Dog And Dragon – Snippet 26
The next weeks were fraught with fear, tension…and helplessness. They could see the ice bridges now, although the cold meeting the warmer water tended to swirl up a sea mist. The Fomoire mages were pushing them in three long tongues toward the shoreline. When the wind — bitter cold and dry — came blowing off the ice, the people of Dun Tagoll could hear the chanting and the drumming coming out of the sea mist. When the wind blew the other way they could see the black huddles of the mages walking circles on the ice tongues. And day after day it grew closer. And colder.
Aberinn had retreated to his tower, and although sounds of industry, hammering and metal shrieks came from inside, he did not.
The Angevins had broken camp and fled inland.
Meb wondered if they should not all just follow.
She did, finally, get out of Dun Tagoll herself. Hunting parties — those included the ladies, and the dogs and the hawks — sallied out on horseback to see what food they could gather in. She was invited to ride out with them.
Meb decided she liked the country a great deal more than the castle. And riding, which she’d been more than a little terrified of, she actually found she loved. She hadn’t dared to tell anyone, except Neve, that she’d never even been on a horse before. A donkey wasn’t quite the same, and she’d feared the derision that would bring. But like the language, riding came easily. So did being sore afterward, but the horse liked her as much as she’d liked it. She’d treated it rather like Díleas. She’d watched covertly as the other ladies had mounted, and realized she was being watched herself.
Either she was more athletic than most castle ladies, or she was mounted on a good mare, or her magic worked as well on horses as puppies, but those who expected her to fall off, or cling to the saddle, were disappointed. Meb spent a fair amount of time petting the dun, and talking to it. She had no idea if she was supposed to do that, but she wanted to, and did, leaning forward to whisper in the horse’s ear, telling it quietly where she wanted to go. It seemed to work, which was just as well, because the reins were something she was less than sure about what one did with.
“You have a fine seat, Lady Anghared,” commented one of the noblemen. “You need to watch that mare. She’s nasty-minded.”
Meb thought the seat could do with a bit more padding, if it was supposed to be so fine. And the mare seemed the sweetest-natured animal. But she knew very little about riding, so she settled for smiling.
The country near the castle showed signs of the devastation from the armies, but Meb could see it could be rich and fertile. There really wasn’t much game left on it though, and of course the farmhouses had been burned and there had been no crops in the fields for years, by the look of them.
The day’s hunting tally had been one feral pig, some songbirds and some rabbits. And, oddly enough to Meb, a glimpse of a nasty little grey-mottled alvlike face from among the rocks near a hilltop, grinning wickedly at her. No one else seemed to see it, but having seen one once, Meb saw several others. They vanished when they realized she was looking. Were they so normal here no one spoke about them? Or did no one else see them?
She wasn’t ready to ask.
They dismounted in the blackened ruins of a village — something that tore at Meb, remembering Cliff Cove, before the raiders. This was long-gutted and burned though, and the wilderness was reclaiming it. There remained, however, a fountain that bubbled out of a central rock and down into a stone bowl set among the winter-dead ferns. It overflowed into a long horse trough. The hunters went to drink, as did their horses. And, leaning against the stone, being sniffed and nuzzled by the dun mare, Meb saw something walking across her hand. She’d stripped off her gloves to drink, and had not put them on again as she was rubbing the mare’s nose. It was quite a large ant. She nearly brushed it off but something made her pause at the last moment, and peer closely at it.
It had an oddly human face, and it was staring at her, as intensely as she was staring at it.
“Excuse me,” she said to one of the nobles walking past. “What is this?”
“Your hand, Lady Anghared.” He seemed to find that funny.
“I mean walking on it.” Her tone told him she did not.
“It is an ant.” He reached out to flick it off.
She pulled her hand away. “I mean it has a face. Look.”
“It looks like an ant to me, lady. Mind you the neyfs believe they’re little people. They won’t harm them. Call them muryans.”
Meb put her hand against the rock and the ant walked off.
“Your steed has behaved?” asked the knight, seeing it reach out to nuzzle Meb.
“Oh yes. She’s lovely.”
They rode back to the castle. That felt like oppression, even if it was not a devastated ruin. Up on the seaward walls there was a great deal of construction going on. By the robe, Aberinn had finally emerged from the seclusion of his tower. She would have gone for a closer look, but for the thought of meeting him up there.
“She’s either ridden from an early age or we were misled about the horse,” said Prince Medraut to his aunt. “Aberinn has it fixed in his head, or at least he claims to believe that she is from the South, and it is somehow my doing to upset his prophecy. I think he is going mad.”
“He’s been mad for years,” said Lady Cardun. “You need him, though, Medraut. There is no one else with his knowledge or skill in the working of magic. You know that as well as I do. As for that…woman, he plainly dredged her up as an excuse to seek changes. She’s no lady. She has no knowledge of the feminine arts. She dresses her hair like a trollop and walks like a man. She cannot hold a conversation. The lower orders are fascinated with her, of course, just as Aberinn intended.”
“I had heard she had some skill with a needle,” said Prince Medraut, mildly.
“She couldn’t even follow the cartoon, Medraut. Trust me, it was merely some magical trick of Aberinn’s. Still, she is being watched all the time. She’s no lady, whoever she is. I would guess at a Lyon by-blow, but maybe from one of the other worlds. The product of rape on a raid out on the Ways somewhere.”
“I wish I could see just exactly how Aberinn plans to use her. Of course, the other possibility was that somehow she was a plant of Alois’s faction. But I don’t know how she dealt with that mare. That horse is supposed to be a killer. It even bit the groom bringing it to her.”
The queen of Shadow Hall had stared into her seeing pond, still seething with rage. She had put in so much effort to get the Angevins into a treaty with Ys. Queen Dahut was an insatiable slut, and it had been almost impossible to get her to cooperate on anything that wasn’t bedding her latest victim. Dahut killed them, which was something the queen of Shadow Hall could see the sense and value of. And then, just when Ys was seething with rage at Lyonesse, with the Eorls all demanding war, and not even fighting with other, which had taken her years of work and planning…Aberinn had somehow not opened the Ways to Ys.
But when she saw the cloud wall and the tongues of ice, she crowed and cackled and danced with glee.
What the mage had been setting up on the inner wall was a series of huge lenses. In the morning the men-at-arms were trying to aim the weak sunlight at the ice tongue, which was barely out of bowshot now. He was painting patterns around each of the devices, and in some way, they must be working because the chanting and drumming stopped, and what could only be swearing had started. Meb braced herself for the possibility of meeting Aberinn and went back to the wall.
The ice was dazzling with the brightness of the sunlight reflecting off it. It might just be spring here, but it was midsummer out there. The water around the floe was actually steaming making the black-cloaked army on it look even more monstrous than nature had managed. Even from here she could see that they were somewhat bigger than most men. Not giants as Meb thought of giants, but eight or nine cubits tall, she would guess. And even from here she could see that they would not win any contests for handsomeness. Their shapes were just wrong. Arms too long, or they were too squat and broad in the torso.