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Sword Season, Year 498, Schola of Balbius, Nahe, Federation of Silvand.
Time and patience are the strongest of all warriors.
Druce de Triens, “The Book of Five Companions”.
Abbott Iraneus’ voice, strained with anger and urgency, reverberated in the cloister of the Schola of Balbius two turns of the hour glass before Lauds:
“I want that insolent wretch brought before me the instant that he is found, do you hear?”
Ghert heard the echoes of the Abbott’s shout blend into the echoes of cantors furiously baying zetetic cants as they hunted through the courts and rooms of the Schola, their werelights floating past the windows, weaving patterns of light over the frescoed walls of the Temple of Jova where he hid. Statues of the Saints stared down at him as if in disapproval of his presence here. Hearing footsteps approaching the entrance, he braced himself to spring into action. He could get out the same way that he had got past the guards coming in, slipping between time. As long as he remained in motion in that state, he’d remain effectively invisible. Ghert tensed, waiting and listening.
“Have you seen the novice, Ghert?”
“Here?” a guard’s voice rumbled in amusement, “Seen naught since our watch started. Would he come here, think you? Be the last place you’d expect to find him I’d think, Holiness.”
Ghert heard the cantor mutter something about piety and obedience before ordering the guards to assist him in searching the stables. Footsteps receded and Ghert heaved a sigh of relief. He’d bought himself some time.
Rushing to accomplish what he’d come for, Ghert suppressed his anger, making himself relax and drift into the light trance that would take him into his mother’s thoughts and allow them to speak mind to mind as he’d done countless times before. However, try as he might, nothing but an ominous empty silence filled his mind. Alarmed and disheartened, Ghert sank back against the chill stone of the wall. A sense of anxiety had been growing within him over the past few days. Now it seemed that his mother might be the source.
Ghert heaved a great sigh. Who had discovered his absence from the dormitory? He’d chosen the hour when most were likely to be asleep and a day when both moons were new. Had that damned Father Achatius conducted a spot bed check? That was his style. Had someone finally discovered what they’d been up to? Had the king and his hired Jovaian cantors and priests done something to his mother? Was that the cause of the uproar? Abbott Iraneus would wax furious if he knew that Ghert regularly communicated with his mother the queen mind to mind. The king would too: King Clevis had forbidden any contact between Ghert and his mother.
But how could anyone have known? Ghert had yet to encounter cantors or wicce who could communicate telepathically without casting a circle and sending a simulacrum to appear before the recipient to pass a psychic message. Ghert had communicated secretly and directly with his mother in their minds since he was a toddler without having to resort to such methods. No visible sign indicated that they spoke. Anyone discovering him would only see him sitting in a trance state. His regular contact with his mother Bathild was one of the things which allowed him to endure his imprisonment. He took comfort reminding himself, as his mother had many times, that these hardships and the isolation had taught him patience and endurance. He needed to be steadfast now.
He heard a pair of cantors pass under the adjacent Temple windows, cursing Ghert’s lack of magickal trace, as they usually did when they searched for him. He clenched his fists in frustration. As he couldn’t vent his frustrations to his mother, he found himself thinking of what he’d have told her if he could.
They constantly berate me for not having any magickal trace. When they can’t track me down, they curse the lack. I’ll warrant some of them are jealous of my ability. They’re wishing they could hide like me, I doubt not. They’re all so proud of their magickal trace, the bruise their magick leaves on the world. The wicce of my mother’s Fanes are no different in this; Easy to find them. Their trace is like a flag they’ve planted to be seen by wicce and cantor alike. What have I done to deserve this? I don’t know why I don’t have a magickal trace. They tell me those who don’t exhibit a magickal trace can’t do magick, but I haven’t a trace and I’m able to perform every “miracle” they require. No matter how hard I try, I cannot please them. My efforts mean nothing to these arrogant priests, so proud of their magickal trace. They think me inept, retarded, a mental cripple, call me a ‘difficult student’. Do they think I’m deliberately hiding my magickal trace just to spite them? Brigu wept! If it hadn’t been for me being the king’s son, I would not even have been admitted to this Schola. My lack of magickal trace would have disqualified me.
Ghert closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. Of course this official disapproval made motivating himself to continue his studies even harder, leading to a vicious spiral of dejection. The possibility of retaliatory measures against his mother kept him going. The king had sent him to the Schola to break him, and her, to bend them to his will. Thus Ghert swallowed his anger and frustration and pressed on. What would mother say to him?
