Rachel Neumeier is the author of several fantasy novels for both adults and young adults, including The Keeper of the Mist, The City in the Lake, and The Floating Islands. Find out more at rachelneumeier.com.
"A richly rewarding stand-alone story evoking far more color than its titular tint might suggest."— Kirkus, starred review
Praise for Rachel Neumeier’s The Keeper of the Mist:
[set star] “This is a beautifully written story that emphasizes intelligence and diplomacy. Recommend to fans of Patricia Wrede and Tamora Pierce, as well as lovers of traditional fantasy.” —School Library Journal, starred
There were more than twenty-four hundred people in the town of Tikiy-by-the-Water, but only one of them was alive.
Meridy Turiyn had been alive for just over fifteen years when she came down the path from the village of Tikiy-up-the-Mountain. She came in a rush down the steep trail, with little care for any twisted roots or loose rocks that might wait for an unwary foot. She was too angry to take care, but the hand of the God or familiarity with the path or perhaps simply the sharp reflexes of youth protected her from anything worse than an occasional stumble or missed step. She was forbidden to visit the ghost town of Tikiy-by-the-Water, but she had never much cared about that prohibition.
Aunt Tarana hated any reminder of ghosts or ghost towns, any tale of enchantment or witchery, any echo of history or poetry. Aunt Tarana was a practical woman. That was what she said of herself. At every possible opportunity, it seemed to Meridy, she declared in her loud, firm voice: Whatever else, anyone can attest that I am a practical woman. Aunt Tarana had definite ideas about how practical, decent women behaved. She believed that a decent woman kept a neat home and respected her husband; she cultivated appropriate friends and tithed to the local sanctuary; and if she must dabble in an occupation, she made certain it was a respectable one, such as making cheeses or raising bees or making strings of the tiny prayer bells that folk hung from their eaves in hopes of favor from the God.
Most of all, a decent woman kept her mind and the minds of her children fixed firmly on the ordinary, everyday, practical world that everybody could see. Don’t you go teaching my girls any of that fancy poetry, or telling them ridiculous stories about things that likely never were and certainly won’t ever be again. That was what Aunt Tarana had said to her sister, Meridy’s mother, Kamay, when Meridy was only five or six. Meridy still remembered that, vividly. Aunt Tarana had been furious because Kamay had led all the girls out into the frigid midwinter night to show them how the moon set directly behind the Anchor of the World, limning the vast mountain with silverglow against sky and shadow. That moment had been beautiful and rare, and Aunt Tarana had ruined it, dragging her daughters away inside, refusing even to look at the Anchor.
Aunt Tarana had been angry at Meridy’s mother all the time, and after that, Meridy had known it. Tarana had been angry at Kamay for wasting the family’s good coin on expensive books, and for insisting on gazing into thin air at things no one else could see, and for bearing an indecently black-eyed daughter to a man she never named. Most of all, Aunt Tarana had been angry at Kamay for having the temerity to die and leave her, Tarana, to bring up the child. All this Meridy knew.
Kamay had died when Meridy was only eleven, of a fever that rose and rose and would not break.
A witch might have lifted that fever, but Aunt Tarana said a witch would let Kamay die so as to bind her ghost. Witches had no power to bring the ethereal into the real without a ghost to help, and so every witch alive wanted to bind ghosts, and that meant they wanted people to die. Witches were all just a step away from being murderers, Aunt Tarana said. She said that was why the decent folk of Tikiy had driven out any witches who dared openly practice their witchery. Meridy couldn’t help but understand that Aunt Tarana more than half believed Kamay should have been driven out, too, even though she’d never done anything wrong in her whole life except hear the quick dead, which anyone might, and occasionally admit to a glimpse of the ethereal. And, of course, bear a black-eyed daughter, a daughter uncommonly dark, even for a village in the shadow of the Wall where for hundreds and hundreds of years a trace of Southern blood had been no rare thing. Meridy couldn’t help but understand that this was her mother’s greatest offense of all.
