Friday, October 4, 2013
The Spellcaster's Heiress -- Chapter Five
By Christopher Leeson
FROM DYAN'S JOURNAL
For us to hold thirty to forty hunted men together as an organization required some lively riding. To stay in one place too long was to court death. Even more than the usual knightly troop, we depended on our horses. Our Fyana mounts came by way of surreptitious purchases and by theft. In the latter case, we made an effort to steal only from the enemy and his avowed friends. Some horse breeders, wishing that they could have joined us, occasionally offered the gift of a good steed. Once we had the animals, we did all we could to preserve them in health and vigor. They were our mobility, and mobility was our survival.
We kept as many spare horses as we dared and distributed them amongst pastures that were held by trusted yeomen. Alas, there was an inherent risk in creating such ties. Even a man who wished our cause well might, in time, be forced to betray us if he fell under suspicion and was subjected to coercion. Those with wives and children were especially vulnerable.
But even when the arrangement worked well, it meant that our replacement horseflesh was usually far away from the man who needed it most. In almost every way, it was hard to compete with the militias, rowdy outfits that they were. Harouck had the wealth and the armories; his men had the best of everything lavished upon them.
Too often, our only respite from the saddle might be a blanket on the ground. Fifty miles a day was no unusual journey for us. Our new men, even some experienced equestrians, developed saddle sores from the continuous riding. In fact, one could hardly consider himself a real member of the Fyana until his crotch had turned to leather.
We used unpredictable movement to magnify our apparent numbers. The same party that had prowled with Cromm, burning a militia camp at, say, Trafford one night, could be galloping with Tadgh and pillaging enemy supply depots in the Serchus Valley before two more suns rose.
It sometimes amazed even ourselves how less than fifty men could do so much to soil the chancellor's public image. His political strength greatly depended on an illusion of complete control and invincibility. We did our best to showcase his lack of control and make him look incompetent. We were forever dreaming of the day when there were not just fifty of us fighting for Arannan's liberty, but fifty thousand. From tiny seeds, great forests grew.
But were we a good stock of seeds? That doubt was an unruly hound that we kept on leash in the backs of our minds. Alas, every time we paid the butcher's bill, it would awake to bay at us.
The Blossoming Orchard
Gannon and I were riding cautiously up an alder-shaded carriage path, not sure of the reception that lay ahead. A score of barns, barracks, and sheds ringed the M'Gywess family villa. I had to speak to the Lady M'Gywess and tell her the truth. I personally did not like the prospect of shocking a sorceress of such stature. But what could I do? I was not her daughter and she'd probably know it the instant that I opened my mouth.
When we reached the pavement at the front face of the mansion, three servants came out from the veranda. I told them to have the horses attended, but that we weren't yet sure that we would be staying for more than a few minutes.
"Wait out here, Gannon," I advised my friend. "This is going to be gamy."
"Good luck, Rod. Hopefully the lady doesn't have a weak heart."
I shook my head. "I'm just hoping that she isn't given to murderous rages."
Up to now I hadn't thought about the grief that I was about to lay at the feet of Ava's family. A stepfather's reaction might be muted; not so that of the natural mother. She would see me and think that her daughter was home safe; I would have to tell her that she was in fact dead. I had a role in her death -- an involuntary one, but a role. What would the Lady think about that?
I hesitated below the front steps, trying to plan the words I would have to speak. Just then, an old housekeeper emerged from the door with bird-like steps. "My lady! I don't believe I've ever seen you riding a horseback before!" she exclaimed.
"I learned riding at my father's house. I have to see…my mother," I told her.
The woman nodded. "Please come in, Lady Ava!" She led me into the foyer and there inquired whether I would first like to go to my rooms and refresh myself. I told her no, that it was urgent that I speak to "Mother." She looked at me in a way that made me wonder how much bad news had already reached the estate. The family might even know that Cawdour was dead.
