By Christopher Leeson
FROM DYAN'S JOURNAL
After Ceann fled from the scene of torture, I had followed her, believing that she needed to talk.
"I hate this,” my former mistress said. “Why won't he just answer the questions?"
I shook my head. "He expects to be murdered, no matter what he says or does."
She looked into my eyes. "And is he right?"
Ceann looked at the moon, now sagging into the western skyline. "You're strong, like Rodin,” she said.
I sighed. “If I'm as strong as Rodin, that's because that's who I am.”
“I know. But things are different now. There's something that seems so wrong about a woman torturer.”
I frowned. “If you mean me, I haven't touched the fellow.”
“But you would, if you had to. I can kill, and you know that I have killed, but... I mean, causing as much pain as possible before...killing...makes me feel dirty.”
"You don't have to....”
She turned swiftly and stared into my face. "Yes I do!" she insisted. "If I ever stop feeling dirty about things like this, it will be the day that I die.”
I felt sorry for the girl. I hadn't been able to protect her the expedience of staining her hands with enemy blood. I had worried that performing homicide would change her, and I suppose that she had changed in some ways, but I hadn't stopped loving her. “No,” I gently disagreed. “You wouldn't die.”
“I don't mean that I'd die physically. But I think something inside would die. Weren't you different yourself, before you had to...?”
“I don't doubt that I was,” I answered with a shrug. “Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe you wouldn't have cared for the callow boy that I used to be.”
She shifted again and leaned back against the porch support. “I wish that we had met back then, when we were two different people. You a callow boy, and me, whatever I was.... I don't deserve to have any good things happen to me. Maybe I've already lost myself, maybe there's no way to ever be made clean again. Sometimes I think that my parents are looking down on me with shame.” Ceann turned her face away, as if it were a mirror to her soul that I should not gaze into.
I sank back against the rail. Sometimes I, too, missed the person -- the better person -- whom I once had been. When had he slipped away? I don't think it was during my guards training, nor when I had been learning at the feet of Cawdour. It must have happened after I took the responsibility decide whom should live and whom should die.
Suddenly, Ceann was speaking again. "Will you kill...this one...even if he tells you what you want?" As things stood, should our captive die, his blood would stain her hands as scarlet as the men's.
"I'm not sure," I said. "Maybe he deserves it. We don't know anything about him.” I didn't like to kill honest soldiers, even if they served the enemy.
Ceann stepped away, becoming more remote, gazed out over the street. "I know what you mean. We all deserve to die, for something or other. It is so easy to make ourselves undeserving to live."
She looked back at me. "Myself as much as anyone else. Rodin, aren't we always trying to do the right thing? How can so many right actions become so wrong? How did our road grow to be so cruel and dark?"
“Maybe it's not our fault,” I ventured. “Maybe if we had the luxury of fighting decent people, we could stay decent, too.”
That was the root of it all. I so much wanted it to be someone else's fault -- someone else's fault that I had become the person that my parents couldn't have recognized.
But if I could blame Harouck for my fall, who could Ceann blame?
Could she -- should she -- blame me?
* * * *
THE ROOT OF IT ALL
“Rodin! Look!” Ceann whispered.
I saw a figure prowling down the street, coming our way. "We have to go inside," I warned. "If someone sees us, he might become curious. We can't afford that." I didn't add, “And we don't want to have to kill him.”
Ceann let me lead her back into the house. We were met by a burst of renewed screaming.
"For the gods' sake, keep him muffled!" I hissed. "There are people outside!"
Cromm readjusted the captive's gag.
"Did he tell you anything yet?" I asked.
"No. He's either too stubborn or too scared of Harouck," grumbled Tal.
"Try something else," I said.
Ceann withdrew into the corner of the room as my men started breaking the stranger's fingers, one at a time.
The young woman was looking at them, aghast. She still had the luxury to back away. I didn't. I couldn't look away from men doing what I wanted them to do. There was an old saying -- "We become what we most love, or most hate."
In the midst of my fretting, there came a fresh inspiration.
I pushed up behind Fynbarr, Cromm, and Tal. "Please! Let me talk to him!"
