Crown of stars, p.55
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       Crown of Stars, p.55

           Kate Elliott
 

  She took one step toward it, and paused. Lowered to a crouch, and paused. She might have been the wind, for all the notice it took of her. Its tongue worked at the pads. She reached, and touched the staff. Its huge slit eyes lifted. It stared at her for an age and an eternity, and she spun into that gaze, falling

  a man stands in darkness, holding a newborn. A woman cloaked in robes and shadow faces him, her graceful hands crossed at her chest. He is anxious and troubled. She is as patient and peaceful as death.

  “It is a girl,” he says with disgust and dismay. “I will not after all these years and all my expectations be superseded by a squalling brat. Yet I dare not. I dare not … it would be wrong to kill hen.”

  The cleric answers, softly and persuasively. “I have a use for her. She will vanish. None will ever know, my lord, that she existed. I will be midwife to her transformation. Her twin brother will serve you well enough. No one will ever suspect there was another infant. Your mother is already dead, poor soul. The labor was too much for her.”

  “Yes, it must be,” he said. “It is better so. I am old enough. My people trust me. They expect me to inherit, not to be ruled by an infant only because my mother insisted on the old custom. Better live under a regnant now than suffer a regent for many years and all the instability that portends. Yet what seal will you give me? What pledge, what guarantee, that you will not crawl back here in fifteen years to plague me with her claim?”

  Outside, heard through a shuttered window, a hound lifts its voice in a wailing howl, and a dozen similar howls answer. That eerie clamor makes him shudder, but he holds firm.

  “Come, my lord. Let me show you the hounds. Then I will take the child, and you and your heirs will be guarded in truth by that which guarantees our bargain.”

  “It is better so,” he repeats, trembling because he does not really believe his own words, but he follows her out through the door into the night.

  Falling, Liath tumbled onto her rump as the lion rose and, with a gathering like that of a storm, loomed over her. Its hot, dry breath gusted; it yawned like the gates of the Abyss, displaying sharp white teeth.

  “Bright One!”

  It leaped and vanished into the rock.

  Falcon Mask’s arrow skittered over the dirt and clattered out of sight beyond the rocky slopes below. Liath heard the shaft snap, then a patter of smaller falls, and then silence. After a moment, she realized she was holding her breath, and holding the staff.

  The two young mask warriors jumped into view, weapons raised and eyes flared with excitement and fear. “Where did it go?”

  “It won’t be coming back.” She got up.

  “What is that?” asked Falcon Mask.

  The staff was lovingly shaped and smoothed from polished hardwood, oak perhaps, and crowned with a magnificent carving: a pair of miniature dogs’ heads remarkably like the heads of the Lavas hounds. A nick had been cut into the haft, as ragged as a sword’s blow.

  Tarangi sauntered out from the trees, shaking her head.

  “I told you. A power as strong as lightning. You are fortunate to be alive.”

  The raspy call of a tern sounded from the trees. Tarangi did not even look behind her, but the two mask warriors lowered their weapons. Buzzard Mask lifted his mask, put his two little fingers between his lips, and replied with two sharp whistles.

  Sharp Edge trotted into view. “Hurry!” she cried, beckoning. “Calta found trace of their passage down the other path!”

  She raced away up the path before they could answer. Tarangi and the two mask warriors bolted like arrows loosed.

  Liath followed more slowly. As she passed into the shadow of the trees, she heard a deep cough behind her. She paused to look back. In the dusty open space the hut stood alone, but a flash of movement drew her gaze to the top of the outcropping. There the lion prowled, but as she watched, it poured over the rocks in a graceful scramble and vanished from her sight.

  A cold shudder passed through her body. The wood of the staff seemed unnaturally warm under her hand.

  “Whsst! Bright One!” Ten steps up the path Sharp Edge danced from one foot to the other, waving impatiently at her.

  “I have been touched by a strange glory,” Liath said.

  Sharp Edge looked at her sidelong and hopped a few steps closer. She had blood on her face from a cut over her right eye that was still oozing, as though she’d been slapped by a branch while moving too fast through the trees. “Did your gods give you a vision?”

