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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Spellcaster's Heiress -- Chapter 9

By Christopher Leeson


Once I asked Cawdour why he supposed that the chancellor had been able to seize so much power with so little effort.

"The secret of Harouck's success," Cawdour told me, "is a thing that goes beyond his command of sorcery.  He is a consummate politician.  Sorcery combined with worldly self-interest weaves a dangerous spell.

"Most magicians are impractical dreamers.  Try as they might, few of them amount to anything, as men rate achievement.  The stories of accomplished spellcasters living meanly in forest huts are sometimes true.  But while most wizards scorn the tedium of bureaucratic labor, Harouck thrived on it.  He put both his political savvy and his sorcery to work for the fulfillment of his ambitions.

"Before long, those who stood in his way were being dismissed on charges of corruption, or were taking ill and retiring before their time.  Whenever he confronted a more skilled politician, he relied on sorcery; when confronted by a superior wizard, he used political trickery.

“Harouck eventually rose to First Secretary to the chancellor.  Hardly had the old king died before his superior was being confronted by accusations.  Nothing was proven, but Harouck had a pivotal ally in Prince Cathmor, the heir apparent.

"For years, he had been flattering the youth for his devotion to a dissolute lifestyle and, whenever he could, enabled it.  The old chancellor too much reminded the prince of his own stern father.  He was only too ready to advance a crony whom he supposed would continue on as a servile underling.

"Harouck wasted no time in putting his own minions into power, so that the whole government soon became naught but an echo of one upstart's iron will.  Only a strong king could have checked him, but I do fear that had King Cathmor become Harouck's opponent, he would have fared no better than any other enemy of the new chancellor.  But the young king is absolutely surpassed in the politics of power.  The sad truth is that he has always lusted for the empty pomp of kingship, not its taxing duties. 

"Harouck reigns as a virtual regent while the king dwells in a countryside palace.  Instead of consulting with his ministers, Cathmor is surrounded by mistresses and sporting companions. No doubt Harouck has selected the king's bodyguards and watches him with spies that report his every word and deed.

“A usurper craves popularity until his power is unchallengeable, and never doubt that Harouck is popular.  He has robbed the exchequer to buy favor with the landless masses, men without shops or trades.  The more wastrel they are, the more likely they will be to cheer the munificent statesman for the dole he bestows. He is beloved by the drunkard, the gambler, and the thief in the streets.

"The military distrusted him from the first day, of course, but the chancellor has used bribery and blackmail to retire the most troublesome of the commanders.  Every year he has further reduced the size of the army.  Its last units now languish in scattered barracks, while militiamen, many of them foreign hirelings, have been empowered to secure the internal order.

"They carry out orders that knights of the realm, men of the people, would not have countenanced.  Harouck's sorry militia could not win a war, of course, but they are effective enough in keeping down an unarmed population.

“Remember this, Rodin:  a nation is rarely brought low by invaders from without.  Foreign oppression, in fact, unites a people in resistance, forges their love of country into a mighty weapon, leading to popular revolt and a robust revival.

"But native-born despotism is a demoralizing thing; it puts each subject at the throat of every other. Each one clambers over one another to snatch for the oppressor's handouts.  The allure of gain is ever corrosive to the love of country.  Harouck has won over many who should have known better.  It is not just the wastrel, but also many a person of rank and office, who will welcome in a tyranny for no more than the promise of a few favors.”


The Liar's Smile

While the family feasted on the victuals that Dôn and I had brought, I wandered about the the cell, committing its every detail to memory.  The windows were about two paces in height, but only inches wide, leaving the chamber in gloom even at midday.  Nothing interrupted the sheer drop outside, not even the narrowest ledge.  The masonry itself was a span in thickness at the windows, and the floor was of oaken planking, old but very solid.  The ceiling appeared to be equally sturdy.

Nothing I saw inspired a plan, so I changed tact and asked my father about the character of the guards.  I especially wanted to know about any recent escape attempts, since the doings of others might suggest something that we might try, or, contrariwise, scrupulously avoid.

