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Dog and Dragon: Chapter Ten
Last updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 20:24 EDT
“The kitchen workers have it that we’re going to have a bit of a rest. Gather fresh food. Ys is slow to arm and their Eorls are too busy fighting and robbing each other to send much of an army,” said Neve, “and Queen Dahut does not care.”
“And what of the army at our gate?”
Neve shrugged. “They go or are killed.”
It was outside her knowledge, obviously. So Meb asked Vivien. She had, with her contact with her sons, and her dead husband’s position, a far better grasp of the military.
“Some of them fled after the rock thrower was destroyed. But most of them are trapped here. Obviously their mages thought they had at least another month before we could accumulate enough power to change. It can take up to six months sometimes. I know Prince Medraut was surprised. He expected it to be another month or three. Anyway, the ones that are left the prince will offer them terms in a week or two. These days they always refuse them. It’s a pity. The Angevins make good soldiers, my husband said. The army used to recruit most of its men like that. My Cormac’s father was a gallóglaigh himself, trapped here with the armies of King Olain.”
Meb shivered. Trapped, far from home, with no way out but to accept service in the army of your enemy. She felt a little bit like that herself. “It’s cold this morning. Is it always this cold here?”
“No. In summer it is often too hot!” said Vivien with a smile. “It is only the start of spring. We still have bitter nights and occasional cold snaps if we have a cloud front come in from the ocean. You can usually see the warmer weather coming from the outer parapets, with the blue patches forming across the sea. Take your cloak and we will walk up there and have a look. You are looking a little confined.”
“It’ll be even colder up there,” said Neve. “There is a fire in the bower.”
Meb shuddered. “I’d rather freeze than face the bower right now,” she said.
So they walked across the courtyard to the outer parapet on the western side. Here there was no cliff, but a steep green slope down to the foam-laced edge of the dark ocean. That was deep water. “You could get a line out to some big fish from there,” said Meb expertly. She’d caught fish, along with all the Cliff Cove children at the foot of Cliff Cove’s crags. She’d missed fish, she suddenly realized. She’d never thought she would.
Neve laughed. “They’d never lower themselves to fishing here.”
Looking out to sea there was no sign of blue-sky patches in the slate grey. Instead there was a wall of cloud, right down to the water, stretching across the horizon. “That doesn’t look good. If I saw that back home, in Tasmarin, I’d expect a sea mist for days. Cold and clammy and useless for fishing,” said Meb. “The fishermen would stay home, drink too much and get morose.”
Lady Vivien gave a little snort of laughter. “I thought you said you had no experience that would help you to live in a castle. It sounds like winter. We get freezing fogs in the winters. But I have never seen anything like that before.”
It was apparent that not many of the castle people had, as others had come up to look at the cloud wall. Someone had even called the prince.
And the mage was called too.
His face became as bleak as a winter storm as he looked at it. He sent a soldier running along the battlement.
To fetch both her and Prince Medraut.
He turned to the women accompanying her. “You are not needed. Go.” Before Aberinn had made some pretense of abiding by the conventions. Now he was plainly simply too angry. “Prince. I do not know what meddling you are attempting but you have led us to the very brink of disaster.”
Medraut first looked guilty — which Meb had decided was his normal look –and then puzzled and worried. “What are you talking about, High Mage?”
Aberinn waved a hand at the western horizon. “That!” he snarled. “The Changer was set to take us to Ys. This is your doing somehow, Medraut. Ever since you brought this woman here, nothing has worked as it should.”
“My doing? MY DOING?!” Prince Medraut snarled, roused to fury like a cornered rat. “I nearly got murdered in my bed, Aberinn. The assassin escapes, and we still do not know how he got in the first place, although I’ve put the suspects to torture. You are supposed to guard me. To guard Lyonesse. Your precious prophecy says I need you. You brought this woman here, not me. Admit it. She could not lie to us without your magic supporting her.”
“You fool!” shouted Aberinn right back, inches from his face. “There are records, ancient records of all the places the Ways link Lyonesse to, even the non-human places. This Tasmarin creation was a mistake. There is no such place. I do not know which of the Lyon have allied their magic to this prop of yours, but I will find out. I have means denied to you ”
Meb looked at the two madmen and walked away.
