Dog And Dragon – Snippet 16
“I think, m’lady,” said Neve firmly, once they were out of earshot of the tower, “that I am going to faint.”
“Must be the lack of food,” said Meb, grinning. “I’m hungry enough to fall over myself.”
“Oh, I am sorry, m’lady. I’ll run to the kitchens…”
“You’ll do no such thing, Neve,” said Meb, grabbing her. “Without you I’m lost. I’d probably end up down the well or wandering in on Aberinn and Medraut in counsel and get executed on the spot. Show me the way instead.”
“But…but you shouldn’t go there, m’lady. The nobility don’t. Only Mage Aberinn goes down to the kitchens and cellars to magically replenish supplies.”
“Yes,” said Neve, cheerily. “Otherwise we’d be eating our shoes, m’lady. The wars have been that fierce. And the Vanar raiders have burned most of the fishing boats. That was why I came to the castle seeking a place. At least the food is wonderful. There are times that it looks better than it tastes, though.”
Meb was willing to bet that those were the times that it really was old boiled shoe. “Well, if I can go into his tower, I can go into the kitchens. And if anyone asks I will say he told me to, and I’ll bet not one of them will ever check.”
Neve giggled, which, the sensible part of Meb knew, was just the sort of encouragement she did not need. Without Finn to keep her out of trouble…That nearly made her cry again, so she resolutely thought about other things until they came to the kitchen of Dun Tagoll — with spits and hobs and great cauldrons…and most of them idle. There was, however, new bread. That much her nose told her. There was also a sudden shocked silence at her presence there.
The cook, large ladle in hand, approached tentatively. “What can we do for you, Lady Anghared?” he asked.
So even here they knew who she was. “I have just been speaking with Mage Aberinn in his tower.” Someone would have seen them going there, unless castles were vastly different from villages. By the gasps and nods she could tell that the two weren’t that different. “I came to see the state of the provision of the castle. And also to get a heel of that new bread.” Neve’s struggle to keep a straight face definitely made her worse. “And a jug of small beer.”
“The…mage put a stop to brewing. There is wine…”
Meb didn’t need to be a mage with great powers to tell that that hadn’t happened. “I won’t mention it to him. Or to those in the hall,” she said with her mouth as prim as possible.
She got the bread and small beer. And smiles as the two of them retreated to her chamber.
“I’m not eating or drinking this alone,” said Meb. “And small-beer is the only kind of reward I can give you for coming into the lion’s den with me. He didn’t seem to know that I wasn’t telling him the whole truth all the time either.”
Neve shook her head. “Eh, my lady, I had a friend back in our village like you. Always up to some mischief.”
“Oh dear. What happened to her?” asked Meb, already expecting a homily.
Neve shrugged. “She got into a fair amount of trouble, got a few beatings, but mostly got away with it, I suppose. And then she got pregnant.”
“Ah.” It had to end badly.
“Yes, she married the miller’s boy. She was the strictest mother in the village,” said Neve. “You wouldn’t think she was the one who got up to mischief. Or led the rest of us to do such.”
“I was a mouse back in my village most of the time. I was too different. Then the pirates burned our boats, and, well, I had to learn,” she said quietly, trying not to think of who had taught her. Never do the expected…
“I just came here when that happened,” said Neve, equally quietly, helping herself to some of the bread without thinking.
“Well, that’s learning too. So you’ll help me? Tell me, quietly, when I am doing something too crazy? I just don’t know. I don’t know where I should be, and what I should do.”
Neve nodded. “When you’ve eaten, m’lady, I’ll take the plate and jug to the kitchens. You should be in the bower. The ladies would be sewing and weaving there now. Maids too. I’m not very skilled.”
“Oh good. That’s two of us.” Meb ate another piece of bread and tossed her tasseled juggling balls in the air, doing a simple one-hand routine, keeping all four balls in the air while Neve stared. “I think this is about all I’m really any good at. Will that do? Mama Hallgerd also showed me how to set stitches and weave flax, and tie netting knots.”
