The Bell at Sealey Head, страница 1
Table of Contents
Ace Books by Patricia A. McKillip
THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD
THE SORCERESS AND THE CYGNET
THE CYGNET AND THE FIREBIRD
THE BOOK OF ATRIX WOLFE
SONG FOR THE BASILISK
RIDDLE-MASTER: THE COMPLETE TRILOGY
THE TOWER AT STONY WOOD
OMBRIA IN SHADOW
IN THE FORESTS OF SERRE
ALPHABET OF THORN
HARROWING THE DRAGON
THE BELL AT SEALEY HEAD
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2008 by Patricia A. McKillip.
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Judd Cauley stood in his father’s rooms in the Inn at Sealey Head, looking out the back window at the magnificent struggle between dark and light as the sun fought its way into the sea. Dugold Cauley seemed to be watching, too, his gray head cocked toward the battle in the sky as though he could see the great, billowing purple clouds swelled to overwhelm the sun striving against them, sending sudden shafts of light out of every ragged tear in the cloud to spill across the tide and turn the spindrift gold. His pale eyes seemed to reflect stray colors in the sky. But they had already lost their fight, Judd, glancing at him, thought with sudden pity: those old eyes overcast with mist. Slowly the wild light faded outside as well. Twilight smothered one last burning ember of sun. The bell rang then, as always, and Dugold, groping his way into the rocker behind him, turned his face toward his son.
“Was that a carriage I heard in the yard?” he asked, predictable as the bell.
Judd murmured absently, still watching the cliff behind the inn, where the waves were breaking so hard they sent spume high in the air that turned again and fell as a gentle rain onto the rocks. Gulls hung in the wind, white as froth, so neatly balanced they were motionless in all that roil before they dropped a wing, caught a current, and cried out as they flew over the sea. Another bell was sounding: the channel marker tumbling about in the tide, jangling to guide one last fishing boat toward the harbor on the north side of the headland.
“I know, I know,” he said mildly. “They’re fetching up in droves for the night.”
“I’m sure I heard—”
“Mr. Quinn will call me if someone stops. Stiven Dale’s boat is wallowing up the channel like a cow trying to swim. His hold must be full of something.”
“Water,” his father said dourly. “That tub is as old as I am.”
“Fish, I’ll bet you. I’ll send Mrs. Quinn down in the morning to see what he’s got.”
“You hope.” Judd dropped his hand lightly on Dugold’s shoulder. “I know Mrs. Quinn has trouble with fish.”
“She thinks they’re not dead unless she drowns them in boiling water for an hour.”
“I’ll have a word with her.”
“Why bother?” Dugold set the chair going on its rockers with a restless push. “I’ll be in my grave before Mrs. Quinn learns how to cook.”
“So will I,” Judd breathed, having a sudden, mouth-watering memory of his mother’s cooking.
“Her chowder,” his father said wistfully, reading Judd’s mind as he sometimes could. “Butter and cream and the clams so tender they melted between your teeth. Her leek-and-crab pie. You’ve got to find a better cook. Then we’d have them coming.”
“I’d have to pay a better cook,” Judd reminded him. “Mrs. Quinn works for as close to nothing as we can afford.” He was still then, his eyes caught by an unexpected bit of color among the rocks.
“Marry somebody,” Dugold suggested, again predictably. “Then she’d cook for free. Only make sure she can cook before you ask.”
“There’s a proposal sure to charm a woman into my life.”
“Well, it’s a thought to think about, isn’t it? Last time I looked, you had a few charms of your own. All from me, of course. Have you changed so much since I went dark inside?”
“How would I know?” Judd asked absently, peering through the thick whorls of glass at the odd bobble and flutter beneath the soft rain of tide. “Somebody’s out there.”
“I can’t tell . . .” He narrowed his eyes, picked out the sky-blue lining on a black cloak flapping like bats’ wings, a matching blue scarf streaming down the wind, a gold band on the hat the wearer clapped firmly to his head with one hand. “A stranger, I think. But what’s he doing out there?”
“A guest,” his father exclaimed, slapping the rocker arm with his palm. “Go and catch him before he gets away.”
