Summer is here… well, in Australia it’s around a very large corner, but the days are getting brighter, hinting at the warm days to come. Open Road Media is celebrating Summer by reminding all us sci-fi and fantasy readers of the oldies but goodies that would be ideal to spend a Summer’s day.
And here is an excerpt from Patricia Wrede’s Shadow Magic, a tale of a land at at war, a kidnapping and a kidnapped noblewoman who has to understand the magic in her land to be able to save her home from an invading army.
AS THE LAST WAGON in the caravan rumbled into the courtyard of the Blue Heron Inn, Maurin Atuval allowed himself to relax. Theoretically, the safety of the trade goods had been the responsibility of the cargo masters since the wagons passed through the city gates of Brenn, and the other caravan guards had long since abandoned any pretense of patrol: Unlike his fellow guards, however, Maurin was himself a Trader, and could expect to share in the caravan’s profits—and losses. So he had continued to watch the wagons even after his duties were officially over.
The hired guards lined up near Master Goldar to receive their pay, while the Traders began the cheerful ritual of unloading and securing their goods. Maurin was hauling a bundle of white fox pelts to the storage room when someone tapped him on the shoulder from behind.
Maurin turned his head to see who had accosted him. It was a slender young man in the leather uniform of the caravan guards, whose unruly shock of sandy brown hair made him look younger than Maurin knew him to be. “Har, what are you still doing here?” Maurin said. “I thought you’d be away home by now.”
“I would have been, if I hadn’t had to stop and look for you,” Har said. “Here, give that to someone else. You’re done for the day.” He plucked the bundle of fox pelts from Maurin’s arms and set it on a nearby barrel.
“You forget, I’m a Trader. I’m not done until Master Goldar says I am.”
“I didn’t forget.” Har looked smug. “I’ve already checked with him, and you’re officially released. Unless, of course, you’ve changed your mind about accepting my family’s hospitality while you’re in Brenn.”
Maurin looked at his friend in consternation. “I never said… I mean, uh—”
Har raised his straight black eyebrows. “What’s the matter? Isn’t the Noble House of Brenn up to your standards?”
“You’re not thinking,” Maurin said, letting his breath out in exasperation. “Look, it’s all right for nobles and guardsmen to brush cloaks on a caravan trip, but your family isn’t going to appreciate you bringing home a mere journeyman. Even the Master Traders don’t stay with lords in town.”
“That’s because they don’t get invited,” Har said. “They’d come fast enough if they were. And you don’t have to worry about my family. Mother won’t mind, and if she doesn’t, no one else will, either.”
“I’ll mind,” Maurin muttered, too low for Har to hear. It was obvious that the young nobleman meant to have his way, however uncomfortable it might make everyone else. And he was right about one thing: Master Goldar would never forgive Maurin if he turned down the opportunity to make a good connection with even a minor Noble House. Maurin resigned himself to a few days of awkward formality, and allowed Har to lead him away.
At this hour, the streets were full. Peasants, guildsmen, merchants, and Traders jostled visitors and townsfolk alike. A man from Rathane in gaudy robes walked past the deadly, black-clad figure of an assassin from beyond the Mountains of Morravik. Three dark-skinned desert people bargained in loud voices with a man whose accent was Ciaronese.
And over the cheerfully miscellaneous crowd, above the jumble of homes and shops and inns, loomed Styr Tel. The castle of the Noble House of Brenn looked every inch the border fortress that it was, but the high stone walls that were a reassuring presence to a Trader caravan concerned with raiders and bandits gave an entirely different impression to a mildly unwilling visitor. Maurin could not shake the feeling that he was heading for a prison.
The castle had been set back from the houses of Brenn, as if to prevent an attack from the upper stories of the homes and shops. Time and custom had made a marketplace of the resulting open area, and the stalls were even busier and more crowded than the city streets. Maurin and Har wove through the merchants and townspeople to the castle gates, ignoring the persuasive calls of the dealers. The guards recognized Har at once, and let him and Maurin through the gate without challenge.