  “Maybe they did.”

  The clearing lay abandoned except for a single figure curled up on the ground. Buzzard Mask and Falcon Mask and Tarangi trotted past, making for the main path out of the clearing, but Liath halted beside the girl.

  “Anna?”

  She did not answer or even respond.

  “Anna!”

  Nothing.

  Sharp Edge turned back, nudged the girl none too gently with a foot, and shrugged. “She’s useless. She can’t even speak.”

  “Yes, she can.”

  “She can’t speak our tongue. They say she lived several moons among our people but learned nothing. What good is she to you?”

  “She looked after my daughter for many years. I won’t leave her behind.”

  Sharp Edge moved away, paused, looked back at Liath. Waited, tapping her foot.

  “Anna, we must go.” She knelt beside her.

  Her eyes were squeezed shut, and her arms curled tight against her body. She had closed in on herself, as might a flower when the cold night air sweeps over it.

  “Anna. I need your help. I pray you.”

  Exasperated, Liath grabbed one of the girl’s wrists and tugged her upper arm away from her body. “Here! Here! You need to carry this for me. I can’t take it and use my bow, if it comes to that.” She unprised the clenched fingers and fixed them around the haft of the dog-headed staff.

  Anna gasped. Her eyes opened. She sat up. At first, but briefly, she stared at the object in her hand. Then she looked at Liath.

  “They’re dead,” she said in a voice so soft it was barely audible. “I knew they must be, but I hoped. I hoped maybe they had escaped. But they’re dead.”

  “They served faithfully,” said Liath. “Their souls have surely ascended to the Chamber of Light. Anna, we must go. We must find Blessing. We haven’t time to dawdle, to hold back, to linger here any longer.”

  “Yes.”

  She clambered to her feet, clutching the staff, and began to walk in the stolid manner of a person who knows she has no choice but to move forward. Without joy, but with purpose. Sharp Edge rolled her eyes, then jogged off, too impatient to wait. Liath brought up the rear, and at length, after they had walked some way along the path, through the forest, Anna paused.

  “I thank you, lady,” she murmured, ducking her head. “Thank me? For what?”

  Her expression, so worn and weary, could break your heart. “For not leaving me behind.”

  Liath shook her head, too sick at heart to know what to say. “Sanglant would never have left you behind,” she said at last, “no more could I, knowing how well you have served my daughter. Now then, let’s go on.”

  They came at last to an overlook where Zuangua had gathered his entire force, five bundles of mask warriors. Together, they gazed over a wide vista. Forest cut away on the hill to either side, bright green with early leaves. A river cut through the valley below, a few farms and hamlets strung along its length. Farther away rose an estate, recognizable as a monastic institution because of its architecture. It was ringed by a livestock palisade, and by stripes of fields and several well tended orchards.

  A bird chirruped in the trees. A flight of swifts circled up from the direction of the clearing, as if startled.

  “That is Hersford Monastery.” She shut her eyes. Pacing through her palace of memory, she climbed through the hierarchy of, gates until she came to the circle of the sword of truth. There she made her way into a wooden hall whose floor she had entirel
y covered with a rimmed basin carpeted with damp sand. Onto this malleable surface she had incised the many tracks and roads on which she had herself ridden while an Eagle and those she had been told of by other Eagles. “Hersford lies a week or two weeks’ journey east of Autun, which we must avoid. But it is only a few days’ journey southwest, to Kassel. Where Sanglant and Liutgard meant to go.”

  “What of Hugh of Austra?” asked Zuangua.

  She opened her eyes. In the light of day, he looked frightening, his skin on one side of his face blistered and the tip of his curled hand like a claw where it peeped out of the sling. The burns made him appear even more grim and determined.

  Sharp Edge and the four masks who had accompanied her looked at Liath, waiting for her to speak, but the rest—even Anna—had fixed on Zuangua, their commander.

  “You are a strong man,” she said to him, “to keep walking with such injuries.”

  “Hate makes me strong.” He indicated the distant monastery. “What of that place?”

