By Christopher Leeson
FROM DYAN'S JOURNAL
There was so much to think about, so much to regret. I lay awake though the long night, suffering the remorse of the damned, until the break of dawn took away even the hope of sleep.
Gannon, who had risen before the sun, joined me at first light, carrying a borrowed harp under his arm.
"Dyan," my friend said jauntily, "I've been thinking."
"That if this rebellion is ever going to catch fire, it has to have a hero."
"Cemion is the hero," I said indifferently.
Gannon shook his head. "No. Cemion isn't ready to inspire people yet."
“So what kind of hero do they expect?” I asked.
"A hero who can never be captured, never defeated, and never outwitted. A hero who only laughs at the worst threats of the enemy."
I frowned. "There is no such hero!"
"I'm talking about a dead hero."
"A dead hero?"
“Real heroes never die; they live in legend,” he clarified.
Thinking it over, I realized what Gannon was saying. Only the champions of saga never failed, and they died the sort of death that only served to put the seal of greatness on their triumphs. It was always the dead, never the living, who the generations looked up to.
"We have a hero," Gannon went on blandly, "if only we only give him what thing that every hero needs."
"A good song."
"Yes," my friend persisted, "a song, like the one that I've just composed. Do you want to hear it?"
"Do I have a choice?"
With a grin, Gannon put the harp to his shoulder. “I call it 'Rodin's Men.'
"Sing a song of Rodin brave,
Too elusive for the grave.
His arm so strong, his heart so good,
He made his foemen dread the wood.
"When assessors seized their tax
Rod gave their shoulders forty whacks.
When e'er a sellsword deighed to slay,
He made the rascal rue the day!
"Rod gave his life to save a mate,
Was struck by wounds that sealed his fate.
His soul flew to the Isles Blessed,
But the hero true refused to rest.
"The mage Harouck found out too late
Rod was back from Heaven's gate!
Again he ruled the hills and dell,
From the eye of God to the jaws of Hell!
"Saluted by those left behind
Rod helped them keep the mage in line.
They made their realm the woods and fen;
The gods protected Rodin's men!"
"Rod took a task with much to do,
With trouble great and helpers few.
But never daunted by a fight,
He lent our men his spirit bright!”
Gannon put down his instrument and grinned. “It's not quite finished yet.”
I frowned. “Write any more of that silly sing-song and I'll kick Rodin back to the Western Islands myself.”
But the words were hardly out before I heard cheers and clapping coming from behind us.
* * * *
From the Eye of God to the Jaws of Hell
With the loom of Bannog Tower above us, the men unharnessed Custin and me.
"Lady Maeve," whispered Doleu, "let me take you back. It's man's work from here on!"
I closed my eyes. What did a person have to do to get some respect? I had just flown magically and, with Custin's help, had blasted a hole through solid stone. Were such feats only woman's work? But I was too weary to argue about man-sized accomplishments. I answered with a compliant nod, glancing up the tower. I saw a patch of darkness about two cubits wide, darker by half than than the building stones ill-lit by the tepid moon. The sight gave me hope. The human heart looks instinctively for the light, but this time it was that spot of darkness that might mean life and death for my family.
I saw Cemion pick up a weighted line and twirl around his head. Released, it lobbed over the moonlit lip of the gap in the Bannog masonry and I thought I saw a pale hand grasp eagerly at the cord.
The line had a rope-ladder tied to the other end. When drawn up, it would afford my kin an avenue of escape. But Doleu was urging me to my feet, nudging me toward the rough-hewn attic entry. The men sitting by its ragged edge took me in hand and lowering me down, into the hands of our rear guard posted inside the attic. A moment later, Custin joined me, looking somewhat the worse for wear.
It was the right moment to thank him, but I could make no sound other than a heavy sigh. I stagger away from my rescuers and into the arms of a broken chair. There, for a few minutes, I sat resting my head on my knees, all but oblivious to the world. When I scraped my way back to awareness, I didn't know if I had slept a sleep of exhaustion or not. I looked up at the breach urgently.
