by Noeleen Kavanagh
Bring the baby Coir with you. Three years old with big, brown eyes that’d melt a heart of brass. So my neighbours advised me to do when I told them I was coming to the queen to seek justice. But I did not heed them, and instead came alone to this place. Weep. Wail. Tear your hair, your clothes. Say that your husband wished it. Your children need it. Throw yourself on the queen’s mercy. That was the sum of their advice.
The hall is large, larger than any room I’ve stood in before, and dim. I stand in a mob of people, an orderly mob that has been herded in through the double doors to wait corralled in the corner like cattle. We are all clutching something, a child’s hand, scraps of paper.
I am taller than most of the people here. I peer over their heads. There is a flash of movement in a small doorway near the back of the great hall. Motion ripples out from it, like iron filings rearranging themselves around a magnet. “The queen. The queen,” I hear them mutter all around me as they bob and bow in their excitement, hope and fear.
Hours pass. I wait and watch. Sometimes she leans back in her chair and calls for water or for wine, for horse’s milk for all that I know, with a flick of her finger, or a wave of her hand. I cannot hear from where I stand with the others at the back of the hall. She leans forward to listen and her advisers cluster around her, scribbling and scratching on their parchments. The supplicants leave through a side door. They do not return to us. They have received the Queen’s Justice and move on.
“The Widow Dellfer. The Widow Dellfer.”
An official calls my name. My name? The Widow Dellfer? There is nothing of me left in that name. Nothing save my grief and I do not need a stranger to remind me of that.
A woman talking to a woman, even if she is a queen, must be heard. She must be. I am no beggar. I have a gift to give. No-one will be able to shame me by saying that my debts go unpaid.
I bow to her. She nods in return. “The Widow Dellfer?”
“Caithimh Ni Croi. Known in this place as the Widow Dellfer, my queen.”
“And what do you seek, Widow Dellfer?”
“My husband died three weeks ago. Of a fever.” Struck down and snatched away in a matter of days. My grief rises up again, threatens to choke me. I am bound and maimed by it. “We have a small brewery, beer, stout, ale.”
“A good business, I would have thought.”
“Aye, if you have the knack for it and are willing to work.” I draw breath and stand up straighter. “My husband has two older brothers. They have come to my house. They say that I must leave. That the brewery and the house is now theirs.”
An official leans forward. “Your Grace, custom is that a widow has the right to live in her deceased husband’s property and is given a share of its profits to support herself and her children.” The official speaks to the queen and not me, as if it is not my livelihood and my children’s futures he is discussing.
“Given? Given? By who?” My grief and fear and rage rise up in a dark mass before my eyes. He backs away from me. “Have you ever brewed beer? Lifting bags of malting barley to soak, carrying water, boiling it, crushing the malt, cooling and draining the wort and again and again and again for twelve and fourteen hours a day. And all that with the weight of a child heavy in your womb dragging and slowing you? Have you? Have you?”
The official stares at me goggle-eyed. He is wary of me now. I do not care.
The queen leans forward, flicks her officials and scribes away. They retreat. “And where was your husband, Widow Dellfer?”
“He had no knack for the brewing itself, my Queen, that was my work.”
“With no-one to help you?”
“Back then we were just starting. We made enough to support ourselves, but not enough to take on outside help.”
“I have a maid and two apprentices, my Queen. The maid watches the younger children and the apprentices and my eldest daughter helps me with the brewing.”
“I see. Your business has prospered.” She looks down the great hall and sighs. The mass of people below still wait, still clutching their hopes and fears. For a moment I pity her, the needs of her people will suck her dry, like a calf that will not leave the cow. But not me, a gift in exchange for a gift. That is how it should be.
“What do you want of the Queen’s Justice, Widow Dellfer?”
“I want surety that the house and the brewery are mine. That I can live in my house. That my livelihood will not be stolen from me. That I can support my children. Nothing more than that.”
“I see. Why?”
