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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Spellcaster's Heiress, Chapter 2

By Christopher Leeson


Meeting Cawdour as a cadet became a turning point in my life.  At first I considered myself merely fortunate.  But now I have to admit that I did not in the least suspect how radically my life would change because the master spellcaster had cast a favorable eye on me.

As was the custom, young candidates -- squires -- were taken into fosterage by some noble patron, typically a courtier of good standing.  We anticipated that one of my father's friends would volunteer to fulfill the role for me, but, as it turned out, it was to be Cawdour Gaedael, a magician and counselor close to the king who stepped forward.  He had been paying careful attention to the new boys in guard training for the past several years, but had not as yet interviewed one that suited him.

Cawdour didn't question the candidates about their families' standing or their personal ambitions, but instead probed the odd details of their lives, such as the time and place of birth. These were facts that would allow him to ascertain which stars governed each youth's destiny. Apparently, it was for no reason better than the chance configurations of my natal signs that he selected me from amongst all those others, scores of whom had had better connections than the Oc'Raighnes.

Although the usual court fosterage is often an aloof and formal affair, Cawdour became like another father to me. I wondered at my good fortune at having such a prominent and genial master. I would put many questions to him and he would obligingly answer them as fully as he could.  For instance, I had asked him what he had seen in the configuration of my birth planets that caused him to sponsor me.  On that occasion, though, he was determined to be ambiguous.  He would only say, "Men who depend on destiny often grow complacent.  Study hard and learn all you are taught. Portents are but one part of each man's destiny. Without hard work, a trust in fate may lead to careless choices. A man who depends upon the capricious rolls of Fortune's dice tends to choose the wrong path and attains much less than he might have done by logical application."

But I was young and self-assured; I did not consult with my patron on half of the things that I should have. With the ascendency of Harouck much changed and I should have taken more frequent counsel with my patron in regard as to how a wise man navigates such treacherous shoals.

Alas, when I became troubled, I tended to speak with the wise counselor less instead of more.  On my own, I tried to stir up discontent against the chancellor among my friends and fellow soldiers.  I should have instead learned to practice the arts of intrigue. When a suspicious eye was cast on me, when I seemed blocked at every turn and saw no decent future in the Royal Guard, I acted with speed, but without insufficient reflection. That was why, with profound regret, I turned my back upon what had been a promising career and rode away into the wild country as an anonymous rebel in arms.

My foster father must have been surprised when he learned that I had left the barracks and failed to return.


Chapter 2
The River of No Return

The reverberations of a deep voice brought me out of blackness:  "My lad, can you feel this?"

"Who --?"

The speaker was kneeling beside me; I recognized the sandy bearded speaker, Cawdour, the spellcaster.  He was holding a sewing needle.  "See this, Rodin?" he asked.  "Tell me if you feel the slightest pain."

He pushed the sharp point into my upper arm.  It might as well have been the limb of another man.

"I had pain between my shoulders --" I volunteered.

"So your lady told me.  We have to take the bolt out before it poisons you.  Sleep a little, my son, because the pain will be very great."

He touched my brow and I dropped off.  When I later awoke I heard Cawdour talking on the other side of the room.

"The wound is becoming morbid," I heard him say.  "I can overcome that, I think, but his spine is severed.  Such a wound can never knit correctly.  From the paralysis there can be no real improvement."

"If I were him, I'd let the poison take me," suggested Scaith. 

Cawdour shook his head.

"We can't lose Rodin," pleaded Ceann.  "This cannot be what the gods have writ!"

The conversation became a low mutter.  Cawdour suddenly returned to my bedside. 

"Rodin..." he began haltingly.

"It's…bad, isn't it?" I asked.

The wizard nodded.  "You'll die unless I treat the source of the exudation.  But if you live, you'll probably remain as you are.  I'm sorry, boy.  There are better healers than me, but I don't believe that anyone alive could make you the man that you were."

 A lump came to my throat and my mouth felt parched. 

"I won't beg for death," I whispered finally, "but…I think as Scaith thinks.  Let the gods take me, or spare me.  I care not." 

"I'm so sorry, my young friend."

"Let my parents know that I died well."

"Yes, I shall."

It was strange to be thinking that the next time I slept I might awaken to a life not upon this earth.  And at that moment, I think, I preferred that I would not.

"Fate is a strange thing," whispered Cawdour, but whether he spoke to himself or to me wasn't clear. 