Then, as if in answer to my prayer, a new pair of legs dangled over the edge and a body dropped to the topmost box of the makeshift stair with a thump, to be grabbed and steadied by waiting hands. My weariness was swept away and, rising, I ran to my youngest brother, Rhagan. The intensity of my hug took him by surprise; he nearly topped on his back.
I kept him from falling. "This is a miracle," I laughed. "Thank the gods!"
"L-Lady Dyan?" he stammered.
"Dyan?" echoed Tal behind me. "Isn't she your sister Maeve?"
"Maeve? No, she's –-"
"It's a long story," I advised my brother evasively. "Don't mind Tal. He asks too many questions, but he's a top-draw fighting man!"
Tal was staring at me sharply, but I wasn't up to explaining anything so complex as my multiple identities. I importuned him for indulgence with a tired smile.
But my reunion with Rhagan was followed by many another. One after another, the members of my family came to join us: Heuil, Ceth, Indeg, their mates and their children. Knowing their place, the servants were the last to arrive. It was all I could do to not kiss my mother with joy.
Suddenly a baby cried. The next person appearing was Cemion, holding the infant Lonroggen in his arms. The way he supported the infant's head told me that this couldn't have been the first time that the rebel leader had ever handled a child.
"You'd think that this one was trying to summon the Chancellor's Guard!" Cemion grumbled as he passed the infant to its anxious mother.
Father followed next -- the last of the seventeen Oc'Raignes and their retainers. I did my best to refrain from embracing him, too.
At that moment I think I understood better than I ever had before what family was.
It was everything that made an broken life whole.
Just then Cemion shouted over the jabber:
"We have to move out! Maeve and I will lead the way."
"Maeve?" repeated my father. "Where is she?"
"He means me," I explained hastily. "It's the codename I've been using, sir. Your Maeve is safe, downstairs."
"Thank the gods," he murmured while giving me a bemused glance.
"I said, 'Move out!'" repeated Cemion.
"Are you a knight, sir?" my father inquired of the Fyana captain, standing straight and tall while addressing him, presenting himself as a man of rank.
"I am, Lord Oc'Raighne," Cemion replied courteously, "a knight who's has served in the Garwyli Guard with pride."
Father nodded. "That's a fine outfit, Sir Knight. My family and I are at your disposal."
Cemion and I ushered the freed prisoners down to the ground floor by the wooden ladder that Gannon and I had used. From the empty room, we made our way to the postern on the first floor. There, with the rebel on guard duty, sat Maeve, a priestly vestment covering her nudity. The girl sprang up and fairly dove into the arms of our mother and father. Immediately, my sister yammered out the story of how I had fought the nightmare beast and saved her life. Lord and Lady Oc'Raighne regarded me with incredulity, to which gesture I merely shrugged.
* * * *
All of us, partisans and Oc'Raighnes alike, filed through the benighted lanes, our destination the little wharf that lay to the east, hidden beyond a spit that was built over with the huts of shore crews and seafarers.
Moving swiftly, we soon found ourselves far enough from Bannog Tower to take in its gloomy aspect as a whole. It looked like a great, menacing blot against a sky flecked with stars. The moonlight fell behind it, making its silhouette look so unreal that our act of rescue now suggsted an epic of fairyland, like the the celebrated harrowing of Hell, carried out by the legendary Creidd and his brothers. But, alas, our sense of triumph was short-lived. I both heard and saw a mass of men jogging our way, some of them bearing torches.
Curse it! How had they gotten on to us so swiftly? Had the alarm been given by some fugitive priest that we had not found?
The fifty-some of us, men, women, and children alike, struggled ahead, through a tangle of decrepit shanties, the way before us often obstructed by tangles of junk and refuse. By plowing through the clutter, we raised a racket that our pursuers must have heard. The militia knew the local ground better than most of us, apparently, and in a nonce they seemed to be closing the gap. I seized the huffing Custin by his collar and snagged him out of the breathless pack.
"What are you doing?" he panted.
I said nothing as I dragged the novice into a muddy defile between two forlorn structures that were unrecognizable in the faulty light.
"For Llew's sake, Dyan -- we'll be caught!"
"You're a sorcerer! None of us will get away without magic!"
