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Monday, May 5, 2014

The Spellcaster's Heiress -- Chapter 12


I had met Ceann back before I assumed captaincy of the Fyana.  For years, that day I laid eyes on her had seemed like one of the the pivotal moments of my life.  Now, looking back, I was no longer sure what, exactly, that day had meant.

Ceann's despondency had cast my every assumption about the two of us into doubt.  It actually made me ask myself  if she had ever loved me, or even whether I really loved her.  Why should that be?  Our years together seemed to have lacked nothing, but had something actually been missing?  Why had she turned away from me in her sorrow, instead of toward me, as I would have wished her to do?  I did not know. 

That troubling conversation made me think.  What did I still feel about Ceann, really?  I loved being with her.  But was this, the thing I felt, the love of lovers? 

I knew -- or rather sensed in my gut -- that what we still had wasn't the all-consuming passion that poetry likes to build its air castles around.   Somewhere along the road, we two had started to treat one another as dear friends, not soul mates.  The realization of this had only slowly crept in.  It had come upon us subtly, like a mouse moving inside a wall.  I hadn't thought a great deal about the matter, considering it merely a passing mood that would soon right itself.  When I had been wounded, I had been so overwhelmed by Ceann's display of devotion that it had caused me to see her once more as the object of my celestial love.

But true love, as I envisioned it, true love was immortal; it could not fade away in the face of a person's day to day adversities.  What made me wonder whether my own love ran deep was my lack of intense grief at the possibility of losing her.  I almost would have preferred to be devastated.  Instead, I was thinking that, should she leave me, I could go on, albeit with a heavy heart.

Had I grown cold?  Had she?  If what I had had with Ceann never amounted to true love, then what
was true love?  I was at a loss to know.  We loved each other; of that I had no doubt.  But could it be that not every kind of love, no matter how wonderful seeming, could make true lovers of friends. 

I tried to force myself to see what she must have been seeing.  Ceann had to have suffered a terrible shock when confronted by my change.  Whatever she had once believed lay ahead for the two of us, it would have crashed at that moment.  Her desired future, no matter how vaguely or how hopefully conceived, could no longer exist for her, not even as a remote possibility.

Wasn't it natural that a young woman, looking at her life in the long term, would to start to think about where she had come from, where she now was, and where she might wish to go?  I had to face the prospect that Ceann soon no longer be a part of my life.  She loved freedom, she hated Harouck, but that wasn't enough to keep her at my side.  The simple fact was that the vital thing that had enabled her to endure the strange, harsh life of the woodlands was her bond with Rodin.  Did she see, even more clearly than I could see, that Rodin was, in fact, gone, even though I was still resisting that idea strongly?

I couldn't fully get my mind around the current situation, so I thought back to the first day that I had met Ceann.  She might have lived as the commonplace daughter of a minor nobleman, except that her beauty had attracted Sir Fultur, an odious creature beholding to Harouck.  Her parents supported her rejection of the brute, but the man obviously had gone running for help from the chancellor.  The latter's idea of rule was to dictate every detail of every other person's life.  Success had made Harouck expect that his every whim ought to be flattered with instant obedience.  He presumably thought that all the Trybalids needed was a minim of arm-twisting to make them see reason.  But the man's touch could never be subtle.  His clerks obliged him by finding -- or inventing -- anomalies in the grant of title by which the Trybalid family had held its ancestral property rights. 

The lord took the challnge to court, but the regime obstructed the family's legal defense.  Forgeries and destruction of archival documents had been suspected by Lord Trybalid's attorneys, but the papers sought from the government were withheld.  When the lord's family still did not yield to his conjoling on behalf of Sir Fultur, his response was again in character.  A hundred armed militia men appeared at the family's townhouse in Moyarien and escorted Ceann, her parents, and her siblings into the public street.  Royal agents took possession of their country estate at the same time.

Sir Fultur visited the clan at a city inn and strongly intimated that he had such influence with the chancellor that he could intercede.  All Ceann had to do was set a date for their nuptials. The maid gave him no certain answer, but asked for more time while she consulted with her father. 