The housekeeper excused herself, left the room, and returned directly. "Please follow me, Lady Ava," she said. "Your mother is most pleased with your return."
I was led down a hall that curved gracefully toward into a large salon. An attractive mature woman was seated on a divan. Her velvet gown was a formal one and she was wearing a tiara, which I knew to be a symbol of religious office. She raised her glance and smiled. It chilled me how soon that that motherly expression would be torn from her face.
Elekta, Cawdour had told me, was a Helleg and to my glance she looked like one -- olive-complexioned and dark of hair. Interestingly, because Ave did not look like her father, I had anticipated some stronger maternal resemblance. While both women were attractive though, their beauty was of distinctly different orders. I could believe more than ever that Ava's appearance had been refined by magic.
Many sorceresses maintain a image of youth, but Elekta had the look of one who could be the mother of a girl of eighteen. Possibly, like Cawdour, the druidess purposefully maintained a look of authority. The spellcaster had mimicked an age of about fifty himself, though he was over two hundred. Age control was considered the supreme proof for great magical power.
The lady, standing, reached out to me. "Ava! I was so worried," she exclaimed, her accent being slightly foreign. "People say that your father is dead, a traitor! It must have been terrible." She then surveyed my attire. "Child -- your hair, your dress! You look --"
The woman's words faltered. I had said nothing, had made no gesture, and had been trying to control my expression, but in the blink of an eye her motherly ebullience had become a mix of alarm and perplexity.
"Your eyes, Ava! There is a stranger looking at me through your eyes!"
The witch made a protective sign and stood up, as if preparing to defend herself. "Gods' mercy, my precious! Have you been possessed?"
"Y-You are astute, Lady Elekta," I began haltingly. "I -- I am not your daughter."
Her reaction was remarkably measured. "What then --? Who is speaking to me?" Her tone grew sharp with hysteria.
"Lady," I replied, "I don't know how to begin. Something -- very strange -- has occurred. I've come to seek your aid. Cawdour told me that I should."
"Cawdour? Is he responsible for what's happened to you -- to Ava?"
"Yes, madam," I affirmed carefully. "I was with him just before he died."
That news didn't visibly register with her. She surely knew of his death. "You seek what?" Elekta asked. "My help? You, the demon who usurps my daughter's body?"
"I'm no demon," I averred gloomily. "My name is Rodin. None of this is not easy to explain, but my spirit is trapped in Ava's shape, though I sincerely wish that it were not."
"I don't understand. You must be a demon. How else --?"
"No, Lady. I'm just an ordinary man."
I told my history quickly, just as I had told it to Gannon. Lady Elekta listened incredulously. Then, when I had nothing left to tell, she spoke with a trembling voice and a shaking head.
"I can't believe this. He was a reckless man, an adventurer in magic, often heedless of the risks he ran. Even so, why would a father banish his only child to the realm of the dead? Had his ambitions driven him utterly mad?"
"She betrayed him," I reminded her. "She had herself sent for the soldiers."
Elekta drifted like a wraith to the window. After a moment, she asked, "Why did my former husband murder our daughter?"
It was as if she had not understood anything that I had so far said. I changed tack and told her of my theory that Cawdour had sought to unite a magical Spirit to one with the magical Blood. "When he knew that he must die," I said, "he told me to seek you out and ask to be trained in sorcery. I did not know what he meant -- at least not then."
My hostess wheeled about, her fists clenched. "Train you? That old devil! That damned old devil!"
"Lady..." I began, but she started shouting.
"Curse him!" she declared, her eyes reflecting the flame of the hearth. "Only Cawdour would have the audacity, the inhumanity, to concoct a scheme like this! You -- boy -- are an accomplice in my daughter's murder. By the Goddess! I should slay you where you stand."
She could problem strike me down with a hand gesture. I had to speak swiftly.
"Had my foster father only explained his intentions," I assured the druidess, "I never would have consented to this terrible thing. I never asked to be a sorcerer. I certainly have never wanted to be a woman!"
