A few hours later Alex and I were ready to go. I wore my green auroran-dress that had been remade to fit ryndorian fashion. I was ready to drop, I was so tired. And in no mood to go partying. Alex looked fine. This was her kind of game and she knew how to play it. I on the other hand had no idea what I was doing. Alex had ordered a carriage to come fetch us, and we drove along the river to the Ecolle Militaire where the cavalry resides. The entire way was alight. A small bit apart from each other were soldiers in their finest uniform with torches to light the way. It was a beautiful sight, and I cheered up a bit. We arrived and entered the enormous building. I felt everyone else looked finer than me. The dresses here! The hairdos! The jewellery! I just wanted to run away. I could never fit in in this company. Who did I think I was, to crash such a party? I wanted to go back to the Northlands so badly! To be in Sean’s arms, to be acknowledged by Mathaír and serve her, to forget about this awful place.
We entered a very large room full of people. The Colonel Lerac de la Mole greeted all the important arrivals, need I say we were not among them. We circled around the room and greeted and nodded and curtsied. Finally someone called out Alex’s name and a familiar face appeared: Alain. He looked a tad pale and humped about on crutches, but he was in a fine spirit. He regretted off course not being able to dance with the lovely ladies present, but he did look fine. He would catch his fishes another time, I’m sure.
Stairways led up on each side of the room, but they seemed to lead to the private chambers. Two smaller (though still large) rooms was on each side of the room. In both of the rooms tables with loads of food and drink were piled up. We would not starve tonight, to be sure, but last nights events had left me completely without an appetite. A servant gave each of us an impossibly tall glass with alcohol in it, and I thought I would never be able to get the drink out without spilling it all over me. I guess it was a sort of test to separate the sheep from the goats. Well, I didn’t spill at least, but practically everything else went wrong.
Shortly after our arrival young men started to swarm around us, asking me to dance with them. Apparently part of the game was to remember the dance partners in the right order. Fortunately Alex promised to keep the list in mind. Eight, EIGHT, dances I had to get through before I could get down to my purpose here : to spy on the poor lady Juliette D’Isar. It was hopeless to be a lady to a ball and keep all the rules of the game. A game I didn’t even know the name of!
Juliette D’Isar arrived, a skinny, plain 16-year-old in a blue dress that seemed far too big for her. She was almost immediately surrounded by eligible bachelors of all ages and fortunes. I heard say that she was popular with her friends and she looked it. She was not unattended at any time that night. Alex and I walked past her and her crowd several times, but heard nothing but common gossip and talk of music and literature. Alex was lucky enough to get her out on the dance floor, and she conversed politely of music and nothing else. It seemed hopeless! I was out on the dance floor almost constantly and I too, conversed politely, but I was hardly graceful. The only time I felt that I had control over the dance, my partner turned out to be clumsy. Just my luck.
Eventually Alex took pity on me and led me to a galley where I could rest. I sat down in a soft couch, and I must have fallen asleep.
I woke, disoriented. I still had the taste of blood in my mouth. My heart pounded with the war lust and excitement that had driven the young northlander. A tear ran down my cheek from sadness of his song and his death. He died happy, for sure, I do not doubt that. A grand battle, a worthy finish, he so young as he was. I looked around me. The lights and noise from the ball returned to my senses. Music flowed down the hallway along with lords and ladies dressed in silk, laughing and tipsy. Far, far from the Northlands that I missed more than ever now. Far from battlefields, far from sorrow and war and death. I caught sight of Alex, who stood frowning at a painting down the hall. She caught my eye and called me towards her. I was greatly surprised by what I saw. It was a painting of an ryendorian army. Generals stood around a table, pointing at maps, discussing strategy, drinking red wine. The soldiers behind them prepared their weapons, tended to their horses, whatever soldiers do, when not in battle. To the side and yet quite conspicuous to me stood some young men in tartan – northlanders. One knelt by his sword, evidently praying. One looked towards the sky in as reverend a mood. Three others were laughing at a shared joke. The instigator of the joke seemed very pleased with himself and stood leaning on his war hammer. He was completely identical with the young warrior of my vision. It was eerie. I reached out and touched his visage with the tips of my fingers. Under my fingers I felt the rough and crackled surface of paint on canvas. What had I expected? Fabric and skin? I told Alex of my vision, but she gets so used to them. A small plate revealed the title of the painting: The battle of Marburg. She went straight to Alain and asked him, what he knew of that battle. Boring battle, he said. Ryendor and the Northlands had stood side by side against some common enemy and won effortlessly. Quite uninteresting. More interesting was what had followed. The Northlands rebelled afterwards and was beaten in a crazed, unorganized battle. The cavalry had attacked the northlanders, who without thought and reason had run towards them in counterattack. The northlanders had killed many, many horses and riders, before they had been over won themselves and slaughtered to the last man. Clearly that was the battle I had witnessed in my vision. I wondered again how everything northlandish was so closely connected to me. The very soul of the land seemed to speak to me, across distance and time even. I am part of the Northlands and the Northlands are a part of me. There is nothing I can or will do to change that. Not even Father Cidrons contempt of the Northland can change my mind.
