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Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Spellcaster's Heiress -- Chapter 13


I had long been fascinated by Cawdour's stories about the ancient race of gods that had dwelled upon the earth before it was totally given over to the province of Man. 

"What happened to the old gods, Sire?" I once inquired.  “If they are immortal, how could they vanish?  If they were supreme, who could have compelled them to go from this land to the Western Isles?”

"They still live, my boy,” he told me.  “They are not wholly supreme, but that is a complex matter.  They are with us more than we know, yet cannot be seen unless they wish it to be so.  Our ancient heroes were the sons of gods, but they no longer condescend to merge their divinity with our mortal clay.  But never think that they have lost interest in us, their earthly kin."

"How do they demonstrate this interest?”

Cawdour shook his sage head.  "Each of us has a guardian spirit, Rodin.  I have one myself.  My guide through life comes to me in dreams sometimes, or as a voice in my meditations, imparting wisdom.  Sometimes he approaches me in the trappings of a beast, or as a man or woman -- and when he does so, the god seems just as substantial as you or I."

"What is he then, a male or a female?"

"He is pure spirit, lad, and spirit has no sex.  A god may change his shape as easily as you or I change our clothing."

"Well, I'm quite sure that I've never met a god," I remarked.

"Without the Blood, one is rarely favored with a personal visitation, but they are near nonetheless.  That famous luck of yours must be a gift of their bestowing." 

"My luck?  I'm the most unlucky of men," I said.

"Everyone at your age believes that, my boy.  But keeping a young hellion out of trouble is a tall order, even for a god.  Our divine clansmen do much to protect us, as far as their rules allow, but there is a limit.  It is for Fate alone to degree when our final hour has come."

"Are you saying that the power that stands above even the gods is Fate?"

The spellcaster stroked his beard.  "So it is said."

* * * * *


The rebel leader, having seen the hole in my prison wall,  looked darkly upon Custin.  "Magician -- did you do that!?" he asked, intoning it like an infuriated schoolmaster.

Custin looked down very student-like.  "Just practicing."

Cemion flipped his hand in a gesture of disgust, but then shifted his glare my way.

"I was almost ready to kill you," he told me.

I shrugged.  "If you need more time to convince yourself not to, I don't mind waiting."

He scowled.  "Ceann begged for your life.  She pleaded with me to talk with Gannon before I dealt with you."

"You?  I expected you'd delegate it to Cromm.  You didn't send the men scattering to the mountains, did you?"

He blinked.  "No...,” he began slowly, “but I've made them ready to go.  Ceann claims you pose no danger.   I decided to wait for what Gannon had to say."

"When will he be back?"

"He _is back.  He says I should stop acting like a....  He said I should let you explain yourself!"

I threw up my arms.  "That's all I've been asking you to do in the fist place!"

"If you're Cawdour's daughter; you must be a witch, too.  How else could Rodin's betrayer win over both of his closest friends so easily?"

"It's not witchcraft.  They just make fair decisions based on facts.  Let me talk to you alone, with Ceann and Gannon to witness.  They already know everything I need to tell you."

"Will you tell the truth for once?"

I'd almost rather be visited by Cromm with a strangling cord than let a man who was not my friend know who I truly was.   "Yes, I'll even tell the truth!" I finally said.

* * * * *

Cemion insisted on including Lairgann in our interview.  He could have made a much worse choice for a witness, so I readily agreed.  The five of us were soon up on the rooftop, there to conduct my "trial."

While walking next to Gannon, I had found a moment to ask him whom my denouncer had been.  I learned that the well-dressed man had been a friend of Cawdour, one of his liaisons for keeping in touch with what was happening at other ministries.  The man had visited my patron's home several times, and had once met Ava, thus he had known my face.   As to why had he dropped in on the Four Lions, Lairgann had actually summoned him for my benefit!  The bureaucrat knew where his former co-conspirator lay buried, cast without ceremony into a traitor's grave.

But while that assuaged my curiosity, it was relevant to to winning Cemion over.

“Well,” he said to me, “what do you have to say for yourself.”

“I'll tell you everything, but don't interrupt until I've told it allmm,” I said.  “The first part, especially, might sound unbelievable.  Well, frankly, the whole thing will sound unbelievable.”

Cemion glowered.

“But it's true!” Ceann put in.  Gannon nodded soberly.

So I began the tale.   From the instant that he realized that I was averring that I was Rodin, Cemion listened incredulously.  Whenever he began to get too restive, or frowned too darkly, my two friends would speak up in my support.