Elekta, her expression still furious, tore her gaze away from me and glared into the fire.
I persisted. "Can you undo what Cawdour has done, my lady? I'll gladly avenge your daughter, and our people as well!"
The lady looked back at me. "Avenge her how? Upon Cawdour, who is now beyond any mortal retribution? Upon Harouck? You hate Harouck, but he only sought to marry her and -- apparently -- she was extremely willing. I don't know what I should do with you, Sir Rodin. You are an abomination. If you were not so clearly a dupe, I could hate you. Yet, my instinct tells me that you were as much a victim as Ava was. But her suffering is over. Your destiny has put you on a highway that will surely be a very punishing one."
If she were a prophetess, I hoped that she was but a poor sort. "If there is no aid you can give, my lady, you might as well slay me. Looking at what my life has come to, I can almost wish that I had died along Cymydog Road. Without this resurrection, it would have been an honorable death." I felt wretched, and must have looked it.
Lady Elekta regarded me. "Sit down, before you fall, Sir Rodin."
I fell ungracefully into the nearest chair. My hostess, in the grip of anger and grief, paced back and forth, speaking more to herself than to me.
"You have the soul of a sorcerer, or so Cawdour thought. Clever rascal. He's broken the laws of sorcery all too often, but criminality was nothing daunting for Cawdour."
My head spinning, I struggled to speak. "Was he utterly wrong to send me to you, milady?"
She stopped and stared. "What should I do with you, pray tell? Make you a sorceress?"
"No, Lady. I was a soldier. I only seek to go back to the life I know! "
She threw up her arms. "You ask too much, Sir Knight! Do you even grasp what you ask? Whom should I murder for your benefit? Why should I murder anyone at all? Why should I have to clear away the rubble that Cawdour has created? If you failed to guess that he was unworthy of trust after so many years, you have only yourself to blame. A terrible thing has happened to you, I grant, but a terrible thing has befallen me also. My child is dead. And, what is worse, I am tormented by the sight of her corpse being profaned by an invading spirit."
I should have stayed wisely silent then, but too often I impulsive enough to speak frankly.
"It would be no crime to choose some condemned man already doomed to die," I offered.
She stamped her foot. "Oh, you selfish pup! You still do not grasp the issue. Two must die to save one. Some victim must perish, and the necromancer who does the evil deed must die, also."
It was like a candle had been lit. It was so obvious now. Cawdour was only willing to work the magic because he could throw his life away cheaply; it was a thing already lost. His hatred of Harouck had been so great that he had used his own life as the gaming stake in what he knew would be his last throw of the dice.
"It was the spell he used," Elekta went on gravely. "Imagine, if you can, a river that floats a boat from one pier to another. The boat was Cawdour's spirit, and its passenger was your soul. One pier was your dying body, the other was Ava's shell, barely drawing its last breaths. When you, the passenger, disembarked, the empty boat simply floated away into the mist."
"A river, you say?"
She looked at me sternly. "It is a metaphor."
I decided not to speak of my vision. "You are saying that my life is ended, Lady. If I cannot be restored by your grace, will you not name someone else of skill who might be more willing?"
She looked at me as if I were a child without understanding.
"I have already explained that no sorcerer can work Cawdour's spell unless he is willing to die himself. What can you offer to any man in fair exchange for his life?"
I looked askance. "Have I no hope at all?"
The bending of her lips that I saw could hardly have been called a smile. "You are still alive, albeit by the lawless necromancy of Cawdour. But every human life is a gift, Rodin; hold fast to it, whatever its hardships. You have a new life to claim. Find some calm retreat, take some time to look inside yourself, see this rebirth for all that it can be." She paused briefly, then said, "This insanity might have not come about by accident; it could well be the will of the gods. I hope that it's true; I hope that it will lead to something that will give this awful event meaning, something to make it worth the sacrifice."