Alex and I went back into circulation and I saw Juliette in interesting company: Marquis de Compte, Lerac (our host) and a young man looking just like Lord Kendric in his youth! They were with a few others not so interesting people: Brigitte de Compte (apparently Marquis de Compte’s cousin), Marquis de Corliin and Cynthia Quimpoignacio (the daughter of a diplomat from Carvinta). Especially Marquis de Compte and the Lord Kendric-look-alike (I later learned it was his oldest son, whom I had never heard of!) intrigued me. Alex and I went close by them into one of the siderooms, but could hear nothing of interest. Alex pounced on the buffet and I too ate a little. I still didn’t have much of an appetite, but I could feel I needed nourishment, to dampen the effects of the wine. I complained to Alex of my inability to come up with anything useful. The bishop had my life in his hands and I couldn’t afford to waste this one chance to redeem myself. But I had to face it that I was no ball-lioness. Alex shrugged. She didn’t worry much. Everything would surely sort itself out. We went back out to the dancers and I started looking around for the next young man I had promised to dance with. Suddenly Marquis de Compte appeared before me and with all of his sleazy charm he asked for a dance. I couldn’t see how I could possibly refuse. He led me into the next dance and he was amazingly agile and elegant. I was not. He asked knowingly how my friend was (Alex) and how I liked the change in social classes. I blushed and stuttered and tried to make the best of it, but he so obviously had the upper hand. Then he did the one thing that I shall never forget nor forgive him for – he left me on the dance floor… We were still in the middle of a dance and there I stood – everybody watching me, wondering what was going on. I was endlessly embarressed. I left the dance floor with what little dignity I had left and that wasn’t much. I wanted to leave then and there, but Alex convinced me to stay. I still had obligations to a few more young men and the party wasn’t over yet. Well, I did my duty and finished my dancing-list. Then we drew back to stand by Alain. To my thrill he asked me for the last dance of the evening. We stepped into on of the hallways and had a very clumsy and very amusing dance. He quite saved the evening for me! I have little experience when it comes to men, but I do enjoy a good laugh and a playful dance. I think that maybe Alex was a little sorry to act man, when it came to Alain. I think she likes him better than she will tell. Well, it’s none of my business…
Next day we got up late and were in no hurry to go anywhere. Tierry was going to see his family and invited us to come along. I welcomed the opportunity to leave this smelly city for a while and see the countryside. I even wrote a letter to Father Cidron and asked him to join us, when he returned from where-ever he was. We had not seen him since yesterday, and I feared he was with the inquisition spilling his guts about me. On the other hand I couldn’t really see him doing so. My betrayal was a very personal thing to him, I think. I believe that he was deeply disappointed in me and had no further wish to be near me. With those troubled thoughts, I left for Tierry’s hometown.