She’d tell me to study hard and master their magick, their ‘miracles.’ Once I do, I’ll use that power for myself, not for the king. I’ll use this magick to free my mother and me some day. I’ll hold my tongue for her sake and speak to my mother about it when I can.
Hugging his knees, he listened to the commotion of Abbott Iraneus and his cantors furiously turning everything upside down outside. He remembered his mother laughing with delight when he’d first slipped between and out of sight, the day that he discovered that he could communicate with her telepathically. He’d been at her knee then. He remembered her pride showing through her stern admonition never to reveal these abilities to anyone. Even then Ghert and his mother secretly held to the Gnosis of the Fanes and Garráins. He’d heeded her warning, as he realized even at that tender age that the court in Triens was a hostile place. No one else that he knew of had such abilities, save his grandmother Waltrude, though some legends spoke of a great hero named Somhairle the Valorous who’d had such powers long ago.
Ghert winced as the harsh voice of a cantor singing a cant de battue below the window brought him back to the Temple where he sat hugging his knees. They definitely didn’t find his abilities amusing. Of a certainty they’d take their frustrations out on him once they found him. They always found him and there were always painful consequences: fasting, solitary confinement and floggings. Not for the first time he considered slipping out of the Schola and risking the swim across the icy Ádiar River to Hovuð in Gauthiuda. Impracticable: His father had made enemies of the Gautar. He’d likely end up a prisoner. Even if he managed to elude capture, such an act would infuriate the King and his mother would likely be blamed. That wouldn’t do.
Not only had he been unable to vent his frustrations to his mother, he’d seemingly added to them. Nothing for it then: Ghert had to leave the chapel and seek for news to try to figure out what had happened. Not an easy task with contact forbidden and his mother twenty five leagues off. There was no way that he could risk asking anyone at the Schola for news. The hunt was on, and he must think of some way to explain how he got past the guards and into the chapel.
Ghert cast his mind out to a companion who was the last of his magickal secrets: His familiar Bidelia, presently sitting on the top of the north gate overlooking the courtyard. Bidelia was another that he could communicate with mind to mind. Through her eyes, Ghert could see the search parties wandering through the grounds of the Schola. They’d pay her no mind: She would be too hard to see at this hour, and even in broad daylight she was simply one of many ravens hanging around the courtyard. Ghert had been extremely careful not to be seen around Bidelia: A familiar was another thing the priests and cantors of the Temples would find heretical. Familiars were uncommon amongst the people of the Fanes these days and unheard of amongst those of the Temples. They hadn’t noticed when Bidelia had shadowed his escort from Triens when Ghert had first been brought to this isolated centennae of Silvand in Nahe a season ago.
Should he slip between again and show up elsewhere on the grounds or back in the dormitory? He’d still have to explain how he’d got there when they’d been searching there all along. He elected to walk boldly out of the chapel instead: Perhaps he could convince them that he had stayed after matins to meditate and pray? Since no one had come into the temple seeking him as yet, and since the guards had left with the cantors a short time earlier, it was worth a try.
Putting his most pious expression on his face, Ghert bowed his head, folded his hands into the sleeves of his plain yellow novice’s cassock as if in prayer, and strode out of the Temple into the cloister. One of the cantors spotted him immediately and shouted to his companions. In an instant they’d grabbed him and dragged him to the Abbott’s study in the south tower.
“Miserable malapert! If it weren’t for your father the King summoning you back to Triens this instant you’d already be feeling the lash. What were you doing in the chapel at this hour?”
So that was it; My bad fortune that the king’s summons came as I’d slipped away to contact my mother.
“I stayed after matins to pray, Saintly Father. I must have nodded off.”
Iraneus’ expression indicated that he considered this extremely unlikely.
“Have him caned. Take him to his cell. See that a guard is put on the door. I want him packed and ready to leave at dawn.”
They took to the road out of Nahe at first light. White caps charged the shore of Lake Verdon like waves of cavalry, lashing the shores, wind ruffling the herons sheltering on the beach and fluttering the early leaves of the willows and alders. Bidelia soared above on the air currents, unnoticed, indistinguishable from the hopeful handful of ravens and gulls that followed scrounging for scraps. Ghert and his escort were the only humans on this lonely stretch of road. He drew his cloak closely around him against the icy gusts as they made their way north along the shore.
Members of the King’s elite personal guard, the Truste, had arrived last night with the summons. The Truste escorted Ghert back, accompanied by some senior cantors from his Schola, including Abbott Iraneus himself. The urgency of the king’s summons meant that they went mounted; unfortunate, since his behind was still raw from the caning. Six pueri of the Truste rode close around him, two archers behind him with bows strung, their attention seemed equally divided between their charge and the surrounding countryside. Expecting bandits, rebels or an escape attempt? Clearly they’d watch him closely, taking no chances on him disappearing again. Ghert pondered his situation, trying to distract himself from the discomfort and scrutiny.
