Friday, December 6, 2013
The Spellcaster's Heiress -- Chapter 7
By Christopher Leeson
FROM DYAN'S JOURNAL
"How long does your family have?" Elekta had asked me during our flight north.
"Until the eve of Cernunog's feast day, Lady," I answered gloomily.
"Cernunnog's Eve? Are you certain?"
"All I know is rumor. May the gods grant that that we have at least that much time."
She was frowning off into the distance. "It is strange. People call Cernunog's Eve the 'Dark of the Demons.'"
"It's an unlucky night," I agreed.
She nodded. "The god allows the spirits of the Netherworld to roam free on that date. Wise people keep to their homes from dusk to dawn."
I knew that to be true. I sometimes wondered why a deity so honored by men would choose to plague the human race once each year.
Cawdour had once explained it this way: Cernunnog is the warden who keeps the evil of the Netherworld at bay. But because mankind is forgetful of its blessings whenever he deceives himself that these blessings are just the natural order of things, the god withholds his protection in order to teach them otherwise. In that way, Men were informed that the gods are real and their role as Man's protectors is pivotal. Wretched would be mankind’s lot if the gods ever forsook them.
Lady Elekta was speaking again. "You’re saying that Harouck has marked hundreds -- men, women, and children alike -- to die upon the most evil night of the year?"
"That is so, my lady. It does seem ominous."
"I have talked to priests and sorcerers. "Some have suspected that Harouck's sorcery is of the vilest kind. If his real intention is to turn a political execution into a holocaust to the Ancient Gods, the Fumorau, the world is far more out of order than we have supposed. With such a sacrifice, a dark wizard might even strike a bargain with Brys, the Dark-Robed Man, or another demon of his ilk."
I looked askance. "Are you serious, Lady?"
"Very serious, Sir Knight. If that man is truly courting the favor of the greater demons, our civilization might not survive to his downfall! His true war might be aimed at the gods themselves."
The Standing Stones
The priestess, having spoken her part of the ritual, withdrew to her designated place. Another of the elders approached. "Do you unreservedly dedicate yourself to the ways of Llyana, Lady Dyan?" the druidess asked.
The ways of Llyana? I inwardly winced. I revered Toutatis, the god of battle. To my mind, the way of the goddess was only the shortest path to a necessary end. Because my future battles could not be waged with the sword, I had to seek the help of a different deity.
"Yes, Lady, I dedicate myself," I responded.
"Pray with us."
I was led in the chant, and then had to repeat Llyana sundry names and titles, an exercise intended to impress novices with the goddess' many guises and her plethora of roles in the natural world.
"It is good," the third priestess declared when this recitation was over. "Rise, daughter."
I got up and the attendants, the same who had bathed me, ushered me to a position a few yards along, so that I stood before the quilt-surrounded altar.
"Remove your cassock, Dyan," someone directed me from behind.
I did so, which left me in just the short, diaphanous garment. Near nudity before a congregation so august rendered me very ill at ease.
"Recline," directed another druidess. She assisted me to a prone position on the soft green quilt, nudging my limbs into a spread-out posture. Then the three elders took positions surrounding me: one to the rear and the others to my right and left respectively.
While the trio prayed, the druidess on the left raised a wooden bowl. She who was to my right accepted a rabbit from an attendant. Deftly, she slit the beast's throat and let the blood drain into the vessel held out to her and poised above my body. At this, the third priestess, she who was behind me, settled to her knees and began to stroke my cheeks and temples.
I saw the attendant take the dead animal away once it stopped squirming; the elder who held the bowl now dipped her index finger into its warm cruor. Another acolyte knelt by my side and raised the hem of my garment to expose my belly. The priestess with the bowl then proceeded to draw lines and curves upon my goose-pimpled flesh.
At first, the blood felt warm, but it cooled swiftly. I had had much blood spilled upon me as a soldier, much of it my own. But the touch of the rabbit blood affected me strangely. My senses seemed to grow very alert and I was able to hear subtle sounds and detect faint spells, most of all the smell of the blood. But my flesh felt that it was being caressed by a slight, oscillating airflow, as if the chamber itself were breathing.
The druidess who had been massaging my temples suddenly jerked her hands away.
"I stroke a pullet," she gasped, "but touch a rooster's comb!"
