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Dog and Dragon: Chapter Eight
Last updated: Friday, March 23, 2012 21:40 EDT
Alois, the Earl of Carfon, had been riding south by night, hiding by day for more than a week now. He was exhausted and hungry and he was in a better state than his horse. He knew he should be grateful for the horse. Grateful for the magical intervention that had plucked him from the cell, while waiting for the torture chamber, and dropped him next to the horse in a half-ruined stable, a good fifteen miles from Dun Tagoll, where months of planning had all gone so wrong.
And he was glad. Glad that he would see his son and wife again. Glad, in the last few miles, to see signs that he was returning to farmed lands and not anarchy and banditry. Only Dun Tagoll had wholly abandoned any effort to farm the lands. Only they could. All of the Duns tried to keep at least some agriculture and livestock farming going. It was usually limited to fields just outside the walls. Too few fields, feeding too many mouths. Only in the South had they managed to keep a reasonable amount of land under cultivation, and that by building a great many more forts and having as nearly as many men-at-arms as neyfs working the land. And as he’d said to Branwen when he’d rode out on this venture, the Gods above and below alone knew how much longer they could survive. That was why he’d taken up the offer from the plotters. They’d be dead for their pains, he had no doubt.
So close. So very close to seeing Medraut dead.
And then He mulled it all in his mind, as he had a thousand times since.
He rode slowly along the lane. It was muddy, but at least not overgrown too. And bandits were rarer here.
“Halt. Who rides after the curfew bell?” demanded a voice.
“Earl Alois. And I am truly glad to see my own land and my own men!”
Six hours later, after a sequence of fresh horses, and with a troop around him, he rode into the gates of Dun Carfon — he’d never thought to see it again — and then into the arms of his wife, and to gaze on the sleeping form of his son. “We’ll have to wake him,” said Branwen. “I’m afraid like most of us, he believed you were dead, Alois. It’s its been hard for him.”
She was a jewel. A mere local chieftain’s daughter, not even of the House of Lyon. He’d married her against the politics and calls for alliance. Married her just because he was a headstrong young lord and he’d looked at her and known what he wanted. In earlier years it would never have been permitted. But if one good thing had come out of this chaos of endless war, it was her. “Yes. Hopefully he’ll see a better Lyonesse before he grows up.”
She blinked, holding him, as if to reassure herself he was real. “I thought Medraut still sat on the throne?”
“He does. But the Defender Aberinn forecast in his prophecy has come. I was there. I saw it. She made the sea-window reappear.”
Earl Alois sighed. “Yes. I saw her appear from nowhere, I saw the sea-window reappear. And I heard her name herself as Anghared. I believe it is her. That was magic of no low order. She has come to set things to rights. She even looks like the old queen in the tapestry hanging in the banquet hall. But the bad part, Branwen, is that she will want my head. And if that is what it takes to put Lyonesse back together again, I will go to the headsman.”
“No!” she said, clinging to him. Clinging as to someone whom she’d loved, thought dead, and now had to face the fear and uncertainty again. Which was true, of course. “Why would she do that? It’s Medraut who has brought Lyonesse to ruin. Not you, Alois!”
The boy woke up and stared at his parents, and rubbed his unbelieving eyes, as his father said: “Because I tried to kill her.”
Meb wondered how long the state of tense waiting would continue in the halls of Dun Tagoll. Wars could go on for years. This one had, it appeared. But the answer this time was: not too long. The prince seemed to have developed a hit-and-run strategy, simply designed to hurt the foe, irritate them and make them plunge after the army, toward Dun Tagoll, rather than ravaging the countryside.
That might be good for the countryside, but right now it meant that the attackers were setting up siege engines on the headland. “Last time they threw everything from dead horses to rocks at the castle,” said Neve. “It looks like they’re making bigger ones this time.”
“And will it break the walls?” asked Meb.
“No, m’lady. The walls are magical. Even if they break, they just pull together. But a dead horse oh, the mess. And the rocks can kill people.”
