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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Spellcaster's Heiress -- Chapter 1

By Christopher Leeson

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The universe of Rodin Oc'Raighne centers in a Europe alternate to the one we know. His homeland, Arannan, occupies that region of France that we call Aquitaine and Rodin's people are descended from the Celtic Gauls. True magic is practiced in this universe and, undoubtedly, it is this peculiarity that has made the history of Rodin's world so substantially different from our own.

In the land we shall explore, those people who correspond to the Italians never became great. Without Rome, Rodin's world never knew a Jesus. In a world so altered, no Mohammed ever rose to lead the desert people. The many gods of paganism continued to be revered, just as mankind continues to fear the demons of darkness.

The decisive departure in the history of our two worlds must have come sometime in the First Millennium B.C., for the farther back we look, the fewer discrepancies we discover.  For example, while Christianity and Islam do not exist, older faiths do (though, admittedly, with changes), such as Buddhism and Hinduism.

The discrepancies are most strongly noticed in the younger nations.  The West eventually filled with kingdoms that developed from the institutions of the early Celtic race.  Meanwhile, an alternate Greek (Helleg) civilization, much like the one in our own history, flourished.  Having no Roman Empire and, later, no Arab Empire to overwhelm it, the ancient Hellegi produced an empire that still endures in its successor states.  

Where the Roman Empire never was, there is Etrue, a region of city states based on the Etruscan civilization.  The Etruean region has had many conquerors, but as latter fade away, the ancient vigor of the Etruscans has always made its resurgence.   In regions where Etruean settlement has been historically weak, as in the south of the peninsula, Helleg kingdoms have held the land, skillfully avoiding subjugation by of their eastern kin and by the Punics to the south.  The strongest of these Helleg states is Achaea, which we would call Sicily.

Among the greatest of states during our time of study, ruling the south Balkans and Asia Minor, is Megarion.  Hellenic culture has become the standard of the East, almost as far as India.  Greece and Iran (called Persi) have fought many wars with varying fortunes and influenced on another greatly.  From the Iranians the Hellegi have taken away autocratic rule and centralization.  But their long contact with the Hellegi has allowed Iran to grow heavily Hellenized, though Mica remains their national god.  The Iranians, held at bay in the West, have fared better against the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Asia, and they have also made great inroads into the lands of those superb horsemen, the Togarma people of the northern steppes.

Elsewhere, the German race, blocked in the West by the Celts, have turned their virile power upon Central Europe. 
The southern Germans, though, have been checked at the boundaries of Greek power.  Their borders with the Slavs is almost never at peace.  Meanwhile, the Northmen have long posed a menace to the coasts in both the West and the East, sometimes mounting daring land invasions, also.  Yet the strength of their would-be victims has prevented them from laying long-term claim to little except some Atlantic and Baltic islands, the greatest of these being Thorland, which we call Iceland. 

The resultant federation of German states has kept the Slavs from settling in Central Europe and the latter have turned toward the sunrise, doing battle with the Russians (Zemlyans). Faced with so many opponents, the Zemlyans have managed to form no monolithic empire, but only an amalgam of semi-autonomous duchies, united in theory by an almost powerless Great King patterned after the autocrats of the Hellegi.  Intercine war between the duchies has prevented the Zemlyan domain from reaching the Urals.  As they have been harsh masters wherever they conquer, that is probably for the best. 

Farther East, the Turkish (Togarma) horsemen have remained powerful. The Mongols (Buryats) of the Far East have not yet ceased their own internal quarrels long enough to unite, but the day may be coming when their potent threat shall be realized. The ways of China (Ser) of this world would be recognizable to historians, and Seran sorcery is very advanced, but it is chained in place by the weight of a bureaucracy that is excessively large, unimaginative, and unadventurous.  An emperor who endeavors to change the ossified ways of Ser's mandarins is apt to alienate his department chiefs and be assassinated.