"What do you mean, Sister?" asked one of the others.
She who was to my rear answered by addressing me. "Child," she said, "are you aware that your soul is almost wholly male?"
"Almost? I mean -- is that bad?"
The woman's excited breathing eased. "No, it is not bad, fair one, not if that which is masculine is in harmony with you. Man is woman's father, her brother, her son, her husband, her protector, and provider. Men and women are held equally close to Nature's bosom."
Obviously, these intuitive priestesses could not be easily gulled, no more than Elekta had been. How would they react if I were exposed as an imposter with no right to their blessing? I very much wanted the ceremony to be over.
"S-So it is a good thing?"
"It may mean that you were male in your last life and that incarnation still guides you on your way. Or it may betoken that the goddess has sought you out as an uncommon woman who is intended to serve some purpose that no one else can."
"I -- I shall do all that I am called to do," I said, hoping that I sounded earnest.
"Well spoken," the druidess assured me. "We shall proceed. Cross your hands, maid, and rest your fingertips upon your cheeks. Be at perfect ease; permit the goddess to come into you. When she has shared your mortal body for a fleeting instant, you shall never again be entirely alone."
I caught my breath. It sounded like demonic possession, an idea that I did not care for.
Many fingers touched me. The triad had begun to massage the tenseness from my body, and they were very effective at it. I began to grow sleepy and thought that could hear a hymn drifting to me from a far-off place….
I opened my eyes and realized I was alone.
I touched myself. Since my last day in Cawdour's house have almost always touch myself at the moment of wakefulness.
But this time I was male!
I ran my fingertips across my stubbly cheeks, gloried in the hard flatness of my pectorals, the rocky muscles of my limbs, and all else that declared me a man.
Then my joy dried to dust. I was dreaming, of course. In my dreams I had always been male, but what was different this time was that I knew I was dreaming. I looked right and left, into what I supposed to be a dreamscape.
It appeared that I no longer rested upon quilt inside Llyana's temple, but reclined on the breast of the misty earth. I braced my elbows and raised my head and shoulders. The mist kept me from seeing aught but shadows, but suddenly there was a burst of white light and I flung my arms over my eyes.
But I didn't feel dazzled, nor were the backs of my eyelids spotted with radiant color. I kept my sight in darkness for a few seconds, until curiosity compelled me to steal a glance. The canescent light remained, but had ceased to be overwhelming. It issued from what looked like a tunnel, a tunnel of light instead of darkness.
"Walk toward the light, Rodin," a voice bade me.
A woman's voice.
After my initial startlement, I got to my feet and searched the mists for the speaker.
"Please, my love, walk toward the light," the voice reiterated.
My love? Who could claim to love me here, in this place? Not even Lady Elekta could possibly love me. But, of course, in a dream any phantom might walk. Feeling as weightless as air, I advanced cautiously toward the tunnel mouth. I saw a shape take form within. It was by no means a woman, but a thing that floated free, a gigantic crystal off which the white light danced.
A Serpent's Orb! The symbol of the magical tie between Earth and Heaven.
As I stood staring a human form advanced into my peripheral sight. Who?
Cawdour's daughter still looked as calm as she had when I had last seen her by the wooded river. Her eyes were fixed upon mine as she came nearer. I glanced away, as one should wisely do from the stare of a witch.
I warned her off. "Don't come closer, Ava. I've had enough of you."
My nemesis didn't pause, not until she stood within an arm's reach. The traitor girl was wearing a pale tunic with her free hair spilling in cascades. Ava's lips were wide, sensuous, and slightly parted, as if intending to bestow on me a kiss. "You must not call me Ava," she chided. "I am Dyan."
"That is the name I have called myself!"
"You betrayed me, and your own father, too."
She smiled. "Ava betrayed you; not Dyan."
"Whatever you call yourself, your body is nothing but a prison for me."
She regarded me, compassionately it seemed. "I was always part of you, Rodin, but only now have I received a form that I may wear. Asleep in the heart of a brave knight, I could be only a ghost. But the goddess has given me strength and substance. Embrace me, Rodin, and let what she has given me become yours."
"You talk in riddles," I declared.
"Be strong, my brother. Love me and let me love you. Take the Blood and take the power."
The Blood? Did she mean the accursed sorcerer flesh that Cawdour had inflicted upon me?