The causeway was too narrow and steep for a charge, but their foes had sent brave men across in the darkness, under their shields, carrying a brass-headed ram. So Meb woke to the pounding of the ram and a sudden inhuman yowling and screaming. In the darkness of her room, it was terrifying. She’d never been in a castle under siege before. Had the attackers broken through? What should she do? Fight back, obviously. What was there in this room that she could fight back with. She needed a sword. Or better yet, an axe. You needed to have some skill with a sword, but an axe, one of those metallic-handled, narrow, wicked-bladed ones that the alvar gate guards used, surely didn’t need much. She was afraid and imagining it in detail and it was a great deal heavier in her hands than she’d thought. Summoning magic again it seemed to work when she was absorbed enough and afraid enough neither of which were easy to switch on at will, she thought as she wished for a light and failed. She couldn’t even find the pricket, let alone light it. So she went and opened her door by feel, alvar axe in hand. There was a tallow-dipped brand of rush on a metal wall sconce at the end of the hall. She walked down that way. To find a bored guard walking down the passage
He was a lot less bored seeing a woman in her nightclothes with a silvery two-handed spatha-axe in her hands. “M’lady,” he took a grip on his own sword handle. “What’s amiss?”
“The noise. That screaming. What happened?” she asked.
He looked a little startled. “Oh, just the Angevins getting a snout full of hot pitch, m’lady. Never man the ram. Aye, first at the loot, but also first at the hot pitch.”
“Oh I thought they’d got in,” said Meb, feeling faintly foolish.
“No, m’Lady Anghared. We’re safe enough within the walls of Dun Tagoll. Siege engines and rams won’t do naught. Starvation neither. It’ll take more magic than the Shadow Hall can throw against us.”
Meb went back to her bed, leaving the axe next to it. It was a long while before sleep came again. What was this Shadow Hall? And why did the Kingdom of Lyonesse seem to have such an ample supply of enemies and, apparently, not one ally? Finn had said magic use inevitably made work for him, distorting energies. What was happening here? Were there other dragons, planomancers like Finn, moving in their shifted shapes, fixing things? Her dreams were troubled. Full of screaming and silver-handled axes with narrow curved slicing blades.
She awoke to a troubled squeak. It was Neve, staring at the axe, looking as if she was about to drop the water she carried, and run. Meb yawned. “Thank all the Gods you’re all right, m’lady! What’s that nasty thing doing in here?”
“I thought I might need it if you spilled all the water on the floor I’m only joking for dragons’ sakes. I thought we might have to defend ourselves. And I don’t think I can use a sword. I’ve split wood with an axe, so I have an axe.”
“Dun Tagoll is safe enough, Lady Anghared. It’s those poor people outside who need defending. Where did you get it? I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks very sharp and dangerous.”
Meb decided it was better not to answer that question, and began washing. She thought it looked just about sharp enough to slice stone, let alone armor. It wasn’t a subject so easily avoided when Lady Vivien came in a little later.
“How did it get here?” she asked, warily, looking at the axe. “It has the look of a Finvarra spatha-axe what are you doing with such a thing, Anghared. It’s no weapon of the men of Lyonesse. Where did it come from?”
“Oh, um. The alvar guards use them back in my homeland. I was afraid in the night and wanted something to defend myself with.”
“But you couldn’t have had it with you. You you had barely the clothes you were wearing, when you came here, Anghared,” said Vivien, troubled. “I was there. I helped to put you to bed.”
“Sometimes, when I am really scared or just dreaming imagining things deeply, they come to me. Fragments of things ”
“Fragments aha! Summonsing magic. Here, in Dun Tagoll? You can’t,” said Vivien.
“I didn’t mean to. I just heard the screaming. I was scared.”
