Melanie Rawn returns to her rich high fantasy world in Thornlost, the sequel to Touchstone and Elsewhens. Cayden is part Elf, part Fae, part human Wizard—and all rebel. His aristocratic mother would have him follow his father to the Royal Court, to make a high-society living off the scraps of kings. But Cade lives and breathes for the theater, and he’s good, very good. He’s a tregetour—a wizard who is both playwright and magicwielder. It is Cade’s power that creates the magic, but a tregetour is useless without a glisker—an elf who can spin out the magic onto the stage, to enchant the audience. And Cade’s glisker, Mieka, is something special too. So is their fettler, Rafe, who controls the magic and keeps them and the audience safe. And their masker, Jeska, who speaks all the lines, is every young girl’s dream. They are reaching for the highest reaches of society and power, but not the way Cade’s mother thinks they should. They’ll change their world, or die trying.
"Amazing, wasn't it?" Blye remarked the next afternoon. She had returned that rainy morning to Gallantrybanks with her in-laws, though Jed had stayed behind in Hilldrop to supervise the final fittings on Mieka's refurbished barn. "Lady Jaspiela Highcollar, mixing with the common folk at a country party!"
"Did she 'mix'? I never saw her 'mixing'—in fact, she told me flat out that she hadn't even spoken to any of Mieka's neighbors."
Cade handed her another glass plate from the set she was preparing for display. Forbidden by Guild rules to make anything hollow, Blye satisfied the inspectors who came round by having all manner of acceptable things for sale in the shop. Plates and platters, candleflats and window panes, anything that would legally justify her prosperity. Her real money was in making withies for Touchstone and the Shadowshapers—but the glass twigs were hollow, and thus officially prohibited to her. So these she made in secret. Usually Rikka Ashbottle, Blye's not-apprentice—because of course only a master crafter could have an apprentice—would be doing this polishing work, but Rikka was out running errands.
"I imagine Mieka's neighbors were too overawed to talk to Her Ladyship, but she was there, wasn't she?" Blye slanted him a smile, dark eyes gleaming beneath a fringe of white-blond hair. She held the plate over a little device made long ago by her father: a glass beaker with a cork to stopper the place where one poured in the water and a thin spout for steam to escape. She could just as easily have used a teakettle, but the beaker was prettier, all swirled about with orange and yellow. Cade had obliged her by calling up a bit of Wizardfire beneath the beaker where it rested atop a steel ring. The steam fogged the glass plate, which she handed to Cade for polishing. This worked on wine glasses, too, but of course she wasn't allowed to make those. Not officially, anyway.
"It was a real treat," Blye continued, "seeing her amongst farmers, blacksmiths, brewers, and such in their go-to-Chapel best."
"The working class. It's escaped her notice that I'm working class."
She made big, mocking eyes at him. "With all Touchstone's acclaim? Lord Oakapple's patronage? Lord Fairwalk? Talks with the Princess? The Highcollar and Blackswan and Mistbind in your blood?"
"We're all of us just ordinary working-class gits, Touchstone," he stated firmly. "Common everyday Gallybankers. What we have is what we earned, not what we inherited."
Which had made it remarkably painless to share the inheritance from his grandfather. And that was odd, because he'd been looking forward to it, counting on it, ever since he'd found out about it years and years ago. Yet here he was, keeping the bulk of it in the bank to provide for his little brother. That it was for Derien made it easy, but while thinking about it this morning he'd realized that he felt free. This was even odder. Wasn't it supposed to be the other way round? Money was supposed to be liberating. Not having to worry about how to pay for this and that, being able to afford a fine place to live, servants, good food and excellent drink—wasn't that supposed to free up one's time and mind for nobler things? But it also would have set him apart from his partners. And he couldn't really think of that money as his, no matter what his grandfather had intended. No, better to live off what he made through his own work.
He opened his mouth to say something of the sort to Blye—not about transferring the inheritance to Dery, for only he and his mother and Kearney, and possibly his father, would ever know about that—but whatever he'd meant to say vanished when he saw she was scowling at him.
"Ordinary? When have you ever been ordinary?"
Cade had no idea what had prompted the scowl or the sharp tone of voice. "I just meant—"
"I know what you meant. D'you think that what you are and what you can do is ordinary? I just wish to all the Gods that you'd stop wasting your time telling yourself and everybody else that ordinary is what you ought to be or want to be. Pretending you want it is even worse, because you don't." She set down a plate and folded her arms, glaring up at him.
