The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 97)

Chapter 21

Keir sat on the deep sill of her cell window, looking out through its bronze bars across the sloping ground of the bailey below. The citadel’s prison was located within the thick wall dividing the artisans’ yard from the bailey, so the whole of that grassy enclosure spread before her view.

But although she was looking, she wasn’t really seeing.

The orchard of fruit trees rustling in the morning breeze along the eastern curtain wall—at Keir’s left—provided the most inviting prospect, with wildflowers dotting the shady patches and beehives situated in the sunny ones. The huntsmen’s lodge, the smokehouse, the hornery, and other workshops clustered near the main gate, as well as the stables and kennels along the western curtain wall, offered the more active scene, with tanners and grooms and warriors coming and going.

But Keir’s gaze clung to the free expanse of the sky above the bailey, pale blue streaked with gauzy wisps of cloud, attempting to block her claustrophobic awareness of the pinching narrowness of her cell.

It wasn’t that the cell was so small. She thanked heaven she’d not been put in one of the windowless ones. But the bare dark stones of the walls and ceiling seemed to press heavily inward, as though they would crush her. If only they’d been whitewashed, it would have helped. Or covered with hangings, which was a ludicrous idea. Why should a prisoner be so pampered?

But panic overcame her, if she looked too long on the lidded chamber pot in one inner corner, the pile of fleeces in one outer corner—her bed—or the wall niche with a leather cup and a leather bottle of water. And she could not afford to panic. She had to think.

So she gazed out over the bailey, pretending she sat atop the massive wall rather than within it, and considered her situation. She didn’t know why she was here.

Yesterday evening, Dreben and three warriors had intercepted her in the artisans’ yard, en route to the rampart over the lake. She’d craved its sunny openness and solitude.

“Take her,” the brigenen had ordered in clipped tones, and two of the warriors closed in to seize her by the arms, while the third stepped behind her to block off any potential escape.

“What?” she’d exclaimed, bewildered by the turn of events.

“Your larceny is discovered,” sneered Dreben. “Come along.”

“But—but—” she’d protested, stumbling between her captors.

“I’m putting you behind bars, Keir,” said Dreben. “The castellanum commands it.”

“The castellanum!” That didn’t square in the least with how Theron had been courting her approval for the past two deichtains. She came to a dead halt. “This is ridiculous. Unhand me, you!” she’d commanded the warriors.

They’d done nothing of the sort, of course, walking her to the gatehouse between the yard and the bailey, into the broad passage under the wall, and then through the portal of the prison located there. They’d conducted her up some stairs directly to this cell, thrust her within it, and locked the door on her.

The prison guard who’d brought her some boiled meat for supper refused to speak to her.

And Medicus Piar, who visited considerably later to check her head injury again, had known nothing.

“Tell Gael,” she’d begged him. “Or Barris or Arnoll, if you cannot gain access to the secretarius.”

“I will,” he’d promised. “But are you well, Keir? There has been some concern that the warriors who apprehended you were rough, or that they may have abused you in some fashion.”

She’d been impatient, focused on the why and wherefore of her captivity, not yet thinking of its potential risks. “Who is concerned?” she’d demanded.

“The regenen, as I understand,” he’d replied, flustered.

“The regenen!” she’d repeated, confounded. “But—!”

“I don’t know, Keir. I’ll try to find out,” he’d said as he departed.

But no one had come to her.

She’d managed to sleep a little, grateful for the night breezes passing through the bars of her cell window each time she awoke in the darkness. And she’d eaten the sausage patties garnished with pickled cabbage that they’d brought her in the morning.

Was it her slaying of Dreas that had prompted her incarceration?

If she’d purposefully done it, that would be murder—and treason—not larceny. But it had been mishap, not intention that caused his death. It had not even been incompetence on her part, as sometimes happened in the course of a healer’s career. There were some queer illnesses and injuries that cropped up, things that no healer had a chance to acquire practice in treating. Which made the likelihood of error stronger.

She could not say she bore no responsibility in Dreas’ death. She absolutely did. But it was the gong’s sounding that had been her—and Dreas’—undoing. Carbraes had been right there, and he’d not denounced her as a traitor.

Had he thought better of his restraint later? Or changed his assessment of what had happened?

Or was her imprisonment the result of further machinations of the castellanum?

She desperately needed information and contact with someone friendly to her.

A charge of larceny could not be for the slaying of Dreas. What if someone had figured out that all this past year, each morning, she had been swapping one ingot of the tin intended for the privy smithy with one ingot of the copper intended for the blade smithy, and using energea to disguise the swapped ingots?

If that was the root of her imprisonment, no information—and no friend—could help her then.

Was this the end for her?

She’d had a good run, but she’d known it could not last indefinitely. Someone would figure out why the warriors’ swords broke more often than heretofore—why they shattered with their greater load of tin—and when they figured it out . . . her luck would be over. She’d achieved what she wanted: a strike back at the troll-horde. Trolls had invaded Fiors in her grandmother’s day. A generation later, trolls had maimed her pater.

She’d known when she first set eyes on them in Olluvarde—shrieking and jeering, their deformed faces malevolent—that she had chosen rightly.

Pater had gotten her away from Fiors, no doubt believing that he’d preserved her, given her a chance to live, a chance even to live well. In pledging his faith, he’d said, “In all the years to come.” He’d imagined her as having years, decades of years.