“No I mean it is not possible. The Mage Aberinn, by his craft, protects the castle. But while we’re guarded, it affects us too. Only those of the greatest of power can manage the smallest working. That that is a vast object for a summonser. It would take preparation and skill ”
“I don’t know what I am doing or how I do it,” said Meb, knowing this to be slightly less than the truth. The dragon-shaped dvergar device around her neck, the thing that carried some of the magic of all the species of Tasmarin, the device that would help her be what she wanted to be tricky little dvergar! That would affect things. But well, she summonsed far larger things, wanting to, needing or just wishing to. A black dragon, once. And she’d needed him. She still did. She just hadn’t known it, then. “I do summons big things sometimes. I summonsed a dragon once.”
“Gods above and below. Well, I hope you don’t do that again!”
“I can’t,” said Meb flatly. “Never ever again, although I want nothing more. It would kill him.”
But that seemed to have washed right over Vivien. “You are the Defender, Anghared. Oh thank all the Gods. I must tell ”
“No. Please, no,” Meb grabbed the fluttering, excited hands. “Please. I want to help. But well, Prince Medraut. Aberinn. Do you think they’d like it much?”
“The prince has honored you and respected you so far. And the mage called you to his tower. I should have known when we heard about the sea-window. I thought it must be stone memory. The embroidery that was a small thing, and I was amazed. But, but summonsing magics. And so powerful. I’m Lyon, on my mother’s side, and I can call things from across the room. Small things. A brooch like this one.” She pointed to the thumbnail-sized one at her breast.
Meb sighed. “Vivien. I don’t trust Prince Medraut, or the mage. I don’t know how to make magic happen every time. And, and it goes wrong. My master said he’d teach me. But now, I just feel it would be a very wrong thing to do. I am going to help. I promise. I swear. I swear by the black dragon.”
“That binds you?” asked Vivien.
“It binds me more than anything else ever could,” said Meb. “And I think I’d better hide that axe before anyone else asks awkward questions.”
“I could wrap it up in something, and take it to the armory,” said Neve coloring slightly. “There’s, there’s a man-at-arms who might do me a favor. If I asked.”
It made Meb smile a little, determined to find out just who this armsman was, and let him know that someone would make his life very unpleasant if he was anything less than good to little Neve. She could do that. Finn had taught her quite enough for that. “I think I want it a little closer. Lady Cardun might decide to do my hair. Stop laughing, both of you. It would make a wonderful mirror. We can slide it under the bed.”
“They’re very full of your embroidery in the bower by the way. Even Lady Cardun was saying she didn’t know how you worked so fast and set such precise and tiny stitches. Of course she said it showed a lack of discipline not to stick to the pattern, and you were a flighty, moody young girl; that the regent’s guidance would be needed for many years, even if you were the Defender, which she didn’t for a moment believe.”
“I need to ask some questions about this regency,” said Meb, who didn’t see why it was up to her, but would not have left shifty Prince Medraut to look after a tub of jellied eels, let alone a kingdom. “Who is the prince the regent for?”
They both looked at her as if she’d suddenly started dribbling and gone simple on them. “The true king of Lyonesse, of course,” said Vivien.
“Oh. And who is he?” asked Meb.
“He is the king anointed with holy water from the ancient font of kings. He alone can bind to the land and draw its strength to himself to destroy our enemies,” explained Vivien.
“But who is he?” Meb pursued. “Does he have to be found or something?”
“No. It is the ancient font that must be found. It vanished just after Queen Gwenhwyfach and her babe plunged from the sea-window. It is believed that the enchantress of Shadow Hall summonsed it, somehow.”
“So do I get this right the prince is not the regent for someone specific. It could be anyone that finds this font, and gets dunked in water from it?”
Vivien nodded. “Prince Medraut is regent for the Land, because the Land is the King and the King is the Land. Of course the king would have to be of the blood of the House of Lyon, because they have the magic. Normally the old king would take his son or chosen heir to the font and hand on the power. But the old king died before it was found. That is why the Shadow Hall has been able to raise everyone against us. That is why the Land will not destroy the invaders.”
“So where do the women fit into all of this?” asked Meb.