I will not beg. I will not plead. I am not standing here empty-handed, a beggar. I draw myself up to my full height and look the queen in the eye. “Because they are mine, my queen. My skills built the brewery and my work has maintained it. The sweat of my brow and the labour of my hands.” I want to cry out, but I keep my voice pitched low, to stop it from breaking and shaming me in public.
“Aye,” says the queen. “What you’ve built, you wish to hold. I can understand that, Widow Dellfer.” She waves and an official and a scribe come scurrying over. “The house, brewery and all related property to pass to the Widow Dellfer. Make deeds to that effect.”
“One day I will send you a gift,” I say, “a gift which will repay my debt a thousand-fold. You will bless that day.”
The queen turns and looks at me. Our eyes meet. She does not understand. But I know that my words are true and that they will come to pass.
I am sixteen years old and still I have to go to study with Master Duth. This is hardly fair. When I complained to my mother she only said “The girls will take the business over, Coir. You have no skill in such matters.” I was angry at first when she said that. But it’s true. For me, sacks fall over, spill their guts across the floors, water slops and puddles, the malt will not simmer, sieves become blocked. All this, no matter how careful I am.
So instead I carry the heavy copper cauldrons and clean them and stack the bags of wheat and malt and hops in the storerooms. Sometimes when my mother and sisters are brewing, I sit and watch them at work. For them, brewing is a dance in perfect time. There is a pattern in this, but one that I cannot replicate.
The patterns in languages are easier to grasp, the interplay of noun and tense and clause, inflection and adjective. The old ones are the best, a complexity of pattern that pulls the mind in- Ard Teanga, the runes of the Ardlands and High Or. Master Duth teaches me. In return my mother sends him the best of her beer.
I always go to Master Duth’s house for my lessons, but today is different for some reason. Master Duth has called to our house. The maid has seated him in the parlour room. This is where my mother meets buyers and sellers, pays debts and collects what is owed to her.
I walk in and Master Duth and my mother raise their eyes to me. They have an appraising look on their faces. They gaze at me as a jobber might eye a calf he was thinking of buying.
“Master Duth. Mother.”
“Sit down, Coir. There is something that we need to discuss.”
Maybe there is nothing left for Master Duth to teach me. Maybe I can leave off my studies and work for a living. I look at Master Duth. His cane is planted between his legs and he leans forward on it, a piece of paper clutched in his hand.
“Master Duth has some news.” My mother pauses. “All debts must be repaid, you understand that, Coir, don’t you? A gift promised must be given. No matter how long it may have taken.” Her face is sad but she does not wait for me to answer. Instead she nods her head firmly. “Master Duth?”
“The queen seeks apprentices for her Steward’s House. He must ….” Master Duth leaves off, glances at his paper, continues, “…must have a good command of languages, be quick to learn, diligent, native to the city, of good character….and so on.”
I stare at him. He looks at his paper again. “And there is no mention made of it being closed to the lesser classes.”
My mother nods at Master Duth, as if they are in agreement, but they do not understand.
“It’ll be a farce, the likes of me going to the palace. I’d be a laughing stock. If they even let me past the door. It’ll be all the sons of lords and lordlings.” With their sneering faces and drawling voices.
“Master Duth will go with you.”
My mother rises up from her chair. She wipes her hands on her apron. “You will go. On the appointed day, you will go.” Her face is set. She will not change her mind. She has no consideration for me at all. “A debt must be paid and a gift promised must be given.”
With that she crosses the room. “I have to get back. The malt will be simmered by now. Good day, Master Duth.”
And so, ten days later I go to the palace with Master Duth. We are led to a hall and left there. We are among the first to arrive and gradually the other candidates, the younger sons of lordlings and merchants to judge by their clothes, come to wait in knots and huddles of family members and tutors. Eventually we are herded into another room. Master Duth raises his hand to me as I walk away.
