"Unlike Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, Duncan doesn’t portray Evil in the form of some monstrous figure and his bizarre minions with their sights set on our relatively humble world. Human nature provides ample opportunity for misbehavior, and power – secular or religious – only makes it worse. This strips away conventional generic distinctions between Light and Dark. Reduced to small, private rites, the Mother’s sacred Dark can seem benign, while the religion of Light has taken on all the decadence, close-mindedness, and hypocrisy of a faith well past its prime." - Locus
The day dawned clear and warm for spring. The orchard was a glory of pink and white blossom. Plums, apples, cherries, pears—all took their turn at this time of year, like dancers on a stage. The farmhands worked from dawn till dusk, plowing, sowing, mending fences. Larks were caroling and hares dancing.
Maddy and Henry Woodbridge went riding. They had intended to check on the lambs in the western pasture, but were turned back at a ford by a brook that normally ran small and meek but that day dark and swift, bloated by spring runoff. There they abandoned thoughts of duty and set off to enjoy a ride, ending with a spirited canter back to the manor house.
Maddy actually laughed during their mock race to the park gate. It was a mock race because they both cared too much for horses to overstrain them when they were tired. The laughter sounded strange in her ears, and she realized that she had not laughed aloud since she heard of Rollo’s arrest. At once she felt sick with guilt. She caught Henry’s eye and saw his happiness vanish as he guessed what she was thinking.
Henry had always been eerily perceptive. He was almost twenty now, but he had been her stalwart big brother since Rollo left, three years ago. Like all the Woodbridges, he was tall, with jet black hair and a surprisingly fair complexion. He trimmed his beard to a jaw-line fringe; an untamed Woodbridge beard would be a fearsome sight. His eyes were gray and they fixed steadily on her now.
“What right do we have to be happy?” he said. “When our brother is in such unthinkable straits, are we monsters to laugh and enjoy life?”
He had nailed the problem exactly. “Tell me.”
He smiled and shook his head. “Just that life must go on, Maddy. If someone in the family died, we would mourn of course, but we would not live in sorrow all our lives. That is not why the Mother gave us life. Our little happiness cannot make Rollo’s sorrow deeper. He would be happy to know that we are still happy. In a sense it is concern for our happiness and the happiness of millions like us that put him where he is. He knew he might have to suffer for us.”
Henry filled in as preacher now at household prayers when Father was absent. She nodded, unconvinced. Laughter still felt wrong.
As they approached the front door, they saw Bram on the steps with some other boys of about his age. They were playing with a puppy.
A black puppy.
Brother and sister locked eyes again.
Henry frowned. “He’s very young for that, if it’s what I think it is.”
And it would be a trial for Henry, for now he would be odd one out. Rollo had huge talent. Henry had none. Maddy herself had a little—not enough to go off and study at Gaudry, but enough to take lessons from Wisdom Edith. Now Brat? He was only eleven years old. Looking up, she saw a raven perched on the end of the gable.
“You take Dainty around to the stable while I look into this,” she said. They halted beside the excitement, she slid from the saddle, and Henry took her reins.
The dog was barely weaned, its ears still trying to stand up and then flopping over. At the moment it was being offered faces to lick, which it cheerfully did, to the accompaniment of loud squeals of glee. There were seven boys there, all with dirty and ragged clothes but unusually clean faces. Other than Brat, they were children of servants. All were far too young to understand how important secrets could be.
“Where did you find that little lad?” Maddy asked. The manor had many dogs, but none of the bitches had whelped recently and none looked anything like this pup. She knelt to offer a hand. It wriggled loose and came to her at once. She rubbed ears and it licked her wrist.
“He found me!” Brat protested. “He follows me everywhere. Can I keep him, Mad? Oh, Maddy, can I? For my very own?”
There was not one brown or white hair on it. Its belly was still hairless and it lacked adult teeth. And it was watching Maddy to see what she was going to say.
“Unless its real owner shows up, of course you may. What’re are you going to call him?’
“Smut,” Brat announced confidently. “His name’s Smut, ’cos he’s black and he sticks to me.” His followers laughed, so this must be a brand new joke. Or a revelation. “He likes you too, Mad,” he added suspiciously.
The Mother was capricious; she gave magical talents to few of her Children, but the first gift was always an animal guide. Only if that was accepted would others follow. It was the tragedy of the Church of the Light that their Teacher had denounced talent as evil and familiars as agents of darkness, which must be rejected. What was wrong with darkness? In the darkness of the Earth the Mother caused seeds to sprout. In the darkness of a womb a baby was conceived. In the darkness of the grave her Children returned to her. But the “Sons of the Sun” rejected the Mother’s gifts. Only in very rare cases did followers of the Light receive talent. And they burned their dead.
Bram had clearly bonded with his familiar already, so there was nothing more to worry about.
“Welcome to Woodbridge Manor, Smut,” Maddy said, and Smut leaped up to slobber on her chin. She smiled at her youngest brother—already growing stringy; the family black hair, startling blue eyes. He had no idea what had just changed in his life; likely no one would tell him for a few years yet.
She rose and went indoors. She found her father in his counting room, scowling at a ledger and fumbling with an abacus. The room was small, cramped with a desk, untidy bookshelves, and two chairs—and with Edgar Woodbridge, who was a large, solid man. No bookworm or clerk, he, but a thick-limbed weathered gentleman farmer. He owned five large farms, a game park, and half the houses in Stonebridge, and his family had lived in the same place for centuries. He looked up in annoyance, swiftly turning to alarm when Maddy closed the door.
“Brat’s outside with a dog,” she said. “His name is Smut, ‘Because he’s black and he sticks to me.’ ”
Squire Woodbridge gaped at her for a moment like a halfwit yokel told to write a letter. “Bram? No. He’s far too young! Even Rollo did not get Perry until he was thirteen.”
“Corbin’s up on the roof, watching.”
Her father closed his eyes in prayer. When he looked up he was smiling. “We are greatly blessed.” It was an uncertain smile, for a mixed blessing.
Talent was a gift from the Mother, a great gift, but these days it could be close to a curse. Probably they were both wondering if Bram-the-Brat was being offered as a replacement for Rollo, but neither suggested that. It was too early to give up hope.
“I must get ready for dinner,” Maddy said.
Afterwards, that morning was to seem like the end of her happiness.