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storytelling by the fire
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Chapter 4: A Force to be Reckoned With

Teginau was more than a week behind her. She had kept assiduously to the wild, skirting sometimes miles out of her way to avoid human encounter. Only once did she dare a town, a full hungry day after her provisions had run out and spring foraging proved too scanty; one coil from the copper Padriag had given her, and their fair prices, filled her pack well, and a full stomach was remarkably soothing. She had not noticed the strange looks shot her way, at her darting green eyes and her wizard’s-braid pearled with oak catkins and leaf-litter, as she was busy concentrating on not bolting like a surprised fox. But that night the villagers put bowls of milk outside, bolted themselves in by bright firesides, and spun old tales of the power of the Piper in the Wild, and new ones of the stranger who was surely His latest catch.

A spring bubbled out into a small moss-wreathed pool. A dogwood petal, white as the Moon Boat, floated upon the wavering images of iris-blades and yellow narcissus. Crouched nearby, His back to a mighty tulip poplar, the Piper raised His flute and trilled a pensive fragment. The narcissus bowed.

He had long ago given up trying to keep the Lord of Winds in view. Kavin was a beguiling dancer, but hard to follow as He nosed through the flowers or around the trunks, eternally restless; and of course if He stopped, He faded at once and could not be seen at all, unless He spoke. There were few among the Great Ones who could tolerate this for long; Dagn was one.

“Well?” said the Air, slowing to trail His hand over the pool. The petal whirled.

Dagn lowered His flute and frowned. “What has been done, can never be wholly undone.”

“Yes.” He dived suddenly into a bramble-patch and came up with leaves in His silver hair.

Dagn’s tree-shadowed eyes paled to frost. “Do you miss the point? That hurts.”

“Pain happens.”

“Even to you?”

The Jester-god flashed him a white grin. “Even to Ges.”

Dagn made a small bow, not without a shiver. “Well, you’d know.” Kavin chuckled, and spread his arms and soared up into the budding branches, and looked then like a bird made of light. Death had no friends; the Jester alone could be said to have something like amity with the Silent One, known also, for no reason that Dagn could fathom, as the Father of Comedy.

Swooping near to earth, “Well?” Kavin asked again as he passed, trailing a flutter of leaves.

Dagn sighed. The girl was lovely, with eyes of her father’s kind, His favored folk, and the seduction proceeded so pleasantly. “It’s so important?”

“Important!” Kavin whirled, instantly angered. Leaf-litter whipped upwards in a tight spiral. “Let Hell take ‘importance’!” And then He laughed: thunder split the forest stillness, trees bowed low and birds fled for their nests. Several mighty clouds rushed up to hear their Master’s bidding. Grinning, Kavin waved them off, and they went back to rain on Lake Mórath and the Tarasforoth heights. To Dagn he smiled and murmured, “It’s interesting.”

Dagn glared skeptically. “The Spinner sent you?”

“No; Oraay.”

“What, is She jealous?”

“For all I know.”

“Or care,” Dagn grumbled. Kavin grinned, and took a run, leaped at a neighboring tree-bole and jumped sideways and up for the slender branch above Dagn’s head. He let himself dangle, first by his knees, then his heels, and swayed gently, craning back his head to look down at the Piper. His hair waved like silver seaweed. He reached down to tousle Dagn’s nut-brown curls, then dropped full on him, sending leaves and twigs flying from the floor and buffeting the narcissus to the ground. Regathering Himself, he danced off through the forest, giving the Piper a fleeting hope that He had gone entirely, before roaring back.


Dagn shrugged. “I shall see her again anyway.”

“No doubt; the Ceidha have always heard You. Well?”

The Piper looked at His flute. “As You will, Lord.”


And then He was gone; and for a peaceful hour the forest lay perfectly still, and Dagn played not.

On the night that the faintest sliver of the new moon first smiled tentatively from just above the sunset, she sat hunched over a small fire, toasting a bit of bannock twisted on a stick. She watched steadily as the light waned and the stars burned bright against the bosom of Night. She stood abruptly, and spread her arms wide, holding her stick aloft.