“Where are you going?” demanded Aberinn.
Meb shrugged. “Away. Away from that,” she pointed at the horizon, “and away from you two. Even that army out there has to make more sense than either of you.”
“The gates are closed,” said Medraut, tersely.
Meb shrugged again. “Then I’ll go as far as I can. You’re killing this place, both of you. And neither of you care, except about yourselves.”
Aberinn snorted. “Well, you’ll be glad to know that you have brought about its final destruction, you and this prince of plots. The Ways are not open to Ys. They are open to the Fomoire. And they come.”
It looked like a wall of cloud to Meb, but it was enough to make Medraut’s blood-suffused face go from red to white. “It cannot be. After the last time the Changer was set so that it could not link us to Fomoire lands.”
“So see what your meddling has brought us to!” yelled Aberinn.
Meb did not stay to listen to them. She kept walking away.
Vivien and Neve hurried to her. “What is it? What do they say?”
“They say those are the Fomoire. They both accuse each other and somehow it is my fault too. I don’t even know who the Fomoire are.”
Vivien stopped dead. “In King Gradlon’s time, when Lyonesse was near the peak of her strength, the Fomoire came. They nearly destroyed us.”
“Who or what are they? It just looks like a cloud to me.”
“The sea people. They come from under the sea and have much magic.”
“Under the sea the merrows?” Meb felt a shred of hope. She knew and got on with merrows. She knew she had to watch them, but she could trust them, deal with them. She’d liked them, for all their tricky ways.
“No not water-creatures. They live in a land beneath the waves, and the waters are magically held at bay. They’re human well, giants, but deformed.” Vivien shuddered. “And they are powerful and evil. They built great bridges of ice and came with their war chariots and mages. They don’t have ships, so they must freeze the sea into a bridge to attack us.”
“Um. What do they do when they get here?”
“It was said they brought disease and bitter cold, but I suppose that could just have been the ice. Their chieftain had the evil eye. He only had one eye, but if he looked at a man he turned them to stone. Not that that is possible.”
It was. Meb knew that. She’d done it once. But that had taken touch, on her part. The news was obviously spreading around the castle by the frightened looks on many faces.
And a cold, stinking wind was blowing from their ice bridge. It reeked of staleness and of old smoke. Meb wondered for the first time if she could bring some kind of magical power to bear on these attackers. This was not her home and these were not her people. But they were so afraid.
The next weeks were fraught with fear, tension and helplessness. They could see the ice bridges now, although the cold meeting the warmer water tended to swirl up a sea mist. The Fomoire mages were pushing them in three long tongues toward the shoreline. When the wind — bitter cold and dry — came blowing off the ice, the people of Dun Tagoll could hear the chanting and the drumming coming out of the sea mist. When the wind blew the other way they could see the black huddles of the mages walking circles on the ice tongues. And day after day it grew closer. And colder.
Aberinn had retreated to his tower, and although sounds of industry, hammering and metal shrieks came from inside, he did not.
The Angevins had broken camp and fled inland.
Meb wondered if they should not all just follow.
She did, finally, get out of Dun Tagoll herself. Hunting parties — those included the ladies, and the dogs and the hawks — sallied out on horseback to see what food they could gather in. She was invited to ride out with them.
Meb decided she liked the country a great deal more than the castle. And riding, which she’d been more than a little terrified of, she actually found she loved. She hadn’t dared to tell anyone, except Neve, that she’d never even been on a horse before. A donkey wasn’t quite the same, and she’d feared the derision that would bring. But like the language, riding came easily. So did being sore afterward, but the horse liked her as much as she’d liked it. She’d treated it rather like Díleas. She’d watched covertly as the other ladies had mounted, and realized she was being watched herself.
Either she was more athletic than most castle ladies, or she was mounted on a good mare, or her magic worked as well on horses as puppies, but those who expected her to fall off, or cling to the saddle, were disappointed. Meb spent a fair amount of time petting the dun, and talking to it. She had no idea if she was supposed to do that, but she wanted to, and did, leaning forward to whisper in the horse’s ear, telling it quietly where she wanted to go. It seemed to work, which was just as well, because the reins were something she was less than sure about what one did with.
