Crown of stars, p.15
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       Crown of Stars, p.15

           Kate Elliott
 

  “Visited by a saint in Gent.”

  “An illusion!”

  “An illusion—if you say so—believed by half the population and most importantly by those who witnessed. Those whose lives she saved!”

  “They are fools, easily led! She could have said anything to convince them to follow her.”

  He rose slowly, hands loose, shoulders tight.

  “Sanglant,” whispered Theophanu, warning him.

  “I was there!” he said, really angry now. “She saved lives at the risk of her own. She could have run, but did not. Don’t tell me it was an illusion! All my Dragons died, and half the city besides!”

  His anger did not sway her, nor did his height and his strength as he towered over her.

  “You did not die.” Her lined face showed no fear and no apprehension, only her stubborn will, not to be cowed by the likes of him. “Although it seems to me that you should have. It is said that your mother bound a spell into your flesh. It is said you cannot die. At times I have wondered if your courage in battle is due to honor and duty and loyalty, or to the knowledge that no matter how many of your men die, you will not suffer their fate.”

  Almost, he growled at her. She was his enemy, and he had not seen it before. She had lulled him when he stood before her with his army and his griffins and his father’s blessed remains. But he had discipline. He remained silent.

  “What if your concubine was in league with the sorcerers all along?” Scholastica continued, tight and controlled. “Now she is in a significant position of power. In your bed! The histories tell us that other women have ruled in such a way, although it grants them no dignity to do so.”

  He was too angry to speak.

  Liutgard looked troubled. “It’s true. All this talk of a secret cabal, these Seven Sleepers. It would make sense they would have a deeper plan.”

  “Aunt,” said Theophanu in her cool voice, “I pray you, if that is true, then why would Liathano deny that she is Taillefer’s heir? There is no one to say otherwise, except her. We all believed it. Why would she throw away a claim to power if she sought power?”

  “Are you defending her?” asked Scholastica.

  “You have not answered Theo’s question.” Sanglant nodded at Theophanu, and he could not keep a smirk from his face. He liked seeing his aunt discomfited. She deserved it.

  “She is subtle,” said the abbess finally.

  “She is not subtle,” said Theophanu with a shake of her head. “She is a cub among wolves, here at court. She is awkward and as likely to say the wrong thing as to keep silence. Begging your pardon, Sanglant.”

  He shrugged. “It’s true enough.”

  “Were she subtler,” said Liutgard, “there would be less disquiet. But it’s true, she’s no courtier. She has not the least idea of the duties and obligations that bind the consort. Folk fear her, for they have heard many strange stories about her. Yet it seems there are those among the progress who champion her.” She smiled a little. Maybe it, too, was a smirk, to answer his. “Eagles and Lions. Common-born folk.”

  “A common-born woman cannot become queen, not in Wendar,” said Scholastica. “In Salia of old, as it says in the histories, a slave might become a queen if she caught a king’s fancy and aroused his lust—”

  Naturally, having said it, she stopped. She thought. She looked at Sanglant, and, God Above, he felt himself blushing.

  “So it seems not only in Salia of old,” she remarked, her voice tainted with an ugly tone. “I had forgotten that in her history, so it is said, she was for some time a slave because of her father’s debts. It was said she was Hugh of Austra’s mistress—and he a fine and upstanding frater!”

  Sanglant kicked away his chair and strode to the back of the hall, unable to stand still.

  “Does this not trouble you, Nephew?” she said to his back.

  He turned to make a retort, but paused.

  Theophanu leaned forward to clasp her aunt’s hands. Scholastica winced as Theophanu tightened her grip. “Never believe that she went to Hugh of Austra’s bed willingly. If I say anything, Aunt, if you believe me at all, believe that.”

  “What do you know of the matter?”

  “I know enough. She saved my life many years ago, when she was only an Eagle and I was—foolish and blind.”

  “What do you mean? Say more!”

  Theophanu would not be drawn.

