|Pretence of Strength
Author: WhiteHare PM
Jonathan is a talented juggler and a passable tumbler. He has a volatile temper, a chip on his shoulder, a Torenthi best friend and a terror of Deryni. Mainly OCs although some canon characters appear later in the story.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy - Chapters: 26 - Words: 66,407 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 3 - Updated: 06-18-11 - Published: 06-02-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7044027
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
All of the troupe had arrived early at Coroth Castle, András and the others from Sandor's house as usual and Jonathan from whatever bolthole he had found himself the previous night. They had circled each other uneasily, none outwardly hostile yet none making any move towards a reconciliation. Cadeno in particular maintained a resentful silence around Jonathan, who sat quietly by himself, reflecting on the events of the day before. That in itself was uncanny; in a situation like this Jonathan would normally have been a bundle of nerves, pacing and fretting. They all regarded him warily as if expecting him to snap at any moment, yet his only sign of anxiety was a tapping of his foot and fingering of the beads which once more hung at his belt. He had felt calmer since his talk with Father Duncan, more at peace with himself, but couldn't quite put his finger on why – on what exactly had passed between them to set his mind at rest.
Diran skulked around like a beaten dog; he hovered between the two camps, not knowing where he belonged, wanting to be close to Jonathan yet scared of what his mentor had done.
Eventually András seized the initiative, standing amongst them all and saying, "We need to work together for one more evening. After that... well it's anyone's guess what happens. It wouldn't surprise me if we never see each other again. But for this one time we need to be a group – put the job before our feelings – get it done and get out. We'll do the alternate routine, leaving Jonathan to do his rope act only. Agreed?"
There were some quiet rumbles of agreement. András looked directly at Jonathan. "Agreed?" Jonathan gave a terse nod of assent and András went across to speak directly to him, addressing him urgently in an undertone. "Are you fit to do this?"
Jonathan nodded. "And I'm fit to do the rest of it, too. You didn't need to cut me out."
"That's more for our benefit than yours. I'm not sure how keen everyone is to work with you after what's happened recently. I wouldn't put it past Cadeno to throw one of the knives a bit more enthusiastically than strictly necessary. Tell me the truth, Jonathan; are you going to get through this act?"
"I can do it." Angrily, Jonathan dropped his gaze and went back to his incessant foot tapping, one thumbnail digging into the carving in the chair back.
András went back and sat in his place, rubbing his eyes wearily. Ilyeana put an arm round his waist and muttered words of encouragement in his ear.
In due course they were fetched to the great hall. It was a bustle of activity; servants cleaned and polished and set out table wares while squires, pages and tiring maids attending on the many gentry who were present.
The troupe tried as best they could to watch what was going on and wonder at the opulence of the place and the people while still staying out of harms way. A minstrel was giving the seneschal, Lord Hamilton, a hard time about something and Jonathan briefly saw Lord Derry as he passed by on some mission or other, but made very sure that Derry didn't see him: he didn't think he had made a very good impression on the young Marcher lord the previous day.
Lord Hamilton came to speak with them shortly before the feast was due to begin – ensuring that they knew when they were due to entertain and the etiquette they were to follow when in the hall. Jonathan's failsafe method of bowing to everyone on the assumption that they outranked him would not suffice here – there were niceties to be followed and hierarchies to be observed, and he was convinced that he would make a gaffe at some stage of the proceedings.
The evening passed off without incident. Jonathan juggled on the sidelines, trying not to chafe at being excluded but understanding their reasons. He was apprehensive when he climbed that rope for his big moment – where he had longed for all eyes to be on him, now he was acutely aware of everyone watching him, expecting a mistake after the events of the previous day. He cast a quick glance towards high table, then wished he hadn't – the sight of the king and a fair chunk of the nobility of Gywnedd watching intently made his stomach churn and he had to stop for a moment to regain his concentration.
He looked towards the rest of the troupe, who were clearly willing him to succeed, despite their differences. Ilyeana gave him what he guessed was intended to be a reassuring smile, but he could see her biting her lip with nerves and almost crushing András's large hand with her tiny one.
Jonathan had craved an act that would draw all eyes to him and he had achieved that. Before he had been part of the background, anonymous as he juggled for the entertainment of people more concerned with the wine in their cup or the lady at their side, but now he was the centre of interest. The whole hall watched intently as he showed them an act the likes of which they had never seen before.