“You have a fine seat, Lady Anghared,” commented one of the noblemen. “You need to watch that mare. She’s nasty-minded.”
Meb thought the seat could do with a bit more padding, if it was supposed to be so fine. And the mare seemed the sweetest-natured animal. But she knew very little about riding, so she settled for smiling.
The country near the castle showed signs of the devastation from the armies, but Meb could see it could be rich and fertile. There really wasn’t much game left on it though, and of course the farmhouses had been burned and there had been no crops in the fields for years, by the look of them.
The day’s hunting tally had been one feral pig, some songbirds and some rabbits. And, oddly enough to Meb, a glimpse of a nasty little grey-mottled alvlike face from among the rocks near a hilltop, grinning wickedly at her. No one else seemed to see it, but having seen one once, Meb saw several others. They vanished when they realized she was looking. Were they so normal here no one spoke about them? Or did no one else see them?
She wasn’t ready to ask.
They dismounted in the blackened ruins of a village — something that tore at Meb, remembering Cliff Cove, before the raiders. This was long-gutted and burned though, and the wilderness was reclaiming it. There remained, however, a fountain that bubbled out of a central rock and down into a stone bowl set among the winter-dead ferns. It overflowed into a long horse trough. The hunters went to drink, as did their horses. And, leaning against the stone, being sniffed and nuzzled by the dun mare, Meb saw something walking across her hand. She’d stripped off her gloves to drink, and had not put them on again as she was rubbing the mare’s nose. It was quite a large ant. She nearly brushed it off but something made her pause at the last moment, and peer closely at it.
It had an oddly human face, and it was staring at her, as intensely as she was staring at it.
“Excuse me,” she said to one of the nobles walking past. “What is this?”
“Your hand, Lady Anghared.” He seemed to find that funny.
“I mean walking on it.” Her tone told him she did not.
“It is an ant.” He reached out to flick it off.
She pulled her hand away. “I mean it has a face. Look.”
“It looks like an ant to me, lady. Mind you the neyfs believe they’re little people. They won’t harm them. Call them muryans.”
Meb put her hand against the rock and the ant walked off.
“Your steed has behaved?” asked the knight, seeing it reach out to nuzzle Meb.
“Oh yes. She’s lovely.”
They rode back to the castle. That felt like oppression, even if it was not a devastated ruin. Up on the seaward walls there was a great deal of construction going on. By the robe, Aberinn had finally emerged from the seclusion of his tower. She would have gone for a closer look, but for the thought of meeting him up there.
“She’s either ridden from an early age or we were misled about the horse,” said Prince Medraut to his aunt. “Aberinn has it fixed in his head, or at least he claims to believe that she is from the South, and it is somehow my doing to upset his prophecy. I think he is going mad.”
“He’s been mad for years,” said Lady Cardun. “You need him, though, Medraut. There is no one else with his knowledge or skill in the working of magic. You know that as well as I do. As for that woman, he plainly dredged her up as an excuse to seek changes. She’s no lady. She has no knowledge of the feminine arts. She dresses her hair like a trollop and walks like a man. She cannot hold a conversation. The lower orders are fascinated with her, of course, just as Aberinn intended.”
“I had heard she had some skill with a needle,” said Prince Medraut, mildly.
“She couldn’t even follow the cartoon, Medraut. Trust me, it was merely some magical trick of Aberinn’s. Still, she is being watched all the time. She’s no lady, whoever she is. I would guess at a Lyon by-blow, but maybe from one of the other worlds. The product of rape on a raid out on the Ways somewhere.”
“I wish I could see just exactly how Aberinn plans to use her. Of course, the other possibility was that somehow she was a plant of Alois’s faction. But I don’t know how she dealt with that mare. That horse is supposed to be a killer. It even bit the groom bringing it to her.”
