hour. She would have to speak to the guards to be let out through the postern, and without the ability to tell lies, she would have difficulty talking her way past them. She hesitated, and then headed for the stable instead, staying close to the castle wall. The men stationed at the outer gate watched her, but said nothing and issued no challenge.
Entering the darkened horse barn, she relaxed a little. She was out of the open now; perhaps she could find a place to hide until the outer gate opened and traffic began to flow. By then, though, they would no doubt be looking for her; perhaps she could waylay a groom, steal his ragged garments, and escape in the guise of a boy.
She made a quick circuit of the stalls, peering through the slats at the spaces within. Most were empty, and many of the ones that were occupied contained horses that seemed old and thin, not likely to survive a hard day’s ride. Certainly she found nothing suitable for a rapid flight across the plains with Dunshandrin’s men in pursuit. At the far end of the stable she found a large sliding door, but it was held shut by a hasp and padlock. She could see daylight around the edges.
Might this be a way out?
She jiggled the lock, but it felt very sturdy. She doubted she could break it even with leverage, and no doubt the noise of such an attempt would bring guards to investigate. She let it fall and it clanked against the door, provoking a chorus of squawks and screeches from the other side. Startled, Tolaria pressed her ear against the crack and listened. Birds, definitely birds, but they sounded oddly loud and throaty. She thought of Qalor’s talk about eagles. Was this where he kept them? She put her eye to the gap and squinted through it. She saw shadows large shadows moving, much too big to be birds, but could make out no details.
Suddenly Tolaria became aware of voices approaching from the direction of the entrance. She looked around for a place to hide, spotted a stack of baled grass teetering against the wall to her right, darted behind it. Through gaps in the bundles she could see two young men coming toward the rear of the stable. One was loudly describing a chambermaid who had evidently pleasured him the night before. “Her tits were this big!“ he said, mimicking breasts with his hands; if he were telling the truth, the unfortunate woman probably couldn’t stand without assistance.
The other youth said, “Have you seen the wench the twins put in the Queen’s old room?“
“No, but I heard about her. They say she’s an oracle.“
“Oracle!” The second groom snorted. “Oracles are old crones. I saw her the day she came in, she’s a whore if there ever was one.”
“She never comes out of the royal wing.”
“Of course not, she’s busy servicing the twins. I’d like to get a piece of that, let me tell you!”
“The princes would have your balls.“
“They wouldn’t know what to do with balls, since they’ve got none of their own.“
The grooms laughed, then opened a nearby stall. One stood back, holding the door, while the other led out an old nag that had been quartered inside. They led it toward the sliding door, its hooves falling silently on the soft earthen floor. One of the grooms produced a shiny black key and opened the padlock, then opened the hasp. Grasping the iron handle, he slid the door to the side. The bird noises got much louder, and now she could hear great wings fluttering.
The groom held the door open as his companion led the horse inside, then followed; the door began to close on its own, rolling along a hidden track. She hurried over and caught it just before it shut. Its momentum pulled her off balance, but she braced herself against the wall and managed to stop it, then dragged it open enough to slip inside. She found herself in a short hallway that ended in another sliding door, this one made of metal bars. It had already closed, but didn’t appear to have a lock on it. She approached it slowly, staring through the bars at the open space beyond.
It was an aviary; but where other kings might keep exotic, brightly colored birds from distant lands, Dunshandrin had a flock of monstrously oversized hawks and eagles ranging from the size of a large dog to bigger than a horse. They hopped and fluttered around an enormous cage made of interlocking wooden beams, forming a dome that rose above high walls of bricks and mortar. The area had once been part of the courtyard, and she guessed it had only recently been converted to its present use; the wood looked fresh, not yet weathered by winter storms or bleached by summer sun. Within the enormous cage, the ground had become a morass of churned mud and chalky white droppings, littered with the picked-over carcasses of animals.
The two young men led the quaking horse toward the center of the aviary. The birds swarmed around them, screeching and carrying on. A blade flashed in one groom’s hand; Tolaria turned away, feeling sick. She fled back to the panel, pulled it open, and stumbled into the darkness of the stable. The door slid shut, stifling the sounds of the chattering eagles, the screaming horse.
