A crown disowned, p.1
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       A Crown Disowned, p.1

           Andre Norton
 
A Crown Disowned


  A Crown Disowned by Andre Norotn

  Prologue

  In the Cave of the Weavers, the Youngest of the Three sat a little apart from her sisters, struggling with a section of the Web Everlasting that seemed to resist her every effort to create harmony and order. The pattern beneath her fingers had not, as yet, unfolded or revealed itself to her. She knew only that every time she tried to work on this particular design and make clear what could only be glimpsed in what resembled a heavy snowstorm, very few threads she added sank into and became a part of the Web. The rest crumbled into dust.

  "It is not yet time, sister," the middle one of the Three had told her when that part of their eternal work kept drawing her attention. The Middle Sister was an imperturbable sort, neither as sentimental as the Youngest nor as crusty as the Eldest. "But soon. Yes, very soon."

  The Youngest glanced back at the Web where work was complete, or nearly so. All had become white, as if heavy snow fell most of the time, and yet the pattern was not obscured elsewhere as it was here. "You told me that the spot just past, where the joining of the ill-omened brought with it a shift in the pattern, would also make clear this one."

  The Youngest indicated a particular snarl of white, where the Web of Time accepted no thread of color except for the occasional strand of red—the color of blood—and where fell shapes moved obscurely on hidden business of their own.

  Once she had recoiled from them. Later, searching that portion of the Web already woven, she had discovered their dreadful origins. Now she could not let them be. "We know there is horror here, but the Web has yet to tell us what it is."

  "Come and work with us. Leave the past alone and do not inquire into the future.

  Work for today. When tomorrow is ready, it will tell us. You know that."

  "Aye, you have always known that," said the Eldest. She looked up from her work and frowned. "But then, you were always ready to rush ahead, to find out what lay in store for those whose lives weave in and out of the Web of Time."

  "Is it really forbidden to care about them? They are so frail, so short-lived…"

  "Again I will tell you, and this time I hope you listen, for you have not heeded me before. The affairs of mortals, frail and fleeting as they are, must not concern us."

  "The Web is fighting you because you are trying to change it," said the Middle

  Sister.

  "Let it form as it will," the Eldest said sternly, "for we cannot take pity on the ones whose lives are interwoven in it. To do so would be to create a tangle that could never be put straight again. Please do not speak of it again."

  The Youngest looked away, unable to bear either the op-probation of her sisters or the hideous segment of the Web of Time over which she toiled. She had to accept the truth of their words. She could not remove all traces of compassion for the mortals who bravely arose to face the horrors in the snow and the many who perished here, trampled under the feet of the monstrous beasts that appeared from out of the past where they had once been locked away. Gently, she touched one of the life-threads entangled in the struggle. It was strong and vigorous, but she knew it would snap ere long. "This is one of the great ones," she observed, trying to keep her tone neutral. "Or, he could have been great had he been wise. And had he not been cut down untimely."

  Interested in spite of herself, the Middle Sister came and peered over her shoulder. "And you wonder if his death is in vain?" she said.

  "There must be those who mourn. He leaves confusion in his passing."

  "And so has it ever been with great ones of the mortal kind," said the Eldest, more than a little crossly. "Very well, if that portion of the Web draws you so irresistibly, then by all means, work on it."

  "I agree," said the Middle Sister with a sigh. "But let it direct you, and do not meddle."

  "Thank you, Sisters."

  Grateful for the permission given, the Youngest straightened the kinks from her shoulders as she glanced back along what had been completed in Time's Web. There all was order, in recorded lives and death, and even Kingdoms' rise and passing.

  There the Three had worked generally in harmony until this latest coil had arisen. With some measure of tran-quility restored among the Weavers, she knew that she was now strong enough to suppress the pity she could not help feeling.

  She would offer no mercy to those who were doomed, and above all not meddle with the design, for it would be folly—and worse, it would ruin the work.

  At peace once more, the Youngest addressed herself to the area where the white tangle was deepest and most confused. Under her patient fingers, it began at last to take form and shape, though what it showed would have daunted any but one of the Three.

  And as always, the living continued to believe that they were free to make decisions, to act as they believed fit, even as their threads passed through the fingers of the Weavers.

  One

  Rohan tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword, though he did not unsheathe the weapon. Much depended on this meeting between himself, as leader of the

  Sea-Rovers, and Tusser, leader of the Bog-people.

  Instead of returning to Rendelsham as Granddam Zazar had instructed him, or even to the Oakenkeep, he had gone south to New Void, wanting the companionship of blood kindred. There he had learned that the Bog-people had resumed their raids on farms and small holdings.

  "Hunger drives them," Snolli said, "but that doesn't put bread on our table.

  These raids must cease."

  "I agree, but not for the reasons you think."

  "Then give me the benefit of your wisdom, young Rohan."

  Rohan did his best to ignore the heavy irony of his grand-father's tone. "We should make a treaty with, them," he said.

  "And I suppose that means we feed them as well," Snolli replied more than a little sourly.