"Sometimes we're allowed to walk along the turrets and talk to other -- guests," Father said.  "Even the jailers are more relaxed up there.  No one has mentioned any escapes thus far, but there has been a bothersome bit of news."

I thought he looked worried.  "What news?"

"Executioners have moved in next door."

"I know.  It's all over the city.  Are they bad neighbors?"

"They have warrants."

"Warrants for what?"

"For the release of young women into their custody.  They've already taken several."

I didn't like the sound of that.  "What's going on?"

"No one knows," my father said haltingly, "but the women never come back.  There's never any word of release, transfer, or even a public notice of execution or enslavement.  The guards here either don't know what happens, or they refuse to say."

What were those butchers up to?  Orgies?  Rape?  Murder?  Torture?  Demonic sacrifice even before Cernunnog's Eve?  Something told me that Father was holding back the worst.

"What aren't you telling me, Lord Oc'Raighne?"

"I talked to the sergeant," he said with an anguished grimace.  "He told me that Maeve has been selected to be taken four nights from now!"

That news came like a blow to my ribs.  "We can't let that happen!" I exclaimed.  "If this sergeant is a friend of yours -–"

Father shook his head.  "I begged him to intercede, but he said there was nothing he could do.  These warrants bear Harouck's own seal."

Harouck being so much involved in this was the worst news possible.  None of his underlings would dare to defy an explicit writ.  Four nights.  That would be the night just before Cernunnog's Eve.  Was it possible that Maeve would escape public execution only to suffer an even worse fate?

"Tell me about this guard," I urged.

"Sergeant Brychan is decent enough," Mother spoke up. "But the tower warden he answers to is a hard, cold scoundrel."

I asked about the prospects of buying off any of the jailers.

"Maybe the sergeant," suggested my father.  "I don't think he's greedy, but he might like to leave this place, if he had the means to begin afresh elsewhere."

"I'd ask the guard Odgar," contributed Maeve.  "He seems to like me."

I was too despondent to smile, but I supposed that every guard liked my pretty and good-natured little sister.

"How about that one with the long nose -– Isgofan?" suggested Rhangan.  "A jovial oaf."

I nodded.  "Cultivate any of them you can, just be careful.  Here," I said, reaching into my bodice, "this will help.  I drew out several strings of precious stones, the most valuable items left over from Ava's jewel box, and handed them to my father.

"Your own gold isn't enough to buy treason, and treason is what we most need.  You'll know better than I who can be bribed," I advised, "but bide your time until you get the word to go ahead.  A better plan may come along.  Dôn will carry our messages back and forth.  I'm sorry that I can't tell you more just now."

"You don't know any more," retorted Heuil.  "Maybe you've just raised the hopes of the women and children for no reason at all!"

"Don't be that way, Heuil," chided our mother.  "Can't you see she's doing everything she can --?"

"Excuse me, masters, mistresses," Dôn interrupted.  "The guards may become suspicious if we tarry much longer.  Your clothing --?"

"You're right, old friend," Mother conceded.  "Everyone -- change your garments!  Our friends dare not linger."

In front of the entire family, even in front of us mere servants, my family stripped to the skin.  They rapidly searched themselves and the children for vermin, scraped or picked off what they could, and then rapidly dressed against the chill.  I inspected the brazier in the corner, full of ashes but with no fuel stacked beneath it.  I would have Dôn go out and purchase some kindling as soon as we left the tower.

Mother suddenly turned my way, something important writ on her face.  I expected her to speak, but she quietly lifted her arms toward me.

I accepted her embrace and the intensity of my answering hug was probably startling.

Thinking better of it, I let go and backed away.  "I'll free you all," I promised, "-- or I'll give my life trying."


The first two people I encountered back at the Four Lions were Gannon and Hawl, one of Lairgann's spies.

I hurried toward the pair, bursting with news, but Gannon's glance warned me off.  A moment later, Hawl excused himself and I detected new trouble in my friend's expression.

"I'm glad you got back all right," said Gannon.  "Did you meet your folks?"

"What were you and Hawl talking about?  Did somebody die?"

He gave a quick look about.  "Let's get out of earshot."

He guided me to a remote corner.

"Well?" I pressed.