With magic to draw upon, science -- both East and West -- has lagged.  No one has invented those evil fixtures of modern battle, explosives, and so the sword shall probably remain the weapon of choice for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, farther west, the Slavic states have been influenced by their German and the Greek adversaries and trading partners, but their aristocracies have long cast an admiring eye at the more distant Celts.  This trend shows strongly in the learning they prize and their artistic tastes. A cultured Slav is proud to communicate in fluent Celtic.

In Spain, the early mix of Celts and Iberians has generally maintained itself and has formed up into regional kingdoms.  The most important of these is Herzeloyde.  But in the south of the country, the Celts and Iberians have been for almost two millennia a part of the cultural orbit of Punic North Africa.  The latter has largely Phonenicianized the Berber natives north of the desert.  The altars of Moloch are well attended from Libya to the Atlantic.  From a capital city built near to the site of our historical Carthage, this robust race holds sway from the edge of Egypt to the Atlantic, and has colonized most of the great islands of that sea
.  Some say they have found lands on the other side of the ocean, but they are very secretive about such explorations.

Following its ancient glories, Egypt had for a long while lost its liberty and languished under Greek-born dynasties. The latter found Egyptian ways congenial and reigned there as traditional pharaohs.  In time, enfeebling decadence afflicted the Hellenic pharaohs and a popular revolt brought forth another native dynasty.  This revived Egypt has restored its standing as a beacon of culture and a bastion of military might.  Hemmed in on the east and west by rival kingdoms, it has sent its power south, into what they call Kush, beyond the deserts. There it competes with the Punics in acquiring precious resources, and also in bringing enlightenment to the natives (when not bringing them north as slaves).

At the time of our story, a rich material culture holds dominance across an alternate Western Europe. This civilization, despite many small differences, exists at about the level of our own fourteenth century France. However, few of the familiar names that are found in our history books will appear on the map laid out before us.


From Dyan's Journal

I have fought tyranny under the name of Dyan, but I was born Rodin Oc'Raighne.  My clan came to prominence as successful traders and bankers.  In our generation my parents wanted more for their children, which meant finding them appointments in the royal service.  My father had many friends at court and, through their influence, I won a favorable placement.  I was to be schooled in the King's Guard, not as a man of the ranks, but a knight-in-training -- something that had been my dream since early childhood.

Strongly driven, I strove to achieve a mastery of arms commensurate with my years.  Having passed the preliminaries, my studies were increasingly directed toward preparation for leadership and command.  These were the best times of my life and the attainment of my family's hopes for me seemed to lie in the offing.  Alas, when I was still but a junior officer, the old king died of a wasting disease, one like none had ever seen before, and his son, Cathmor, came to the throne.

The heir was nothing like his sire.  He had spent but little time about the court thus far; and he arrived for the funeral with a train of favorites. These were a mixed lot. Some already possessed scandalous reputations, others appeared to be nothing more than untried mediocrities.

But, good or bad, the new men began to crowd out the old king's aides and ministers, individuals who had served the kingdom long and well. Cathmor had a strong ally in court already, the sorcerer named Harouck.  He had been a rising star int he bureaucracy for some years.  But he attained the post of First Secretary to the chancellorship shortly before the old king had grown ill.  Cathmor patronized him, and when a scandal tarnished the old chancellor's reputation only days after Cathmor's arrival, Harouck succeeded to the coveted post.