Fynbarr shoved out an arm to hold me back. "Mae -- uh, Lady, you shouldn't interfere. We have no choice --"
No, it was Fynbarr who shouldn't be interfering. I knew exactly what I was doing.
"Wait," said Cromm. "Let's give the lady a minute to calm herself. She's not like us,” he added pointedly. “There'll still be plenty of time before dawn to play host to this obdurate scoundrel."
"Of course," Tal agreed -- too quickly to be convincing.
The men had latched on to what my gambit must be. Perhaps they were even grateful to have a break. The work was hateful to them, too, or so I hoped. The three escorted Ceann into an adjacent room, where our packs were stowed.
"Thank you, honna," the man gasped when I took away his sodden gag.
"I'm sorry," I said. "These villains asked us to bring you here, but we didn't know what they were capable of. Can't you tell something that will satisfy them? Even the smallest thing?"
His sweat glittered in the candlelight. "They'll...they'll kill me anyway! If they don't, the high priests will."
“I thought those at the mansion were your friends! What's happening in that terrible place? They say you're all executioners, but you mention a high priest for the first time."
He twisted his face away.
"Talk to me, sir, and maybe they'll be satisfied. I'll speak for your life."
"What are you afraid of?"
"Our leaders always assume that a man who has been tortured has talked."
"Doesn't that leave you free to speak then? You can't go back. If you have only labored for gold, if you are no more than a mercenary, these men may let you flee the city."
"It wasn't as innocent as gold," he said despondently.
"Even so, they just need information. They don't hate you, they don't even know you."
"You speak as if you're high born. By your clothing I thought you -- were not."
"I dare not dress to suit my rank,” I explained quickly. “I am hunted by the Chancellor, along with my whole clan. My sister is already in Bannog Tower. She'll be sent to Wedtynn Mansion two nights from now. Why are they taking her there? What happens in that house?"
"You'd slay me yourself, if I told you!"
"No, I swear it!
"You'd swear? Upon what?"
I thought quickly. "I swear before Daghd, king of the gods, the awesome punisher of oath-breakers, that my life shall be made short and this soul of mine shall dwell in the Land of Pain forever, should I betray my promise to you."
* * * * *
This was a fearsome oath indeed, but I worded it carefully. He still hesitated, even as I would have, so I continued to coax and cajole. I gave the man water. I wiped away his sweat and blood. I gingerly held his tortured hands. Little by little, he began to give away hints of the doings inside the Wedtynn Mansion. Each tumbling declaration, like stones rolling down a slope, caused many more to cascade after them.
The Cromm and the others by then had returned. They had heard most of the man's gasping words, heard him confess that he was not an executioner, not in the ordinary sense, but a priest -- one of a mystery cult from Herzeloyde. Outlawed in their own land, they secretly cleaved to an Ancient God, Ghantog, the demon king of the Formoru, the Dark Gods of legend. These were the earliest gods known from Arannaneg lore. Ghantog -- I remembered -- could kill even the almost immortal gods with a single glance of his evil eye.
Our captive's testimony was confirming Lady Electa's suspicion that Harouck's mass-execution was, in fact, an offering to the Ancient Gods. Indeed, the very scaffold of the public holocaust had been laid out in accordance with arcane formulas and consecrated to Brys, the Dark-Robed Man, the harbinger of the Formoru. The consecration, merely the prelude to its real use, had demanded lives from the innocent.
Cromm's incredulity got the better of him. He began threatening our captive, trying to wrest something more believable from his gasping throat.
Young women made the best preparatory victims, since not only did their own life forces burn bright, but they also carried an essence called vril that resides in many places, but especially in a woman during her child bearing years. Such a feast multiple courses would be especially pleasing to the demons. Up to that point, I had actually pitied our prisoner, supposing him to be but a small fry, suffering for the deeds of those above him. But he was not a small player after all; his personal sins were disturbing. Despite his physical distress, he barely seemed to understand their shocking nature.
I tried not to react outwardly. The priest, whose thinking was so baffling to one who adhered to the Daanan gods, seemed no to longer want to hold anything back. Whether we were hearing his confession of repentance or his boasting about his privileged place, I did not know. Much of what he avowed seemed like the rantings of an evil and diseased mind -- unless it was the absolute truth. Why would any being in possession of a soul commit himself to a cult that desired to help unearthly monsters attain their ends?