The testing begins immediately. The steward’s men bark questions at us about history and politics, geography and the natural sciences, subject after subject in Ard Teanga and the common language. A man with high cheekbones and tilted eyes quizzes me in High Or, the words tripping off his tongue with a fluidity and rapidity that amazes me.
Question after question, spoken and written, my throat parched from talking, my hand cramped from grasping my pen. We pass from room to room, ever inwards through the palace. And we are winnowed as we go, our numbers pared away, ever smaller.
Finally I am led to a room and left seated there, a small table and another chair across from me. This is a plain, dim room with shafts of light falling to the floor from the high narrow windows. Motes of dust whirl gold, suspended in the light. The air is filled with them, forever dancing and whirling, a random, ceaseless motion.
The door opens behind me and I spin and rise. An old man enters the room. I bow and greet him. He is dressed in steward’s robes and has a head of white hair, but his face is younger than his hair would suggest.
“Coir Dellfer, is it?”
“You have done well so far. A great facility for languages, or so I’ve been told.”
That is not a question, so I do not answer. He regards me with his head cocked to one side.
“A cautious lad. No bad thing.” He reaches into his bag and pulls out a section of coloured cloth. “Why did you come here today, Coir?”
“My mother insisted on it, master.”
“Your mother? Why? Is she an ambitious woman?”
I ponder that question. It is one that I’ve never thought of before.
“No, master, she is not.”
He does not answer, just nods. He spreads the heavy cloth across the table between us, smoothing it carefully beneath his palms. The cloth is covered in a grid of squares, with circles and triangles on some intersections, a brown patch in two of the corners and a broad blue band crossing the middle. The cloth covers the surface of the table exactly, as if they were made for each other.
“So what does your mother, this unambitious woman do?”
“She is a brewer. Beer, ale.” He must know this already, but I say it anyway. He does not react, instead smoothes the cloth beneath his hands with sweeping movements.
“And your father?”
“He died when I was three years old.”
“I see.” He reaches into his bag again and pulls out a small bag. He carefully unties the bag and pulls out carved pieces, some red, some blue. He looks at each one and places it carefully on the cloth, naming them as he goes- chariot, minister, advisor.
“This game is from the City of Gold. What are some other names for the City of Gold?
“Lazium. The Queen of Cities.”
“Just so. The game is called Xi. It’s not played much this far north.” He continues to name the pieces- elephant, horse, engineer.
“Master? Horses cannot survive south of the Cleam River where Lazium is, so why are there horse pieces in the game?”
“Maybe horses are included because they are admired. Men often crave what belongs to another, what they themselves do not have. What is another name for the City of Gold? In the runes of the Ardlands?”
“Just so. And what does Lazium mean?”
“New. It’s not clear, but it’s generally believed to mean new.”
“Aye, generally. Emperor, general, soldier,” he continues, placing the pieces as he speaks. “Maybe in the distant past, in Lazium’s homeland, before they came to these parts, they had horses.” He looks up at me. “Men have long memories for what they’ve lost and even longer for what’s been taken from them.”
He leans back in his chair to regard the cloth. The pieces are scattered across it or bunched together in groups, poised, waiting to move.
“The rules of the game are not complicated, but the variations are almost infinite. Would you like to learn?”
And so we play the Game of Xi. It has rivers and mountains, armies rampaging across the cloth, emperors and their courts, horses swift as swallows, infantry-crushing elephants.
I look up and notice that the sun has slid around the room. The colour of the light has changed. It is evening. Darkness will soon fall, like a rejected prayer descending to earth.
“Enough. I am weary,” says the steward.
My elephants are backed up against the river and my soldiers are being harried on the plains. My court has been split apart and is in disarray and my emperor is in retreat. “I’ve lost again, master.”
“So it seems.”
The man is silent. He picks up the pieces in handfuls and puts them back in their bag, fistful after fistful, their potential reduced to random chaos once more. As the pieces are swept off the cloth, I grow fearful. Was this a test which I have failed?
“So, did you like the game?”
“It is clever, ordered. There is very little room for chance.”
