Firelight flickered on the walls as Rifkind, desert-bred, stood close by her hearth, braiding her long black hair into thick plaits, listening to the murmuring crowd-noise below. Shivering, she tried to force her fingers to increase their pace. Though the mighty walls of Chatelgard had withstood the worst the Imperials could bring against them, they were not proof against even these first drafty hints of the winter that would soon isolate Glascardy from the world.
She had another reason to hurry: drifting up from below came the heady scents of roasting meats. Rifkind herself had supervised the installation of two extra spits in the massive kitchen hearth that was but one of the many tasks and duties she had taken on when she had assumed the role of Lady of Chatelgard, a role most strange to a warrior and healer, but one that she would fill as well as she was able . . . in all ways but one.
She had already decided that if she was to stay at Chatelgard through the winter, it must be as its Lady; pride forbade her any lesser role. And, anyway, Ejord had already made it clear that the benefits to Chatelgard of the healings of an Asheeran witch would be outweighed by the superstitious dread engendered by the commoners.
The great brass bell that had summoned the defenders of Chatelgard in the recent dark times now sounded in a happier cause, and Rifkind gathered her dark green skirts in a movement that had become as practiced as her sword swing. After a week of trail rations, a feast, even if it meant playing lady of the manor, was worth hurrying to. As she ran down the cramped stairway that led to the Great Hall, the hilts of her knives, strapped against her thighs, glinted in the torchlight, as did her many ornaments of gold and silver. In many ways Rifkind was still a thorough barbarian such as her desire to be adorned always by wealth and weapons.
“Rifkind! . . . I mean Milady Rifkind, have you heard?” An officer with more grey than black in his beard hailed her as she entered the Hall.
“Heard what, Graybeard?”
“Amnesty, that's what! There's to be no more forays against the stragglers still in the mountains, and the prisoners already in the keep are to be escorted to the borders. Ejord's declared it so. What do you think of that? Amnesty, by the gods!”
“As for the prisoners, it's obvious we must kill them or let them go,” she said, not adding that she would have killed them, as would any self-respecting Asheeran. “But I wonder if we dare be so gentle with men still in arms. Better we hunt down every one of them lucking still in Glascardy.”
Graybeard attempted to shrug in sympathetic agreement, but the glancing blow that had taken part of his ear had paralyzed the muscles of one shoulder as well. “Some ways, he's the image of his father-- and one of them is he runs his own show his own way. But though the men might not like it, if Ejord wants an amnesty, for him we'll enforce it!” He hoisted his goblet, slopping a healthy quantity of its contents on Rifkind in the process.
After a wet pause she said, “There's no doubt of that.” She proceeded to work her way deeper into the crowded hall, more grateful for the information than the second helping of cider.
The veterans who had first rallied to Ejord's side at the onset of the civil war that had pitted Ejord and Glascardy against Ejord's father Humphry and the Empire had come to accept her as a leader second only to Ejord himself. It had been harder for her to accept them. But now, the war over, she drank from the many proffered goblets and wished she had brought one of her own so that she could share in turn. But as she finally made her way to where Ejord sat alone on the dais, her thoughts took a darker turning.
``They tell me you've decreed an amnesty for all your father's men still at large in Glascardy,'' she said as soon as she was near enough to speak discreetly.
Ejord, after a glance of recognition, looked away. ``They pose no real danger now that Father has left to winder in Lowenrat.''
``You'll win no gratitude for this from either side-- only festering wounds.''
Ejord nodded. ``But Glascardy has been in war as well as at war. The cider we drink is from last year's pressing; there'll be no more feast, or cider either. The wounds may fester with my amnesty, but the men will be at home. They'll see to their families and plant their crops instead of ruining somebody else's fields in my name.'' He paused. ``This isn't the Asheera. Raiding and warfare destroy us.''
Before Rifkind could reply, the grizzled officer who had first accosted her made his way across the room and clapped Ejord in a one-armed embrace. He handed Rifkind his cider, but did not offer to embrace her.
``You're not drinking, Milord!'' As lord, Ejord could not drink from another's vessel-- though as a special compliment he might himself offer his own to a liegeman.
