by Nancy Brown ((email@example.com)
copyright 1997, 2001
Disney and Buena Vista are the keepers of the cheese. The cheese takes them all.
This little tale goes together with "Do Not Go Gentle" and "More Than Half," and serves as a variety of prequel to them. Neither are required reading.
Sunlight poured into the West Tower like honey, warm and sweet on his face, against his lips. He stood at the window, watching the waves crash far out to sea, imagining briefly what it might be, must be like to be on a ship traveling over that vast expanse into the unknown.
Spring had returned to Ussex, after a bitter winter, colder than death some said. It had been so cold that on the worst nights even the gargoyles had taken refuge in the labyrinthine caves beneath the castle. He had heard them moving and mumbling in the walls just past his own chambers, and the sound had chilled him worse than the winds howling past. The creatures frightened him more than a little, with their powerful wings that could snap a boy's neck in one beat, their blood-curdling cries when they dove to an attacker. Defenders of the realm they might or might not be, but he'd rather they not come near him, lest one in bright-eyed rage forget for half a moment who was friend and who foe.
Even in the relative warmth of the day, he shivered at the thought. There had been an attack in late November, just after the first hard freeze. Marauders had come to the castle gates too near dusk. By morning, none still lived.
Turning his thoughts away from those images, the sight of the raiders' blood in his mind's eye enough even now to make his stomach roil, he sat cross-legged on the floor and looked idly at today's lesson.
It was a simple passage from the Aeneid, concerning the abrupt departure of Aeneas from Carthage, and the subsequent suicide of Dido. Not perhaps the most cheerful lesson for such a sunny afternoon, he thought glumly, but it was the next part of the story, and he would stay to the storyline as much as possible. It was the only thing to keep his pupil interested in the lesson; he refused to tell her how the tale ended, forcing her to read it herself to find out.
This particular story had seen them working since September. The cold had driven them out of the tower by mid-Autumn and down to the library, where the thin sunlight so late in the year did little to illuminate the spindly script on the page, and even less to warm the small fingers tracing the words. Katharine had been bundled in her thickest woolen cloak, huddling over the book as if to force it reveal its secrets to her. He'd wrapped his own thinner mantle around him protectively, envying her relative warmth, and then being ashamed at the thought. His cloak, indeed all his possessions, less rich though they might be than those of his student or the young lords who occasionally frequented the halls, were finer than he might ever have hoped to own had he remained in his village. Even with the great sum his former master had given his parents in exchange for his service, and the old man had reminded him of it every time he made the slightest error, which was to say every day, they could never have afforded such finery. To have more would be to ask God Himself for a boon.
With such thoughts would he chide himself, and pull his cloak closer to listen, and to correct when need be.
It had been his sixteenth winter, the longest of his life.
The news came in February that his mother had died giving birth to her eleventh child, although thus far only seven had made it to weaning. According to the terse message from his father, doubtless transcribed by Old Simon, who knew his letters, his youngest sibling was a girl who would be named after her mother if she survived. Though it had been hell's own cold that day, he'd brought the letter up here, and reread it again, crying to an ocean that heard nothing. He'd hidden that letter away, keeping it as precious as any talisman, for he knew beyond certainty it would be the last. That was the way of things.
The journey from his home village took less than a day on horseback. His family owned no horse, which made the journey significantly longer. With the fields to be tended and the two other children which they'd had by the day the Archmage had taken him off to learn his arcane secrets, the trip was nigh on impossible. Nevertheless, when he'd been officially presented to the Court, a full year after his first arrival, his parents had come with all three of his siblings. He'd been filled to bursting with pride that day, as had they for him. He'd been seven, still too new to see how poor and shabby his family's finest garments were in the eyes of the rest of the assembly. He had not then read the mocking, or worse, pitying glances, had known only that his parents would see him stand before the visiting King.
Five years and only one short visit had passed since then. He was one of the Court now, or at least he would be when his master taught him more of the ways of magic. He could look back and be ashamed for his parents, knowing they would not have realized how very much their homespun clashed rudely against the fripperies of the rest. He could recall his father's loud statements, which had won many an argument in their village by virtue of volume, and cringe with the memory of just how badly the man had humiliated himself without knowing it.