It wouldn’t necessarily have taken a witch to heal Kamay. A priest, witch eyed or not, might have lifted the fever, for any priest might serve as a conduit for the God to reach into the mortal world, just as a ghost made a way for a witch to reach into the realms of dream and memory. The nearest sanctuary was in Sann, not so very far away, but Aunt Tarana wouldn’t send for help. She said priests were almost as much a danger to the dying as witches, even the ones who weren’t witches themselves. She said decent people kept to the practical world and didn’t clamor at the God for every little thing.
Aunt Tarana didn’t trust anyone who might touch the magic and dreams and memory that lay in the ethereal. She never trusted anyone who could bring dreams or hopes or prayers across the boundary into the real, the living world of solid weight and present time. Not even if they did it to heal the sick.
So Aunt Tarana insisted the fever would lift on its own. But it did not.
In tales, the prick of a rose thorn might cause a person to fall into an enchanted sleep so that her soul drifted free and untethered; the fragrance of a rose might recall the soul and wake the sleeper. But even if such tales were true, it was not the season for roses. Meridy tried rose pomanders and rose jam, but nothing she did helped at all. The roses failing, she hoped to hold her mother’s soul beyond death as a witch could, by binding her soul to the real and preventing it from taking the White Road of the Moon into death. But despite her black eyes, Meridy couldn’t do that either. Her mother died, and though Meridy watched by her bedside and refused to leave her, she never even glimpsed her departing ghost. There was nothing she could do.
Afterward, Aunt Tarana sold all her mother’s scrolls and books to the first peddler who came through Tikiy. I have to have you here with my girls, I suppose, but I’ll have none of those notions of my sister’s, Aunt Tarana had told Meridy. With her whole world broken into bewildering pieces around her, Meridy had been too shocked to protest, and so she had nothing left of her mother save the stories her mother had told her, the wonder and magic she carried in imagination and memory.
You should be grateful, Aunt Tarana had told her. High time someone took you in hand and taught you to behave like a respectable girl. No decent man likes a woman who puts on airs and talks a lot of nonsense about poetry. But Meridy found it impossible to be grateful.
Aunt Tarana’s husband had passed into the realm of the God a year or so before Meridy’s mother, and so it was a household of women and girls. Aunt Tarana’s daughters, all older than Meridy, first resented her because they had to share between just two rooms, and one more girl meant that much less space for the rest of them; and then they detested her because she could quote all the classic epics in the original Viënè; and more than that they hated her because her dark coloring made it obvious her nameless father had been a man carrying a lot of Southern blood. Most of all, they feared her because of her black eyes.
Initially Meridy was too numbed by grief to notice that her cousins hated her, and then later she despised them and didn’t care what they thought, any more than she cared what Aunt Tarana thought.
She hadn’t realized she needed to care, until today. She ought to have realized. She knew, she knew that Aunt Tarana was always sweet as clover honey when she was getting ready to do something awful. Four years of living in her aunt’s home had been more than long enough to teach her that. And yet she hadn’t guessed, even though Aunt Tarana had spent the morning making molasses toffee, which Meridy especially liked, and had allowed Meridy to help. But even the molasses candy hadn’t warned her. She had been taken completely by surprise.
Though she shouldn’t have been surprised at all. Of course, nothing could be more likely than that Aunt Tarana would take the chance to hand her black-eyed niece over to any craftswoman who needed an apprentice at the moment Meridy turned fifteen, by law old enough to sign marriage lines or inherit property or bind herself to an apprenticeship contract. Aunt Tarana didn’t care what happened to Meridy, just so long as she could be rid of her inconvenient niece once and for all and forget she had ever had a sister.
So Meridy was supposed to be packing her few belongings and making ready to present herself to Tikiy’s soap maker at noon tomorrow.
The soap maker was a grim old woman, twice Aunt Tarana’s age, with no living children of her own. Her house was up at the highest edge of the village, where the trees and meadows gave way to bare rock, because although the finished soaps were fragrant with lavender or roses or verbena, the actual process of making soap was unpleasant, stinking work, and no one wanted to live too near a soap maker’s house. Though Meridy did not know the soap maker well enough to like or dislike her, she couldn’t imagine living in the old woman’s cottage or helping her with her work. She could guess too well what her apprenticeship would be, especially since the soap maker was also a laundress. Meridy would spend all the days of her apprenticeship carrying endless buckets of water and even more endless bundles of firewood. She would burn wood down to ash to make the lye, and boil the fat of sheep or pigs or the occasional bear for hours and hours to render and clean it. She’d stir huge cauldrons until her arms ached, she’d burn herself with lye, her hands would turn red and rough from washing other people’s worst-soiled clothing, and at the end of every day, what would she have to show for her labor? Soap.
