Dog And Dragon – Snippet 17
The ladies’ bower was all Meb feared it would be. For a start it was a-buzz above the clicks of weaving shuttles — like an angry beehive — with woman talk when she came around the corner, following Neve. She grabbed Neve’s shoulder, and they stopped. And Meb proved that eavesdropping is a sure way to prove that you do in fact never hear anything good about yourself.
“…she has the magic, but she is not noble. Look at the way she was dressed.”
“And she did not even put her hair up or cover it. Wanton, I tell you. She was in Aberinn’s tower this morning.”
“She does seem very young.”
A gentle voice. The one who had been sympathetic the night before.
“Hmpf.” That was Cardun. “I have never believed that prophecy of Aberinn’s. He’s never done the like before or since. It just came when Prince Medraut had the Royal Council and the earls ready to agree to the vote.”
“Oh, no one could have faked that, Lady Cardun. Why, there was foam coming out of his mouth. It was terrible.”
“It was as real as this ‘Defender.’ She’s a common trollop who was wearing a man’s breeches!”
Meb took a deep breath and walked on into the room. The comments about Aberinn’s fit or the reality of the prophecy — or her — died.
Vanished into silence and false smiles.
She gave them one which matched theirs very well, and did her best to look down her nose at them, which was difficult, because she was not very tall. “So this is what the ladies occupy themselves with in Dun Tagoll. How nice.” She hoped that sounded condescending. She’d never really had a chance to do condescension before. There were tambour frames, a bigger loom than she’d ever seen, women sitting and stitching where the light was best. Meb loved fabrics and loved fine embroidery. They just weren’t things that had come her way. She was saved from deep embarrassment, or finding some way to squirm out of this, by a call from outside. It was a panting page. “The prince’s troop is about to ride out, ladies.”
So they all went out to the colonnaded cloister above the courtyard to see the brave colors hoisted above the cream of Lyonesse, before they rode out to do battle. The little woman who had been kind to Meb the night before looked as if the sight of it cut her to the quick. She did not go down and bestow favors on the men of the troop. Instead she looked as if she might start crying.
Meb had no one to cheer on either, so she just stayed looking out from between the pillars too. “What is wrong?” she asked, looking at the tight face.
The woman made an effort to smile. “Nothing, Lady Anghared. It just brings back old memories. Painful ones. Cormac, my husband, rode out like this, with my favor on his sleeve…oh, more than ten years ago.”
“And he never came back,” said Meb quietly.
“Yes. They say they saw him fall…but they also say he’s been seen with the hosts of the Blessed Isles.”
Meb did not know what to say.
“And with the armies of Ys. He was a very recognizable man. But he was as true as steel. He would never betray Lyonesse.”
The “he would never betray me” was left unspoken. But she did not have to say it. “I have two young sons. They too will ride out one day,” she said fatalistically. The “and maybe fight against their father” was also left unsaid.
Desperately looking for something to say, Meb came up with: “You chose my clothes, didn’t you? I’m sorry…I don’t think I know your name.”
The woman nodded, looked her up and down. “You were so pale last night I thought the blue might suit you. I think yellows and greens would bring out your color better, dear. I do like the comb, even though I imagine Lady Cardun won’t approve. I’m not surprised you don’t remember much from last night. My name is Vivien. My husband was once captain of the Royal Troop.”
“I think if I wound my hair up just like hers, she’d still say that it didn’t suit me.” said Meb, looking down at the chatelaine in the courtyard, a safe distance off.
Vivien shrugged. “She’s worried about her place. She’s the prince’s aunt.
Meb wrinkled her forehead. “What does that have to do with me? I am sorry…I just don’t know what is going on here, lady. I’m…I’m out of place. I was…living in another land. In what nearly was a war to end all of it…we…Finn and me, stopped that, and then suddenly I was here.”
“It sounds a rather momentous history for someone who looks…How old are you, Lady Anghared?” It was asked kindly, with a gentle concern.
“Um. I think eighteen. It was rather hard to keep track this last while. Might be nineteen,” said Meb, who was better at dealing with outright conflict than this. Was it a trap of some sort?