He tried not to think about that as he cleaned their chamber. The Court had a short memory; some would no doubt still hold that in evidence against his being allowed to advance, claiming he had poor breeding, but most would have forgotten the blusters of a peasant years ago. He hoped they would not be reminded when his mother arrived, which was to be before nightfall if she and those she'd travelled with had not been waylaid.
He'd swept the floor twice, making certain not a crumb remained, nor a speck of dust. His master had grumbled at him that his mother ought to visit every day if that was what it took to get any work out of him. He'd taken the words as he'd learned to, quietly and with an accepting nod. Pointing out how he'd swept the floor, stoked the fire at odd hours of the night, chased rats, cooked herbs, located buttons and books within minutes, threaded needles, run errands without number, and still found hours to devote to his studies every day since his arrival would only earn him a box on the ears. Worse, he'd probably be made to clean the flagstones in the passages beyond, and other than being grimy, they crawled with spiders and beetles. He'd be utterly filthy by the time his mother arrived, and then *she* would fuss at him for not keeping clean.
He forced himself to sit still. Their chamber was spotless as far as he could make it. Every pot lay gleaming on its hook, every book was in its place on the shelf, titles poking out to the curious. His mother, who had learned to write her own name and whose education stopped there, would at least be able to see that he was learning. If his master allowed it, he might even read to her from one of their less dangerous tomes, and she would be able to go back home and tell the rest of their family he knew his letters better than Old Simon.
Time passed slowly as he sat ostensibly reading from Aquinas, really listening for the sound of feet in the passageway. He'd rather be up in the castle proper, waiting for her by the portcullis, but his master ordered him stay, in case he needed him for something in the interim. The thought of his mother having to walk the long passage in the darkness was almost enough to enkindle thoughts of mutiny in him. She would be fine, he told himself. A guard would probably walk with her, with a torch to light the way.
It was nearly dark, or at least what he presumed would be dark as their chamber had no windows, when he heard the long- anticipated step in the passageway. A strong rap on the door confirmed that one of the guard had indeed accompanied her.
"Who is it?" called his master in an annoyed tone he knew too well.
"There's a woman here to see yer boy," came the response. He was developing a knack for voices, and placed this one easily: a younger guard, second son to their last Captain of the Guard, dead now two winters. Neither of his boys would ever be the kind to take their father's place, but both were good-hearted. He was glad his mother had met one of them rather than some of the other men in the Prince's employ.
That was another thing he was learning quickly. When he slipped among the other residents of the castle, often as little more than a wraith as he performed some task or another, he had flashes of *something* from those he passed. Some were warm, cozy, familiar. Other flashes were darker, more disturbing. He'd pass one of the kitchen maids in the hallway, and suddenly know without words that she'd given her bairns a thrashing before going about her day. He would be loitering just outside the Great Hall, trying to find a reason not to return to his studies, when a young noble would walk near, and he'd have an image of the man drenched in another's blood. He'd learned to avoid those who gave him the bad feelings, and that dampened them somewhat. Except ...
Lately, he'd been getting the same kinds of flashes from his master, and it scared him. At night, as the old devil lay snoring, he'd see visions of Prince Malcolm grown blue and bloated, knowing the thoughts to be his master's and stifling the screams in his own throat before they woke him.
He risked a glance now to his master, who sat at his stool, as if pondering whether or not to allow her inside. He had a sudden feeling he would not, that he would send her away again unseen just on a whim. He fought the urge to run to the door and throw it wide without an order.
"I suppose she must, then," he said after a long silence. "Boy, get the door."
He walked calmly to the door, trying not to float, and unlatched it. He still hadn't the foggiest why they had to keep it locked all the time, and at the moment, he didn't care. At the sight of his mother's tired but beautiful face, he thought of nothing else save running into her arms.
"Ian," she said, squeezing him though not tightly, then finally pulling him away enough to get a good look at him. "My goodness, but you've grown!" There were tears bright in her eyes, as she tugged him back to her for another embrace.
The guard coughed, and she smiled. "Thank you, kind sir, for escorting me here."
