INTEREA, IN VILLA (Meanwhile, back at the Villa…)
Asullus Anguli X ... Asullus’ Corner
INTEREA, IN VILLA (Meanwhile, back at the Villa…)
So, Asullus here once again, along wi’ trusty an’ sweet Morphia the Spritae, still actin’ as our scribe, fer all ye oldsters an’ wee ones alike as ha’ been writin’ wi’ yer requests an’ demands — some more polite than others — to be informed o’ the most serious an’ needful questions o’ our time an’ tryin’ to bring answers to the queries such as those as reach the Tower o’ the North.
Mulish greetings to ye all ! Ready fer more enlightenment an’ mindful expansion, I sees. Well an’ good. So, let’s be on wi’ it.
Today’s beseachment do come from one Mistress Geraldine o’ Belfordshire who asks, in a rather pointed fashion fer all o’ me, what is it as is proceedin’ wi the Minor Points between the second cannon scroll an’ the third?
Well, fair enou’. As it turns out, I do ha’ access to that particular information an’ will be glad in the sharin’ o’ it.
So, pull up a chair, fer ye as in bipedaled, an’ I’ll unroll what is written an’ ye can soak yerselves in this bath as long as ye wishes an’ see if ‘tis to yer likin’.
* * *
The slim, pale girl with jet-black hair hanging down in ringlets, sat in a reclining chair in the sun of the villa’s southern verandah, a partially unrolled scroll of epic poetry in her lap. She idly watched the workers tend the rows of vines in the vineyards spread out before her. Though wrapped in several blankets, she shivered still. It seemed these days she was never truly warm. A lidded wicker basket on the tiles next to her chair held several bloodied kerchiefs. Other kerchiefs, snowy white and neatly folded were stacked in a small pile on her lap beside the scroll. The one in her hand went often to her mouth, dabbing away crimson spittle following frequent spells of coughing. A half-empty crystal goblet of a rich amber vintage sat on the tiles on the opposite side of her chair.
Her thoughts turned to her benefactor. Poor Ormerod had been losing weight lately and already looked ill. He had only recently begun to produce that same dry cough she had, though he’d shown no blood. Not yet, anyway. Ethne was sure it would just be a matter of time--one or two months, if not weeks, at the most. She knew he had contracted the consuming sickness from her, and she felt badly for him. He had no heirs and no surviving family. He would die hard--the course of the illness always seemed to be more virulent in men--and when he did, his estate would likely be looted by the tenants, and the lands divided up among his greedy neighbors, who, she suspected, were already licking their lips in anticipation. All the more urgent reason for her to make her peace with Morella and her daughter, Lallie. She would soon need them. Everything depended on their willingness to help her. Everything.
She felt a small, but powerful, kick in her belly and smiled to herself. My little Emperor, she thought lovingly, how eager he is to be about his business and how strong for one so new to this life. Life, she mused, and a pang passed through her. It would be his life to save. But she would have to give up her own to ensure it. This was an old problem for her, however, and solved a long time ago. Still, the pangs did pass through from time to time.
It was happening just as the four old women, the faggot peddlers, had said it would—at least according to what her mother had endlessly recited to her until she had it by heart.
* * *
“But, Momma, why do I have to learn this?”
“Never you mind, child. Just learn it. It is the most important choice you’ll ever have to make. My own daughter could be the Mother of the New Emperor!" How proud she’d always looked when she said that. But then it only made her remember to test Ethne again about the Choice. This her mother did till the day she died.
After her mother’s death, Ethne’s older cousin, the mayor, anxious to be rid of his responsibility, had sent the girl packing off to that School for Young Ladies in Fountaindale. She still wondered, occasionally, if he’d known all the time it had been a brothel. Oh, well, that was water under a very old bridge.
More to the point had been the tale of the four old women. According to the story, the four ancients had come knocking on her mother’s door one mid-winter, ostensibly selling fire-wood--but Ethne had always wondered about that. Old women tended not to go out in winter, nor did they tend to sell wood, and she’d never heard of any going around in a pack of four. But her mother had been adamant on that point.
“I was in my last three with you when I heard a knocking at the door. I wondered who could be calling in mid-winter--and why. When I opened the door, there they were. Four old women, yet their eyes were not old, but fierce. They only spoke briefly of their wood then straightened and spoke in unison. They did not sound like old women.
