Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 7
Next: CHAPTER 1

Morning came gray and pale across hills not so different than Elwynor. Maids stirred about the fireplace, made tea, presented a breakfast of which Ninévrisë only wished a little bread, no honey in the tea. Afterward she sat in the warm middle of the room gazing at the pale light of the window, asking herself whether the bread had been wise at all.
Perhaps, instead, it was fear that churned inside her—fear and the wish never to have left her husband… not a wise wish, to be back with him, but the wish of her heart, all the same.
She was aware, on that level far beyond awareness of the hills and the tea and unwanted breakfast, of Emuin, half-asleep in his tower bed, an old man and increasingly frail; and of the boy Paisi, who made Emuin's breakfast.
Paisi was worried, too, worried for the old man: loved him, an unaccustomed thing for Paisi, and more than a little surprising to the boy, who had loved few things and fewer people. He was not sure what to call those feelings, but Paisi was a fiercely protective soul, and set all his gifts to caring for the old man who had roused them in him.
He was suddenly aware of her eavesdropping on him—gifted in that way to an amazing extent, and not knowing anything he could properly do with that ability, either—and stopped and looked her direction in the gray space like any boy caught at anything. He truly disliked to be stared at or made conspicuous in any way, met such stares with hostility—but he regarded her differently, not with the unthought respect of a commoner for a lady, but a far more personal sense of connection.
He hurried about his last morning duties for Emuin, waked the old man, saw him safely seated at his breakfast, and then slipped out of the tower room and down the stairs from the tower to the lower hall.
Up, then, the central stairs.
She knew when he would arrive, knew that he suffered a sudden blush of awkwardness just outside her doors, his brash, common effrontery brought to an adamant halt by her guards.
Why had he come? He pursued his own curiosity, his own sense of duty. He had come to find her and to learn what she meant to that other concern of his, who slept with his mother in yet another room, with a baby's untaught awareness.
She rose, went to her door, and opened it to find a gangling boy with wide dark eyes, face flushed with the vehemence of his argument with her guards.
"Lady," he said, never once abashed, but with a quick bow.
"This is my ally," she said to the guards. "He doesn't know it yet, but he is." She swept the boy inside, and the guards shut the door. All her attention was for a boy her heart told her defended a sleeping baby, for reasons unclear to the boy himself, and defended him even against the babe's own Aswydd mother. It seemed to his loyal heart that the baby had had no defenders; and he had grown up with none but an old woman, and so he took it as his duty, himself, when no one else cared, to care for Tarien's baby. All of that passion was in him, all at once, and for the babe's sake.
In Tristen's absence, he was here at her door—no accident.
And no boyish curiosity had brought him to her, but a wizard's lively attachment to all the world around him: she felt it as she had felt her father's curiosity about the world and never known it was uncommon: Paisi had the same tone of mind and heart, as if she were in the heart of her family again. They faced one another, and at the far remove of his tower, Emuin had stopped his breakfast, and had stopped it for a full several breaths, now, slowly grown present enough that they both knew.
" 'E ain't sayin' anything," Paisi said faintly. " 'E ain't upset wi' me, but 'e knows. The old man knows ever'thin' 'at goes on."
"A very great wizard," Ninévrisë said, "as I never shall be." All her little wizardry had been bent to the north, in earnest hope of a whisper in the gray space, and now this boy distracted her from her watch and made her aware how constant it had been. It both gave her second thoughts, this potent distraction the boy posed, and made her question her own wisdom and her own fate in this war of powers.
It was a small fate, it might be; or a greater one. She had always thought of it as her fate—but seemingly now her fate had become wrapped about the child, her child, Cefwyn's child. She had been proud, had commanded in the field, come close to power, and seen all her power over her fate unexpectedly involved in this union with Cefwyn. Now she saw it devolving upon their child, changed in direction and inevitable as the stoop of a hawk—to that extent she knew she had failed of all she purposed, and had failed in it even if she should rule in Elwynor. Neither Cefwyn's rule nor hers, she foresaw, would suffice to settle the border or make a lasting peace.
They became forerunners of one who might.
And this boy… this all-elbows, tousle-haired boy… this self-appointed warden of Cefwyn's other son… he came to her to know what she was, and found himself too abashed to look her in the eye.
"Were you always with Emuin?" she asked, a more answerable question.
"No," Paisi said. " 'Is Grace sent me to 'im."
"And do you like Emuin?"
Paisi blushed and looked abashed. "May be."
"And how do you regard Tristen?"
"It ain't for me to say about 'Is Grace," Paisi said in a breath. " 'E just is, is all."
