Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 2
Next: CHAPTER 4

Tarien slept fitfully, into the middle of a night that saw the snow washed off the roofs and torrents pouring from the gutters. She lay abed, curls of russet hair clinging to a damp brow, in the light of many candles.
The clepsydra's arm rose to the uppermost, and at that precise instrument's movement, Emuin poured in a carefully measured cup of water, ready for the purpose, instrument and cup alike on the water-circled dining table of the Aswydds' apartment.
"Glass," Emuin said sharply, and Paisi inverted the hourglass that backed their measurements. "Pour the cup."
"Mark on the paper, master, afore ye forget."
"I won't forget! Pour the damned cup! Time's passing!"
Tristen watched askance, wondering would master Emuin indeed remember to make the mark, which accounted of the finer measures of the night, and watching until he did. The drip of water from the water clock was far more accurate a measure than marked candles and more reliable even than the costly glass… but only if one poured the water back in quickly. Master Emuin had brought it down from his tower, and set it up on the table, and still fussed over what exact moment it had begun.
A spate of rain hit the windows, and lightning flashed.
Cook and the midwife Gran Sedlyn sat watch; and the nuns, who had served the Aswydds before, ran errands for herbals from Gran Sedlyn's small shop in the lower town. Guards watched. Uwen waited.
So, too, did Orien wait and watch and pace her cell, exhausting herself against unyielding walls and an iron door… most of all hurling her anger against the wards that defended the door. So the guards reported, men unnerved by the strength and persistence of the rages and the virulence of the curses. To the guards stationed there, Paisi had brought blessed charms, from master Emuin, and more from the abbot.
"For what good they'll do," Emuin said, "but luck attend them while they stand by that cursed door.—Where's the damned owl?"
"I don't know," Tristen said.
"The bird could make himself of some use," Emuin said peevishly.
But of Owl, for the last hour and more, there was no sign.
Now they watched by candlelight, a cluster of men banished from the vicinity of the bedchamber as too noisy and too much disturbance to Lady Tarien's pain, but neither Tristen nor Emuin wished to leave Cook and Gran Sedlyn to watch alone, considering the lady's abilities and ties to her sister. Tarien seemed intent on the child's good health, seemed not to share her sister's insistence on a birth tonight, but had seemed rather to be struggling to keep the babe's own time… until she slept, which they all took for a hopeful sign.
But even the iron latch and the iron door below were not utterly trustworthy barriers against her sister, particularly as ordinary men watched it. There were wishes and wards and barriers… but that link had had years to work, and it was strong. Orien's will stretched toward her sister, and urged the babe to restlessness.
Yet the hours slipped away, measured by arcane instruments and the patience of Orien's warders. At the very mid of the night Emuin reasoned she would cease to trouble Tarien, for that marked the start of another day, as some reckoned.
But they were not out of the darkness, nor out of Orien's hopes. The efforts kept up, as the arm rose and Paisi turned the glass for midnight.
More moments passed.
"Before dawn would seem to be close enough," Emuin said glumly,
"she hasn't given up."
"Perhaps she doesn't know it's midnight."
"One congratulates a man on his birth. We are now, by the stars, at yours."
He had wondered would his life continue past the anniversary of his Summoning. And indeed it had, now, and he sat, substantial, beside another fireside, knowing so much more, and in circumstances he could never have imagined a year ago.
Orien continued her assault.
"Bid the lady in the guardroom know it's midnight," Emuin said sharply, and Paisi sped down to the soldiers.
Paisi was gone a time. There was no point at which the efforts ceased—but there was one at which they grew more fierce, furiously, wildly angry.
"Unreasonable woman," Emuin said. "Disagreeable, unreasonable woman."
Paisi returned at a run, out of breath, wide-eyed with fright and concerned with what seemed at his very heels. But he had been safe, as the guards were safe, below: Tristen had not been unaware the while of anything that went on in the fortress, and he directed Paisi to a warm spot by the fire until the boy could warm the chill from his bones.
So they sat, their small group of men: Uwen, who knew something of births, and master Emuin, who knew little, and the guards, who had heard much and knew only slightly more, Tristen thought, than he did. Paisi, the youngest, seemed to know most of all of them.