His routine was almost flawless – he could feel himself tensing at some of the particularly strenuous parts, anticipating the pain that had dogged him for months, and some of the moves weren't as fluid as they might have been - but it was good enough. When he wrapped the rope round himself for the final drop he could hear the hall take a deep collective breath and hold it – word had got around about how András had his accident. He knew he had set it up right – he just knew he had – but even he sent up a silent prayer before allowing the rope to play out through his hands and letting himself plummet towards the floor.
Jonathan always got the rush of adrenaline as he fell in the warehouse, even knowing that bundles of hay were breaking his fall, but this was different and as he came to a halt mere inches from the flagstones he started to shake. His legs were like jelly as he regained his feet and bowed low to the high table, trying to remember what he had been told of the correct protocol through a fog of euphoria and adrenalin.
The seneschal ushered them out of the hall quickly – no time to enjoy his exhilaration, there were other performers to be given their chance. They were due to come back in to do some simple juggling acts as the feast wound down but Hamilton was taking no chances of any unfortunate incidents in the royal presence. The whole troupe were in high spirits and for a time managed to forget their differences in the dizziness of the moment, but Jonathan soon noticed the frostiness reappearing. Their moment of solidarity – of togetherness – was over as quickly as it had come and Jonathan sat alone to one side once more. Ilyeana went over to him. "That was amazing. It looked so much better up in the roof of the hall than in the warehouse."
Jonathan nodded briefly and mumbled, "Thanks," but Ilyeana soon became awkward around his cool reserve and returned to András, flicking worried glances in Jonathan's direction now and again. Couldn't she see that he didn't feel like talking? His whole life was about to change and he was going to have to relinquish control of a large part of it – although, he reflected, he hadn't been in too much control of his life just recently anyway.
He went out with the rest of them to juggle at the end, but high table had mostly cleared, with just one or two seats still occupied by people staying on to enjoy the festivities. They didn't see the King or Duke Alaric or Father Duncan again, but were ushered away behind the scenes.
Lord Hamilton came to give them their payment and also had two letters for Jonathan. "This one is from His Grace for the master of the Rhafallia giving you passage as far as Desse. She leaves in two days - be sure you are there. And this one is for Father Michael at St Maccul's in Desse from Father Duncan. He says you know what it's about." He sniffed. "And fortunate you are that they took an interest in you, lad, by all accounts."
"Thank you, my lord."
At the end of the evening, after they had divided the money and the others were making ready to leave, Ilyeana lingered behind. "We're setting off in the morning," she said gently, "I didn't want to go without saying goodbye."
Jonathan nodded. It hurt him that András had left without telling him, just exchanging a brief handshake as if it were any other day. "Did the lad get his money?"
"Yes, he was upset when we told him he was coming home with us, Jonathan. He wants to go with you. He says he'll help take care of you."
"I know," Jonathan's voice thickened, "and he'd do his best but I can't take him. Ilyeana, you must make him understand that. The money from this won't last me long and I need to get away from all this. I need to get well again."
Two days later, Jonathan was aboard the Rhafallia as it prepared to return the King and his party to Rhemuth. Jonathan was hastily bundled below decks, out of the way of crew and nobility alike, which did nothing to help his usual seasickness. It was with great relief that he disembarked from the ship at Desse harbour after the other passengers were safely departed.
It all seemed so familiar to him. The same places he had hung around as a child looking for work and where he had first seen Jackson and Randall and the other jugglers - all still there, all exactly the same. Only he had changed, and not entirely for the better.
He opened his belt pouch and withdrew the remains of his last cake of charis. He had kept taking it over the past few days of waiting in Coroth and then the sea journey. He knew the process of ridding himself of it would be painful and wanted to feel more secure before he started. But here, on the docks where it had all begun, he knew he had to start anew. Resisting the urge to break off one last chunk, he steeled himself and threw the block far out into the water through crowds of seagulls wheeling and circling above the waves.
There, it was gone.
He knew it was up to him now. The Duke of Corwyn had repaired his body, now it was time for him to repair his mind and he prayed that Father Michael would be there to help him. If not... Jonathan didn't even want to think of the alternative. He had seen it too often on his travels and he still had enough pride not to want to slip that far.
He checked his belt. His remaining letter was still securely thrust through it. Jonathan had no idea what Father Duncan had said, but he hoped it would be enough to convince Father Michael to take him in.