“Does it mirror life, do you think?”
“No life that I know of, Master. I have never seen nor even heard of an elephant.” I hope he will explain what an elephant is. It must be a fearsome engine of war if it can crush infantry.
“Nor have I, outside the game.” He turns the piece in his hand, scrutinizing it. “I cannot make out what it is.” I am disappointed. I resolve to ask Master Duth if he knows what an elephant is.
“In Lazium they say that this game mirrors life at court, politics, men’s motivations and actions. To succeed in one means success in the other. Is that so, do you think?”
I pause. My thoughts are jumbled. Maybe this is the test.
“Speak. As you think, so say.”
“The game is ordered. Has set rules. A horse can only move thus, ahead of the infantry. As cavalry.”
“In life a horse has a multitude of purposes. Ploughing and harrowing, for racing, hunting, riding for pleasure, pulling carts and carriages, sending messages, for show, for status, to exchange for other goods. For food, if needs be.”
“So life is too complex to be pinned to pieces on a cloth.” I pause. It was a good game. The man likes the game and took time to show me how to play it. Maybe my answer was not the one he was looking for.
“Maybe that is the truth in Xi. To remind us that life is not as random as we think it is. That there are reasons for most things, patterns even if we cannot see them.” He leans forward, folding the cloth on his knee carefully, corner to corner until it is the size of a man’s hand and places it in the bag. “A kingdom is made up of people. A structure of great complexity with its own patterns. It is the job of the steward to find and manipulate the patterns before him.”
He reaches down and picks up his bag, setting it on his lap. “As the Queen’s Steward, I have spent the last twenty-five years finding and manipulating the motivations of men and lords, the various guilds, noble families. A host of competing claims.”
He leans back in his chair, his bag forgotten by his feet. “Above all the stability and well-being of the kingdom must be maintained. That is the job of the Queen’s Steward.”
I am reminded of the first time I saw a puppet show. I was only a child at the time. The puppets danced, talked, fell in love, fought, living out their tiny, brightly-coloured lives on the stage. I was entranced by them until I noticed the puppeteers. They were hooded and silent, dressed in black, blending in with the backdrop. But the puppets danced according to their desire, and the audience too, even though they didn’t know it.
The man, the steward, clears his throat and continues in an official kind of a voice. “I wish to offer you an apprenticeship in the House of Stewards, Coir Dellfer.”
An infinity of patterns to see and manipulate, drawing the mind in. Who could have imagined stewardship in that way?
I look up and the steward meets my gaze, his eyebrows raised in question. “So you have decided? You will come to the House of Stewards then?”
“I will, master.”
I am tired. My sixty years weigh heavy on me today. Lord Breag talks and talks, weaving a web around me. I must sift through the words to glimpse the truth hidden beneath them. That is the job of a queen so I compose my face to reflect polite attention.
“And, your Highness, that is one possibility.”
Lord Breag. A minor lordling from the Empire. He has been at the Emperor’s court for the last two years, far from his own lands. Who administers them in his absence, I wonder, a trusted steward, the dowager lady, his wife?
“And that is clearly the case, your Highness.”
Finally, he has stopped talking and looks at me for confirmation. I stare back blankly at him. He is a short man. I have never liked short men. Like small dogs, they can be vicious. He twitches his coat to one side as he sits down again, a dark blue brocade. The latest fashion in the Empire, no doubt.
“Thank you, Lord Breag. Your concern for the welfare of my people is touching.”
In the south are things shifting, is the Empire moving and expanding? This new Emperor, Prosper IV, is not as his father was. Not that I had any direct dealings with his father. He stayed within his borders, as I do within mine.
I raise an eyebrow at Steward Coir and he steps forward. For the more detailed questions it is better if he asks them. I should remain aloof.
Steward Coir is a tall man with a head of thick, black hair and brown eyes. A handsome man, by anyone’s measure. A look of contempt flashes across Lord Breag’s face and I smirk to myself. Does he think I am a foolish old woman and Coir is my steward for his looks alone? Looks alone would not have kept him as my steward for the past fifteen years. And for all his discretion, it is well known that Coir’s taste does not run to women.