“Before he gets swept away, more likely.”
“Whatever. Go on—” He was squinting at the window, too, as though he could see the elegant idiot wandering at the edge of the cliff with the tide
But the stranger was gone when Judd went out to look for him.
Judd lingered on the cliff. The squall passed overhead and away, blown inland by the fierce wind. He watched the world around him melt into twilight. He was a sturdy young man with pale, curly hair and fair-weather eyes, unshaken by the wind trying to buffet him into the sea. He went just close enough to the edge to make sure that the stranger wasn’t clinging desperately to a rock below, or floating like some exotic bird in the water. Accidents happened along that rough headland, where the bluff sloped down toward the deep channel the fishing boats and the occasional merchant ship used to reach the calmer waters of Sealey Head harbor. The town clung like a colony of barnacles to the rocky shore and the hillsides, bracketed at one end by the inn and at the other by Sproule Manor, on its lofty perch overlooking the harbor and the inhabitants. Judd could see its broad, mullioned windows glazed with firelight, lamplight. On the wooded hill above the inmost curve of the harbor, the ancient, stately façade of Aislinn House stood fading like a ghost of itself into the dusk, fires flickering randomly, frail as moth wings within the dark windows.
Judd knew every face born between those juts of land. He had drawn his first breath on Sealey Head, sent his first piping cry back at the seagulls. The inn had been built by his great-grandfather at that point along the rugged cliffs of west Rurex, where a traveler watching the sun sink into the sea from his horse or carriage window might decide that the broad stone building, with its thick walls, bright windows, clean, cobbled yard, might be a good place to stop for the night. For half a century there wasn’t much choice in the matter: it was either the inn, or the frumpy tavern beds in town that you reeled into drunk so not to care who pushed in beside you and snored in your ear all night.
The town had grown more prosperous since then. Some days over half a dozen merchant ships shifted their spiky profiles near Toland Blair’s warehouses, as dockworkers unloaded goods that would travel overland to the cities. Now the traveler had choices: a newer tavern along the docks or another inn at the back of the harbor, far from the exuberant winds and the cliff that shook under the tide on a stormy night.
All that Judd explained more than once to his father. But Dugold still blamed himself: his failed eyes, his failure to follow his own father’s footsteps into prosperity. Judd, he decided, must restore the inn to its former glory. It was in his blood. His destiny. Judd had no particular ambitions beyond reading every book in the world and taking care of his father. He had grown up making beds and fires, cleaning stables and scorched pots, carrying baggage to and fro, filling tankards in the dining room, chopping carrots in the kitchen. It was no hardship to stand in the doorway under the inn sign, welcoming travelers. These days, he handed them over to the care of Mr. Quinn, who brought up their baggage and stabled their horses, and Mrs. Quinn, who cooked. Their daughter, Lily, washed the sheets, dusted the mantels, swept the grates. They stayed on even as business dwindled. A bed was a bed, Mrs. Quinn said forthrightly, and better the one under your back than the one you left behind when you left to look for better than you had. Judd would never have to fear she would want to leave. No indeed.
He gave up hoping, resigned himself to her watery chowders, her rubbery fish, her bread so dense he could have bricked a wall with it. When there were no guests, he ate with his father, hunched over a table, turning pages with one hand and shoveling in whatever it was Mrs. Quinn called supper that night. After Lily took their plates away, he continued reading aloud while Dugold rocked and drank ale. When he started snoring in his chair, Judd called in Mr. Quinn and went to read in his room under the eaves, where the books along the walls stoppered the chinks in the mortar. He read anything that came his way: histories, romances, speculations about the nature of things, journals of travels to far-flung places, folklore, even the odd book about an elusive, unwieldy, nine-legged, hundred-eyed beast that sang like a swan and burned words like paper when it spoke. Magic, it was called. Sorcery. Enchantment. It was everywhere just beyond eyesight; it was yours for the making of a wish. So he read, not quite believing, not knowing enough to disbelieve. Inevitably his thoughts would turn to the bell that tolled each day, exactly when the last burning shard of sunlight vanished beneath the waves.