‘Myrtelee, we are come to tell you tidings of great moment! Listen
and attend. The fruit of your womb will become the Lady of the Flowers of
Sorrow, for if she would choose to live, all things you know will die. Yet
should she choose to die, all things will live--they will live through her son
-- a boy who will be gotten by a boy. Thus, mighty the greatsire,
mightier still the sire and mightiest of all the son. That son, an Emperor
shall be. Tell your daughter and tell her well, till she knows it front and
back. It will be her Choice--to stay safe in the City of the Pleasures or
seek the Country of the Vintner where she will be consumed in whole.
But not before she has known the Keeper of Bees. It will be through him
the fruit will come, and for him, the Choice will be made, the Flower of
the Nations. Tell her and tell her well. She must Choose--keep her life
to herself and live in comfort for long years until the Darkness comes, or
give up her life to her son, he, who will beat back the Darkness and bring
the Light--the White Rose, the Lion Rampant. Tell her she must Choose.’
And saying that, they left. Long had Ethne pondered the meaning of those words. Now she believed she knew.
The Mother of an Emperor--my wonderful son! I know your name already, oh, ancient hero, now to come among us once again. And, oh, my Thaddeus. You must know, yet you must let him be. But how to do this?
Ethne endured another spell of coughing, wiping away the scarlet foam.
I shall have to consider that, thought the black-haired Domina Dolosa Florum. I will have to be very careful. Very soon.
* * *
Caerulia fussed and fretted as she always did after laying her eggs. At least for a day or two. But this was not her usual clutch of eggs, but a solitaire, and, oh, what an egg! Large, white and gleaming. Not one of her realm could name, in living memory, a single egg so big and never one, alone. It must be from the boy, Thaddeus. Silvestrus had implied as much during their visit the summer before. Wondrous things he had told her, though it was hard to know what to believe. He had spoken of directions, North, South--it had all been a bit confusing. But he had been definite on one point. It was centered on the boy. And the boy would beget on her, if she willed it, a daughter unlike any other--a daughter of fire, the light of the father.
So now, all she had to do was wait. First would come the larva and what a larva that would be! A great worm with a human face--what Loremaster had ever conceived such an image? And how it would eat! She’d had her entire court scouring the queendom for weeks to gather only the most tender and succulent leaves. Next the chrysalis--not a cocoon. She was no moth! Then my beautiful daughter and her beautiful wings. What delight in imagining who and what she would resemble.
It was nice to have the pleasure of her inner thoughts. Certainly, little was to be had in her home. My Lord Spadix seldom spoke to her these days. He seemed to take her egg as some sort of personal affront, as if she had done it a-purpose to humiliate him. Well, not entirely. But it did serve him justice.
He and his trollops! Her own mood had been a bit dark of late as well, she had to admit. Perhaps she should not have been so quick to tear off Cecropia’s wings when she had discovered her with My Lord in their own bower. But Caerulia was not Queen of the Butterflies for nothing, and she would not tolerate others laughing up their chitin at her. And Luna--well, Luna was a different story. But she had been very, very angry that day. Imagine the pale green slut thinking to replace her on her throne just because she had been able to catch My Lord’s eye on one occasion. Well, she had been well-served that day. Caerulia smiled in wicked satisfaction recounting the surprise of the discovery, the shrieks, the denials, the mad flight. Moths always tended to forget their bearings once daylight had come. Yes, the mad flight, more like being herded. Herded by an angry pursuer--an angry Queen. Herded right into a spider’s web! Ha! How she had screamed then. More than Caerulia, herself, ever had. Right up until the end when she stopped screaming. Luna did look better then—all dressed up in white spun silk. A great improvement. Ha!
Remembering the spider made her think again of Thaddeus as she often did. My Lord Spadix believed the egg was the product of some dalliance of hers with one of her courtiers--as if any of that lot could produce an egg this size! Of course, his suspicious nature had, so far, opened several new positions in her court among that group, but then new faces were always ready to take the place of those who had gone beyond.
But yes, Thaddeus. She would have to get word to him after the metamorphosis. Perhaps she would send one of the new young courtiers. She was sure she could find a volunteer. Any of them would willingly die in the service of their Butterfly Queen. Especially such a beautiful Monarch.
* * *
The Regina Draconum Marinarum lay languidly on the achingly white stretch of sand in front of her cave while the waves washed gently onto the beach in their timeless rhythm. She regarded the great crimson bulk of her companion with--certainly not affection--more a combination of boredom and fear. Always best to show him respect, though--the last time had almost cost her her life.
She addressed the blood-red beast. “The point, Attacondros, is that I cannot see how I can try to thwart the Stars. Some things are beyond even our powers.”
