The boat drew closer to the shore, as Matthias and Rebeccitha waited in the boathouse. It was a crude stone building, little more than three walls with a wooden beam roof lined with wooden shingles. The snow had arrived in earnest in the last hour or so. As the first flurries had settled, Matthias gave Rebeccitha his jumper and overcoat, a massive sheep skin item. He made do with some of the sleeping blankets, wrapped around him loosely. As he’d handed them over, he’d taught her the words for coat, cold, warm and blanket.
He’d noticed she watched the world around them closely, her eyes moving over the ground, the trees and sky, the mountains around them, the water of the lake. It was still for the moment, only the faintest breath of air stirring a disturbance in the water’s surface.
As they’d approached, he’d pointed to the boathouse, taught her the word for that too, and then for the boat, which was halfway across, heading the wrong way. They sat on a bench and waited for the boat to return. The island itself lay only a few hundred feet from them, but the water would be cold enough to kill at this time of year. Even in summer, it never got truly warm.
The boat reached the far shore, letting two people off and started back. As it got closer, Matthias called out.
“Gareth, it’s good to see you.”
A heavy set man with a thick beard and craggy face turned to look to the shore.
“Matthias! It’s good to see you! You’re early back.” He looked around. “Where are the others? You left with Jonathan and Arthur didn’t you?”
“Aye, I did. There’ll be a feast later. My father will tell their stories. And mine, like as not.”
Gareth’s face set. “That bad is it?” The boat pulled up. “Anything to do with the girl here?”, he asked as the boat butted against the wooden walkway. He stood and offered his hand, helping Rebeccitha aboard.
“Well, what is is what is, as your father would say. Whatever happens, you’re a good man. I’m sure it’ll work itself out.”
They clasped arms, and Matthias nodded deeply. Gareth had been like family to him growing up. Whilst Matthias’ father had taught him how to be a man, how to hunt and farm, to tend crops and manage an estate, before he was Duke, it had been Gareth who’d taught him to climb. Taught him how to swim and hunt under water. How to navigate by the stars. It was Gareth who’d inspired him to join the Hunt Pack.
The news would wound him.
“Any news from the caer?”, Matthias said, as he settled in to the small boat.
“Elle had her baby. A healthy baby girl. She’s her mother’s face, but her father’s eyes. You sister helped. The time she spent away seems to have been helpful.”
Matthias grinned. “I’ll make sure I give them my regards.”
“Aye, be sure you do. Oh and Jones has announced Williams has finished his apprenticeship. He’s journeyman smith now, so he’ll be having his leaving celebration tonight. You should have seen his father when he was told. I swear he went round the whole caer telling everyone who’d listen. He’d have told the animals he he’d thought they’d listen!”
Matthias smiled. Williams’ father, Osten, had wanted to be a smith in his youth, but an accident out riding one day had led to him losing the strength in his left arm. He was well enough to get by, but he’d never be able to work the metal with only one good arm.
Instead he’d become a woodsman, caring for the trees around the caer. In time, he’d found a peace in it, being out among the trees, but when his son announced his intention to apprentice at the forge… Matthias had never seen any man so proud, or smile so wide.
For his part, Williams was his father’s son. Short and stocky, with hands like spades. He’d grown strong as he’d trained, and was turning out to be a fine young man.
“So he’ll be off for three years then. Has he said where he wants to go?”
“He’s said he’ll start with the caer at the north end of the Westermountains. Richard is Duke there, and they are in need of a new smith. He’ll go with Eleanor. She’s going to the market there soon enough anyway. But it’ll be five years. He’s put in his request for two years learning with the City folk. Hasn’t had it approved yet, but I doubt they’ll say no.”
Matthias wasn’t surprised. The young always seemed fascinated by the people who lived under the River, and Williams had had the talent and determination to be good enough to be accepted by them.
They were half way across now. Gareth rowed with the long, easy strokes of a man used to feeling the oars in his hands. He’d taken it upon himself to make the ferry service when he was young. The boathouses, the boats, the charge for outsiders who wanted to use them… It had all been his doing. The lands around the caer were popular for people to come and spend time away from home. What had began as a boathouse and small boat had grown into a house at every lake and a small fleet of craft, and the training of three apprentices. It had made him the richest man in the caer, by no small measure.
“Anything you need?”, asked Gareth. Matthias shook his head. He looked to Rebeccitha. “And what about you?”, he asked. She looked at him quizzically.