"How would you know?" he flared. "Why can't I—" He broke off as Blye’s cat, Bomstaple, reacting to their raised voices, leaped onto the counter and began pacing between them as if on guard duty, ready to come to Blye's defense if needed. Cade dragged his gaze from the cat's narrowed green eyes and in a calmer tone asked, "Why can't I have a regular kind of life? Rafe does. And Mieka—"
"Oh, yeh, his home is just a dream come true, innit? With that Harpy of a mother-in-law nagging him to give up theater and find a place at Court because the new Princess is so fond of Touchstone and she'd be just the person to get him a cushy living and maybe even some kind of title—"
"You didn't know? Jez overheard her one afternoon while he was out there working on the barn. And very eloquent she was, too!"
Mieka Windthistle, Court flunkey. If it hadn't be so horrifying—and so close to what his mother had always wanted for him—he would have laughed.
Blye was still scowling, but not as fiercely. She stroked Bomstaple, who had settled down in a furry white lump beside her to purr. "Rafe and Crisiant are happy, but that's because she knows. She understands it all because she grew up with him, she knows what's inside him and that if she tried to change it, he'd be less than what he ought to be. You don't think Mieka's wife knows him the way Crisiant knows Rafe, do you? She hasn't the first notion of why or how he does what he does, leave alone that he has to do it or become a splintered shard of himself. She loves him, that's not in question. But she wants to change him, make him into what she thinks he ought to be. She's pulling him in one direction and Touchstone is yanking him in another, and one of these days he's going to come apart and it won't be pretty to watch. He isn't ordinary any more than you are."
It took him a few moments to recover from all that. At length, he said, "Do you know how Jed figures out what needs doing to a building and puts it to rights? Does Mishia Windthistle understand how Hadden makes a lute?" He snorted a bitter laugh. "Does my mother know what my father's work for Prince Ashgar really is? And if she does, does she care?"
"Oh, please!" She rolled her big brown eyes. "That's not what I'm saying and you know it. How do you put your magic inside the withies? I couldn't tell you, and I make the damned things! But I know you, Cayden, how you think and what you're like inside. I know Mieka, too. And it's been obvious from the start that his wife doesn't have the slightest idea who he really is or what he needs."
"They're happy," he observed. Eventually they wouldn't be, but for now…
"Are they?" She gave an irritated shrug of one shoulder and pulled Bomstaple into her lap. "Rafe and Crisiant are a success because she knows him down to his marrow. She understands. It's the same with Jed and me. I don't have to work anymore, did you know that? He and Jez are making enough to keep us very nicely. But I still work."
"Because you want to."
"I need to," she corrected. "And if that makes me a freak, so be it. I married a man who understands that I love what I do. And that I wouldn't be who I am, who he loves, if I didn't have work that I need to do. Mostly we get defined by words like daughter, sister, wife, niece—all of them words that depend on other people. It's how we define ourselves that's the truth of what we are. Mieka is Mishia and Hadden's son, Jindra's father, his wife's husband, and brother to that whole tribe of Windthistles, but what he truly is—that's a glisker, a player. Part of Touchstone."
"Part of something worth being part of," Cade murmured. "He's said that." And hadn't Cade himself realized last summer that Mieka truly needed to be onstage, performing for hundreds of people—and eventually thousands, if his Elsewhen was to be trusted.
"If he wasn't Touchstone's glisker, he'd be with some other group. Just the way you'd be writing plays and priming withies whether it's with Touchstone or somebody else. It's the way you define yourself. Through your work." She smiled a little. "What you earned, not what you inherited."
"I don't know why you think Mieka isn't happy," said Cade, frowning. "The girl is everything a man could want." He heard himself saying it and couldn't believe the words were coming out of his mouth. "Beautiful, sweet, modest—she didn't bring any money to the marriage but who cares when a girl's that lovely?" It was all true, though, wasn't it? "She adores him, a blind man could see that. She's made a perfect home for him, given him a child—"
He broke off as Blye's face went blank as a pane of glass. Oh Gods, was that it? The one word she hadn’t mentioned in her definitions was mother. He knew she and Jedris had been trying, thus far without success. It happened that way sometimes: the mix of races was too complex, and there'd be too much of one thing and not enough of another to make pregnancy possible. Blye was mostly Goblin, though with enough Human so she didn't look it. The Windthistles were mostly Elfen, with dollops of Piksey, Human, Wizard, Sprite, and possibly Fae. Cade had never even considered that conceiving and bearing a child might not be possible for her and Jed.
"You shouldn't worry too much about it," he said on impulse. "You haven't been married all that long, and sometimes it takes a while—"
"I don't have any idea what you're talking about." Her tone warned him that he'd better not have any idea what he was talking about, either. He reached over to her, wanting to comfort. She shook him off and wouldn't look at him. "I think these are done," she said, pointing to the stacked and polished plates. "Rikka can arrange them when she comes in. Beholden for the help."
