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The Starthorn Tree

Kate Forsyth

  Kate Forsyth is the bestselling fantasy novelist of The Witches of Eileanan series, which has been published in the US, Germany and Australia. She is descended from a fine line of women writers including Charlotte Barton—the author of the first book for children ever published in Australia, A Mother’s Offering to her Children, which was published in Sydney in 1841—and the first Australian-born woman novelist and one of the country’s earliest women journalists, Louisa Atkinson, Australia’s Bronte.

  Kate lives with a black cat called Shadow, her husband Greg and her three beautiful children in a seaside suburb of Sydney.

  Kate Forsyth can be contacted at

  First published 2002 in Pan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited

  1 Market Street, Sydney

  Text copyright © Kate Forsyth 2002

  Illustrations copyright © Steven Woolman 2002

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.

  This ebook may not include illustrations and/or photographs that may have been in the print edition.

  National Library of Australia

  Cataloguing-in-Publication data:

  Forsyth, Kate, 1966–.

  The starthorn tree.

  Paperback format: 0330421875

  EPUB format: 9781743346242

  1. Fantasy fiction. I. Title.


  Designed by Melanie Feddersen/i2i design

  Typeset in 11/15pt Sabon by Post Pre-press

  Group Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.



  About the author




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  For my beautiful boys,

  Benjamin and Timothy


  The tower blazed upon the island like a column of white flame. As soon as Pedrin came over the hill, it struck at his eyes, dazzling him. He blinked away tears, shading his eyes with his hand.

  Made entirely of glass, the tower soared high into the sky, so slender it seemed to sway. Even though it was still only half-built, the crystal column was already taller than the Castle of Estelliana, the highest building Pedrin had ever seen. The men labouring to build it were dark against its shining walls, as angular and insignificant as ants.

  Pedrin stood gazing at the tower for a long time. Its ethereal beauty both enthralled and troubled him. The people of Estelliana had suffered terribly since the Regent, Lord Zavion, had conceived this precarious pillar of glass. Only the very wealthy could afford glass, for Estelliana was a long way away from the sea and the white sand which was its most precious ingredient. Lord Zavion had imposed heavy taxes to pay for the tower and all those who could not afford the extra cost were forced to labour in the building of it, leaving their fields untilled and their livestock untended.

  Many had protested. They had been arrested for their trouble and set to work on the tower without pay, bringing further hardship to their families. The hearthkin of Estelliana, although dirt-poor and bone-thin, had always counted themselves lucky for their count, Zoltan ziv Estaria, had been accounted a fair man, if strict. Since his death, however, everything had changed. The hearthkin of Estelliana were poorer and thinner than ever, and the castle soldiers carried their fusilliers at the ready.

  A hard head butted Pedrin behind the knee, breaking his reverie. He smiled and put down his hand to fondle the silky ears of his white nanny-goat, Snowflake. ‘Yeah, enough woolgathering. Let’s get a-going then,’ he said.

  She bleated plaintively and bounded away down the slope, a river of shaggy goats pouring along behind her. Pedrin followed more slowly, his eyes still fixed on the tower. Already its incandescence was fading to an eerie violet glow as the sun sank behind the mountains.

  As Pedrin and his flock of goats came down the road towards the town, he lifted his wooden flute to his lips and began to play a merry, lilting tune. All through the fields, the labourers straightened their aching backs and lifted a hand to him in greeting, and the children laid down their seed sacks and came running down the furrows to claim their goats, tethering them to graze in the hedgerows until they had finished their day’s work.

  ‘Liah’s eyes, you’re late tonight!’ cried Burkett, the thickset, dusty-haired foreman, leaning on his hoe. ‘Fall asleep in the meadows, did we?’

  ‘Not likely,’ Pedrin replied. ‘Too many hobhenkies around to risk a-taking naps. Had to drive one off not an hour ago. Bold they are, these days.’