"My pleasure," he said, which was something he didn't have to say and thus made it all the better. They didn't watch him leave, let him and the torch he carried fade out of their lives like snow before a new sun.
"Boy!" said his master imperiously, and he immediately snapped to attention out of his mother's arms. "You may have the evening free."
He slackened. Was it true? Would he actually be allowed to spend time with her? "Tha-- Thank you," he stammered.
His master waved his hand. "I need silence for my work tonight. Show her the grounds. But be back by midnight. I'll not have you gone to let the fire die tonight."
"Yes, sir!" He beamed.
"Madame," his master said, inclining his head in the direction of her mother. It would be all the acknowledgement he would give her.
Ian, though he never thought of himself by that name anymore, took his mother's hand and a rush torch, and headed back the way she'd come to show her the castle proper.
The sound of footsteps, tiny and well-clad, roused him from his thoughts. Sure enough, the trapdoor opened and Katharine rushed through in a swirl of blue gown, closing it carefully behind her.
"I'm not late. You're always too early."
"If I'm too early, why is the sun sinking?"
"Because it got bored with Latin and decided to sleep instead." She blinked at him, daring him to contradict her.
"Perhaps it would rather explain to its father the moon why it hasn't been learning its lessons then."
To that she replied with a foul look. He'd won this round, and felt peculiarly pleased.
"Do you remember where we were?"
"In the book."
"Rumour was scouring the land, telling everyone that Dido planned to share her throne with Aeneas, perhaps even making him king over her."
"Good." At least she hadn't forgotten everything in the intervening weeks since their last lesson. "Let's begin with that passage, then."
"But we did that one already!"
"You can use the refresher."
She glowered at him again, but dutifully ran her finger down the book until she found the correct passage. He had at least opened the book to the right page. As she read it aloud, first in the Latin, then roughly translated it, he found his eyes being drawn to the page's border. The scribe who'd copied this version had been either a genius or a madman. He was never quite certain, and didn't really wish to know. The border on this page had faces, blank but somehow managing expression nonetheless, with mouths and hands to ears, in a large circle signifying the rumours circulating through the doomed city.
Little voices, he thought, and dismissed the thought before it took root and reminded him of the little voices within himself, whispering secrets he should not have known. He concentrated instead on Katharine's voice, stumbling through the words as he had when he'd first learned them.
"Have you been practicing your declension?" he asked her suddenly as she snared herself on the ablative form of civitas.
"Your Highness," he sighed.
"It's boring! Why must I learn the difference between dative and ablative forms?"
"So you can finish the book," he said reasonably.
"And then what?" She folded her arms, no longer interested in reading.
"You read the next book, and the next." Couldn't she see? Opening up her world to the words of the past was like to opening her to worlds untasted.
"And what happens when Father marries me off to some ugly old lord with more land than brains who only wants a wife to raise babies and look pretty when he comes to see Uncle Kenneth?!" Her breath was ragged, almost hitching, and her eyes were wild.
He set the book aside, then sat down next to her. "What happened?" he asked mildly.
She put her hands in her lap. "I was late because I was listening in on Father's meeting with Wheezer." He smiled; between them they'd found nicknames for every nobleman who'd strutted through the gates. Wheezer was a well-landed gentleman from the south with an annoying habit of talking through his nose, who made the journey to see Malcolm about twice a year, stayed until the entire castle was ready to see him leave, then would go bother King Kenneth for a month. "Wheezer reminded Father that he had a son of marrying age, and that it might be," she straightened her shoulders, stoppered her nose, and said in a dead-on imitation, "'practical,'" she dropped the pretense, "for them to consider joining forces, as it were."
He frowned. He'd met Wheezer Junior once. "Your father would never marry you against your will to that family." He made a joke of it, "We'd have to put them up twice as often if they were close relatives."
She giggled. "You're right, Father would *never* consent to that." She grew more solemn. "But the problem remains. If it's not Wheezer's son, it'll be someone else, maybe someone worse. I don't know if I could face marrying someone worse than Wheezer."
"He wouldn't do that to you."
"Uncle Kenneth would."