  Looking more closely, she saw the inner fields were thronged with a crowd of people, moving among what seemed to be tents and makeshift shelters. “That’s where I would go first, if I were Hugh of Austra. He needs provisions, maybe a horse to ride. He’s a churchman, too. They’ll shelter him for one night.”

  “After that?”

  She shrugged. She burned, thinking of Blessing, so close now. “I don’t know how many days ago he reached here, how quickly he crossed through the crowns, how far ahead he is. I must go down. If he’s gone, they’ll have seen what direction he rode out.”

  Zuangua nodded toward his trackers, already ranging ahead on the path. “He won’t escape us.”

  5

  HE found a court surrounded on three sides by barracks where he could wash his face and hands, and water and feed the hounds. Aestan and Eagor kept on his tail, although fatigue had deadened Aestan’s tongue. At the trough, the two soldiers also scrubbed the night’s work from their own hands. Wendish troops eyed them suspiciously but spoke no damning word, holding to the agreement sworn by their leaders the day before. In a neighboring barracks, Eika soldiers lounged at open shutters and doors, but they called no greetings to their brothers, only nodded as Aestan and Ēagor passed under a portal that led to the vast central courtyard within the oldest portion of Kassel’s palace complex.

  Servants were up and moving already. Most, he supposed, had not slept on such a night. He and his escort approached the great hall from the east. The hall was a huge timber edifice with thick beams and a massive roof, built in the time of Queen Conradina. The second story of the new palace, where Theophanu and Stronghand had retired, could be seen rising behind the single-storied barracks court that separated the two sections of the palace. A steady wind out of the east beat the pennants and banners flying from the high roof peaks. It was unusually cold.

  An honor guard stood at attention in the court, where an empty wagon had been drawn up. These were Sanglant’s remaining guardsmen as well as twoscore Lions, some with heads bowed and others with chins lifted. Many had been weeping; some wore clothing stained with blood from yesterday’s battle. Seeing Alain, a number of the Lions watched him walk past but said nothing.

  The main entrance stood around the corner on the narrow front of the hall where it looked down over the city, hidden from his view here by a wing of the old palace. He followed the stream of servants bearing trays of food and drink toward a side door. As they approached this entrance, the hounds whined and sulked. At the threshold, he had to call them twice, thrice, and then four times, and they crawled forward almost on their bellies because they were so reluctant to enter, ears flat and hindquarters tucked tight. Rage growled in an uneasy undertone; Sorrow yawned repeatedly to show his discomfort.

  “Come!” he said sternly to the hounds. His pair of escorts stayed by the door, crossing their arms to stand like glowering statues.

  God so loved humankind that They had given them ears to hear with, mouths to argue with, and hands and arms for sweeping gestures that punctuated those statements.

  At least twoscore clerics populated the hall. It was a surprisingly contentious gathering given the early hour and the presence of a dead king lying in state—and frankly ignored—in the shadows at the back of the hall where light did not quite reach. The bodies of Sabella and Sapientia had already been taken away to be washed and wrapped, but it seemed no person had yet been detailed to care for Sanglant’s corpse.

  Most of the conclave clustered on benches at the foot of the dais, although one nervous man paced beside the unlit hearth, pausing to listen carefully only when the conversation got most heated. The rest were grouped in factions, according to the three women seated at the edge of the dais.

  The largest group swayed to the words of Mother Scholastica: monks, nuns, noble clerics, and a pair of cowed biscops whom Alain did not recognize. A smaller but equally vociferous number—mostly young and all in monastic or clerical dress—had their sights fixed on Biscop Constance, whose pain-racked face was marked, Alain saw now, with early death. She was not much more than thirty, but he knew she would be dead within the year, and by the vigor of her argument, the fierceness with which she scolded her eminent aunt, he guessed that she knew it, too. Hathumod stood behind her, holding a cup, so intent on Constance that she did not notice Alain.

  Seated to the left, speaking least, and least regarded, was Sister Rosvita. She held three books on her lap, guarded by the way her arms crossed over them. She, too, boasted a company of faithful followers, but they were only five in number, watchful rather than talkative. Two men and three young women.

