Shadowplay Chapter 1: Exiles

It was a terrible dream. The young poet Matt Tinwright was declaiming a funeral ode for Barrick, full of high-flown nonsense about the loving arms of Kernios and the warm embrace of the earth, but Briony watched in horror as her twin brother’s casket rocked and shook. Something inside was struggling to escape, and the old jester Puzzle was doing his best to hold down the lid, clinging with all the strength of his scrawny arms as the lid creaked and the box shuddered beneath him.

Let him out, she wanted to cry, but could not—the veil she wore was so tight that words could not pass her lips. His arm, his poor crippled arm! How it must pain him, her poor dead Barrick, having to struggle like that in such a confined place.

Others at the funeral, courtiers and royal guards, helped the jester hold the lid down, then together they hustled the box out of the chapel. Briony hurried after them, but instead of the grass and sun of the graveyard, the chapel doorway led directly downward into a warren of dark stone tunnels. Tangled in her cumbersome mourning garments, she could not keep up with the hurrying mourners and quickly lost sight of them; soon all she could hear were the muffled gasps of her twin, the coffined prisoner, the beloved corpse—but even those noises were growing fainter and fainter and fainter . . .

Briony sat up, heart fluttering in her chest, and discovered herself in a chilly darkness pierced by the bright, distant eyes of stars. The boat rocked under her, the oars creaking quietly in their locks as the Skimmer girl Ena slipped them in and out of the water with the smooth delicacy of an otter sporting in a quiet cove.

Only a dream! Zoria be praised! Barrick is still alive, then—I would know it if he wasn’t, I’m sure of it. But although the rest of the terrible fancy had melted like fog, the rasping of labored breath hadn’t. She turned to find Shaso dan-Heza slumped over in the boat behind her, eyes closed, teeth clenched so that they gleamed with reflected starlight in his shadowed face. Air scraped slowly in and out; the old Tuani warrior sounded near death.

“Shaso? Can you talk to me?” When he did not reply, Briony grabbed at the thin, hard shoulder of the Skimmer girl. “He’s ill, curse you! Can’t you hear him?”

“Of course I can hear him, my lady.” The girl’s voice was surprisingly hard. “Do you think I am deaf?”

“Do something! He’s dying!”

“What do you want me to do, Princess Briony? I cleaned and bound his wounds before we left my father’s house, and gave him good tangle-herb for physick, but he is still fevered. He needs rest and a warm fire, and even then it may not do him any good.”

“Then we need to get ashore! How far to the Marrinswalk coast?”

“Half the night more, my lady, at the best. That is why I have turned back.”

Turned back? Have you lost your mind? We are fleeing assassins! The castle is held by my enemies now.”

“Yes, enemies who will hear you if you shout too loudly, my lady.”

Briony could barely make out the face beneath the hooded cloak, but she didn’t need to see to know she was being mocked. Still, Ena was right in at least one thing: “All right, I’ll talk more quietly—and you will speak to the point! What are you doing? We cannot go to the castle. Shaso will die there more surely than if we were to push him into the water this moment. And I’ll be killed, too.”

“I know, my lady. I did not say I was going to take you back to the castle, I only said I had turned back. We need shelter and a fire as soon as possible. I am taking you to a place in the bay to the east of the castle—Skean Egye-Var my people call it—‘Erivor’s Shoulder’ in your tongue.”

“Erivor’s Shoulder? There is no such place . . . !”

“There is, and there is a house upon it—your family’s house.”

“There is no such place!” For a moment Briony, faced with Shaso dying in her arms, was so full of rage and terror that she almost hit the girl. Then she suddenly understood. “M’Helan’s Rock! You mean the lodge on M’Helan’s Rock.”

“Yes. And there it is.” The Skimmer girl stilled her oars and pointed at a dark bulk on the near horizon. “Praise the Deep Ones, it looks empty.”

“It ought to be—we did not use it this summer, with Father away and all else that has happened. Can you land there?”

“Yes, if you’ll let me think about what I am doing, my lady. The currents are sharp at this hour of the night, just before morning.”

Briony fell into anxious silence while the Skimmer girl, moving her oars as deftly as if they were an extension of her own arms, directed the pitching boat in a maddeningly slow circle around the island, searching for the inlet between the rocks.

Always before Briony had come to the island on the royal barge, standing at the rail far above the water as the king’s sailors leaped smartly from place to place to make sure the passage would be smooth, and so she had never realized just how difficult a landing it was. Now, with the rocks looming over her head like giants and the waves lifting and dropping Ena’s little craft as though it were a bit of froth in a sloshing bucket, she found herself hanging on in silent dread, one hand clamped on the railing, the other clutching a fold of the thick, plain shirt the Skimmers had given Shaso, doing her best to keep the old man upright.

Just as it seemed the Skimmer girl had misjudged the rocks, that their boat must be shattered like bird bones in a wolf’s jaws, the oars dug hard into the dark water and they slid past a barnacled stone so closely that Briony had to snatch back her hand to save her fingers. The wooden hull scraped ever so briefly, just enough to send a single thrill of vibration through the tiny boat, and then they were past and into the comparatively quiet inlet.

“You did it!”