Up to now, I had taken Elekta to be a very hard woman, but these words had sounded almost sympathetic. Alas, in my crushed state, such advice hardly appealed to me. I had just been informed that all my targets were beyond my shot; when I tried to think of a reason to keep on living I came up blank. I struggled to rise and leave the lady to her sorrow. But my face suddenly felt hot and the room spun. I fell back to the chair and it was a battle just to stave off a faint.
The woman stared at me silently. I thought that she was about to order me gone from her home. But instead Elekta said, "Come over to the divan and lie down. Man or monster, you seem to be in a pitiable state."
Some time later, a servant girl brought us a pitcher of oren-calch, a beverage made from three different fruits with sweetening added. I gulped down a cupful, and then sank into the pillows.
"How very much you look like a boy slouching there," Lady Elekta observed.
"I am a boy. A man --!"
She shrugged. "You make too much of what is only physical. No one chooses his own sex. You are still young enough to adjust. All souls are the same; you have not been diminished by what has happened; it is your vanity alone which afflicts you."
Offended, I glowered at the carpet, unable to give a civil reply. My words would surely have come out harshly and the aggrieved woman did not deserve a berating from the likes of me.
She continued speaking. "A man occupying my dear child's body! I can still scarcely believe it." Her voice fell to a whisper. "It's -- unbearable."
The lady drifted to a table of buffed marble and laid her hands upon its reflecting surface. "Tell me, Sir Monster, "where will you fare from here?"
Sir Monster? That was what I felt like. I struggled to make reply. "I have nowhere to go. I have no means of support, and lack even a name I can honestly use. I have nothing to give, nothing to hope for. I am useless even as a rebel."
She confronted me severely. " All is in the hands of the gods; we can do little except await their will. Are you so distressed about this because you hate women?"
I raised my chin indignantly. "I don't hate women at all! My mother, my sisters…" I stopped abruptly.
"What's wrong," my hostess inquired.
"I -- I believe that my whole family has been taken into custody, to pay for the crimes that I alone committed."
She was briefly silent. "Tell me," Elekta asked, "would your loved ones accept you now, the way you are?"
So far I had not deliberately tortured myself askying such a question. "I don't know," I replied in a hoarse whisper. "It is better that they think I'm dead."
The sorceress was suddenly all business. "You may spend the night in Ava's quarters. That way, the servants will have nothing to gossip about in my treatment of her -- of you. Tomorrow, I must insist that you be on your way. The shape you wear tortures me. I need time to deal with Ava's death, the clarity of thought to stop picking at the scab of this tragedy. I need peace so that scar tissue can cover the wound."
By now I no longer felt like swooning. I tried the read the druidess' dark eyes. Cawdour, I had almost forgotten, had not actually sent me here to regain a male shape. He had wanted me, as his disciple, to learn to use the mighty powers that he had supposedly thrus upon me.
But this wounded woman would not be my teacher. That left me confronting a stark choice. I could either die without revenge, or die with revenge. I preferred the latter. I had forever lost the strength of my arms; but if I could learn the secrets of magic, I might still inflict mighty blows upon Harouck's shoulders. He had driven Cawdour to desperation and had tempted the foolish Ava beyond her will to resist. My hate, as hot as lava, had become the only thread still holding me to a life on earth.
The sorceress now called for a manservant; he now came scurrying in.
"This -- I mean, my daughter can only stay overnight and then must continue her journey. Assist her to her room. Have Brygit attend her."
"Yes, milady," he said with a nod. "But what of the gentleman who is escorting the young mistress?"
"Find lodging for him as well; treat him as befits an officer. In the morning, when they are preparing to leave, give them all necessary assistance."
The servant nodded again and bade me to follow him. I rose, resigned.
At the door I looked back. Elekta was gazing out the window.