Once more the cup spilled and the glass turned. Twice.
But the third time the sand began to run, something happened in the gray place, and it was no longer stable as it had been. Tarien woke, and the babe woke with her, and a moment later a muted scream came from inside the bedroom.
They all glanced that way, as alarm filled the unseen space, then vanished in Orien's sudden leap of satisfaction, her assault on the wards. But the assault failed and she fell back again.
"Two hours till dawn," Emuin said with a heavy breath. "Two hours."
Another hour approached. Paisi hurried back to the bedroom, not the first such errand, and was gone a space, and came back tight-lipped.
"Gran says as the babby's comin' now an' 'e ain't waitin'."
Tristen drew in a breath and paid attention such as he could spare.
The gray place had become slate gray cloud, shot through with red like fire—Orien's doing, her wishing grown greater with her fear of failure and loss.
Emuin reversed the glass the third time.
And now the gray space began to show a more and less of pain, as it had been at the beginning. When the pain was more, conversation would become difficult and distracted. Tristen left the table and wandered the border by the windows, with an occasional glance to Emuin's glass and the water clock.
A cry rent the peace, and he could bear no more of it: he left their vigil for that in the bedchamber, where Tarien lay propped on pillows—not the beautiful creature now, but an unhappy and desperate one, caught between their will and her sister's, back and forth, back and forth, until now she looked at him in the gray space, with eyes dark as the cloud that boiled about them. She began to drift away—pulled, not her own doing—and reached out her hand as if she were sinking, drowning and taking another presence with her.
He seized the outstretched hand, and held it, and wished the pain away, and the life within her safe, while the winds howled and the life in her ebbed. She had strayed right to the Edge, and that darkness half-swallowed her, at times less, at times more. He held on.
Come this way, he begged her. Come with me.
My sister, she said repeatedly, my sister.
For another voice called her, and another self was there, within the darkness… at least one more was there, and perhaps others. It seemed to Tristen he heard Heryn's voice, full of anger and demands, and he felt Tarien cower. Her hold on his hand slipped and slipped again.
And then the Wind came, sweeping the others away, and whispered, most gently, mostly kindly:
Let me be born. Woman, let me be.
And the cramping pains struck, fierce and strong, carried on Orien's wish, driven by the Wind.
Here, my lord, he is yours… Or ten's voice rang strong and clear.
Orien's will drove Tarien's body, and Orien's presence, stronger than ever she had been in the gray place, swallowed Tarien's will like the Edge itself.
"No!" Tarien cried out as she slipped, and in the World, her nails bit deeply into Tristen's hand. He knelt by her bed and wished the pain away, seeking her presence in the gray world, feeling her sever that connection to Orien strand by strand as it pulled her toward the edge.
Rejecting her sister, preserving the life within her… she slipped and he felt her nails pierce his hand.
"It's coming!" the midwife said. "It's comin', ain't no question now, m'lady. It must come."
Emuin leaned into the doorway. "A handful of sand, a handful of sand, woman— wait that long! It's too early!"
My lord, here's your vessel!
Tarien screamed, vehement as Orien at her worst, beside herself with pain and lashing out at her sister. — You'll not have him!
Orien vanished. Still the child came.
"Wizardry, woman!" Emuin shouted, and wished with a force that might stop a river in its course. "You wanted wizardry! Use it now!
Orien wants your son. Your sister wants him for a vessel for her master! Is that your wish? Is it? Save his life, woman, bold back!"
"It's comin', it's coming," Gran Sedlyn said.
"I can't!" Tarien screamed, and the baby's drive for the world of Men would not be denied again.
The Edge was all the gray space now, and Tristen held fast, unwilling to relinquish his grip. On Tarien his hold was firm… but the presence within her flowed out, whirled away into the dark, and flew out of reach.
"Stillbirth," the midwife said.
"Damn!" he heard Emuin say.
And again in the gray space, and with telling force: Damn!
Hold to her, Tristen said. Master Emuin, help me hold her. She'll die.