A naturally lazy man, King Cathmor allowed himself to be treated as a figurehead.  Very quickly, Harouck's personal power was felt; his shadow grew heavy and dark across the land.  He interfered in everything.  Only cadets who were ostentatious in their admiration for the chancellor prospered. My own rise in the King's Guard slowed to a halt. I began to suspect that I was not trusted by my new superiors, creatures that had been appointed under Harouck's system of political patronage. 
Perhaps I was too outspoken in my opinions regarding the deteriorating state of affairs.  I believe that Harouck's minions were testing me when they put me to odious tasks, none of which could not be carried out with honor.  One of these was threatening and beating yeomen who were late with their taxes.
I was grew increasingly discontented under the state of affairs, but in the years since I have had time for reflection.  The evil in our governance had come about because Harouck preferred to surround himself with criminals.  The thieving extortionists on whom his power depended were vulnerable to his blackmail and, hence, completely in his thrall.  Because I refused to be compromised, the regime had no such tool to use against me.  It marked me as a man who could not be trusted by the regime.

If I had been a more experienced courtier, I might have conducted myself with subtlety and hidden my disgust.  That way, I might have remained close to the seat of power. I would have been able to wear my dagger nearer to the black heart of the tyrant, should the opportunity to use it suddenly arise.

Even before I left the Guard, it had crossed my mind that it would be a noble thing to put an end to the unbearable state of affairs, even at the cost of my life.

But I did not get that chance.  My life took a different course.


Cherry Blossoms and Nightingales

Always my thoughts go back to that one single day, a twilight not so long ago, when my destiny took a strange turn.  Even at this hour I sometimes feel that I exist in an endless dream, trapped within a nightmare.  Did my life have to come to this? Was it my god-ordained fate?  Did my stars foresee it?  Deep in my heart I think not. I believe that I have simply chosen the wrong paths, the very thing that Cawdour had warned me against when our fosterage was new.  Despite my intention to excel, I made mistake after mistake.  If only I had heeded the advice of that careful soldier Lairgann; I had not not hazarded so much upon a single throw of the dice --

No!  Let there be an end to "ifs" and "if onlys."  What has happened has happened; I must accept it.  There have been losses, but there have also been gains.  I must prove my worth like the soldier who is, perhaps, bereft of an eye, but yet ennobles himself with feats of courage.  My gains may yet serve to offset my losses.  I must seek to find my happiness in service to my country, being doubtful that any personal happiness shall come my way.  Then, when I at last kneel at the feet of the ever-patient lord of Death, I may at least take with me the pride of having fought and served well as I journey into the Mists.

And now, with resignation and a heavy heart, I begin my tale.


As the yellow sun dissolved into the western mist, I sensed the tension.   This raid would increase the notoriety of our band.  The greater the injury we inflicted on the tyrant, the the more determinedly the royal patrols that would seek us.  But if we could demonstrate before the people that the chancellor's power had limits, that he could be flummoxed and humiliated, brave hearts might profit from our example and find various ways of their own to strike a blow.

Already the country folk were calling us the "Fyana" -- after the warrior societies of old.  The ancient legends told of those hero bands had, by my lifetime, been commingled with current ideas of chivalry -- which to us meant fighting a war with honor.  Would future bards sing of our "fyana" as they now sang of Ries op Cruffid's or Ouain Gwinid's? I hoped so.  A man's spirit might be eternal in the Land of Bliss, but if a man's memory is to endure on earth, it is because of his noteworthy deeds.

My roan shifted under me; I patted her neck and whispered her name; it would not do if the creature's whinnying carried to unfriendly ears.  Lairgann, my second, stood nearby, watching the road.  He was one whom I depended on for much, though he was neither high born nor trained to be an officer.  A sagacious man, Lairgann had become a senior sergeant and rose no higher, his avenue for advancement closed.  I preferred to have a proven veteran at my back than depend upon most of the younger pups that I had known in the King's Guard. 

I noticed just then that the man whom we called "the fighting bear of the Fyana" had gotten a few petals of cherry blossom caught in his gray-streaked beard.  This garland contrasted amusingly with his serious demeanor and I breathed deeply of the perfumed air to keep from laughing.