"My lord?"

"I mean, if you had possessed the Blood, as you possess the rich and vibrant Spirit, you would have been a formidable sorcerer, and not need to risk your fragile life against edged weapons."

"What do you mean?"

"Your stars have told me that you have the most important element you need for channeling magical forces.  But, alas, Spirit is not enough."

"I'm glad that I was a soldier," I told him, swallowing hard.  "I hope to be remembered as a good one."
Cawdour nodded; his was the face was that of a parent waiting for his child to die. 

Suddenly, Cawdour's old steward burst into the room.

"Lord!" he cried.  "You are betrayed!"

The old man wheeled.

"Betrayed?  What do you mean?"

"Sheriff's men are surrounding the house!  They order you to come out and surrender, under the charge of harboring rebels!"

"Who informed?"

"Forgive me, master.  I believe that it was your daughter!  Ava!  She did not act surprised, but simply went to her room!  I saw her wardrobe maid standing amid the soldiers.  It must have been she who had gone to summon them."

Cawdour seized the man's vest.  "It's can't be!  Not even that devil's spawn would sink to this!"

"P-Perhaps I am wrong!" the steward was babbling.

"Hah!" the old man scoffed.

My friends went quickly to his side.  "Is there a safe way from this house?" demanded Scaith.

"M-Maybe," the serving man stammered.  He looked to Cawdour.  "Master, should I --?"

"Take them, Sulgh.  My lady, Scaith, flee if you can!  Otherwise it will be your death!"

Ceann staggered; Scaith gripped her arm.

The steward had darted to the door, jabbering:  "You must come with us, too, master!"

"No, go.  The gods' hands are in this.  I know why they have placed this fatal wyrd on me.  I will heed their words!"

Anxious -- probably for his own life -- Slugh motioned to my comrades.  "Come with me, quickly!" 

My mistress cast me a final, pitying glance:  "Rodin!  I…"  Her voice had choked, as if she could not bear to say goodbye.  Scaith urged her though the exit.

And so Cawdour and I were left alone.  Before I could extend him a word of comfort, he hurried from the chamber.  I supposed that my patron had gone to recover some treasure before he, too, fled.  I would die alone, but my fate was sealed regardless.  Between a poisoned wound and the swords of Harouck's brutal agents, the Death Bird soon would have me hanging from his thorn.  I had but one comfort.  For all his earthly power, a tyrant cannot condemn the soul like he can so easily condemn the body.


I expected to lie as I was until the sheriff's men found me.  Would they drag me along to public execution, or impale me where I lay?  The former, probably.  I was not a traitor prominent enough to merit a public death.  I thought that the sounds of shuffling feet heralded my executioners and drew in a resigned breath.  To my surprise, Cawdour had returned -- and this time he was not alone!

"Daughter betrays father!" shouted the sorcerer.  "Why?"

"Let me go!" Ava exclaimed in a tone more angry-sounding than frightened.  "You've used me like a tool on workbench!  You would give me to wed some stoop-shouldered old warlock!  I would have no status, no glory!"

"What better did life you want, faithless one?"

"I would marry Harouck and be the wife of the mightiest man in Arannan!"
Cawdour stood there, shocked, until he found his voice:  "Little fool!  He doesn't want you!  He wants your Blood!  The children of your body could likely channel the Power."

"I will gladly trade my Blood for honor!" she cried, seemingly absent of remorse or shame.  For the first time I understood how abysmal their relationship must have been since her childhood.
"I intend that you to do the Blood honor, but not in the way you think!" warned Cawdour. 

Ava sensed a threat and began to struggle, but for all his years, she could not break the man's hold.  "Father, you must be insane!"

"You still can call me father?  Have you no decency?"

Cawdour shoved the girl contemptuously from his way.  He then strode to the wall and seized a short lever imbedded in it.  His determined pull must have tripped a counterweight, for thick iron bars rose swiftly from the floor,  sealing and reinforcing the thick oaken door.

Then the spellcaster glanced back at his faithless daughter.  She saw the outrage burning in his eyes.

"Father --!" she repeated.

"You are my daughter no longer!" 

She looked aghast.