"I don't have magic that can do anything!"
"Relax, Custin! I'll give you what you need. My sorcery is used up for now, but maybe yours isn't!"
I couldn't see his blank expression, but I knew it was there. With jittery hands I ripped open my side-pack and took the device that the druidesses had called the Mask of Rai. I shoved it into his jittery hands and he regarded the artifact, a rudely-tooled piece of leather-craft with a copper tube where a mouth should be.
"We've already done the impossible once already tonight. Now our survival depends on you. I'll give you the chant it needs!" I half-coaxed, half-barked.
"The chant! Yes, what's the chant?"
"Sywbeth fasón rhyched tanau
Cotyn ymhen twain wegyl."
"Oh, that's a mouthful!"
"Just say it!"
“How does it start, again?”
We ducked when a mob of militiamen stormed past us by on the other side of one hut. My quick count told me that they must have outnumbered the Fyana at least three fold.
"They're between us and the boats!" Custin whispered shakily.
I gripped him more firmly. "Then we'll just have to go right through them!"
"Don't you have any fear at all? What kind of girl are you?"
"I'm the kind of girl that you want to marry."
"I may have spoken too hastily."
“Shut up and pay attention:
"Sywbeth fasón rhyched tanau
Cotyn ymhen twain wegyl."
A moment later, I was hurrying on, towing him behind me. I kept reciting the chant to Custin, breathlessly. I saw up ahead that the Fyana had turned at bay and took an en garde stance to defend a narrow lane. It seemed hopeless; there were enough militia to envelop them on both sides with but a minute's redeployment. But the ones in front were already clashing with the rebels, obviously trying to pin them down. From the first impact, we heard the shouts from the hurt and dying.
"Put on the mask, Custin!" I told him. "Use the chant!"
“Was that phrase “rychan tanu”....”
“Rhyched tanau!” I almost cursed.
He put the thing on with fumbling fingers and began to speak, his stammering heavy.
I could barely understand the words and nothing happened. “Try again, and calm down!”
“How can I be calm?”
He did, but though he was this time speaking more clearly, the magic seemed maddeningly slow in coming. I began to worry that because the Mask had been given to me, no one else would be empowered to activate it.
Just then I heard a mighty whoosh!
The heat-burst that came was like the blast of a farrier's forge. Golden flames swept out of the copper tube and over the backs of the militiamen, their resultant screams filling the constriction where the action raged.
The bath of flame must have been agony for those on whom it fell, but I had no mercy left in me. "Give them another!" I urged Custin excitedly.
Another discharge. We were burning men alive, but the emotion racing through me felt like joy. These foes did not register as men in my eyes, but only as the depersonalized servants of Harouk, and Harouk was himself the servant of Hell.
"Give them another, Custin, -- there, over on the left!"
Another fiery broadside roared. The dazzle of the flames night-blinded us, except close in where the fire itself surged. Those who were dying shrieked like wild beasts trapped in a forest conflagration. If the rangers and my family were being burned alive along with the militiamen, I couldn't tell. I could only act on hope.
"Now on the right!" I urged.
The wizard obeyed, but this time the flame lanced from the Mask only feebly. Not even a trained magic-user could sustain such profligate use of sorcery.
The stench of burning was then carried into our faces by a puff of wind and made us gag. We retreated, gasping for breath.
The two of us could still hear the battle, so I was still able to hope that at least some of those on my side had survived thus far. The partial parting of the smoke at that point revealed a nightmare vista. So many men lying dead and dying of horrifying burns was not a sight for the squeamish.
The militiamen still on their feet suddenly broke. They were running or staggering in every direction, tripping over one another and even charging into walls, blinded by smoke or injuries. Those who couldn't run were being dealt their death strokes, more out of pity than from vengeance.
"That's enough!" Cemion called. "Pick up our wounded!"
Custin and I hurried to rejoin the partisans rangers, rapidly reorganizing themselves for the renewal of the retreat to the wharf. As I ran amid the dead and dying, I quickly searched the mostly-charred faces for a comrade or a family member. Many were so badly burned that I could not have recognized even a brother in such faint light, had one been lying there.