That night I took my first bath since becoming a woman. Brygit, the maid, assisted me, running a soft sponge over my tired, aching body while I soaked in a fragrant pool that was thick with herbal unguents. Some of them clung to my skin and I was cleaned with a strigil once I emerged.
Wrapped in a large towel, I let my attendant guide me from the bathhouse. I had been bathed by slave girls before, but being seen and touched so intimately while wearing my present shape had discomposed me. Brygit had to have noticed my nervousness, but was too disciplined to inquire about it.
Once back in the main house and in Ava's small suite, the girl combed out my hair, remarking about how snarled it had become. Ultimately, Brygit was forced to take a small blade and cut out the worst of the snags. The procedure ended with my wet hair pinned and wrapped. It was already suppertime and servants interrupted us with the best repast that I'd enjoyed in many a day.
When finally finished preparing me for bed, I was left alone, pondering the ramifications of an unhappy situation. All my dice had been thrown, it seemed. I had lost my life among the Fyana, and my mission to Lady Elekta had come to nothing. Where was I to go now? Whom else could I turn to? I had become a stranger even to myself, a ghost doomed to drift over the world. Life had lost its sweetness, regardless of the fragrance of the blossoming orchard that was being carried by the night breeze. Would I not be better off in the Western Isles, dwelling along the beautiful river that I had dreamed about?
The drift of song and of harp music from without lured me to the balcony. I saw no one below, through the darkness and the foliage, but the singer was certainly Gannon:
"Where do the seas flow, love?
Where do the seas flow?
The skies know the secret,
Of where the seas flow."
I leaned over the balustrade to listen:
"The storms of the billows stole Raunna from me,
See her now slumber beneath blankets of wave.
I beg to implore thee, handmaids of the sea,
To place coral garlands atop of her grave."
I left my quarters and took double steps down to the foyer. The song continued:
"She sleeps amid treasure, o'erwhelmed by the deep;
Brilliant wet emeralds, cast marvels of gold;
Am I in her dreams in the midst of long sleep?
To the gods I'd trade diamonds to have her to hold."
As I stepped outside, a cool breeze fanned my face. Milkmaids, sitting on the lawn, circled Gannon, like birds charmed by a serpent. At the sight of me they hastily excused themselves. After all, was I not their mistress' "daughter," and was not this comely knight my own gallant escort?
Gannon shook his head as the servant girls retreated into the darkness. "Rod," he complained, "even as a girl you insist on making a wreck of my love life."
"Stop complaining. I never took a wench from you. " Then I put aside my ever-present pain enough to grin. "The wenches who came on to you were only using you to get an introduction to me."
"Have it your way. Was that song a signal for my benefit, or am I just in the way?"
"I wanted to know how things went with Lady Elekta."
I threw up my arms. "Perfectly terrible. I don't know what to do."
"You must be one hell of a diplomat."
"We should start for the marches tomorrow," he suggested. "Once we rejoin the band, you'll feel better."
"What good would I be to the band?" I asked irascibly.
"If you don't come back to the Fyana, where are you going to go?" He got up from his stool looking serious for once.
"What do women without prospects do?" I asked myself out loud.
"If you give up, what will happen to your family?"
"I don't want to think about it."
He took my arm. "You'd better think about it. If you don't have the guts for facing trouble, you're in just as much trouble as you think you are. You're not the man I knew. It will take the man you used to be to get you through this."
"You've been a good friend..." I began, trying to fashion acceptable parting words. The moon had passed under a cloud and the thickening darkness filled my heart and soul. I let my sentence hang.
"Well, I have to go back even if you don't. I suppose there work to be found for milkmaids in these parts," he offered facetiously.
I kicked him in the shin.
The rebel dropped my arm. "I swear that if you don't stop kicking me, I'll give you a good paddling."
"If you do, you'll have a hard time playing the lyre with one arm."
He resumed his seat. "If my words are wasted on you, there's no use letting the rest of my best song go to waste." He struck his harp.