  “Thus is the spider’s web of deceit woven,” said Scholastica as she pulled her hands out of Theophanu’s grasp.

  “You are being stubborn,” said Sanglant, pacing back to stand with his hands on the wings of his chair.

  “I am? You are the one being stubborn, Sanglant. You, a bastard, born of a foreign woman. King Arnulf said all along that Henry was indecently obsessed with that woman. That Henry had made rash promises to bring her to his bed. I am only a few years younger than Henry. I recall it well!” She smiled mockingly. “An obedient son. Our father’s favorite. Yet for a woman he defied the king. How like Henry you are!”

  “I can think of no greater compliment than to be compared to my beloved father,” he said grimly.

  She cut him off. “Yet when I look at you, when any person looks at you, they see your mother’s face. They see the face of a people already at war with us.”

  There, she struck the blow that stopped him. “At war with us? What do you mean?”

  “You have not heard? Ah.” Her eyes tightened. Her mouth became a flat line as she regarded him.

  Liutgard shifted.

  Theophanu sat back.

  “I pray you, Nephew, account for me the disposition of your forces. Who rides with you, and who remains behind? Then I will tell you the reports I have heard. I hope they will surprise you.”

  “I am already surprised.” He sat, but he was too restless to stay still. He tapped a foot a dozen or more times against the floor before switching to the other one. “What do you mean?”

  “I mean villages and estates in the lands west of Quedlinhame have been attacked most viciously by the Lost Ones made flesh. Our enemies look like you.” She surveyed the hall. Her silent clerics, her noble kinsmen, the distant guards: all had a similar Wendish robustness, light hair, big builds. His coloring and his features alone were markedly different. He alone was the bastard, with an outland mother.

  Theophanu touched him on the knee as if to remind him that she, too, had an outland mother, a foreigner who had never quite been trusted by good honest Wendish folk. Still, Theophanu resembled her father more than her Arethousan mother.

  “There are some who murmur that you have brought this down on us,” said Scholastica. “There are many who wonder how you have come to be regnant. If it is all part of a larger plot to conquer Wendar from without and rule over us. You see, the survivors of these recent assaults have told us that when the Lost Ones attack, they call out your name.”

  3

  SHE made ready to leave for the convent of St. Valeria in that twilight passage before dawn when all things stand betwixt and between.

  “Can you not bide here?” she asked him, troubled because all yesterday evening he had gone about his business in such an unusual silence. “Until I return from St. Valeria?”

  “To what purpose?” He turned as Ambrose set a covered pitcher of heated water down on the table beside the washbasin. Sanglant thanked the man. He was attentive to his servants. He knew their names and their histories and their skills and, it sometimes seemed, their sins. Ambrose poured. Sanglant washed his hands and face and accepted a cloth to dry himself. “Best march to Varre early in the season, before they expect me.”

  “If your aunt has spoken in their favor, might she not already have sent word of your intentions to them?”

  “She may have. Hesitation still does not serve me well. Conrad and Sabella gain the longer I wait.”

  “Do they want Wendar, or only Varre?”

  “Does it matter?” His expression dismayed her. He was Henry’s son. She must not forget t
hat. Henry had ruled Wendar and Varre as had his father and grandfather before him. His heir must not lose what Henry had held so dear.

  “What if there is a battle?” she asked.

  He shook his head as Robert and Theodulf brought his under-tunic, leggings, and fine wool outer tunic. The dazzling blue seemed to shine in the dim room, which was lightened only by one burning lamp and the misty gray light, seen through the single open window, that heralded the coming day.

  “Conrad does not want to fight me. His position remains strong as duke of Wayland. It is only Sabella who goads him on, if I am any judge of the matter. She eats at her bitterness. That is all that sustains her.”

  “Fierce words. Are you sure?”