But she’d had time to think as she sailed west under a hurrying sky, the wind at her back, the sea buoying her, the unknown before her. She could have fled further north. She could have fled to one of the troll-queens in the icy wastes. She could have carved out a life for herself in one of their enchanted palaces.

But she did not want to. Better to strike swift and hard at the enemy than to join them.

And so she’d evolved her plan to be taken in by the troll-lord of the Hamish lands and find a way to do him harm. And it had worked. She’d gotten what she wanted. But . . . now that she’d gotten it . . . she had to wonder whether she was glad of it. Did she rejoice? Had it been worth it? Had her choice been a right one? Mightn’t she have evolved some better goal?

The knowledge that she had healed a troll with the node in the cursed gong had her questioning everything. And, if she were honest with herself, it was not only that. She’d come to care about the people around her, if she dared call them so. Could trolls be people? At home on Fiors she’d never considered they might be. In Olluvarde, she’d known they were not. Now, after living among them for two years in Belzetarn . . .

Was fatherly Arnoll not a person? Energetic Barris with his bright brown eyes? Her new assistant, freckled Adarn, so diligent and eager? In her heart, she had to admit that she regarded them as fully human. Even though they were not.

Or were they?

Every troll in the north had been born human. The truldemagar took away their humanity, bit by bit, until there was none left. But where was the line between the two? Was there a line, a sharp demarcation? Or only a long, agonizing slide from human to monstrous?

Was young Adarn a monster? Was Gael? Was she?

She did not think so. We are only ourselves, she thought.

And if trolls were human . . . then who was the enemy?

We should not use the same word to describe our malady and ourselves, she realized. Truldemagar. The truldemagar takes us, but we are not truldemagar. We are human. And we suffer.

Sweet Ionan! If that were so, then she’d been fighting the wrong enemy for all the past two years. And never known it until the gong showed her a way to fight the real enemy: the nodes that moved out of true, farther with each use of energea, farther with each passing year, farthest of all with the use of the dangerous gold energea.

We are sick, she realized. Not evil. Although we become evil in time.

How had she not understood this? She was a healer. And the unafflicted commonly spoke of the truldemagar as a disease. But still she’d not regarded it as a disease.

So. Here she was, at the long end of her choices, with a net full of fishes she wished only to cast back into the sea.

She’d thought she could be a champion for the unafflicted, go where they could not go, do what they possessed no opportunity to do, strike at the trolls from the heart of a troll citadel. As though she herself were not a troll.

I am a troll, she told herself.

She’d never really accepted it.

I am a troll. The truldemagar claimed me. I am not a human in disguise.

That was how she’d acted, as though she were a human disguised as a troll. But she was not. No more than every troll was a human disguised as such.

She had to give up her vendetta.

No. She had given it up already, and felt empty in the wake of its departure. What would she do now? She might not need the answer to that question. She might not live. Carbraes might have ordered her execution even as she abandoned her covert attack on his legions. But if he had not, if she were declared innocent and released, what then?

I have to preserve that gong, and the lodestone within it. I have to. And I must learn to use it safely and reliably, so that I can heal every troll in this citadel, in every other troll stronghold, every troll in the north.

Was such an undertaking even possible?

It didn’t matter. If she restored only one troll, it was worth it. Two trolls, even more so. Each troll she healed was a strike against the true enemy.

She shook her head.

Just so had she regarded each disguised ingot slipped into the blade smithy: one strike, one more strike, and yet one more again. Which gave her pause. What if she should prove equally mistaken in this?

Perhaps it was time to recalibrate her approach. Instead of laboring to destroy an enemy, perhaps she should work to create allies. Pater had always said that a healer did not so much fight against injury and disease as reinforce the body in regaining and deploying its own strength.

Each troll healed would be . . . one person preserved from death and madness.

But for that to happen, the lodestone within the gong must be preserved.

What had Gael decided?

He’d not promised to preserve the gong. He’d only promised to think carefully about it. Would that be enough? Surely it would be enough. How could he think carefully and draw any conclusion save that the gong should not be destroyed? Or warped so thoroughly that it was essentially destroyed.

But Gael was not a healer. Nor had he used the gong himself to achieve something marvelous. And his most recent experience of the artifact was Dreas’ death.

What would he be weighing?

Against the gong lay the weakness it provoked in all who heard it. No, not all. Just trolls.

So. It weakened trolls. It had killed Dreas. Were there other disadvantages? Keir had to admit that there were. Lesser ones, but real. Carbraes could order every troll in Belzetarn to undergo healing, but how would she gain access to all the rest? And given that trolls and humans would continue to fight one another, wouldn’t it be wrong to strengthen the trolls?

I am not a warrior! I am a healer!

And healers healed. The day she started deciding who deserved healing and who did not . . . No. To do that was to encroach upon the territory of the gods. A healer treated all who came to her.

But how would Gael see it? He was not a healer, but neither was he a warrior.

Surely he would see that the chance to work steadily against the truldemagar that slowly turned humans into monsters was worth . . . almost anything. No matter the logistical difficulties, no matter the history of strife.

No. That was how she saw it.

If this were any other matter, she would have no doubt. Gael was probably working toward her release even now. Or if he could not gain her release, he was doing what he could to ensure her safety and a fair judgment from the regenen. She could trust Gael with her life.

She had trusted Gael with her life.

She would be dead and burned, her ashes scattered on the wind, had Gael not preserved her upon her entrance into Belzetarn.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 98)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 96)

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