The stay was pleasant. Tierry has a really nice, down-to-earth family. His eldest sister, Gabriella, is married to an innkeeper, André le Blanc. They run the place called ”La Poulet Rouge”. His younger sister, Lucielly, works as a barmaid and, I’m embarressed to say, prostitute. Apparently she didn’t find that in any way shameful, so why should I, really? In Aurora such ”ladies of the night” were branded and looked down upon, but here the attitude seemed different. Still, it is not an occupation that I could ever want for anyone. Gabriella and André had two lovely children, Madeleine (a girl of 12 years) and Gerard (a 5-year-old boy). Several regiments, among others Corlyon’s cavalry and a recruiting school were stationed in the town and they gave the le Blancs plenty to do. I offered to help serving in the evening, since I had some experience doing that in ”The Banshee”. But it was quite different from waiting on people in ”The Banshee”! Repeatedly I had to explain, in polite and not so polite manners, that I was not, I repeat NOT, one of the girls to be brought upstairs! Well, after a few wellplaced knees and bearmugs, they got the message and left me alone. Alex spent the evening trying to identify the young man, which her younger sister (who was to be married to some old guy that Alex had once been engaged to) was to be infatuated with. But she didn’t have any luck with it.
We, Alex and I, stayed at the inn until Wednesday morning. I was supposed to report to the bishop by noon, so we had to return. Tierry stayed for a little longer, which I perfectly understood. There wasn’t going to be any excitement until after Saturday, when the delegation would receive it’s answer. Back in the city a letter from my brother awaited me. He was quite concerned about me, and wished me to come home. I wrote back to him not to worry about me. I willed myself to sound overly confident. He had enough to worry about. I also received a letter from Maggie, which I promptly answered as well. Both Alex and I went to the mass at midday. Alex insisted on joining me, since she probably had understood more of the party that I had. I announced our business to a priest and he led us into the bishops office. We explained what we had learned: that the young lady Juliette D’Isar seemed very popular and was seen with Marquis de Compte and Lord Kendric Jr. among others. He didn’t seem pleased with our scarce information. Then he send Alex out of the room.
He looked at me for a long time, and I could sense that he was tired, so very tired. He kept a blank face, but in an almost invisible layer underneath there were wrinkles of worry. ”What am I to do with you?” he asked. ”If this is all you give me, I don’t see why I should move even a finger to save your sorry life”. I sighed ”I’m not good a spying on people” I said ”I don’t know how to behave at a ball. In such a place I will always stick out like a sore thumb. I can be better used otherwise…”. He raised his eyebrows. ”Really? How?!”. I sat quiet for a little while, and suddenly I knew : he was tired, because he had been arguing with his wife. They had argued, because their youngest child was sick and nothing seemed able to cure her. I looked him straight in the eye ”What ails the child?” I asked. His face distorted for a second, then he boomed out ”What know you of the child?”. ”The child is ill. Dying” I said ”Maybe you should let me see her”. He stared at me for a long time, then he snorted. ”How would it look, if I, the Bishop of Ryendor City in the Lights Grace, let a known witch look at my sick child? I should put my faith in the Light!”. ”You needn’t tell anyone” I said. ”I could come by the backdoor, as a new nanny, perhaps. I needn’t be a known witch”. A battle raged inside of him. He looked even more strained than ever. His devotion to the Light and his love for his daughter were set against each other. Finally he gave in. ”All right” he said ”Come tonight. By the backdoor and as the new nanny. But if you fail me…” He let the threat hang in the air and I completely understood. If I failed him, I would die before his daughter.