"Yet you do like him."
"Aye," Paisi admitted, with all his soul in that answer.
"And Lady Tarien?"
Silence was that answer.
"Do you love the Aswydds?" Ninévrisë asked. "Or not?"
A shake of Paisi's head, a downward look, and a half glance. "Lady Tarien ain't as bad."
"And her son?"
That drew a look up, so direct and so open it held nothing back.
" 'E's a babby, is all."
"No," she said, "not all. Never all."
"Then what ' e is… 'e ain't, yet."
"All the same, he has a friend," she said in the deep silence, for that was how she judged Paisi. "He has one friend; and that friend is a wizard, or will be. And when my son sees the light… will you love him, too?"
Paisi's eyes darted hither and thither, as if he sought to see some answer just past her; but when he looked at her, and again she could see all the way to the depth of him. "I ain't sighted," Paisi said. "I don't know, lady."
"Yet will you wish him harm?" She asked for half, since she could not immediately have the whole. And seeing every certainty of her own life overturned and changed, she fought for her son's certainties.
"Or do you wish him well?"
"I ain't ever wishin' anybody harm," Paisi said with a fierce shake of his head. "Master Emuin says a fool'd wish harm to anybody, on account of it's apt to fly back in a body's face an' do gods know what, so, far as I can wish, I wish your babby's happy."
"So do I," Ninévrisë said, and the bands about her heart seemed to loose. This boy, something said to her, this boy is worth winning. "I wish peace, and good, and all such things."
Most of all she wished Cefwyn might see both his sons, and might come alive out of the war. She wished that more than she wished herself to rule; but for Elwynor itself she never gave up her wishes to see it become again what it had been.
She had lost confidence herself… had lost it the morning Tristen left, and did not know where to find it again in Henas'amef. She was out of place here, and regretted with all her heart that she had not ridden with Tristen, but she felt the presence of life within her and knew what dire thing their enemy had tried to do with Tarien's babe. She would not chance that for her own son, Cefwyn's son, the heir of two kingdoms.
"Do you think Lady Tarien will see me?" she asked.
"I don't know she won't," Paisi said.
What Emuin thought of it was another matter: caution flowed from that quarter, for down in the depths, not so far away, was a tightly warded fear, one so closely bound to Tarien it gave Emuin constant worry.
But all the same she gathered the boy by the arm and went to the door and out, where she swept up half her Amefin bodyguard and walked up the stairs to the hall above.
There was a guard of state at Tarien's door, too, and now Tarien Aswydd knew she had a visitor, and met that notion warily. They were not friends. They had never been. But she came with Paisi, and Paisi knew the old woman who stayed with Tarien, knew her as if she were kin of his, as for all Ninévrisë knew the old woman might be.
Only now she and Emuin and the elderly earl whom Tristen had left in charge of the town were the only authority; and she used hers to pass the doors of that apartment.
The place smelled of baby, and the gray space there was close with protections and wards that tingled along her skin and over Paisi's. She could see them for a moment, a flare of blue in the foyer, and at the sunlit window beyond, and about the door that let them in.
They were not against her, but against any wizard who came here; against anyone who might wish to invade this small fortified and enchanted space. And at the very heart of it sat Tarien, tucked up with quilts in a chair by the fire, and in her arms her baby, and her attention was all for the child, nothing for her visitor.
So Tarien defended herself, and wove her little spells around and around her, like a lady spider in her den.
Ninévrisë found herself not even angry, the spells were so small and so many and so desperate… made of fear, every one.
"Good day," she said, "Lady Tarien."
Tarien did not look up, only hugged her child against her, her prize out of all that had happened. Tarien knew who visited her, and inasmuch as Tarien was aware of anything but her own child, knew there was another son, the son of two birthrights, when her son had no claim or right of even one.
They had no need to speak. She had no need to have come here, except to enter the center of Tarien's attention instead of wandering its peripheries. She had nothing to gain: it was Tarien's child who entered the world a beggar and hers who owned it all.
She felt an unexpected compassion for the two of them. And perhaps Tarien knew it, for she did look up, on the sudden and with an angry countenance.
"I offer you no spite," Ninévrisë said. "No threat to your son. May I stay?"
Tarien turned her face away, but without the anger, only seeking escape.
"Then I shan't," Ninévrisë said. "But may I see him?"
Tarien unfolded the cloth about the baby's face and shoulders; and it was a tiny, wizened face like any newborn, harmless to see him, but oh, such possibility of calamity, or of fellowship for her son.