As they entered the courtyard, Maurin blinked in surprise. The Styr courtyard was a maze of benches, chairs, trunks, and other furnishings. Servants wound among the furniture, carrying buckets and stacks of cloth. Everywhere people were polishing and scrubbing; the air reeked of soap and Mindaran wood-wax. Maurin’s foolish mental visions of dungeons and imprisonment fled, to be replaced by the alarmed thought that at any minute someone would demand help with the cleaning.
“Har!” someone shouted, and then a tall girl with pale gold braids hanging nearly to her knees ran forward to throw her arms around the young noble. “Har, you’re back!” she exclaimed.
“Just barely,” laughed Har, swinging her off her feet in a wide circle. “We came straight here as soon as the caravan got in.” He set her gently back on her feet and turned. “Maurin, this is my sister, Alethia.”
“I am charmed,” Maurin said, bending low over Alethia’s hand. The introduction was nearly unnecessary; there was no mistaking those tilted green eyes and straight black eyebrows. Alethia was clearly Har’s sister.
Alethia returned his courtesy absently, and linked arms with her brother as they started for the house. “I’m so glad you got back in time for my party,” she said as they mounted the stairs.
“Party?” Har said with studied blankness.
Alethia laughed. “You don’t even remember! I’m twenty tomorrow; today is my birth eve.”
Maurin smothered a grin. When the caravan had stopped in Karlen Gale, Har had spent two precious hours of his free afternoon hunting for exactly the right gift for his sister’s birth eve party, and he had fretted ever since for fear they wouldn’t arrive in time.
Then Alethia turned to Maurin and added, “You’ll join us, too, won’t you?”
Caught by surprise, Maurin hesitated. He hadn’t anticipated being asked to any formal feasts…
“It won’t be more than dinner and songs, really,” Alethia said, almost as if she could read his mind. “But if you’d rather not—”
“Of course he’ll come,” Har said. “He’s staying for a week, at least.”
“Staying for a week?” Alethia frowned. “Then one of you will have to sleep in the south tower; Father will want the north one for the Lords Armin and Gahlon, and—”
“Lord Armin and First Lord Gahlon are coming here? Together?”
“At the end of the week,” Alethia said, nodding. “And I’m not supposed to know why Father asked them to come, so don’t bother quizzing me until after Father explains it to you.”
“Father asked them?” Har repeated. “Allie, you’re making that up!”
“Unfortunately, she is not,” said a deep voice behind them, and Alethia jumped. The three turned to find a tall, dark-haired man of middle years looking at them with a smile. “Father!” said Alethia and Har together.
The man’s smile deepened. “Welcome home,” he said to his son, and there was no mistaking the deep affection in his tone. For a moment they stood silent, then Har shook himself and turned to introduce Maurin.
“I am honored. I have heard a good deal about you, Lord Bracor,” Maurin said when the formalities were finished.
“Nothing too dreadful, I hope,” Bracor responded. “Har, I realize that you have only just arrived, but I have some questions for you and your friend. Would you join me in my study?”
“Questions?” Har said. “Why?”
“Honestly, Har, sometimes you are thicker than Ceron’s treacle sauce!” Alethia said. “You just got back from a caravan patrol that ran about as close to Lithra as you can get without being raided, and you can’t think why Father would want to ask you questions?”
“The Lithmern haven’t raided anyone in months,” Har said.
“That’s what you—”
The girl broke off, looking faintly guilty. Bracor studied his daughter for a moment, then shook his head ruefully. “I don’t suppose you would like to go and tell your mother that Har has returned?”
“Mother probably already knows,” Alethia said, and smiled.
“And you would rather join us. I don’t quite see why; you appear to know everything I was going to say to Har already.”
“I know just enough to be interested, that’s all,” Alethia said. “Of course, I can find out from Har later, but it would be easier if you’d just let me stay. Har leaves things out sometimes.”
Har’s face reddened, and Bracor shook his head in mock resignation. “Very well, then, since you are so determined. Come.”
Bracor led them inside and up a long, spiral staircase to a pleasant, though simply furnished, room. Maurin was pleased to find that the cleaning frenzy had not completely stripped the castle of furniture; there were two benches and a footstool, in addition to a trestle table littered with parchments.
Once they were all seated, Bracor looked at Har and said, “As Alethia has already guessed, I want to talk to you about the Lithmern.”
Tune in next week for an excerpt from William Shatner’s Tekwar!