What in the name of Brigu did the King want with him? Just over two and a half ochtú ago he’d sent Ghert to this awful place. Ghert had marked all one hundred and sixteen days on the wall of his comfortless cell in the Schola. Sterile and stillborn, the only living things within the scabrous walls in the sterile Schola its staff and students, stifling inspiration, inspiring sanctimoniousness; the antithesis of the atmosphere of the Fanes and Garráins that he and his mother were accustomed to. Ghert took heart knowing that he’d be away from this foul place and out in nature, despite the chill.
The king had not likely relented to bring him home to the capital of Silvand for good. Ghert had years of training ahead of him in this godsforsaken end of Silvand. The king had plans and Ghert was simply a game piece, sent to a Schola of the Temples of Jovaia to become a cantor of war magick and thus become a foothold of magickal power to be used. What he wanted meant nothing to the king.
The head of the Temples of Jova himself suggested placing him at the Schola in Nahe shortly after his arrival in Triens, no doubt to keep Ghert out of the way of the Archbishop’s machinations. Curse the day that Archbishop Norgonus had showed up in Triens! That a man of Norgonus’ stature had shown up in his country’s capital boded ill for his people. He was sure that evil man wasn’t there out of any intentions of charity or assistance. Exile got Ghert out of the way of the Archbishop’s designs, and prevented him from warning the King. Norgonus’ designs would certainly be to the benefit of the Jovaian Empire, not the Federation of Silvand. Mildly amusing, since the only reason Ghert would ever warn the king would be because Norgonus’ plans threatened his people; he was indifferent to threats to his father. Not that the king would credit anything that Ghert suggested even if he was inclined to warn him. The king sent him to the Schola of Balbius because Ghert always sided with his mother. The king and the Archbishop both wanted to remove him from his mother’s pagan influence.
Was this summons an indication that the Archbishop had left Triens to return to the Jovaian capital, Rovaenna? Ghert could not imagine Archbishop Norgonus agreeing to have him return to Triens for any length of time if he was still in residence there. Nor did he see any way that he could convince the Archbishop to reverse his stand. He had once seen the Archbishop blind one of his young acolytes for a minor error in the service in the Temple of Jova with an amaurosis cant: Impossible light had flashed from his eyes and mouth and the child who had erred fell to his plump knees on the tiles, his face and body half frozen, blood pouring from his ruined eyes. No, he could seek no support from that quarter. The Archbishop was not a person to cross.
He shivered and drew his cloak tighter around him, glancing aside at his escort, wondering if he could expect support from any of them, not seeing any faces that he knew. The few children of the court his age had either been kept from him or had avoided his company, knowing the king’s view of Ghert’s mother. To compensate, he had found adult friends within the ranks of the Truste before the king sent him away. Members of the Truste had trained and mentored him in the arts of war, and his aptitude and dedication had won him some friendships and close connections. A return to Triens where he could practice his martial arts and see these few friends would be a great relief. At the Schola he’d been denied the ability to practice martial arts. Cantors fought with magick, not swords. Ghert suspected the king intended to isolate him from his supporters within the Truste in order to prevent him using that martial ability to aid his mother. His escort today gave Ghert a clear indication of how the king feared what he would do with his martial ability and connections once he came of age in a few hands. Was the king’s summons an indication that he had reconsidered?
Was this summons somehow connected to his inability to communicate with his mother? At least he’d have a better chance of discovering what happened to his mother back in Triens. While he dreamed of leaving this purgatory, he stayed because of his fears of what trouble leaving might cause for his mother. The King might decide to send Bathild away, or worse. Once the king got the sons he wanted, he had given up trying to convert the queen to the faith of the Temples and had all but discarded her, giving his attentions instead to several mistresses. Ghert had noticed that of late the King’s neglect had turned to hatred. The King wanted his mother out of the way. He did not intend to be used as an excuse for his mother’s dismissal from the court. The king would have to find some other way, a way that didn’t infuriate her father Comite Sigebert.