  He lifted both hands. “I cannot answer so many questions for which there is no good answer. You know that. Do what you must, and catch up to me quickly.” He caught her shoulders, kissed her, and released her. “Go, before I change my mind. I have not forgotten about the galla we met upon the road. I also have in mind these stories of Lost Ones attacking helpless folk out in isolated villages and farmsteads.”

  “Do not forget bandits,” she said, piqued by his strange mood. Anyway, she was scared, not for herself but for him. Yet this one thing she could not bring herself to say to him: Do not die, my love. Only do not die, and I will be content.

  “Bandits are the least of it. Yet you are armed and shielded by a power I cannot match. Do not fear to use it, if you must.” He touched her on the arm, frowned at her, brushed a lock of black hair out of his eyes, and let her go. She blinked back tears, picked up her saddlebags, sword belt, and quiver, and left him.

  Sickness dwelt in the pit of her stomach, a fear that made her heavy and weary and nauseated. This tangle had grown into an impossible maze.

  He would be regnant because his father had asked it of him. Some supported him because they loved him. Others supported him because he rode with an army at his back. His own relatives played a deep game on the chessboard, offering him a pawn on the one hand while they lent their strength to his rivals with the other. Had he been Henry’s eldest legitimate child, there would have been no question, but he was not, and she was no fool. Her presence aided him not at all. What Theucinda said aloud snaked through the company like poison. It was Sanglant’s weakness that he would hear no word spoken against her, and hers that she could not sacrifice herself on the hearth of duty. Me for the sake of the kingdom. She could cast herself on the mercy of the unknown Mother Rothgard, pledge herself as a nun, and leave him free to marry as a man of his rank and position must, to save the kingdom in its darkest hour.

  Ai, God! She laughed weakly, seeing her escort waiting. What a miserable nun or deacon she would make! Her life with Da had spoiled her. Like the twilight morning, she stood betwixt and between, not quite suited for anything and not quite willing to be content with that which it was reasonable and responsible to aspire to.

  No doubt God frowned at her selfishness, but surely it were God who poured love into the world. Surely to turn away from love was to turn away from God.

  Unanswerable.

  Or else she had only posed the question in such a way that she could hear the answer she wanted.

  4

  SHE brooded all that day as her party traveled a little worn path, but still took time to remark on the cool late spring landscape. They followed a trail through hilly country. The great estates and farming lands of Saony lay several days’ ride west and east, anchored by Osterburg and Quedlinhame. Goslar was a hunting lodge built in uninhabited countryside where lords and regnants could find a profusion of game wandering the hills and dense forest.

  None among the Eagles currently traveling with Sanglant had ever ridden this way, but Hathui had heard the directions from Wolfhere some years ago and had described them in detail to Liath. By late afternoon of the second day they would come to a small outpost, a free holding established by settlers given the imprimatur of King Arnulf the Elder. Beyond that a river crossing and another two days’ journey would bring them to the convent, sequestered in a tiny valley among rugged hills.

  Liath walked in the van beside Captain Thiadbold, setting the pace along the soggy track. Her horse, saddled, was led by a groom. Ernst and Rufus rode behind her. Fore and back came the rest of the company, two-score Lions under the command of Thiadbold. Not as swift as horsemen, but, Sanglant had noted, a seasoned captain with disciplined infantrymen in his command would serve best for a journey through the wild forest hills. Common knowledge told that St. Valeria lay hidden in the hills so that the holy nuns who used scholarship to battle evil might make their study in peace. Or be cut off so none of them, tempted by the hope of power wielded through the black arts, could easily escape into the wider world.

  “Although it seems to me,” she said to Thiadbold, with whom she was having this conversation, “there are folk aplenty who dabble in the black arts hoping to make their crops prosper or their heir fertile, or their rival barren. Would it not be better to train folk to combat it in its turn?”

  “That may be. But some such folk will be tempted to use their power for ill, against the neighbors they’re supposed to help.”

  “They do that anyway.”