It's the baby he wants, Emuin said to him. His hair and beard and garments alike streamed in the gale that the Edge swallowed up.
Tarien was half in it, the babe all the way gone
But something was in the dark: the Wind that gathered itself for a first breath in the World.
Not yours, Tristen said to the Wind, with all the force that was in him, and of a sudden he felt the rush of Owl's wings past his hair.
Owl soared ahead of him into that gulf and he found himself rushing into it, a familiar place after all, a place of blue light, beating with wings.
A boy stood there, preoccupied among the hawks, a well-dressed, fair-haired boy who began to look toward him, head turning, until the Wind called him by a name Tristen, hearing, could not hear— would not hear, for it was not the name he knew for the child.
Elfwyn, Tristen said, commanding attention, and now the boy cast him a dark-eyed glance. With the very next blink the boy was a well-grown youth, straight and tall, with Cefwyn's very look.
—Sir? said the boy, but the dark within the dark was in his eyes.
Tristen reached out his hand, wishing the boy to come to him, wishing him safe and his mother and his father safe.
Fire leapt up, spectral red amid the cool blue light as the Wind called to the boy again. Out of that fire a black figure advanced, outlined in Wind-driven flame, and the boy faltered as that Shape held out a commanding, open hand. The wind roared, and the boy stood transfixed, fair hair torn by that Wind, hand all but touching the hand that reached for his.
Elfwyn! The second time Tristen called, commanding now, and the boy's bead turned, the hand dropped. The name that was not the boy's Name echoed again in the nameless light and the dark hand seized on the youth's shoulder.
And in the very teeth of the gale Tristen called a third time, the magical time: Elfwyn!
The boy looked at him in startlement and the dark eyes turned cornflower blue, pale and with a hint of gray, until there was nothing of the darkness in them. The boy's hand touched his.
The Wind raged and tore at them. Needles of ice and pain lanced through flesh and bone, and the gulf gaped under them.
Then Owl flashed between, bound away, and with that guidance Tristen turned toward what he knew was home, with the boy in his grasp. They traveled toward the darkness beyond the rows of birds on their perches, and constantly Owl flew ahead of him. Tristen gripped the boy's shoulder, then his hand, and increasingly as he walked the hand he held was smaller and smaller, and the steps faltered, until he must sweep the child up within his arms, and hold him fast as he walked toward the dark circle.
He saw candlelight. He stepped into it…
And drew a great, deep breath, flavored with the cold of the downstairs hall at the site of the haunt, that stretch of odd flooring that fronted the old mews. He found himself with a newborn baby in his arms, a wizened, bloody creature with tight-clenched eyes and clenched fists, a babe that suddenly drew breath and let it out in a loud and lusty wail.
He slipped the pin of his cloak, the blood red of Amefel, and wrapped the baby in it against the chill… he walked, and guards posted at the stairs stared with misgivings as he passed with the small bundle in his arms.
He climbed the west steps, and passed guards he had not passed going out of Tarien's apartment, men struck with consternation and surely wondering where he had been.
He did not venture the gray space now. He had no idea where that shortcut might send him and the babe both. He had no idea where Owl had gone, but when he reached Tarien's apartment the guards opened the door for him. He carried his small angry charge through the outer chambers into the one where Tarien lay, and Emuin watched, and Gran Sedlyn met him with a face astonished and distraught.
" You took it!" Gran Sedlyn said, and behind her, Paisi stared, round-eyed.
He said not a word, but took the baby to Emuin, who sat by Tarien's bedside, holding her hand, and she all disheveled and with her red hair pasted about her temples.
"We took out the sheets," Gran Sedlyn was saying, a noise in his ears,
"an't was as if maybe we took out the babby amongst 'em by mistake.
We couldn't find 'im, we couldn't find 'im, and Your Grace had 'im all the time… and where was Your Grace?" the confused woman asked.
"Sittin' here, as I thought, and then…"
"He's safe," Tristen said.
