The Lighthouse Duet
Breath and Bone
by Carol Berg
Prior Nemesio and I trod slowly along the shelf path. Wind had piled snow up against the cliff, and subsequent melting and freezing had left small glaciers along the way.
"Are you having second thoughts, pureblood?" asked Nemesio, blowing on his rag-wrapped fingers to warm them. "Why would Brother Gildas choose this particular spot to hide a body when any of these gullies would do? Perhaps you'll tell me this is the wrong location after all."
There was no mistake. "He chose this place because killing Gerard was not his object. He wanted to kill the Danae guardian."
Despite their claims, at least some of the Harrowers believed in the Danae. It could be no accident that their savage rites murdered Danae guardians one by one.
Legend said Danae lived both on the earth and in it. Everywhere and nowhere, my mad grandfather said. Most times they took human form to walk their lands—our lands, for the human and Danae realms were both the same and not the same. But for one season of every year a Dané became one with a sianou—the grove, lake, stream, or meadow he or she had chosen to guard. The protection of a Dané infused the sianou and the surrounding land with life and health.
Our destination was such a sianou, a pool I had located at the bidding of Abbot Luviar, before I even understood what kind of place it was. I had brought my friend Brother Gildas there, and in the weeks since that night, Gerard had gone missing, blight had infected Gillarine's orchards and fields, and disease had come to its sheepfolds. When I touched my hands to the earth in the abbey's cloisters, I could no longer feel its living pulse. Harrower raiders had left the abbey buildings in ruins, but I believed the cause of its underlying sickness lay here and that Gildas was responsible.
We had to step carefully around a jutting slab of limestone. Snow and ice packed the rock beneath its slight overhang. Dob balked and brayed in protest at the tight corner. As the prior slapped the donkey's rump and hauled on the lead, a horse whinnied anxiously just ahead of us.
Startled, beset with imaginings of lurking Harrowers, I hissed at Nemesio to keep silent.
Footsteps and jostling spoke of one man and one beast. "Easy, girl, it's friendly company on the way. We'll be about our business and be off again to hay and blanket."
The quietly persuasive voice brought a smile to my lips. Gram could convince a cat to play in the ocean.
"How in great Iero's mercy do you happen to be here?" I said, abandoning the prior to the donkey while I hurried around the rock and along the shelf toward the slender, dark-haired man stroking a gray mare. "Did you get Nemesio's message about Jullian…and Gildas? Well, of course, you must have done. That's why you've come. Gram, you must believe me. Gildas has taken Jullian and the book. He's murdered Gerard…"
I wanted to pass on everything I knew: what I had sensed in the abbey's cloisters, the truth about my damnable perversion and how Gildas had thought to use it to bend me to his will. My determination to retrieve Jullian—perhaps the only true innocent left in this blasted world—had become a fever in me. Ever-sensible Gram would understand the importance of prompt action. The man spent his days as the calm center of the lighthouse cabal, juggling his testy employer, Thane Stearc, and Stearc's ebullient daughter Elene. But I'd scarcely begun my tale when Gram raised his gloved hand.
"Hold, friend Valen," he said. "We are already moving. Thane Stearc and his men have spent the night scouring the countryside between here and Elanus for the two of them. Mistress Elene leads another search party between here and Fortress Groult. When our old traveling companion, Thanea Zurina, set out west to her holding, we told her that a wayward monk had kidnapped a young friend of yours and asked her to keep an eye out along the roads west."
The flushed Nemesio joined us, hauling Dob behind him. "What are you doing here, Gram?"
Gram bowed politely. "Good Father Prior, your god's grace be with you this morning. As I was just telling Valen, Thane Stearc has dispatched several parties to search for Jullian and Brother Gildas. As he wished to move swiftly, my lord left me behind at Fortress Groult. So I rode up here, hoping to make myself useful ."
The secretary's pale skin took on a hint of scarlet. Though no older than I, Gram was sorely afflicted with ill health.
Prior Nemesio shook his head. "Brother Valen's story is nonsensical. How could a scholarly man such as Gildas give hearing to Harrowers? Even if he be apostate to divine Karus and the One God, which I cannot credit, who but mindless lunatics could imagine that a world without tools or books is what any god intends?"
Sila Diaglou claimed her dark age would be a time of appeasement, a time of cleansing, required because we had forgotten our proper fear of the Gehoum, the elemental Powers who controlled the land and seasons. The bitter wind whined through the crags, as if to answer my skepticism with a reminder of our wildly skewed seasons, and the disease and starvation that howled at Navronne's door like starved wolves.
Gram stroked the mare's neck and fondled her ears. "Men are driven in such varied ways, Father Prior. Brother Gildas relished his task as Last Scholar, destined to be the holder of humankind's accumulated wisdom. Perhaps—and who can say what is in a man's heart?—he does not relish the task of First Teacher."