She let go a sigh, and would have offered her finger to the baby's tiny fist, but Tarien turned him away and hugged him close.
Cefwyn's son. Elfwyn, he was named, like the last High King, and half brother to her own babe, when he was born.
She might summon her guards, exert her power, seize the baby, bring him into her own care, for good or for ill, and Tarien's history made her think that might be a wiser course… wiser for them all, Tarien's welfare discounted.
But her father had dinned into her the principles of wizardry, if not the practice of it, that action brought action, that an element out of Place strove until it found that Place. Striving was not what she wished from this child, only peace, and in peace she was willing to leave him, with only a parting word to his mother.
"He has one hope besides his mother's love," Ninévrisë said with all deliberation, "and that will be his father's grace."
"Cefwyn will die in Elwynor," Tarien said fiercely. "Lord Tristen will be my son's protector. They hail Tristen High King. High King!
And he favors my son."
She had not intended to be nettled by the lady, or to take omens from anything the lady said or threatened; but that claim struck too near the mark, far too near.
Paisi quietly tugged at her sleeve. "Master Emuin'll have me hide for bringin' ye here. Come, lady. Come away."
"The lady deceives herself," Ninévrisë said, both in anger and in utter, steadfast conviction, and it occurred to her to say more than that, that Cefwyn would come alive out of the war, and that Tristen would keep his word, and that nothing the Aswydds had ever done had helped them: all this generation of Aswydds had done brought one long tumble of fortunes toward Tarien's solitude and imprisonment.
But her father had taught her to say less than she knew, so she gathered up her dignity and her freedom and left with them.
It was not a movement of her own child she felt in the doorway of that place, but his presence at least, an awareness of a life within her, and a life bound to all the events on the river and northward.
"Lady!" Paisi cried. Emuin himself had roused at the malice Tarien flung, wizardous malice, and he struck it down, with the firm intent to take Tarien's babe from her care.
—No, Ninévrisë said, steady in her place.
But guards clearly had their orders. At that outcry they had moved.
Ninévrisë pressed herself against the wall as armed men rushed the room and from then matters went from bad to worse, wards flaring, wizardry striking, wizardry countering wizardry, Emuin's, hers, Tarien's, even Paisi's, and the guards oblivious to all. Tarien's shrieks pierced the very walls, stirred the shadows in the depths, rang through the very stones—a mother's cries, a mother's curses, that lanced through to the bones of another woman with child.
"Have a care!" Ninévrisë cried, as in her witness a guard wrested the child from Tarien's hands, and another pulled Tarien away toward the window. Ninévrisë reached for the child herself, as Paisi did, and to her arms the guard yielded the infant.
The baby moved and cried, upset amid all the anger. She held the small bundle, and looked at Tarien's white face, pitying, finally, after her fright and her anger: pity, against Tarien's grieving rage.
"No one will harm him," Ninévrisë assured her. "Be still. Be still!
You may yet have him back. Only wish no harm, yourself. Hush."
With great breaths Tarien grew calmer, and reached for the child, which she would have given, but Emuin would not, and the guards would not, and Tarien struck at them with curses Emuin turned.
"I'll call Gran," Paisi said. "She ain't far."
Indeed there was an old woman aware of the child, and already on her way, out of breath and distressed. Ninévrisë turned away hugged the unwanted and crying child close against her, trying to stop the strife within the room and within the gray space, with Tarien's cries still in her ears.
An old woman arrived, the nurse, to whom Ninévrisë willingly ceded the child, and that alone seemed to quiet Tarien.
But the gray space quivered with wrong and with grief, and if a mother's just grief alone could rend the wards of the fortress apart, Tarien attempted it.
"The nurse may have him here to be fed, while the guards wait in the foyer," Ninévrisë said; it was the only mending of the situation she could think of. "And the nurse may care for him next door. If you mend your wishes, Lady Tarien, perhaps you can win more. But make your peace with Emuin, not with me. Ask Tristen when he comes. Don't cast away all your chances, only to spite me and Cefwyn."
"He will die" Tarien said.
"No," she said, more than determined, "he will not."
They both wished, each roused the winds in the gray space and, parting company, did not part. There was battle joined, harm with help, and Ninévrisë walked away with her child still her own.
Tarien, however, could not say so… and warred against them now.
The wizard-threat from the north had turned away from her, and she might have won compassion. But jealousy would not let her accept charity from a rival: nothing had ever prepared Tarien Aswydd for kindness, and she resented it as she resented all things exterior to her own will.
By that she set a course and nothing would divert her.
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Next: CHAPTER 1