"Hawl's seen Ceann."

My heart leaped.  "Ceann?  She's alive?  Where?"

"Working in a tavern."

"A slave?  In her own country?"

Gannon nodded.

"By Kai's forge!  We have to help her!" 

He shook his head.  "If our people get into trouble over Ceann, it's your family that will pay the price."

"Good gods, Gannon!  Are you saying we should leave Ceann to drudge as a joy maid?"

"I'm saying that we should wait, until the excitement over Bannog Tower has died down.  If she's lasted through her first month, she can probably make it a few weeks more."

"Weeks?  We can't leave a decent woman in such a place for even one day!  We owe her!"

Gannon replied with a look that told all.

Many young, unmarried women had been put to slave labor after their parents had been executed.  The threat of such a reprisals against the children of Harouck's enemies were intended to deter resistance.  Ceann had made no enemies amongst the Fyana, but, likewise, none saw her in the same light as I did.

As knights we were pledged to defend and protect gentry ladies and Ceann was well-born.  But socially she was a fallen women, even in the eyes of her friends.  She had left her guardian's house to become a hanger-on to a group of soldiers and, worse, accepted the status of a mistress.  By their code, my comrades probably rated her as being lower than any male recruit.  To me, that attitude seemed callous and treacherous, even though I understood the processes that fashioned a warrior's way of thinking.

"All right, Gannon, where is she?"

"Don't be rash, Rod!  The last time you didn't check the lay of the land, you got into a bad fix!"

I almost said something foolish –- something about how I had really come to be in my "bad fix."  I knew better.  It wasn't Gannon's fault.  He would have tried to save my life as readily as I had tried to save his.

"What tavern is she at?  If you won't go with me, I'll go alone."

"A woman unescorted in what is a bad part of town?"

"I know what I am.  Don't remind me!"

"I have to remind you!  Even if you reached the tavern, you'd probably be drugged by the devils who run it and sold at the wharf!  Take your time; come up with a workable plan!  You –- we –- can rescue Ceann tomorrow as easily as we can tonight."

"The sooner she's free, the better.  I don't want to risk it alone, but will if I have to."

"It's foolhardy!"

"There won't be any trouble.  We have enough gold to buy one slave!"

"See?  You're not thinking.  No master can sell a crown prisoner without permission from the authorities."

"We'll steal her, then!"

"Drunken lovers are always trying to steal joy maids.  Taverners are on their guard and if the ploy goes badly, your family may suffer.  A pursuit from the tavern can bring on a house to house search, including this house."

I grudgingly admitted that Gannon was being sensible.  But I could also be sensible.  It was high time that I started to think like the sorcerer that I was!


The evening was an unseasonably cold one and the warm tavern air, scented with mead, wine, and cooked food, greeted Gannon and me agreeably.

The crowded drinking room was large, broad and low-ceilinged.  The big man at the counter, sporting gold earrings and a smooth-shaven pate, looked like he might be the proprietor.

The customers of the hour appeared to be mainly sailors, festival venders, and laborers, with a sprinkling of out-of-town visitors.  The few free women present were markedly of the less reputable sort.  Three joy maids were hurrying from table to table, waiting on the carousers who were shouting orders at every hand.  A musician was strumming a harp and singing:

"I took her to a tavern and treated her to wine,
 "Little did I think just then she'd be the rakish kind;
"I handled her, I dandled her, and found to my surprise,
"That lassie was a she-fiend wrapped up in maid's disguise!"

Besides the door that we had entered by, there was an aisle behind the counter which, one would expect, lead to the kitchen.  By necessity, its delivery door would provide a rear exit.  I guessed that the stairs rising at against the right wall would access the joy rooms, where additional slaves gave service to paying customers.  Probably Ceann would be up there, too -- unless she was still being broken in, a prisoner under lock and key in some out-of-the-way nook.

A stripling lackey with a smear of freckles across the bridge of his nose bustled our way.  He bowed unctuously to me, but spoke only to Gannon:

"You and your lady's pleasure, Sire?"

"A table."

We were led to the back of the room, where a besotted patron dozed.  The lackey gave his shoulder a slap.  "Sluggard!  Up!  Move along home!"