I returned home and Alex was already there. I explained that the bishop wanted me at his house tonight, but not why. No need to sound freakier than I already was. Alex accepts a lot of freakiness from my side, but no reason to overdo it. Neither Tierry nor Cidron was in sight. I packed a few things for tonight, including the little purse with the blue powder in it. When night fell, I went to the bishops home. A maid showed me in and led me to the children’s room. They were all asleep. The maid whispered their names to me : Cecille was 11, Julien was 8, and Margaritte, the youngest, was 3½. I sat by Margarittes bed. She wheezed at every breath and every few minutes she practically coughed her little lungs out. I felt her forehead and she was slightly feverish. I moved my hand to her chest and the sickness occurred to me: it was close to her heart, making her breathing strained and painful. I send out my prayers to Maithair. I sat like that for a long time without response. Then it seemed like the shadows came to life. I was frightened at first, but they were not frightening. Then the visage of Maithair appeared. ”What do You want?” she asked. ”How can I help this child?” I asked. ”You can’t” she said ”She is marked by death”. ”But she is just a child” I said ”Such a small child! Surely she deserves to live longer! There must be a way…”. I met Maithairs gaze and then I felt an amazing thing: the sickness, now a very physical thing, was in my hand. I had laid my hand above her heart and now the sickness was in my hand. I drew the sickness away from her and her breathing eased. A little smile formed on her lips as she eased into comforting sleep. My heart raced. What to do now? ”If I take this sickness upon me, will I be able to fight it? Will I be strong enough?” I asked. ”No” said Maithair ”It is fatal. Give it to me”. I looked up and she was gone. There was a tiny sound at the window. A grey pigeon was pecking at the glass. With my free hand I opened the window and it flew out a little, then it settled back on the windowsill. Faintly I heard Maithairs voice again ”Give it to me”. I folded both my hands around the bird and whispered ”Forgive me”. The pigeon twitched a little and then it died. My heart was still pounding away. It suddenly dawned on me what had happened: Maithair had come to me. She had some to foreign territory, far from her home and had spoken to me. I had seen her before my eyes and I had heard her voice. She had helped me take a mortal disease out of a child and set it into a pigeon. Such a goddess could not be ignored. The Light could not compete with such a power! I devoted myself then and there completely and only to Maithair. No one could now tell me that some deity was more worthwhile to follow. I had never seen a miracle performed by the Light and I had just made a miracle myself with the aid of Maithair! I lay myself down on the floor and by the sound of three children’s healthy breathing, I fell asleep.
The next morning I woke and buried the bird in the bishops backyard. Without further ado I went home. Later in the day I received a letter from the bishop saying that I need not fear anything from him again. I was free and without obligations to him. I was very relieved. I did have one obligation, though: to reconcile with Father Cidron. No one had heard from him since Sunday. Tierry and Alex both were out, so I left a note saying I had gone to the church to find Father Cidron. I had written him a letter with my confound apologies and with that in my pocket I went to the cathedral.
When I reached the cathedral I found a choirboy to deliver my message to Father Cidron and to tell him that he could find me here, if he felt any need to talk to me. I don’t know if the choirboy went astray or if Father Cidron didn’t care a wink for me, for he didn’t show for a long time. When he did show, he was apparently on some other business. He walked straight to one of the priests without looking around at all, and the priest led him down one side of the cathedral. I followed. I really needed to explain myself, to receive his forgiveness. And I was also just a little curious as to what he had been up to in the days he had stayed away from us. I saw him being led to a door, which the priest opened with a heavy key. Father Cidron took out a lantern and lit it and entered. The priest shook his head at him and left. I approached him. ”Excuse me” I said ”Wasn’t that Father Cidron, I saw. I need to speak to him urgently. He had asked me to meet him here”. I lied a little, but had my way. The priest led me in to door and closed it behind me, but didn’t lock it.
I was in pitch darkness. I had seen the top of a flight of stairs going down, before the door had closed behind me. With my hand against the wall I descended. I called out for Cidron to wait for me, but heard no reply. Finally at the bottom of the stairs I could see the light from the lantern. I called out and he stopped and looked back at me, without any trace of surprise. I could also see where I was now: We were in a crypt. Large coffins stood large and looming all over the place. Father Cidron waited for me to catch up, then moved along. He didn’t speak to me other than trivialities. He didn’t ask what I was doing here or why I had followed him. He was completely disinterested in my being there, although he didn’t seem to object either. Strange man, Father Cidron is!