“To the Hells with the Stars, I say! Besides, you cannot say for certain you have seen them rightly. Even I have been known to err on an interpretation. Let me plead again, Mari, relent! Couple with me, and I shall shower you with treasures of which even you are unaware. Then, when I leave, you may keep the eggon and raise the whelp as you see fit. I will even send a portion of my servants to tend you if you like. After, I can visit you from time to time as my desires allow. You will be happy, after a fashion, and well-protected. None will dare disturb the mate of the Draco Ruber! None." He ran a clawed foot slowly down her front leg, perhaps as a sign of tenderness, but it made Mari shiver.
“Not that your supplication gives me no pause, Red King. However, there is a certain price to pay for all this…largesse, is there not? What am I to do with myself in those tedious years, perhaps decades, between your loving interludes? True, raising an eggon will distract for a time. But then? Also, and not insignificantly for me, my formidable red suitor, is your temper. You will recall that the last time we had this conversation, you drove a spear straight through my breastbone.”
“Yes, and I have said I was sorry for it, have I not? And I healed you, did I not? And stayed with you till your strength was as before?”
“That you did, and gramercy for it. But it would not have been necessary, Great Lord, if you had not thought to stick me in the first place, yes? Again, though, that is not the point. The point is that the Stars have shown me their truth. And their truth declares I must wait." She did not dare add that she had not only been told to wait, true enough, but to wait for another.
“The Stars have shown you their truth, but only as interpreted by that seaweed-headed, lyre-plucking, endlessly hair-combing, fortune-telling fish-girl! I do not see how environmental indecision in one’s body form makes for accurate soothsaying.”
The Draco Viridis gazed at Attacondros, noting the trail of moisture seeping down from the small opening in his left temple. She knew he was seeping on the other side as well. Yes, he was truly under the grip of his ‘excitement’ or should it be more properly described as ‘tension’? She would have to tread carefully here. He was half-mad with lust already.
“I am able to read the Stars as well as any, as you should know. Pisca is merely a servitor in my court--one of many among the Mer. She has studied the Heavens only a little and thinks to know more than she really does. But she is of no moment in my decision. I cannot accede to your request, my Lord. The Stars say I must wait and wait I shall.”
The red dragon threw his head back and let out a terrible roar as gouts of orange fire swept the sky. “You make a great mistake when you deny me what I deem mine!" He appeared to struggle with himself for a moment. “Very well, Draco Mari. I will respect your choice. Chiefly because to obtain what I desire most I trow I would have to kill you first--then, what pleasure? I am no necrophile. My mates have always been eager and willing--till now, it seems. But hear me, my lost love. This decision will cost you dearly. It will cost you your court as well as your subjects and all who bow to you, and in the end, you will die horribly--and alone. Then all will know how the Red has triumphed over the Green!" The crimson Lord of Fire leaped into the air bellowing so loudly it seemed even the waves paused in their cadence. In moments, he was gone out of sight.
Mari sighed. She hoped this foretold Star-child would be worth it. For him, she was risking everything.
* * *
On a small islet out of sight of the shore, Attacondros finished the unanticipated, but welcome, repast that had interrupted his flight. A lengthy journey lay ahead of him before he could rest again. Perhaps, however, he would come across that older Gray he’d heard tales of years before. It was said she summered in these climes. Better an experienced and grateful dame than a haughty and ignorant maiden in any case. Nodding his massive horned and crested head in self-approval, he launched himself into the air heading west, his wide-spanned, leathery wings seeking the sea’s uplifting air currents.
The waves continued their rhythmic lapping of the small islet, rising slowly higher and higher with the tide until eventually they washed away the blood, part of an arm and a portion of a tail fin--but leaving behind a tortoiseshell comb.
* * *
The interior of the ancient oak was roomy, neat and dry. A brazier provided warmth, and carefully tended candles provided light. As always, sources of heat were closely guarded in the interiors of such bower-homes. Fires in the living room did no one good. The sparse furniture included a rug embroidered with mystic symbols, two chairs, a table, a desk and a small altar off to one side. A thin column of the tree’s central core ran from the middle of the floor to the middle of the ceiling, a tall, sturdy pillar. It was how the tree managed to support a Chief Druid’s dwelling.
Luperca leaned forward, careful to keep her tawny braid to the side out of harm’s way. She set down the carved wooden cup on the small stump table in front of her chair. She liked tea, but the oak brew was always a touch too bitter for her taste. Her eyes returned to her host in his white, rope-belted robe. With graying hair and a long beard, he looked the part of the ideal Druid Sachem. The only difference she could detect was the sprig of black lysle placed in his Aureole--the sign of mourning.