Nemesio tightened his full lips. "We have only Brother Valen's surmise. I'll not believe ill of Brother Gildas without some proof. So where is this pool, brother? We must get you back before the demon prince's heathenish servants awaken."
I'd been to the Well only once, in conditions of light and weather so different I didn't trust my memory to recognize the cleft in the wall. So I crouched down, recalled the passage, the grotto, and the pool, and allowed magic to flow through my fingers into the stone beneath my feet. Cold, harsh, its cracks filled with frost crystals, the stone gave up its secrets far more reluctantly than earth. But I stretched my mind forward, swept the path and the cliff, and after a moment, a guiding thread claimed my senses—a surety something like that birds must feel when the days grow short and they streak southward beyond the mountains toward warmer climes. Such was the gift of the Cartamandua bent, the legacy of my father and grandfather's bloodline—a gift I had spurned because of its cost to my freedom. "This way," I said, moving northward along the shelf path.
"You said Prince Osriel himself comes to Gillarine tonight?" said Gram to the prior, as they trudged behind me, leading the beasts and sharing a flask Gram had brought.
"Aye," said the prior. " ‘Twas only out of respect for good King Eodward's memory that I could stomach hosting such a visitation. How could a noble king breed such a son?"
Gram downed a long pull from his flask. "Abbot Luviar himself could not explain the ways of the gods sufficient to that question."
Dikes of dense black stone seamed the pale layers of the limestone cliff with vertical bands. Some twenty paces along the cliff, a wide crack split one of these dark bands. "Here," I said. "We'll find him here."
The gray morning dimmed to twilight in the narrow passage. We stepped carefully. A dark glaze of ice sheathed the straight walls and slicked the stone beneath our feet. Ahead of us, beyond a rectangle of gray light, lay the little corrie, centered by a pool worn into the stone.
Clyste's Well, the pool was called, named for the Dané who had last claimed guardianship there. On one of his journeys into the Danae realms, my grandfather had involved Clyste in a mysterious theft that had driven humans and Danae apart. For his part in the crime, the Danae had tormented his mind to madness. For hers, they had locked her away in her sianou, forbidding her to take human form again. She had lived on all the years since, enriching the lands watered by her spring, including Gillarine Abbey. But no more. My every sense insisted she was dead. Murdered.
Heart drumming against my ribs, I bade Nemesio leave the ass where he stood. A few steps more and we reached the entry, the point where the passage walls expanded to encircle the grotto like cupped hands. Ah, holy Mother… I clamped my arms about my aching middle. I would have given my two legs to be wrong.
Translucent, blue-white cascades of ice ridged the vertical walls and sheeted the smooth ground. The pool itself lay unfrozen, dark and still, no matter the wind that whipped the heights, showering us with spicules of ice. Gerard floated on the glassy water, naked, bloodless. Rain must have washed his shredded flesh clean of blood and what scraps of his abbey garments the knives might have spared. The thorough savagery could have left no blood inside him. Iron spikes had been driven through his outstretched hands, tethering him to the rocky bank like a boat to its mooring. But one hand had torn through as he struggled to escape his fate, and now dangled loose in the water. Harrowers left their ritual victims to suffer and bleed, for it was both their blood and their torment that poisoned the sleeping Danae and the lands they guarded. So my grandfather had told me.
Nemesio choked, and I shoved him ruthlessly back into the passage to empty himself, though it was likely foolish to worry about further desecrating a place so vilely profaned. Gram pressed his back to the cliff wall at the entry, his pale cheeks as stark and drawn as the frozen cascades. "I cannot go here," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I can't help you with this."
"No matter. Rest as you need." I retrieved a worn blanket from the donkey's back and entered the grotto. Kneeling at the brink of the pool, I touched Gerard's tethered hand. Cold. Great, holy gods…so cold. Darkness enfolded me, threaded my veins and sinews, tightened about my heart and lungs until I felt as if I shared the terrifying, lonely end of this child's short life, and with it, the cold suffocation of the dead guardian. I needed desperately to empty my stomach, too, to cry out my sickness, to run, to be anywhere but this dreadful place. But I could not leave the boy. Forgive. Please gods and holy earth, forgive us all.
Stretching out from the brink, I drew him close, then worked awkwardly to wrap the blanket around him. By the time I had pulled his weakened flesh from the remaining spike, an iron-faced Nemesio had rejoined me. Together we used the blanket to lift the boy from the pool, then wrapped him in an outer blanket and carried him into the passage.
As the three of us tied the gray bundle to Dob's back, a movement caught the corner of my eye back in the corrie. A glint of sapphire brilliance quickly vanished in the gray light.