“Don’t show them the juggling! They’ll think you’re…I don’t know, m’lady.” They won’t like it. I think it’s wonderful. Like magic. Can you do other things?”
“A few,” said Meb, taking a drink and wiping her lips with the back of her hand. Grinning she said: “I can belch pretty well, too” and she demonstrated, “but I don’t think that’ll impress Lady Cardun.”
Neve looked as if she might giggle herself into apoplexy as she shook her head.
Aberinn attempted to look at Prince Medraut without his contempt showing. Medraut was a schemer and plotter. That was normal for the House of Lyon nobles. But it also normally went with courage and mage-power. Aberinn had kept vacant the throne of Lyonesse through two other regents, and seen that the old king never had any heirs to claim it. The mage had kept it for his own son or no one. And as the spell from the cord-blood showed, the child still lived. Aberinn had devoted an entire table to drawing-spells to call the boy back here to claim his own. And he’d seen to it that no one could be anointed as the new king ever since the old king had died. Only those of Aberinn’s line could ever find the ancient font now, for all that it was in plain view.
All of the regents had planned to take power, of course. But none had been as eel-like about it as Medraut. Aberinn was even more certain now that this woman had been Medraut’s plant. The window was a simple trick and could easily have been hidden. And at a stroke, Medraut was free of Earl Alois — his worst enemy from the South — and the royal mage. Aberinn knew there were no other mage-workers of his ability in Lyonesse — but that was unlikely to worry someone as shortsighted and power hungry as Medraut.
“Do you think she’s really the Defender?” Prince Medraut said, plainly attempting to cover his tracks.
Aberinn wondered just where the regent had found her. She did have some power, he suspected. There were Lyon-blood children conceived on the wrong side of the blankets all over the kingdom. His mother had been one, which had made Queen Gwenhwyfach his cousin. Well, if Medraut wanted to play this game, so could he. “It is possible. Magic will find a way. Of course, if she is, your regency is over, Medraut.”
Medraut shot a quick glance at the royal mage. “That…would depend on the rest of the prophecy coming true. Or of her being the true Defender. The real Defender was supposed to come from the past, not this…Tasmarin place. Everyone knows that. And anyway, she did not come to be king.” He laughed at his little joke. “She could hardly be that, eh?”
Aberinn decided it best to ignore that attempt at humor. “It is possible that she deceived us as to where she came from. Her accent speaks of the south.”
“She hasn’t got much of an accent,” said Prince Medraut, confirming the mage’s suspicions. “And anyway, I thought the wine was bespelled to make her speak the whole truth?”
“It is possible to magically proof someone against enchantment,” Aberinn did not add “as you know, full well.” After all, who would know better than Medraut about that? The man could lie like a flat fish.
“Yes, but why?” demanded Medraut, with a good show of puzzlement. “Alois would likely have killed me, without her.”
“Really? You had no other safeguards?” asked the mage.
“Yes, but he had already got through the outer ones. If he had that much knowledge, and that much skill…and look how he escaped from the dungeon before the torturers could put him to the question. You said you had proofed that cell against enchantments and magics. You told me it would hold the sorceress of Shadow Hall itself. You told me I was safe!”
That was nearly a scream. Perhaps Medraut really was worried? If the girl were not Medraut’s plant…maybe she was Alois’s tool? But surely that was too extreme. She could, of course, be the tool of the enchantress in her Shadow Hall. The woman was mad. “No crowned head is ever safe, Medraut. No regent either. I’ll watch her.”
“I think we should kill her quietly,” said Prince Medraut.
“It would have to be subtly done. The commons are already very full of the story. Your hold on Lyonesse is not a strong one, Prince,” said Aberinn.
“Tell me something that I do not know,” said the prince, sourly. “And now they expect me to lead the troops against this latest foe. Can we not change earlier?”
Aberinn shook his head and got up to leave, not trusting himself to speak. Thinking about it with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps his freeing of Earl Alois had been a mistake. Or premature.