“Thank you for seeing me, Madigan, and my thanks for the tea. Allow me again, however, to express my sorrow for your loss. Mattom was a great Chief Druid and was kindly to me always. I am sure, though, your own stewardship will bring no shame to your family name--but honor only.”
The priest ducked his head in acknowledgement. “Thank you, Great Pack Leader. Your presence brightens this otherwise sad time of loss and reflection. To what do I owe this consideration, however? And what, if any, service may I render you?”
“I want for nothing, good friend. I am passing through, going from one place to another, and I thought to stop here and renew our bond. Also, to share information.”
“Ah,” the man said. “You have seen the boy, then?”
“Yes. Not only have I seen him, I have been his, ‘puppy’--yes, that’s it--and, for a time, traveled with him. We have even played Pila Ludere together. I made the winning goal." She smiled with pleasure at the memory.
“Excuse me, Pack Leader. Pila Ludere?”
“Yes, foot-ball." Luperca regarded the man’s questioning eyebrow. “It’s, well, it’s a game where you... Well, let it go at that. It is a modest recreation bringing simple gratification. In the course of it and other endeavors, I was able to form an opinion of the boy. He it is of whom we have spoken. I have no doubt.”
The man let out a long breath. “Then it is happening at last, just as predicted in the Oaken Ring.”
“Um. Then you have…been together?”
“Ah, no, worse luck. A girl was present to whom he developed a singular endearment. She has given him a magical stone. This may be her means of attachment, or then again, perhaps not. In any case, it became clear his interest lies solely with her at this time. I shall have to abide and be ready. It is of no consequence, however. He is the one. So tall, so brave. He saved me from Corrigan, you know.”
“No, I did not know. I am sorry. I thought my step-brother sufficiently bound, but madness gives one divine strength at times it seems. He hurt you?”
“Yes. Very much. But he will not do so again. He is now, and forever shall be,--thanks to my Thaddeus--a cur, madness and all.”
“I thought as much. Lately I have heard a lost soul howling in the wilderness at night. I imagined it was he.”
“He is lucky at that. Were I to see him now, I would rip out his throat. I would not even bother transforming.”
“His punishment is, perhaps, even worse than that, Great Leader, though it may seem hard to see it so, just now.”
“I concede you may have a point, Madigan. It must be difficult to lose two family members in the space of such a short time. But you spoke of the Oaken Ring. Have you seen anything new?”
The Chief Druid smiled. “Come with me, Luperca, if you will.”
The two rose and the druid indicated a narrow passageway that led to another room almost completely taken up by a great wheel of wood lying flat, perhaps a hand’s width thick. It was supported off the floor by four short, stout, carved, wooden legs. The two traveled clockwise around the circumference of the Oaken Ring until the man stopped and pointed.
“There. You see that variegation in the ring?”
“That is where the convergence begins. I had not seen it so clearly till just the other day. It is remarkable how something that is supposed to be fixed and immutable suddenly changes as if it were the wind blowing across a pasture.”
“Or, perhaps, that an elderly priest, beginning to show the infirmities of age, has just noticed something that was under his nose all the time,” the tawny-haired woman said with a sly grin.
The Chief Druid grimaced ruefully. “Alas, that is ever more frequently a possibility. My thanks for your clever insight, however, and may I extend an invitation to you to stay the night. You may rest on the love-chair for the evening, that is, unless you fear you will fall off while trying to scratch behind your ear with your sandaled foot." Madigan’s grin was no less pointed.
“Ah, my dear Madigan. Ever you are as you were when we played together around the Great Tree as pups." The Pack Leader reached out and patted his arm affectionately. “I would be honored to accept your invitation. But, to return to the variegation....”
“Yes. Of course. See, here, here and here. It is so clear now that I have studied it. You will be in great danger. The boy will come. He will sire upon you the High Priestess. She, it is, who will have her part to play to bind together all of Gens Totus Canum et Luporum when the Hyenas of the East fall upon us.”
A low, involuntary snarl escaped the young woman’s lips at his mention. “I see it. But are you sure it speaks truly to you. This Ring is over two-thousand years old, and this part, at least five-hundred.”
“Be assured of it, Luperca.”
“Very well, then. I am for Repose. It has been a long day, and I have further to go on the morrow.”
“As you wish, Great Leader. There,” he indicated another passageway leading off to the left, “you will find I have laid out those things I believe will be needful to you. Good Repose, Luperca. And sleep well.”
The Great North Tower, Northfast