The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 98)

When the trolls who captured Keir in Olluvarde had first burst around the corner in that marble underground passage, she’d been terrified. They’d seemed savage, monstrous, and intent upon brutality.

When they’d plucked her from the base of the column where she’d sought temporary refuge, they’d seemed more clumsy and inept than vicious.

During the journey from Olluvarde to Belzetarn, their demeanor had changed yet again. They bantered, teased, and told jokes, including Keir in their camaraderie as though she were one of them, and boasting to her about all the amenities available to them in their troll home. The shift had surprised her, but she’d taken full advantage of it to insinuate herself in their good graces. She bantered back, participated in the rude insults they enjoyed, and even joined a pair of them in devising a prank that involved the blankets of the lead scout.

After more than a deichtain of traveling through forested hills, they emerged from the trees into the meadow before the gatehouse in Belzetarn’s curtain wall.

“Whadya think?” asked Irren, the troll who—upon first acquaintance—had accidentally knocked her senseless when attempting to slap her back in greeting.

The ruins of Olluvarde had prepared her a little for what she would see, merely because they intimated what was possible when building with stone. Her home on Fiors was a round hut constructed of woven withies, as were all the dwellings of her people. The grandmother who governed the tribe inhabited a more impressive structure, five conical huts connected together! Olluvarde had prepared Keir a little, but not enough.

Constructed of massive blocks of dark gray stone, the gatehouse loomed malevolently, huge and dark and brooding, buttressed by guardtowers and fanged with crenellation. Beyond it, a vast grassy bailey within the curtain walls sloped gradually upward to an inner wall, with yet another gatehouse on the right, and a terrifyingly tall tower of the same dark stone on the left.

A strange rounded bulk with conical roofs and hulking chimneys clung to the roots of the tower on one side—the kitchens, as she would learn later—but she barely heeded it, following the great height with her eyes, up and up and up to the four claw-like prongs on the top battlements and a central spire that breathed wisps of smoke or steam.

Fiors was flat. The Hamish wilds, she’d seen as she passed through them, were hilly, with mountains on the horizon to the northeast. But this tower . . . was it as tall as those mountains would be were she to stand at their foundations? It seemed so indeed. She hardly knew how to answer Irren.

When she entered the passage through the gatehouse with her escort, she learned yet more of the properties of stone edifices.

The passage itself was generously wide with a high, arching ceiling, but the trolls stopped right at its inmost point, with the entrance too far behind her, and the exit too far ahead. The dark stone seemed to weigh upon her, pressing her down, squeezing the air from her lungs.

Woven withies, though water-tight when fashioned correctly, possessed an airiness to them. And white marble illuminated by magelight was positively elegant. But dark granite—was this granite?—was suffocating.

The lead scout was asking a gate guard something. She couldn’t hear their words, but the scout’s reaction was clear enough. He tensed and acquired a jittery manner that communicated itself to his fellows. The two nearest Keir gripped her arms when they started forward, manhandling her into the bailey in a way they had not since they seized her from the base of that column in Olluvarde.

The bailey possessed numerous lodges and workshops and stables along its edges, but Keir was focused on the change in her escort. Had they received unwelcome news? Did it bode ill for her reception by this Carbraes they’d talked of? She was worried.

At the base of the impossibly tall tower, they dragged her up a wide flight of steps to a generous landing, then up another flight to the terrace before the entrance and under its barbed portcullis into a passage considerably longer and gloomier than the one below the curtain wall gatehouse.

Stained holes the size of her thumbs dotted the vaulted ceiling. What had dripped from them onto enemy heads? Arrowslits pierced the highest reaches of the walls. Did archers stand in them, ready to shoot her down?

Keir felt as if she might faint. The entire tower rested above her now.

Her faintness fled abruptly a few steps later when her escort halted before an aristocratic troll with a strangely thin straight nose—the scouts all had blunt noses with an exaggerated upcurve. The aristocrat’s lips were equally thin, his pale skin lined, and his shoulder-length hair silver. He wore gorgeous robes of turquoise suede embroidered with silver thread.