“She doesn’t speak our language,” Matthias explained. Gareth raised an eyebrow. “Full of mystery today aren’t you, Matthias Llewynson. I look forward to hearing the tale.” Matthias pursed his lips.
The oars slipped into the water with a quiet splash, and Gareth let them go loose, patting the surface, showing the boat as they neared the far boathouse. He got out first, then helped Rebeccitha out onto the jetty, then Matthias.
“I’ll see you at dinner,” the old man said softly. Matthias nodded to him, and clasped his shoulder. “Dinner,” he nodded. With that, he and Rebeccitha turned and walked into the caer.
The Caer of the Lakes wasn’t much to look at. The hall sat in the centre, a large building, with some walls and a wooden roof, like the boathouse and most of the structures on the island, just on a larger scale.
The only exceptions were a grain store, shaped like a half a giant egg, and the House of Residence, where the Duke and his family lived. Built like a miniature castle, it was as large as the hall and played host to visiting guests and Underdwellers, when they occasionally visited. More than that though, it served as a symbol of the power of the Duke, and as a reminder of the laws of the land. All the Duke’s buildings across the Land were the same, from the Isles of Beauty in the far south west, to the Garden Lands of the south east, beyond the City Under the River.
They’d been built under instruction from the Underdwellers, generations ago. Each had a room which could be sealed from the outside with a single large, metal door. Inside it was a small computer, linked to the Great Network in the City. Through these, the Duke’s communicated with each other and the City, and the Land was managed and run.
It was towards the Duke’s house that Matthias and Rebeccitha now walked. The house sat near the edge of the caer, not far from the water’s edge. He’d often wondered what it was like inside, before his father had been commissioned Duke by the people of the land. He’d imagined it would be dark and mysterious.
As they neared, Matthais spoke to Rebeccitha. “Matthias father, Gawain. Matthias mother, Angharad. Gawain, Angharad, good.” Rebeccitha nodded. He wasn’t entirely sure she’d understood that, but it was the best he could do for the moment.
He knocked on the door with the metal gavel knocker. The sound boomed inside. After a moment, a man answered the door. He was a heavy-set man in his fifties, with steel grey hair and a short beard. His face was lined with wrinkles and crows feet at the corners of his eyes, but he still had the strong grip of a man who worked with his hands every day.
His face broke into a grin when he saw Matthias. “Come in son, come in. You’re back early. How are you? How fare the mountains?” He stopped as he saw Rebeccitha, and the look on Matthias’ face. “What is it? Who’s the young lady?”
Matthias looked his father in the eye, his face grim. “We need to speak, in private,” he replied. His father looked from Matthias to Rebeccitha and back to his son again. “Okay,” he replied, turning to head towards a room towards the back.
“Rebeccitha, stay Angharad,” Matthias said, before turning to his mother. “She doesn’t speak English, so she’s not going to be able to help you much if you want conversation, but it’d be a help if you could keep an eye on her for a while.”
“Of course son. And it’s good to see you.”
Matthias turned to follow his father. The study was a small room, full of books on one wall, with a large table near another, with two chairs in front of it and one behind. His father sat down behind the desk, and waved a hand at the other chairs. Matthias sat in the left hand one, and laid his hands on the arm rests.
“I’ve got a problem. I’ll get straight down to it. I owe three Augments a Life Debt, and they charged me with the Warding of the girl you just saw, Rebeccitha.”
Gawain leaned back and breathed deeply. “I think you should start from the beginning.”
“I went into the mountains with Jonathan and Arthur. We made good time. Got to the foot of the mountain by the end of the second day, and were more than half way up at the end of the third. We made camp, and Arthur agreed to stand watch for the night. I woke early in the morning to shouts. I got out of my tent, but it was already too late. There was no sign of the others, and I could see three Augments. They had me surrounded, could have killed me if they wanted, I’ve no doubt. Instead, they let me go. Left me with a message to look after the girl, then left her with me. She was in some sort of deep sleep at the time. Didn’t wake for two days. In the day since, I’ve taught her a little of the language. I don’t know what she speaks natively. Nothing that I recognise. Not even close to anything I recognise. Maybe something from far south or east of the Sea in the south. Possibly even further away.”
He paused a moment. “There’s something else too. I’m not certain, but I think she may be an Augment. I had to carry her for most of two days, and whilst she may look like a grown woman, she weighs the same as a small child. And she runs like the wind. She outran me with ease. If she’s not an Augment, then I don’t know what she is. Maybe she’s from the City. They might be able to do something to make someone like this. In any case, I can’t vouch for her, but she’s under my care now as a ward. And whomever those three Augments were, I’m under obligation to them now, under the laws of our land. I need to leave, for the safety of the caer.” Finally, he stopped. He looked down, finding it hard to look his father in the eye. He’d expected the old man to look shocked, but instead he simply looked sad.