She didn't have to.  The girl's parents were now certain that their family had become a playing piece in a game of rogues.  They saw no future for their clan in a kingdom so debased.  For that reason, they urged Ceann to go with a servant who would hide her with a friend's family.   The Trybalids hoped that if Ceann were not with them, the chancellor's spies would cease their watch.  They intended to take the rest of the family out of the country, to a place where the lord held investments enough to save them from a mean and disgraceful existence.  Once secure, they would send loyal retainers back to Arannan to guide their daughter back to them.

At the friend's house, Ceann soon heard that the entire Trybalid family had been murdered early in their flight, by “bandits.”  As horrifying as that was, it was further made known that “any surviving family members” would be taken under the wing of chancellor and become his ward.  To make matters worse, the family friends whom the girl was staying with grew fearful in the face of what was obviously a political assassination.  A servant of the house came to warn her that she would soon be turned over to the chancellor's care.  That moment changed Ceann.  It hardened her, made her willing to take unladylike risks.  Thus is was that a gently-reared maiden, one not yet twenty, fled alone into the night.

Ceann surprised everyone, and most of all herself, by managing to live, mostly by theft.  She displayed a knack for burglary and found a rogue to teach her the cutpurse's art.  Among the people she met, some thought that the Fyana might agree to champion her.  So, with the help of someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, word came to our band regarding the fugitive lady in the woodlands.

I had not been Fyana leader that far back, and the cautious man who then held that honor thought that there was nothing to be done and that it would be best to steer clear of the wayward girl.  But the rumors, as I received them, had described a minx of allure.  That I could believe, insofar as it had been the curse of beauty that had first aroused Sir Fultur's unwanted attentions.  As for myself, I had been finding the forest camps socially stifling, and was curious to meet this intriguing the Cutpurse Coleen.  She sounded like a heroine from the rousing old stories.

I sought out Ceann and met her at cottager's home; that moment was like magic for me.  The fascination I had already been feeling not only continued, it achieved an even firmer grip upon my heart.  One customarily won a fair lady by lending her assistance, and so, when the lady suggested killing Harouck and Sir Fultur, how could I say nay? 

Despite my zeal to win the maiden's favor, assassinating the chancellor was obviously too tall an order; everyone in the Fyana had wanted him dead without result.  But the loutish Sir Fultur was another story.  We learned his pattern of movements, his moments of vulnerability.  At last, we took him between taverns.  Even without his assumed complicity in the murders, Fultur's other notorious deeds as a henchman for Harouck merited execution.  Neither of us felt any need to question the man. What could be gained?  What if he had been able to, say, implicate the chancellor in murder?  What if he had been an actual eyewitness to Harouck's riding along with the false bandits and striking down the maiden's parents with his own blood-stained hands?  In a kingdom like ours, accusations against a man who stood mighty in power were worth nothing at all.

How had Arannan come to this?  When men hear that a beggar has killed and robbed, they are instantly incensed and howl for his life.  But when these same paragons of righteousness hear about even worse crimes committed by a lofty official, they do not react at all.  Cawdour had told me that such passivity was not the result of mere fear.  People are flawed creatures.  They have difficulty imagining that those who hold the levers of power, who are charged with punishing crime themselves, could, or even should, be held subject to that same law.  The higher men of government stood, the less the people wanted to hold them accountable.

The mighty are, in fact, looked upon as if they were gods, and gods can do no wrong.  If persons of rectitude think this way, imagine the cynicism of those who have never been aught but scoundrels, rascals who benefit handsomely from a lawless regime.  Such persons -- Sir Fultur being one -- were willing to sacrifice any number of other peoples' lives in order to keep their benefactors in power.

It is an age-old concern.  When those who govern do evil, who can hope to punish them?  Who but a daring assassin as any hope at all to exact justice against the fortress of their power?  King Cathmor, a mere cipher, would never act against his over-mighty servant, and, in fact, he lacked any real authority to do so.  It would have been certain doom for him to make some vain gesture in the cause of decency, which is an undervalued thing.  So, Harouck's life was safe.