``You're right, Graybeard,'' Ejord answered. Suddenly there was no trace of the fatigue and sadness he had allowed Rifkind to see. ``Here I've ordered all this cider brought up from the cellars and no one's fetched *me* a drop.''
``Disgraceful! Even today, when there's no servants nor masters, exceptions can be made . . . I'll correct your condition myself, as I'm in need of a refill anyway.'' Seizing Ejord's goblet, Graybeard made his way back into the crowd.
``There's a snow-ring around your Bright Moon, Rifkind'' Ejord said once they were alone again. ``Have you seen it?'' He paused for a long moment, staring at the table as if it held a secret. Then: ``When next it is full, the passes will have become closed until spring.''
``Your cider, Milord! Enough for a start, anyway,'' said Graybeard, who had returned with brimming goblets.
But even the potent cider and the old officer's joviality could not dispel the silence that was growing between them.
``It will be different now,'' Ejord said at last.
``I need a wife.''
Graybeard chose his time for an atypically discreet withdrawal.
``I know that too,'' Rifkind said without looking at him. The subject had come up before. ``There are things I can do. I'll stay with your army, if you don't totally disband it. I'll discipline your servant. I'll keep food on the tables, if I have to hunt it down myself. These things I can do of my own will, but I cannot be your wife without . . . without Her approval.''
``Yet, still I need a wife.''
``You must look elsewhere.''
``I have. She is en route from the lowlands. I have said nothing definite as to the purpose of the invitation, but I will now.''
Time froze around Rifkind while she absorbed Ejord's words. She wasn't surprised, not truly. She knew the realities of a Dro Darian aristocrat's life as well as she had known those of an Asheeran hetman's daughter. And in the depths of her heart she had known the Ejord would not deny his inherited obligations as she had hers.
``You knew I would refuse you?'' she said, angry with herself for the quaver in her voice.
He nodded. ``Chatelgard-- all of Glascardy-- belongs in part to you. No one may dispute your right to live here as you wish and as long as you wish unless he dares take issue with my rights as well. But . . . I have many duties.''
``You'll announce your coming marriage tonight?''
``Yes, after the feast.''
If the assemblage noticed the silence at the head table, they did not respect it. They called upon Ejord to make several speeches before and during the long meal. As it wore on, Rifkind felt the tiredness of the past weeks more keenly than she had expected, and the small amount of cider she'd drunk affected her far more than it should have. The roomful of cheerful people became a receding blur unless she forced her concentration to part the sea of babble. And though the food was uniformly delicious, once initial hunger was assuaged, her appetite was no match for her weariness. Finally she gave in to her fatigue.
``I'm tired, Ejord, too tired, really. I need sleep more than food. I'll fall asleep during your announcements.'' She stood up from the table.
``Rifkind?'' Ejord said softly to her.
``If you had said `yes,' if you said `yes' right now . . .''
There was something in his eyes that said far more than words could. For a heartbeat, Rifkind held her breath, waiting for the momentous revelation of the Bright One bestowing Her blessing. But there was only the raucous, indistinguishable laughter of the men and the painful openness of Ejord's face. She turned and fled.
She had ascended the first of several staircases to her quarters before came such tears as had not blinded her since childhood. Still, she had run the corridors without thinking so many times that her feet continued the journey to her rooms without the aid of vision. Fortunately, even ever-solicitous Jenny, Ejord's close half-sister and now Rifkind's maid, was absent. Rifkind bolted the door behind her, determined that no one witness her mortification.
When the tears were finally stanched, she turned her attention to the silver-disk manifestation of the Bright Moon, circled by five, not one, snow rings.
All the tortured permutations of her questions and her bitterness as well resolved into that one word. It radiated from her with a force that roused Turin in his distant stable, but did not perturb the impassive Goddess. Lord Humphry had first given her this suite of rooms because they afforded Chatelgard's best view of the rising moon. Now all three of the rooms were illuminated by Her light, and Rifkind could not summon the energy to shutter the windows against Her. She sat, knees drawn up to her chin, in the wide casement of the largest window, studying the light patterns through the grisaille glass.