For the last hour the elder warrior had been badgering me. He didn't care for our plan, but he normally preferred that we strike only upon familiar ground.  That way we would know the ways of approach, the paths of retreat.  As far as it went, that counsel made sense.  But what we knew best was the remote ground of the backwoods.  What happened in its remoteness would be but little noted by the suffering people of Arannan.  In the catching of kingdom's notice, I had found that boldness paid swifter dividends than caution.  Further, an occasional foray that departed from our pattern would keep the enemy wondering about our means and inclinations.

Hearing the distressed bird calls far off, my comrade swung himself up into the saddle.  "It would have been better to have planted a spy in among the carters," he whispered.  "There is too much we don't know."

Lairgann was right, of course, but word had come belatedly that several women of good family were being taken to the stronghold of one of Harouck's agents, to be his "guests" -- that is, the chancellor's hostages -- to insure the good behavior of their restive clans.  Our informant had reported that the guarded caravan would be passing along the Cymydog Road, making toward Moyarien.  There had been no time to find out more, no time to prepare. Once confined behind stout walls, the Fyana would have few options to effect their deliverance.

"We're down-strength," Lairgann had warned me.  "The guards may be numerous."

I led the Fyana, I did not rule it.  We discussed such issues in open forum.  Most of the men were much younger than Lairgann and, with the bravado of their years, had cheered my boldness.

"Militia guards, Lairgann?" I had replied.  "Ill-trained, conscripted levies will be more of a danger to each other than to any of us!"

"So you say, young friend.  But we've already taken losses that we can hardly replace anytime soon."

I shook my head.  "We need victories that will capture men's imagination.   That will bring us volunteers.  Saving women of rank will lift us will make us notable rebels, no longer supposed bandits."

The old soldier had only shrugged.

I looked to the men on my left where Gannon Marsydd waited, his hand on his hilt, a thoughtful grimace on his lips.  I remembered now the strange wyrd lately spoken by a hag of mystic learning.  Gannon would, she had declared, be leaving our company very soon. What had that meant? Death in battle?  I hoped not.  Should my friend be cut off in his youth, especially because of a piece of daring that I had set before him, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

Command was always boiled down to be a choice between multiple evils.  My trainers had been emphatic that an officer must put the love for his soldiers above the vital interests of the kingdom.  Some of the most sung monarchs of history, they said, had fed thousands of their own men into the Mists of Passage just to place their standards on enemy ground.

But, I recalled, the same instructors had warned us that heavy losses are the price of victory, not its goal; achievement is measured in the good bestowed upon the people.  I recalled the words of Dyan, my old sword-trainer:  "Courage calls to courage.  The gods shall reward an honorable cause."

I hoped that he had meant that Heaven would reward an honorable cause on earth, and was not speaking of the rewards earned by the dead once lost behind the Mists of Passage.

Just then I heard the trill of a nightingale.  It was a false birdcall, the signal that the hostage wagons were penetrating our ambush's perimeter on the far side of the glen.  As soon as the last of them had passed into the jaws of our trap there would be a second call.

I waited tensely, for in a moment the wagon wheels could be heard joggling over the rough roadway.  A moment later, I saw them -- some two-dozen guards screening five creaking conveyances.  The plan called for waiting until they were well into the clearing, at a point in which they would provide our archers with clear shots.  Men of the line do not favor the bow, but every man of the Fyana had been drilled to make him a competent archer, whether he liked it or not.

At that instant, the second nightingale cry echoed through the leafy canopy. Our enemy was now encircled and there was no time to waste; the militia lay open to our missiles.  I lifted my hands to my mouth and gave the hoo of the boreal owl.

In answer, bows twanged from every side.  The first darts fell, wounding some of the enemy, throwing the rest into apparent panic.

At the first glimpse of our men bursting into the clearing, the foe broke into a scatter. Those on horseback cantered carefully through the brush until they reached the open ground and loosed their ringing war whoops. This band of militia seemed even more worthless than most that we had encountered; geese would have gotten out of our way with more dignity. I road determinedly toward the wagons and, at that moment, I was exultant. But a second later the sides of all five vehicles began to drop open like magician's boxes. The wagons' vitals were filled with ready soldiers, not women. Their deadly crossbows were cocked and ready at their shoulders!