Sir Fultur alone could be made to account for his deeds.  Ceann asked for my dagger, but I knew that killing a man changed a person, and I did not want my bandit girl to be changed, not by one wit.  So I did her a knightly service.  Some men slain by me I have deemed to have honored my blade.  But running Fultur through was like dispatching a rat; his blood did naught but befoul it.

Ceann was not much cheered.  What did it matter that some small beast had been hunted to the kill if the great beast still prospered?  But what was more immediately important to me was that Ceann should not go back to thievery.  For that reason, I supported her as best I could, which was an uneven and spotty venture.  Sometimes I was spent down to the very lint in my purse, and I worried that poverty would drive my lady to do something unwise.  About that time, our leader's death brought about my election to the captaincy. 

Rank has it privileges, but I did choose to bring the maid into the Fyana at once.  I had to show the band that their captain had a brain, not just emotion.  I got them used to Ceann by letting her accompany me when I gathered with rebel friends.  After I accepted the lass's offers to spy for the Fyana in places where a man could not easily go, she proved her worth.  Little by little, Ceann affirmed to one and all that she was not like the women whom the stalwarts of the Fyana hand known before.  She reminded them of the adventurous goddesses of myth.

At last, before I even realized it, my beloved had become as much a part of the band as any man in it.  When she started attending the gatherings, we wisely refrained from sharing a bed.  We were already known to be lovers, but we respected the moment when important matters needed to be discussed.  Flaunting my mistress would have affronted my comrades, who would themselves have liked to keep their women with them. 

In those days, Ceann and I took daft chances and survived.  It seemed as though our companionship was blessed.   It was a magic time and I thought that naught but the death of one of us could end our happiness.  I was wrong.  All too soon, time would teach me that, just like there are many types of love, there are many types of death. 

At Bronell's inn, the crisis had come and, apart from the obvious, I didn't know why.  If a maid can love a prince bewitched to be a forest cat, as might happen in the old stories, why couldn't Ceann love me now? 

On the other hand, what else should I expect?  Who could stay with such a creature as myself?  Stories are stories and life is life.  When I stand back and take a look at myself, I have to ask what can I possibly offer to anyone?  I see in the mirror a misfit, one that can scarcely hope to love or be loved again.  It seems that all that is left to me, before the book of my life closes, is the chance to work for vengeance.  And if vengeance can only come at the cost of my life, that is something that I am willing to accept.

But I want to go to the Western Isles only after I have arrayed everything that I possibly can in my favor before casting the dice.  It is not so much that I want to live, I simply believe that it would be too galling to fail.

* * * * *

The Opposite of Victory

The young wizard stepped around in front of me, smiling nervously.  "I bought these for you, Lady Maeve.  I was told that lilies were your favorite."

I frowned.  A courtship?  Is that what this was?  I didn't need it.  Especially not right now.

I fought down the impulse to rebuke him.  I owed him a kind turn.  "Thank you, Custin,” I said, “that was very thoughtful of you."  I gathered the blossoms into my arms.  "You shouldn't have gone outside, though.  You could be recognized."

"I didn't go out.  I sent one of the tavern freedwomen."

"Even so, you shouldn't do anything to attract attention."

"But, Maeve, you always look so downcast.  I wanted to cheer you up."

He shifted awkwardly when I didn't respond.  "H-Have you been thinking about your folks?" he ventured.

That and so much else!  "I suppose so," I replied.

He drew up Ceann's vacated stool.  "In a way, you're lucky.  I never knew my parents and I was an only child."

"I'm sorry."

"Less to lose, I suppose.  How about you?  How many of your family are imprisoned?  Or would you rather not talk about it?"

I stared down into the fire.  "No, it's all right.  They're all in Bannog Tower.  Seventeen people.  Children and cousins who were living with us.  The youngest of them is just a little fellow in his mother's arms."

"Were you -- are you – close-knit?"