“I wished for power, and I was given power,” she intoned, in her best high-priestess imitation. Then she added under her breath, “Half-drowned in it, to be sure; had You noticed?” To the stars again she cried: “I ask now for the power to wield that power well and wisely! Hear me, all ye spirits of earth and air, fire and night!”

For several heartbeats she stood like a linden sapling reaching for the white stars. A small breeze rustled over the grass, curled about her thin ribs, pulled her hair playfully into her face, and was gone. No lightning split the heavens; no mountain heaved beneath her; not so much as a dog barked to answer her. Only the crescent Smile of Heaven gleamed more brightly as the darkness deepened. Rothesay dropped her arms with a snort. “Right.” Squatting, she resumed toasting her bannock. After a bare moment, she rose again and waved the pastry-twined stick like a wand at the dark sky. “It is said that the Great Ones bestow what it amuses them to bestow. Very well: when I die, I get to be High Clowness of Heaven!” The Moon, at least, seemed entertained.

She returned sulkily to her small supper. The night passed very slowly.

The next evening, she looked out through the branches of a lilac bush in new leaf, across black fields at the walls of a town. Sferan-built, the stones and shapes declared; but the western Gate sported two clan roundels high on wooden staves above the gatehouse. Strings of blue-painted wooden beads and long white feathers hung from one, green and yellow beads and foxes’ tails from the other; the stretched hides in the centers were painted, the one with a flying hawk, the other with three fox heads. The fox token stood higher, and probably the hawk-folk would move on in another season of conquest. She clicked her tongue at how uncouth the banners looked, after the silken splendor of Dunwyrding of Tre-Uissig.

A few days back, she had forded the Osse, the northern border of the rich jewel of Aellicia. Unlike the Carolanth, Aellicia lay in peace, her cheery folk occupied only with the proper business of spring, reminding Rothesay poignantly of home. She did not know that this was the peace of the tyrant. The power of the warlord of Aellicia was not the least in Peria: he kept an iron order among his own thanes, being as swift and generous in reward as in revenge; and he had lately quelled Aellicia’s perennial struggling against the domination of southerly Maldan, by returning the compliment. Odhru of Dun Brean still claimed the title of high-king over the clans of Maldan; but Maldan bowed to Deorgard of Aellicia.

Rothesay saw only quiet fields, busy foxes and busier mice, nothing to drive her to rend the world to hapless bits. She had come to like the wild by day, among creatures with little better to do than eat; just this morning she had spent a few exhilarating hours sharing a slide with a tumble of otters, hurtling down the slope, the mud like silk over her naked skin, and alternately crashing into the cold river-pool in huge wings of spray, and trying to cut into it sleek as a knife. The otters, perhaps recognizing the smell of the Ceidha, accepted their overlarge playmate with aplomb, accepted the cakes she shared with joy, and whistled after her when she took her reluctant leave.

The piping farewell staggered her. A great void opened in the world, a grief as deep and hollow as the loss of her mother dropped her to her knees on the creek-bank. Tiny bluets and springing mint swirled sparkling together in a sudden rain of tears and she could not even name what was gone.

She fought the grief, groping to understand. Sitting in the mint, wiping her cheeks with a muddy hand, she searched wildly, and she found a name, a word that seemed to fit; of course, how silly: she was lonely.

The horrid events at the burning in Teginau bridged into unreality. All her years at Harrowater came into bright focus in the fairy light of homesickness. She had never had to be alone before, that she could recall; never, apart from the occasional night in Padriag’s loft -- and that always with cats, ferrets and the like -- slept apart from the puppy-pile in Anie’s cot. And how she missed Raian, and his joyful lordliness: she had not had a better friend and playmate since Mina died -- though she had no wish to return to the imprisonment of his walled city. Lonely. Only natural. That was it. She splashed her face clean again and hurried on. She fought to ignore how working up the nerve to venture among humans again seemed rather to deepen the loss, than soothe it; that was silly.

Now this town presented itself, and night was coming on.

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