When all is said and done, it turned out to be less difficult than I had expected to convince Cemion and Lairgann that I was Rodin returned from the dead.  In fact, it may have been just because my story was so wildly improbable, it rang true.  My avowal could hardly be anything other than an utterly inane fabrication or the absolute truth.  And who would have offered an utter inanity in defense of his own life?

Once the two partisan leaders had already learned from before that there was no secret of Rodin that I was not privy to, so their questioning was brief.  Once t hey seemed to have accepted my identity, I prevailed upon them to keep it a secret.

The captain agreed, and I think he was glad.  It would not do to let Harouck find out that one of his implacable enemies was now armed with magical talent.  Also, Cemion -- or so I expected -- most decidedly did not want his men to know whom it was that he had been showering with so much gallantry.

"You were playing me for a fool!" he accused.

"I never wanted to be romanced,” I rejoined.  “I was just taking the course of least resistance.  Would you have done anything differently in my place?"

Looking wrathful and dangerous, Cemion looked to Lairgann for input, but the older man only shrugged.  I took in the lieutenant's bemused, perhaps sympathetic, cast.  Somehow his evident compassion made me feel even more uncomfortable than did Cemion's indignation.

"I wanted to keep you at arm's length,” I reminded my rival, "and I never promised you anything –- except for that kiss that you absolutely had to have."

“Kiss?” Gannon echoed.

That broke the tension.  Lairgann grinned broadly; Ceann smothered a giggle.  The captain's complexion flushed.

But humiliating Cemion wasn't going to make things any easier for me, so I hurried on to close my defense:  "I only asked for your help.  I even told you that Rodin's spirit was with me, guiding me."

"And I fell for it!"  Cemion shouted.  "You were laughing up your sleeve!"

"No!" I answered back just as loudly.  Then, lowering my volume, I added, "I was always too miserable to laugh!  And too...humiliated to tell you the truth."

"Damn your eyes!  If Cawdour wasn't already dead, I think I'd kill the man myself, for starting all this!" 

Gannon caught his leader' arm.  "Take it easy, Captain."

Cemion shook him off.  "You helped him trick us!"

"Well, yes," Gannon confessed contritely.  "Rod's my friend and I knew he wasn't trying to do us any harm.  I _did offer to chaperon the two of you back in the forest, but, unfortunately, you seemed to think that three was a crowd."

"Shut up!" thundered Cemion.  "By Luddyn's beard!  I ought to --"

"Ought to what?" I demanded.  "Let seventeen innocent people die just because you've always hated my guts?"

He fell silent for a moment.  "I never hated you,” he then said.  “I just didn't care for your style of leadership!” 

"I can live with that,” I told him.  “I didn't think that you excelled as a follower.  All I could depend on was your nay-saying."

“What you wanted to do was usually cockeyed.  The greatest risk for the smallest gain.  Your ideas are still cockeyed!”

“If what we came here to do is so wrong, why did you agree?  You even helped to persuade the others.”  I thought about chiding him for being too susceptible to a pretty face, but decided to let that go.

Cemion made a rumble in his throat and turned his back on me.  I judiciously allowed him a moment to think things through.  I logic lay on my side.

Finally, he said, “I can't judge you, Rodin.  I just need to keep you from harming the band.  The rest is the gods' business.” 

I didn't know what to say to that. 

"In fact," he continued, “I think the divine ones have made a good start at settling your past accounts."

Before I could find the right words to answer, the dog actually threw back his head and laughed!

* * * *

Most people, I believe, suppose that nothing is harder to bear than the ridicule of an enemy.  That's not true.  When kingdoms go to war, the two sides throw the most scathing derision and inflammatory liable at one another.  No sensible person pays any attention to  it; in three years, or in ten, the sides may be the best of allies.  What really cuts to the quick comes from quite a different quarter.

Worse by far is the pity of a friend.

With Cemion laughing up a storm, I stomped downstairs, but Lairgann called after me.

"What do you want?!" I snarled up the well, like a bear echoing a challenge from its den.

"I'm sorry, Rodin," he said, following me down.  “I mean, I'm glad that you're not dead but --”

"But what?!"

He paused a couple of feet above me.  "I just wanted you to know that I think you deserved a lot better than this."

I frowned. 

"If there's ever anything I can do, my boy," he went on, "you know that you can always depend on me."

I simply nodded.  Then, without another word, I turned my back and descended to the barroom.  I needed a tankard.