With dawn drawing nigh, the priest, his pain worsening, his strength fading, had reached the end of his endurance. His speech gradually decayed into an inaudible mumble.
"Lady Maeve," whispered Cromm, "it's almost light. You women ought go back to the inn."
I looked into the eyes of the black-bearded rebel. He was saying that it was time to deal with our prisoner. I had wanted the priest to tell us something that would have justified mercy. Instead, his criminal vision of the supernatural world had made the whole idea of mercy a crime to contemplate. What else could I say except, "Do what you must"?
“Let it be quick,” I added. “His suffering in the Land of Pain will satisfy our need for revenge.”
Cromm frowned. Maybe he was wondering at my giving him orders, which he did not see I should do. He reacted to my request with a shrug.
Fynbarr escorted Ceann and me out of the house. Behind us, I knew, the other two men would finish their bloody work, quickly or cruelly, as they saw fit. Hidden in the deepest corner of the abandoned house, it might be days before the priest's body was found.
Was I foresworn? My actual oath before Daghd had been vague. I had not slain him myself, nor had I asked for his death. But the whole night's proceedings left me feeling befouled. I had used my pledge like a dishonest lawyer used weasel words to gain his ends.
If, for that oath, I deserve divine punishment, great or small, let it be. I still hope to find absolution by standing four-square against the the priest's apocalyptic visions. Unfortunately, while pledging restitution, I had no coherent idea as to how to accomplish it.
* * * * *
What I reported to Cemion and Lairgann brought them consternation, but they believed it not at all, except to grant that Harouck's priests were mad and very dangerous. Maybe Harouck was mad, too, since he certainly lay at the center of this web all vileness.
The testimony of the tortured man had made clear to me that we should act to rescue my family no later than Yewday. To my anguish, the news brought back by Gannon dashed any such hope.
The leaders of the band discussed the information. I urged, then nagged, Cemion to move earlier than he wished to, to find some other time frame. Finally, fed up, he had called in Gannon. "She apparently hasn't been listening,” Cemion said. “Tell her the facts again, would you?"
"Don't call me a her!" I shouted -- to the interest of the persons standing within earshot.
"Maeve --" Gannon whispered "-- ah, Dyan -- er, Rod --"
Angry, I sat down. Gannon had delivered our payment in gold to the smugglers. But before accepting it, they had turn informed him that his people could not produce a seaworthy vessel before Rowanday, the very night that Maeve was designated to go to the house of the executioners. It was also the last day that we might hope to effect a rescue the rest of the family, since the routine of the prison would dissolve into unpredictability on the following day, in the preparation for the mass immolation of Cernunnog's Eve. Left with no other choice, Gannon had confirmed with the smugglers that the day of escape would be Rowanday.
"If we bide our time and go with the possible," Cemion offered tersely, "the fewer mistakes we'll make."
I shook my head. "We could rescue my family early in the evening, before Maeve is sent for."
Lairgann shook his head. "No, Rodin. We'd be fools to break in before the the fifth bell -- when the darkness is full, when the streets are empty, after the last changing of the guard. Maeve will be taken before then. You said yourself that the woman is always transferred by the fourth bell."
I stared wrathfully at his broad, bearded outline. Everywhere I turned I found opposition. How easy it had become for others -- even friends and allies -- to say "no" to me. Why was that? I had lost my sex, not my brain.
"Then why not rescue her from her escort outdoors?" I asked.
Lairgann again shook his head. "Some of us here know what it is to lose family. A raid like that would put the whole garrison on alert. It would probably make any action against the tower a forgone failure. We want to save both Maeve and the rest of your family, but if it comes down to a choice, it's you who has to choose."
"That's no fair choice at all! Lairgann, you're my friend. How --?"
"It's the cold, hard truth, my boy. Sometimes you just can't save everyone."
I balled my fists. My former lieutenant had always been too cautious. If I had always followed his advice when I was leader of the band I --
My temper quelled. If I had followed his advice, we wouldn't now be living at the heart of a disaster, and I'd still be looking forward to a future that made some sense.