  “The writ of excommunication is not a problem, now that Sanglant is dead,” said Mother Scholastica.

  “It is a problem if there is no skopos willing, or able, to lift it,” objected Constance.

  “Need we even believe that Antonia of Mainni had the right to elect herself? Or the power to enforce her edicts? I think not.”

  “Then why insist that the writ mattered at all? You did, so I am told, when Sanglant was still alive.”

  “Any such writ must be taken seriously! You will cause far more suffering, Constance, with your stubborn insistence in this matter of heresy. Not just excommunication, but war may result. We are weak, and cannot hope to defend ourselves on multiple fronts. I do not approve of Theophanu’s alliance, but I admit it spares us from civil war.”

  “She did what was necessary. I believe we will not be sorry for supporting her. As for the other, we must hold a council. The evidence must be weighed. I have it all written down!”

  “Hold a council? Under whose jurisdiction? Whose authority? Are we still at war with Aosta? Will the skopos send a representative? Or is this report true, that Darre is fallen into the pit?”

  “I tell you again,” said Constance, “we must send a party to Darre to look for ourselves. To report back to us. How else may we determine the truth? How else determine what action to take? Why are you being so stubborn, Aunt? We must act, and act decisively. Send a party to Darre. Call a council, to be held at Quedlinhame, if it pleases you.” She turned—even that slight movement caused her face to whiten and her lips to pinch—and held a hand out to Rosvita.

  “Sister Rosvita! You walked first among the clerics in King Henry’s schola. He trusted you more than any other cleric, so he told me more than once, because of your clearsighted vision. What do you say?”

  “Yes,” said Mother Scholastica with an ominous frown. “What do you advise, Sister Rosvita? Be careful what you say, because the words you speak now will always be remembered.”

  Rosvita had seen Alain and the hounds in the murky shadows under the eaves by the side door, but she drew no attention to him. She waited to speak while Hathumod held the cup to Constance’s lips, helped her sip, and patted her lips dry with a cloth. Mother Scholastica glared, an owl impatient for its prey to expose itself.

  “We are commanded by God to speak truth,” said Rosvita. “I am God’s obedien
t servant, and after that, the regnant’s.”

  “Go on!”

  “Belief in the phoenix has spread widely, and into strange nests. I hold in my possession—” her arms tightened over the books,“—a book containing an ancient text written in a forgotten language, but glossed in Arethousan. The words I read there trouble me deeply. They lend credence to those who wish to support the doctrine of the Redemption.”

  “A forgery! A lie!”

  “That is always possible. The Enemy may cast swords among us in the hope that we will grasp their tempting hilts and set to on all sides. But it is also possible that this is the truth.”

  “Impossible! That battle was fought and won three hundred years ago!”

  “By women and men not unlike ourselves. We are imperfect vessels, Mother Scholastica. At times, we can be mistaken.”

  “No! I will admit no heresy to pollute Wendar. It may be this poison is the cause of all our suffering in these days of tempest and trouble.”

  “It may be,” agreed Rosvita mildly. “That is why I support the recommendations of Biscop Constance. Send a party to Darre, to discover the state of the holy city. We know that Holy Mother Anne is dead. If there are no presbyters living to elect a new skopos, then it is not acceptable that one ambitious woman merely appoint herself. We cannot accept edicts passed by Antonia of Mainni, who has condemned herself twice over by her own malefic actions.”

  There came a long and grudging silence, while clerics slurped at cups and Alain smelled spilled wine and a finer, more delicate scent of rose water. The hounds did not move; they seemed turned to stone, heads turned toward the bier half hidden by shadows.

  “I agree.” Scholastica’s tone could not have been tighter. “A company must travel south to Aosta to bring our dispute and pleas to the palace of the skopos, and indeed to determine if it—and the presbyter’s council—still exists. But as for a council to consider the heresy of the phoenix—I will countenance no such discussion as long as I stand as abbess of Quedlinhame!”

  That cowed them.

 
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