She was right, however unfortunate that might be. The King was a good man, as kings went, but the throne of Scotland was never completely secure. If the need arose, he wouldn't hesitate using his unmarried niece as a tool to keep his unruly lieges in line. Malcolm couldn't dare oppose him if he ordered it lest he risk a war. There was also the matter of the Prince's failing health, a fact which neither of them had ever voiced, but which was a subtext to much of their lives. When he died, a great many things were likely to change, and they both feared those changes.
She unexpectedly lay her head against his arm. He almost jumped, but did not. They were alone; no one would scold them for being brazen wantons. He shifted himself a little, so she would be more comfortable.
"You were a peasant," she said without preamble or apology.
"It must be nice, to be able to choose what you're going to do with your life instead of always being told." He didn't disavow her of her charming, if quite mistaken, opinion. She had no way of knowing, and if he tried to explain, she would not understand.
"Ian, it's breathtaking," said his mother, staring all around her at the tapestries in awe. The Great Hall was something to see, he would admit, although technically they weren't supposed to be in there. However, it was nearing midnight. The Prince had long since retired for the evening, as had most of the household. The only ones still stirring were the gargoyles outside, and a few guards within. The two on duty before the Great Hall knew him on sight, and for whatever reason, liked him enough to allow his mother one quick go-round through the room.
"It's small but it will suffice," he said, twinkling his eyes to let her in on the jest. Her gentle smile told him she'd understood perfectly.
As they reluctantly left the Hall behind, he let himself enjoy her company, and also the lack of his father's. While he respected the man, feared him with the awe of a child who'd felt his strong hand on his backside more than once, he had never really felt completely at ease in his presence. He wouldn't have thought about it, hadn't in fact, until he'd observed the change in the manner his father had with his then two brothers. With them, he was similarly stern, making them do as much work as Ian had at their ages, but there were differences. He didn't watch either of them like they might turn around and bite him at any moment. He didn't send them out after dark to fetch water, even when the elder of the two had been five! And the most important thing of all, he hadn't bid his wife ready either of the others when the Archmage had come to town looking for a pupil. Although he'd come to the castle to see Ian twice, both times he'd spoken less than a sentence to his son, and left as soon as he could.
Like an opposing breeze against a storm wind, his mother had filled his ears with kind words and bits of gossip, and when she hadn't been there, she'd sent letters written by Old Simon to let him know about the rhythms of their lives, the births, the deaths, the plantings, the harvests. While she might not be called doting, she had always given him a soft touch on his head after he'd been scolded, a sweet smile when he brought her something from the fields surrounding the village. When his fingers had blistered from pulling weeds, she'd tended them. When the Archmage had counted out his coins to his father, she'd cried. That had been half his life ago, a time relegated to the foggiest of memories, yet at the center of each one, she stood, smiling and encouraging him to make them proud.
They made their way quietly down to the chamber, and he tapped in the special way on the door. His master shuffled around inside for several minutes before finally unlatching it and allowing them entrance. His mother thanked the man, receiving only a grunt in response. Ian ran to check the fire, noting in passing that several of the books had been taken down and were laying about, and that a fine white powder covered the Grimorum.
He'd learned long ago not to ask.
His master allowed him to pull his sleeping palette near to the fire, warning him only to not roll into it during the night, and settled in his own bed. Ian made his palette as comfortable as he could, and he and his mother lay down to sleep.
In the midst of the night, he woke to his master's snoring, as always. He checked the fire, found it roaring as his master liked it, and tried without success to settle back to sleep.
The firelight settled on his mother like a halo. For the first time since her arrival, he had the chance to really look at her. He almost wished he hadn't.
It had been three years since her last visit. In the interim, she'd given birth to two more babes, adding to the four already at home and him. The younger of the two had caught a fever and died at three weeks. It had been that which made his father assent to her taking the journey to see him. Had the baby lived, she would be at home suckling it. That drew his attention to her breasts, which he studied absently. The ghostly mouths of her babies still tugged at them, he fancied, dragging them into sad lumps rather than the firm pillows of his memories. He could also see clearly now how there was more grey than brown in her hair, silver fading into white.
Like mine, he thought. His mother was aging and becoming more like him. He had a peculiar image of her shrinking, becoming a little girl with white hair, coming to live with his master and him to help chase away the rats.