She heard the iron gate crash behind her, and hurried back to her hiding place behind the blocks of hay just as the grooms re-entered the stable. The one with the knife still held it out, the horse’s blood dark on the gleaming surface. He came over to the pile of hay, scant feet from where Tolaria crouched in the darkness, and wiped the blade clean on the dry grass.
The other young man, who had earlier been boasting about his prowess with a serving girl, stood back, watching, looking pale and shaken. “I liked it better when we were taking care of horses,” he said, no trace of bravado left in his voice.
“Do what you’re told.” The groom checked his weapon, then sheathed it. “Otherwise they’ll be feeding us to those things.”
Silent now, the two of them left the stable. Tolaria stayed hidden for some time, until she was sure they were gone; then she crept out from behind the bales and moved to the door of the stable. She saw activity in the courtyard now; the postern stood open, townsfolk coming in to spend their days working in the castle. The large gates remained closed, but would likely be opening soon, to admit carts and wagons and traders on horseback. When that happened, the stable would no longer be a good place to hide.
She adjusted her hood, then walked purposefully to the gate. She kept her pace even, unhurried, trying not to look like a person fleeing the castle. The guards, looking scarcely older than the grooms-turned-butchers, paid little heed. If her escape had been discovered, word had not yet reached the perimeter. She passed into the shadow of the wall, through the opening, out the other side; and then she was standing outside of her prison, on the downward slope of the hill, with the road curving away toward the town below. She started down the road, moving at a brisk pace, still maintaining a balance between prudent speed and obvious flight.
She crossed the stone bridge without incident, eventually reaching the outskirts of town, where the rock and scrub gave way to low, drab buildings and cobbled roads. Now what? The fastest way out of town would be by boat, which meant she would need to go to the lake. She had no idea how she would buy passage; she carried no money, and could hardly sell her skills as a shipman. She could imagine, though, what other sort of services a woman might be asked to barter in exchange for a spot on a vessel.
Well, she would worry about that when the time came. For now, she needed to concentrate on reaching the docks. When last she had traveled the city, it had been as a passenger in a carriage; she had not paid a great deal of attention to the route, never expecting to have to retrace it on foot, under the threat of pursuit. All she knew was that the lake would be downhill.
She began walking along the main road, a continuation of the track that led up to the castle. This part of town consisted mainly of mean one-story houses, with splotchy, muddy yards overhung with stunted trees. The spaces between homes in most cases lay fallow, but she passed several community gardens that supported meager crops of autumn vegetables. In one, a harvest was going on, bent-backed women collecting squash about the breadth of large tomatoes. Tolaria recognized the variety, having grown it herself in the past, but she would have dismissed specimens of this size as hardly worth picking.
If she’d needed any further proof of the poverty of the soil here, there it was.
At length she entered a town square, where the cobbles gave way to flagstones surrounding a dry fountain. She recognized this area; it had been the one time in her trip from the docks that the carriage had not jounced unpleasantly. If she remembered correctly, the carriage had entered from the street to her left. She headed for that avenue, moving through the throng of pedestrians and shoppers, ignoring the cries of the hawkers who sold fabric, food, and other sundries in a makeshift bazaar. She felt a hand fumbling in her pockets; as she carried nothing of value, she pretended not to notice the attempted theft. If she confronted the cutpurse, she would only draw attention to herself.
She exited the square, moving quickly down the road toward the lake. It descended at a sharp angle, as she had recalled. This neighborhood was less residential, more business. She passed a clanging smithy that smelled of fire and iron, a stable, an inn, a bakery. The street curved off to the right, then back to the left, bringing the lake into view, the muddy waters glimmering crimson in the early light. She could see the docks below; several boats were tied up, their holds in various stages of emptying or filling. She quickened her pace, hurrying along to the waterfront, then moving up and down the wharf eyeing the vessels, trying to figure out which were preparing for departure, and of those, which was closest to being ready.