  He tried, not entirely successfully, to keep both a swagger of pride and a quiver of fear out of his voice. Pedrin had never before seen a hobhenky, for the wildkin were usually too afraid of the soldiers to come too close to the castle. Since the frontier patrol had been called back to help in the building of the tower, however, the wildkin had grown increasingly audacious. There were many tales of chickens and pigs stolen from villages as close to Levanna-On-The-Lake as Ardeth, the village only half an hour’s walk away, while apparently a grogoyle had flown down to feast on a goat at Lake Sennaval, the town closest to the Perilous Forest. A grogoyle had not been seen in anyone’s living memory and there had been much muttering and striking of fingers on the news. Many a village had set up their own guards to drive the wildkin away, despite the hearthkin’s weariness after a long day in the fields, for all feared and mistrusted the wildkin and begrudged them even the occasional hen.

  ‘Nah, you’re tomfooling us!’

  ‘A hobhenky, this close to Levanna-On-The-Lake?’

  ‘You drove off a hobhenky? Nah!’

  ‘Yeah, I did,’ Pedrin said. ‘I peppered him with rocks until he took off. He was a hulking big feller, as thick as a tree, with the ugliest mug you ever did see and hands as big as this!’ He spread out both of his broad, brown hands as if holding a meat platter.

  ‘Nah!’ all the men cried out in astonishment.

  ‘Pull t’other one, Pedrin,’ said a thin, narrow-eyed man called Linton. ‘A young feller like you? With naught but a slingshot and some pebbles?’

  ‘I did,’ Pedrin cried, clenching his hands on his flute, his face hot.

  ‘Can’t have been too hungry,’ Linton said dismissively.

  ‘Still, ’twas a brave thing to do,’ Burkett said, patting Pedrin’s shoulder. ‘Hobhenkies are big trouble.’

  ‘Big trouble seeing one so close to town,’ said another man. ‘C
an’t say I heard of one so close for many a long year. Mebbe you’d best tell them up the castle.’

  Pedrin looked up at the high, grey walls and frowning battlements of the castle, built high on a hill behind the town. It cast a long shadow over the brown fields.

  ‘Mebbe not,’ he said with a nervous grin and shrug. ‘Likely to get a thrashing for me trouble. Nah, I’m heading home, gonna get me some fishing.’

  The men grinned, hefting up their tools, turning back to their labour.

  ‘Good idea,’ Linton said. ‘Wish I’d the time to cast a line.’

  ‘Hope they’re biting,’ Burkett said. ‘Give me regards to your ma.’

  ‘Sure,’ Pedrin said and whistled to the goats, who had meandered down the road, eating the green young thistles in the ditch or rubbing their backs against the fence-posts. They flocked obediently to his side, scudding white and brown as the river in flood. His flute once more at his lips, Pedrin made his way down the dusty road towards the town.

  Levanna-On-The-Lake curved around the base of the hill on which the Castle of Estelliana was built. It was a pretty town, built high within encircling walls. A maze of shops and tall houses surrounded the wide marketplace in the centre of the town, which ran down to the jetties where the barges were loaded and unloaded. Before the town stretched the ever-changing waters of the lake, one day serene and blue, another day moody-dark. In the centre of the lake was the small island where the Regent’s tower was being erected, its glass walls reflecting every shift in the lake’s mood, the lake itself being a mirror for the sky.

  The promontory on which the castle and its town were built thrust out into the lake so that the gleaming sheets of water could be seen from just about every window and door. Watery reflections sparkled on the walls of the twisting streets and alleyways, even when the lake was not in sight. Only the marketplace was built on flat ground. Elsewhere the streets ran up sharply, often broken with uneven steps. Behind the town rose the twelve spires of the castle, all fluttering with white and silver flags.