The queen of Shadow Hall had stared into her seeing pond, still seething with rage. She had put in so much effort to get the Angevins into a treaty with Ys. Queen Dahut was an insatiable slut, and it had been almost impossible to get her to cooperate on anything that wasn’t bedding her latest victim. Dahut killed them, which was something the queen of Shadow Hall could see the sense and value of. And then, just when Ys was seething with rage at Lyonesse, with the Eorls all demanding war, and not even fighting with other, which had taken her years of work and planning Aberinn had somehow not opened the Ways to Ys.
But when she saw the cloud wall and the tongues of ice, she crowed and cackled and danced with glee.
What the mage had been setting up on the inner wall was a series of huge lenses. In the morning the men-at-arms were trying to aim the weak sunlight at the ice tongue, which was barely out of bowshot now. He was painting patterns around each of the devices, and in some way, they must be working because the chanting and drumming stopped, and what could only be swearing had started. Meb braced herself for the possibility of meeting Aberinn and went back to the wall.
The ice was dazzling with the brightness of the sunlight reflecting off it. It might just be spring here, but it was midsummer out there. The water around the floe was actually steaming making the black-cloaked army on it look even more monstrous than nature had managed. Even from here she could see that they were somewhat bigger than most men. Not giants as Meb thought of giants, but eight or nine cubits tall, she would guess. And even from here she could see that they would not win any contests for handsomeness. Their shapes were just wrong. Arms too long, or they were too squat and broad in the torso.
The ice was black with them, and their chariots. They were drawn up under various banners — here a severed head, there a blood-dripping axe, and in the center, a large eye.
The floe cracked. It sounded like a whip crack, but right in her ear.
The Fomoire broke ranks and retreated with as much speed as possible.
It still wasn’t quick enough for some of them. The floe calved off the tongue and deposited half a dozen huge, black-cloaked warriors into the ocean with much bellowing and yelling.
And much cheering from the wall of Dun Tagoll.
That worked for the morning. But by the late afternoon, the chanting had returned, and the good work of the morning was being undone. Now the archers had begun firing at them. Only those capable of the longest of shots, true, but the Fomoire archers, bigger than the defenders of Dun Tagoll, had drawn mighty bows and were launching their heavy black-fletched arrows back at the defenders.
And the ice-making did not stop for darkness either. The chanting went on all night. By early morning, Meb could stand it no longer. She’d barely slept. She went out to see how close they were.
There were plenty of other women up already. In fact Meb wondered why she’d been left, until she was told that Neve was in the infirmary. “She’ll have been overlooked by the eye, lady,” said one of the other servants, fatefully. “By tonight we’ll all be dead of it, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Meb made her way across to the infirmary. Already the women were carrying wooden buckets, and ewers, and bowls and anything else that would hold water from the central well to higher points. The buildings within the outer wall were almost all thatched, and plainly fire was a threat. So they labored up from the well with water. Meb wondered why they didn’t take water from the worn rock-bowl next to the outer wall. That was still full and trickling its water into a clay pipe. But perhaps it was for some other purpose. It was a very scruffy spot in the otherwise tidy courtyard. There must be some reason it was ignored. The water was probably brackish or something. It would still put out fires, surely?
Neve was looking pale and wan, and had apparently been carried in from the battlements about midnight. “We’re going to die, m’lady. I shouldn’t have done it. But she told me I’d lose my p-place.” Tears streamed down her little face and Meb could get precious little sense out of her, or little comfort to her. Somehow she must use her magical skill to get rid of these attackers. She knew she still had the power that she’d wielded on Tasmarin, only only most of the time there it had gone wrong. She’d had Finn to fix it for her. She actually really had no idea what she could do, or what she should do. She knew she was a summonser. She could call things to her. What would turn the Fomoire back? A dragon? A troop of centaurs? It sounded like everyone had reason to hate Lyonesse. She wouldn’t bet that that would not be true of anyone she summoned too.
So she went up to join the bucket teams. Like the men-at-arms, they were trying to stay out of direct sight of the Fomoire, but judging by the chanting, the ice bridge was not there yet. But the sky was slate-grey, and the sunlight through Aberinn’s devices would not help today. Meb bit her lip. Well, there was no point in hiding the axe under the bed at this stage. And she could summons it but best to save that. She went and fetched it instead. It remained the most deadly sharp looking thing she’d ever seen. She imagined she might cut a hair, by dropping it on that blade.