So I held my peace and let the others mull over the possibilities.
"Listen," I broke in after a short while.
"What is it now?" Cemion asked impatiently. How he must have enjoyed speaking down to me, as if I were an ill-mannered guest who's input could be disregarded.
I held my temper and explained, "What we need to do is delay Maeve's sacrifice until the fifth bell. Then the uproar of what's happening at the Tower will make her escape from the mansion relatively easy."
"How can we do that?" asked Gannon.
"I could mix with the servants disguised as a maid servant."
"What if you could?" scoffed Cemion. "What could you do on your own?"
"Lad," Lairgann said, "I love you like a son, but I know better than most. If your blood gets up, you'll give yourself away too early. You'll probably be captured and then tortured to make you name your confederates. If they can't force names from you, they'll torture Maeve and learn about the planned escape. By the fifth hour, that tower will be a death trap for any rescuers who show up."
"So you're overruling me, too?" I accused bitterly.
Lairgann glanced at Cemion and then back my way. "You haven't said what you intend to do. Even if it's a good plan, you'll need someone to back you up.”
"Someone to nursemaid a hothead, you mean?"
"Your words, not mine," returned Lairgann somberly.
I sat down. I had been demeaned, even by Lairgann. How could this man, my right hand, have had so little respect for my ability to think and act?
The answer was Cymydog Road, of course. I needed to do a great deal of restitution before I earned back the trust of those who knew who I was. I hadn't done that yet.
On the other hand, Lairgann had deftly turned the question away from "Should I go in?" to the proposition of "Who should go in with me?" As far as I was concerned, I had only one choice.
I spoke with all the grace I could muster. "If you insist, I'll take Gannon with me."
Gannon looked as if I was tendering him a suicide pact.
Cemion regarded me incredulously. "How would he get in? He doesn't look like a maid servant!"
"Well," I suggested, "he could."
* * * * *
I was still lying wide awake when there came a tapping at my door.
"Who is it?" I called moodily.
That surprised me. He wasn't a person that I wanted to talk to, but he was commander of the Fyana and I had to deal with him respectfully. "The it isn't locked," I said, sitting up.
He stepped in, back-lighted by the hall lantern.
"If you have something to say, let's hear it," I told him.
Cemion closed the door for our privacy. "I'll only be a minute."
"You're not going to try to talk me out of going into the mansion, are you?"
"I wouldn't waste the effort."
"Why not? I'll probably be killed."
"If you want the brutal truth, you're the most expendable."
"As you are now,” he clarified.
"That's brutal, even coming from you."
"Is it so brutal to let you do just what you're insisting you should do?"
"Exactly why are you here?"
"I thought that we should talk things over before -- before it's too late."
"What old business?"
"We've never gotten on, Rodin," he stated bluntly. "I've regretted that, now more than ever. I suppose that I've been as much at fault as you."
I stayed mum, waiting for the man to make his point.
"First, I want to apologize for laughing. That was uncalled for. It was a cheap victory, not worth taking."
I shrugged indifferently. "It was just you being you."
Cemion grimaced. "I'm trying to say that we should have been friends. There seemed to be every reason for us to be friends. In fact, I really did feel...well-disposed to you, when I believed that you were your own sister."
"In the future, don't be so overbearing with your friends," I advised him. "And don't be so obviously about wanting to take them to bed."
He threw a glance back at the door, not liking the idea of someone overhearing. I smiled.
"Will you keep your voice down? I never suggested anything ungallant!"
"Of course you didn't, not in so many words. But what was all that gallantry supposed to lead to?"
"It was simple courtesy! Anyway, as a woman you had a charm that I never detected in you -- before. For that brief while, when our rivalry wasn't staring us in the face, it seemed like we had much in common."
"Such as what?"
"You had qualities that I would have liked to have -- Damn, let me say that differently!"
"Well, you surely could use some of my qualities," I agreed.
"I was about so say, 'that I would have liked to have found in a woman.'" He frowned; again, he had spoken too quickly.
"Well, I'm flattered," I replied sarcastically. "Back then, you almost had me thinking better of you, too. But the first time I turned my back, there you were, wanting to execute me for a spy!"