I grimaced thoughtfully.  "We are.  Oh, its not that I didn't have plenty of rows with my brothers, and more than enough with my father.  And sometimes my mother and sisters were so exasperating." 

Custin nodded sympathetically.  "What's your father like?"

I smiled at the irony of my sire's life.  "I never knew a man so much respected by all his children, but so unable to get his way with any of them."

"Families are wonderful," the wizard declared.  "My uncle brought me up, but he was always so busy and almost always away.  I was reared by servants.  Finally, he sent me off for sorcery-training when I was only twelve.  At first, I thought it was because he wanted to get me from under his feet.  Now I'm not so sure."

"He probably thought he was preparing you for a good livelihood."

"Maybe," Cuspin remarked wistfully.  "How many brothers do you have, Maeve?"

"Three.  Ah, four, but one died recently."

The wizard grimaced.  "I heard about Rodin.  They say that he used to be leader of --" he gave a quick glance around "-- of these men."

"That's right."

Custin apologized.  "Maybe I shouldn't have brought it up."

"What happened to Rodin has happened.   But --”  I shifted to stare wistfully into the fire.   “Even if I can't stop thinking about it, I'd feel better not talking about it.

Another awkward silence then ensued, which I chose to break myself.  "Custin, there's something I've been wanting to ask you."


"You're a sorcerer.  Have you ever seen any -- spirits?

"Why?  Have you?"

"I'm not sure, but the man who helped me find you might not have been human."

He grinned.  "Are you saying that ours is a match made in Heaven?"

"Custin, I'm serious!"

The young magician frowned.  "Well, all I know is what they say.  My teacher told us that there are different kinds of spirits.  Some are the messengers of the gods."

"I could believe that," I said with a grave nod.

“But you might not believe that I saw a spirit once myself."

"You saw one?"

"I think I did.  Maybe it was only a dream."

"Tell me about it."

"There's not much to tell.  I was sleeping.  Suddenly, something made me wake up in the dark.  I opened my eyes and there was this -- luminous being -- hovering near the ceiling."

"So you could see him?  What did he look like?"

"He was young-seeming and had flowing robes.  Or maybe it was a woman.  He had sort of an in-between face."

"Then what happened?"

"He just stared down at me.  His brows were drawn together, not like he was angry, but was thinking about something."

"What did you do?"

"I asked him, 'What do you want?'"

If Cuspin was truthful, he had more guts than I would have given him credit for.

"Did he answer?" I asked.

"No, he just vanished.  The next thing I knew, it was morning."

A strange story, but not so strange as mine. 

"Do you really like lilies,” Custin suddenly asked.  “Or was Coll playing a joke on me?”

I sighed.  "No, Custin.  I love lilies.”  What I didn't care for was being given a bouquet of them by a male suitor.

The sorcerer brightened.  "Wonderful.  Coll seems like a good fellow, but I always seem to attract practical jokers.  My uncle was certainly impressed by your friend, though."

I knew that Gannon was a charmer, and he had conversed privately with the merchant for almost half an hour, and then the two had gone out together.  So far neither had returned.

"Coll also said that you like romantic songs of the sea.  Is that right?"

"Oh, yes!" I answered tolerantly, imagining myself strangling Gannon.  "Coll knows me so well."

"Well, good.  I learned a new one recently."

"Are you going to serenade me?" I asked, slightly queasy, but trying to look amused.

"If I may be so bold."

"You may," I consented and gave him what must have been a credible liar's smile.  A song could do me no harm, after all, and making friends with Custin and his uncle was all to our advantage.

My companion plunked a couple strings on his lyre, which was the Helleg version of our native harp.  After a bit of tightening and loosening, he set to playing.  The wizard, it turned out, was no great harpist, but his strumming accompanied what was not a bad singing voice:

"Cold blows the tempest 'cross the storming mare;
Icy the spray that fills the freezing air.
If I survive, I'll dream of you,
And I'll be warm, the whole night through --
A dream of her whom I woo, of you, Eyri Danu.