Lord Breag’s mouth tightens. Maybe he does not like to speak to commoners. Some of the lordlings in the Empire hold such notions. Good enough reason to insist. I exchange a glance with Steward Coir. He eyes Lord Breag as a terrier might eye a rat.
“I am but a common man, Lord Breag, so if I misstate your case, be so good as to correct me.”
A common man. I smile inwardly for Coir is no common man. His mind is like a bright knife, a snare to trap the unwary. I bless the day all those years ago when he joined my Steward’s House. He has been a gift to me, to my kingdom.
“As you wish, steward.”
“The Empire wishes to buy salt directly from the Guild. Is that not so, Lord Breag?”
My kingdom is built on salt. The saltmines north of the city have been controlled by the Saltminers’ Guild for years beyond count. They burrow underground like ants, in caverns, shafts and pits to mine the salt. They carry it to the surface in oxhide bags. They are proud of their strength and skills and quick to take offence. I do not begrudge them this for it is skilled and dangerous work. Without them and thus the gift of salt, how could we preserve enough food to live through the long winters?
“The Empire would buy the salt directly from the Saltminers’ Guild,” begins Lord Breag, with his hand raised to forestall any questions. “At a price including the salt tax and other fees, as well as an extra charge, to be agreed upon, steward.” He turns and looks at me. “So her majesty’s revenues would not be diminished, but rather increased.”
My revenues? He has seen the plainness of my palace. Does he think I crave stained glass windows and statues, amber and goldleaf, processions and pomp?
“And then what, Lord Breag?”
He does not like such a direct question. He looks at me as if to say, control your dog. I stare back and save my nod for Coir.
“Pardon my directness, my lord, but what I mean is this-should the Empire buy salt directly from the Saltminers’ Guild, what then? How is the guild to be negotiated with?”
“Ah, I see. The Emperor, bless his name, would choose representatives to negotiate on his behalf.”
What is Coir driving at? I cannot follow the direction of his thoughts. His mind leaps and frisks like a lamb in springtime.
Lord Breag starts to talk again, a fine flow of words, reassurance and praise, his sincere admiration for me, for my kingdom, the profits from this more efficient method of buying salt, and what they could be spent on, the desire of the Empire for amicable relationships with the kingdoms to its north, like mine, and on and on and on. Eventually I raise my hand, before I am smothered by all these words.
“Enough. It is late and our guests are weary after their long journey, Steward Coir. We can talk again tomorrow.” I stand to indicate that this audience is over. My officials gather their paper and pens, the guards shift from foot to foot. Coir flicks his hand and two minor members of the House of Stewards move towards Lord Breag and his people, ready to herd them politely towards their quarters.
“Good night, Lord Breag.” I do not give him time to answer or continue to talk.
A guard opens the heavy wooden door for me and I pass through it and down the corridor, the guard trailing behind me, till I come to my garden, the Queen’s Garden. He stands back and I enter alone.
My heart lifts every time I come here. It is small and penned in on every side by the palace, but it is open to the sky. In one corner there is a granite basin. I sit beside it and the plink, plink of water dripping soothes my soul. I am watching the ripples spread in perfect circles across the water when I hear the door opening. I look up as Steward Coir enters.
I stand up, pull myself away from the tiny pool of water. “So Coir, what of Lord Breag’s proposal?” I am not sure what to make of it. The salt has always filtered south to the Empire and elsewhere, by caravan and ship, making money for the merchants in its path, who smooth its passage.
“I do not know but the lands north of here are wild and rough, running up against the mountains of Ard Cloch. Would it be safe for the Emperor’s representatives and all their gold up there in the peaks where the saltmines are?” says Coir.
“I see. They would ask for sureties for their safety.”
“A wise man makes his own sureties and the Emperor is no fool, from what I’ve heard, my queen.”