  “That’s true enough. The miller in my village was a prosperous man. He got a lust for a girl—a cousin of mine as it happens—and put out his old wife and made it plain to my aunt and uncle that he’d grind no grain until they gave the girl to him. They went to the deacon, who refused to help them because the miller tithed generously and she did not wish to offend him.”

  “So you see, my point is made.”

  His answering smile held a touch of irony. “The story’s not done. He beat her and treated her cruelly, so at length her parents went to the lord to beg him to intercede. And when he saw the girl, he took her away to become his concubine.”

  “Beauty gave her no advantage.”

  “Maybe so. When her parents complained again to the deacon, the holy woman said only what we all know: That it is God’s will that some are set high and others low.”

  “Is it? So say the noble clerics and ladies and lords who stand atop the tower.”

  “Not only them. So said my cousin, too, after she gave birth to a child who was given, as birthright, title to an estate.”

  “It’s easy to say, if the advantage is yours. Yet every person stands equal in the Chamber of Light.”

  “Do you believe that?” he asked her, genuinely curious. He was not, she thought, a man tempted to philosophical speculation, but he had a keen eye and a good mind.

  “I have to believe it. Else my sense of what is just would suffer grievous harm. I have met too many nobles who are fools to believe otherwise.”

  He chuckled, then looked around nervously before recalling, she thought, that there was no one to hear them except his own men. “Perhaps so. The church would not approve your words.”

  “Look!” She pointed. A lumbering shadow moving away into the forest and vanishing in the brush.

  “An aurochs! Mayhap we’ll have game tonight for our supper.”

  They did. In the rear guard a scout hauled in a deer. At the fore, a pair of men ranging in the woods to seek out trouble shot an aurochs that had stopped to graze in a clearing a spear’s toss off the road.

  “It might do for a campsite,” said one of the scouts, coming to report the kill to the captain. “There’s an old stone circle, and cleared ground.”

  “Let me see,” said Liath.

  She went with an escort of a dozen soldiers while the rest waited on the road. At the clearing, the other man had already begun butchering the aurochs, and the sharp smell of its blood hit her first. As she pushed aside the low-hanging branches, she saw what manner of place they had come to.

  She shook her head, scanning the wide span of ground where a low field layer of feather grass and flowering honeysuckle grew. No trees had encroached despite the passage of time. The stones stood upright.

  “Some power has raise
d this crown recently,” she said. “See the pattern of growth around them. You can see where the stones once lay on the ground.”

  “Who could raise such big blocks of stone without leaving a track of their labor?” asked the scout.

  Sorcery could raise the crowns, but she could not imagine anyone having so much power. After all, how many were left in the world who could even weave the crowns?

  Me.

  And Hugh of Austra.

  She looked at Thiadbold.

  He nodded. “We’ll march on and hope to find a better spot.”

  “No,” she said, because she did not like to surrender to fear. “Easier to rest here and eat that good aurochs. My mouth is already watering.”

  He shrugged. “If you don’t like it, we’ll move on. I’ve seen my fair measure of strange places. I know to respect their power.”

  She smelled nothing but vegetation, moist soil, and the innards of the dead animal spilling free as the scout cut a slit in its belly. “If bandits come upon us, we’ll have a better view for our archers if we bide here with the stones as cover. What do you think, Captain?”

  He took his time considering. He paced the circumference of the clearing, and walked through the stones, but there were no holes, tunnels, or hiding places. It was a dead place, all five stones standing, their faces unnaturally smooth and unmarked with moss or lichen. Although she had seen many a fallen stone cracked and hollowed by centuries of rain and ice, none of these stones showed any such wear.

  “It seems dry,” he said, and sent a man to fetch the rest of the company. “We’ll set fires as our perimeter.”

  She laughed, liking his pragmatism. “Fair enough, Captain.”

  They ate well around six fires set at points around the clearing just beyond the crown’s circle. Deadwood came easily to hand. It caught and burned with relish, and the meat tasted good, better than any meal she’d had in days because she sat easily with her companions and chatted about nothing and everything.

 
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