"While working the tackle, mates cherish those held dear;
Love is like a beacon that shows us where to steer.
We see its light and know the way,
It ends the dark and hails the day.
It's gleam is like the sunlit dew, it's true, Eyri Danu.

"Sea gods, this night, please quell the roaring gale,
Speed me on my travels, and thwart the broken sail.

When we meet, we'll sweetly kiss;
I'll hold you close, my soul in bliss.
The sky turns blue, for you, Eyri Danu.

"When we are sailing 'gainst the hurricane,
It seems as if our struggles are all doomed to be in vain.
But love for you resolves my will,
I fight the storm, endure the chill.
When day comes through, I'll be with you, Eyri Danu.

My need for you resolves my will,
I fight the storm, endure the chill.
When day comes through, I'll be with you, Eyri Danu.

I didn't see myself as the Eyri Danu type, and I was sorry that Cuspin would end up disappointed when all was said and done.  I was trying to think of a complement for his singing when I heard boots on the stairs.  I glanced back and saw Cemion, Lairgann, and a stranger climbing up.

The newcomer appeared elderly and dignified, wearing a fur cap and a cold-weather cloak trimmed with ermine.

As I stared, the stranger spied me and his eyes fixed like a pair of rivets.  I was getting used to being ogled, but his was not the expression of one who was seeing a fetching maiden.  

“It's her,” the stranger declared.

“Who?” asked Lairgann perplexedly.

“Cawdour's traitor daughter!”

Cemion froze in place; he stared at me incredulously. 

"What?  Are you absolutely certain?"

"I'd know her anywhere,” said the man in ermine, “-- even though she's dyed her hair."

I stood up.  Everything had suddenly changed.  I didn't think that a simple denial was going to get me anywhere.

"You're Ava Gaedael!" the stranger declared, indignation on his bearded face.

I gritted my teeth.  I knew that I was in serious trouble.  What I didn't know was whether I would survive to see morning.

"So that's your game," Cemion growled.  "You brought us all together so Harouck can take us at his will!”  He set his fists akimbo.  “I have to admit, you're a cunning spy."

I lifted my chin and took a firmer stance.  "Me?  Spy for Harouck?  That's ridiculous!"

"This man was Cawdour's friend.  How can you deny it?"

"I wanted to tell the truth, but didn't think I could.  If I've lied, it was without meaning the Fyana any harm. 
Please, Cemion, talk to Gannon and Ceann before you do anything drastic.  They know much about me that you do not.  You'd never believe what I have to say without them being here to affirm it."

"I already know what I need to know!  You don't deserve a trial!”

"You don't know anything!  My story stranger than anything you could imagine!"

My life hung on a knife-edge.  Maybe the suitor in him made him relent enough to say, “All right -- I'm listening!"

I looked around.  "Not in front of everybody.  I have to talk to you -- alone!"

"No!  I don't trust you!"

"Are you afraid that I'll overpower you?  Or are you worried that you'll actually believe me?  How can that be, unless you already realize that you're talking pure rubbish when you call me an enemy?”

Cuspin stepped up.  “I don't know what you people are talking about, but if you expect to harm this woman, you will have to go through me.  Take heed; I'm a skilled sorcerer trained by the best.”

“Take her!” the Fyana leader said, and his companions, former friends of mine, crowded up, shoved Cuspin out of the way and took hold of me.  I was dragged to a small room farther down the hall.

They they shut me in alone.  My initial impulse was to escape.  My makeshift cell was located on the highest floor, just below the roof.  A narrow ledge ran under the window.  Even if Cemion had known that it was there, it never would have occurred to him that a "woman" might risk walking the thing!  I was a warrior, and if I reached the corner, I would be in a position to leap to the kitchen roof below and from there -- and from there --

And from there nothing.

What was the point of escaping?  I'd be running away from the only people who could possibly help me.  Nothing important that I'd done so far had been aimed at saving my own life; that commodity had become an absurdity, one that I almost wished to be free of, except so far as it might still be of use to others.  I needed to convince my erstwhile comrades of my innocence.  Running away, whether I survived or not, would be the opposite of victory.

