Dog And Dragon – Snippet 09
Meb awoke to the sound of someone in her room. She had only vague, exhausted memories of how she got to this bed. Of the women, talking around her. But the sound of someone there, now, trying to keep quiet was enough to make her instinctively nervous. She opened her eyes just a crack. Unless she was due to be murdered with a ewer by a young, scared-looking female, she was in no danger. There were towels and a basin set on the tall kist already, and a wisp of steam suggested that the water was hot. It brought back to Meb that her last wash had been in a horse trough, and that had not had warm water in it.
Once, not so very long ago, washing herself all over had been something undertaken only when unavoidable. Usually in spring. Now she itched to do so. Well, maybe just itched. The bed linen was fine, but there was undoubtably a flea in bed with her.
Her doing something about that itch nearly had the young girl pour the ewer down her own front. “I am sorry, your ladyship. I didn’t mean to disturb! Only, Lady Cardun said…”
Meb blinked. Your ladyship? “I don’t bite. I’ve got a dog who does, but he’s not here.” She swallowed. Díleas. How she missed his unswerving, unquestioning loyalty. But he couldn’t be here. She’d told him to look after Fionn, when she’d hugged him farewell. It was almost as if he understood. Obviously, the distress must have showed in her face.
The serving wench forgot her own fear in seeing it. “Is…is something the matter, lady? Can I do anything?”
“Just missing my dog,” said Meb, her voice cracking a little.
The serving wench nodded. “We always had a dog, too. And then, when I came to take service…he ate a blowfish and died. You’d think a dog living on the foreshore would know better. But he always was eating some rubbish.”
Meb nodded. “There was always trouble with Wulfstan about dogs and the stockfish. I grew up in a fishing village.”
The serving wench gaped. “You, my lady? But you’ve the power!”
“I’m not too sure what you’re talking about,” said Meb, although she did indeed have a very good idea. It struck her that it might be a reasonable idea to find out a little about this world she had exiled herself to. The misery of that exile struck her again. Best to distract herself. “Tell me about this place.”
The servant wench looked puzzled. “What place, lady? Dun Tagoll?”
“That’s this castle, right? I know that, but it means nothing to me. I’ve never heard of it.”
“But…but it is the greatest castle in all Lyonesse!” said the maid. “Everyone knows that. Even the forest people.”
“I’d never even heard of Lyonesse until last night. And now I am here,” explained Meb.
“So, where are you from, my lady?” asked the maid.
The “my lady” was beginning to irritate her. “I was from the island of Yenfar, the demesne of Lord Zuamar — but he’s dead and no loss. Tasmarin was my world. And my name is Meb.”
“Oh. They said you were the Lady Anghared. That’s one of the royal names, lady. They don’t use it anymore after Queen Gwenhwyfach died. Only the royal line were called that. It’s usually used by…by the daughters of kings.”
“Oh. Finn said that was my birth name. But no one ever called me that.”
“Not even your mother, lady?” asked the maid.
“Hallgerd called me Meb,” said Meb resolutely. “And she was the only mother I ever knew. The sea spat me out on the beach at her feet when I was a baby.”
The girl wrinkled her forehead. “But your father Finn knew your name was Anghared?”
The very thought of Finn as a father made Meb laugh. Not that he hadn’t helped her grow up a bit. “I think you should put the ewer down. What’s your name? Are you needed elsewhere?”
The girl shook her head. “No, my lady. I’m to wait on you. I’ve never attended a lady before.”
Someone didn’t think much of the “Lady Anghared” then, thought Meb, sending her a tirewoman who was so new she still had fish scales on her hands. Well, the girl suited Meb better than someone she couldn’t talk to. “So I am supposed to give you orders, am I?”
The girl nodded, looking worried.
“Well, my first order is to put the ewer down before you spill any more of it. And then to tell me your name.”
The girl set the ewer down, carefully. Curtseyed. It was plainly not something she had done often. “Neve, m’lady.”
Meb smiled. “Now come and sit down on the bed and answer my questions.”
“Oh, I can’t sit on the bed, m’lady!” said Neve, horrified.
“You can. I just told you to. And I also told you my name was Meb.”
“But…but I’ll get into terrible trouble from Lady Cardun.”
Meb got up. The stone floor was strewn with rushes, but still cold on her feet. The door was heavy and had a bar. So she closed it, and put the bar down. And took her cold feet back into the bed. “Now she won’t know,” said Meb. “Sit.” She’d hold off on the “m’lady” a little.
The girl giggled nervously and did, at the very foot of the bed. On the very edge. “I…I’m very new to this work, lady…um, Meb. I don’t want to lose my place. Times are hard.”
“I’ll do my best not to lose it for you. I promise I won’t tell anyone you sat on the bed while I asked you questions,” said Meb, smiling at her. “I just…I’m just lost. I don’t know anything at all about this place. I should be doing your job if anything. I’m not a lady. I can’t dance, or play music, or do embroidery or even ride. I rode a donkey once. I fell off that. I should be a kitchen maid, if they didn’t turn me out. I don’t know why they’re doing this to me. Who do they think I am? I…I don’t want to be turned out either. There’s an army out there.” Armies had a certain reputation. Meb decided that if she couldn’t have Finn…they wouldn’t have her either.
The girl shrugged. “Ach, there is always some army. Every few months, it seems. They’ll be gone in a week or two when the moon is full. Or we will. Then we try and get our lives back together. The nobles send messages and play at politics and we try to make a living again.”
That seemed a rather fatalistic acceptance of war. “You’re always at war? Who are you at war with?” No wonder they were enchanting stale bread. Growing crops and farming during a war were going to be difficult.
The girl, her round face serious, started counting on her fingers. “Albion, Brocéliande, Albar, Annvn, Vanaheim, the Blessed Isles. There are more…My gamma said in Queen Gwenhwyfach and King Geoph’s time it wasn’t so, but it has been almost ever since. And there was much magic then, and there was peace and plenty.”
“Hmm,” said Meb. “I bet she also said us young people don’t know how lucky we are.”
The girl giggled so much that it shook the bed. Nodded. “It was all rich and wonderful and we’re soft and disrespectful, and don’t know what hard work means. I love my gamma Elis, but if you believed her, there were spriggans in every pile of rock, piskies in every field and bog, muryans everywhere, knockers underground, and even dragons on the hilltops. Dragons, I ask you!”
Gradually Meb began to build a picture of the place she had ended up in. A craggy coastline to the west, with Dun Tagoll in its center, with a fertile plain bounded by mountains to east and north, and the shifting sand coast across the bleak moorlands, to more mountains in the south. Ruled by men — not the alvar, or the dragons. Under almost constant attack from the forces of darkness itself, cursed because the kingdom had to be ruled by a regent, and its magic needed a king. And the king needed its magic…not Prince Medraut.