"Go home, Cayden. Just—go home."
He gazed down at her bent fair head for a moment. Then he went home.
A slow, steady rain had dampened his shoulders and hair before he reached the back door of Number Eight. On the lowest of the three short steps was Mistress Mirdley, sheltered under the awning, arms folded as she waited for the rain to fill an iron cauldron usually kept in her stillroom. Folded atop a stool on the step was the counterpane Mieka had given Cade last night.
She didn't glance up as he approached. "You'll be wondering why it already wants a wash," she said. "You didn't feel it, did you? Not any of it."
"Any of what? I was supposed to feel something?" He brushed rain off his clothes and jumped up to the top step, out of the wet.
"Wizard," she accused cryptically. From a pocket of her apron she tugged a blue glass bottle, then a green one, then a brown one, then a clear one. "Never sense any magic but your own, do you?" she went on as she measured out careful droplets from each bottle into the virgin rainwater. Scents wafted from each: anise, bay, lavender, sage. "You'll not be remembering much from what I taught you of hedge-witchery when you were little—"
"I remember enough," he said brusquely. "I know that's not just washing water, it's for purifying."
She tucked the bottles back in her pocket and took out several more, these of silver stoppered with cork. The contents were trickled by turns into the cauldron. "Your nose reminds you. Good."
"The sense of smell is probably the most evocative," he said, quoting Sagemaster Emmot, taking refuge in rote learning just as earlier, with Blye, he had taken refuge in societal cant. "It goes directly to the brain, bypassing what you use to analyze and define what you see or hear or touch. It calls up memories—" Aware that he was babbling, he compressed his lips for a moment, then asked, "Why the clove?"
She ignored the question. "You recognize some of these from what I put into your satchel when you're off gallivanting about. Ever taken an itch from nasty sheets in those upstairs tavern rooms? Of course not. What's washed into your nightshirts protects you. Now, these others, they're things you've not been needing until now."
"Clove?" he repeated.
"Recall it from toothaches, I'd imagine," she said grimly. After stashing the silver vials, she produced a wooden spoon and crouched to stir the mix. Widdershins, he noted absently. "More to it than that, or so my old granny avowed. What you'll not have recognized is mulberry. Betony. One or two others." She looked up at him and he took an involuntary step back, his spine against the door. "It's purifying that's needed here as well as protection, and banishment, and a reverse of spells to send them back to the one who cast them."
"Here." She gave him the spoon. "Keep stirring that."
Bewildered, and not knowing whether to be scornful or scared, he crouched down and circled the spoon leftwise round and round the cauldron. He knew who had made the counterpane, cut and pieced the material, embroidered all the feathers, stitched every stitch. It was ludicrous to think that there might be something dangerous about it.
A sudden glimpse of a remembered Elsewhen: slender fingers taking tiny, quick stitches in silk the color of irises, and unintelligible words chanted low and fierce as the girl worked on a neckband for the Elf she so deeply desired. And then a memory: he and she in an alleyway, the gloat of triumph in her eyes that told him she was winning and knew that eventually she’d win.
No. She wouldn't dare.
Rain dripped onto his head from a hole in the awning. He cursed under his breath and shifted position, still stirring, his shirtsleeve wet to the shoulder.
But hadn't Jinsie said last year that there was magic about, some sort of spellcasting being used on Mieka—
She wouldn't dare.
And even if she dared, even if there was some unrightness about the counterpane, why hadn't Mistress Mirdley refused to be anywhere near it last night in the carriage?
But then he remembered that she'd gathered it around Derien and Lady Jaspiela, and not a bit of it had touched Cayden at all.
A little shower of sea salt went into the cauldron, startling him. Sprigs of mint, marjoram, rosemary tied together with black silk thread were tossed in. At last the counterpane itself was squashed into the water, the rain still drizzling down.
"Why?" he managed.
"Why did they do it, or why is this necessary?" She took the spoon from his hand and jabbed at the counterpane, shoving all of it underwater. "You don't know what they are, those two," she muttered. "Caitiffer they call themselves, as if no one remembers the word."
Cade was possessed of a vocabulary rather larger than the usual, even for a tregetour, and he'd never heard the term in any context other than this particular surname. He said as much, tentatively.
"And a good reason for it, you'll be thinking once you know!"
"Not here. Not where anyone could walk by and listen."