At last the wizard seemed to vacillate.  "What am I to do with you?  Must I do what the gods command?"  He turned away from her, as if to wrestle with some inner demon.  I realized that I was seeing a side to his nature that I had never known existed.  The man of fury and vengeance had been a stranger to me.  Cawdour he treated me like a true son, with understanding and patience.  I now suspected it was because he saw in me the supportive child that he never had had in Ava.

At that instant of his paternal vulnerability, Ava sprang upon his narrow back, a dagger flashing in her small fist.  The wizard cried out as the stiletto stabbed; she was desperately trying to dig in and find his jugular. 
But Cawdour, with surprising skill, seized and twisted back her weak arm.  Then he struck her a stunning blow on the temple.  Ava fell to her knees, all the fight knocked out of her.

Cawdour touched his wounded neck, which was bleeding strongly.  "I should have ordered your mother to keep you away from me, but I hoped that one day you would overcome your selfish folly.  But you are beyond the pale, utterly.  You are not my child, only an object with a purpose to serve!"

"Murderer!  The gods will curse you for this!" Ava exclaimed.  Beneath the surface, the girl seemed hard and brazen, her hatred of her father possibly exceeding her fear for her own life.

Cawdour reached for his renounced daughter.  I thought I saw a shimmer as the wizard's fingers touched her forehead.  Ava collapsed facedown, as limp as a rag doll.

At that instant there came a shout through the oaken door:

"Surrender in the name of the king!"  The soldiers had broken into the heart of Cawdour's home.

Ignoring the order, the spellcaster hurried toward me, saying, "Rodin, my life is lost, but yours need not be."

I glanced at his determined face.  What did he mean?

"I can cure you, but it's very dangerous -- and the cure must come at a very high price -- both to you and to me."

"W-What…" I stammered.

"At the cost of my own life, I can restore you," Cawdour continued.  "Before this hour, I might not have given my life for yours.  I was weak, so the gods have forced my hand, and by divine will my life has become a cheap asset that I am doomed to lose regardless.  I bless the immortal ones, for they assure me that you shall thrive and carry on my battle."

What was the old man going on about?  I was a useless thing, soon to follow him in death.
"It is too late!" I warned feverishly.

"Trust in destiny, my son," he said quickly.  "But I can do nothing without your consent.  You must swear upon your mother's life, upon your father's honor, upon your country's very survival, upon your devotion to the gods, that you will fight for Harouck's overthrow once I am dead and gone.  Consent freely."

"I swear it," I answered, mostly just to learn what he would tell me next.

"And do you accept the spell and all that it shall bestow?"

I did not know what spell he spoke of, but I had nothing to lose by humoring him.  I said, "Yes, Cawdour."

"Give me your oath!" he insisted.

"By the blessing of Aedh, I swear.  But what --?"

The magician left me and assailed the shelves around us, collecting vials and objects.  I glanced anxiously to the door.  The grinding sound told me that the intruders were testing its strength with prying bars.

Cawdour now cleaned the blood off his hands with a rag and took the medallion from about his neck.  "Look at this mandala, Rodin," he said, showing me first one side and then the other.  "Look at it closely."

I had seen that device many times.  One surface was golden, with a relief of the sun, and the other was silver, with an image of the moon.

"Remember this, my son:  When you are able to walk, go to my former mate, the Lady Elekta M'Glywess in the shire of Gan-Cann.  She is a vexing woman, but is not a traitor, not like the worthless daughter she spawned.  Ask her in my name to train you in sorcery."

"Sorcery?" I echoed.  Surly, he had lost all sense of reality.  If I ever could have been trained in sorcery, he surely would have taught it to me himself.

Without heed of my questions, Cawdour picked up a small ceremonial knife and crouched over Ava's body.  His back was to me and I couldn't see more.  When he turned, the medallion dipped with blood.  He was speaking ritual words that I couldn't understand.  Then the mage held the ensanguined mandala over a candle flame, searing the blood upon its surface.

"The enemy must never have this token; it is a rare artifact that focuses my power.  In Harouck's hands it would make him even more powerful, and this must be avoided at all costs.  When I am dead, dear son, seek out my grave and retrieve it from my body."

"No, Cawdour," I pleaded.  "Save your own life --"

To my surprise, the sorcerer cast aside the neck chain and put the medallion into his mouth.  He was trying to swallow it!  Beginning to choke, Cawdour snatched up the pitcher that Ceann had brought to me and took a huge gulp of water.  It saved him from strangulation, perhaps, but this bizarre act confirmed my fear that my foster father had become demented from the shock of facing a violent death.