  Few of the townsfolk kept their own goats and so Pedrin did not need to go within the town gates. Instead he headed down towards the Evenlode, the small herd of goats leaping and running at his heels, his lively music filling the warm evening air. Women came from the small thatched cottages scattered through the river-meadows, wiping their red hands on their aprons and calling a greeting to him as they reclaimed their goats. One gave him a long loaf of fresh bread in payment, another passed him a pile of mended clothes, yet another a small pot of honey.

  Thus laden, his steps slowed, until at last he had only two goats still running at his heels, one very quick and nimble and white as snow, the other big and black and shaggy, with long horns and narrow golden eyes. This was Thundercloud, Pedrin’s buck, and a bold, bad-tempered billy-goat he was too.

  Pedrin lived with his mother and sister in a small cottage built on the banks of the Evenlode, well away from the noise and bustle of the town. Though it had only wooden shutters to close against the weather, it was a pretty place, surrounded by a neat garden of herbs and vegetables and overshadowed by a tall flowering tree. Eyebright and meadowsweet grew wild on its low thatched roof, so that the cottage looked as if it had grown out of the meadow itself.

  A small, thin boy was sitting on the front step, a crutch leaning against his knee. His blond hair was neatly tied at the back of his head with a black ribbon, and he was dressed in a fine linen shirt under a long-tailed blue coat. Unlike Pedrin, whose bare feet were hard as the hooves of his goats, Durrik wore black brogues with square brass buckles, polished to a high sheen.

  He had looked up at the sound of the flute, smiling eagerly. ‘Liah’s eyes, you’re late!’ he cried. ‘Whatever kept you?’

  ‘Hobhenky,’ Pedrin replied briefly. ‘Tried to take one of the little kids. I drove him off though.’ His ears turning red, he patted the slingshot and bag of stones that always hung from his belt.

  Durrik looked at him admiringly. ‘A hobhenky! Gruesome! Warn’t you scared?’

  Pedrin drew a curving line in the dust with his big toe. ‘Yeah,’ he admitted. ‘I would’ve turned tail and run, but me legs had turned to water. They just folded under me. He were a great brute of a thing, seven or eight feet, mebbe, with yellow teeth and mean, little piggy eyes. He could’ve crushed me skull with one blow! I was sure Tallis were a-calling me name.’

  Durrik looked solemn and rather scared at the mention of the moon god Tallis, deity of death and resurrection. Instinctively he struck his right index finger against his left, calling upon Liah, the favoured goddess of all hearthkin, to protect him.

  ‘I’d put me hand down on a big rock and so I just lammed it at him, don’t really know why. Stupid, really. He roared and roared and so I had to keep on a-lamming him. He went crashing off, holding his head and a-crying, like. I felt so sick and shaky it took me ages to get up again.’ Pedrin felt his face growing hot and tense again and looked away, twisting his flute about in his hands.

  Durrik made a declamatory gesture with his hands. ‘O Pedrin the brave, his precious goats did save, lammed a dirty big rock, gave hobhenky a nasty knock, all with a big heave-ho, O!’

  ‘You’re such a tomfool, Durrik,’ Pedrin said without rancour, putting down his hand to help his friend to his feet. Durrik struggled up, leaning heavily on his crutch. His left leg was thin and crooked, the foot turning in at an awkward angle.

  ‘We a-going fishing?’ Durrik asked. ‘Sun’s almost gone.’

  ‘Fish bite best at dusk,’ Pedrin said confidently.

  He put his head in the door to greet his mother and give her his booty. She was bending over the fire, working a pair of ancient bellows in a vain attempt to blow the sullen embers into vivid, leaping life. She looked up as Pedrin came in and smiled, puffing the damp tendrils of hair away from her hot face.

  ‘Hey, Pedrin. I was a-getting worried. I thought you boys were going to catch us some fish for supper? Mina and me are mighty hungry!’