* * * * *

The next night, wharf where we waited lay empty -- silent but for the lap of water against the piles.  As Master Pendaran and I waited, I sensed eyes in the darkness.  Someone was taking our measure and I hoped that it was the smugglers.  In so many ways, the authorities were worst than criminals.  When I saw a waving light reflected behind one of the wharf houses, I guess that some sort of a decision had been made by the unseen spies.  Very soon after that, a small rowing boat slide darkly out of the mists of the bay, on our bearing.

Custin's uncle touched my hand tensely, as if I were the one who needed calming.  We were able to make out two rowers, one of them bearded and wearing a stocking cap.

"Master Gwysig!" the bearded one said, using what I had already been informed was the merchant's alias.

"Pontydd?" answered the merchant, straining to see.  "Come in!  We're alone!"

The boat bumped up against the pier and a mooring rope was looped around a post. 

"We were worried that you couldn't come," yammered my companion.

"We came," the bearded one rumbled.  He had a nautical look, such as his shaven upper lip, a style popular amongst seafarers.  "Now, both of you, get aboard."

"Into the boat?" I asked warily.

Pontydd nodded.  "Away from spies and militia.”

"You don't trust us?" I asked.   Actually, I still didn't trust these boaters.

He ignored me, but assisted Pendaran into the small craft.  The warning that Gannon had given me came to mind just then, but I took heart that there were only two of them.  I could probably capsize a boat so small, should I need to get away.  It was likely that the strangers would not be expecting such a play from a "woman."  Many sailors didn't know how to swim, oddly enough, while I was fairly good in the water myself.

I placed my foot on a moving thwart and accepted the bearded man's proffered hand.  He assisted me to a seat beside the merchant.

Two pairs of oars then dipped into the brine and no one spoke.  I sat facing Pontydd.  There was enough moonlight to let me make out his angular face, and his evident vigor in his leanness betokened the trim, knotty musculature of a fit sailor.

Of a sudden, the two men once more drew their oars in.  I had expected us to tie in somewhere before opening any negotiations.  I quietly tensed against the possibility of treachery.

"You're the girl who has the family in old Bannog Tower, aren't you?" asked Pontydd.  Behind his accent hid a trace of culture.  I now doubted that Pontydd was an ordinary seaman, though he might have preferred to be taken for one.  Possibly, the man was a ship's officer.  Not many sons of good families ended up sleeping in a forecastle, though younger son wastrels were not unheard of. 

"Yes," I said cautiously. 

"And you want to get them out of the city?"

"Yes.  Is it possible?"

"It would be, if they weren't still in prison," the stranger advised me.

If that was a joke, I wasn't amused.  "We have a plan," I assured him.

"I supposed that you did, but whether it's a good one, or a damned fool fantasy, it's not any business of ours.  The gentleman said seventeen people."

"No, that's just the family members.  If possible, we'd like to take -- the men of our band – out of the city at the same time."

Pontydd scratched his moonlit cap.  "The more people, the harder it makes it, and the higher the cost.  Are there children, too?"

I nodded.  "The youngest is only weeks old."

"Damn!" snorted the younger sailor behind us.

"Do children make a difference?" I asked.

"Children make everything harder."

"There's no getting around that, but we can pay you well," I promised.

"Well, yes, we expect to be paid.”  When he looked to the right, I could see the white teeth in a grimace.  "Hiring ships, bribing guards and sea captains, none of it comes cheaply."

"You haven't told us your price," I said.

"And you haven't said exactly how many people you have, and when you'll need your ship."

"About fifty men; women and children, too, but mostly men.  If we can't be gone by Rowanday night, it'll be too late for...some of them."  Too late for Maeve, at least.

"I see.  Your people are going to be part of those Cernnunog Eve executions, aren't they?"

"Y-Yes."  My mouth had become so dry I could announciate.

I sensed, rather than saw, that shadowy face in deep thought.  "Tomorrow night is impossible," he said at last.  "The night after is next to impossible."

"So what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that you'd better not count on anything sooner than two days from now, and we'll be needing two thousand pieces of gold!"

"That's...very reasonable," I murmured slowly.  In fact, the quoted price seemed low enough to make me doubtful.  I didn't expect to find altruists among smugglers.  They could have been royal agents trying to bring our whole gang out of cover, or else they were going to take what we gave them and leave us waiting in the dark strand with the militia hot on the trail of the jailbreakers.

"I'll say it's reasonable!" nodded the man.  "We could ransom Master Pendaran here for almost that much, and you'd be worth at least a thousand yourself to some taverner in Yeidal or Herzeloyde." 