"Go on out," I whispered, still fighting to contain my own sickness. Gram looked ill, and the prior's teeth clattered like a bone rattle. Nemesio and I were both soaked. "I'll be along before you start down the steeps."
Nemesio clucked softly to the donkey. I slipped back down the passage toward the rectangle of light, flattened myself to the icy wall, and peered into the grotto.
A tall, naked man, every quat of his lean flesh ridged with muscle, knelt on one knee beside the pool. Back bent, head bowed, he extended his long arms over the water in a graceful curve as if to embrace the very essence of the pond. Red hair, twined with yellow flowers, curled over one shoulder. Patterns of blue light scribed his skin—a sapphire heron on his back, vines and flowers the color of mountain sky on his powerful limbs, a spray of reeds drawn in azure and lapis along one thigh and hip.
The Dané lifted his head, and a single anguished cry tore through him—echoing from the ice-clad walls, resonating in my bones. And then, stretching his arms to the heavens, he raised up on his bare toes and whipped one leg around so that he spun in place. A quick step and then he spun again…and then again, moving around the pool in a blur of flesh and color and woven light, one arm curved before his chest, one above his head. The very rocks wept with his sorrow. I thought my heart might stop with the beauty of it.
When he reached his starting point, I stepped farther into the grotto. He halted in mid-spin and dropped his hands to his sides. He was not at all surprised to see me. And I recognized him. Three times I had glimpsed this same one of them…but never so close. Never in the fullness of his glory.
His eyes glowed the fiery gold of aspen leaves in autumn. On his left cheek the fine-drawn pattern of light scribed a dragon, whose wings spread across brow, shoulder, and chest, and whose long tail wrapped about his left arm. Below the graceful reeds that curved from his hip across his belly, a hatchling dragon coiled about his groin and privy parts. He appeared no more than thirty, but Danae lived for centuries and did not age as humans do.
"I didn't know this would happen," I said. "The man I brought here pretended to be what he was not. The child he slaughtered was an innocent…chosen because he was my friend. Never…never…did I mean to bring this on the one who slept here—this Clyste. My grandfather—" I caught myself before saying more. The Dané wouldn't care to hear that a human wept for her.
"As wolfsbane art thou, Cartamandua-son," he said, speaking fury and grief in the timbre of tuned bronze. "Beauty and poison. Taking life. Giving it back. Speaking the language of land and water, but with words graceless and ignorant. Intruding where thou shouldst not, violating—" He broke off, trembling, and swept his hand to encompass the grotto. "Thou dost lead me here, cleanse the Well so I do not sicken, return it to my memory so I cannot escape knowing what is lost—though I must lose it all over again as I walk away. Is this thy pleasure to taunt those thou dost not know? Dost thou think my love for Clyste can shield thee from the judgment of the long-lived?"
As flint to steel, his indignation sparked my anger, erasing all caution. "I know naught of you, Dané, save that you once offered me a haven in my need, then stood back and observed my captivity as if I were a performing bear chained for your amusement. I know that Danae vengeance has left my grandsire a madman. And I know that you or one of your fellows tricked me and my companions and our enemies into the bogs as if all humans were naught but beasts worthy of a slaughterhouse." Naught would ever erase the memory of luring my enemies into the freezing mud to save my companions' lives, of hearing…feeling…them drown. "I once believed your kind to be the blessed finger of the Creator in this world. But you are no better than we are."
"Pah!" With a snarl of disgust he turned away. Kneeling once again by the pool, he scooped water in his hands and poured it over his head. "Askon geraitz, Clyste," he said, his voice breaking. "Live on in my heart, asengai. Let me not forget thee."
"Kol, don't leave. You must— Please hear us!" I had forgotten Gram. The wan secretary stood framed in the dark band of the passage entry, astonished...stammering. "Many of us…most…despise these murderers. The Everlasting is in upheaval, to the ruin of our land, our beasts, and all humankind. Whatever the cause, we desperately need the help of the long-lived to understand it…to make it right again. The gard of the dragon names thee Kol, friend and foster-brother of Eodward King, brother to shining Clyste, who danced as none before her. In Eodward's name we beg hearing. Please, take us to Stian Archon or to any who might heed our message…our need…"
The Dané shifted his gold eyes to Gram. Cocking his head, he flared his nostrils and inhaled deeply. His lip curled. "Human speech is briar and nightshade. Human loyalty is that of wild dogs and weasels. Stripped is Stian of his archon's wreath." His finger pointed to the dark pool. "These evils are the gifting of Eodward to those who sheltered him. Begone! Thou dost bear the stink of betrayal and shalt not pass one step into our lands until his debt is paid." He strode toward the ice-clad wall, but before he reached it, he vanished in a ripple of air and light.