The other two looked at her, faintly puzzled. “They say men make kings. Women make babies. We carry the bloodline. Some Lyon women are powerful magic workers too. Queen Gwenhwyfach was.”
“They were wondering down in the kitchens if you were going to marry Prince Medraut,” said Neve.
Meb snorted. “I’d rather marry a midden. I’m not ”
“But they were saying he was considering speaking for you. And he’s a prince of the blood.” By the tone, that was obviously all that was required. Well, it wasn’t going to happen. She’d take the axe to him first. And the little logical part of her mind said, well, it happened to women here. And Fionn she’d never see Fionn again. She should accept that and move on.
There was an enormous thud and the walls shook.
“What was that?” asked Meb, fearful.
“They’ve set up trebuchets and have started flinging rocks from the headland. Be easy, Dun Tagoll can withstand anything they can fling at it. And besides, Mage Aberinn has said he had something planned for them. Don’t worry, Anghared. It wants but three days to the full moon.”
And what did that have to do with it?
They seemed to assume she’d know. She hated showing her ignorance, but she needed to know. “So what happens at full moon?”
“The full tides power the Changer. Lyonesse moves.”
“You mean an earthquake?”
Vivien stared at her. “I forget, Lady Anghared, that you are not from here. You know that the land is linked to other places? Places which are not our world? We call them the Ways.”
Meb knew that from Finn’s talk of other planes. She supposed that was what was meant. “Yes.”
“Well, back in the time of King Diarmid, the magic of Lyonesse grew much weaker. Magic flows in across the Ways. The king and his mages built a device, a magical device, that moves Lyonesse around the Ways. When we move, our magework is refreshed. It takes a great deal of power, and so the device was harnessed to the tide in caves beneath Dun Tagoll. It stores power from every tide, but it takes a full tide, usually the equinoctial tide to do the change.”
“These enemies outside are they from these other places?” asked Meb, a light beginning to dawn.
“Of course,” said Vivien. “Yes I suppose you wouldn’t know. They come storming in across the Ways to attack and ravage. It wasn’t always like that, of course. When we had a king and then it took a while for them to realize we were unprotected. The mage says the sorceress of Shadow Hall has turned them against us. But it could as easily have been the raiding.”
Meb did not need that explained to her. And to be honest she could understand and sympathize with the army out there. Lyonesse had come and drained out their magical energy and Lyonesse’s raiders had gone out, and come running back to a land that the victims could not attack to punish. No wonder Lyonesse had no friends. She said as much.
Lady Vivien nodded. “King Geoph forbade the raids, but there were always some. But this land was also a refuge. Defeated tribes, persecuted people. They knew they could find shelter and safety here. The other lands hate us for that too. Then when the invasions began well, Prince Medraut began counterraids. We needed the food. They burned the fields and ran off our kine and sheep.”
And now they were left with a situation where everyone hated their guts, wanted to kill them, and they still could not farm, and had to eat ensorcelled scraps or rob their neighbors, thought Meb. And I promised to help them. I thought taking on the dragon Zuamar was crazy. This is worse. And they don’t even seem to see it will just gets worse, every time.
There was another shudder, and a hollow boom, as a trebuchet-flung rock struck the castle and a spectacular flash of violet light through the high window, and distant boom. It didn’t rattle the walls but she felt that it should have. All the women took cover, diving down next to Meb’s bed.
“What was that?” asked Vivien.
Meb managed not to say “how should I know?” but instead, “Maybe we need to find out?”
“Could we leave the axe?” asked Vivien, beginning to recover her calm. “I think we’d hear the call to arms if they’d breached the walls.”
So the axe was placed under the bed again, and they went out. It seemed a fair number of others were doing the same thing. There were definitely no vast crowds of fighting men, or even the sounds of battle.
They went up a flight of stairs to be met by a bemused guard. “The stone,” he said. “It flew back.”
“What do you mean?” asked Vivien.