So it was in silence that he helped her wring out the soaked counterpane, wondering the whole while why she didn't use an Affinity spell to return the water in the material to the water in the cauldron, the way she did with all the other washing. He made as if to tip the cauldron over so the remains could spill down the little slope to the runnel in the middle of Criddow Close and thence to the sewers.
"Leave that be!" snapped Mistress Mirdley. "There's other uses for an unbemoiling! Come inside out of the wet."
In the stillroom, chairs were arranged and the material was draped over it. He was relieved to see that none of the colors had run, but when he saw that the little charm was missing, he finally broke the silence.
"Where's that droplet thing of silver that was at the tip of that feather?"
"That I took care of last night, and melted in Blye's kiln this morning before you were even awake."
"You can't mean—"
"I do mean. Methinks Blye sensed a bit of a something about it, but I had it in the fire before she could be sure. Silver? Naught but polished steel—and all the more powerful because of it."
He knew about steel. His other grandfather, Lord Isshak Highcollar, had worn a steel ring on each thumb. They were not just tokens of his submission to the King or reminders of the King's mercy in not lopping those thumbs off, as had been done to Sagemaster Emmot. Expertly bespelled, the steel rings—or, more accurately, the iron used to make them—prevented a Wizard from using his magic.
Settling herself on a wooden stool at the stillroom workbench, Mistress Mirdley dried her hands on her apron. "Now. Heed me smartly, Cayden. When first I saw those two, I gave them the benefit of kindness. It would be as if people judged you by your grandmother Lady Kiritin. And that wouldn't be fair."
He shrugged. The devastations caused by his grandmother's idea about using withies as exploding spells that maimed or killed had resulted in laws forbidding glasscrafting to all Wizards. He'd broken those laws on several occasions.
"But to keep that name…" Mistress Mirdley shook her head. "Thought it would be taken for a married name, I suppose, come from the male line and not the female.”
Before he could ask why this made a difference, she opened a little jar of salve and began rubbing it into her hands as she talked.
“What it first meant was slave. Generations ago, with the First Escaping—you'll have heard of that in school, I hope?"
He nodded. Magical folk had at various times through the centuries departed the Continent, unwelcome at best and persecuted at worst. They had found welcome in Albeyn because the Royal Family had a few Wizardly bloodlines, and mayhap other things besides.
But what Mistress Mirdley told him that morning was something he'd never heard before. Not in littleschool, not at Sagemaster Emmot's Academy, not in rumors or gossip or even a hint in a very old play. Wizards and Elves, Goblins and Gnomes, and all other magical folk had been allowed to leave the Continent freely—though freed of most of their possessions. But the Caitiffs, Mistress Mirdley told him, had been sold. What they called themselves was unknown. They were given a name that meant slave and sent to the Durkah Isle. On maps it was indicated by a ragged outline, a name, and symbols that designated nothing but mountains of ice.
"Some tried to slip away, but almost all were caught. Or so it was said. All of them women, by the bye, for their magic doesn't pass to their men."
A test was performed on those suspected of being Caitiff. Taken to the nearest Trollbridge, the prisoner was stripped naked and inspected by the presiding Troll for certain signs. If these were present, the woman was cast into the water.
"The testing was always done the day after a good strong rain, so that the water was new. Pure water won't tolerate a Caitiff." She paused. "It's said to be agony beyond any agony for them."
Pure water; new water; rain water—did young Mistress Windthistle and her mother ever go for walks in the rain? If caught outside in a sudden shower, did they bundle up in hooded cloaks and gloves, and hurry indoors as soon as may be? He pushed the thoughts away and asked, "Did you ever—I mean—"
"I'm not that old, boy! My Mam, though, she was brought a few for testing in her time. Told me what to look for in a Caitiff, and how to clean up after one." She nodded to the counterpane spread across chairs. "Mayhap she glossed over a mark now and then, because she knew the woman and knew her not to be what she was accused of being—it's a rare skin without a blotch or blemish someplace. But—"
"The Princess!" he blurted. "Lady Vren—someone told me that her mother came from a distant land to the east, and when she arrived for the wedding they stripped her starkers and inspected her! Was that what they were looking for?"
"It's been so long a while that I doubt they knew the why of it, but by the sound of it…yes."
"How does it show? I mean, is there a specific—"
"That's Troll-lore, boy."
"Umm…all right," he mumbled, chastened. After a moment, he asked, "Was the Caitiff allowed to drown?"
She shook her head. "Fished out, dried off, and sent to the Durkah Isle with the rest of her kin. And before you ask, iron and steel have no effect on them."
"How many of them were here?"
"A few hundreds." Her muscular shoulders twitched. "Best to be rid of them. They look like anyone else, but they bring a taint to a bloodline."