"Yes, that is what I mean," she said, as if she knew every thought in my mind. "Can you see the truth?"
"What is truth?"
"He laughed lightly. "Have you become a philosopher, brother?"
When I did not reply, the phantom girl took my cheeks between her palms and, standing on her tiptoes, pressed a kiss to my reluctant mouth. It was anything but a sisterly kiss.
In fact, it was the kiss like I had once hoped to receive from my future bride, whosoever she would be.
"We must go forward together, betrothed," Ava -- or Dyan -- said, even as she pushed back from me, "because now we must troth our vows."
"Vows? Are you talking about a wedding?" If she were, it would be the same metaphor that Elekta had used. "You call me brother. Is not incest accursed?" I challenged her.
"Dyan" shook her head without frowning. "When mortals wed do they not become as one? How much blessed is the union between the two haves of one nature? Walk with me," she urged. Instead, I stepped back. Where did this minx with the face of a traitoress intend to lead me?
"Why do you fear me, Rodin?" she asked.
It suddenly seemed wrong to be afraid of a girl, ghost or not. Was this not a dream, and did my physical body not lie within a circle of protection?
That thought permitted me to take the girl's outstretched hand and let her escort me into the lighted tunnel. We came to stand beneath the Serpent's Orb.
"It is the time and the place," Dyan said, as if reciting a fragment of a chant.
"The time and the place for what?" I asked.
She took my other hand into hers. "Accept me, Rodin. Call me your wife."
Elekta's words came back to me: "If you are to become a magician, your sorcerer-soul must freely wed your sorceress-body."
Was this the meaning of the vision? My mind said 'no', but something deep and instinctual said 'yes.' I sorted through conflicting feelings to make the judgment call. The words, when spoken, seemed to speak themselves: "I reject Ava, but I embrace Dyan. I do declare that Dyan is my truly espoused."
She nodded. "And I acknowledge Rodin to be my husband, who is also named Dyan. Then, lowering her head, a bride kissed the hands of her groom.
As I awakened, I instinctively groped myself hopefully.
I was bitterly disappointed and that meant I was indeed awake.
"You have done well, Dyan."
The speaking voice was male. I glanced to the foot of the bed that I was laying in - and into the face of stranger. He was a gray-eyed man of about thirty, one dressed in the courtly trappings of a gentleman.
"You are our true child and we are pleased with you."
"Whom do you speak of?" I whispered hoarsely. I realized that no man -- not even a priest -- should have been found within the precincts of Llyana's temple.
"You will know all in good time," he replied. "You have been chosen to wage a battle for great ends. Your path shall be arduous and it shall test you profoundly, so rest while you may. We shall meet again at Blathaon."
He, my sick room, visitor took a step backwards.
"Wait! Who are you?" I demanded.
"Search you heart…" he began, but his voice now reached me from a place very far away.
"Dyan!" someone spoke loudly, and this voice was not male.
I turned. Lady Elekta was seated beside me.
"Who's the man?" I murmured.
"What man?" she asked.
"There!" I pointed to the foot of the bed. But the stranger was gone.
"There was no man there," insisted Elekta with a humoring smile. "You are the closest thing to a man in this temple, sweet Dyan."
"I saw him!" I insisted. "He spoke!"
She nodded, as if she believed. "I see visions, too, very often. Once one is conveyed into the Light, he is sometimes privileged to hear the words of the gods. But take care not to confuse gods with the fleeting denizens of dream. Did he say anything important?"
I shook my head, trying to remember. "Only that I should rest, because I face a difficult journey, and we would meet again at Blathaon. He made me feel that Blathaon was something ominous, like a battlefield."
Elekta frowned. "I don't know the name. Does it mean anything to you?"
"No," I said.
I settled into my down-filled pillow, at last enough in possession of myself to begin to wonder where I was. Had I been carried from the ceremony in a faint?
"The priestesses believe that your power has been awakened," Elekta informed me. "You may not feel it at first, but it will wax stronger with time and exercise." She smiled admiringly. "Cawdour always drove me to distraction with his scheming, but it is brilliant how he has chosen a champion and brought you to this point."
I looked at her, bemused.
"What is wrong?"
"The man also called me a champion."
"Is that so?"
"And, by the way, I saw Ava in my dream, too."
She blinked. "What did she say?"