“Would you be inspecting cargo, sir?“
Startled, she whirled. A short, portly, and rather dirty man stood beside her. He looked as if he had swum through the muddy water to shore, crawled through the muck, and then shimmied up the pilings to gain access to the pier. “No,” she said.
At the sound of her voice, one of his eyebrows went up. “You’re a woman,” he said.
“You don’t look like a whore. What is a woman who is not a whore doing down at the docks, alone, looking so hungrily at the ships?”
“I’m hoping to find passage out of Dunshandrin.”
“If it’s passage you want, I may have room on my vessel,” he said. “Though some say having a woman aboard is bad luck, I haven’t much truck with such superstitions. Where would you be headed?”
“Off to see the oracles?” the man said. “We’re sailing to Achengate. Food and equipment for my Lord Dunshandrin’s salt mines. We will be passing by the Crosswaters.“ He eyed her. “How much would you be able to pay?“
“I have no money.”
“No money?” the man said. “You won’t have much luck booking passage if the first thing you say is that you have no money. What do you think the oracles would say if you asked them for a prediction, then told them you could make no offering?”
“If one’s need were great, a true oracle would advise and predict anyway.”
“And you think that’s what they will do for you?”
“No. I think they’re all dead.” His eyes widened at that; she needed to end this conversation before it strayed further into dangerous territory. “Can you find room for me on your boat? I must get away from here.”
After a moment, he said: “Who are you, my lady?”
“My name is Tolaria. I am an oracle.”
“An oracle, eh?” He reached up, rubbed the back of his neck. “Why would an oracle have need of my poor old boat?”
“Dunshandrin has been holding me prisoner in his castle.”
“What! Holding an oracle prisoner? I’ve never heard of such a thing.” He gave her a narrow, appraising look. “Are you having me on?”
“No. Even if I wanted to, I could not. Because of what the princes have done to me, I am compelled to answer all questions truthfully.”
“You’re saying you cannot lie?” he asked after a moment.
“Well, that is quite a story.” The man stared at her for a while, sucking on his lower lip. “What was your first impression of me, then?”
“That you were small and dirty and probably a ruffian.”
He grimaced. “Well, that was brutally said.”
“I meant no offense. I cannot control my answers.”
In the distance, a horn blast shattered the morning quiet; she looked around nervously as a second horn sounded, this one closer. The merchant raised his gaze to the castle. “The alarums,” he murmured. “You say you have escaped just this morning?”
“Yes,” she said. “Please. They will be coming for me.”
“Perhaps we can exchange services, then,” he said. “I will take you on my boat, and you will advise me on a few particulars. Is that agreeable?“
“Yes, but I have no herbs or powders,” she said. “I am unlikely to be able to enter a trance without them.”
“You seem determined to sabotage your chances of getting passage on my boat,” he said. “Or any other. Come aboard, and we can work out the particulars later.”
As he led her along the dock toward his laden vessel, she said: “I may be able to scrape some materials together at the Crosswaters,” she said. “Depending on how badly damaged it is. Is it prediction that you want?”
He shook his head. “Information.“
“My oldest son,“ he said. “I’ve never been sure he’s really mine. He’s just a lad, but he’s this tall!“ He stretched to his tiptoes and raised his arms as far as they would go.
“Have you considered asking the boy’s mother?“
“She died of fever when he was a toddler.”
“And this is worth bringing me on your ship?”
“Yes. I have a … a growth, you see. On my neck.“ He rubbed the back of his head. “The doctors say they can do nothing for it. I would know, before I die, if I will be leaving my business to blood kin.“
Tolaria frowned. She didn’t much like this request, but it was unlikely that she would find anyone who would give her passage without demanding some other service, one she would find even less appealing; and she had already told the little man far too much about her business. “Very well,” she said.
“I will show you to a room below deck where you can wait until we leave town. There will be an inspection before we leave; you will want to be hidden during that, I think.”
“My name is Talbrett, by the way. What did you say your name was?”
“Well, Tolaria, let us hope you are wrong, and that we find the Crosswaters sound and intact, eh?”
“We won’t,” she said.
The results have been reset and voting is now open for the next scene of the month!