He took her hand.
There was a spell his master had taught him a few years back, "a parlour trick to entertain the idiots upstairs," as he'd put it, which didn't require the Book. He closed his eyes.
Within his mind, the fire grew, casting light through his mother, making her glow. If he chose, he could make it visible, let her light up the room. That would waken his master, though. He kept the light internal.
She was surrounded by gold. A nimbus of pure energy seeped from her in his thoughts, poked through with bright flashes of blue. He'd seen those before, knew them to be evidence of the Sight. So he'd received it from her family, he thought, and filed the notion away. Other streaks also interlaced the gold, dark bands. In the people he didn't like to be near, the bands signified hate, hurt, anger. He'd never known his mother to have any of the above, and went deeper, trying to determine what they meant.
He pulled away from her, breaking the link. She stirred but did not waken. What kind of sickness ate away from within, but left no traces on the face other than fatigue and the ever-present touch of years? He didn't know, was afraid to know. His mother was dying.
It wasn't fair! She had always been so kind, so caring. It wasn't right! It wasn't ...
It wasn't necessary.
With a fullness of knowledge such as he usually felt only when finishing a long book, he understood that he could make her better, knew the face and form of the spell to do it. He faltered. His master would never allow him. He had only worked a few rudimentary spells, and those from the Grimorum. If the Archmage were to discover him working magic on his own, he'd beat him to an inch of his life, and maybe past that inch.
He had to follow his training.
He had to help his mother.
Really, it wasn't that difficult of a choice.
He brought himself to a sitting position and reestablished contact with her, holding her hand lightly in his own. Now that he'd made up his mind, he knew precisely what to do. He gathered the image of her, surrounded by the discolored halo, and like an artist, began brushing the dark places with light, borrowing from the blue as need be.
Magic worked through him.
If he'd been older, he would have thought the touch of the power inside him to be like a lover's, stroking his inner self towards a glorious Light he could not fathom. He became the Light, and with it, the darkness which was just the Light delayed. Should his master waken in the midst, he would not care. This was what it meant to be a Shaper, a Wielder, a Mage. As long as he lived, the flow of the power through him would bring him back to this moment, when he sat by a sleeping woman returning her life to her through his fingertips.
The process took over an hour, for he needed to be careful so as not to miss a single spot. When he was satisfied, he let her hand go. The magic fled him, leaving him too weak to remain upright. He shuddered, no longer strong enough to even draw his legs against himself. He lay back and closed his eyes.
"She ordered them to build a ship?" Katharine looked up at him, making certain she'd translated it correctly. He nodded. Her anger, not really directed at him, had faded, and they'd returned to their studies. The sun was falling fast in the sky. Soon it would be time to go downstairs to the Dining Hall. He hoped they finished before then.
Katharine, despite her reluctant interest in the story, was more interested in procrastinating. She sat back and stretched. "That sounds like a grand idea."
He played along. "What does?"
"Let's build a ship and sail away. We can leave on the tide, and go adventuring."
"Where would Your Highness like to go?"
"Normandy," she said instantly. "I have kin there."
"So you do. What would we tell them when we arrived?"
"That we're fleeing the clutches of an evil monarch."
"Who happens to be your favorite uncle."
"Don't bring logic into this."
"Very well. What if your kinsmen didn't believe us?"
She thought about this. "We could become pirates!"
"Yes!" She nodded. "We'll terrorize the seas with our fearsome cry: 'Veni vini vici!'" She offered a wide grin, and he fell over laughing.
"Your uncle would have us both hanged for treason."
"I wouldn't have to marry Wheezer."
"You do have a point, Your Highness." They went back to the text.
He woke with a sandal in his side.
"Get up!" When he didn't move fast enough, he was yanked upwards by his ear. He yelped.
"You used magic last night, didn't you!" The old man's voice spat murder. There was nothing he could do. He tried to nod. "What?"
He ear throbbed as he was shaken by it. "Couldn't resist showing off, could you? Spoiled little whelp, I should cast you into the sea!"
