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From a High Tower

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From a High Tower

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Author: Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: DAW Books, 2015
Titan Books, 2015
Series: Elemental Masters: Book 10
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Giselle had lived fourteen years of her life in an abandoned tower. Her mother kept Giselle, a young Air Master still growing into her abilities, isolated for the sake of herself and others.

This life left her unprepared when a handsome young man appeared at the base of her tower. But when the young stranger entered her window, he tried to force himself on her. She was saved by Mother, an Earth Master, who hurled the man out the window he had climbed in.

The Foresters of the Black Forest were Earth Masters whose job it was to cleanse the ancient forest of evil elementals, and over the next four years, they shared their fighting expertise to teach Giselle self-defense. By the age of twenty, Giselle was an expert markswoman, and it was this skill that she used to survive when Mother died. Cutting her long hair, she masqueraded as a boy to enter shooting competitions, and used the prize money to support herself.

But she could not forget the first man who assaulted her, for when that stranger had fallen from her tower long ago, his body had never been found. In Giselle's heart, she was certain his magic had helped him to survive the fall. Surely, it was only a matter of time before he found her and sought revenge. Was she prepared to stand against him?



"I should be very interested to hear whatever excuse you have for robbing my garden," said a cold female voice behind him. "I might even let you stammer it out before I give my dogs the order to deal with you. Turn around. Let me look you in the eyes."

Still on his knees in the cold earth, he slowly turned.

Behind him, her face clear in the moonlight, was a tall, hawk-faced woman in a long black cloak, her dark hair severely braided and pinned tightly around her face. She had her arms crossed over her chest and stared down at him icily. "Well?" she prompted. "What sort of fairy tale have you to tell me?"

He opened and shut his mouth several times without any words coming out. But then... his panic got the better of him, and he fell apart.

He groveled. He babbled. He wept without hope that he would get even a crumb of pity from her. He really didn't know what he was saying, although he certainly went on at length about Maria and the children. He begged and pleaded, he cried shamelessly until he was hoarse. She said nothing. And finally, when he had repeated himself far too many times and ran out of words, she stared down at him in the silence while he waited helplessly for her to set the dogs on him, call for the police, or both.

I am going to be savaged. Then I am going to prison. Maria will die, and the children will starve.

"Well," she said at last. "I am actually inclined to believe you." She looked down at him for another long, cold moment. "And I am not an unreasonable woman, nor am I inclined to make your children suffer for your sins. It is clear that they will probably all starve without you to provide for them. I would not care to have the deaths of children on my conscience. Perhaps I can think of some way you can repay what you stole."

He began to have faint hope. Perhaps... perhaps she would let him go? He looked up at her and clasped his hands under his chin, trying to look as prayerful and repentant as possible. "Anything!" he blurted.

But she was not finished. "A bargain, then. You owe me, Friedrich Schnittel. You owe me a very great deal. But I won't have you thrown in prison. In fact, you can come here and gather what you need for your family every day, on condition that you repay me."

"H--" he did not even manage to get all of the word how out before she interrupted him.

"You have--or will have--something I want, just as I have something you want. So, this is the bargain: you may continue to help yourself to this garden. I would prefer that you come at night, so that I don't have other thieves coming to steal from me, and you might as well keep coming over the wall as well, since you are so good at it. Then, when your wife gives birth to this new child, you will give her to me." He opened his mouth to object. She stared at him with her lips compressed into a thin line. "Don't try to barter with me. It is this, or I set the dogs on you and have the police take what is left of you to prison. What will it be? Will you feed your eight children and your wife for the trivial price of a baby that is likely to die anyway?"

Well, what could he say? If he refused, what would Maria and the children do but starve? What good would it do him or them if he suddenly decided that selling the baby was wrong? "Very well..." he said, slowly.

She smiled, as if she had already known he would say as much. "Take what you have. Come back tomorrow night. I'll even leave sacks for you."

And with that, she turned on her heel and stalked back into the house, her dogs preceding her. They all went in via the kitchen door--which showed not so much as a hint of light--and she closed the door behind her, leaving him chilled and drenched with sweat on the cold earth of the garden.

* * * * *

It was not an easy birth.

When it was over, Maria lay too exhausted to even move beneath a heap of every scrap of fabric that could be spared to keep her warm, and the new baby girl had been tightly wrapped and was being held by Jakob near to the fire. Friedrich was just glad Maria had had three weeks of good food before the birth; he really didn't think she would have survived this one without the extra nourishment. She'd gone into labor the previous afternoon, and it had gone on until well after sunrise.

He was just as tired, since he had served as midwife. He was slowly eating vegetable soup and drinking herb tea, his first meal since she had gone into labor. And he really wasn't thinking of anything else when the knock came at the door. Before he could say anything, his second oldest, Johann, jumped up to answer it.

And fell back again, in astonishment and fear, as the terrible woman in black and one of her dogs pushed their way in.

She closed the door behind her and surveyed them all with an icy glare.

The children all froze in terror; the tall woman was no less forbidding and formidable in broad daylight than she had been by night. The dog didn't growl, but he didn't have to; he looked like a black wolf, which was more than enough to make the children try to inch back until they were squeezed into the corner farthest from her.

All but Jakob, who remained where he was, by the fire, the baby clutched in his nerveless hands.

Before Friedrich could utter a word, the woman looked around the room and spotted Jakob and the baby. In four strides she had crossed the room, then bent and snatched the baby out of Jakob's arms.

"I've come for your part of the bargain, Friedrich Schnittel," she said. "And now I'll be gone."

And with that, she turned, stalked out the door, and left.