The rower behind me laughed.  I looked over my shoulder, wondering if this was just a tasteless ribbing or whether the two were about to show their hand.  

"Settle down, lass," said Pontydd.  "Kidnapping's not our business.  We're not doing this to make ourselves rich, though I think we could do well enough by it, if we wanted to!"

"But just who are you people and what are you after if it isn't money?" I asked, trying to show calm.

"Don't ask questions, my maid.  And especially don't thank us until it's over.  Talk is just talk and the worst enemy we have is time.  Come back to the wharf tomorrow, or send someone else that you can trust, but let me have the name of the one to expect.  And when your man does come, make sure he has the money with him.  If you pay us, be dead sure which night you intend to make a go of it.  If you cancel out at the last minute, you'll get no refund."

Any date we picked would be a risk; the window to escape was narrow, and there was so much more to be done.

* * * * *

A man, staggering out of the Shield and Spear, regarded the cheaply, but sparingly dressed, girl briefly.  She seemed to be waiting for someone – someone who not him  -- and he noted how she looked persistently away from his direction, her mouth tight and frowning. 

Even with several cups of sack under his belt, he got the inkling that she wasn't interested.  The dislike of being insulted by a whore, maybe for making a low offer, or for whatever other reason, caused many a thrifty or timid man to sleep with this wife rather more than he might have wanted to.  The carouser weaved off into the darkness and away.  Watching him go, Ceann gave a sigh of relief; many of the earlier tavern-goers had been much bolder, and her patience for this masquerade was about used up.

"Maeve," my former mistress whispered, "you really know how to collect a debt.  This is a fine way for one girl to treat another."  Ceann was readjusting the crocheted shawl that warded off the dank night air. 

I smiled.  Ceann's usually good nature seemed just about as frayed as was her wrap, but her other virtues were up to standard under the lamplight.  I had never claimed that Ceann owed me anything.  After all, she had been taken and enslaved for staying with me wounded when she didn't have to.  Had she not agreed to take the decoy's role, it would have been me standing where she stood now.

After a few minutes, the door swung open again, and there, _finally, was our man, the one in the blue doublet and black velvet cap whom we had followed!  He passed Ceann by with barely a glance, but my former mistress did not intend to be ignored, not this time.

"Going home early aren't you, m'lord?" Ceann inquired cheerily.   "Are you here for the festival, too?"

The man regarded his fair accoster.  "I've been around the city a while," he replied stiffly.  "Is that why you're here?"

"I don't like cities, but where the crowds go, that's where I have to be!"

"I wish you well, my lovely."  He started to turn.  She caught his shoulder.

"You're pretty steady for just coming out of a tavern," Ceann remarked.  “A dull night?  I could put a smile on you face.”

"I just bet you could," the man replied, now looking her over with slightly more interest.  “Would you like to go back inside -- with me?”

She shook her head.  "They'd throw me out.  Tavernkeepers want gentlemen types to pay them for time with their joy-maids."

"That's surely true," the man nodded.  “But none of the women inside are half so lovely as you!"

Ceann perked up.  "Oh, aren't you the sweet one!  It gets awfully lonely to be an out-of-towner.  Is it any different for locals?”

"Not always," the man answered after a considered pause.  "Do you have a place?"

She laughed briefly.  "What would a poor girl do if she didn't have a place of her own?  The rogue who caught me squatting there wants a gwys every day.  If my luck doesn't change, he'll give me the boot by morning."

The man in blue seemed doubtful, as if he had some place specific where he ought to be.

Ceann took the stranger's arm.  "Come along, Sir Knight, I'll show you my place."

He kept his feet planted solidly.  "What about the price?"

"Oh, _that!  If I earn a _gwys  I can pay for another night in town, and the real action will be starting soon.”

He frowned, as if slightly suspicious.  "That's not very much -- ah, considering how attractive you are!"

He was right to be suspicious, as I had been suspicious of the smugglers' fee.  And I still felt uneasy about it.

"Maybe prices are getting higher here in Moyarien,” Ceann told her target.  “But if you're going to be such a gentleman about it, we'll call it two."

"No, I didn't mean that."

I groaned.  The man was tightwad.  Was he going to haggle every inch of the way.

"Well, one minute I'm too low and the next I'm too high.  You take quite a woman to please you, I bet.  Listen, warrior,  I've got rent to pay and I ain't about to let the only polite man I've met tonight get away from me so easily. A gwys or two gwyses, it's up to you.”