"Retreat!" I bellowed at the top of my lungs. Being very exposed, I veered toward a cherry thicket.  A bolt whizzed over my shoulder, but I made it safely into cover.  Glancing back, I noted to my dismay that Gannon's mount had just take a bolt in its shoulder; the beast's stumble threw my friend hard upon the roadbed.

A fall like that could kill a man, but -- by the gods' will -- he was moving, trying to get to his feet.  The crossbow men were reloading; Gannon was in plain view of the enemy.  And the militia that had pretended to free was returning from the edges.  Maybe the druidess had prophesied Gannon's death, but I would not bend to inexorable fate.

I brought my mount about, broke from cover, struck the militia man in front of me with my sabre, and reined up sharp alongside my friend.  Quickly dismounting, I hoisted him across the saddle like a dead stag.  "Thank the gods," he muttered.  I leaped into place behind him and dug spurs into horseflesh.

My action had drawn the attention of some of the archers, whose bolts began striking the boles and the soil around us with the sound of hailstones.  I could hear frightened and injured horses as I raced for the forest's edge; I was leaning low over my horse's mane, hoping to present a smaller target, when my fate changed --

Suddenly, inconceivably, and forever.

An excruciating pain drove deep between my shoulders. The pain took all the strength out of me.  My limbs going slack, I saw the world turn about. I struck the ground awkwardly, but yet barely felt the impact.

Then darkness enfolded me.


I thought that I felt someone slapping my face, jabbering questions.

"Can you move, Rodin?" a man asked in a deep baritone.

"Get me out of here!" I gasped.  "I can't move!"

"Try to lift your arm," urged the speaker -- a different speaker, a soprano.

I struggled, but felt pinned, as if I were naught but a corpse inside a narrow sarcophagus.

There were more questions, but I was so groggy.  Maybe I tried to answer the twin-voiced speaker, maybe I didn't; whatever I did or thought at one moment was forgotten by the next.  Once more the shadows closed around me, like the folds of a suffocating blanket.

I awakened again later, but this time in heavy darkness.  I tried to sit up, but couldn't manage it.

Voices were speaking again:

"How is he?"

"Poor lad," remarked one whose baritone I belatedly recognized as Lairgann's.

"It would be mercy to put him out of his misery," avowed some second speaker.  "He'd want it that way. He's a soldier."

"Good gods, man!" another shouted.  It sounded like Gannon. "Aren't you're carrying this feud of yours too far?"

"It's not about any feud," the other answered.  "Rodin's finished.  Let him have some dignity.  There's no way we can care for a man so crippled.  Taranys!  He'll need a maid to attend him every hour of the day until death takes him!  Who'll do it?  Not Ceann!"

"Don't speak for me!" exclaimed a woman who I now realized was Ceann.  She had been left to wait at the rally point while the ambush was set.

"Listen," said Lairgann, "do not be so quick to give up on him.  None of us are doctors.  But there's someone we know who could treat a man better than any physician could!"

"Who?" someone asked.  Though I tried to listen, it was all just a mutter after that.

The sounds of men seemed to draw distant. I didn't know what my injuries were, but I certainly hoped that there was someone who could treat me as skillfully as Lairgann had supposed. The sleep of the badly wounded then took possession of me….

When my senses once more cleared, I still felt like I was wrapped in chains. It was not easy to look down at myself, but I managed to raise my head just enough to see that my limbs were not actually constrained. Even so, try as I may, I couldn't move! My face itched as if mosquito-bitten, but it was impossible to scratch. Below my neck there was no feeling but a slight tingling let me know that I still possessed a body.

I knew of men who had lost the use of their arms and legs. My heart sunk. It was better to die than to be reduced to such a pathetic state. Was that most bitter of all fates to be mine?