"That she wasn't Ava. She called herself Dyan. She said that she had always been a part of me, but that the goddess has now made her stronger."
The lady nodded again, as if I had said something important or else had confirm a circumstance that she had been anticipating. "Anything more?"
I drew a deep breath. "She wished us to declare ourselves wed. I remembered what you told me, and so I consented."
"You did? Excellent."
"What's so excellent about it?"
She didn't answer, but changed the subject. "Listen, Dyan. I have been speaking to the Chair of the temple. There are strange things afoot, even stranger than what we had supposed."
"What do you mean?"
"No wonder Harouck sought my arrest! Sorcerers and sorceresses are suddenly being taken into custody all over Arannan. I was one of the first to be targeted."
"On some vague accusation of plotting. There seems to be nothing that Harouck is afraid to do, now that Cawdour is gone. He must be strutting like a conquering emperor through a chamber filled with sycophants."
"I suppose that he's worried that some new rival among the magicians will take Cawdour's place."
"Possibly, but it may be much worse than that."
"How much worse?"
"There used to be a magician who ruled a mountain kingdom north of Helleg," Elekta told me. "He inflicted sanguinary death upon all those whom he could get into his clutches. It became notorious that he was giving victims to the gods of Chaos in exchange for power. I am wondering whether the chamberlain's severe justice does not in fact cloak a ritual of black magical sacrifice."
"Why choose wizards for his holocaust?" I asked.
"Because their god-blood and god-soul make them the most portentous of victims. The more powerful the sorcerer, the greater is his value as an offering. I'm sure that the tyrant flew into a rage when Cawdour himself was not taken alive. So far, Harouck has not moved against the organized priestly orders, but can it be more than a matter of time before he grows audacious enough to strike directly at the temples, too?"
The lady and I had already speculated that the executions scheduled for the Eve of Cernunnog would in actuality be a sacrifice to the greater demons. This would be a catastrophic holocaust indeed, if many of them were wizards, being of the very flesh of the gods!
"He has to be insane!" I snarled.
"Mere insanity would not make a man so dangerous!"
"What are you trying to say, Lady?"
Elekta suddenly grew evasive. "I should not have spoken so frankly. I will tell you only this: Consider that it would be far better to kill yourself than to fall helpless into Harouck's power."
"I'd die before I'd marry him," I promised her sincerely.
She shook her head. "It will not be a marriage. Because you attacked and slew his servants he will cast aside all of the gallant pretense that he has affected so lamely. If you are taken, he may simply chain you to the wall and beget an heir upon you at his leisure."
What a ghastly thought! But as vile as the whole idea was, I believed that Elekta was holding something back. I pressed her. "What makes it so important for a political adventurer to have an heir? From all I had heard of the man, Harouck would make a poor excuse for a father."
"There is a rite, the darkest of all the dark rites," the Lady replied. "But it is not something to be declared until there is better evidence."
I pressed her, wanting to hear more, wanting her to share every suspicion, but she again changed the subject. "When you rejoin me in Sulidir, we shall have much to talk about. But, for now, you must fix your mind upon returning south and assisting your family."
"Lady!" I protested.
"Shhhh," she said and then reached for a sponge and a basin. She proceeded to dab off the dried rabbit blood. When I was clean, she offered me a fresh robe, one similar to the cassock that I had received in the bathing room.
Soon we were joined by a mid-level druidess who, unlike her more senior sisters, remained untonsured. Fine of features, auburn of hair, she walked with the sort of grace that a man admires. That I could still be stirred by a woman's beauty reassured me.
The priestess said something to Elekta, and then bade us both to follow. We wound through a turning hall past many doors, until we came to one that our guide opened. It contained a polished cedar table, at which Elekta and I seated ourselves. The temple druidess went to unlock a cabinet and from it took out a crude piece of leatherwork.
The lady unfolded the skin and displayed the object within. "This is the Mask of Kai, the god of the forge," the priestess explained. Then she went on to describe its strange power.
I was impressed to say the least. "How is the magic evoked?"
"That will be made clear in due course," came her dilatory reply.
I frowned. "Does not one need to train with a weapon so deadly…?"
"Hush, daughter," Elekta said. "You shall learn more through attentive listening."
I grunted; that was a schoolgirl's way to learn, not a soldier's.