He kept still. Moving only made it hurt more. If he was motionless, the blows, when they came, wouldn't bruise as badly. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Sorry? 'Sorry' he says! Have you learned *nothing* about magic?! You must study for years before undertaking the smallest endeavour! But no, my apprentice knows better than that, does he? Takes the Grimorum while I sleep to show off to Mummy?!" His voice had risen in pitch and intensity. His mother's eyes were open, but she hadn't yet moved. He was reminded of one too many scenes like this, but his father had been shaking him. He fought back tears.
"I didn't touch the Grimorum," he managed to say between shakes.
"And now he lies to me." His master's free hand slapped him like a child. In front of his mother.
"I'm not lying!" he shouted suddenly, startling his master enough to drop his grip. He rubbed his ear to bring back the circulation. His master's eyes narrowed.
"Don't make me destroy you, boy."
"Check it," he said sullenly. "Whatever spell you worked last night left dust all over. Check to see I haven't touched it."
"I don't need to check. You cannot work a spell without the Book." His old hands looked deceptively weak. That didn't stop the blow against his other ear to ring any less. And if he resisted, it would be worse.
Why had he been so foolish?
"The room reeks of magic, boy." Another blow. "Your magic rather than mine." Another. "I have told you time and again what you can and cannot do. I will not tolerate disobedience." Another.
His mother stood up. "Please. I asked him to. It isn't his fault."
As she'd been asleep during the entire working, it was a complete lie. It did stop the punishment, however.
His master looked at her, through her, seeing perhaps something that should not have been there. "Get out," he told her. "If you so much as think of returning, all your children and grandchildren will regret it."
She bit her lips, and with a single sorrowful stare to Ian, she turned and walked out into the passageway.
"Now, boy, clean up this place. I may allow you to live." He pulled on his robes and stalked out, probably to make certain his mother left.
The room was indeed a shambles, more so than he'd realized the night before. He took a deep shuddering breath, considered following his mother back to their village and never worrying about magic or anything else again, all the while knowing he could not forget what had happened to him before the fire. Like some potion that, once sipped, called to be tasted again, the magic pulled at him to stay, to learn, to feel its rapture once more.
He took down the broom, started to sweep near the damnable Grimorum, and stopped. The Book drew him. Still careful not to touch it, lest he lose his once chance at redemption, he stared at the page to which it was open.
Many things began to make sense.
He dropped the broom, and made his way like a ghost through the passageway.
It took forever, or so it seemed, to reach the Great Hall. The guards on duty were not the same as those who had been during the night, and refused him entrance. He couldn't tell them why he needed to get inside, and his heart broke inside with fear and knowledge.
The guards sent him away, leaving him to haunt the corners, watching in terror lest his master discover him wandering and *really* do him harm for what he knew.
"Ian," came a hiss.
His mother waited in a shadow of her own. He moved to her, and embraced her. She stroked his cheek, where he could feel the bruises starting to form. "My poor boy, what has he done?" More tears threatened.
"Mother," he said in a low voice, "how did you escape him?"
"Escape? Child, he doesn't want anything to do with me. And I fear, with you either. What did you do to anger him?"
"I worked a spell," he admitted.
"Did you touch his book?"
"No. I did it myself."
"I believe you." The simple statement meant more to him than he could say. "He said you couldn't work a spell without it."
"I can do a few things without it. Not much." That led him back to his reason for running. "Mother, you must flee this place. Something awful is going to happen. I can't explain, just go before you're caught in it as well."
"I'll do no such thing. I came to see you, Ian."
"He wasn't joking when he said he could harm you. Or anyone. Mother, I think he's planning on killing Prince Malcolm!" The words were out before he could pull them back.
"Then you must tell the Prince," she said simply, as if stating he should plant after the last frost.
"He wouldn't believe me," he said miserably. He pointed to his face. "Were I to show up like this, everyone would think it was because he punished me. I don't have any evidence." He thought of the open page on the Grimorum. It wouldn't be enough.
"Then why do you think he's planning something?"
"Because ... Because ... " Trying to explain about the dark flashes would be impossible. He tried anyway. "I feel it."
"All right," she said very quietly, and in that instant, there was a truth to her he'd never known, a truth saying this sturdy woman was no kin of his, nor was the rough man he'd called Father.