In the old days of great deeds and sorcery, before the witch-king Tai-Enchar had betrayed High King Miranuanol in the hour of his greatest need and shattered the whole Kingdom with his greed and pride and ambition, Meridy would have . . . she would have found an injured horse and healed it and ridden north out of the mountains . . . no, not actually a horse but a fire horse, one of the savage tusked beasts that legend claimed only kings and heroes and Southerners could ride. If Meridy had to so obviously bear the stamp of Southern blood, why shouldn’t she have some benefit from it? She’d have found a beautiful red-gold mare with an injured foot, tamed her until she would take meat gently from Meridy’s hand, and never try to bite. Then Meridy would have ridden her away from Tikiy, straight across the breadth of the land. She would have presented herself to the High King, won a place in his court, learned all the ways of memory and dream and magic, and become not merely a witch but a sorceress. Everyone would have known her name, and they’d have known her mother’s name, too. Kamay Turiyn would have been remembered forever. Everyone would say, Oh, yes, just a modest village woman from the far South, but she taught her daughter everything she needed to know to rise in the world.
Two hundred years ago, all that might have been possible. Well, probably not the fire horse, but the rest of it. Meridy could picture it perfectly in her mind: the High King and his court bright and vivid in Moran Diorr, the gracious City of Bells. She had told the old stories over to herself a hundred times since her mother’s death. By the grace of the God, the high kings ruled for a thousand years. That was how the old stories began. It was an age of greatness; it was an age of heroes.
But then Tai-Enchar had ruined everything.
If Meridy had been at the High King’s court, maybe . . . well, no doubt she’d have drowned with everyone else when Tai-Enchar’s treachery broke open the great storm of sorcery and Moran Diorr sank beneath the waves. The sea had rolled in and silenced all the bells, and everyone had died. Even so, she wished she had lived in those days, the great days, the days of high kings and great sorcery and crashing battles, when men--yes, and women, too--did great deeds, and the things they did mattered.
But there was no High King anymore. Moran Diorr had drowned, and the unified lands of the High Kingdom had shattered into all the little warring principalities. The stories of the old Kingdom were all the more bitter because now, in this lesser time, there was no place for great deeds and shining magic. Meridy had been born too late, and now there was nothing in her future but a hard, boring, tedious apprenticeship to the soap maker.
She came down through the ruined outskirts of Tikiy-by-the-Water, half tumbled out into the sunstruck glade where once the town green had spread, and caught her balance against the broken gatepost that marked the entrance to the center of the ruined town. She was breathing hard, more from anger than with the exertion of her fast descent down the mountain trail, and so she leaned there for a moment, catching her breath and looking for the storyteller who had his place here by the gates. She let her gaze soften and unfocus, blinking the bustling town of the past into place over and through the dead remains of the present.
The old storyteller, Ambica, looked up from his bench just inside the gates, in the shade cast by a graceful beech. Neither bench nor tree was actually there, of course. But both had been there once. What Meridy saw was the memory they had left behind.
Before his death, Ambica had sold stories to passersby as other men might sell their cheeses or their skills at pot mending. But he had not lived his life here in the shadow of the mountains. If one believed his tales, Ambica had been everywhere and done everything. He’d been a living man at just the time Meridy most longed for, the time of High King Miranuanol, before Tikiy-by-the-Water had been destroyed by the retreating Southerners, as so many small towns and villages had during those last furious days of the war. Now those towns and all their people existed merely as memories and dreams of what they had once been. Though High King Miranuanol had saved the rest of his kingdom. He had spent all the strength of the Kingdom to drive the Southerners back into the southern desert for just long enough, and then he and his sorcerers had raised the great Wall to stand forever between the Kingdom and the South. If Meridy had lived in those days, she could have learned to be a sorcerer and helped raise up the Wall and the great Anchor, and even if Tai-Enchar’s treachery had killed her, too, at least it would have been a glorious death.