“You lied to us. What else could any of us suppose, except that you were an infiltrating informer?"
"I didn't see very much evidence of thinking."
He shook his head. "What I can see is that all of our old problems have come back with a vengeance."
I calmed myself with effort. "They shouldn't -- not now. There's no point to any it any longer. If you want leadership, be my guest. I need to go back to Lady Electa soon, whether we succeed or fail. I'll have only one aim from then on, destroying Harouck. If I discover that I have any magical powers, that will be the best way to fight back."
"I never wanted to command the Fyana," Cemion protested.
"I don't mean leadership of the band; I meant leadership between ourselves. You could never accept my authority, and I wasn't going to roll over for a recruit!"
"You handled authority sometimes well, and sometimes badly," he retorted. "I learned from you, about how to lead a band like this, and, even more, how not to lead them. I hope that your life won't be a decent one, Rodin. You're alive at least, and --" he regarded me keenly "-- apparently healthy."
I raised my chin. "I would be neither alive nor healthy if it had been left up to...some people! Tell me, how did you plan to kill me, that night I got wounded? Cut my throat? Smother me with a horse blanket? Strangle me with your boot laces?"
Instead of being provoked, Cemion grinned. "You've certainly become as peevish as any garden-variety female. I wonder what you'll be like three or four years from now."
The rogue had scored on me. I answered hastily. "I'll be what I've always been!" Even to me, that denial sounded hysterical.
"Let's not argue, Rodin. I'm not your enemy; I never was. I didn't ask to be captain, but the others seemed to want to pass me your boots. The gods know, I've been trying to do my best. If I can carry on as well as you did and lose fewer men while doing it, I'll be happy"
"Thanks, I suppose," not sure whether I were being complimented or insulted.
He took a half-step forward. "Listen, Rodin, Dyan, whatever you're calling yourself today, if it's humanly possible to get your family out of Arannan alive, I'm going to try. After that, well, your fate is in your own hands. I hope that you can make something of this second chance that the gods have seen fit to give you."
“You call it a second chance? A little while ago you were saying that it was the gods settling accounts with me.”
"Discount what I said. I don't know what exactly they're doing, and it isn't up to me to decide.”
"Listen, Cemion," I said, "we're asking for trouble whenever you and I speak together. But you made a promise you didn't have to, and you seem to be honoring it. Circumstances have changed, through no fault of either one of us. I would prefer it we could part as friends. The past is past. The present is chaos, and the future is unknowable. If out fates cross again, I'm sure that we'll have fresh quarrels, without needing to dredge up the old days."
He extended me his hand with apparent honesty. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, reached out, and clasped it.
"Well, that's the reason I came by," he said, his fingers releasing mine. He stepped back and turned toward the exit.
"In a way I'm glad that the impersonation is over," I remarked, thinking out loud.
"Because now you're not going to want that stupid kiss you made me promise you."
He blinked, then smiled deviously. Before I could ask what was churning in his evil mind, he was gone.
What had been behind that scoundrel look? It had spoiled the amity of the moment. He was up to something, something to my disadvantage!
"Rodin," Ceann whispered from the hall. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Ceann waiting at the threshold.
She stepped inside. "I'm glad that the two of you finally shook hands," she said.
"We could have hugged and kissed and it wouldn't have made any difference," I told her, sourly. "My guts turn at right angles every time I see that man's face. I'm not sure why. I can't stand to have him around, not even when he's being decent."
Ceann sat down on the edge of the bed, still smiling.
"You really don't understand, do you, Rod?"
"All right," I said, standing. If you're as wise as the goddess of wisdom, tell me why Cemion and I are always at drawn daggers."
"Because the pair of you are so much alike! You work together poorly because two right hands can't build a decent chicken crate."
I stared at her.
I couldn't see any resemblance at all. I changed the subject.
"Are you feeling any better yet, about the priest?"
She lost her smile. "I don't know."
I leaned closer. "Have you lost the girl you were, the girl I loved?"
She looked into my eyes very seriously. "I don't know that, either."
I said nothing, and for a long space, and she was equally silent.