Keir was forced bruisingly down onto her knees, while the scouts bowed deeply.

Was this Carbraes? He was clearly very important.

The aristocratic troll sniffed, looking disdainfully down his thin nose. “What is this?” he asked contemptuously.

“A prisoner, m’ Lord Theron,” answered the lead scout. “He says he’s a troll, but we can’t tell by his looks, you know. He looks human. So, since th’ regenen is away with th’ legions, we brought him to you.”

Theron scrutinized Keir, his eyes very cold. He sniffed again.

“Of course he’s human. There can be no doubt.”

“Please, m’lord. Lord Carbraes wouldn’t want a death when there needn’t be one. Could you—would you check with th’ inner seeing?” said the scout.

Keir’s stomach chilled. This troll could order her death? Just like that?

Lord Theron lifted his chin slightly. “Really,” he drawled. “Do I hear defiance?”

The scout bent his head and shuffled his feet. “No, m’ Lord Theron. But I believe the boy. I think he is a troll.”

“I say he is not,” snapped Theron. “Kill him!”

The scout’s mouth opened, then closed.

“Do you understand me, sir?” barked Theron. “Sever his head from his shoulders!”

Keir began to shiver, her limbs trembling.

As the scout swallowed uncomfortably, another robed troll stepped from behind Lord Theron.

He possessed a similar demeanor of command, but in every other way he differed from the troll who had ordered Keir’s death. His suede robes were of a muted hue—sage green—and lacked any adornment, save for the bronze fibula at his waist which secured a hefty ring of bronze keys. His hazel eyes were kind above the fleshy blade of his nose—curving down like a beak, rather than up. His skin was a clear, pale olive, lined around the eyes and firm-lipped mouth. He was of a medium height, but sturdily built, with muscular shoulders. His shoulder-length hair was very dark, with a few strands of gray. Most importantly, his assurance seemed more thoroughly rooted, not depending on any display of power.

“I beg your pardon, my Lord Castellanum,” said this new entrant, calmly authoritative, “the lad is afflicted. Although his nodes occupy exactly their proper spots, they float unanchored. It will be several years before his affliction is visible in his lineaments.”

Lord Theron’s nostrils flared slightly. “Do you say so, my Lord Secretarius?” he asked, his tone unfriendly, but not actively adversarial.

“I do,” said the secretarius. “And I could use a notarius. The lad looks intelligent.”

Lord Theron’s lip twitched. “Very well, my dear Gael. You may have him.” He turned from Gael back to Keir. “You will take your oath of fealty to the regenen when he returns to Belzetarn. In the meantime, the Lord Secretarius will be answerable for your conduct.”

With that, the castellanum swept away.

And so had Keir come under Gael’s wing, the perfect place—as it chanced—to interfere with the weapons borne by the troll-legions.

She never did take the oath of fealty that Theron had mentioned, whether it was because Carbraes was a good four deichtains returning from the field and the formality was forgotten, or some other reason. Technically, Keir owed him no loyalty. But that was mere quibbling. She’d accepted his protection for two years. She’d accepted her quarters from him. She’d eaten the food provided at his table. In all honor, she did owe him . . . something.

And her sabotage of the swords wielded by his warriors was treason.

But if she could heal those warriors of their truldemagar, perhaps even heal Lord Carbraes himself . . . mightn’t that atone for her treachery?

She pulled herself out of her memories of the past, aware of movement in the bailey on the other side of the bars in her window, aware of the pressing stones of her cell behind her.

Was the gong yet intact? Had Gael preserved it? Could she persuade Lord Carbraes to let her master its usage, to let her try again to restore a troll’s nodes to their proper anchorages? She’d succeeded once, with Gael.

As she sat there wondering, a low throbbing swelled on the air, deep and groaning, reverberating across all of Belzetarn and into every nook and cranny.

Strength flooded Keir’s sinews, her very bones, and she felt triumph cresting on a wave of well-being. The gong flourished, and all she dreamed of might yet come to pass!

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 99)

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