His feet carried him to Saint Maccul's without him needing to guide them, it seemed, his old pathways calling to him. He could have been twelve years old again, off running errands for the priest and finding odd jobs where he could. His hand rested on the same worn patch of the doorframe where many hands had rested before, and he pushed the door open. The hinge creaked; it had hadn't done that years ago and the dissonance jarred him out of his memories.
The noise alerted the man standing just inside the door to his presence. Surely it couldn't be? His face was lined and careworn, hair greyer than it had been, but the unmistakeable blue eyes of Father Michael shone out of the face as he smiled, ready to greet a stranger into his church. He stopped, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he studied Jonathan, and his face softened as he stepped forward and said, "Surely it can't be? Jonathan?" The priest laid a hand on his arm and looked worriedly into his face, "Are you ill, son?"
Jonathan staggered against the door frame, relief flooding him at finally being homa again. He gulped back tears and dropped to his knees in front of his oldest friend. "Father, please help me. I've been such a fool."
It had been a long walk from the Beldour river. He had taken a boat as far as he could, but his own legs had had to carry him a good many miles over the past few days. Gradually the scenery became more familiar, and then after the last town the track had become one that he had travelled many times over the years. When the house came into view he stood and looked for a while – it had seemed so big when he had seen it many years before, but those years had taken him to manors and castles, and it no longer looked as imposing.
As he watched, a figure came out of the door, carrying a bucket towards the well in the courtyard – a figure he knew so well. For a moment he wondered what he was doing there and considered turning and going back the way he had come, but she looked up and stared in his direction, as if sensing another presence nearby.
There was a moment before she recognised him and then she began walking down the track towards him. A smile spread over her face as she walked, slowly to start with, then faster, and eventually held her arms out to him. He covered the last yards between them with a few quick strides and swept her up into his arms. "Ilyeana!"
They embraced warmly, and then he drew back and looked at her. "It's so good to see you. You look... happy."
She blushed and rested her hands on her swollen belly. "I am. You look healthy. The last time I saw you there was such pain in your eyes. What brings you here?"
"I had a job in Sostra, so I thought I'd carry on a bit further and see you." He grinned. "I'd forgotten how far you were from Sostra, though. You really are in the armpit end of Torenth here." He glanced at her belly – a couple of months to go, by the looks of her. "Do you know what it is?"
She beamed. "It's a boy. I've been trying to talk András into calling him János, but he's not convinced. Rikard wants Támas, so you can imagine how well that went down."
He laughed. "I can't see a son of András' ever being called János – or Támas for that matter – way too much water under that particular bridge. Two sons, eh? That will keep you busy."
She smiled and took his hand. "Hanja has had daughters for both of us – two girls and a boy so far. Come and see András. He'll be pleased to see you."
"Are you sure? I wasn't sure whether to come – whether he'd want anything to do with me after what happened. But I need to apologise. I need to explain that it wasn't really me that did those things. If he won't listen then at least I'll have tried." He sighed. "Father Michael said if I felt I had to do it I should go ahead and try, but now I'm here I'm really not sure it's such a good idea. I nearly turned back five times in the last couple of miles."
"Well I'm glad you didn't. I'm sure he'll listen. You were like a brother to him." She cocked her head on her side and looked at him. "We've all changed since then: you most of all, maybe. Are you truly recovered, Jonathan?"
He laid his hand on his chest. "I promise. No more charis for me, ever. I don't take anything stronger than ale now." As he said it he meant it, but he knew how hard it was sometimes – that out of habit he reached for his belt pouch and his knife from time to time. That he whittled on pieces of wood for hours at a time some days, just to give him something to do when the cravings set in.
Even as she looked into his eyes, seeing the truth of his words but also some hint of what it had cost him, a voice cried out from the edge of the woods. The voice was familiar, yet deeper than he remembered. And the figure that flew along the pathway towards him was different too – the person nearly a hand span taller than Jonathan now, and broader too. But the beam that wreathed his face was the same as its owner flung himself at the bemused traveller. "Jonathan! Master Jonathan! You came back!"
They walked up the track together, Jonathan with Diran on one arm and Ilyeana on the other both holding him as if they sensed his readiness to take flight. "He talks about you, you know. I really think he misses you. Please, Jonathan. You both need to do this – to be reconciled again. There may be harsh words said, but I'm sure it will work out in the end." She squeezed his hand reassuringly and went to the door, calling, "András! Come and see who has come to visit!"