“You’re talking about being banished and exiled.” Matthias nodded. His father sighed deeply. “Oh my boy, it’s a mess and no mistake. Let me think a moment.”
Gawain turned and stood, pacing up and down a moment. After a minute or so, he picked a book of the shelves and thumbed through, before reading, his brow lined with concentration. He slid it back, and sat down again.
“Firstly, you’re right, you aren’t going to be able to stay long term. But stay for tonight at least, and join the celebration of the completion of Williams apprenticeship. We’ll need to announce that Jonathan and Arthur are missing, possibly dead, and that you’re having to leave us. But we can call for people to go with you. Rather than a banishment, we can send you with our blessing, and with a task, to find out who this girl is, and to help her. It gives you a reason to go from here, and we need not share the Life Debt unless it seems necessary.”
Matthias looked up. “Will the others accept that?”
“They’ll have to. Your banishment is not of your doing, and you’ve brought it to us, because of your own respect for our laws. That’s no easy thing to do. They’ll respect you for it. I can’t see anyone objecting.”
“Thank you father.”
Both men stood, and Gawain walked over to his son, and embraced him.
“My son, I’m proud of you. This is a hard thing you’ve done today, owning this. Accepting it. You’ve become a man this caer should be proud of, and a son I’m proud to call my own.”
Matthias clasped his father’s hand, as he clapped his shoulder. He smiled sadly, as they both moved towards the door.
Rebeccitha was sat near the kitchen as the walked into the hall. Angharad was showing her around, pointing to the various knives, pots and pans, as well as to all the various foods around and naming them.
“I’m not sure she’ll remember them all, but I’ve shown her most of the kitchen. If nothing else, that’ll come in use one day I’m sure. Everyone has to cook!”, his mother said cheerfully. “You two got everything sorted?”
“I think so,” Gawain replied. “We’ll see tonight, I suppose. Tell me, are we getting close to being prepared?”
Matthias held out his hand toward Rebeccitha, and indicated for her to follow him. “I’m gong to show Rebeccitha around. We’ll see you at the hall tonight,” he shouted to his parents as they’d busied themselves. He heard noises of recognition, as they walked out, before the door closed behind them.
Matthias led the way, as they walked across the short distance to the other side of the island. They sat by the shore, and looked out across the water. “I spent hours sitting here as a boy,” he started, knowing she wouldn’t understand, but wanting to break the silence somehow. She didn’t seem to mind.
“This island was the whole world to me. It was such an adventure when I first crossed it with my father and Gareth. I remember them taking me on my first hunt, the first time we went to another caer, the first time I rowed across on my own. So many memories. And now, unless I can find out who you are, what you are…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He leaded down to pick up a stone, and threw it out into the lake. It landed in the water with a thwop.
“Where did you come from? Who are you?”
She didn’t answer.
“I think our aim should be to take you to the city. I’ll have my father ask for you to be seen by their doctors. See if we can find out who you are. After that, who knows? I suppose we’ll have to wait and see, and go from there. See where the water and the wind takes us.”
He looked at the ripples on the lake, spreading to the shore. On the other side, they were making their way towards the other side, weakening as they went.
He wondered how far the ripples Rebeccitha spread would travel. Did she have any idea of the trouble her presence here caused? He would shield her from the fallout as best he could, but he’d need people to come with him on the journey south, and there was no telling how long they’d be gone for. As forgiving as the villagers were, he knew there’d be done frustration and anger over his leaving and taking people. Even if he made it voluntary, it would still cause issues.
They wouldn’t understand, because they didn’t understand her, and people always found reason to feel suspicion and fear for the things they didn’t understand.
Not that it mattered in the long run. As much as he felt curiosity about her, he wondered what she must be feeling.
She doesn’t seem afraid. Which is strange, and a little worrying. To be in an unfamiliar land, with people she didn’t know, soaking a language she didn’t understand, who’s motives she can’t know? People as calm as she appears have either seen too little of life to be afraid, or enough to be resigned to their fate.
Somehow he doubted it was the latter. But to be so sheltered? Where could she have come from?
Who are you Rebeccitha?
They sat by the shore until the sun fell below the horizon.