“Speak plainly, Coir.”
Coir pauses, fiddles with a button on the sleeve of his coat. “A wise man sending his gold off into the wilds would surely send soldiers to protect it.” Coir turns to me, arms outstretched, hands open. “If you were the Emperor, how many soldiers would you consider necessary to protect all that gold, my queen?”
I sigh. I see where this is going now. “In lands wild and alien to my people? To buy a substance as valuable as salt? If I were to do such a thing, then I would send two hundred, three hundred soldiers with my representative.” I look up into the bright bowl of the autumn sky. Far above me, a hawk hovers motionless, wings outstretched. It wheels on the wind.
Three hundred soldiers. The saltminers are brave and bold, but they could not resist three hundred soldiers. To have the saltmines held by the Empire. Is that what the Empire is about? And how would my kingdom, small and peaceable as it is, stand without salt to prop it up?
“Why?” I ask.
“Who can truly know, my queen?” Coir sits down heavily on a smooth granite rock, leans forward. “Maybe the Empire is restless and seeks to extend its dominion over the kingdoms to its north.” He shrugs, hands twitching in the air. “Soldiers march on their bellies, even the Empire’s soldiers. Without salt, they’d have empty bellies. It’s cheaper to take than to trade.” He stands up again, restless. “Maybe some ambitious lordling seeks the Emperor’s recognition for service to the Empire and gain a large income at the same time.”
“He has been at court for over two years now. Well-placed, despite his relative lack of rank.”
I raise an eyebrow. Coir looks away. So Lord Breag has offended Coir with his notions of lesser people and commoners.
“My Queen, he is an ambitious man.” He paces back and forth. He seems taller, larger in this small space. “I have heard his lands are widespread but with fens and marshes, meres and peatbogs. Reclamation is expensive. By all accounts it ground to a halt in his father’s day for lack of money.”
I do not ask how he heard all this. For many years now his hearing has been sharp in defense of my kingdom.
“We need more time, my queen, to prepare a long-term solution to this problem.”
“Yes, that’s so.” I inhale deeply. They have brought this upon themselves. Do not enter another’s house with ill-intent, or so the common people say. But the Empire has entered mine with ill-intent, the ruin of my kingdom, hidden behind their words.
“We can keep them here for a few more weeks. Clarification is needed, numbers, amounts, the queen is indisposed, nothing can be done on a patron’s day and so on,” says Coir. Such manipulations are child’s play to him. He regards me closely.
“Then, send Lord Breag and his men back to the Empire with your queries, my queen.”
I look up and meet his eyes. He does not look down or away. I am not alone. I bless the day Steward Coir entered my household. He understands what needs to be done.
“The first snows are due early this year. And even in early winter, the roads south can be perilous for those not used to them,” he says.
My eye is caught by a bumblebee busy on a purple spike of lavender. I look down, my hands are clenched into fists by my side. I release them, exhale. I do not cut him off. I know what he will say.
“Anyone, be he high or low, can be swept away in a blizzard, a rockfall, a landslide. Let that be our parting gift to them, my queen. We will have enough time to prepare before the roads are passable in the spring again.”
“See that it is so, Steward.”
Then I look away. I do not want Coir to see the rage in my face. What I have built with my life’s labour, I will hold. No-one, not lordling, not emperor, will take it away from me.
Noeleen Kavanagh says: I am an Irish writer who predominantly writes science-fiction and fantasy. My publications include short stories in the Silver Blade, Another Realm, Moon Drenched Fables, Aurora Wolf, Swords and Sorcery, Misfit Magazine, Sorcerous Submissions, Fiction on the Web, the Luna Station Quarterly, Liquid Imagination and the British Fantasy Journal. I recently returned to live in Ireland after over twenty years abroad and am currently working on my second full-length novel.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
I think that the best fantasy takes us to other worlds and by showing us their strangeness, casts a light on the taken for granted strangeness of our own world.