I asked him what we were looking for. He said he was looking for a specific tomb belonging to the greatest magic-user that had ever lived. My silence prompted him to explain. The said wizard had lived here thousand of years ago. Before the Holy Church had established itself. The inquisition had existed however – odd as that may sound. The inquisition had stormed the castle and captured the wizard. He was put to rest somewhere down here. Most information about him had been destroyed. Cidron didn’t even know his name. I couldn’t fathom why Father Cidron had caught interest in an obvious enemy of the inquisition so long dead. It didn’t seem like a good idea to dig the matter up, literally speaking. It seemed like we were walking in the dungeon forever. We went down more stairs into levels where there was water up to our shins. Down here we found some peculiar looking walls. They were not build, but rather carved into shape. We had reached the cliffs the cathedral was build on. Between two such cliffs we found a brickwall that looked slightly out of place. Father Cidron put his shoulder against it and it tumbled down. Behind the wall was a room with an enormous tomb standing in the middle. The eeriness of the place was beginning to get to me. It was dark and damp. We were surrounded by symbols of death. It was extremely unpleasant! Cidron began to examine the tomb and the walls in the room. There were apparently no markings on the tomb and his effort to lift off the enormous lid was unsuccessful. We roamed around down there for quite a while yet, but discovered nothing but some strange carvings in the wall. By then we were both wet and cold to the bone. I thought that the whole matter was best left alone, but I had an uncomfortable feeling that Father Cidron would not leave it alone. Well, that was his business or church business and certainly no business of mine.
We returned home and found the others waiting. I only longed to plunge into a nice warm bath and into warm, dry clothes. All the while Father Cidron had not spoken two words to me regarding the exorcism of the demon. I think he had lost all faith in me, if he had ever had any. I couldn’t help feeling that I was in his way. If he had ever cared about me or my presence, he had stopped caring now. I would not jeopardize his relationships with Tierry and Alex, and I was very close to leaving them all in the dead of night. But I stayed… Alex would never forgive me for leaving her behind and she and Tierry both would come rushing after me, because it would be unsafe for a woman to travel alone. So we stayed and waited for the delegation to get word from Parliament.
The last nights in Ryendor City I was visited by dreams. I use the word ’visited’ deliberately, for they wandered around in my room like shadows of people. They were dreams of the Northlands. The most vivid of them was a small dream, the shape of a child. I was walking in a forest and on a treestump before me sat a small child and smiled at me. I knelt and reached out for it, but it merely laughed at me. I never realized the child’s gender, though it was naked. Maybe it just didn’t matter. It then took me by the hand and led me to a clearing. It handed me an acorn and I studied it briefly and returned it to the child with a smile. It tossed the acorn over the shoulder and where it landed, it sprouted. After that I felt almost like waking up, and I saw the little dream walk out of my room along with the other dreams. The rest of the night was dreamless.
The next night the dreams returned. Again they were all about the Northlands. Eventually I returned to the forest where the little dream had been. A tall oak tree was now standing where the child had thrown the acorn in my dream yesterday. I could sense that centuries had indeed passed. The child laughed and ran toward the tree. He or she hugged the tree and disappeared into it. I walked towards the tree myself and laid a hand on it. It didn’t feel like bark at all, more like tough skin. And it breathed. When I hugged it myself, I could hear its heart beat. It was alive, very much alive! The dream ebbed out and again I found myself in my bed and looking at the shadows in my room walking in and out. A dream came to me out of Father Cidron’s room. I found myself in darkness. I was in a very long hallway and something wicked was waiting for me at the end. But instead of walking away from it, I kept walking towards it, though I knew that I was doomed if I did. I woke terrified from that dream. I was in no doubt that Father Cidron was out on a limb here. He was troubled and he was heading towards disaster if he pursued his search for the ancient magician. I was so vexed after that, that I got out of bed and made myself comfortable in our living room. Alex and Tierry joined me, maybe they had been out on the town, I guess they had. I told them about the dream coming from Cidron’s room and I expressed my fear for Cidron’s mental health. Tierry went to talk to him, to ask him to see the inquisition tomorrow. Maybe he needed an exorcism to drive his strange quest away. He refused, off course, there was nothing wrong with him and he was in perfectly good shape. Goodnight! Well, we could drive the mule to the trough, but we couldn’t make it drink, so we let it alone and went back to sleep. My dreams continued, the peaceful kind. Next morning Alex told me that some of them had walked into her room. Odd indeed!
She had told Tierry the truth about her identity and had told him that she would leave Armenius’ service, as soon as we returned to Zorenstadt. The events of the next days kept her from doing that : We received letters that martial law had been enforced in the North. All of Armenius’ men were called to service. There were trouble with a bunch of clanless men stealing cattle all along the borders and Armenius’ were moving against them along with the official MacLir-clan and the people of Hambeck, who were also greatly bothered by the thefts. We received the letter about the same time the delegation had their answer from Parliament – whatever it was they had sought to achieve, they had been denied. So it was a bunch of sourpusses, we were to escort home the next day.