Maria fell into hysterics, of course--he hadn't told her about the bargain. When he explained, she only became more hysterical, weeping and pushing him away until he just gave up trying to reason with her, and, for lack of anything else to do, made sure the children were all fed. As they all ate, she cried herself into a sleep that was less sleep than collapse, and he stared at her white, tear-streaked face and wondered where the girl he had fallen in love with had gone.

When Maria awoke, she refused to speak to him. After a while, he got tired of the silence and decided to make another visit to the garden. The terrible woman had not put an end-date on her part of the bargain, and he was determined to get as much out of it as he could.

He was beginning to resent Maria's attitude. The woman had been right, after all. If not for the food, Maria, the baby, or both probably would have died. And what about the eight other children? Didn't they warrant some consideration too? Didn't they deserve to have full bellies for once? Wasn't one baby likely to die anyway worth bartering away to save the lives of his living children?

At this point, he was a little drunk on exhaustion himself, and a little reckless. And he went in--if not broad daylight, certainly just before sundown. By the time he got over the wall, he was... not exactly seething, but feeling far more the victim than the victimizer. And it occurred to him that if he could just get a glimpse inside that house, perhaps he could see that the baby was being treated in a manner far better than he and Maria could ever afford, and perhaps that might make the foolish woman see reason.

But as he approached the house--he noticed that the kitchen door was slightly ajar.

That's... odd.

He made his way carefully to the door, and when nothing came out of it--especially not an enormous, possibly vicious dog--he pushed it all the way open.

Nothing. And there was no sound in the house, at all.

He ventured inside.

The kitchen was utterly empty. And so was the next room. And the next.

The caution ebbed out of him, and he began to prowl the entire house while the light lasted: all the rooms, downstairs and the two stories above. No furnishings, only a piece or two, like the great bed in one of the bedchambers, which would have been impossible to move. No sign that anyone had lived here, except for the absence of dust.

As he stood there in the empty house... a plan formed in his mind.

There was a gate to the garden; he had always come and gone over the wall, but now, he ran to it and forced the rusty lock and latch open. Then he ran back to his little room.

By this time, he was somewhat incoherent, probably wild-eyed, and talking like a madman. But that was no bad thing... the children looked at him with bewilderment and fear and did not ask him questions. With words and a few blows for those too stubborn to obey immediately, he gathered up the children and all of their meager possessions, forced Maria to her feet, and drove them out the door, down the street, and in through the gate.

At this point even Maria looked afraid of him and kept any objections to herself.

He locked the gate behind them all and herded them in through the kitchen door. "This is our home, now," he said sternly. "At least it is until someone comes to tell us differently."

The children made up the bed of rags and straw for Maria again, and she crept into it, shivering.

Once the family was installed in the kitchen--which alone was three or four times the size of the room they had been living in--he left them there, instructing Jakob to make up a fire with the plentiful firewood that was already there. Then he ran back and forth until he had brought all of the food that they had cached, and their old room was scoured bare of anything remotely useful, down to the smallest of rags.

Then he returned to the deserted house, locked the gate behind him, and joined the rest of his family in their new home.

Yes. Their home. For it had come to him, as he had seen this empty, echoing house, why should it go to waste? It had been untenanted for as long as he could remember. If that woman came back she could easily evict him and his family, but in the meantime, why should they not save the rent money and live here, where the garden and its bounty were easily accessible? Why not?

Maria was terrified at this new version of her husband, who had gone from stealing turnips to "stealing" an entire house... and truth to tell, he was not displeased with this. At least it stopped her from reproaching him.

* * * * *

The strange woman never returned to her house.

And Maria never forgave him.

Chapter 1

GISELLE leaned out of the window of her room at the top of the tower and drank in all the spring fragrances being carried up to her on the breeze. Her room had the best view of any in the former abbey, and she often wondered who had been the tenant back when the complex had been inhabited by the Sisters of Saint Benedict. The abbess herself? Or perhaps it had been a room devoted to communal prayer?

Probably the abbess, she decided. It would have been a good place from which to keep an eye on the entire abbey. Mother said she had no idea why the abbey had been abandoned for so long, to the point where only the tower had been inhabitable when she had first taken it over, and only because the entire tower was built of stout stone. That had been long before Giselle had been born. By the time Mother brought her here as an infant, the tower had been completely renovated, all the other buildings had been reroofed with proper, strong tile, and the building attached to the tower itself, which had probably housed the nuns in their little cells, had been converted into spacious living quarters for Mother. Only the chapel remained in ruins. Mother never explained why she had not rebuilt the chapel, but then, why should she have? It wasn't as if she and Giselle needed a church.

There were four windows in Giselle's tower room, facing precisely in the four directions of the compass. Giselle preferred the view from the east window, which looked out over the valley meadow to the forest beyond, and to the mountains beyond that. Probably, back when the abbess had lived here, there had been nothing to keep out the winter winds but simple wooden shutters, and only a charcoal brazier to huddle over to keep out the cold. Mother had changed all that. There were proper glass windows and shutters in all the windows now, and a good fireplace on each floor of the tower.

Giselle wondered if dwarves had done the work. She'd never seen any here, but then, the work had been completed before she ever got here. Since it had all been stonework, it would have been logical for Mother to have made a bargain with dwarves to accomplish it. Mother was an Earth Master, after all, and dwarves were Earth Elementals.

I certainly can't imagine her allowing ordinary stonemasons here.

The nearest village--and it was a very small one--was over two days' ride away, in the next valley over from the abbey. You couldn't even see it from the top room of the tower. Giselle had never been there herself, only Mother, driving the cart out to get the things they could not produce for themselves and coming back again days later. Still, it wasn't as if she could be lonely. Not when she was surrounded by all the Elementals of her own Element, Air.

Copyright © 2015 by Mercedes Lackey


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