"Mighty Myach" I prayed in sudden fear, "let me be healed. Let me walk again; let me --"

But then I paused. I was asking a dangerous boon. When the gods gave a mortal something, they always wanted something in return. A prayer for help was nothing better than a contract of trade in which one party held all the advantage.

"I'm only a simple solider, Great Myach. I possess nothing to pledge to your glory except this body. My shell may be rendered useless, but let me buy back my life with the treasure that is my heart and my soul. Set me to any task --"

I hesitated. Except for the whinnying of horses, the night was so quiet. Yet it was in that instant that I sensed -- someone -- was listening.

"I have been a man of war," I continued, encouraged. "It is the lot of the soldier to accept injury and death. I am young and not yet the best of soldiers; I would own myself less worthy than most. I've been false to my king and warred against him. A score of oaths and vows have been broken by so doing. My guilt is great, and so is my shame. Perhaps my fate is Aedh's punishment.

"But, Myach, I have never been false to my people, nor to their gods. Restore me, Lord, and I will pay whatever price you name, and this shall be done gladly. Give me a sign that I will not feel that I am already pleading from within the folds of the Mists."

My prayer, a sincere one, had left me empty. Every injured or dying man who still had his wits about him makes such a prayer as mine. The gods must be tired of hearing the same importuning all the time. Men died every day and the divinities did not seem to care. Why should they care about me? In what way had I ever shown my worthiness? I started to weep; I think that only the gods were listening.

Then, at last, there was nothing.


I awoke to yellow candlelight. The air was heavy, reeking of mice, aged parchment, and burning wax. I turned my head to see what I could. I lay upon a narrow cot.

A drab, chart hung on the wall, and there were bookshelves. Why had I been taken from the forest and brought to this place? And where was this place? Had I become some dumb object to be shuttled about and shelved here or there as others pleased?

Someone moved lightly behind me. I craned my neck.

"Ceann?" I gasped. "Where am I?"

My dark-maned mistress stroked my brow.

"Rodin, don't strain. This is a country house that belongs to the wizard Cawdour.  His steward has gone to the city to fetch him.  They'll both be back very soon, I'm sure."

Cawdour? Yes! Of course! He had been my court patron, essentially a foster father.  Lairgann had said that he would find for me a cure; he intended to gain the help of the spellcaster!  Cawdour was probably the most skilled magic-user in all Arannan, doubtlessly even more powerful than Harouck.  If anyone could help me in my present straits, it was the king's chief counselor for magical affairs.

"It's dangerous for the wizard to come," I whispered. "It would destroy him to be discovered helping the rebels. If he falls, who'll be left strong enough to stand?"

"I hope that won't happen, Rodin," Ceann said with a tremble. "But we had to do something. We can't lose you."

"The others? Are they here?"

"There's only Scaith. I need a pair of strong hands to help move you."

"I suppose. I'm more like a sack of barley than a man," I sighed. In speaking, I realized that my throat felt parched. "Ceann, can you bring me some water?" I asked, mortified that even so trivial an action was far beyond my power.

The young woman exited and came back with a pitcher and a cup. She propped my head up with pillows and, with assistance, I managed to drink my fill.

"How is Gannon?" I asked.

"He was only bruised. You saved his life -- at a terrible cost to yourself, I'm afraid."

"I don't regret what I did; only the consequences," I replied ruefully.

"Gannon wanted to come with us, but Lairgann wouldn't allow it. He's hardly fit to ride."

"Lairgann? Does he command the Fyana now?"

"For the moment," she said. "Soon you will be back with us."

Just then, I heard then a scraping upon a gritty floor.

"He's awake?" A girl asked. "How is he?"

I had not been expecting a young female; what was she doing here? A servant? The speaker came into my range of vision and I saw that this red-haired newcomer was not quite a stranger.

