Shadowfell Excerpt: Chapter One
As we came down to the shore of Darkwater, the wind sliced cold right to my bones. My heels stung with blisters. Dusk was falling, and my head was muzzy from the weariness of another long day’s walk. Birds cried out overhead, winging to nighttime roosts. They were as eager as I was to get out of the chill.
We’d heard there was a settlement not far along the loch shore, a place where we might perhaps buy shelter with our fast-shrinking store of coppers. I allowed myself to imagine a bed, a proper one with a straw mattress and a woolen coverlet. Oh, how my limbs ached for warmth and comfort! Foolish hope. The way things were in Alban, people didn’t open their doors to strangers. Especially not to disheveled vagrants, and that was what we had become. I was a fool to believe, even for a moment, that our money would buy us time by someone’s hearth fire and a real bed. Never mind that. A heap of old sacks in a net-mending shed or a pile of straw in an outhouse would do fine. Anyplace out of this wind. Anyplace out of sight.
I became aware of silence. Father’s endless mumbled recounting of past sorrows, a constant accompaniment to our day’s journey, had come to a halt, and now he stopped walking to gaze ahead. Between the water’s edge and the looming darkness of a steep wooded hillside, I could make out a cluster of dim lights.
“Darkwater settlement,” he said. “There are lights down by the jetty. The boat’s there!”
“What boat?” I was slow to understand, my mind dreaming of a fire, a bowl of porridge, a blanket. I did not hear the note in his voice, the one that meant trouble.
“Fowler’s boat. The chancy-boat, Neryn. What have we got left, how much?”
My heart plummeted. When this mood took him, setting the glitter of impossible hope in his eyes, there was no stopping him. I could not restrain him by force; he was too strong for me. And whatever I said, he would ignore it. But I had to try.
“Enough for two nights’ shelter and maybe a crust if we’re lucky, Father. There’s nothing to spare. Nothing until one of us gets some paid work, and you know how likely that is.”
“Give me the bag.”
“Father, no! These coppers are our safe place to sleep. They’re our shelter from the wind. Don’t you remember what happened last—”
“Don’t tell me what to do, Daughter.” His eyes narrowed in a way that was all too familiar. “What’s better than a drink of ale to warm us up? Besides, I’ll double our coppers on the boat. Triple them. Nobody beats me in a game of chance. Would you doubt your father, girl?”
Doubt was hardly the word for what I felt. Yes, he had once been skilled in such games. He’d had a reputation as a tricky player, full of surprises. Sorrow and reversal, hardship and humiliation, had eaten up that clever fellow, leaving a pathetic shell, a man who liked his ale too much and could no longer distinguish between reality and wild dream. Father was a danger to himself. And he was a danger to me, for strong drink loosened his tongue, and a word out of place could reveal the gift I fought to hide from the world every moment of every day. He’d talk, and someone would tell the Enforcers, and it would all be over for the two of us. But I was heartsick and weary—too weary to fight him any longer.
“Here,” I said, handing over the bag. “I hate the chancy-boat. The only chance it will give you tonight is the chance to squander what little we have. If you lose this money, we’ll be sleeping out in the open, at the mercy of whoever happens to pass by. If you lose it, you’ll lose what little self-respect you have left. But you’re my father, and I can’t make your choices for you.”
He looked at me directly, just for a moment, and I thought I saw a glimmer of understanding in his eyes, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. “You hate me,” he muttered. “You despise your own father.”
I could have told him the truth: that I hated his weakness, that I hated his anger, that the days and months and years of looking after him and keeping him out of trouble and protecting him from himself had worn me down. But I loved him too. He was my father. I loved the man he used to be, and I still hadn’t given up hope that, someday, he could be that man again. “No, Father,” I said, plodding after him as he strode ahead, for the prospect of a game and a win had put new life in his steps. “I’m cold and tired, that’s all. Too tired to mind my words.”
As we made our way closer to the lights of the chancy-boat, which rocked gently in the dark water beside a small jetty, I was aware of pale eyes watching me from the branches of the pines. I did not allow myself a glance toward them. Small feet shuffled in the fallen leaves and pattered along behind us a way, then skipped off into the woods. I did not allow myself to turn back. A whisper teased at me: Neryn! Neryn, we are here! I closed my ears to it. I had been hiding my secret for years, since Grandmother had explained the peril of canny gifts. I had become adept at concealment.
I stiffened my spine and gritted my teeth. Maybe there would be nobody on the chancy-boat but its captain, Fowler, who had some understanding of my father’s situation. Who would want to spend such a chilly night playing games anyway? Who would be visiting such an out-of-the-way place as Darkwater? We had come here because the settlement lay so far from well-traveled roads. We had come because nobody knew us in these parts. Except Fowler, and we had not expected him. But Fowler wouldn’t talk. He was a bird of passage, a loner.
Before we set foot on the jetty, I knew the chancy-boat held a crowd. Their voices came to us through the stillness of the night, discordant and out of place under the dark, silent sky. Nobody was about in the settlement, though here and there shutters stood half-open, revealing the glow of lamps within the modest houses. The rising moon threw dancing light on the waters of the loch, as if to show us the way on board the fishing vessel that housed Fowler’s place of entertainment. The chancy-boat went from loch to loch, from bay to bay, never two nights at one mooring. They said Fowler had been a peerless warrior in the old time, the time before King Keldec. I’d heard tell that he had fought in far eastern realms, where the sun shone so hot the land was all dust, and the wind made eldritch creatures out of heat and sand. To be a warrior in Alban now was to be an agent of Keldec’s will. It was no calling for a man of conscience.