No one questioned her taking it with her to where a row of women huddled below the stone and mortar on the inner bailey with their buckets.
After a little while Meb’s curiosity penetrated even her fear. The chanting seemed to have gotten far louder. She’d have to risk a peep soon. And then the idea stuck her: she had a perfect alvar-silver mirror in her hands. She held it up.
No wonder the chanting was louder. The Fomoire host was nearly at the least-steep edge of Dun Tagoll’s peninsula. The monstrous, shaggy warriors had their big ovoid shields up to protect their chanting mages from the arrows being fired from behind the battlements without looking over — with their errant aim, quite a few were landing in the water. And lined up on the chariots just behind them and under the huge eye banner was a row of gigantic, misshapen men all with only one eye staring at the walls, from behind their shields. Meb changed the angle of the alv axe a little more to get a better view of them. Saw one stagger and fall sideways off his chariot.
And then someone knocked the axe down. “What are you doing, woman?” demanded the man-at-arms.
“Using my axe as a mirror.”
“The evil eye will overlook you just as well in a mirror! Do you think it hasn’t been tried?”
“It’s as bad reflected as direct?” she asked.
“Yes, of course. Everyone knows that.”
It was like a candle in a great darkness. A bright spark, in dry idea-tinder.
Meb picked up the axe. The blade was bigger than her face she held it in front of her face, and stuck her head up above the parapet. She couldn’t see anything. But she’d bet some Fomoire’s baleful eye was hurting. And she was rewarded by a reverberating groan from outside the walls. She was aware that the women — a mixture from both the bower and the kitchen just here — were staring at her. “Every one of you! Quick. Go fetch a looking glass. Any looking glass. Anything that reflects. We’ll give them their own back. Let them enjoy it.”
Women looked, gawped, and then began scrambling away to run down the stairs.
Within fifty heartbeats, mirrors — everything from ladies’ hand mirrors, with gold foil behind the glass, to polished pieces of copper sheet, to a shiny piece of plate — were being held up above the battlements. And even the chanting outside the walls had stopped.
Meb had to risk a peek. By the cheering from the walls of Dun Tagoll she wasn’t the only one. The chariots which had held their one-eyed starers were being hastily driven back, pushing through the mobs. The eye banner had fallen. There was chaos in the Fomoire ranks, and quite a number of their men were down, and now archers on the walls of Dun Tagoll began aiming their shots at the rest.
Meb saw Aberinn come out on the lower battlements. She could recognize him by the robe, but his head was encased in a glassy, spiked helmet of some kind. He took in what was happening. Took in the mirrors. Spoke to some people.
Soon he was up on the inner battlement himself. “This was your idea?” he asked Meb, with no pretense of ceremony or politeness.
“Yes. Someone said the evil eye affected you even if reflected so I thought we’d give them their own back. It seems to have worked.”
“You are either cleverer, or more powerful, than I had realized.” He turned on his heel. “Sergeant. Get me four men-at-arms and carry that lens down to the tower. We’ll give them a mirror to avoid. I’ll tin one of the lenses.”
Even Meb’s dealing with the baleful eye did not stop the Fomoire mages. They were back by late that night. And by morning the Fomoire warriors were assaulting the walls. But now it was just warriors against walls. And gigantic though the Fomoire were, they were as scared of hot pitch, and as easily killed by a dropped rock, as the Angevins had been.
What wasn’t better was the sheer volume of warriors they had to fling at the task. Fomoire would climb dead Fomoire to get up those walls. If the sun shone in the mornings the mage’s lenses poured heat at the ice bridge. The Fomoire mages tried to build the ice bridges, and when the sun did not shine from the east, turned the cold of chanting onto the castle itself.
It was bitter. So was the siege. The part that Meb really didn’t understand was how it affected her. It seemed to have merely deepened the infighting among the women.
And Neve wasn’t dying. She just wasn’t getting much better either.
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