Instantly indignant, thinking of innocent little Jindra in her painted cradle, he said, "There are people who say that about Gnomes and Goblins, too. And Trolls."
She nodded, unoffended. "About everyone, at some time or another." Once more she pointed to the counterpane. "Stitching is their specialty. A harmless, womanly occupation, anyone would say—"
Feeling contrary, and wondering why once again he was defending a woman he loathed, he said, "I trust that you know what you're about, but I've seen no proof."
"If it's your thinking that I ought to've waited and let you come out all over in hives, or lose the use of your fingers, or—"
"Would I?" he challenged. "Is that what was becast into that cloth? I touched it last night, when I unwrapped it. I didn't sense anything."
"Wizard," she repeated.
"You knew it was from them and yet you let Dery sleep all wrapped up in it."
"Gracious Gods, boy, what a thorough-thinking brain you've got between your ears! The thing was made for you. To sleep beneath. Huddled around you for hours at a time. Seeping into your dreams, mayhap. Who could know what was intended?"
"So you don't really know, either."
"Would you rather I'd waited to make sure?" she snarled. "Three more things I'll tell you, and then we'll talk of it no more. Clothwork is their specialty on the Durkah Isle. Trolls inspect everything and the slightest breath of magic means the whole shipment is destroyed."
"Why is it that Trolls have so much to do with keeping watch over Caitiffs?"
Her only answer was a shrug. "The second thing is this. There's one sort of magical folk on the Durkah Isle, and one only. When enough of them had been exiled to the island, they set themselves to ridding the place of all other races except Human. Wizards, Goblins, Elves, Gnomes—though not Pikseys or Sprites. They stick to their forests in Albeyn and have never been seen on the Durkah Isle."
"What of the Fae?"
"I can't see even a White Winterchill Fae liking a life in almost year-round snow, can you?"
He had no way of knowing. His own heritage was, apparently, Green Summer Fae; his many-times-great grandmother had said so.
"Everyone else disappeared." She growled softly. "Illness or accident, that's what they said for years, a climate and a land no one but the toughest Humans and the exiled Caitiffs could tolerate, until no one went there anymore except for the cloth trade. There's but the one port, free of ice only one month a year. And on that island are Caitiff and Human, and during that month the few Trolls who inspect the cloth. And thus it's been for hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of years."
"But wouldn’t their bloodlines have thinned out by now? Look at Albeyn. With every generation the mix of races loses a bit of magic—"
"Who told you that? That 'Sagemaster' of yours? I never did like him."
"You didn't? Why?"
Once more she ignored the questions. "There's no Troll would touch a Caitiff woman. The enmity goes too deep."
Knowing she wouldn't tell him the why of that, either, he said, "Even so, after all that time, with only Human and Caitiff bloodlines—"
She capped the pot of salve and began extracting the bottles and vials from her pockets, replacing them on the shelves. "If this is a bit of Elf, and that's Piksey, and the others are Wizard and Gnome and Goblin and Troll, and mayhap a bit of Fae—you mix them all together in proportions nobody can foresee, and you never know what will happen."
Like with him. What particular combination within him had worked with his Fae heritage to cause his Elsewhens?
"Mayhap you get nothing more powerful than a weathering witch," she went on. "Mayhap a Master Tregetour. Or mayhap nothing at all. But with just the two bloodlines, and mixed together who knows how, with only the women inheriting the magic—the plain fact of it is that even after all this time every stitch coming from the Durkah Isle is inspected by a Troll."
"Fortyer!" he blurted. "Is that where it comes from?"
"Oh, it's a right bright lad after all, isn't it?" She turned from sorting bottles and regarded him with her fierce little eyes. "'Tis not the fear of plague that sets apart each Durkah ship for forty days in every Albeyni port. 'Tis the danger of their weavings and sewings. It's one turn of the moon they last, but the inspectors wait another ten days just to be safe."
"But the spells can be renewed? Of course," he said, answering his own question this time. "Still—why would the Caitiffs bother? If they know about the fortyer, then why—"
"What might happen after a month sleeping under that?" She pointed to the counterpane. She bit her lips together for a moment, then went on in a low, furious tone, "My sister's only son commanded the inspections for thirty years before they killed him with a thread mixed in with the salad greens. Sickened the instant he swallowed, vomited it all up—but the working was done and the yellow thread was there as evidence after he died." She reached over to test the counterpane for moisture, her thick strong fingers squeezing a corner. A few drops of water plunked to the floor. "A single thread! So you'll forgive me, Your Lordship," she finished bitterly, "if I take precautions when it comes to gifts from Caitiffs!"