I finally sat down on the cot to the right of the window.  Why didn't things ever get easier?  If I was dong Fate's will, why didn't Providence itself become incensed at my obstacles and blast them away?  If Llassar could see and hear everything, he must already know of my plight.

So why didn't he come back now?  He had spoken as though he believed that I had all the wit and skill I needed to carry myself through, but at this moment I didn't know what to do.

Why was I being left to my own devices?  Was I now any less desperate, less without recourse, than I had been when the spirit had come to me off Blathaon Street? 

Just then I heard a crackling to one side and leaped to my feet.  One wall was collapsing before my eyes.  This was no earthquake.  Was it the very miracle that I yearned for?  In just the space of a few heartbeats, the wall was breached clear through without even a billow of dust arising.  I then saw Custin poke his head through the opening, wearing an expression commingling weariness and urgency.

"Oh, no!" I moaned.

"Are you all right, Maeve?" he asked, slipping through the breech and scuffling toward me.

"Custin!  -- I asked you -- you promised me -- not to use that power until we really need it!  Now you'll be useless for a day -- a day and a half!  And, besides, you've just ruined Master Bronell's wall!"

"Maeve, forget the wall!” he said.  “I have to get you out of here!"

I shook my head and backed away.   "I can't go anywhere!  I have to make Ehern understand that I'm on his side.  Without the Fyana, I can't save my family!"

"You've already told him you're innocent.  He won't listen!"

"Custin," I asked with exasperation, "what is this all about?  Where do you want me to go?  How well have you planned this escape of yours?"


"Yes, planned!  Where are the horses?  The boat?  Did you get us any provisions, any money?"

"We'll find them later!"

I sat down on the cot.  "You really don't know all you need to about escaping, do you?"

He looked nonplussed.  "Maybe not, but I -- I care about you, Maeve, -- I mean Ava.  Uh -- just what _is your name anyway?"

"It's Dyan?"


I nodded.

He smiled.  "I like it.”

"That's nice.  I like your name, too.”

“So why do you call yourself Maeve, and why do they think you're someone called Ava?”

“Maeve is just my alias.  I was impersonating Rodin's sister.  Exactly who Dyan is, well, that's...very complex.  As for Ava, that's even more complex.”

“Come on -- Dyan.  We have to get out of here.”

“I lose everything if I don't stick this out and win.”  I sat down on the bed.

“I'm afraid for you!” he declared, sitting next to me and taking my hand.

I looked into his earnest eyes.  “I know, and I've very grateful.  But I can't let you go risking your life for me.  We only met this morning."

"That's how fate is.  Dyan, I think there's a destiny between us.  Don't you feel it, too?"

I gave a short, sad laugh.  "I think you're just remembering how much you liked the way I looked in that awful tavern tunic."

He looked aghast.  "What sort do you take me for?  It's not just that I think you're beautiful.  You have so much more -- an inner grace so overwhelming that I hardly notice what you look like on the outside.  How can a man not be in love with you?"

I took him by the arm.  "Listen, Custin, I can't go escaping with you and that's final.  There's just too much at stake!"

"But Ehern might kill you!  That's what they do to spies and traitors."

"Possibly," I admitted, letting my hand fall to my lap. 

Here in the city, with enemies on every hand, the partisans couldn't afford to be merciful toward captives.  I didn't put a high value upon the life I was living, but it at least gave me a chance to help my loved ones.  Later on, if I learned magic, that would be something else of value.  Sorcery had to be met with sorcery.  I had to trust that Cawdour had known what he was doing, that his aims had been basically noble.  But had he been a good man?  I hoped so.  Maybe he was somewhat better than Lady M'Glywess supposed.  I'd come to agree that he was more ruthless than I'd ever suspected, but I needed to believe that I had not been an utter fool for believing in him.

The door latch clicked just then and the portal swung open, to show a full view of Cemion.  His glowering stare fixed upon his magician rival, sitting at my side and clasping my hand....


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