Gracelessly, the sleepy customer yawned and wobbled to his feet.  I settled into his vacated chair.

"What will you and your lady have, Sire?" the youth asked.

"A cup of aqua vitae and honey," I said.

The lackey shot me an odd look and I realized why.  I had ordered for myself, as if I were a woman of the town, and, worse, had asked for a powerful man's drink.

"I'll have the same," Gannon put in hastily, blunting the impact of my gaffe, "and a bowl of soup.  My sister -–"

"I'm not hungry," I said.

"We're serving a lentil soup that's very good, Sir."

"Yes, that will do us fine."

"I'll have a girl bring your order at once."

My comrade pressed a small coin into the lackey's hand.  "Just one more thing, my man.  A friend mentioned that you have a new joy maid here.  She's about twenty.  Dark of hair, slim, pretty.  And he thought that she was a native Arannanan.  Such a fresh morsel sounds very tasty."

"Ah, yes, Zeli," the youth nodded.  "But she's more than fresh, she's very raw.  We have some lovely girls with much more experience."

"No," Gannon drawled slowly, "experience doesn't appeal to us tonight.  A person gets tired of foreign wenches or girls jaded from being too long in the trade."

"I see."  The boy shrugged.  "I'll speak to the proprietor."

"And tell him," I put in, "that the lass is for me, not my brother."

Gannon looked at me as if I had shouted "Fire."  But I had reasons for changing the plan.  Gannon would be better able cover the door, and then strike pursuers from behind in case we had to bludgeon our way to freedom.

"Y-You, my lady?"

"Do you have trouble hearing?"

"Oh, no, of course not!"   He hurried off.

My companion gave a long, hard exhale.  "Rodin, you've got to start minding your manners in public."

"And you've got to start calling me Dyan when there are other people around!" I replied with a scowl.

He grinned ironically.  "I thought you were Maeve today."

"All right, so I'm Maeve!"

My friend sank back and crossed his arms.  "Taking in the town with you was never so interesting when you were a man."

"Interesting is the last thing I want to be," I sniffed.

"Interesting or not, this can go badly awry, Rod...I mean Maeve."

I shook my head.  "Stop fretting.  Think instead about the ballad you can write if we get away with this."

He shook his head.  "About a woman who goes up to a joy maid's room?  That kind of song would get a man thrown into Bannog Tower!"

I laughed, despite all.  Just then the tavern minstrel began a new selection.  I knew his song; it was called "The Deer and the Boar:"

"I had two brothers long ago
Two brothers of bright cheer.
One wore the badge of Cadwyr's boar,
The other Gwiron's deer.

"One served well the throne royal,
And championed the crown;

The other nursed a rebel heart
And vowed to pull it down.

"They both did take their liege-man’s oaths
And each was dubbed a knight,
And never in the siege nor field
Would either shun the fight.

"Each honored true his own ideal;
Each fell with sword in hand.
One's sleeping now 'mid wooded hills,
And one 'neath furrowed land.

"One moon sheds light on both their graves,
It glows o'er field and hill,

And every night and every day,
I mourn my brothers still.

"So that is why upon my chest,
For twenty years and more,
I've worn embroidered 'bove my heart
The badge of deer and boar."

As the minstrel finished his song, a fetching joy maid approached our table with Gannon's soup and two beverages.  She was blonde, not unpretty, and wore a short blue serving dress.  A small medallion depended from her beaded choker, stamped with the symbol of the house, the Happy Horse -- a stallion jumping over a yew tree.  This was an odd symbol for a tavern, I supposed, since the yew was widely known to be poisonous.

While the slave swept away the crumbs and driblets of old beer with a damp cloth, I noticed how her smile contrasted with the lack of the same in her kolh-lined eyes.  Cawdour had called such an expression the "liar's smile."  He said that anyone can smile with his lips, but the eyes only smile when the heart is light.  I didn't like to think about a smile like that on Ceann's lips.

Whatever the cause of my perplexity, Gannon seemed not to share my mood.  When the barmaid drew away, he followed her long, slim legs with a appreciating stare.  My companion's shallowness sometimes irritated me.