Next we were shown an item of headgear called the "Cap of Shadows." The priestess claimed that it had the power to cloak the wearer with a mantle of "obscurity," a concept that intrigued me greatly.
Finally, our companion displayed the so-called "Belt of Teyrnon." Along with an explanation of its function, she imparted a firm warning:
"Take special care with this one, Maiden, lest you be killed or crippled."
I readily recognized the wisdom of such advice.
Over the next couple hours, I was taught the different chants associated with the goddess' gifts. As a tactician, I anticipated that none of these temple treasures constituted a decisive weapon in and of itself. Nonetheless, under the right circumstances, any of them might prove useful to a resourceful man.
In a qualified way, at least, I, the newest devotee of the Goddess Llyana, left the temple well satisfied.
Gannon and I had said our goodbyes to Lady Elekta. Our subsequent journey south proved uneventful. Now I stood with my shoulders resting against one of the chilly bluestone of an ancient array, waiting for the beginning of the council. The air had cooled considerably since afternoon and the long shadows cast by the menhirs had faded as a mist progressively veiled the darkening sky. By reputation, the groves where the standing stones loomed were exceedingly unlucky and few country people were rash enough to visit them.
In practice, however, the Fyana had never associated the monoliths with illness or bad luck. They reputedly predated the coming of our race to these lands. Their makers were sometimes identified with the Furborgs, the ancient men of legend who had warred against our invading ancestors. These aborigines had been sinister men; they had evoked their gods, the dark Fumorau, against our protecting deities.
But that had been impossibly long ago. Our partisan band had found these shunned structures convenient for our gatherings. In fact, because of the benign face that the stones had so far shown to the Fyana, it supposedly betokened that the gods stood in favor of our cause. I had let my brethren think that if they wished. The idea helped to maintain good morale, but I refrained from reading too much into it.
Gannon and I had discussed our strategy during the long ride from Sulidir. In rejoining the Fyana, I might have been forthright and admitted that I was, despite all appearances, the reincarnation of their former captain. Most of the partisans were my -- Rodin's -- friends, and many owed me favors. I would have liked to call upon such commitments in this desperate hour.
Because my plight was utterly ridiculous, I might have actually gained some useful sympathy from faithful comrades. But I hated the idea of being laughed at by those who had never liked me. Better by far that my brothers in arms should go on believing that Rodin had died from an honorable wound.
So, instead of telling the truth, Gannon and I had toyed with various ruses, including the idea of presenting me as some sort of witch or druidic initiate named Dyan. That would have allowed us to claim that I spoke the words of the gods, and that Heaven itself sought to move the Fyana to the succor of the Oc'Raighnes.
Alas, doing it that way that would have touched these men of action on only one level -- their piety. Soldiers are not exceptionally pious, though superstition may run strongly through their veins. What I needed most was to be taken into their generous hearts.
So, ultimately, I became "Maeve" again. Pity for a sister's suffering, especially if I emphasized her links to Rodin -- and, through him, to the men of the Fyana -- might achieve my aim.
Because Harouck's agents were seeking Ava, I had dyed my coppery locks a middling brown. It was little enough for a disguise, but no one had challenged us along the road from the temple, nor at the empty checkpoint at which we'd crossed the border. With his men arresting innocents across the length and breadth of the land, the chancellor apparently lacked militia and mercenaries enough to watch every back road trail.
We had reached Ruelm's tavern unmolested and, once lodged there, I had waited alone while Gannon sought out the Fyana leaders. Previously, Ruelm had seemed unsure of what to make of "Lady Maeve." This time, having come back in one piece and escorted by Gannon, he treated with me confidentially.
As usual, the tavern buzzed with news. Much had happened while I'd been away, such as the notorious arrest of so many magicians. But, unfortunately, something even more shocking had occurred.
The penalty for treason in Arannan had been revised by decree. Now even a riddle or song that an informer of dull wits might interpret as a lampoon aimed at the regime was actionable. But most of the chatter centered on the punishment now being inflicted by Harouck's courts -- death by the removal of the living heart! This had never before been part of Arannan's jurisprudence.
A specially trained group of executioners had been brought into Moyarien from parts unknown to perform the new style of execution. Little was known about their antecedents, except that they were foreigners -- a detail in keeping with the character of Harouck's regime. It was as if he could not find enough scoundrels to take his coin inside our kingdom, and so had to search the worst of alien nations for willing recruits.