I felt a strong desire to stay in the settlement, to crouch beside a wall or in the lee of a cottage and wait for it all to be over. The prospect of an evening on a boat full of drunken, combative men made me shrink into myself. But I couldn’t leave Father on his own. There was nobody else to stop him from drinking too much, from speaking when he should be silent, from wasting our last coppers in a futile attempt to win back the pride he had lost years ago. So I followed him along the jetty, over the creaking plank, and into the crowded cabin of the boat.
The place stank of sweat and ale. The moment I stepped through the door, I could feel men’s eyes on me, assessing me, wondering why my father had brought me here and what advantage could be taken from the situation. I stayed just inside the entry, trying to make myself invisible, while Father greeted Fowler with a too-hearty clap on the shoulder. Within moments he was seated at the gaming table with a brimming cup of ale before him. The drink was cheap—ale made men take risks they might avoid when their heads were clear. A copper changed hands. Let him not squander all of it, I prayed. Let him not lose too soon. Let him not get angry. Let him not weep.
Once play started in earnest, they all forgot me. I stood in the shadows at the back, watching as the games progressed. Father was watching too, working out other men’s strategies, their strengths and weaknesses. He would not join in until he had their measure.
Most of the players had the look of seasoned travelers: reserved, cautious. The ones standing behind them were making all the noise—local fishermen, perhaps, or smallholders. There was a silent fellow at the back, on the opposite side of the cabin from me, his hood shadowing his face. Beside him stood a burly red-faced man. Seeing me looking, he grinned, and I lowered my gaze.
They were playing stanies, which Father had the knack for. The rattling fall of the playing pieces on the wooden table, the calls of Spear! Crown! Oak! Hound!, the occasional dispute over the timing of a call or the angle of a throw, all were familiar to me. Father had played game after game of this in the past and had won most of them. But that was then, in another age, before his sorrows tore out his heart and with it his good judgment. All the same, he wasn’t playing yet, but sat there drinking his ale and watching the others, biding his time. Perhaps he would confound me by staying sober, by playing as he used to, so quickly and deftly that nobody could match him. Perhaps he would win and our money would double and treble, and we would be able to pay for both food and a bed for the night.
The games went on, and still Father sat watching. I saw Fowler refill his cup. The cabin was warm from the press of bodies. I was finding it hard to keep my eyes open. Every part of me ached with tiredness. I must not fall asleep. Father needed a guardian, and the only one was me. Besides, I did not like the way that big fellow was looking at me, his eyes greedy.
“Here, lass.” Fowler, a sharp-eyed ferret of a man, slipped between two bulky farmers and put a cup of ale in my hands. “Drink this, you look dead on your feet. No payment needed. You can sit over there if you want, out of harm’s way.”
It was so long since anyone had been kind to me. I let him usher me into a tiny alcove furnished with a wooden bench. I sank down on the seat gratefully and took a sip of the drink. My stomach was empty; the rough ale went down like honeyed wine. Gods, it was good! I made it last; likely this was all the supper I would get.
From the alcove I could not see Father quite so well, but if there was trouble, I should be able to reach him quickly. And I was at least half-shielded from the intrusive gazes of those men. All the same, I must be vigilant. I must not allow my mind to wander, despite the utter relief of sitting down, despite the sweetness of the ale, despite the way my body was urging me to rest. . . .
I started, realizing I been drifting on the verge of sleep. Oh gods, how long had I sat here in a daze? Father’s voice came to me, slurred with ale now and raised in anger. “’Nother round! Who’s man enough to take me on?”
I rose to my feet and saw him waving his arms wildly. The man beside him shrank back to avoid a blow to the face. “Come on, what are you, a pack of cowards?”
There was a silence. The quality of it set every part of me on edge. I would have to stop him. He was drunk, and in this mood he might do anything at all. I would have to elbow my way through the crowd of men and get him out of here quickly.
Before I could move, one of the men said, “You’ve got nothing left to wager, fool. Your purse is empty.”
Gods, had he already gambled away every coin we had while I sat here oblivious?
“Father,” I began, my voice cracked and tentative.
“I need no stake,” Father rumbled, half rising. His fists were clenched; his face was flushed. How much ale had they given him? “I’ll win. I can beat anyone. I’ll take whatever you put up.”
“No stake, no play! That’s the rule!”
“If you can’t put up a price, you’re out of the game, fellow!”
“And not before time,” someone muttered.
I made myself push forward through the crowd. “Father, it’s time to go,” I said, tugging at his arm. My voice was lost in the general hubbub.
“Li’l surprise for you,” Father said, getting unsteadily to his feet and draping a heavy arm around my shoulders.
“See? I have got a stake—my girl here. What’ll you wager against her? No paltry coppers, mind. It’s silver pieces or nothing.”
My heart faltered. I stood rigid, unable to move, unable to speak. I was dreaming. This couldn’t be happening.
But it was real, for I saw the eyes of the men opposite Father widen with shock.
“Steady on, fellow,” someone muttered. “You don’t mean that.”
“Speak up!” Father shouted, gripping me harder. “Who’ll take me on? I’ll beat every last one of you!”
My body was cold stone. “Father,” I whispered. “No.” But he did not hear me. His mind was on the silver he would win, silver that would buy him ale for a whole turning of the moon, a purse that would restore his pride.
Muttering had broken out all around the circle. I was the object of every eye once more. I could see men undressing me in their minds, but nobody spoke. I snatched a panicky breath, praying that even the basest of them would be above accepting such an appalling proposition.
Fowler stepped forward, clearing his throat. “I can’t allow—” he began just as the big red-faced man at the back reached into his pouch and brought out something that glinted in the lantern light. Silver coins. I swallowed bile; my gut twisted in terror. He was going to play.
A black-clad arm reached past him. With a dull knocking sound, three silver pieces fell from a long-fingered hand onto the table. “I will play you,” said the man in the hooded cloak, turning my heart to ice.
© Juliet Marillier 2012