We came out into the small clearing, across which lay the piers. Ceann and her escort, Hawl, were sitting, side by side, upon the thwarts of one of the small rowing craft. The boats were already full of the family party; Cemion must have sent them ahead while he and the rebels endeavored to protect their escape.
Other men, unknown to me, were helping all comers into the longboats. These were being directed by a man walking up and down in front of the flotilla, growling orders. When I drew in closer, I recognized our smuggler contact, the one called Pontydd. He looked my way.
"They say that soldiers are on the way!" the man shouted, as if it were a personal accusation.
"No," I reassured him, "they were beaten off. But we've got wounded coming!" I saw no reason to mention magic, which any sane man wants nothing to do with.
Grudgingly reassured, Pontydd got back to work, sorting out his bewildered and expectant passengers. The last-arriving Fyana members, the injured and those helping them, finally appeared. Before any more militia showed up, everyone had received his place in the rescue flotilla. The heavily-laden craft were resting on sand, but with so many strong men to help push or row, we won free and slid into deeper water.
The oars had more than one set of hands pulling each. It seemed that we were making very good time crossing the harbor. The plan called for us to transfer to larger vessels out over the open water, and, in fact, I could see a couple large fishing boats coming our.
* * * *
The voyage to Sulidir, we were told, would keep us at sea for this night and another. We would not be seeking the closet shore, but a landing where the smugglers had friends. Much of our speed would depend on stable weather and a fair wind, but such factors were in the province of the gods.
My family, of course, thanked us partisans profusely once they had calmed, especially thanking the Lady Dyan. It had been the "Lady Dyan" who had, in turn, given Pontydd the Fyana's own thanks just before the man returned to shore. I couldn't help but wonder who and what these smugglers were. Were they rebels, too, fighting for our people's freedom, using the means at their disposal?
When the initial excitement had died down, Maeve salved my rope-burned hands and arms with a balm provided by our fishermen hosts. I don't understand why you risked your life," my sister mused as she bandaged me, "but I'll never forget you.” Her glance brimmed with hero-worship. “I never realized that a woman could do battle like a man. Where did you learn to fight that way?”
“It's...it's better you don't know too much,” I said.
She shrugged. “I only hope I can be as brave against my enemies as you are, someday."
“Don't wish for that, Maeve,” I told her. “Live a life better than what the gods grant to a soldier.”
She creased her pretty brow. "Are you saying that you'd like to be like us, Lady Dyan?"
"No, not exactly," I replied. "Though I could do far worse, and probably will," I added with a wan smile.
* * * *
By the afternoon of the following day, when it had become clear to Ceann that I was never going to tell my parents the truth about myself, my former mistress went behind my back. She told Lord and Lady Oc'Raighne a fanciful story. I was, she said, a druidess and that the ghost of Rodin had been speaking to me and guiding the rescue from the very beginning.
Furthermore, she suggested that, though me, there might yet be a final opportunity for those who loved Rodin to say a few words to the son that they had lost, and, hopefully, even hear his final goodbye.
Soon the whole family was gathered around me, asking if it was all true. I felt so sick at heart that I could scarcely keep a waver out of my voice. I explained that everything was indeed as Ceann had revealed. I claimed that I had always wanted to be frank with them, but Rodin had, from the outset, asked me not to say anything, lest it reopen the wounds of their grief.
Mother clutched my hand. "That is so like my son, the loving fool. But doesn't he understand that the worst thing for us by far is to never have the chance to say goodby? Please, Dyan. Is our boy here now? Can he hear what we say to you?"
"He's close," I confessed reluctantly, "and I sense that he wants to speak to you, too."
"Dear one, tell us what he says, please."
I nodded resignedly and went into my act, feigning a trance. As I had done before, I let myself awaken as "Rodin." But why couldn't I tell them the truth instead? Was it that I believed that my fate would make them ashamed? Or was I was more concerned with my own shame?
Instinct warned me not to haunt their nights by rejoining them but briefly. I could not spend much time with those I loved. I needed to make good use of the weapon of sorcery that Cawdour had forced on me. I had to learn how to challenge the human fiend whose evil aims had turned a whole kingdom upside down. Would I survive my reckless mission? The odds were dubious. Would my parents and siblings have to mourn my death all over again one day soon?