“They say you’re too young to be the Defender. But at nineteen I had two children. They’re saying a lot of…things about you, dear. Don’t give them fuel.”
It was actually meant kindly, Meb decided. And Vivien was plainly more careworn than actually old. “I don’t know if I am this ‘Defender.’ I don’t think so. I think I am just an unhappy person dropped here, far from everything and everyone I love. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be your Defender.”
“You saved Prince Medraut from death, and you brought back the queen’s window, a great magic, and Dun Tagoll is defended in every way against those. You frightened Prince Medraut into giving up his sword. You spoke of dealing with dragons…The men-at-arms…well, I heard about it from my boys. They are both squires. But the haerthmen and the men-at-arms are full of it. So are the servants. Also you’ve been into Aberinn’s tower. Almost no one does that. Don’t let…spitefulness hurt you.”
Meb realized that Vivien, too, believed. Or wanted to. She feared for her sons. “I don’t…Lady Vivien. I can’t be a lady, let alone your Defender. I don’t want to be.”
“What do you want?” asked Vivien.
Meb sighed. “Something I can’t have, either. Ever. I am not even sure I want to be alive, half the time.”
“I think I understand,” said Vivien, holding her. “I’m sorry.”
“I’ve lost everything I ever had. Everything I ever loved,” said Meb quietly, tears starting to form and flow. Vivien said nothing. Just hugged her. There were others weeping and being comforted, so it was not that very obvious. Somehow Meb found herself being taken back to the bower, and shown embroidery stitches. She was given an ivory frame, and she concentrated fiercely on it. Trying to lose herself in it. She did love the threads’ silkiness and the bright colors of them.
A little later someone looked at what she was doing. “I thought…you said you had never done this before?”
Meb looked at the picture that had started to form out of the tiny stitches. There had been a carefully drawn pattern there, but after a while she had somehow lost the simple flower pattern, and gone on setting stitches according to a pattern in her head, not on the stretched fabric. The dragon was perfectly detailed on the white lawn, and his flame was orange and red and bright, almost seeming to burn out of the material.
The dragon was black, and its eyes were wicked with mischief.
Meb got up and left, her eyes blind with tears again. Neve and Vivien led her to her room.
“When I saw the stitchery…I thought you were making a fool of me, getting me to show you the basics. That you knew far more than I could ever learn. But that was magic, wasn’t it?” said Vivien. “Magic here, in Dun Tagoll.”
Vivien shook her head, eyes wide and worried. “I thought that maybe Cardun and the others were right. I thought maybe you were just here by accident. But Anghared…that is magic, and straight out of the prophecy. Now I think you are the Defender, whether you know it or not. I think you have come to save us, even though you didn’t know it, and don’t want to do it.” The woman paced a little. “Anghared. I know…I can see you are heartsore. I remember my own heartbreak when they told me Cormac had joined the fallen. But, please…there are so many of us. Others who see their men ride off to a war we can’t escape and can’t win. Can you not…try to spare them the heartbreak too? We need you.”
“She’s right, m’lady,” Neve said quietly. “The boy I was, um, sparking with. The Vanar killed him when they burned our ships. Lyonesse is…”
“Dying slowly from a thousand cuts,” finished Vivien. “Every time there is a little break, people try and plant crops, messengers go to the outer marches. Life starts. And then the next invasion comes.”
Meb sighed. “I don’t even know where to start.”
“By washing your face,” said Lady Vivien, practically. I don’t think you need to know. I think this is a sign. You will defend us against the black dragon.”
Meb started to laugh, maybe a little hysterically, but laugh, all the same. Eventually she stopped. Smiled a little at Vivien’s worried face. “Whatever I don’t know, I know I won’t be defending you against that dragon. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.” She got up from her bed. “Let me wash my face. And then let’s see if we have dry bread and sour wine again.”
“We eat well here, Anghared. Not quite siege rations yet.”
Meb pulled a wry face. Well, maybe this was not the right time to tell them. They needed her, or something. And she needed something. Anything. This would do.