Never had I stood in a place so unforgiving, so empty. Gram might have been frozen into the wall. I gave him a nudge, and we abandoned the grotto.
Shivering with cold and pent emotion, I'd walked halfway down the dark passage when it occurred to me that I likely could have used my bent to follow the Dané, no matter his refusal to take us. I might have thrown away my first and only chance to seek answers to questions that had plagued me since I'd spoken to my grandfather and to give Gram a further chance to plead our case. Stupid, stupid, Valen.
A spasm of coughing caused Gram to stumble and skid on the ice. I grabbed his arm and steadied him. "You should come back to the abbey with us, Gram. You look like walking death."
"I might as well be dead. I should have listened better at Caedmon's Bridge, but I didn't want to hear their judgment. I should have believed what you told us about the Harrower rites poisoning sianous."
"My grandfather said it is the Danae's greatest secret. But when I walked into Gillarine yesterday and found it ruined…when I touched the earth in the cloisters…Gram, I felt the world broken. I know it sounds presumptuous. I've meager skills and a history of lies, but you must believe that every breath, every bone, every drop of my blood tells me that this breaking is cause of the world's upheaval…the weather…the sickness… I'll swear it on whatever you like."
Someday, perhaps, someone might believe what I said without the backing of god-sworn oaths. My myriad swearings had my life tangled upside over and backside front.
"We did not doubt your sincerity, Valen. We just believed that no human action could touch the Canon itself—compromise the pattern of the world. We assumed your grandfather's tale was but guilt speaking through madness. And now I've wasted this opportunity. I should have been better prepared. Ah, cursed be this weakness…inept…" The racking cough forced him to stop and lean on the wall. He slapped his hands against the stone in frustration, his reserve shattered for the first time since I'd known him.
"If all this is true," he said, when he caught his breath at last, "if the Danae forget a place when it is corrupted and lost to the Canon, then how could Kol be here?"
"He follows me," I said, able to answer that one question, at least. "I saw him the first time on the night I tried to escape from Gillarine. He waited in an aspen grove and offered his hand—tried to rescue me. Then he watched me every day of my punishment exhibition in the streets of Palinur. I even glimpsed him in a courtyard of my family's house. I saw a Dané in Mellune Forest, too, but I'm not sure it was he. I didn't know the one with the dragon on his face was Kol. Spirits of night, Clyste's brother…he likely was the one who tried to drown us in the bog. My grandfather warned me that I was in danger from the Danae."
Gram stared at me for a moment in the dim light, then rested his back against the passage wall and averted his eyes. I'd never met a more private man. "That makes no sense," he said, showing no further sign of scattered emotions. "Your grandfather is being punished for his crime and will continue to be until whatever he stole is returned. Thus his debt is being paid. The Danae would never take vengeance on others, even his family, unless they believed those others complicit in Janus's crime. Their law—the Law of the Everlasting—forbids it."
He ran his long fingers through his hair as if to drag ideas from his skull. "Danae justice is quite clear and quite specific. Everything is balance. Bargains. Exchanges. Think of what Kol said and how he said it. Death and life. Violation and restored memory. He clearly did not blame you for Clyste's death. He would blame the one who did the murder. Perhaps he was already following you about when it happened. Yet he implied that you've raised the ire of other Danae…the judgment of the of the long-lived…and with your grandfather's warning…" He looked up at me again. "Valen, do you have what Janus stole?"
"No!" I said. "I didn't even know of my grandfather's crime until a fortnight ago. And he refused to tell me what he took. If their 'justice' is so balanced, then why does Eodward's betrayal bar us all from their realms?"
"I don't think he meant all humans." Shivering, Gram bundled his cloak tighter. "I've got to consider all this…inform Thane Stearc and see what he makes of it. Our plans may have to change. Come, we'd best get back."
"Brother Valen!" As if in echo of Gram's conclusion, Nemesio's call bounced urgently through the passage. "Get out here now!"
"So you go back to Osriel?" said Gram as we hurried toward the light.
"I would rather do anything else. But I must honor my word or else— Well, I don't know what would happen, but my word is the only thing I've ever held to. I promise you, I'll be no good to him."
He stopped me as we approached the mouth of the passage. "You said something similar before. What do you mean?"
No need for him to know what my nivat-starved perversion was like to make of me. I pulled my arm from his hand. "Be well, Gram. Give the thane and his daughter my regards."
"Teneamus, Valen," he said.
We preserve—the Aurellian code word of the lighthouse cabal. Gram's invocation of it expressed the sincerity of his concern for me. I had no answer for his kindness. "We'd best go before Nemesio bursts."
It was as well I chose not to further compromise my vow of submission. When Gram and I stepped from the cleft into the open air, Nemesio and the donkey waited with Gram's gray mare. Beside them stood Voushanti.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2017
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