"Mother, Father," I said, enunciating the words with an assumed reverberation.
"It's me, Mother. I can't stay long."
"Rodin!" she sobbed, placing her arms about my shoulders, drawing me in close.
"Is it really you?" asked my brother Ceth, speaking over her shoulder.
"It's all that's left of me, Trowsys!" I replied, using the nickname of his childhood. As intended, it both startled and served to convince him. How long did I speak; it felt like only a short while, yet the sun seemed to arc very far across the sky while our final conversation was going on. I explained why I had done what I had done, why I had become a rebel. I apologized for everything that my decisions had cost them, and expressed the love I retained for them all, a love that I promised to bear undyingly, for all of my days in the Western Islands.
I was eager to ask whether my father if the family could live decently in a land of its exile. He sought to reassure me that he had investments and some friends in Sulidir, and hoped that the family could be left provided for when Fate should call him to account.
Speaking to them as Rodin, I could almost forget how much had changed, but I could not forget the heart-wrenching truth for very long. Finally, I felt my resolution weakening. I wanted, with all my being, to admit my real identity, and beg those whom I cherished to accept me for the son and brother whom I still felt myself to be.
But the words wouldn't come.
"My time is up," I warned suddenly, my voice rasping. "I must go. The gods have allowed me to do what I beseeched them to allow, and now I must rejoin the dead. I will see you all again, someday,” I vowed, “though I fear it may not be upon this earth."
My mother and my sisters wept and my father's and brothers' eyes brimmed with sadness.
"Is there anything we can do for you, dear Rodin?" my mother inquired with a tremble in her voice. "Are there any prayers that we can send after you, any offerings that we can make in your name?"
I shook my head, squeezing her hands between mine. "I know I'll always be in your prayers, Mother. That's enough for me. But there is one thing that I need to ask."
"Let me embrace you, each of you. Let me take the memory of it back along the road into the sunset."
My mother looked at me, tears like liquid diamonds bright upon her cheeks, and then held out her arms.
I hugged her, and then went to each of the others in turn, giving every woman and child a kiss, each man a close embrace.
"I can ask no more of the living," I said. May the gods protect you, as they have already protected you from wrongful death."
* * * *
It was the next morning that I heard Gannon's new song, and also the cheers that it evoked amid the crew and passengers.
For Gannon to have called me a hero seemed out of bounds. I rose from my seat upon a hatch and retired to the other side of the ship, leaving my serenader to take his bows alone.
I had left the crowd feeling troubled, but my trials were hardly over yet. When, in the late morning, the Sulidireg port of Nawcant hove into view, Cemion reminded me of a debt that I still owed him.
"You're joking,” I replied incredulously. “What's the matter with you?"
"A bargain's a bargain."
“You just couldn't just let us part friends, could you?”
“What are you taking about? I'm your friend, and you'd know it if you'd only stop being so stiff-necked about everything that I say and do.”
"All right, let's get it over with!" I said, flustered and angry. We squared off opposite one another, as if we were about to trade blows and not exchange a kiss.
"I don't want it for myself," he demurred with a shake of his head.
“It wouldn't feel right.”
"Who do you want it for, then?" I demanded in exasperation. "Your horse's rear end?"
The rebel shook his head. "My horse would only consider a comely lady's lips an annoyance. A kiss won at such a price ought to go to one who is better able to appreciate it. I mean, it should go to the person most responsible for our success."
"You want me to kiss myself?"
He burst out laughing. "Rod, you're such an egotist!"
"Isn't it obvious?"
* * * *
When told, Custin had seemed more surprised than enthusiastic. He had changed his manner in my proximity, following our adventure with the Mask of Rai. I wondered how could he could so much as look at me after the shocking slaughter that I had goaded him into unleashing. For my own part, I was livid about this state of affairs, but had no honorable avenue to evade my pledge. To an honorable man, a promise is stronger than a chain. I found myself hoping that I had so disillusioned Custin that he would tell me, thanks but no thanks.