  "Yes. It is certain," he told Snolli, "that we will need the help of the Bog-men when the Great Foulness from the North comes, and a little grain now and then is a small price to pay. Hard times are upon us all."

  Snolli shook his head. "I have almost come to believe that what we fled is no longer interested in us. If Kasai wasn't always stroking that drum of his—"

  The Spirit Drummer looked up from where he sat near the fireplace. "Be glad I do it, Chieftain," he said. "You'd have been in more than one pretty pickle before now, if it wasn't for me."

  "But what have your foretellings come to?" the aging leader of the Sea-Rovers demanded. "Nothing!"

  "Not yet," Kasai muttered, as if to himself. "Not yet. But soon, yes, very soon…"

  "Rubbish," Snolli declared stubbornly. "Nothing but rubbish."

  And so, despite his grandfather's dismissive words but with the warning of the

  Spirit Drummer still in his ears, Rohan had decided to seek out the Bog-men on his own and make alliance. Surely Snolli wouldn't do it of his own accord, Rohan thought, and much as he admired and respected Gaurin, leader of the Nordors, husband of his stepmother Ashen, he doubted that Gaurin would have thought of such a move, either.

  Bog-men were of no consequence to the Nordors, nor to the people of Rendel, whence the Nordors had come for refuge, as had the Sea-Rovers. Yet, Rohan knew in his heart that all those who were able would be needed when the fighting came.

  With that in mind, he had sought Granddam Zazar's help in setting up this meeting with Tusser Though word had come that Tusser's father, Joal, had gone to the deep pools alive, Rohan knew that it was just a story told to frighten those who heard it. Even Zazar had been taken in until she realized the ruse to give

  Tusser's claim to be headman legitimacy. Joal had not died; he had merely been hidden away until Tusser was accepted by all in his village. Rohan's grandfather

  Snolli lived also, though
both men had long ago retired from such pleasant pastimes as making war on each other.

  Rohan hoped to make of that a common bond, through which he and Tusser might come to an agreement. Also, though this was something he was reluctant to admit even to himself, it was in the direction of the Bog that he had last heard tell of his sweetheart, Anamara, traveling. Still under the effects of a spell the wicked Sorceress had put on her in Rendelsham, she could well be expected to return to the place where, convinced she was a bird in human form, she imagined she belonged. Or—he hardly dared hope—where she might think to find him again, as he had found her on the verge of perishing in the cold and dangerous Bog.

  At first, Zazar had been inclined to be cross with him for going against her instructions. But then, as Rohan explained how matters were with both the

  Bog-people and the Sea-Rovers whose crops the Bog-men raided more and more often, she relented.

  "I can't guarantee that Tusser will meet with you," the Wysen-wyf said. "I can't guarantee, should he meet with you, that he'll go along with such a scheme. I can't even guarantee that you'll come out of a meeting with him with your skin in one piece."

  "Yet I'll risk it," Rohan had said.

  "And also, I will keep an eye out for that silly Lady Lack-wit of yours, in case she decided to come back here instead of staying where she was warm and safe."

  Rohan's ears had burned, but he made no retort. And so, now he waited in a place of Zazar's choosing, at a time Tusser selected, and the Wysen-wyf stood across the little clearing hard by what had once been a far outpost of Galinth, the ruined city, watching for Tusser's arrival. Behind her, inside a shelter hastily thrown together from stones and brush, a wisp of smoke arose in the cold, dank air.

  "I think he's coming," Zazar said.

  A boat emerged from a concealing fringe of vegetation that had scarcely a trace of leaf on it, for the chill that continued to grip Rendel discouraged any plant growth. Nevertheless, the twigs formed such an effective barrier that Rohan had not seen the little Bog-craft until it was almost in plain view.

  True to his agreement, Tusser—if that were truly him— was alone. Rohan had no doubt, however, that he was heavily armed with additional weapons stowed in the bottom of the boat, and that he had companions stationed within close hailing distance. He glanced across the clearing at Granddam Zazar. She nodded and took a step forward.

  "Hail, Headman," she said, though there was scarcely a trace of deference in her manner. "I have prepared a talk-fire so that you and my grandson can confer properly." She indicated the conical twig-walled hut prepared behind her, and ducked through the curtain covering the doorway ahead of the two men.

  Neither seemed willing to let the other precede him. Rohan held out both of his hands, showing Tusser that he held no weapon. When Tusser did the same, Rohan ducked through the opening. When both were inside and seated by the small fire,

  Zazar dropped the makeshift curtain over the door again and snugged it against a random wind with a few well-placed stones.

  "It's a poor meeting place at best, but the only one even partially acceptable to both parties," she explained. "Here. I have some broth to warm you."

  "Waste of time," Tusser said gruffly. Though comparatively young to be a headman of a Bog-village, nonetheless he appeared to be capable as well as strong. He accepted a mug of the steaming broth with an air of indifference, but Rohan noted that he cradled it in his hands as if grateful for the warmth.