I could cast the stones again, she thought, but they will do nothing to bring me peace. The Bright Mother will not reveal Her favor. I would have to take Ejord to my heart and bed before I could know Her judgment-- and then it would be too late.
But I cannot stay here now: No matter what else I imagine of my future, if I remain I seen an unknown wife's spiteful unease, or my Goddess with Her gaze averted from me.
Though her face and hands betrayed no tension, Rifkind's mind darted from one rejected pathway to the next, seeking escape from the untenable position in which she found herself.
Suddenly, her thoughts were interrupted.
``Rifkind, may I come in?''
``Rifkind, it might help if you talked to someone.''
She got up from the casement seat and quietly approached the door.
``Rifkind, I'm your friend. You can talk to me.''
Although she might argue that she had no friends, had no need of them: only allies for longer or shorter time, that she got all the companionship she needed from Turin and her Goddess, Rifkind nevertheless did at last recognize Ejord's old tutor, Bainbrose, and she opened the door to her cold, dark room.
The old man walked with a can; his days of captivity had been less than comfortable. He never spoke of them but Rifkind, with her healer's instincts, knew that his body had been broken and that though he had managed to return to Chatelgard, he would live there for only a few years before death came for him. He propped his can against the stone mantle and pottered about at her neglected hearth.
``Well,'' he began with his back still toward her, ``there's no good to come from holding back your anger, and you must be angry with someone, if only me for forcing myself on you. Graybeard spoke to me before the feast.''
``I'm not angry. Healers don't get angry with their fate.''
``I'm not angry. Here, let me do that.'' She offered him a hand up, then knelt by the hearth. ``Everything is moving in perfectly understandable patterns. There is nothing to be angry with. I'm tired, that's all, as I told Ejord.''
``Has anyone ever told you that you Asheerans are incapable of anger because you lack the philosophical sense of revenge that civilized folk possess?''
Despite herself, Rifkind smiled as she stepped away from the hearth. Bainbrose knew well that revenge among the clans sometimes took two or three generations to reach its climax.
``That's better. A little warmth, a little light. Chatelgard's a dismal place at night without a fire. No offense to your Friend out there, but moonlight can't disguise the fact that Chatelgard's just a mountain fortress with window glass.''
``Chatelgard is dismal at any time of day or season.''
``Even better: now you're arguing.'' The old man settled into the one comfortable chair, leaving Rifkind to perch on Jenny's mending stool. ``Now, tell me all the reasons it's so dismal.''
``It needs no reasons,''she replied, her voice flattening.
``Not better. Rifkind, my child-- my friend-- the only other friend you have is going to bring a sixteen-year-old bride into this admittedly always-dismal place in a fortnight, making it very awkward for you to remain here, true? And the only reason he's doing so is because that flat disk you venerate has disobligingly failed to provide you with the wind that would let you send the brat packing back to her family!''
``What else was I supposed to do?'' Rifkind demanded, arising as she spoke.
``A vast improvement. You are *supposed* to do what you want. You're a very talented, not to mention powerful, young woman. *You,* if no one else in this dismal fortress, are supposed to do what *you* want to do!''
``I'm not a wife. I cannot do wifely things. Even with Her permission, I'm not sure I could! Doesn't he understand that? What more does he want from me?''
``That's anger, my friend. I know Ejord as well as anyone-- I'll try to answer your question. There is nothing Ejord loves more than this land of his. He'll do anything, well, hopefully not anything-- that's more his father-- to be the sort of lord his people need. Everything is subordinate to that; therefor he will have a wife and an heir.
``What Ejord loves simply becomes a part of Glascardy for him. But when he loves someone as much as I suspect he loves you, and he can't make that person a part of Glascardy, then he'll push you away from him, for your own good.''
``As he sees it,'' Rifkind amended, paying no heed to the rest of what Bainbrose had said.
``Ah! Precisely! But is there any other way for him to see it?''
``You talk nonsense.''
``Then, Rifkind, what is your purpose? Why can't you be the Lady Overnmont both Ejord and Glascardy need?''