The banging on the brick door was making the furniture and earthenware shudder.  Howsoever long it took, I knew, the intruders would never stop until they managed to lay their hands upon the one they called a traitor.  They would demolish a section of the wall rather than be blamed for the escape of their master's most dangerous opponent.

The mage now threw some incense into a bowl and this he lighted with a candle.  The acrid smoke spread through the magic room and made me cough uncontrollably.

"May Math, the god of magicians, grant me time," muttered Cawdour. 

He shuffled off once more, and this time came back with a small bag.  He poured the contents into my water cup.  "Drink," he urged, "it will make you sleep."

He lifted my head and held the cup to my lips.  I drank; why should I not?  Even if I knew that the vessel held a deadly poison I would not have hesitated.  Was it not better to die with the assistance of a friend than helpless and neglected in the dungeons of the chancellor?

The bitter draft seemed to make the room spin.

"Goodbye," I heard the spellcaster say, looking not at me, I thought, but at the unconscious -- or dead -- Ava.  "I regret that I never shall live to kiss the cheek of --

"-- Of my true scion."


When next aware of myself, I drew in a breath of surprising fragrance.  I sat up, an action so natural that it eluded me for an instant that I had performed a miracle!

I looked down at once paralyzed body.

My hands easily opened and closed in front of me, my legs shifted with my restlessness.  I could move again!

Only magic could be responsible for so complete a recovery.  As my astonishment wore off, I glanced about.  I was located upon a sandy riverbank that shimmered with blue and green reflections.  I clambered to my feet, rejoicing that I could perform so simple an act. 

The willows on the opposite bank wavered in the warm breeze, and their boughs rippled with bird songs.  How had I come to such a place, I wondered?  Had Cawdour's magic carried me away to some strange fairyland?

Then my heart sank.
This was, surely, no more than a dream.  Or, as it suddenly occurred to me, it could be a place of the dead, some small corner of the Western Isles?  As I lay senseless, had some soldier thrust a blade through my breast?

If so, the journey through the Mists must have been as swift as a thought in flight.  Priests had been insistent that the soul lived on, but, I think, most men nursed secret doubts.

I seemed to be all alone and so wondered whether I was to be the only dweller in this new world of mine.  It would soon become a boring haven if my only living companions were to be plants and birds -- the later of which I not even seen as yet.  Where were the throngs of the dead that must have been coming here for centuries, the victims of war, old age, and disease?  I looked all about.

Then I saw her, a figure on a small spit of sand, the stream dividing us, sitting with legs curled under her.  She seemed aware of me, also.

A clear-eyed gaze told me that my intriguing neighbor was none other than Lady Ava, the spellcaster's daughter!

I had begun to fret about my isolation when I was taunted with the appearance of Cawdour's treacherous daughter.  Why, I asked myself, should I have to share my paradise with an enemy and betrayer?  But then I shrugged.  If the gods were truly the judges of men's actions, it was for them to decide Ava's guilt -- and my guilt, too, for that matter.

Anyway, the girl was beautiful, and it takes a hard heart to hate one as lovely as Ava.  As if Cawdour's daughter knew my mind, she waved a slender arm.  Cautiously, I mimed the reply, inquiring with signals whether I should join her.  I noted her exaggerated nod.

Something warned me to caution.  What about the tales of sirens that lured men to their doom?  Was I at risk?  Could the dead die again?  And if I met with her, would she only unleash her bile on me, as she had upon her own father?  But even a quarrel might be better than solitude.  I waded out into the stream and as its cool flow roiled about my calves, I savored the pleasure of it.  

This was no mortal stream; it was like I was immersing myself in the embrace of a loving parent.  I suddenly felt like I didn't exist in one body only, but that my shape was an illusion.  It was more like I was part of this vista, and it was a part of me, a strange sensation of living beyond the confines of my individual body.

I half swam, half floated, until my bare feet touched the yielding silt carpet of yonder bank.  Although reluctant to leave the caress of the water, the magnetism of the green-eyed girl drew me like lodestone.

Up close, Ava was, impossibly, even more beautiful than I remembered her.  I had long known one of Cawdour's family secrets -- that the girl's mother had placed a blessing spell upon her infant, allowing the child to mature into supernal loveliness.  "I should not want an innocent child to grow up looking like you," the sorceress had reportedly told her husband.