  She was tall for a hearthkin and very thin, with a great mass of brown hair coiled untidily at the nape of her neck. It was always falling out and she was always winding it back again, sticking hairpins in at odd angles to try to keep it up. Her face was finely drawn, almost gaunt, with lines about the eyes that should not have been there—lines of grief and anxiety and weariness. When she smiled, the lines ate up her eyes so that their black snap almost disappeared, but her smile was so wide and warm it did not matter. Her hair was grizzled with grey and her hands were pepper-red, but when Maegeth, the widow of Mortemer Goatherd, smiled, it was easy to see the laughing, carefree girl she had once been.

  For the third time Pedrin described his encounter with the hobhenky, though this time he did a better job of keeping his voice level and gave no embellishments about yellow teeth, tree-trunk torsos or meat platter hands. All the laughter disappeared from Maegeth’s face and she caught him close. Pedrin patted her awkwardly, feeling the bones in her shoulder.

  ‘Chtatchka blast the Regent and his glassy tower! Has he no eyes, to see the trouble he brings? Oh Pedrin, ’tis not safe for you out in the meadows. I could not bear it if . . . oh, you mustn’t go out again!’

  He was stiff with embarrassment and shame, and the desire to press close to her thin, hard frame and let her comfort him. So he pushed her away, saying a little more roughly than he had intended: ‘Nah, what’s a hobhenky or two? I drove him off, didn’t I? Can’t be a-staying home like a little kid. What would we eat if I did?’

  Maegeth’s face was very expressive. He saw hurt, a quick recoil into herself, and then the bitter twist of her mouth as she acknowledged the truth of his words. They would indeed starve without the bread and corn and honey and apples Pedrin was paid for minding his neighbours’ goats. Maegeth was humiliated by this, and troubled by how hard Pedrin had to work, and pricked with a dull, familiar pain at the reminder of Mortemer’s absence, and stabbed with a cruel fear that Pedrin might be lost the same way. All this Pe
drin saw in an instant and was sorry, but he could not retrieve the words, nor could he back down, not with Durrik listening to every word and his sister Mina glaring at him through the dark tangle of her hair.

  So he said sullenly, ‘Be too dark to fish soon. If we’re t’eat tonight, I’d better go.’

  She nodded and turned back to the fire, thrusting the poker into the half-charred logs so a burst of sparks flew up the chimney. He realised with a sudden stab of guilt and resentment that he had forgotten to gather her any firewood that morning. He felt shame roll up his body in a slow, hot, heavy wave but he looked down, dug his toe into the dirt of the floor, and said nothing.

  ‘I wanna go a-fishing too,’ Mina whined. She was a skinny little girl, all hair and legs and mouth, and the bane of Pedrin’s life, always tagging around after him and Durrik and trying to crash in on their adventures. Pedrin thought it his duty to keep her very firmly in line, reminding her constantly that she was only a girl and much too young to be allowed far from her mother’s skirts.

  ‘Nah, you’re not a-coming,’ Pedrin said. ‘You’d scare the fish off with all your noise.’

  ‘I wanna go too!’ Mina began to cry.

  ‘Nah, you’re not a-coming!’

  Despite himself, Pedrin flicked a look at his mother who said crisply, ‘Mina, I need you to shell the peas. Pedrin, make sure you get the milking done before you go.’

  ‘Of course I will,’ he said in long-suffering tones. He was disconcerted when Maegeth’s face suddenly relaxed into a smile. She seized a handful of curls, dragged him close and kissed the top of his head.

  ‘That’s a good boy,’ she said. ‘Hurry along now else you’ll be too late to catch a nibble. Mina and me are hungry!’

  Pedrin blushed and cast a look at Durrik, who was responding instinctively to Maegeth’s smile with one of his own. Pedrin choked back his blush, stuck out his tongue at Mina, who stuck hers out in return, and grabbed Durrik’s sleeve, dragging him back into the warm dusk of the garden.

  ‘Mothers!’ Pedrin rolled his eyes.

  ‘I like your ma,’ Durrik said. ‘I wish I had one like her.’