She was Ava Gaedael, the daughter of Cawdour! On occasion, I had seen the spellcaster's heiress and remembered her as a beautiful child. Child? She was only a few years younger than I was, but I'd always thought of her as a child -- mostly for her immature behavior. She had spent much of her time away with her mother, whom I had never met. Cawdour's former woman was estranged from him, a priestess -- a magic-user like he was. Oddly, the daughter born of such a pedigreed seemed to know little or no magic. Cawdour had once explained why he thought that was so.

"Ava. . . " I muttered.

She smiled kindly. "That's right. I'm so pleased that you remember me, Sir Knight. It's been a long time."

"To me it seems like an eternity -- when I was living a totally different life."

She nodded. "I'd known that Rodin Oc'Raighne had left the King's Guard in dislike of the chancellor, but never dreamed that he'd gone off to be a rebel!"

"I've used other names," I explained. "I didn't want to be called a traitor. My family would have suffered." Though I hesitated to mention it, it seemed odd that Cawdour would have confided so little to his own daughter. If he didn't trust her with sensitive information, could I?

"Don't call it treason," Ava corrected me. "You fight Harouck, not the king. Did you know that the old scoundrel actually asked Father for my hand? He only laughed at the idea."

I frowned, never having heard about Harouck's preposterous suit. Still, I had met with Cawdour only infrequently over the past three years.

"I happened to be visiting my father's country house tonight," Ava continued. "I hope that when you're recovered we may spend some time together." With those words she lowered her glance. "If I may be so bold as to say it, I always thought that Sir Rodin was the most gallant young knight in the Guard."

I made no reply. The woman who most mattered to me, Ceann, was standing near.

Ava smiled again and bent to kiss my brow. I smelled her coppery hair as it brushed against my cheeks. The girl straightened abruptly, I noticed her pinched expression. She had said nothing, but I guessed that it was an odor that had offended her. Had I fouled myself! Numb as I was, I wouldn't even have known.

I closed my eyes in humiliation.

Ava encouraged me to rest with a few simple words and then, as our hostess withdrew, Ceann sat on a stool next to my cot. It meant a great deal that my beloved was standing by me, and in more than the merely physical sense. If Cawdour should deliver me from this doleful condition, I was determined to do something to show myself worthy of so faithful a mistress.

Suddenly I felt a searing pain between my shoulders.

"What is it, Rodin?" Ceann gasped.

Tears burned my eyes. "The bolt! Have they removed it?"

"No," whispered the maid. "Lairgann said we should leave the tip in for Cawdour to deal with. It might be better for you. I'm sorry." Her eyes were sparkling, wet.

The burning subsided, but I realized for the first time that I might yet die of my injury. Death. A grim thought.

Yet, would it not be better if I should die? Only the healing magic of Cawdour held out any hope. Surely my comrades-in-arms had believed so, or they wouldn't have taken such a risk to bring me to his house, so near to Harouck's stronghold.

I wondered about death. The druids said that souls go into the Mists of Passage and are taken by Death's vessel to the paradise that was called by many names: Western Isles, the Isle of Bliss, and Elvarlonn among them. The souls of the departed do not dwell in the Isles forever, we were told. They come back to mortality, sometimes as lesser creatures if they had formerly lived as lesser men. Then, after many trips to the Isles, after many successful attempts to learn and to grow in spirit, the soul attains its true worth and goes to the gods to be their liegeman. I now clung to that thought; this misfortune did not have to be the end of all that I was.

Again, in the quiet of my own mind, I addressed the god Myach, imploring him to send Cawdour as my restorer, to give the spellcaster the skill and power he needed to cure me. And again I offered the god whatever payment he demanded -- at the very instant that he should demand it.

A poor offer. As I was, a broken wreck, just another stricken soldier. I had nothing with which to buy a god's bounty, nothing except a promise.

Even a third-rate innkeeper would have demanded his payment in hard coin. That thought put my plight into its real perspective.

To be continued...

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