I checked my impulse to kick his shin and looked around, trying to get my mind off the sorry lives of serving girls.  By this time, the big proprietor was sauntering our way.  After a brief greeting, he said, "My boy told me about your -- request, Lady.  Did he understand you rightly?"

"Is there anything wrong with my request?"

"Nothing at all.  It's only that Zeli's a stubborn wench.  Sometimes a grown man can hardly handle her.  She may injure a woman so refined as yourself."

I ignored what I imagined to be subtle mockery.  "You'd be surprised at what all I can handle," I told him.  "I dislike negotiating in a public room.  We're prepared to pay double your normal fee.  Will that assuage your concerns for my safety?"

The taverner seemed at a loss.  "You'll both want her at the same time, I suppose?"

Gannon sank back into his chair, yawning.  "No, sir.  I haven't had my fill of food and music.  Trading in tanned goatskins all day can build up an appetite."

"Well, fine, Lady," the bald man muttered in my direction.  "The girl is yours.  The fee is two gwys."

"Pay him, dear brother," I requested, smiling.

Gannon tossed the coins across the table.  Our host gathered them up and plunked them into his apron pocket.  "Please come this way, Lady."

The proprietor led me upstairs, to a narrow hall with several closed doors.  I heard low voices and laughter behind some of them.  He let me into an empty room saying, "Zeli will be with you momentarily, my lady.  I'll tell her that because you're paying double, she'll get two beatings if you have cause to voice a single complaint."

'The bastard!' I thought as the door closed.

Well, the loss of his girl would be his comeuppance.  I looked the room over, but there were no windows and the only light issued from a small olive oil lamp.  The bed was almost the sole furnishing and the plaster of the walls, though scrubbed, showed settling cracks.  I thought I heard a tiny scuffling and, when I peered over the bed,saw that a mouse had been caught in a snare.

While waiting alone, doubt crossed my mind.  What if the "Zeli" that they were sending me was the wrong girl?  Hawl might have been mistaken.  What was I going to do for a half-hour with a joy maid?  Had I still been a man, I would have had no doubt, but under the present circumstances -– what?  Once I had been hosted by a man who ordered two of his slave girls to make love together for the entertainment of his guests.  That was the only tribadist demonstration that I had ever had the opportunity to behold.

The latch rattled.  I held my breath until I saw Ceann's familiar face, then let out an appalled gasp.  As I feared, my former mistress now wore the same choker and scanty blue garment as did the maids downstairs.  But how worn out, how cowed she looked!  I wanted to put my arms around her.

Stepping quickly into the room, moved more by fear than eagerness, no doubt, Ceann turned to close the door and then looked back at me.  With a hard swallow, she sank down before me upon the throw rug.  Her tunic hem, riding up, betrayed the primrose tattoo which marked her as chattel.

Pity and indignation left me all but speechless.  My mistress, assuming that I was waiting for her to show initiative, murmured, "Forgive me, Lady.  I -- I've never been with a woman before."

There had been a hysterical edge to her words.  Shakily, she continued:  "They didn't teach me -- what I should do.  Please, Lady -- command me and -- and I'll try to --" she let a sob escape, "-- I mean, I will perform well.  I will do anything -- anything that you ask -- that you demand. . ."  She kept her hands on her thighs, in the matter of a disciplined slave, and didn't even use them to wipe her running nose.

Her words had chilled me.  How much abuse had Ceann undergone, to be reduced to this state?  She seemed so different from the bold and high-spirited young woman I had known only a month before.

"Don't be afraid, Ceann!" I whispered, stepping closer.  "It's me."

She looked up in bewilderment.  "How do you know my birth name, Lady?"

"I'll explain," I replied as gently as could and lowered my hood, to make myself less frightening.

She reacted as if I had shown her the face of a demon.

Fool Rodin!  In the poignancy of that awful moment I had forgotten who Ceann would think I was.


"When I learned where you were, I had to come," I quickly explained.

"You!" the furious beauty repeated vehemently, her fists clenched.

Before I could say another word, my former mistress sprang at me like a wild cat from the Avaroné Alps.


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