* * * *
No rebel likes coming into a neighborhood where there is a prison, but that wasn't the only anxiety afflicting Gannon just then.
"I know that misery loves company, Rod, but this is overdoing it."
"You told me you wouldn't mind being a woman, not if the gods made you fetching enough," I told him.
"I'm not fetching like this," he said.
"Well, maybe not so fetching that I'd want to take you to bed," I admitted. “But a farmer might fancy you. Strength great enough to pull a plow plays well with peasant types.”
Ceann and I had found Gannon a loose-fitting kirtle, a wig, a lace cap, and an apron. These, along with a good shave and a broom amounted to a serviceable disguise.
“I wonder how insultingly you'd be if I weren't risking my life for you.”
"Stop complaining!" I told him. "Once we're out of the woods, you can wear anything you want, but I'll still be stuck with dresses."
"I only hope that I don't have to die dressed like a charwoman."
"At least they'll be able to put your real name over your gravestone. What are they going to call me?"
"Probably Ava. Enough people around here know the face of Cawdour's daughter."
I let that go and we fell in behind a pair of broom-carrying women. Our group filed through the outer gate of the Wedtynn Mansion. The cleaners and kitchen help would go home just before sunset, leaving the mysterious inhabitants of the house to their privacy. Gannon and I were not going in blindly. A couple of our men had detained one of the mansion's servants the previous night and bribed her for information. Then she was told to disappear for at least a week.
We tried to walk confidently around to the postern, where a man in black was monitoring the arriving traffic. We attempted to sidle around him and gain the door, but he hailed us and stepped up.
"You haven't been here before," he said to me, probably because I was prettier than Gannon. "I'm sure I would have noticed." That last sentence had been delivered with a kind of a smirk. It seemed that a lot of men behaved loutishly around pretty girls; I hoped that my own technique with the ladies had been better.
"My mother has a stomach chill," I explained blandly.
"What's her name?"
"Ceridian Emyrs," I said, giving the name of our absent informant.
"Oh, her. Well, you sure don't take after the old lady! She's a sausage!"
With a frown, I said, "We need the wages. I was supposed to report to the housekeeper, Moira."
"You shouldn't have to dirty hands like those with housework," he said. "We can make special arrangements."
"I'd rather dirty my hands than my good name!"
"What good is a reputation to a poor woman?"
"You'd never understand."
"All right, all right," he shrugged, not wanting to discuss morals. "The more fool you. Get going."
We walked briskly inside. “He had such eyes for you," whispered Gannon with an incredulous grin. “He didn't see me at all!"
"I'm going to attract enough attention around here for the both of us, so let's get out of sight."
No one paid us much notice while we made our way upstairs, along a route mapped out by Ceridian. The third level, according to our information, was mostly empty -- an ideal place for two people to lay hidden for the rest of the day.
Any of a number of vacant, if dusty, rooms would have served, but before we had time to choose one of them, Gannon discovered a chamber with a stepladder leading to a hatch in the ceiling.
"That might be just the place for us," I suggested. "Have a look!"
He found the simple padlocks to be no match for his deft bodkin. The attic door had no hinge and so he simply lifted it above his head and set the thing aside, on the loft floor.
Half of Gannon then disappeared into the small, dark rectangle. "It's good!" he whispered down, and then totally disappeared. I followed quickly, passing our gear up to him. Then the young knight gave me an arm up.
The squeak of bats warned us what kind of company we would be keeping for the rest of the day, but at least the small windows at the baseboards would allow us to track the daylight.
We conducted a brisk exploration, but there was little to see – a few chests, spare lumber, some crates -- and everything was well-dabbed with decades of bat droppings.
Preparing for a long vigil, I removed my bodice and chemise, then put on the boy's shirt and jacket -- garments smuggled inside my bag of gear. I had already been wearing a boy's hose under my skirts. Gannon followed suite and seemed even happier than I was to be rid of his dress, probably because he was less used to it. The copious material of our discards served us for cushions when we sat down under a wall streaked with excrement.
My companion gave a subdued sigh. "Well, if I die now, I can at least die looking like a man." Then his voice caught and he glanced my way, his chagrin writ large.
TO BE CONTINUED...