``The Goddess. I'm a healer. A healer may take lovers, but not a love. *She* must be ever-supreme in my life. That is the price of Her gifts.''
``Close the shutters and go downstairs. Stop his announcement, there's still time. You've served that uncaring bitch-goddess far better than any ten other healers could.''
Rifkind nodded, but did not move toward the door. ``I want to be a healer! I just want to be what I already am!'' she exclaimed as a new onset of tears and sobs demanded immediate release.
Bainbrose held her hand tightly as she fell to her knees beside him and hid her face in his long scholar's robes. It was some moments before she raised her head and blotted her eyes on the sleeve of her dress.
``I don't know what's the matter with me. I never act this way.''
``Absurd. You *are* acting this way, and I think it's vastly preferable to staring out the window, or whatever you were doing before I got up here.'' The old man gingerly flexed the hand she had just released.
``I was thinking about home-- about the Asheera. It was never the place I remember it to be, but sometimes, now, I wish I were back there.`` She thought of things Bainbrose could not have understood and shook her head as if to clear them from her mind. ``No, there's nothing left there. I'd be alone, more outsider than I am here. I think I'd like to go somewhere far from Glascardy or the Asheera, someplace where there would be nothing to haunt me.''
``Some would say it is a deficiency of character to change one's surroundings in time of crisis-- running away, they'd call it. But I've made my life out of wandering, and I've no regrets. I've drunk the wines of every vineyard in Dro Daria. In your case, though, I recommend a sojourn to the Felmargue-- and take Jenny with you.''
``I've never heard of the Felmargue, and I certainly won't travel with a domestic.''
``You underestimate Jenny. The Felmargue is far away and different enough for your needs. If you can imagine all of Dro Daria as a big circle,'' he gestured roundly, ``and Glascardy is here,'' his right hand grabbed a point on the edge of the circle, ``then, the Felmargue is . . . here!'' He stretched his left hand out as far as he could.
``Across the death-wastes again? Thank you-- I think I prefer winter in Glascardy.''
``One of the reasons Dro Daria is so big, and the Felmargue so far away, Rifkind, is that *we* do not travel directly from one side to the other. All of your Asheeran relatives are waiting for us if we do. We go around the edges.''
``No. Going away's not a good idea-- a deficiency of character, or whatever you called it. I don't want to run anymore. I have nothing to do there, any more than I do here. Someplace has to be my home. I've chosen Chatelgard, no matter what.''
``Ah, child, you *must* leave, and I think you know it. Even Jenny knows she must depart this place to find what she wants. Reasons arrive for you *after* you need them, not before. But, since you need a purpose-- go find the Well of Knowledge and the Font of the Black Flame.''
``Flames are not black and water, not knowledge, comes from wells.''
``Yes, if they exist at all, that particular well and its water are most definitely peculiar. Most say they don't exist, or maybe they did a long time ago, but not anymore. Do you remember those stones you once kept for me?''
He undid the weighted end of his purple sash-of-office, reached into it and dropped the pebbles into her palm. Once again the glassy beads made her skin burn and tingle.
``Never cared for them, either,'' Rifkind said, handing them back to him as soon as she recognized them.
``They're Flame-stones. These are old and worthless-- that's how I come to have them-- but the legends about the stones would indicate that you could replace your ruby from them, if you ever found the source of the Well.''
As Rifkind knelt, staring at the black pebbles, she felt a light but icy touch on her shoulder, almost as if they Goddess was leaning over her shoulder to study the stones Herself. Rifkind's Goddess, the Bright One, She who had maintained unrelenting silence throughout Her priestess' period of personal anguish over Ejord, did not wait for Her disciple to formulate an entreaty for guidance. Rifkind watched with bitter irony as Bainbrose absently lifted each stone into the beams of moonlight.
``Tell me more about this Felmargue.'' She sighed. ``I think I may find these stones more interesting than I had first thought.''
``It's a swamp. A vast swamp, at least as large as all of Glascardy, unexplored, cursed, inhabited by savages. Very warm and very wet.''
``I've changed my mind. I don't think I want to know about swamps.'' But it was already too late, and she knew that, too.