What a puzzle.  Why did the women of Cawdour's family esteem him so little, while I -- for good reason I thought -- had honored him above all men alive?  It was a pity that my mentor's life had been so rife with conflict; in my present mood, I wanted only good to come to all.

Still reclining, Ava did not react to my dripping arrival, except by maintaining what seemed to be a very impersonal smile.  She was wearing a light and airy gown.  I then I realized that my own garments were every bit as strange as hers, a robe formed of what seemed to be woven mist.

"Lady," I asked, sitting down beside her, "do you understand how we came to be here?"

Her expression remained genial.  "Of course.  You are here for me, Sir Rodin."

I frowned.  As far as possible answers went, this one did not satisfy me.  "Have you seen anyone else about, Ava?" I persisted.

"My name is not Ava," she corrected me.

I grinned condescendingly.  "No?  Then what is it?"

"You must give me a name."

"You're teasing me!"

"I am not, Sir Knight.  I shall have no name unless you kindly grace me with one."

"Oh, very well, what name would you most like?"

"I like your name very much."

"My name?  Rodin?"

"Yes," she nodded.  "Rodin."

"I can't call you Rodin," I said.  "It would be too confusing, especially if we have to introduce ourselves to other people.  And, anyway, I'm not certain that I'd care to lead a lady named 'Rodin' on my arm."

"Perhaps not," she conceded.

"What if I called you Ava?"

She gave a little shrug.  "The name suits me but poorly.  How would you like to be called Ava?"

A silly game, but I didn't care.  She had a charm that was hard to resist.  Whenever I realize that I am dreaming, I tend to be very bold with young women.  A stolen kiss, a sly touch, are mine for the taking.  But courtesy guides me during waking hours.  If the afterlife were like a lucid dream, it might be a very pleasant type of existence indeed.

I placed my hand upon her slight shoulder; she did not recoil or frown.  In fact, she moved her head slightly, posing her mouth as if to receive a kiss.  I admired grace that comes without demureness.  Also, I'd never seen lips more perfecting inviting.

But, again, something warned me.  It was said that to kiss a ghost was to waste away and die.  What rules held here?  What if I were already dead?  In the Western Isles the worthy dead were allowed many dalliances, especially with the spirit maiden that waited upon the souls of the worthy, the cailíní milis.  So, should I forbear?

"You must kiss me," she said, "or we can never leave this place."

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"It is part of the enchantment."

"And what do you know about 'the enchantment?'"

"I know what you know," she replied.

"I do feel like I am under some sort of an enchantment," I shrugged.

Her lips still seemed to be waiting for me. 

Impulsiveness has been an innate part of me, a flaw that I have always fought to control.  My parents had warned me against it, and so did my military trainers.  It was as if this Ava-Who-Was-Not-Ava knew my every weakness and was playing the temptress to exploit them.  She moved her mouth very close to mine, but still did not make contact.  Her breath was like the perfume of a flower.

"You must initiate the act," she whispered.  "Acceptance must be your choice.  Nothing can happen unless you so choose it."

Women!  Though I was young, I had already discovered that howsoever much a girl might throw herself at a man, she always wants to be able to tell herself that she had been the chosen, not the chooser.

Maybe that is one of the differences between men and women; men take pride in being him who chooses.

"Do not delay, Sir Rodin," she whispered, "our time is much shorter than you suppose and I do not wish to ever be parted from you."

"The girls of paradise are saucy indeed!" I laughed.  It dawned on me that this could be a cailín milis and not the ill-tempered Ava, after all.  A spirit could, presumably, take any disguise that it pleased.  But if so, how strange it was that the spirit should seek to my favor with the shape of Ava, whom I hardly knew and did not like, instead of taking the image of my beloved Ceann.

Or were the spirits empowered to imitate only the dead?  If that were so, Ava had indeed been slain by her father.  Such a death seemed to me a sad and sordid thing, for all the wickedness that she had displayed.

"Rodin," the maiden warned, her expression becoming serious, "you cannot go on without me, nor I without you."

"If I kiss a spirit, wise ones tell me that I might be bewitched," I informed her playfully.

"It may be time for bewitchment," she replied, a certain merriness returning to her glance.

She was Desire itself.  I felt my desire growing, and overwhelm me like a consuming fire.

Her further words became mumbles as I began to nibble upon her lower lip.

To be continued....

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