"Do I have to do it in front of the whole world?" I had demanded of Cemion.
"I wouldn't I ask a lady to do anything that's -- ah, beneath her dignity," my nemesis replied. “And I wouldn't want to make Custin self-conscious either.
I had then noticed the amused faces around me. By now, the whole boat had learned about my debt. Everyone wanted to see the beautiful maiden kiss the handsome knight. If I backed down, I'd be backing down in front of the very people whom had taught me to keep my word, to pay my dues, and to do honor to my friends. My best course, I thought, was to get Cemion's foolishness behind me. I crossed over to where Custin stood, took his hand, and led him away, into the largest quarters on the vessel -- the deck cabin. There were fishermen inside, but I asked them to give us a moment's privacy and they obliged.
"Remember, Dyan," Cemion yelled through the closed door, "you promised your best kiss. No little peck will do."
"Ehern is playing some kind of a joke on you, isn't he?" queried Custin, an uneasy grimace on his youthful face.
"He and I go back a long way," I said resignedly. "We do this sort of thing all the time. I get one on him, then he gets one back at me. I only regret that he's willing to embarrass us in front of everyone."
“It's the way he's treating you that I don't care for.”
I realized that I had misspoken. “You're an honorable man and you've saved an entire family. I am not embarrassed to kiss you. It's just that -- that such a moment shouldn't be made into a public spectacle."
The magician shook his head. "After all that the Fyana did to people they didn't know, I wanted to take a kinder attitude to Ehern's sort. As much as I want to kiss you, I don't want anyone using me to make you feel ridiculous."
I took a long, hard look at the young man. The better I got to know Custin, the more I liked him.
“I owed you so much and am able to give back so little. Will you do all right in Suladir?”
He shrugged. “Like Lord Oc'Raighne, my uncle has business and assets in the kingdom. I want to continue my study of magic, of course.” He glanced down. “That may be the only way a person like me can earn a place in the world.”
I thought I knew what he was saying.
"You should. I don't know how we could have accomplished so much without your skill.”
He nodded and looked thoughtfully into my eyes. “Are you sure you don't mind? We could tell them that we did, even if we didn't.”
“Don't you want a kiss?” I asked. In a strange way, I thought it would be an affront if he should let me off the hook out of pity.
“Of course I do, even if I'm in awe of you. You don't mind then?”
“I always pay my debts. And I really do want to let you know how grateful I am."
Custin smiled tightly and took me by the hand. He seemed shy; I wanted to avoid making him feel awkward. I brought my mouth close to his, standing on my tiptoes and steadying myself by taking hold of his arms. To me, it should have been no more than a gesture, like a slap on the shoulder. But....
"Have you changed your mind?" asked Custin, noting my hesitation.
"No," I said. “It's just that I never kissed a man before.”
“You haven't?” He sounded amazed.
I laughed nervously. “What kind of girl do you take me for?”
“The best kind,” he said. “It's strange, but no woman has ever frightened me as much as you do, but at the same time I've never found any other girl easier to keep company with.”
“No man has ever told me that before.”
I felt him steady himself, and then he eased his arms around me and bought his mouth closer to mine.
I caught the scent of the cloves that he liked so much. I stood still and let him put his cheek to mine; it felt peculiar, that sensation of a male's stubble against my chin and nose. I also registered the sensation of his superior strength. Custin was not a muscular man, so how much stronger would the experience have been had I been held so by a warrior?
Our lips then touched. Out of regard and appreciation, I was keen not to pull away before he pulled back from me.
"Thank you," he said breathlessly as he eased away. “I don't think I'll ever forget that.”
I nodded. “I think I'll remember it even longer than you will.”
"Then it wasn't so bad?" the magician inquired hopefully.
I looked with intensity into his earnest features. "No, it wasn't,” I assured him. “You're a fine friend, Custin, and a wonderful magician. I'm proud to know you."
He cupped my hands in his own and, as he held them, appeared to grow sad. I supposed he was thinking that we two comrades in adventure might never see one another again.
I smiled just then, because that was how I wanted Custin to remember me.
And I don't think that I had given him the liar's smile.
TO BE CONTINUED...