When the man still seemed indecisive, Ceann tugged him by the arm and he let her lead him.  The girl ushered him off the main street, toward the nearby_manbant -- the quarter of a city that holds the poorest and most lawless inhabitants.  They skirted a row of dilapidated dwellings, and then climbed up to the porch of a shabby house.

The stranger scowled dubiously.  "This place looks like it hasn't been lived in for a hundred years."

"Yah, well, I thought I could hole up here for free, until that rascal came around claiming that he owned the place."

"It's dark in there," the stranger said.  "I'd like to see you naked."

"We'll have a lamp.  Just follow me."

Ceann entered the house briskly, with confidence, as if she knew its layout.  She had only been inside once, actually.  We had picked the building out very hastily after we saw the man go into the Shield and Spear. 

Our intended victim was still hesitating on the threshold, possible warned by the same instinct that has saved so many lives in dangerous places.  I, with Fynbarr beside me, were shadowing them, ready to cut off any last minute retreat.  When we came into eye-shot, I took the rebel's arm and rested my head against his shoulder, just in case the man looked back at us.  If he ran before we were close, we might not snare him.

“Hmmm,” Fynbarr hummed, as if he rather liked the feel of my cheek.  He still didn't know what Cemion and Leirgann knew.  In fact, I'd be happy enough if no one else ever found out.

Finally the man in Harouck's pay found Ceann too tempting as bait and pushed into the darkness, on the heels of the pretended harlot.

We heard a fight suddenly start and by the time that Fynbarr and I had reached the threshold, Tal and Cromm were busy trussing up their victim like a sacrificial goat.

* * * * *

The man in blue wasn't interested in answering our questions, to put it mildly.  None of us had expected that a guard from the Wedyn Mansion would be very forthcoming, not at first.  We felt pressed for time, so the next logical step was torture.

I watched Cromm and Tal pour vinegar into our captive's nostrils, a rag stuffed into his mouth to stifle his screams.  That didn't overcome his innate stubborness, so Cromm applied the hog-hide whip.  Because of the gag, we heard only as small grunts what would probably have been full-throated screams.  Ceann soon had enough of it and scurried to the porch.

She was distraught, and I talked to her for a while, trying to make her feel better.  Then we sank into an awkward quietude.  I let my gaze drift across the silhouetted hulks of  the nearby ramshackle houses while our friends carried on with their business within.  Very few candles showed in the windows along the mostly-abandoned street.  What Ceann and I had been taking about reminded me of what I had thought about growing up.  The possible futures that had been open to that boy whom I had been must have been nearly infinite. 

But for every door a person chooses, a hundred other possible doors close.  Sometimes, we don't even have a choice; events drive us.  The winds of storm close our doors at their own whim.  Having  left behind a world of wide-open possibilities, I now felt like one in a cul-de-sac.  How had I come to be what I was, a hunted and nameless rebel, a woman disguised with dyed hair, standing on a rickety porch in a manbant.  Inside, some stranger, just because he might know something, was being tortured at my request.  From the start, I had assumed that the guard would have to be murdered afterwards, regardless of whether he had played us honestly or false.  We would _have to kill him, not because we were strong, like gods meting out justice, but because we were weak and desperate.  It was the law of the jungle; kill or be killed.

"You did die once, didn't you, Rodin?" Ceann asked suddenly.

"I suppose I did," I replied.

"What is it like?  Death?"

I shrugged, not taking my eyes off the black shapes around us.  Sometimes it seemed like every journey that we attempt goes awry and leads deeper into darkness.  Did anyone ever find his way out the morass and become happy again?  Could anyone really be happy, if they realized that they didn't deserve to be?

"You must remember something," Ceann pressed.

"No, I don't really.  I mean, what I remember makes no sense.  What I saw must have been a fairy dream."  I told her, for the first time, about the blue and green land, about She-Who-Was-Not-Ava -- and what my acceptance of her had led to.

"That's strange.  Do you think that place was in the Western Isles?"

"Probably not," I concluded.  “I only hope that it was.  I'd like to think that there is a place of purity waiting for us somewhere at the end of...all this.”

"Then you don't know any more than the rest of us?"

"About death?  No.”   I almost admitted that day to day living was almost as much a mystery to me as was death, and the mystery only seemed to be growing denser.  But I spared her that.

Ceann may have had been as burdened with thoughts as painful as mine were, for now she quieted, sank back against a post, and shut her eyes.


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