The truth spoke of half-heard whispers from his youth, as a pale slim child so unlike his siblings, had shades of unkind words at his true origins. The truth in her eyes also said it didn't matter to her, that blood might be thicker than water, but some things were thicker than blood.
"I'll go. It'll be safer for you if I do. You have to decide what to tell the Prince. You're a good boy. You'll do the right thing."
She'd hugged him to her one last time, strength flowing in her like a different kind of magic. She was going to live, he thought, and if he never worked another spell in his life, he'd chosen well the one to do. "Goodbye, my Ian."
"Goodbye, Mother." No, not the truth, but part of the truth, he thought, his mind spinning. Whoever his real mother had been, she had not been the one to watch over him thus far. Later, much later, he would wonder who and what she had been, but that did not matter as the woman he would always consider his true mother slipped from his arms and made her way to the portcullis.
He turned so as not to watch her go, and went back to the Great Hall. He would make them let him in, if it took all the magics in the world.
He carried the book as they made their way down the steep staircase. Katharine was still quiet from having read of Dido's fiery death. He regretted making her finish the passage after all; considering the day's events, it probably wasn't the best idea to be putting such thoughts in her head. Dido had killed herself rather than live without love. He didn't think Katharine would be so foolish, but then again, he could remember how desperate things looked when one was twelve and believed the world to be ending.
It hadn't ended when he'd been twelve. He'd finally told Prince Malcolm his suspicions, and sure enough, he'd been all but called a liar. His master could have easily written it off as puerile retribution, and nothing would have come of it. Had he been more patient and less overconfident, had he ignored his student's ravings, had he simply stayed low for a while, he might have finished his planning, and successfully toppled the Prince and then the King. Instead, perhaps made anxious by the accusation, he'd made his bid for Malcolm's rule that same night. There had been battles, and his former master had poisoned the Prince, and the leader of the gargoyles had taken his two best warriors to reclaim the Grimorum. His master was dead, and the Book was in their chamber. His chamber, he reminded himself, not for the first time.
The four years had passed quietly. There were still skirmishes at the gates, fought by the guards by day and the gargoyles by night. He'd been made Court Sorcerer in lieu of his master, and in belated recognition of his attempt to offer some warning. He spent his days trying to learn as much as he could from the Book, knowing that without further training, it was his only source of power and thus his only way of recapturing the great magic he'd touched.
Prince Malcolm, while healed from the poison, had never completely recovered from the earlier blow of Princess Elena's sudden death. Although he was growing more ill by the passing days, he politely refused further magical treatment. Always a strong man, he would hold onto his life until the very last moment, and drink his last breath dry of spirit before he surrendered it. With that outlook, he might yet survive them all.
Thus had life continued.
He glanced down at Katharine. Of all others in the castle, children or adults, she was the only one who didn't fear or ridicule him. He was likewise the only one she could talk with as they had up in the tower without worry it would get back to her father. It was an odd friendship they had, he knew, and one surely destined to change if Malcolm indeed did succumb to the darkness eating away at his own core of light.
He wasn't sure he liked that thought. He was quite certain he didn't like the notion of her being wed to Wheezer's son, or any of the other lords who'd come calling. She wasn't a child any more, true; the swellings in her sea-blue gown, which he'd been painfully trying to ignore all afternoon, bespoke well that the time would soon come when she would need take a husband.
As they stepped into the anteroom from the tower steps, she flashed a smile at him, and said very softly, "Thank you."
A cold chill, not entirely unpleasant, moved down his back. He pulled the book against him, wanting suddenly to say many things.
"If the weather is bright, we'll continue tomorrow." That hadn't been one of them, but it would do.
"Amici est, ver es," she replied, and half-skipped away to ready for the evening meal.
Where there are friends, there is Spring. Close enough, anyway. They'd have to work on her translation skills more in the coming days and weeks.
He thought of spending all his sunny days up in the West Tower with Katharine, reading old stories until they ran out of books, then perhaps making stories of their own.
As he went to prepare for supper, he dared to hope very quietly and very hard for an eternity of sunny days.