We left early, having said goodbye to Father Cidron, who had decided to stay in Ryendor City and study. I was worried about what he was going to study, but he was a grown man, and who was I to tell him was he should and should not do, after having ignored his advice to me myself?
We went back the same way we came; downriver on riverboat and by ship the rest of the way to Zorenstadt. Downriver was no problem and we got onboard the ship with all the nobles and their servants with only a little fuss about who got which cabin etc. Tierry, Alex and I shared a cabin in the middle of the ship. We had no portholes, so the place was dark and stuffy. A few days after leaving port we ran into a storm. We stayed close to the shore, but as the storm intensified we were at risk of running into a most dangerous reef. All hands were on deck trying to recover the sails. Soon we were taking water in as well, and men were set to work the pumps. Tierry went to join them and worked hard all night. Our fine guests were all seasick, them and their servants as well, and they complained to us, as if we were to blame for the storm.
When the storm was at its worst I sunk to my knees in our cabin, praying of all of my heart to Maithair to save us from the storm. I staggered to my feet, when suddenly the entire ship shook. I heard an unnatural thunderous sound. Cannons! We were being fired upon! I ran out of the cabin and frightened sailors told me that a large vessel had appeared out of the storm and it was attacking us! We had certainly come from the ashes to the fire. Soon the sailors were working hard to set the sails, they had just recovered. But the other ship was faster than ours. Their sails were already up and the storm helped them to approach us. Soon we were in combat with them. I later learned that Tierry and Alex had attempted firing our cannons at the assailants and had fired their handguns at them; they had been that close! I stayed in the cabin, as I didn’t want to be in the way of those who knew what they were doing. I prayed to Maithair again. Surely she had saved us from landing on the reefs, but a greater peril threatened us now. Suddenly all my panic subsided. Calm and quiet peace arose in me despite the chaos, mayhem and havoc of the battle. I heard Maithairs in my head as if she was sitting right next to me. Vision.Then her smell, her feel, her face, her embrace, her presence retreated. She left me not alone. I am never alone…
I left the cabin then to help where I could. I tried to get up on deck to find out what was going on. As I opened the outside door as wave came at me and drenched me through. The next thing I saw was the mass of a ship next to ours. Cannons went of in an earshattering explosion. I saw masts swaying in the wind and figures of men preparing the next round of shots. There were dead bodies on our deck. To my left I could see a young sailor under the chairs to the bridge. He was white as snow and I could see that he was wounded. I went out to get him and dragged him back to our cabin. I did what I could for him. By the time I had stopped his bleeding, he had passed out cold. I went to find the doctor and found him busy – I was set to assist him, and what I learned from him I shall never forget. He taught me to tell the hopeless cases from those who could be helped. He taught me how to put entrails back where they belonged, how to set badly damaged legs and arms, how to work professionally with blood and gore all around and a cacophony of screams, wails and miserable whimpering constantly in my ears. If not Maithair had assured me earlier I would have fallen to pieces right there and then. There was a core of her in me, keeping me strong. It seemed I worked for hours and hours and in the meantime we had finally managed to set the sails and move away from the assailants. We were safe from the pirates or whatever they were and the storm was abating, not to quiet, but to quieter. When I was about to keel over from fatigue I returned to the cabin, only to find Tierry badly wounded. I brought him back to the doctor, whom I helped to pick a thousand little splinters out of Tierry’s back. After that we returned again to our bunks. Tierry slept on his stomach, which did a positive thing for his snoring. I couldn’t find Alex anywhere and was too tired to go look for her. Tierry said, he had seen her fall and hit her head. She had been unconscious when he had left her, but she had been breathing normally. I took her bunk, since I had placed the wounded sailor in my own. He seemed to be doing alright, but the next day we brought him to the doctor, to see if he could do more. I believe that the young man survived.
We arrived in Zorenstadt beaten and miserable a few days later.