From that day onwards, I was haunted by images of my mother, my sisters, my little nephews, all bound and awaiting murder under the knife. I swore at that darkling hour that there could be no violence, no bloodshed, no act of sabotage that I would not stoop to, nothing that I would not cast away in sacrifice, no hazard that I would not personally dare, if only it should give me a clean blow to end Harouck's despicable life.
"So, tell us, girl," Lairgann addressed me, "is it Gannon who's gone mad, or is it the both of you?"
"Neither of us," I assured him confidently. "I'm Rodin's sister and his spirit is with me. I was born with the gift of second sight. I hear his voice in my mind even now."
"Is that how you claim to have known my name?" demanded Cromm. "Rodin's ghost told you?"
I looked at the sturdy, black-bearded man. "Of course, Sir Knight."
"This is hard to swallow," commented Cemion, the band's new leader and my former rival, "but I've heard of stranger things."
Cemion was a tall, muscular man with a tawny mop. His tanned face framed hard-set lips, grim except when he smiled, which was, in fact, rather often. He was older than me -- than Rodin had been -- and he had also had a slightly higher rank in the army. I supposed that such details had caused him to scorn me as a leader. Because Cemion had always been my critic, I expected "Maeve" to be plagued by his gainsaying also.
"If Gannon believes in you," the captain said thoughtfully, "that says something."
"It only means that Gannon is distracted by a pretty face!" laughed the man named Tal.
"That's enough," Cemion rumbled. "A woman of dignity deserves our respect." He glanced my way again. "Tell us your story, Lady."
I nodded and began: "I was staying with family friends. It was the spirit of Rodin that came in the night to warn me that the soldiers were on their way. He said that the rest of our family had already been arrested at our estate and that I should flee, that I should seek out the brave patriots of the marches -- the well-sung Fyana."
Some of the men around me smirked; others seemed to listen with attentive faces.
Continuing, I told the band how the ghost had bidden me to locate Gannon, a champion who would escort me to the Temple of Llyana. There, with the guidance of the druidesses, I alleged, I had improved my mediumistic insight. Henceforth, I was able to communicate readily with the spirit of Rodin. Also, by conveying my brother's eloquent words to the priestesses of Llyana, I had persuaded them to loan me three magical gifts, divine prizes against which no evildoer could hope to stand.
"The priestesses of Llyana!" scoffed Tal. "They haven't supported us thus far! They never will!"
"That may change," I insisted. "Anyway, we need the help of such as they."
"'We,' wench?" mocked a rebel who called himself Hawl. "When was it that you joined our band?"
I frowned back at him. "That was Rodin speaking through my throat," I explained. "He stands so close! His presence, his vast power of mind and will, it overwhelms me sometimes!"
"We could do worse than to have those witches on our side," put in Cemion. "How shall we court them, maid?"
This was a question that I had been waiting for. "Rodin says that the priestesses are worried about the motives behind Harouck's deeds. They fear that the royal power will soon be turned against the temples, just as it has been turned against the independent sorcerers. What's more, the women of Llyana abhor the slaughter of mothers and children, and the chancellor's militia has laid waste to one and all. They believe that black magic drives Harouck's policies, and he intends to make a holocaust in the service of the Ancient Fumorau."
Fynbarr winced at the spoken name of the gods of evil. The old lays said that our gods had killed all the major demons, but these were only stories. The druids knew better. "So Gannon told us, also," he finally said. "But you have no proof. If Llyana's women fear Harouck's magic, why haven't they sent us an emissary long ago -- to offer an alliance?"
I shook my head. "It's not so easy for them to change their ways and become political," I replied. "They're unworldly. What we need do is find an intermediary from their own order to argue in our cause. Also, until of late, the Fyana has had only local fame. It was Rodin's bold leadership that spread the news of our cause well beyond the borders." I couldn't help but put in that detail.
"What you ask is easier said than done!" said Tadgh, one of our best scouts. "Who do we know who is on good terms with the druidesses?"
"Fortunately," I said, "Gannon and I have met with such a person. She's a lady of rank within the goddess' laity. She is also Cawdour's former wife."
That impressed them, especially since few of them knew how much at odds Cawdour and his ex-wife had actually been.