Low clouds, drizzle, and a steady frigid wind off the lake made a comfortless camp on the shores of lake Verdon for Ghert and his escort that evening. Weary from worry and sore from the saddle, sleep eluded him at first. When he finally fell asleep in the early morning hours, he found himself in an old and familiar dreamscape; an old castle by another lake. He’d often thought that this comforting dreamscape might have been some form of wishful thinking: How his home in Triens ought to have been. The familiarity of this dreamscape was pleasant, where the familiarity of Triens was anything but. And, as always in this pleasing dreamscape, he found ruddy old Ruarí the fénnid, another of his companions in isolation, even if he was only a dream companion. The grizzled fénnid had been in Ghert’s dreams for as long as he could remember: His invisible childhood friend. He thought of him as an ancient warrior of Pictavia, a fénnid of the Ceilteach peoples of the West, because he spoke to him in Gàidhlig with a Pictavian accent. As a toddler his mother had told him that as a prince he should make himself familiar with the languages of the peoples bordering his land: Like his mother, Ghert had always had a gift for languages and had learned Gàidhlig from his mother quickly. Ruarí was the father he’d never had, the father he should have had: Always attentive, full of humour, a bear of a man in a kilt, a mane of red hair like his mother’s.
This time Ghert found himself on the cobblestones of the dream castle’s outer court, flooded with the moonslight of the full mating moons, making the snow capped peaks around the castle glow. He practiced sword play with Ruarí, armed with wasters and bucklers: More than once over the years before he had been sent to the Schola, he had startled his daytime sword instructor Bergr of the Truste with moves he’d learned in sleep from Ruarí.
“When yer blade binds wi’ your opponent’s like that, go soft, like this. That allows ye to disengage yer blade frae the bind an’ then ye can stab, like this, or hew to t’other side, like this.”
“That’s a neat trick.”
“The Gautar call it ‘draga’, which means pullin’. Ye use weakness against strength.”
“Weakness against strength?”
“Think o’ it this way, lad: When they pull, ye push. When they push, ye pull. Ye use their momentum against them. Try that move again an’ I’ll show ye.”
Ghert made another lunge with his sword. Ruarí caught his sword in a bind, then went soft, dragging Ghert towards him.
“See lad, reach ye out an’ grab the opponent’s hilt or arm, so. Trap their forearms wi’ tother arm, so. Then ye can use a rake, slicin’ yer blade across their forearm, ye see? Or strike wi’ yer pommel or guard, so, an’ then rake the blade against or between their forearms, so.”
“Is raking with the blade what the Gautar call a sneid?”
“A ‘slice’, aye! Good lad. The Gautar call this ‘wrestlin’ at the sword’”. Ruarí stepped back. “Take ye a rest an’ let’s ha’e a wee chat lad.”
Ruarí led him into the guard room and they set their wooden swords and shields aside. Ruarí put a couple of logs on the fire before seating himself comfortably on a bench beside Ghert. Ruarí turned a serious face towards him.
“Ye’re ridin’ into trouble, lad.”
“I sense that Ruarí, I only wish I knew what is going to happen.”
“A day long awaited has finally come, a day foreseen by the White Ghost. An old conflict will be renewed, an old rivalry. Ambustus is back.”
“I don’t take your meaning. Who is the White Ghost? And what has this to do with Ambustus? He died five hundred years ago, did he not?”
“The White Ghost is Fionúir,” Ruarí said, turning to stare into the fire, “Ye’re about to awaken to reality, to yerself, like I did so many, many years ago. I was your age when I awakened.”
“And Ambustus, wasn’t he Somhairle’s enemy?”
“Aye, that’s right. Ye’re about to meet him, a new incarnation o’ him.”
“And Fionúir, wasn’t she a prophetess who painted a mural? It’s at Dunscáthach, isn’t it?”
“Aye, that’s right. Ye must ask Aoife about that when ye see her.”
“Lady Aoife? She was my mother’s teacher, and my grandmother’s classmate too, wasn’t she?”
“Aye, that’s right lad. An’ a bonny teacher she is too.”
“So… You’re saying that the High Priestess of Dunscáthach is going to be in Triens when I arrive?”
“Nae there lad, but meet her ye will, an’ soon. The cycle is beginnin’ again. I only wish that I could save yer mother. But the thing must take its course.”
“Save my mother?” Ghert leapt to his feet. “What do you mean? What’s happened?”
Ruarí stood and placed his hands on Ghert’s shoulders, shaking him.
“You’re gonna need yer ability to ‘slip between’ when ye get there, an’ some other skills that we’ve practiced, but we’ll speak o’ that later. Wake up Ghert. Wake up!”
Ghert sat up abruptly and found himself tangled in his blankets at the side of another lake, no castle in sight, looking into the annoyed eyes of Father Achatius, who cuffed him on the ear.
Get up, imp. We’re leaving in a half a turn of the glass.”