"Where do the seas flow, love?
Where do the seas flow?
Through the canyons of Ocean,
That's where the seas flow.
"New ships on the morrow shall launch from the shore,
Other lovers, divided, shall pine in the mists.
But my love will go sailing, go sailing no more.
Her spirit belongs to the Land of the Blessed.
"Where do the seas flow, love?
Where do the seas flow?
Through the abyss of sadness,
That's where the seas flow."
I actually did sleep, if fitfully. A good breakfast came, but it did not improved my mood. What had kept me striving up to this moment had been the hope that the overturned bark that was my life could be righted. But the conversation I'd had with Elekta had convinced me that I was on a fool's errand. There had been a time when suicide had been looked upon by men of rank as honorable, but that was then and this was now. The glory was gone from it. If I had no good choices remaining, what was the least wretched of the options still left to me?
In my frame of mind it was hard to tell the truly terrible from what was merely ghastly.
The thing that bothered me most was the fact that I had as good as told Gannon to leave me. I didn't want to be alone, but neither did I want to condemn a friend to the weighty shackles of my troubles.
I looked up into the sky, from whence, the druids said, the gods look down on wretched Man. "Do you have a table set for me?" I asked. "Whatever the serving, help me to find it, Ye Mighty." Though I prayed in this way, I expected only coarse and bitter fare.
Something deep inside told me that my sorrowful life was coming to a close. The battle wound that I'd sustained had not slain me, but it had led to an ill treatment. That treatment was still killing me slowly. Would I be glad when the end finally came? Probably. I scarcely would have chosen to live the events of the last several days had I not wrongly hoped for succor from some quarter.
I thought about the people who had touched the life that once had been mine, especially Ceann. What had Harouck's bullies done with her? If they suspected how much she knew about the rebels, they would be brutal in the seeking of information.
I had come to no resolutions before Brygit entered with her selection for my morning wear, a dress that was armless and low-cut. Though I disliked it intensely, I felt too sick at heart to make an issue of it. Nothing really mattered anymore with the Western Isles awaiting me just beyond the mist, least of all women's fashion.
After the maid had finished dressing me, I went outside, hoping that a brisk walk would improve my melancholy. A stroll had sometimes helped me when I was sunk into sadness, such as when members of my band had failed to return alive. For two years I had led the Fyana and had accepted casualties, too many casualties. How wise a leader had I been? Was my strange fate the fair judgment of the goddess Proba, she who exchanges sin for justice? By why should the gods single me out? Wasn't Harouck, and countless others, even worse? Shouldn't the first punishment fall upon their scheming heads?
While drifting along in deep thought, I was greeted by lambs bleating. It was common to allow lambs to run free on country estates to keep the lawn short. They also fertilized the grass while making it unfit to lie down upon. The milkmaids, I noticed, were just then herding their cows to pasture with willow switches. Nearby, two boys were practicing archery, aiming at a patch of leather pinned to a target of woven straw.
I strolled obliquely toward the fruit trees, drawn by the intoxicating scent of plum blossoms. The humming of bees grew louder and I saw the insects as dark specks bouncing between snowy boughs.
"Easy, Lady Ava," a man warned. "Perfume attracts them; they'll sting you for sure!"
I looked back to see an elderly peasant in a floppy hat and old tartan trousers.
"I'm not wearing perfume," I told him tonelessly. Scent was one of the things that I had rejected when Brygit was preparing me.
"Well, you still should be careful, milady. Bright colors draw them in, too." The old man sauntered past me, skirting a row of old wooden beehives. The shouting of the boys made him look back and laugh.
"Boys never change!" he chortled.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Just look at those two, showing off for your ladyship."
I regarded the lads anew and saw one stealing a glance my way. Yes, the peasant could be right. They might very well have been showing off.
For a girl!
I had nothing better to do, so, partially amused and partially vengeful, I directed my step toward the youths.
TO BE CONTINUED….