“They threw a stone at us with that big trebuchet of theirs. And it flew back from the castle with a big purple flash. Go and have a look.”
Peering over the battlements, Meb could see the enemy encampment on the headland short of the narrow causeway to the castle on its peninsula. The camp had probably been set up in good order. Right now it was in chaos, with that chaos centered around the huge, smashed wooden structure of the trebuchet and the plowed-up remains of tents beyond.
There were three other large trebuchets but no one was near them. They were all — along with half the camp — plainly damaged by flying shards. The foe’s engineers were busy seeing just how far from the camp they could get, and the soldiery looked to be, in part, joining them and, in part, under their knights’ orders, trying to stop them.
Somewhere on the wall of Dun Tagoll, a cheer started.
Meb was walking back, deep in thought, when she came, abruptly, on Mage Aberinn. He stared narrow-eyed at her. “A word, young woman.” He looked at the other two women. “Here in the courtyard. So you do not need a chaperone.”
Meb didn’t know how to avoid this so she walked a little way with the mage. “Did you interfere in some way with my working?” he asked abruptly.
“I wouldn’t know how. I didn’t even know you were doing anything. What am I supposed to have done?” asked Meb, alarmed by the ferocity of his tone.
He seemed mollified by hers. “I had built a device to mirror back the energy of their projectiles. To return them.”
“But it worked, didn’t it?” said Meb, puzzled.
“Yes, it worked. It worked far too well, with far more power than such a working could harness. Not since King Diarmid has such a thing been reported.”
“Well, it had nothing to do with me! Ask the others. We hid behind the bed when it happened.”
He sucked his teeth. “I do not like or trust this. Or you.” And he turned on his heel and walked off without another word.
In the Shadow Hall, the queen stared at the viewing bowl. Where had Aberinn acquired such power? Lyonesse had been crumbling, slowly. Onslaught after onslaught it had lost more men, lost more ground. Once it had taken troops months to fight their way anywhere near Dun Tagoll. Now the borders were unguarded. West Lyonesse had become, effectively, a few fortresses along the seaboard, hated by its neighbors, with even the peasantry turning from their Lyon overlords.
Even if magically he had barely remained able to hold her out of the castle itself, it was failing.
Nothing was simple or quick. She’d learned that. And now to add to her irritation, the muryans had brought her hall too far while she had slept. So many years of working her magic on them, and they’d never been less than precise before, and right now she was not in the deep ravines of Ys, but somewhere near a noisome town in the lowlands.
She had her cauldron-men to send out. With the colors of Lyonesse flying at their head they’d go raiding and pillaging and burning for her. But was there any point in doing it here? The great Changer would not open these Ways this time. She knew its pattern. Aberinn had never guessed that.
Meb knew her curiosity about the Changer would have to wait. She’d done some subtle questioning and the answer to what it was and how it worked was simply that the women of Dun Tagoll did not know. Her attempts at being a good lady were being met with very mixed success, and she’d been getting the feeling that leaving the castle might still be the easiest way to help. Or at least, easier for her. They accepted that she could embroider. Her skills at the rest of the womanly arts Meb knew that they considered as far below the salt.
Maybe this Changer would bring other changes? It was inside the mage’s tower she was told. It had always been, from long before Mage Aberinn. Yes, it was a device of some sort, which he worked with. And no, when they changed, nothing was really that different within Lyonesse except that the attacking army could not return to its own country. Nor could they get supplies from their home. Their supply chain was cut, the country was picked bare, too bare to live off, and chances were good, any other invader would attack them too. And back in their own country, the people would know: attack Lyonesse and you are lost, forever.
Once that had been enough.
Now it wasn’t.
When the change came it was silent and sudden.
Meb knew it had happened.
She could feel it. It was a little like some strange scents carried on the night air. Scents of faraway things, and of spices she knew the smell and taste of but did not have a name for.
The association was not a pleasant one though; it somehow also smelled of cold, salt, decay, and other nasty things.
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