"She'd help us?" asked the scout. "Why?"
"The lady is a sorceress; the militia came to arrest her while we were conferring, but Gannon saved her life and she has since proven to be no ingrate!"
Interested looks passed Gannon's way. I had exaggerated his role at the expense of my own, but the story was at least partially true.
"With friends like the lady," I went on, "we might win over not only the women of Llyana, but possibly even the men of Myach, of Mannan, and other priestly colleges."
"Maybe, maybe not!" exclaimed one rebel. "Better that the gods should send us fighters instead of scholars and theologians who can only chant and argue."
"We'll need thinkers as well as fighters," observed Lairgann, "if we're ever going to be more than a pin-prick in Harouck's arse."
"We've taken too many losses lately," spoke up one called Doleu, "-- twelve men in the last three months. That was the price of Rodin's 'bold leadership.'"
"Rodin knew well the price of victory, and has often spoken to me of his grief. But this proposed adventure doesn't require great numbers," I promised, "only intelligence and will!"
I maintained my silence and let the men debate among themselves for a few minutes.
"Let me speak to Rodin," Lairgann requested at last. "I have some questions for him, if he's really here."
If any of my listeners had supposed that I'd be rattled by such a request, they were very mistaken. I knew I could harangue them even more powerfully as Rodin than as Maeve. "Ask me what you will, old friend!" I said, my tone lowered an octave to suggest Rodin's baritone.
"Prove yourself. Who attended you at the Cymydog Road ambush?" my former lieutenant demanded.
"Have you forgotten, bold Lairgann?" I teased. "It was you! You kept badgering me about the plan. You thought it was ill considered and too reckless. I wish I had listened!"
My former second blinked. I had not only answered him correctly, but had "divined" his real name as well. I swung toward the others. "You men, pay heed to Lairgann after this. He's got a better head than any of you. Better even than mine -- when I was alive."
Much less sure of himself now, Lairgann pressed: "Tell me, Lady, when Rodin and I were waiting, who stood to our right and who to our left?"
An easy test. Thank the gods that the transference of souls had not noticeably fogged my memory. "Gannon and Tal were on the left. Cromm and Fynbarr stood on the right.
"And don't call me 'Lady!'" I added for good effect.
Lairgann scratched his grizzly beard. "True enough, L--, uh, Rodin. But Gannon might have told you."
I raised my chin. "Well, then ask me something that Gannon doesn't know."
Lairgann chose his next words carefully. "Very well," he began. "Last winter on the night of the Yule, you and I took a holiday cup with a good old man. What was his name?"
"You must mean our comrade Caul Ystrad. He used to be a traveling bard before his legs failed him. When we came to his lodging place, he was singing for his supper, a lay about brave Sir Rheged of the Shrunken Arm, and of his love for Enid. You remarked to me that it seemed odd that she should be his step-sister in that version."
"Aye, that's it!" gasped the lieutenant. "If Rodin himself isn't here among us, I can't explain it." But when others came forward and began to interrogate me, I faced more determined skeptics. I stood my ground nonetheless, answering the questions to the satisfaction of the askers.
"We could be in the presence of Rodin's ghost," suggested Cemion at last, "as impossible as that may sound."
"What if she is in communication with Rodin?" jeered Tal. "Rodin was a reckless fool. Every man here knows that. If he wasn't, he'd still be with us, along with a good parcel of worthy men whose lives he threw away."
I stared incredulously. Tal had always been outspoken, always a naysayer allied to Cemion, but I had never supposed that he had regarded me as a poor leader.
"You're entitled to your opinion, Tal," Cemion said, stepping forward again, "but if the spirit of Rodin truly walks among us, I'd like to hear more from him."
The captain looked my way. "Would that be possible, Lady Maeve?"
I nodded. "Rodin will come, if he so wills."
"Good! But not here. Somewhere private."
Private planning with a leader made sense to me, but there was something about the proposal that seemed to sit wrongly with Gannon:
"Shouldn't I go with you, Captain? I've talked to Rodin's spirit a hundred times."
"I don't think that will be necessary," said Cemion.
I tried not to show a frown. What was the new Fyana "leader" up to? Suddenly I was not looking forward to being alone with this man, a man who had always played the gadfly to my charger.
TO BE CONTINUED…