Ena nodded, studiously calm as she rowed them across the inlet to the floating dock shackled to the rock wall. Just a few yards away, on the ocean side, the waves thumped and roared like a thwarted predator, but here the swell was gentled. When the boat was tied, they dragged Shaso’s limp weight out of the boat and managed to haul him up the short ladder and onto the salt-crusted dock where they had to let him drop.

Ena slumped down into a crouch beside Shaso’s limp form. “I must rest . . . just for a bit . . .” she said, her head sagging.

Briony thought about how hard and how long the Skimmer girl had worked, rowing for hours to get them away from the castle to the safety of this inlet. “I’ve been ungrateful and rude,” she told the girl. “Please forgive me. Without your help, Shaso and I both would have been dead long ago.” Ena said nothing, but nodded. It was possible that, in the depths of her hooded cloak she might have smiled a little, but the night was too dark for Briony to be sure.

“While you two rest, I’m going to go up to the lodge and see what I can find. Stay here.” Briony draped her own cloak over Shaso, then climbed the stairway cut into the stone of the inlet wall. It was wide, and even though the worn steps were slippery with spray and the dewy mists of night, it was so familiar that she could have climbed it in her sleep. For the first time she began to feel hopeful. She knew this place well and she knew its comforts. She had been resigned to spending her first exiled night in a cave on a Marrinswalk beach, or sleeping in the undergrowth on the lee side of a sea-cliff—at least here she would find a bed.

The lodge on M’Helan’s Rock had been built for one of Briony’s ancestors, Ealga Flaxen-Hair, by her husband King Aduan—a love-tribute some said; a sort of prison others claimed. Whatever the truth, it was only fading family gossip now, the principals dead for a hundred years or more. In Briony’s childhood the Eddons had spent at least a tennight on the island each summer, and sometimes much longer than that. Her father Olin had liked the seclusion and quiet of the place, and that he could keep a much smaller court there, often bringing only Avin Brone for counsel, a dozen or so servants, and a skeleton force of guards. As children, Briony and Barrick had discovered a slender, difficult hillside path down to a seameadow (as many other royal offspring had doubtless done before them) and had loved having a place where they could often spend an entire afternoon on their own, without guards or any other adults at all. To children who spent nearly every moment of their lives surrounded by servants and soldiers and courtiers, the sea-meadow was a paradise and the summer lodge a place of almost entirely happy memories.

Briony found it very strange to be walking up the front steps alone under the stars. The familiar house, which should be spilling welcoming light from each window, was so deep in darkness she could scarcely make out its shape against the sky. As with so much else this year, and especially these last weeks, here was another treasured part of her life turned higgle-piggle, another memory stolen and mishandled by the Eddon family’s enemies.

The memory of Hendon Tolly’s mocking face came to her with a stab of cold fury, his amusement at her helplessness as he told her how he was going to steal her family’s throne. You may not be the only one responsible for what’s happened to our family, you Summerfield scum, but you’re the one I know, the one I can reach. In that moment she felt as chill and hard as the stones of the bay. Not tonight—but someday. And when that day comes, I’ll take the heart out of you the way you’ve taken mine. Only yours won’t be beating when I’m done. She did not bother with the massive front door, knowing it would be locked, but walked around to the kitchen, which had a bad bolt that could be wiggled loose. As expected, a few good thumps and the door swung open, but it was shockingly dark inside. Briony had never been in the place at night without at least a few lamps glowing, but now it was as lightless as a cave, and for a terrified moment she could not make herself enter. Only the thought of Shaso lying on the chilly dock, suffering, perhaps dying, finally forced her through the open doorway.

Locked in a cell for months, and it was my fault—mine and Barrick’s. She frowned. Yes, and a bit of blame on his own cursed stiff neck as well . . .

She managed to find her way by touch to the kitchen fireplace, although not without a few unpleasant encounters with cobwebs. Things skittered in the darkness around her—just mice, she promised herself. After some searching, and many more cobwebs, she located the leather-wrapped flint and fire-iron in its niche in the stone chimney with a handful of oil-soaked firestarters beside it. After a little work Briony struck a spark, and soon a small blaze caught in the firestarters, which gave her the courage to knock over a spidery pile of logs and throw on a few of the smaller branches so the fire could begin growing into something useful. She considered setting a fire in the main hall fireplace as well. The thought made her ache with the memory of her lost father, who had always insisted on lighting that fire as his own personal task, but she knew it would be foolish to show light at the front of the house, on the side facing Southmarch Castle. Briony doubted anyone would see it without looking through a spyglass, even from the castle walls, but if there were any night that Hendon Tolly and his men might be on the walls doing just that, it would be tonight. The kitchen would be refuge enough.

The front of the summer house was still darkly unfamiliar as she went back down the steep path, but the knowledge that a fire now burned in the kitchen made it a friendlier place, and this time she had a shuttered lantern in her hand so she could see where she was putting her feet.

So, we’ve lived through the first day—unless someone saw the boat and they’re coming after us. Startled by the thought, she looked toward the castle, but although she saw a few lights moving on the walls, there was no obvious sign of pursuit by water. And if someone came to search M’Helan’s Rock before she and Shaso could depart? Well, she knew the island and its hiding places better than almost anyone else. But, what am I doing? she asked herself. I shouldn’t tempt the gods by even thinking such things . . .

© 2004 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved

Related Pages

The Shadowmarch Series