  "Thank you," Rohan said, accepting his own mug. He sipped appreciatively. "Let's hope we can find, if not a warm friendship, then at least a way to lessen animosity between us."

  "Too much silly talk," Tusser said with a scowl. "I have time only for good talk, not silly. Why you want meet with me? You just Outlander. Maybe I send to deep pools instead."

  Rohan set his mug aside and put his hand on the hilt of his sword again. "I'd dispute you over that ambition," he said mildly.

  Tusser continued to scowl at him. Then he looked away, indifferent again. "No matter," he said. "Maybe another time."

  In the shadows, Zazar made a muffled sound that Rohan recognized as a stifled laugh. She scooted forward until she had a place at the talk-fire as well. "It's plain to me that I'm going to have to serve as go-between here." She turned to

  Rohan. "Oh, I'm sure you have come here in a reasonable manner, but despite the fact that I've explained the situation to this lout several times, he thinks he has to impress you and show you how strong he is before he's willing to make treaty." She turned her head and fixed Tusser with a gaze that Rohan was all too familiar with. He had been on the receiving end himself when he had been acting particularly thickheaded. For all of Tusser's many years on Rohan, the look seemed to be affecting him in very much the same way. "Very well, then, say it and have done. Get your stupid pride out of your system all at once, or you can believe that I'll kick out every last spark of the talk-fire and the Bog-people can starve or freeze or die when the invaders come. And you can be sure that your gabble of the deep pools won't mean a thing to them. Now. What's it to be?"

  Tusser shifted a little, trying to avoid Zazar's implacable stare. "I ready to treat. If terms good enough."

  Rohan spoke up. "There are terrible times coming. Our land—" He spread his arms, indicating not only where they sat, but the entirety of the Bog and beyond it.

  "—all of our land, both yours and mine, is in danger. I have heard rumors, tales, of people from the north who long to take it from us. And so my message here is a simple one. We must make pact with each other and stop our warring, or these invaders will find us easy picking indeed. If, however, we stand together—"

  For the first time, Tusser appeared interested. "You think we like one village makes war on another?"

  "Something like that."

  "And then, when big birds come, or Outlanders come, even villages that not like each other all fight together?"

  Rohan took a deep breath of relief. "That's right. We must all fight together, when the—the other Outlanders come."

  "Tusser agree. But until then, we fight. Now I go."

  "No," Rohan said hastily. "We must stop our fighting—I thought I had made that clear." He turned imploringly to Zazar.

  "You did," she said, "and so did I. But trying to get something through Tusser's thick skull when he doesn't want to understand, is well nigh a hopeless chore."

  "Look," he said to Tusser. "What's to be gained if we continue to make war on each other and when the other Outlanders come upon us, we are so weak we can't fight them, even all together?"

  Tusser frowned again, trying to work out what Rohan had said. "Yes," he said at last, "but what we do between times?"

  "There is much the Sea-Rovers can learn from you, and much that we can teach in return," Rohan said. "Later we will go to the rest of Rendel. I'm sure that—"

  Whatever prediction he had been on the point of making was lost as a small, furry creature nudged its way under the door curtain. With a high-pitched squeal, it made a straight line for Zazar. Tusser recoiled, reaching for his shell dagger, but Rohan grasped his wrist before he could draw it.

  "Weysel" Zazar said, taking the little one on her lap. Weyse stood up, her clever little paws on Zazar's shoulders, and trilled and squeaked at her in what could only be interpreted as an urgent manner. Her fur-covered face held a def-initely anxious expression; and her entire manner radiated fear.

  "This is a friend," Rohan explained to Tusser. "I know her well. What is Weyse saying, Granddam Zazar? It must be important, to bring her here."

  "Danger," the Wysen-wyf said. "Much danger. Men from the Outside, and they are burning as they go. That's hard to believe." She held Weyse out a little distance from her, so she could look into her eyes. "Are you certain?"

  Again the little creature chittered and trilled in a highly agitated manner.

  "Smoke," Tusser said, his already wide nostrils flaring as he sniffed the air.

  "Not from talk-fire, not from
hearth." He leapt to his feet, drawing the dagger whose hilt he was still clutching. He appeared on the verge of attacking Rohan where he sat. "You!. Betray Bog-people!"

  "Don't be a fool, Tusser," Zazar said, getting to her feet in turn. "Do you really think Rohan, an honorable knight of Rendel, is going to set fire to everything while he's apt to get caught in it himself?"

  "Granddam Zaz is right," Rohan said. He was last on his feet only because he paused to pick up Weyse and cradle her in the crook of his arm. "I know nothing of these men, except that whatever it is they think they are doing, setting fire to the Bog, they must be stopped!"

  "Well, now's your chance," Zazar said to the two. "If ever you had any plans or hopes of working together, you couldn't find a better place to start."

  "I'm for it," Rohan declared. He handed Weyse to her and loosened his sword in its scabbard. Then he turned to Tusser. "I'll face them alone if I have to, but it would go better with an ally."

 
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