"Safe," Emuin echoed him, with meaning, and maintained a fierce ward over the place, over the woman who rested, pale and shrunken, amid the pillows. Only as Tristen unwrapped his small burden and showed her the baby's face did her eyes open wide, and go from grief to wonder. Her hands reached, not as Orien's had reached, but with an urgent, tender desire. He laid the baby on her breast, and Tarien folded her arms around her child, and looked at him as if the very sight poured strength and life into her.
"His name is Elfwyn," Tristen said, and Tarien's eyes flashed wide, lips parted, perhaps to protest she wanted some other name. But she said not a word. Emuin looked at him, too, and with a sharper, worried expression, but without dispute.
"Elfwyn," Emuin said.
"My baby prince," Tarien murmured, with her lips against the infant's pale and matted hair.
"Let's wash 'im," Gran Sedlyn said. "Let's 'ave a look 'ere, m'lady."
"No," Tarien said. "No one will take my baby. No one will take him!"
"Hear me, woman," Emuin said harshly, and with a hand on the child and Tarien's arm. "He has his right soul in him. This is truly Cefwyn's child. That isn't what your sister wanted. Do you understand?"
"She's dead," Tarien said. Her lips faltered as if they were frozen.
"She's dead. She can't have him. My prince loved me, and she'll never have him!"
Emuin looked at Tristen, and Tristen at him, with the feeling in his heart that Tarien was not mistaken. He left the room, unwashed and exhausted, and suddenly aware that Uwen was not there, and Uwen would never have left his heels. Gweyl and all his new guards were gone somewhere, but Lusin and Tawwys had come in, among the silent wardens of the Zeide, and Syllan and Aran were outside as if they had never left their former duty to him.
"There was fire," Lusin said, and had no sooner said, than Uwen came through the door, soot smeared about him, and with Gweyl close behind.
"Thank the gods," Uwen said. "They said ye'd come downstairs, an'
the fire, an' all—"
"Orien burned," Tristen surmised.
"In her cell," Uwen said, and held his hands as if he wanted a place to wipe them, in this prince's apartment. "Set the pallet alight, the candle to the straw, an' the chokin' smoke afore the flame: it were like an oven in that cell, an' the guards up above didn't know't till the smoke come up the stairs."
That flaring strength in the gray space… Orien's attempt to drive Tarien to birth: in death she had reached for freedom and bound herself to the stones of the Zeide.
"Where was ye, m'lord? Where'd ye go?—An' what's this wi' the babe?"
"In there," Tristen said, still unsure he should have given the child to Tarien, but compelled to it by a magic that spoke to him as strongly as the wind and the earth themselves. "With Lady Tarien."
"Gods bless," Uwen said, and raked his hair back with a sooted hand, leaving streaks on his brow. "Gods bless. An' 'Er Grace dead an 'er ladyship wi' the baby. An' what's to be wi' him?"
"He's Cefwyn's," Tristen said. "And Emuin's there. Emuin won't leave him." He felt that as surely as he had felt the strength and the will in Tarien's arms. "He's Cefwyn's son, his name is Elfwyn, and Hasufin won't have him."
There was a new Shadow loose within the wards downstairs. He was sure of that. It was bound to the stones of the place, exactly as he had once feared would happen when he had advised Cefwyn to exile all the Aswydds and not to execute them. An iron door had not been enough to hold Orien Aswydd prisoner: she had proved that well enough.
But in the purpose she held worth her life, she had failed. She was not done with trying for wizardry, perhaps, and Hasufin himself could not fault her effort or her courage… but she had failed.
He went back to the door to reassure himself all was well within the room, and saw Emuin and Lady Tarien and the babe, all in the light of a single candle.
He saw a life that had not existed before now. He found that, amid all else, the most remarkable thought, and he took with him the remembrance of the boy and the youth who might someday remember meeting him, in the maze of the mews.
Owl joined them as he and Uwen left the apartment, and banked away down the stairs, to the startlement of the guards below, he was sure. Whether Owl was satisfied he had no idea.
But on the precise day on which Emuin calculated Mauryl had Summoned him to life, at the very first light of dawn, an entirely new soul had drawn a first breath, and Cefwyn had a son.
Previous: CHAPTER 2
Next: CHAPTER 4