As though someone in an invisible world watched, and in that precise, ephemeral moment, the dying sun and the single toll bridged one another’s worlds.
That night he fell asleep on his bed with a book someone had left at the inn: The Lives of Beetles in Their Habitats. Abandoned, mostly likely. Fled as from a tome of evil sorcery. The fussily detailed sketches of the Blue Wood Beetle and the Green-Winged Black Beetle fell over his face, a beetle on each eye. For a while the wind and tide, the passing squall, sighed and murmured about him; window ledges creaked; the fire burrowed noisily into itself; flames hissed and guttered into ash.
A tap on the window woke him. Another. Then a handful, as though bony fingers had drummed themselves on the glass. Judd sat up abruptly, the book sliding to the floor. Hail? he wondered. Then: Why am I dressed? Another sporadic run of taps hit the glass, and an improbable vision came into his head, that the merchant’s daughter, Gwyneth Blair, had wandered over the cliffs on a whim to stand under his window and throw pebbles at it.
“Right,” he grunted, and reached for the lamp.
It nearly lost its chimney when he swung a casement open and held the light into the wind to see what was going on. He pulled it in hastily, but not before it had revealed a face.
It was the colorful stranger, holding his hat on his head with both hands now, the cloak luffing against him like a sail. The lamp had produced an odd flash of fire coming from the stranger’s eyes. Magic, Judd thought, still befuddled. Then he amended that: spectacles.
“Good evening,” the man called politely. “Sorry to bother, but yours was the only window lit. I need a room. Do you know which window I should pitch pebbles at next?”
Judd blinked. His mouth was open and full of air, he realized; he forced it to move. “Welcome, sir. Of course I have a room for you. If you’ll meet me at the front door, I’ll be happy to show you in.”
“Thank you,” the stranger said, after Judd had taken his lamp downstairs and opened the door. Judd stepped back abruptly to dodge a voluminous sneeze. “I beg your pardon. I’ve been out on the cliffs since this afternoon.”
“I know. I saw you earlier.” Two horses stood patiently behind the man, one saddled, the other carrying a bulky assortment of baggage. Judd lifted his head, shouted up through the floorboards. “Mr. Quinn!” There was an answering thump: Mr. Quinn falling out of bed.
“My books,” the stranger explained. “I should get them inside.”
“I packed them very carefully, but they may have picked up some damp from the rain.”
“How could you leave your books out in this weather?” Judd demanded. “You should have come in earlier.”
The man gazed at him, then smiled suddenly, very pleased about something inexplicable. He looked slight but vigorous beneath his cloak. His lean face seemed colorless in the lamplight, perhaps from reading all the books he carried. Beneath the spectacles, his eyes were very dark; his long black hair was damp and tangled from the briny air.
“You like to read, then?” he guessed. “That’s rare among proprietors of wayside inns. I’ll let you borrow my books if you like.”
Judd’s eyes went to the bulging leather bags tied to the packhorse. “You’d leave them here?” he asked huskily.
“No. I’m staying here. I don’t know how long. If you can accommodate me. I’d prefer a room at the top of the inn for now, a corner room, if you have such, overlooking the harbor and the town.”
Mr. Quinn appeared in the lamplight, yawning, buttoning his vest with one hand and
“Sorry, sir,” he said, for no discernible reason to Judd, and to the stranger: “Good evening, sir. You have horses to stable, I see.”
“And then the horses. Yes, sir. Is the gentleman hungry? Should I wake Mrs. Quinn?”
“Yes,” said the gentleman.
“No,” Judd said hastily, remembering supper that night. “I’ll fix him something.”
“Some bread and cheese will do me,” the stranger suggested. Judd gazed at him worriedly. “Just cheese?” he amended tentatively.
“I’ll see what I can find,” Judd promised. “And I have the perfect room for you upstairs, very large and comfortable, with views of the town and the hills. I’ll show you.”
“This seems a quiet place,” the man said, stepping at last across the threshold. “I didn’t notice a great deal of activity this evening. Very little. In fact—”
“None at all,” Judd finished wryly.